Category Archives: Blog

Original photos by Jean-Pierre (lab) and Nat Ch Villa (Beyonce). See text for links.

Beyonce the Biochemist

Satire site The Onion recently launched a sister site called Clickhole. It’s a parody on Upworthy, Buzzfeed, and other such sites, but of course the content on Clickhole is all in Onion style. So, instead of quizzes like “Who’s Your Celebrity Best Friend?”, where you can figure out (based on mundane questions about your favourite holiday or colour) which celebrity you hypothetically should hang out with, Clickhole has “Who’s Your Celebrity Best Friend Who Ultimately Betrays You?

This quiz in particular amused me a lot, because some of the answers are about scientific publishing and the competitive culture of academic research.

When the quiz asks you to complete the sentence “Your BFF spends the average Friday night..” one of the possible answers is “Asking you to collaborate on a scientific research paper and then “forgetting” to put your name on it”.

In the next question, you can give “Why you saw only her name printed as a finalist for the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize in biochemistry for a paper you wrote together” as a common cause for an argument with your best friend.

This is probably my favourite biochemistry/celebrity mashup parody since Conan O’Brien did “Biochemistry with the Celebrity Stars” in 2006. (Good luck finding that online. I blogged it at the time but that video is no longer up.)

After clicking all the science-related answers in the Clickhole quiz, this is the result you get:

Beyonce the biochemist

I love it!

Like most things produced by the fine people at The Onion, it’s  painfully close to reality. The “publish or perish” culture in science is such that people scramble to make sure they get their work recognized, and the sort of scenario painted in this quiz is not far from reality. Authorship can determine entire careers, and people do get snubbed once in a while.

Of course, here the situation is made funny because your supposed collaborator and best friend is world famous singer Beyonce, and Beyonce  is not a biochemist. Although researchers named a fly after her, Beyonce herself has never had a career outside of music, and doesn’t have any scientific publications – but some celebrities do!

Natalie Portman is a co-author on a neuroscience paper [pdf] from a group she worked with as an undergraduate student. The Offspring’s Dexter Holland is first author on an article about miRNAs that target HIV (his PhD research). Even Colin Firth has a co-authorship in Current Biology, after coming up with the idea to scan the brains of people with different political views, to see if there’s a difference.

I also searched for peer-reviewed scientific publications by actress Mayam Bialik, who famously holds a PhD, but there don’t seem to be any. Her thesis is in WorldCat, but she hasn’t published any articles on the topic.

Maybe Beyonce left her off the author list. Typical.

Image credits: Lab in top image by jean-Pierre on Flickr. Beyonce in top image by Nat Ch Villa on Flickr. Clickhole quiz result from Clickhole quiz.

2014-08-25 22.11.38

Three things I don’t like about science communication these days


Twitter. We created a monster. On the one hand it’s an amazing medium to reach out to non-scientists and scientists alike, and a great way to meet people across the world with similar interests, and a tool I will continue to recommend for anyone going into science communication. On the other hand, it’s the noisiest, loudest, and most distracting thing ever.

Twitter is like the kids that talk all through self-study time and you can’t reasonably ask them to shut up because they are actually talking about relevant things, but you’re in the same room and want to quietly reflect once in a while without being swept up in discussions about politics, diversity, funding, and other issues related to science. Sometimes you just want science without context or discussion.

Maybe I just need to unfollow everyone and start anew.


“Us versus them attitude”. I am trying to build a career around understanding and improving the space in which science happens. I want to help young researchers build a positive career image, help researchers share their work, fight the very strange restrictions that are currently in place for some scientists, help researchers communicate their work fairly, help all people understand how scientific evaluation works, encourage artists inspired by science, and more such things.

That’s not a career with a fixed path or a nice non-profit chunk of funding that I can claim to calmly work on that. The best way to learn how things work behind the scenes is to get behind the scenes, and to work for funding agencies or for publishers or to try working with the media. But when I do these things, some people make me feel that because I no longer work in a lab, I am now vastly inferior to people who still actively do research. Or they assume that if I work “full-time” for a company, that a company literally owns me 100% of the time, 24/7, and that I have no own ideas and opinions. They still complain about the things I’m trying to fix, but in the end they’d rather stay in a miserable system than acknowledge that non-researchers (often former researchers) might be able to help.

This very same attitude is why a lot of graduate students are afraid to leave research. I can tell them about all the great jobs they can have, but in the end I can’t deny that there still is a stigma.


The idea that we have to be serious all of the time. This is something I’m really struggling with at the moment, and is related to the point above. I used to be able to be silly and sarcastic, and over time I started to feel as if science can only be communicated very directly and very seriously.

There is one style of writing for scientists, and another style of writing for a general audience, and another style of writing for kids, and everything should always look the same and be of standard length and should be illustrated with graphs or photos or pastel water colours. Nobody actually explicitly says this, but I see it. I see bloggers writing in either “review article style” or “newspaper style” on their blogs, thinking that this is the correct way to run a science blog.

There is no correct way!

Make a comic, make a video, write a parody, a poem, a play, a song. Unless someone (a journal style guide, a funding application form, a newspaper editor) is imposing boundaries on how you communicate science, there really are no boundaries*.

I can’t change THING 1 and THING 2 all by myself, but I can try to be a bit more relaxed with THING 3. Here are some erlenmeyer flasks I drew.

2014-08-25 22.11.38


Communicating about and reflecting on communicating. Yes, I know that’s some people’s entire job, but just leave it to them and let everyone else get back to just communicating. And yes, that includes me. Done now (footnote aside).

(*Ethics and moral boundaries remain. Geez, see, this is what I mean. I really felt that I had to include that, because I KNOW people will complain if I don’t. Combination of Thing 1 and Thing 3. In general, Thing 3 is very much a result of Thing 1. Much of the pressure to be so serious and to present everything at face value comes from Twitter! In fact, while typing this I’m realising that I would blog much more frequently if I didn’t constantly worry what Twitter people would think. That’s kind of awful, but I’ve seen how people react when someone DOES make a mistake. I’m terrified it could be me one day, accidentally saying something that’s offensive or could be interpreted as such. Maybe this already is.)

2014-07-29 11.54.21

A month of comments

I did it! I left blog comments all throughout July, and got a few people to join me. You can see the full list of posts and videos that I commented on in this post. My favourite thing that I commented on was this post about things that change forever when you move away from your home country. It’s spot on, and many of the commenters were other expats chiming in.

What did I learn from this little commenting exercise?

  • I don’t read blogs the same way I used to. I used to have regular blogs I visited every day, and I would quickly see when someone replied to one of my comments. Now I read whatever someone links to on Twitter or Facebook. Several times it took me days to go back to that post and see a response. And I only went back because I was keeping track this month. Normally I would never look at a post more than once, but I know I used to, especially if there was an active comments section.
  • Commenting culture has changed. I knew this, and it was why I set out to do this, but it became even more obvious in the process that commenting on blog posts is not as much a natural thing as it used to be for me. Very often I had to push myself to leave a comment somewhere just to reach my quota. Some exceptions were YouTube videos, and existing discussions, both addressed below.
  • Some systems and blogs discourage comments and discussions. PopSci doesn’t have a comments section. BoingBoing has a separate forum to handle discussion, and it was tedious to sign up. Medium allows people to easily leave comments per paragraph, but you can only see comments when you mouse over the corresponding number, and when the author has made your comment public. One WordPress blog has had my comment in moderation ever since I left it two weeks ago. I haven’t even bothered with Tumblr, because you need to reblog to comment.
  • Disqus and YouTube are most inviting to commenters. Of all the systems I used to comment this month, YouTube was by far the most convenient and the most inviting. I’ve always had a YouTube account, but now everyone with a Google account can also comment on YouTube, so the registration bar is low. (Make sure to untick that “share on Google+” box, so your G+ contacts don’t have to look at your out of context comments in their feed. ) The videos I commented on were mostly ones with very engaging comments sections, and the commenting culture is alive and well there. For blogs, the Disqus system works really well, and allows you to sign in via social media. It also works across blogs: I saw a notification that I had received a reply to a comment while I was looking at another comment section. Now that blog networks (in science blogging, anyway) are less popular, Disqus is a way to keep track of some of the discussions (hey!) you’ve been having across the dispersed blogosphere.
  • I’m more likely to leave a comment when I can answer a question or join an existing discussion. Of all the comments I left this month, most were admittedly forced. I wanted to do this, I wanted to leave one comment per day, but I didn’t always have something to say. A few times I started replying on social media, only to realise I could leave my comment on the blog itself. The exceptions were YouTube videos that already had a lot of comments or that asked questions, the post about being an expat (with lots of comments already there) and one of Fiona’s posts where I was reminded of something cool that was relevant to the post and any other readers of that post. I can see the same on my own blog: my most commented-on post in the past few years is the one about a company that prints your (already OA) thesis, on which people share their own experiences with the emails they received.

Overall, I think the tendency to only comment in active discussions was always there, and that the other factors that make commenting harder (dispersal, technical barriers, social media) have discouraged the remaining few people who would otherwise happily comment.

Brightening up someone’s day with a blog comment turned out to be quite a hassle, and I probably will go back to my regular irregular schedule, but it was an interesting experiment!






The seventeen most Portlandia things I saw when I was in Portland earlier this month.

17. Portland time capsule idea box (also very “Parks & Rec”)
Portland time capsule

16. Keep Portland Weird
Keep Portland Weird

15. Community cycling center
Community cycling center

14. Zine symposium
Zine symposium

13. This guy on a fixie bike stapling posters to poles.

12. Carbon neutral compostable cup

Carbon neutral and compostable

11. Things with birds on it. (Many. Just one pictured.)
Bird book

10. Food cart pods
Food carts

9. Instructions on how to look after this tree on the sidewalk
How to look after tree

8. A-O river!
(Bonus: the boats in the distance are a tiny floating pirate community.)

7. Portland-themed children’s books in a kids store.
Kids book

6. The urban farm where I stayed for two days

5. This event for and about women
Women's event

4. Local marionberries

Marion berries

3. This ad

2. A well-organised tree hugging event
Tree hugging schedule

1. These women in a coffee shop. One was making music with her drum pad, with headphones on. Then her friend came, and the friend took the headphones to listen to the music.
Music in coffee shop

Commenting on comments

[Updated July 10] How are you all doing with blog commenting this month? The pledge is still open, with a few spots left to fill to make it “official”!  and has now reached its target number!

Here’s where I have left comments. List will be updated:

July 1New Mormopterus species honors a true bat lady. I left a comment expressing my lack of bat knowledge. Micaela, the blog’s author, responded to my comment, which I only just noticed because I went back to grab the link, and I left another comment. Commenting was easy: no signup needed, just name/email.

July 2Stuck in the Pleistocene: the science of the La Brea tarpits. This is my favourite place in LA, so I left a comment saying so.

July 3Extinct humans passed high altitude gene to Tibetans. I wondered if this also applied to Sherpas, and left a comment. I saw this morning that two people responded to me (and the answer is “yes”) but there is no easy way to thank them for their response so I left it at that.

July 4Bhutan’s Tiger’s Nest monastery built from LEGO! I’d already seen this post, but I went back to look at the pictures again, and leave a comment.

July 5Painted “bookbenches” spring up across London. I love this sort of public art, and books, and London, so I wanted to leave a comment. Commenting on BoingBoing is the worst, though. The comments are not on the post itself (they used to actually never have comments at all), but on a separate message board, which you need to join first. Even though I used my Twitter account to sign up, I still needed to enter my email address and click a confirmation email, and then find the post and the comment thread again, just to leave a mundane comment.

Screen Shot 2014-07-05 at 13.01.08

July 6 – The art of science: both sides of the cloud.

July 7Butterfly cake

July 8Aldi spanakopita (Greek spinach pie)

July 10 - I missed July 9 and will miss July 11 (offline all day) so I did three today:

Travel completely threw off my schedule, but here are the next posts I commented on:

July 13Art in situ

July 14The problem of Richard Feynman

July 16 – catching up again with three posts:

I had a few days off with minimal internet, then I got very busy at work, followed by another holiday, so the rest of the month’s updates are in chunks of multiple per day, with many comment-less days in between:

July 21 – massive catch-up, no science blogs

July 23 – tiny catchup, two science blogs

  • In which I heart academia (I saw Jenny’s response to me on July 28, when updating this post, and replied.)
  • Mailing off my microbeads (I saw Bethany’s response on July 28. She left it on July 27. It showed up as a notification in Disqus while I was on another blog.)

July 2517 things that change forever when you live abroad

July 26 – mini catch-up, just YouTube videos. In both cases I answered a question posed either in the video or in comments below the video.

July 28 – ended up one day ahead of schedule after this list, but since I’m away and offline on the 31st, that’s a good thing!


July 29 – This was the last day I had time to comment on things, and I finished the month with two YouTube videos:




2014-07-02 00.18.16

Ways of curating

If you’ve heard me talk about science unconferences, you may have noticed me refer to this quote before:

“At a conference the most important things happen in the coffee break” – Hans-Ulrich Obrist

It comes from a 2008 Edge interview with Hans-Ulrich Obrist, and refers to an event he organised in the nineties, where he brought together artists and scientists for a conference – but eliminated the entire conference programme. The idea was to have a conference that only consisted of the valuable meetings between like-minded people in coffee breaks and social events surrounding the conference. Obrist calls it a “nonconference”, but it’s similar to “unconferences” made popular by the tech community.

Recently, I saw Obrist latest book, Ways of Curating, in a bookstore, and after confirming that this “nonconference” was in there, I picked it up. The book is amazing! Obrist is an entertaining writer, and in a series of short chapters he discusses all kinds of exhibits he has curated, and artists he has met and worked with. He describes how he once created an exhibit in the kitchen of his house, where Fischli and Weiss, of The Way Things Go (Der Lauf Der Dinge) fame, created an installation of giant food items in the cupboard above the sink.

I learned that besides the nonconference Art and Brain, Obrist worked with scientists a few other times. In 1999, he curated  Laboratorium, a project featuring artists and scientists, which took place in various locations in Antwerp. Participants here also included Fischli and Weiss, as well as another of my favourite artists, Bruce Mau. (“Don’t clean your desk”, from Bruce Mau’s Incomplete Manifesto for Growth, is another of my favourite quotes. Fun fact: Both this quote and the Obrist quote above have been on my Facebook profile for years. )

Ways of Curating is a fun read, in which I learned some basic ideas of art curating, and got inspired to think about curating and organising other things.

Take back the comments sections

Remember when we all left comments on blogs? I looked at some of my old blog posts, and they’re full of discussions, friendly notes, silly pictures, and occasionally spin off into random banter. I have made friends via blog comments, and found interesting other blogs through the links left by commenters.

Now, all conversation about blog posts seems to happen externally – mostly on social media – and blog comment sections themselves are either empty or filled with spam.

It’s easy to blame others for not leaving comments, but be honest, when did you leave a friendly blog comment yourself? Let’s be the change we want to see, and all that. Let’s leave our own friendly blog comments on others’ blogs, and try to get back a small fraction of the early ‘00s web community.

I will revive blog commenting in July 2014 by leaving at least one comment on a blog post every day.

If you want to join me, sign the pledge here. (I’m sorry it has such a stupid name – I thought I was selecting a url extension but it turned out to be the title…)

Anticipated FAQs:

Q. Can I comment on something else? A YouTube video? A Soundcloud post?
A. Sure! Some YouTube channels actually have amazing comments sections already, but it never hurts to leave more.

Q. Does a Tumblr reblog count as a comment?
A. Only if you’ve added some text to it.

Q. What about those comments in the sidebar at Medium?
A. That’s fine. It’s just in a different location, but it’s still a comment on a blog post.

Q. What about a newspaper article?
A. That also counts, if you dare entering into those territories. These days many things people interpret as “newspaper articles” are actually blog posts run by the newspaper, so it’s all becoming a grey area anyways. And even professional journalists like comments.

Q. Do I have to comment on something every day?
A. If you can. At least try to. There are a lot of great posts out there that I’m sure you have something nice or constructive to say about.

Q. Can I leave anonymous or pseudonymous comments?
A. Yes.

Q. Can I comment on an old post?
A. Yes.

Q. Can I post more than once per day?
A. Yes.

Q. Do comments on my own blog count?
A. No.

Q. Can I leave one-word comments?
A. Sure. ;) (A friendly word like “cool” or “awesome” directly under a blog post might mean more to someone than a retweet of the link. But beware that your short comments might be interpreted as spam!)

Q. Can I leave multiple comments on the same post over several days?
A. If it makes sense in context (e.g. if someone responded to your comment and you wnat to reply to that), yes. Not if you plan to leave the same comment every day or split one comment into one-word-each comments.

Q. Can I leave negative comments?
A. The remaining commenters on the internet already specialise in negativity, so this pledge is mostly meant to increase the number of friendly and useful blog comments, but if you MUST leave a negative comment, please let it be constructively negative. Good: “I appreciate your thoughts, but I think I disagree with what you say in the second paragraph because blabla”. Bad: “tl;dr”

Q. Can my friends and I exchange comments on each others’ blogs?
A. Yes.

Q. Are you just trying to get more comments on your own blog?
A. No, but I have considered that it might be a side effect of posting this pledge. I just want to see if we can get some of our collective pre-Twitter commenting spirit back.

Q. Do you have any blog recommendations?
A. No. I mean, I have favourites, but if you’re interested in this pledge you probably have your own list of blogs you like reading.

Q. Can I leave a comment that is just garbled sentences grabbed from other blog comments, with a list of links to sketchy websites?
A. No. YOU are already leaving ENOUGH comments online.


Writing ideas

Through some ill-advised decisions I ended up with five blogs. I maintain the work blog, I have a Tumblr about music and science and a neglected Medium page, I write a weekly travel feature for The Finch and Pea, and of course I have this blog as well. On top of that, I occasionally write for other publications.

I don’t have time to instantly turn every idea into an actual post or pitch, because I only rarely have time to sit down and write – and when I do sit down to write, I need to have ideas ready to go. Those ideas come at random moments: at work, on the bus, while half asleep in bed. If I’d write them down in a notebook, I would have to always have that particular notebook on me: if I write my ideas in whatever notebook I’m using at the time, it will get lost in between all the other notes and to-do lists.

Last year, I came up with a solution, and I’ve used it often enough now to be certain that it works for me. (“For me” is the important clause. It might not work for you, but nobody else’s methods ever worked for me, so I made my own. For me.)

I created a Google Form called “Writing Ideas” in Google Drive. Google Forms are meant to create web surveys or to gather the opinions of the people you email it to. In my case, the form is secret, and only I have the url to find it.

My form has a big text box for writing ideas, and a few tick boxes with some of the regular places I would place these ideas. (Work is deliberately missing from the list, because I’m never short of ideas for that blog, and it doesn’t require the same creative thought process. )

Screen Shot 2014-06-24 at 20.24.24

When I enter something in this form, it automatically goes to a spreadsheet. As you can see below, this  is the 28th row on that sheet. Once in a while I will move the used ideas to a new tab, so the ones left are all ideas that I can still use for future posts or pitches! (Although some I delete when I realise how stupid they are. I’m still on the fence about “purr review”.)

Screen Shot 2014-06-24 at 20.24.02

I have this form bookmarked on both my personal laptop and my work computer, so that I can jot down ideas no matter which computer I’m at.

But what if I’m not at a computer?

2014-06-24 20.27.08I also have the form bookmarked on my iPhone, and I have that bookmark set to show as an icon on my home screen. It only takes me a single tap to open it on my phone, and it works the exact same way: I enter the idea, submit the form, and it adds it to my spreadsheet of ideas.

Some of my favourite Finch and Pea travel posts this past year have come from ideas I entered in my Writing Ideas form, including today’s post about the Mariana Trench, this one about the dark side of the moon, and the one about Taq polymerase and Yellowstone. My talk at Story Collider in April was also based on an idea I entered on the form, as was “Owl’s lament” on this blog – and in fact this very post was also on my list of ideas as “meta! this form!”

I’ve tried lots of different note-taking and productivity tools, but for this purpose, for me, a Google Form turned out to be the best solution.

Lightbulb cover image via André Mouraux on Flickr

Follow these people!

Lists that recommend scientists and science communicators to follow on Twitter always include the usual suspects. I mean, I can tell you to follow @edyong209, @scicurious, @phylogenomics, @ehmee, or @DNLee5, but you probably already ARE following them.

So here are twelve science “tweeps” (ugh, that word) who for some inexplicable reason each have fewer than 1000 followers! That needs to be remedied, so check them out and follow them:

Rachel Pendergrass – @backtobeatrice

Coma Niddy – @comaniddy

Diana Crow – @CatalyticRxn

Chris Ing – @jsci

Cat Vicente – @catcvicente

Laura Shum – @lauracshum

Julia Wilde – @Julia_SCI

Vibhuti Patel – @VibhutiJPatel

Matt J – @mattjaywhy

Kate Whittington – @WhittingtonKate

Francie Diep – @franciediep

Ryan Buensuceso – @rcbuensuceso

And honourable mention for having already (but barely!) passed the 1000 followers mark:

Matt Hill – @insectecology

2014-06-05 19.07.51

How to make a dino cake

CakeDNA1. Realise that your turn to bring cake to work is coming around, and everyone still remembers that DNA cake you made last year.

2. Try to think of another science-themed cake, and remember the dinosaur cookie cutters you won by dressing as a TARDIS at Science Online.

3.  Look up dinosaur cakes online. Oh wow, those are all really impressive.

4. A few weeks before your cake is due, try a test cake, inspired by this cake with fossils inside.

5. Fail miserably.

6. Eat cake for breakfast a few days, until you really can’t stand leftover cake anymore and throw the test cake out.

7. Decide to just keep it simple for the actual cake: two layers of sponge, frosting in between, layered in ready-to-roll icing.

8. Buy all the necessary ingredients. Again, keep it simple: Buy pre-mixed chocolate cake mix for the sponges. It’s meant for cupcakes, but it will be fine.

9. Make a schedule to figure out when various biscuits and cakes need baking or icing. To be ready by Friday, the first baking round is on Tuesday morning.

10. Get up early on Tuesday to bake the first round of dino biscuits.

2014-06-03 20.52.4911. Ice the dino biscuits Tuesday evening and bake a few more. This is going so well!

12. Get up early again on Wednesday, this time to bake the layers of the cake. This instant cake mix is so easy: just add eggs and water, mix, and bake. What could possible go wrong?

13. Bake a few cupcakes with some left-over cake mix (in another colour) from the previous week’s failed cake experiment.

14. Take the cake layers out of the oven, and watch one of them instantly, spectacularly, collapse.

2014-06-04 08.41.59

15. Panic.

16. Despair.

17. Message cake expert Jonathan for help, even though it’s before 9AM and he’s busy with FameLab at the Cheltenham Science Festival.

18. Go to work, and come home to find the second cake half has also slowly collapsed during the day.

19. Make a large amount of frosting, using some instant coffee you took home from a hotel that one time.

2014-06-04 19.21.0720. Fill the cake craters with bits of cupcake and lots of frosting.

21. There isn’t enough frosting. Make more, using  coffee from another hotel.

22. Add the other cake half and assemble the cakey mess into something vaguely cake-shaped.


2014-06-04 19.53.46

23. Roll out icing and cover the cake-shaped thing with it until it looks like a real cake.

2014-06-04 19.53.54

2014-06-04 21.51.46

24. Since you used up all the icing sugar in making the frosting to fix your mistakes, buy some more at lunch time the next day.

25. That evening, spend about an hour practicing how to draw a very basic T. rex skeleton, and copy it onto the cake in icing sugar.

2014-06-05 19.07.51

26. On Friday, serve biscuits and cake at work, and realise that basic drawing skills trump mediocre baking skills.

2014-06-06 15.28.16

27. Vouch to just bring a cabbage covered in icing sugar next year.