Category Archives: Blog



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!





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.

2014-02-16 09.46.10

What I do at work

I realize that I’ve been in my current job for over a year now and haven’t yet explained what I actually do there. My parents sort of understand, but I noticed that a lot of my friends still don’t, so I decided to write it all out:

I’m Outreach Director for F1000Research, which roughly means that I talk to a lot of scientists, both to tell them about open science publishing, and to find out what their needs and expectations are when it comes to publishing.

F1000Research is an open access journal for life scientists. Open access means that you don’t need a subscription to read the journal. Life sciences are biology and medicine, but it broadly includes things like bioinformatics, social science of medicine, and anything else that ties into these fields. Like many open access journals, F1000Research charges a fee to publish, but it’s much lower than many other journals, and at the moment it’s free to publish articles about science communication/publishing/education/policy and data notes (data notes are articles that are just methods and results, without interpretation).

I do several different forms of outreach. For example, I go to conferences (see main image above) and visit research institutes to talk to scientists directly. I often give talks that are specifically about peer review or about data sharing, since those are the areas in which F1000Research is much more open than most other journals: all articles are accompanied by the peer review reports and reviewer names, as well as all the data that was used to write that article.  The time at which peer review happens is also different from other journals, and that usually requires a lot of explanation in my talks: instead of publishing only the articles that have passed peer review, all articles that are sent for peer review are published online, and then the reviews appear with the article. If the authors need to send in a new version of the paper after review, that is linked to the previous version, so the entire peer review process is transparent and dynamic. Articles aren’t sent to external databases until they do pass peer review, but the authors can show them to funders or colleagues in the mean time, or even cite an article before it passes review if they want to. That’s quite a different process from what most scientists are used to, and I spend a lot of time talking about it, and getting feedback from researchers.

I also designed a survey earlier this year, to find out more about the researchers who read our journal, or who have published or reviewed papers with us. I’m still analyzing that at the moment, to figure out what it means for us (what do we need to change or emphasize) but already found a lot of interesting things in there.

I also co-founded the F1000 Specialists programme, which allows researchers (usually PhD students and postdocs) to tell others in their community about F1000 products (including F1000Research). The day-to-day programme is now run by someone else, but I still keep up with who is joining, and when I visit a new city or university I check whether there is a Specialist around, and try to meet them (or recruit new ones if there are none!).

Then I also do social media and marketing things – basically anything that ties into outreach. When I’m not out of the office for conferences or talks, I spend a lot of time in meetings or answering email, or working on future outreach projects. I have a lot of fun science-y things on my desk to look at while in the office.

Things on my desk at work
Things on my desk at work

Finally, another part of my time is spent keeping up with what other journals and companies are doing. If a scientist asks me how our journal is different from a particular other journal or website, I have to know that. I’m also writing a series of blog posts about some core concepts in publishing that relate to what F1000Research does, and those cover other journals as well. The first two, on open access and on open peer review are now up.

Basically, every week is different. This past week I went to a librarians meeting in Switzerland on Monday, and had a lot of meetings in the office the rest of the week. I also emailed a few contacts at universities I plan to visit this summer, to arrange those trips. A few weeks ago most of my time was spent doing outreach for one specific paper we published, which we knew would be really interesting to stem cell scientists on one level, and other people on another level, so I helped figure out who to reach out to and what message to send them. As a result it came with two separate press release. Here’s the scientific one, and the general one. We produce a lot of documents in the office, from press releases and blog posts to conference abstracts and website text, and I’m usually involved with either writing or editing something a few times per week.

I also spend a lot of time eating cake. There is so much cake and chocolate in my office all the time. We run entirely on sugar!


Paper vs Paperwhite

After the zillionth time being unable to read a book on a crowded tube because I couldn’t read while grasping onto a pole and fighting for a tiny bit of space to stand, I finally got a Kindle. I’d noticed that the Kindle-users were still able to hold their devices up even under the most crowded London tube conditions. I was also planning a two-week trip to the US, and I had no room in my luggage for books, but I could fit an e-reader in there somewhere.

I’d always resisted e-readers, because I love books. I love holding them and stroking the pages, and that was lost in digital form. Now, after three months with a Kindle, I have to admit I still mostly feel the same. I still miss physical books.

I miss flipping back and forth, when you just want to look something up and you remember that it was on a left-side page sort of one-third into the book.  I miss the unique feel and smell of each book. I miss judging books by their cover.

Ebooks don’t take up any shelf space, but sometimes you want your books on a shelf. I already regret reading Neil Gaiman and David Sedaris books on my Kindle, because they’re some of my favourite authors and they deserve to sit on the packed shelves of my bookcase. Even though I paid for their ebooks, it doesn’t feel like I own the books. They’re just ones and zeroes in a small electronic device.

I also immediately forget the books I read on my Kindle, because they’re not lingering around after I’m done, and I can’t even remember all of the titles because I rarely see the front of the book: The Kindle remembers where I was, and shows me that page immediately. I don’t see the covers and titles. All my books look like my Kindle cover now.

But since I got my Kindle, I have read many more books than I did in the months before. It’s small and fits in all my bags, so I can grab a book to read almost everywhere I am, even on a crowded tube. Today I’m packing for another trip, carry-on luggage only, and I’m bringing three unread books with me.

The trade-off between coveting books and reading more often reminds me of the library. When I was a kid I read several books per week, then returned them to the library, and never saw them again. For most books that was fine, but there are a few books from my childhood I would have loved to own. The Kindle is similar: it’s great to make reading books more accessible, but sometimes I just want to hold and own a physical book.





2014-04-24 09.06.08

Coloring with Cell

2014-04-24 09.06.35I picked up “Coloring with Cell” from a conference recently. (On the last day, when all exhibitors are trying to get rid of their materials, and instead take back the top swag from other exhibitors…)

This book is a coloring book from Cell, full of cell biology images just waiting to be colored in. I did a few, so you can look at color images rather than the boring black and white ones.

2014-04-24 09.06.08

It’s pretty cute, but I couldn’t be bothered coloring in giant surfaces like the inside of that nucleus.

I’m not really the target audience, though. The text in the book, and some of the pages (including the world’s easiest connect-the-dots puzzle) suggest that it’s meant for children. In that context, the images are far too complicated, though. No child will understand the sense of scale or where these cells and other bits actually exist, and it isn’t always well explained. But then again, this isn’t meant as an educational tool – just a fun coloring book. The most likely people to benefit from it are probably undergrads, who can see the fun in doing kids activities, and need to learn the parts of the cell.

Now, this was actually the second time I picked up this book at a conference. The first time, I gave it away to someone closer to the target age group. She was probably a bit too young, though, but nevertheless did a great job on this virus particle! Bonus points for the dog sticker.