I’ve started my second year of blogging for The Finch and Pea, and this year I’ll be focusing my science travel posts on places I have NOT been. The first one I wrote is about Yellowstone National Park, and the history of the discovery of Thermus aquaticus.

Brock took samples from springs at different temperatures, and found many more microbes than he originally thought possible. Some of them even lived at temperatures higher than 73°C, which was at the time thought to be the upper limit for life. One of the sites he studied was a spring in the Lower Geyser Basin, called Mushroom Spring. In October 1966, Brock isolated culture YT-1 of a new micro organism, from a sample he had collected in Mushroom Spring at a temperature of 73°C on September 5th. He initially called his new discovery Caldobacter trichogenes, but by the time the first article about the discovery was published, the name had already changed to Thermus aquaticus.


Read the rest at The Finch and Pea.

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Owl’s lament

owlwatchAt 11 PM my iPhone buzzed with Bedtimebot’s first tweet of the night. It’s a Twitter bot created by a friend after I mused that there should be a bot that sends me to bed on time. Bedtimebot tweets at me every fifteen minutes between 11 PM and 1 AM, reminding me that the day has ended, but often I’m still awake well past the last reminder.

I’m an owl. I don’t properly wake up until after lunch, and my most creative ideas and bursts of energy come after dinner.

There is a genetic basis for owlish behaviour, which translates to some people being owls, like me. We can stay up late, but not get up early – even if we’ve gone to bed on time. Larks, on the other hand, get tired early at night, but are up with the sun all cheerful and ready to start the day. (Or so I gather. I have never been awake myself to observe it.) There are many different ways to identify whether you’re a lark or an owl.

Screen Shot 2014-01-13 at 00.09.03This owl was raised in a family of larks. When I was at university, I would often still spend the weekend at home. I’d wake up at about 9AM on Saturday morning in my parents house, and I’d hear nothing. The house would be entirely quiet, until suddenly the front door would open and my parents would walk in, talking loudly, dragging shopping bags to the kitchen, walking back and forth, calling me until I would come downstairs, and as I quietly sat at the breakfast table, still unable to converse in anything but hoarse grunts, my sister would come back from several hours of swimming practice. They had a whole life that I wasn’t part of: this crazy early Saturday morning swim-team-training and grocery-shopping life that happened entirely while I slept.

Missing out on mornings may not seem that important, but there are many other factors associated with the difference between owls and larks. Owls don’t wake up hungry, but are more likely to snack at night, which could cause health problems, and some negative character traits have also been correlated to owls. The most annoying problem for late-sleepers, though, is that the entire world seems to be run by people who have absolutely no trouble at all getting out of bed. No sensible owl would propose a 9-5 economy. 11-7 sounds much more reasonable.

I set my alarm to 7:15 every weekday. That sounds early enough to be at the office by 9:30, but in reality I often don’t get there until 9:45, because I don’t actually get out of bed when I should. It’s okay, I work more than enough hours, but it bothers me that I can’t just get up when the alarm goes off. I don’t think I ever get up before 8. I need a full 45 minutes to activate myself to a state where i can get out of bed.

Still, imagine all the things i could get done if i was out of bed by 6. I’d have a full three hours before I had to leave for work. I could write and clean and answer emails and read. It sounds so perfect. It’s so frustrating that some people can do this every day, without fail, and I can’t muster any activity past hugging cats and blankets and mumbling monosyllabic grunts before 8 or 9 in the morning.

I’ve optimistically set an extra alarm for 6 AM tomorrow, but I know I’ll just turn it off and fall back asleep.

Five Years Later

Today’s blog post by SciCurious, about being failed by the academic system, reminded me that it’s been five years since I left the lab! I defended my PhD in December 2008, and I haven’t missed the bench once. I, too, am one of the 80% of PhD graduates who won’t get a tenure track career – but in my case this was planned and deliberate. The system didn’t help, but I never really felt failed by it. In fact, I now optimistically believe that I may have helped change it a tiny bit.

I knew from the start of my PhD that I wouldn’t be doing research for the rest of my life, and had my mind set on different kinds of jobs. For a while I wanted to be a non-research university lecturer: someone who teaches undergraduates, but doesn’t have to deal with the stress and minute details of the lab. These jobs exist, but they’re sparse, and they only go to candidates with teaching experience, which I didn’t have enough of. They’re also badly paid. In Canada, around the time I finished my PhD, a sessional lecturer earned less than a graduate student. Still, I thought I could do that. I would just supplement my income with other jobs, like science writing. Anything but research.

My strange idea of what my perfect job would be like started to form in high school, although I wasn’t aware of it at the time. I really wanted to become an environmental scientist, and save the planet. In my imagination, though, I never did any research. I pictured myself giving talks and presentations about the research that I had done at some previous point in my fantasy future, but that period of doing research was never part of my imagination. I only pictured the aftermath: the writing, the talks, the teaching.

Once I was in university, I quickly realised that I didn’t like the labs that were associated with environmental science, but I enjoyed biochemistry lab work, with its yeast smells and agar plates. Even so, labs were never my favourite part of my degree. I loved lectures. I loved learning new things and trying to keep up with my professors’ fast-paced talks, and writing exams. I would love to teach like that. To make lesson plans and decide what students should know about a field of science, and to craft clever, difficult – yet solvable – exam questions. Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew that our professors also did other things besides lecturing us two or four hours a week, but I never gave that much thought. In my ever-faulty imagination, undergraduate lectures were the purpose of a professor’s life. After all, those were the only times I saw them.

My understanding of what academic researchers did was much more clear once I finished my MSc degree, but I still wanted to do a PhD. I thought I could change the system from within: I would simply become a professor who doesn’t do research. Someone who just teaches and reads and writes. And if that wasn’t possible, I would get another job that would let me teach or read or write about science, like a lecturer at a non-research institute, or editor, or writer. I started my PhD with my mind firmly set on what everyone else likes to call “alternative” careers.

By the time I finished my PhD, I knew that I was different, and that I was supposed to want to get a postdoc, and aim towards an academic research career. I just didn’t want that. I’m not good at research. (Trust me, I have references). I am good at all the other stuff: the jobs that researchers are supposed to do on the side, but don’t want to do. I want to do all of that. Let me teach your courses and write your papers and grants! I love going to conferences and sitting in seminars and hearing what everyone else is working on and how they ingeniously solved difficult problems. I will gladly stay up late making powerpoint slides. But I do not want to have to worry about finicky experiments, broken equipment and flaky results. In other words, a postdoc was the last thing I wanted.

I spent the first six months post-PhD working a contract job for the Human Biology department at UofT. Among other things, I taught myself Drupal and built their website. They’re still using it today. Then I interviewed for some science communication jobs and did some freelance work. Pro-tip: don’t try to live off freelancing when the global economy has just spectacularly collapsed, especially not if your key specialty is writing about science and culture. Strangely, in times of economic crisis people have little interest in paying for insightful columns about science television or reviews about biology-themed theatre.

While I was living off what I could scrape together, I still didn’t consider a postdoc. That was my last resort.  Eventually, after a few more job applications and interviews, I found a job as Community Manager for a publishing company. I set up and managed the Node for three years, and learned a lot about academic publishing along the way. For the past ten months I’ve been Outreach Director for F1000Research, and as part of my job I read papers, I regularly give talks at universities, and I go to conferences. I meet with academics in all career stages, and I stay up to date on what’s relevant to scientists. The only thing I would like to do more of is writing, but I do that in my spare time. It’s all the things I love about science, without having to do research!

When I was still in grad school, my fellow students and I were extensively prepped for a career as an academic researcher. In the mean time, however, the department introduced a mandatory course for all graduate students that prepares them for a range of careers – not just research. It was covered in Science Careers a few months ago, and I couldn’t be prouder of them! The reason they introduced this was obvious: Not all of their graduates were going to be academics. Seeing me and many of their other graduates succeed in non-research careers inspired them to prepare their current students for a realistic job market, rather than only showing one possible future job.

I realise this is not a trend that is yet being followed by other departments and institutes. Many graduate students are still being made to believe that there is One True Job, even though only a minority of them will get such a job.

One of the other things I’ve been doing since I graduated is being an advocate for ALL careers, and reminding graduate students and postdocs that their supervisor’s job is not the only possible career path, and not necessarily the one to fixate on. I gave the keynote talk “You’re All Different: Creating Your Own Career” at the Naturejobs Career Expo in September, and next month, I’m moderating the “alternative” careers session at Science Online (quotation marks mine). I expect a lively discussion there and I already know that an hour will not be long enough, so let’s make a head start: The hashtag is #scioAlt and you can start using that now to share your thoughts on Twitter. Let’s see what we can do together to make sure that incoming graduate students can make positive career choices early on, and not have to wait until they feel that they’re being failed by the existing system.


I’ve preloaded the MusiSci blog with a bunch of posts for the coming week. They’re mostly reblogs from elsewhere on Tumblr: I’m getting a lot of mileage out of Tumblr’s new feature where you can search for TWO tags at once to find the science/music overlap.

I also wrote an original post, about earworms, inspired by a song that has been in my head for over a week now. What makes songs sticky, and what are the situations that promote getting earworms? Read my post here. (Also in the sidebar at the moment, but it will be pushed down soon).

Finally, the MusiSci Twitter account modestly passed 200 followers a while ago. I use it fairly regularly for science/music tweets and retweets, and to notify when a new post goes on the Tumblr, so please follow it if you don’t already do so.

Month in Media – December 2013

DONE. I was going to keep track of my media consumption for a year. It didn’t turn out quite like I planned. I intended to note every single YouTube video I watched and blog post I read, but that turned out to be impossible. Even so, I know I’ve spent hours passively watching things and not spending that time creating, and I’m going to try to change that.

Here’s the last month:


Science Tales – Comics about debunking various misconceptions about science. Nothing I didn’t already know, although I picked up some new arguments.

The Geek Manifesto: Why science matters – I’ve had this book for a while and hadn’t yet read it cover to cover because I assumed it was more political than it actually was. Sorry. It was actually much more about science in society in a very broad sense. Some good discussion about how weird it is that in the UK (at least most of it) students only do 3 A-levels, which means that those that don’t intend for a career in science drop it at a very early age. Other countries require more different subjects in the final year so there are more people who studied biology or chemistry or math(s) until they were at least 18.

Both books above were personalised autographed copies that I had lying around the house and never got around to until now. I’m the worst.

I also read De Troost van een Warm Visje – a collection of Dutch columns by Sylvia Witteman. It made me laugh in public in the bus, so I’m glad I finished it while still in Holland, so my fellow passengers could see (and understand) what was so funny.

On that note, I think I’m getting myself a Kindle for my upcoming birthday in a few weeks. Despite the lack of tangible book, it would make it easier to read standing up on the tube. I often have a book in my bag that is just to cumbersome to read when I’m squashed between the door and someone’s armpit, but I’ve seen other commuters maneuver Kindles that way with little problem. Should I get regular or Paperwhite?

I spent less time here than usual, I think, but I did play the DWFO video about a million times. I’m in there 3 times, at 2:58, 3:13, and 7:26.

Also, Molly Lewis is back on YouTube! She’s the girl who sang that hilarious song about Stephen Fry a few years ago. You can now also sign up on Patreon to support her songs.

TV (TV and elsewhere)
I watched a lot of Parks and Recreation, and am now all caught up with that. Here’s a new classic scene about The Cones of Dunshire (not embeddable).

I also watched TV in Holland. There’s a thing that’s done in Dutch lessons in school, where a text is read out loud and you have to write it down. It didn’t happen in the few years I spent at an American school and I’ve never seen it referenced in pop culture and Wikipedia says it’s country-specific, so this is probably hard to understand. Anyway, each year there’s a national version on Dutch TV, and you can play along at home. I forgot lots of spelling rules, but I did great at the grammar part, which was new this year, and ended up with more than the average number of mistakes among the preselected group of great spellers, but fewer mistakes than the group of famous people they got to play along.

Then my parents have been watching a daily quiz show that I’ve been successfuly playing along with at home. It includes a puzzle segment that’s sort of similar to the wall in Only Connect.

Films (in cinema and elsewhere)
The Hunger Games – Catching Fire was my favourite book of the series, and the film did not disappoint! The arena looked exactly like I imagined, and the casting of the new characters was great. The previews didn’t really show/spoil the arena, so I had been nervous about this one, but it was perfect.

While baking Christmas cookies, I watched Becoming Santa, a documentary about a man who decides to become a mall santa for a year. There were some striking similarities with Brett’s mall santa story (which is required holiday reading), and also with David Sedaris’ Santaland Diaries.

I also watched Love, Actually while wrapping presents. It’s an annual tradition, and frankly amazing that my presents never end up looking like this.

Epic Doctor Who Fan Orchestra video

The latest Doctor Who fan orchestra video is up, with video and audio segments recorded by individual musicians around the world, and it’s even more epic than usual.

If you want, you can try to spot me (playing violin in front of a “Victory” poster), but here are lots of other things in the video that are much more interesting. Can you find them all?

  • The interior of the actual Tardis set
  • A Dalek playing flute
  • Two violinists handing each other sheet music across different scenes
  • Ben Foster playing synth
  • A clarinettist playing “Westminster Bridge” on Westminster Bridge
  • A man dressed as Amy Pond
  • A large number of Tardis props and Doctor Who posters (how many?)
  • The Fourth Doctor snacking on what I assume are Jelly Babies
  • One of the soloists singing from the Proms programme booklet
  • A theremin
  • A church organ
  • The Empty Child
  • Several people wearing 3D-glasses (from the Army of Ghosts episode)
  • Fezes, including a fez that is a also a Dalek
  • Footage from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop

What else did you spot?

All of the arrangements for the Doctor Who Fan Orchestra and the audio/video editing were done by Stephen Willis.

Month in media – November 2013

Whoops. Yes, it’s two weeks late. Let’s see what I can remember…


Let’s start with the bad news. I didn’t finish any books in November. :( First month this year, I think. Last year was much, much worse, so documenting this actually helped motivate me to read books within a month and not leave them forever like I’m doing now. Sorry, books.

I tried to write parts of my own book proposal, but mainly transcribed old interviews. Also useful, just time consuming. And I didn’t reach 50k words. That may or may not have something to do with the amount of Netflix movies I watched (see below), but could also be related to the fact that I went on two international work trips in November.


Saw Gravity in the cinema in Holland. It was good, but left me a little bit seasick afterwards, because everything was constantly in motion. I guess that’s what space travel is like, too.


Saw Comic Potential, directed by Stephen Willis, who arranges the Doctor Who Fan Orchestra videos (speaking of which – coming soon!). Then during SpotOn I attended both Science Showoff and Story Collider. And speaking of Story Collider, they need your support over at Patreon.

Here’s one of the stories of the November show in London.


I discovered last month (well, October, so two months ago by now) that you can find the actual history of things you watched on Netflix, with the date. And so I learned that in November, I watched another two episodes of Battlestar Galactica before I got completely bored with it. Realizing it bored me, I then also watched the Portlandia episode about people who got addicted to Battlestar Galactica.

Then I watched lots of films the rest of the month – both good and bad. Look, I had a stressful few weeks, and sometimes I can’t handle the difficult fare. Sometimes it’s Into The Wild, other times it’s Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead. Also: Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen (I already forgot what this was about), The Beach, Pretty In Pink, and The Ramen Girl. I really liked that last one. Lots of memories of Japan trip. I also watched The Gods Must Be Crazy, because I had been thinking about it and then found it was on Netflix.


I discovered Just The Tips, which is a hilarious series in which two women recreate craft projects seen on the Internet. This episode is more recent, but you should just watch it all – it’s a quick watch.

Taps, mapped

This year at SpotOn London, we had interactive name badges. If you tapped someone else’s badge with yours, you exchanged name, Twitter handle, and email address. That’s useful if you want to keep track of who you met, but mostly it’s also very, very fun.

According to the data I got from Blendology, the company behind the tappy badges, I tapped my badge a total of 133 times, exchanging information with 71 different badges. 58 of these were unique individuals at the conference, the rest were locations or pretapped Blendology staff.

The Blendology system also keeps tracks of the time you tapped other people’s badges (or tapped in and out of rooms or info booths). Unfortunately the full timeline is only visible online and not in the downloadable file, and there seemed to be a mistake in my times for day one, which were all off by three hours, but after adjusting the times* and manually copying some repeat-taps from the online visualisation to Excel, I got all the correct tap times in a spreadsheet, and the result is this:


Blue is breaks during the conference, orange is a session in progress, green is chatting in the pub, purple is Science Showoff in progress, and grey is the time in between the two conference days.

*I knew that I tapped the auditorium sign every time I walked into the main room, which helped me find the correct times for everything else.


#ukscitweetup on ice


London/UK science communicators – Let’s go skating on the Natural History Museum Ice Rink!

UPDATE: We settled on a date/time: noon on December 15. Buy tickets for this time slot on Ticketmaster. Should this slot sell out, aim for the 11AM one, or just join us for lunch afterwards! (For lunch: meet at the ice rink at 1PM on December 15)

This is super-complicated to organize, because you need to buy tickets for a specific time, because many of us work during the week, or don’t live in London, so this is how it’s going to work:

1) Pick a Sunday Morning from the suggestions in the Doodle poll. Sundays to allow for out of town people to join, and mornings so it’s slightly less crowded. DEADLINE for picking a day is Friday November 22. [DONE]

2) On Friday, I will compare Doodle poll results with ticket availability for the rink. They are already almost gone on December 15th! I’ll pick two subsequent time slots with available tickets. [DONE. Decided on noon on December 15]

3) I’ll announce the final date on here [I just did. See above], on Twitter with #ukscitweetup, and in the UK Sci Tweetup Facebook group that you should join anyway.

4) Then you will RUN, not walk, to the Ticketmaster website and grab a ticket for noon on December 15, or 11AM only if noon is sold out. A ticket is only good for one time slot, but sometimes they let you stay on, and some people might not make it too early, and this guarantees that there’ll be people around for 2 hours. Tickets on the weekend cost £13.50 for adults and £8.50 for students (with valid ID). Time slots are 50 minutes. It’s recommended to be present at the rink 40 minutes before your time slot. I assume this is for skate rental. (There is a group discount for 10+ people, but that’s way too complicated to coordinate for the tiny 10% discount you get and I doubt we can get 10 people in the same slot.)

5) Skate!

6) After the second time slot, we’ll grab lunch in the neighbourhood. If you can’t come skating, you can still join us for lunch! Just join us at the rink afterwards.

Finch and Pea travel post round-up

I’m almost out of places I’ve been, to write about on The Finch and Pea. Don’t worry – I’ll keep writing there, just from a slightly different angle. If you’re not caught up on my science-themed travel posts there, here is a round-up of the ones I’ve written so far:

If you only have time to read some, my favourites are: Museum of Jurassic Technology, La Brea Tar Pits, Biodome, Platypus, John Snow pump, Baldwin Steps, yak, Eden Project. Or why not just read them all?

science and other interesting things