Here’s the full video of the “Stories behind the research” session I led at SpotOn last week. Below that (under the fold) is the Storify summary, with all the highlights. Our session was apparently the one with the most laughs, but we touched on some important things as well. Thanks again to my lovely panelists and a wonderful audience.


The Kitsch Quiche Niche

kitsch quicheHow do you pronounce “niche”? If you say “nitch”, to rhyme with “kitsch”, you’re probably from the US. If you say “neesh”, to rhyme with “quiche”, you’re in the company of people from all over the world – including the rest of the States.

For the past year I’ve kept track of whether people pronounce “niche” to rhyme with “kitch” or “quiche”, and where they’re from. I could do this somewhat systematically, because the word “niche” appears with great regularity in talks about stem cells, and I attended quite a few of those for work – always with a notebook and pen at hand. Whenever someone said the word “niche”, I flipped to the back page of my notebook, where I’d tally whether their pronunciation rhymed with “kitsch” or “quiche”, and which country the speaker was from.

Biology is an international endeavour, and, during the time of my unofficial survey, speakers from many countries took the stage at conferences around the world to talk about the stem cell niche. In the context of stem cell biology, the niche is the direct environment surrounding a stem cell. Usually it refers to the group of cells directly next to a stem cell, and the general shape of the tissue at that location. A stem cell is a cell that is not yet a particular type of cell. It’s not a blood cell or a neuron or a skin cell – but it has the potential to become any of these things. In many cases, the stem cell’s direct surroundings, the niche, determine what kind of cell the stem cell becomes. In other cases, the niche appears to be less involved in the cell’s fate. It’s a topic that comes up quite often. Medical researchers working on stem cell therapies need to understand what drives a stem cell to develop into particular tissues; developmental biologists need to understand the full environment of development; and cell biologists need to know whether a cell works the same on its own as it does when it’s next to another cell.

All those international researchers working on topics related to the stem cell niche all mention the niche in their presentations. Sometimes in passing, sometimes as main topic of their talk. They don’t always agree – not only about the role of the niche, but also about its pronunciation.

Some are clearly so confused by their colleagues’ variation in pronunciation that they try to appease all parties by going for an intermediate pronunciation, rhyming “niche” with “fish” or “reach”, but most of the forty people tallied are in one of two camps: kitsch or quiche.

While not all American speakers pronounce “niche” as “nitch”, they are clearly the only ones to ever do so. After more than a year of tallying votes, no non-American has ever said “nitch” as far as I can tell. Of course, some Canadians sound like Americans, and I may have accidentally mixed up a few people there (or accidentally counted someone twice), but it’s still rather striking.

According to American dictionaries, “nitch” is the preferred pronunciation over “neesh”, so neither camp is technically wrong, but in the global scheme of things, “nitch” is rather a niche pronunciation.

Original quiche photo (and recipe) by Katrin Morenz, and original plastic flamingo photo by jacqueline-w.

Hoping they’ll lose Pinterest

The people who introduced me to blogging were not scientists or academics. They were online friends I’d met through playing games. A few of them set up their first blogs in 2001, and I thought it looked fun, so I started one as well. It was on an archaic blogging platform that doesn’t exist anymore. B2? Greymatter? Whichever came first. It was more a diary than anything else, and the only people reading it were my friends.

When I first started thinking about expanding my blog to cover science, there weren’t many other science blogs. I’d been clicking around to see what was out there, and I remember seeing the blog that was later revealed to have been the science blog of the woman who moonlighted as a prostitute and who blogged about that elsewhere under the Belle du Jour pseudonym. There were really only about five science blogs back then. It was ages ago. The web was young.

Now I manage a professional science blog, where researchers sign up for a WordPress account and blog about their work. Scientists have taken up blogging as an almost natural thing, and I don’t mind that at all. Of course they would. It’s a medium. You can use it for anything you want. Pictures of cats. Science. It makes sense.

The people who introduced me to Twitter were not scientists. They were my techie friends in Toronto, who I knew via blogger meetups. “What is Twitter?” I asked in a pub one night, and my friend said “It’s like Facebook, if it only had status updates.”

Now I manage two Twitter accounts for work. They’re followed by Twitter accounts from other scientific publishers. I don’t mind that at all. It’s a good way of keeping in touch. Twitter has become its own medium. You can tweet about anything you want. Sandwiches. Science. It makes sense.
I joined Facebook so I could see a friend’s photos that she uploaded there. She’s not a scientist.
Now I manage a Facebook page for work. I link to the posts and job ads that scientists have posted on our blog. Scientific societies ‘like’ my status updates – or at least the people managing their page do. I don’t mind that at all. Almost everyone has a Facebook page now, and subscribing to professional updates is a convenient way for them to see all the news they need to know in one place. Family news. Science news. It makes sense.

But sometimes, certain internet-minded scientists, who so fervently jumped on blogging half a decade after it first started, go a teensy bit overboard in their praising of an online tool.
I heard about FriendFeed via science bloggers. None of my other friends ever used it.
I heard about Google Wave at a science blogging conference. None of my other friends ever used it or even heard of it.

I heard about Google Plus via science bloggers. A few of my other friends created a profile, but immediately abandoned it – like everyone else.

The people who introduced me to Pinterest were not scientists, admittedly, but this time it only took weeks, not years, for the first science/web-people to jump on the bandwagon. They were really excited about it. Probably the most excited I have ever seen a group of mostly men be about a website of mostly pictures of dresses. And the dreaded questions were asked: “How can we use this for science?”

You can’t, okay! Just leave it!

Not EVERYTHING on the internet has to be twisted and molded into some sort of vehicle for science communication. If it’s a good fit for such communication, like blogging or Twitter, it will happen. But if you try to force your professional research interests onto something that is so purposely modeled after scrapbooks and inspirational pinboards and NOT after anything remotely resembling the way you normally distribute or find scientific information, you are only going to be annoyed and disappointed. Disappointed with the way it functions. Disappointed with the restrictions it imposes.

Why do I care? I didn’t care that FriendFeed or Google Wave or Google+ never worked out, but as soon as I now see the same group of people that thought those tools were the next big thing get completely disproportionately excited about an online product, I fear that it will succumb to the same fate. And I do rather like scrapbooks and inspirational pinboards.

Academics may have invented the web, but not everything that’s on the web has to do with academics. Nobody is going to judge you if you just want to use a product for fun, so please stop trying to turn everything you like into work.

My only consolation is Instagram – a safe haven of food and pets. Until the first person sepia-filters their lab notes and considers it as a medium for research dissemination, that is.



I’ve signed up for something that I first saw when Fiona shared it on Facebook. CodeYear. Each week in 2012 you get an email from Codecademy with a link to a basic JavaScript coding lesson. It’s meant to introduce coding to the general public, and it’s completely free. Hundreds of thousands of people, including Mayor Bloomberg of New York City, have signed up to learn to code, and I suggest you do too.
I have learned some coding before (C, in an undergrad elective course) and I know html and php from years of tinkering with websites, so I found it really easy to keep up with. I even managed to complete the advanced courses, that are not part of CodeYear, and I have LOTS of badges now:

Codecademy rewards you with a virtual badge when you reach a particular goal. Completely useless, but it’s still motivational.
I’m sharing this now (instead of finishing the assignment toward my next badge) because at this point it’s still really easy to catch up with the basic assignments, and I thought some of you might be interested in learning a bit of JavaScript.
Although it’s meant for beginners, I noticed that it’s not always very “introductory”. My main qualm is that there is often no background given. Why am I supposed to learn how to make a function that calculates powers of four? What kind of real-world applications use this? I personally don’t mind – I just like going through the assignments and learning new things. Plus, maths doesn’t put me off. But since the intro courses are meant for everyone, I think there could be a bit more backstory.
For example, at the end of the second week’s assignment is a practical example – code a fare calculator for New York taxis – but until then it was mostly “coding for the sake of it”. and yes, I know that real taxis don’t use Javascript to calculate the fare, but it’s the kind of example that makes you realize “this is useful!” rather than “this is a fun puzzle!”.
It’s very clear that it’s made by coders – let me put it that way. It’s fun, it’s free, it’s creative, but at no point has anyone taken a big step back and asked “WHY do we want people to know all this?” and put things in context.
And that’s perhaps another good reason to sign up and take part in CodeYear. It not only teaches you how to code, but it shows you how coders think. They don’t, like biologists do, always feel the need to emphasize the practical applications. If you have computer-geeky friends, you will probably have heard them say things like “I wrote a programme that adds grocery items to an editable grocery list on my computer when I send a text message to myself starting with BUY.” and you’ll think “is that really worth it?”. It’s never worth it. It’s always just for fun.
I just made up the grocery list example. I am not the kind of person who would actually make things like this, but I do understand why people do.
Many biologists are not very computer-savvy at all, and have never taken a coding course. I recommend you do CodeYear, just so you understand coders a bit better. At some point you’re going to have to work with a bioinformatician or a web developer, and it’s easier if you understand how they think.

Science Offline

This year’s Science Online London was probably my favourite so far in terms of the variety in the programme. There were sessions about communicating science using the web, but also also practical data-wrangling sessions. Something for everyone.
As much as I like how Science Online brings together various groups of people who each use the web in their own way to support, do, describe, or promote science, there is a tendency at such events to extrapolate that kind of diversity within the group to beyond the group. That’s not unique to Science Online (London or North Carolina), but also happens at SciBarCamps, Sci Foo, and related events. But none of these events are anything like the real world, and none of those groups are anything like the average “scientific community”.
Not everyone uses the web as much as we do, and you can’t just build a community from scratch on the web and expect scientists to join without actually integrating it into their offline life. If you really want to use the web to interact with scientists, you have to occasionally close your laptop and look offline.
breakoutsolo.jpgSo this year I hosted a breakout session at Science Online, together with Paula Salgado and Jesus Rogel-Salazar: “The importance of offline communities in online networking”
In our breakout session, we gave a few examples of projects where either an offline community moved online, or an online community expanded offline, to point out how offline interaction improved these communities. We also had several people in the audience who had similar experiences, and we had lots of stories to share.
I started with a few examples of offline communities moving online. My first example was the Node , which was suggested by an existing community of developmental biologists, and gets a large fraction of its new users through word of mouth. I also mentioned ArXiv, which started after a group of physicists were already emailing each other preprints of their work, and then decided to centralize that on the web. And the ultimate and most famous example is of course Facebook, which started at Harvard, where people who already knew each other created profiles and then told their friends. Two of these examples (ArXiV and Facebook) were also mentioned that morning in Michael Nielsen’s keynote talk. He mentioned them to emphasize that they started as small groups, and that that is why they worked, and that’s probably also the case for many other successful communities.
Jesus then shared the origins of #ukscitweetup – the casual get-togethers organised by Twitter users who all talk about science, and wanted to meet in person. There is no central committee or assigned group of people who organises these “tweetups”, they just happen whenever people feel like they want to meet offline again. The kind of conversations people have in the pub are very different from the ones they have online. Twitter is very fleeting, and you jump into the middle of conversations, or miss them entirely. In real life, you can spend 15 minutes talking to one person, and cover a lot more than you would have on social media. This seems like a basic concept, but it’s one that’s often forgotten when we get too excited about web 2.0. People do want to meet offline.
Paula had a few other examples of events that crossed over between online and offline, and some of the organisers were in the room to add more info where needed. One example was I’m A Scientist, Get Me Out Of Here. This competition allowed school children to interact with scientists online, and ask them questions via the site, but at the end of the competition there was also an offline meeting, which brought a whole extra dimension to it. For example, the teachers, who had been entirely behind the scenes during the online component, finally had a chance to meet the scientists that their students had been chatting with, and some of the kids also got to meet real scientists in person, which was of course even more exciting than talking to them online. Paula had been a participant in one of the I’m A Scientist events and also really enjoyed meeting everyone in person.
Another example Paula brought up was Science is Vital. Originally conceived online, in a blog post on Jenny Rohn’s blog, the idea expanded not only to an online petition but also to an offline demonstration held to protest a proposed cut in research funding in the UK. The campaign succeeded in stopping the enormous budget cut, but that would not have happened without the combination of online and offline engagement to reach as many people as possible. Science is Vital committee member Shane McCracken, in the audience, said that the petition was signed by many people outside of science as well. They had only reached out to scientists initially, but it spread from there.
Before starting the open dicsussion, we gave the stage to Mun-Keat Looi for a few minutes, because he had recently done an online/offline project at the Wellcome Trust. The Wellcome Trust invited some of their Twitter followers to visit the Trust and get a behind-the-scenes tour of the building. This not only gave this select group a chance to get to know the WT better, and ask some direct questions, but, vice versa, it also allowed the Trust to get to know some of the people who follow them on Twitter, and find out who they are.
The rest of the hour was spent talking more about offline meetings. Why bother attending a conference about Science Online, for example? Because it’s easier to talk to people and to meet new people at events like this, and it gives you a chance to walk into a session about something that might be new to you – something you’re less likely to do online. We also heard from Katrina James, who organises science tweetups in Bath, and talked about how to find people offline when you’ve only seen their tiny online avatars (if that at all). The group in Bath uses a bird to put on the table so that newcomers can recognize them.
Sara Fletcher works at the Diamond Light Source and shared how she uses both online (Twitter) and offline interaction with users of the synchrotron as well as with members of the public. Last year Science Online attendees had a chance to visit the Diamond Light Source as one of the fringe events. At the moment, the facility is running a writing competition, asking people to submit a short story featuring a synchrotron.
All in all, we had quite a lot of examples of a range of very different projects, all related to communities of scientists using both online and offline tools. Sometimes the offline engagement even gets people to become more active online: friends who come along to tweetups sign up to Twitter after seeing the other people that use it, the Node regularly gets new users who heard about the site through a friend, and many of the people who signed the (online) Science is Vital petition heard about it in offline conversation.
The web is a great way to support scientific communities, but it will never be the only way, and you must remember to also connect offline!

Beer chemistry

Last week, I found out via Twitter about the Tumblr blog F No, Chemical Free with images of products that supposedly contain no chemicals at all.
It reminded me of a story from undergrad. It’s not my story, but I’ll have to retell it, because the original links (two pdfs of chemistry student magazines from ten years ago) are in Dutch.
Duvel - Belgian AleTwo students were having a beer in the pub on Saturday night, when they spotted a curious disclaimer on a bottle of Belgian beer (Duvel). The label claimed to guarantee that the beer contained no “chemical products”. Clearly that wasn’t true. The beer was also on the list of beers to be served at the annual Belgian Beer Night of the chemistry students’ society, but could they serve such a chemically unfriendly beer? The students wrote an official letter to the Duvel headquarters (page 27 of this pdf ) in which they explained that beer was the product of biochemical processes. The letter was quite cheeky, suggesting that perhaps the label was a misprint, and that it should have read “with chemical products”, or that maybe it wasn’t beer after all. But they also made the suggestion to replace the label with “brewed with natural products” since that seemed to be what the company was aiming for.
Duvel wrote a letter back! (Page 28 in the same issue) They explained their (synthetic) interpretation of “chemical”, emphasizing their views by stating “beer is not coke!”, and admitted that the “natural products” version of the label had at some point also been discussed.
But the story didn’t end there. In the next issue of the chemistry students magazine we got an update: At a subsequent visit to the pub, one of the students had spotted a new label on the Duvel beer! It no longer claimed to be free of chemicals, but it now said that it was brewed according to original recipe, with refermentation in the bottle.
I love this story. Even if the letter may not have been the driving force to update the label, the fact that they had an actual conversation about the chemical-free claim on the label makes me happy. I also like that the company took a letter from undergrad students seriously. And of course they’re not undergrads anymore: One of the letter’s authors is currently assistant professor at Princeton, and if I managed to track down the other correctly in Google, he now appears to work in chemical industry in Switzerland after finishing a postdoc. Writing letters to breweries about misuse of the word “chemical” does seem to be a good start to a scientific career.

Talks win, says poster

The results are in: most people prefer talks over posters.
Here is a summary, in poster-form!
And that one screenshot a bit bigger so you can actually read it:

Poster or talk?

A few weeks ago, at a conference, I was talking about posters with some people. Not the specific posters that were at the meeting, but posters in general.
I have only ever had to present posters at department poster days, and never had anything interesting enough to warrant printing at poster-size when the poster day came around, so got stuck with the loose paneling, glue covered, home-made science-fair-style poster that nobody wants to look at.
Although, that would make it easier. It’s the fact that a few people do want to look at it – if only to mercilessly judge it – that brings me to the next problem I have with posters. When people come by your poster, they sometimes ask you to run through the whole story, but you can tell from how their eyes drift over your poster, glancing at the wrong panels, that they’re not really listening. Or, worse, they interrupt you in the middle of the important bit to ask a question that you were going to answer in exactly a sentence-and-a-half from now if only they hadn’t broken your flow. And while you’re in the middle of talking to them, new people walk up, and try to follow the conversation, but they’re completely lost, so they read the intro over other people’s heads, don’t ever catch up to the story, and walk away.

Me briefly capturing people’s attention with one of my glued-together posters for at least long enough for it to be photographed.
I much prefer giving talks, and would tick the “I would like to give a talk!” box every year. Giving a talk was considered one of the awards at poster day, and I only got it once, but it was so much better than doing the posters. Let me tell you why…
The many benefits of giving a talk instead of presenting a poster:

  • Yes, you have to make slides, but you need to do that anyway at some point, and you probably already have slides. Besides, even if you need to make new ones, you will use them again, even if they need a little modification and updating. That poster? Pretty, but old news next year.
  • You need to talk to an entire audience, but they’re gonna let you finish even though Beyonce had one of the best science presentations of all time. Or something. In any case, they’re keeping quiet until the question round, and they will only ask relevant questions, because they’ve heard the whole talk by then.
  • You only need to talk once, and not every time someone else walks up. Everyone is already there!
  • No judging! You are already a winner!
    But every time I have this conversation with people, including this time, I learn that I am in fact crazy, and that everyone prefers making a poster for days and standing next to it for hours over giving a 15-minute talk with slides you had hanging around anyway.

So, which do you prefer – poster or talk?

Some history of science unconferences

At the end of SciBarCamb, just before I completely lost my mind from exhaustion, I gave a talk about science unconferences. It started with a bit of history, and ended with some tips on planning your own. This post covers what I remember talking about in terms of history, and I’ll write up all the specific organisational tips in a separate post for next time.
This is by no means a transcript of the talk. I was not that coherent…
In the 1990s, Swiss art curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist co-organised a conference about neuroscience and art. Themed around the brain, the meeting had attracted a line-up of speakers from both scientific and artistic backgrounds. But a few hours before the conference, the organisers completely threw the program of the conference out the window. There would be no talks. Just breaks.
The entire meeting had been reduced to the moments of social interaction that normally occur only in between talks. Later, in an interview for Edge, Obrist pointed out that “…at a conference the most important things happen in the coffee break”. You should read the whole interview, in which he describes why this was the best format for the meeting he was organising. He calls the event a “non-conference”, but it is quite similar to what we understand an “unconference” to be: a meeting without a fixed program. All he did was provide a location for people to get together.
There are no restrictions to places where you can talk about research. We’ve come to think of the default conference venue – with its seminar rooms and poster halls – as the place where people share their thoughts and findings. But if you think back to where some well-known scientific discoveries were announced, that wasn’t always the case. Archimedes announced the discovery of measuring volume by water displacement in the middle of the street.
Of course the story of Archimedes is just famous for what he was (not) wearing, but there are other, more recent examples. In 1953, Francis Crick famously announced “We have discovered the secret of life”, not at a conference, but in The Eagle pub in Cambridge. In “The Double Helix”, James Watson recounts this incident only with the remark that he wished that Crick hadn’t done that: they were directly competing with Linus Pauling at Caltech, who was also close to finding the structure of DNA. Crick announcing that they found it in such an unscientific, uncontrolled venue as a pub could potentially have gotten them scooped. This highlights one of the main drawbacks of holding unconferences in science: people are not comfortable sharing unpublished work in a setting that doesn’t have their talk officially listed with an abstract, and where all kinds of people from other fields are in attendance.
That is probably also one of the reasons why you don’t really see people talk in depth about their research at SciBarCamb or other science unconferences. They will show what tools they’ve developed, and use the platform to share side projects that don’t fit the regular scientific meetings they attend, but they won’t tell you what results they had last week, because that can cost them their funding. There might be ways to organise field-specific unconferences, but then you quickly veer into regular meeting/workshop territory, and it would not be as accessible as most unconferences.
In the next part of the talk I went into the history of SciBarCamb, but I explained that in a previous post, so I won’t go over it again here.
The last part of the session were practical tips for organising SciBarCamps, and they’ll get their own post, because I think that’s going to be something people want to read without having to scroll past all the history*.

Cat on a hot tin MacBook

NOTE: These are not my cats and macbooks – they are Cath’s. This was a complicated April Fool’s prank based on the fact that people sometimes mix us up. My post is on her blog.
Things are ramping up to crazy levels again, at work and elsewhere. Deadlines, side-projects, taxes (I actually managed to file weeks before the actual Canada Revenue deadline, for once!), the final weeks of the NHL, blogging, and trying to keep up with the twists and turns of the Canadian election campaign – no wonder I feel like I never have any time to play my guitar!
The extra load means bringing work home more often than usual.
Two Macs are better than one! I use one for playing music and other frivolities, and the other for work.
I’m actually really productive when working from home. I can play music through proper speakers rather than through headphones, make a pot of tea instead of just a cup, and escape from the background noise and interruptions that run rampant at the office.
Oh, and I get to hang out with my cats!
They like it when I work from home. They’re very social beasts. And they are determined not to meet the same fate as my poor neglected guitar.
If guitars could do this, they might get more attention!
And when there’s no cat on my lap or my laptop, you can be sure there’s one sitting on whatever pieces of paper I’m trying to consult!
The one time I’ve needed to consult it for YEARS… and there’s a cat on it!
Right – just a few more weeks to fit everything into before my triumphant return to York. I’d better consult Google to see what’s new in town!
Oops, sorry – cat-like typing has been detected AGAIN.