SciBarCamb intro game
SciBarCamb is over, but it was awesome this year! I am the worst at live-tweeting, but luckily Lou and Laura and lots of other enthusiastic Twitter-users were at hand to document every single minute of it, so keep an eye on the Schemes and Memes blog for Storify collections of the whole event.
I’ll just leave it to two things here. First, a massive thank-you to everyone who helped out in some way. The organisers, volunteers, sponsors, donors, the staff at our two venues, but most of all the participants – everyone who suggested or led a session, brought a demo, did stand-up, asked questions, and talked to others in the hallways in between the talks. That’s what SciBarCamb is all about!
And that brings me to the second point. One of the challenges of unconferences is to get everyone comfortable enough to talk to each other and work together to create a schedule. Last year at SciBarCamb, we had interactive name badges, that created an animated image when combined in the correct way, and among 100 participants every person had five possible matches. That was a lot of fun, but we didn’t want to do the exact same thing again.
This year, we started out thinking about matching keywords or phrases. For example, Watson and Crick. But you can also match both of them with DNA, and you could pair DNA with RNA, so it got rather complicated. In the end, we went with 12 sets of triplets. Each participant had one word on the back of their nametag, and on opening night they had to find two others form the same set. The first three complete sets won free drinks, and the very first team also got a T-shirt. (Three T-shirts, of course.)
Backs of nametags
These are the sets of threes we used.
macromolecules containing biological information: RNA / DNA / Protein
inner layers of terrestrial planets: Core / Mantle / Crust
parts of an atom: Electron / Proton / Neutron
geologic periods of the mesozoic era: Cretaceous / Jurassic / Triassic
Boolean operators or logic gates: NOT / OR / AND
current or recent hadron colliders: **CERN: LHC / Fermilab: Tevatron
/ Brookhaven: RHIC**
flavours of neutrinos: electron neutrino / muon neutrino / tau neutrino
bones of the inner ear: stirrup / anvil / hammer
shapes of galaxies: lenticular galaxy / elliptical galaxy / spiral galaxy
trigonometric functions: sine / tangent / cosine
kingdoms of multicellular life: plants / animals / fungi
states of matter: gas / liquid / solid
There were doubles running around, but some people didn’t show up, so not all sets were complete. People who arrived late were scolded for not being there when there were free drinks at stake, so this had the added side effect of promoting early arrival – at least after the fact…
The second team to complete (via)
Because of people arriving late, the third team to complete was not actually complete, but I awarded them their drink for creativity. They were all neutrinos, but one person had manually changed “muon neutrino” to “electron neutrino” on their badge. The argument: this can happen in real life! There was no electron neutrino walking around the bar and they did know what the missing neutrino was, so they got their drink.
Me, two multicellular kingdoms and a geologic period of the mesozoic era with their free drinks. (via)
It seemed to have worked well as an icebreaking activity, giving people an excuse to talk to each other and look at each others name tags.
Feel free to use our sets at your own science event, or adapt/expand them.
Not even a little bit qualified
I was as surprised as you are to find out that I am an expert on hematopoiesis and stem cells, but for the past several months I’ve been invited to several conferences asking me to speak on this topic, as well as other topics that I can’t even remember. All invitations came from BIT Life Sciences, who run a series of conferences in China on every imaginable topic in the life sciences.
Unlike most conferences, the conference organisers for BIT meetings are not themselves researchers in those particular fields. If they were, they would know that I never worked with stem cells. They would also not invite Derek Lowe (a chemist), or Michael Rosen (a children’s book author) to speak at events outside of their expertise. Jonathan Eisen has also written about getting these invitations to meetings outside of his field, and these are just the people who bothered to blog about it.
I’ve replied a few times, to say that I’m not the person they’re looking for. I think I even know where they got my address. It’s my work email address, which is listed on interviews I do with scientists who sometimes are world experts in fields like hematopoiesis. The interviews are indexed in PubMed and other databases.
Obviously BIT are scraping articles with certain keywords for email addresses. But that doesn’t explain how they found a children’s book author. In that case, I think they had a name, and tried to find a matching email address. It took me less a minute to find the academic email addresses for the two (!) Michael Rosens who actually are prominent biology professors, so that shows you how much effort and expertise went into that.
Tangentially related to this story, I did some Mechanical Turk tasks a while ago. I mostly did transcription tasks, because, even though the pay is just pennies, those assignments were often really interesting interviews or documentaries or lectures that taught me things about nuclear power in Canada and about urban planning in San Francisco as viewed by immigrant communities. On one occasion, though, I accepted a “find email addresses” task. It involved getting a list of names of scientists, and finding their email addresses. I did a Google search for all the names at once, to see what they had in common, and found that they had all been speakers at a a physics conference earlier that year. Conferences (legit, proper conferences) may pass on email addresses of registrants to sponsors of the meeting for a one-time mailing, but usually the email addresses are not public to people outside of the conference. This third party was now using Mechanical Turk to recruit people to find speaker contact info.
Nothing about the MTurk email address searching was illegal. You, too, are free to use Google to try to find someone’s email address. It was just a lot of manual work to search for each speaker individually to find their contact info, so they used distributed labour. What they then did with that info, I don’t know. For whatever reason, they wanted to email a bunch of physicists. Maybe they were selling some kind of thing of interest to physicists. (Blackboards, presumably, if my visit to the Perimeter Institute is any indication of what physicists like.) Maybe they were thinking of sending postdoc applications to every speaker at the meeting and couldn’t be bothered to look for the addresses themselves. Maybe, like BIT, they were also organising a conference.
But here’s the thing: Conference organisers that need to scrape papers en masse, or search online for email addresses, are not organising any kind of conference you want to attend. Proper conferences are organised by people in that field. People who would never email a children’s book author instead of a biology professor. Even if there is an event-organising specialist involved, who manages the practicalities and logistics of venue hire and meals, there are always scientists who select the speakers. And they know who they’re inviting.
The problem is not the annoying emails. You can ignore and delete those. The real issue is that some people do take up the invitation, only to find that the conference may not the kind of meeting they thought it would be. By then, they might have bought plane tickets or even paid registration fees.
One recipient of BIT’s unwanted emails has responded in a way that nicely exposes the lack of scientific rigour that goes into the selection of the talks. Using the name “Knut Buttnase”, one researcher accepted an invitation to speak at BIT’s Symposium for Bacteriology and Infection, using the “Center for Extraterrestial Sciences” as affiliation, and documenting the entire process on a blog.
“Buttnase” was then invited to chair a session, and to submit an abstract. The abstract they submitted is titled Effective Eradication of the Bit Bug by Massive Response with Mocked-Up Targets and it only gets better after that. I was relieved to see, when I looked up the original programme, that the co-chair spotted the ruse and seems to have withdrawn.
Despite Buttnase’s pioneering research in eradication of the “Bit Bug”, the bug is still rampant in inboxes of scientists, former scientists, and people who just happen to share the same name as a scientist. Rather than the suggested response with mocked-up targets, I propose mass immunisation: let as many people as possible know to ignore the emails. If nobody ever signs up, they will go away.
SciBarCamb and you
SciBarCamb will be back on April 20/21, and registration has opened (although the cheapest tickets are almost gone now) so I thought I’d explain why you might want to attend and what you can expect when you go.
If you’re in a rush, you can get the gist of it by just reading the bold text and looking at the pictures/videos.
Q. What is SciBarCamb?
A. It’s a gathering of scientists, students, publishers, technologists, educators, policy makers, and anyone else with an interest in science.
The programme is decided by the participants, making SciBarCamb an informal way to discuss a large variety of topics with people who share similar interests.
The name is an abbreviation of “SciBarCamp Cambridge”, and there have been similar events in Toronto, Palo Alto, and Vienna. To find out more about the meaning of the name, read about the etymology of SciBarCamb.
Q. Who is it for?
Anyone who is interested in research, technology, education, publishing, policy – anything related to science – is welcome at SciBarCamb. Even a senior scientist is a lay person outside of their own specific field, and due to the broad nature of SciBarCamb, everyone is effectively equal.
Past attendees of various SciBarCamp events have included: students, artists (creative/music/performance), lab heads, publishers/editors, writers (fiction and non-fiction), postdocs, techs, techies, journalists, teachers, entrepreneurs.
The current registration list for SciBarCamb 2012 includes graduate students, postdocs, programmers, science bloggers, journal editors, data enthusiasts, an animator/illustrator, and Cambridge MP Julian Huppert.
Q. Who decides the program?
On the evening of April 20, we will all get together, mingle, meet each other, have some drinks, and write down suggestions for the next day’s program. It helps to think about it beforehand, especially if you’re proposing a demo that needs a bit of preparation, but even that is not required. Some of the most interesting discussions have been those that were thought up on the spot, when two people met over drinks and started talking. There are plenty of available time slots, so don’t hesitate to suggest a topic.
Last year’s programme in process
Q. Who gives the talks and hosts the discussions?
Anyone can suggest a session. Discussions are always popular; sales pitches not so much: SciBarCamb is very interactive, so don’t expect to be able to give a 30 minute talk without interruptions, but rather show what you’re doing, and open the floor to questions.
If you can bring something to show (a machine that does something, a thing you made, something pretty, or something people can touch) that would be absolutely perfect.
My personal favourite SciBarCamb sessions from the ones I’ve attended over the years, in no particular order: Quantum Mechanics for ten year olds, Mars Rovers demonstration, making a DNA molecule out of balloons, open source drug development, the role of celebrities in science communication, various discussions about the future of science and scientific publishing, and all the geeky musical performances.
But that’s just me. I’m pretty sure if you ask someone else, they would say “discussions about data sharing” or “demonstrations of new web tools” or something else. So really, anything YOU are interested in is going to be interesting to someone else, and would make a good SciBarCamb session. The only “bad” kind of SciBarCamb session would be if you pulled up the slides from the last talk you gave for work and repeated that. That’s not what SciBarCamb is for. It’s MUCH broader.
23andMe talk, Palo Alto 2009
Mars Rover demo, Toronto 2008
Q. Who organises SciBarCamb?
Well, maybe not this particular one, but you can organise your own SciBarCamp. Two attendees of SciBarCamb 2011 later organised SciBarCamp Vienna, so the chance that you, too, will end up organising a SciBarCamp is not entirely absurd, and in fact that’s part of the concept. To find out more about the , read this report about the first SciBarCamp and these tips for organising your own
This particular event is brought to you by: Eva Amsen, Michelle Brook, Taylor Burns, Maria Cruz, Dan Hagon, Jonathan Lawson, Matt Wood, Lou Woodley.
Our first confirmed sponsor is nature.com but I’ll update this later to reflect all sponsors.
You can also support us by buying a “Molecule” ticket for just £25. Aside from your regular registration benefits (participation, lunch), that ticket will get you eternal gratitude and a F1000 T-shirt.
Balloon DNA at the Eagle pub, Cambridge 2011
One of the breakout sessions in progress, Cambridge 2011
Two things to show off:
1. I’ll be on stage at Science Showoff tomorrow night. It’s in London, and it’s free. I’m going to share some of the interviews I’ve done with scientist-musicians, and tell some anecdotes about others that I have not (yet) caught on tape. The other performers will be slightly more entertaining and interactive. One of the emails from the organizers contained a warning that we would not be allowed to use explosives on stage in the venue. It’s that kind of event. 🙂 Please do come along if you’re in or near London!
2. This morning I woke up to an email telling me that my post Make history, not vitamin C was accepted for the next edition of Open Lab. The twitter hashtag #openlab contains some of the others who made it in, and the official list will be up once everyone accepts. I still need to return my formal form, but I will.
Related to this, I obviously can’t include the images of the paintings or someone else’s capybara photo in the final version, but do want to add the vitamin C structure. I got it from Wikimedia, and while it’s in the public domain and free to use, it’s a bit too crappy for print. Does anyone with access to a nice chemical drawing program want to redo this image for me? I think the style is perfect for print, it just needs to be less pixelated.
That’s it. Lunch time showing off over.
Next week, on December 7, I’ll be speaking in London as part of Science Showoff. I’ll have tiny fragments from some of the interviews on here, as well as anecdotes about slightly more famous scientist-musicians.
Some of the other performers that night are actually making music about science, but there’s also comedy and sports – all related to science!
Do come if you’re in or near London!
Earlier this month, I joined a table of fellow geeks (including NN’s own Lou) to craft hovercrafts at Drink Shop & Do. The event was run by Science London (the London branch of the British Science Association), who regularly host science craft nights. Dan had been before, and encouraged us all to go.
I forgot my camera and my phone battery died, but Dave and Dan had non-dead phones so they took all the following pictures:
To make the hovercraft, we each got a styrofoam tray (think supermarket meat) and a paper cup. That’s all you need for the basic model. Cut a hole in the middle of the tray, cut a big ring out of the cup, put the ring in the tray, and it’s a hovercraft! If you blow in the cup/hole, the air will lift the tray and it properly hovers above the table.
To make it more crafty, we also got decorations, and to make it more scientific there was a quiz about hovercrafts. Did you know, for example, that one of the prototypes of a working type of hovercraft was made from a coffee can and a cat food can?
Ours were made from paper and styrofoam, and feathers, and coloured paper, and glitter, and glue….
And finally, click this to see a photo of all of us, racing the hovercrafts on the table.
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?
Organising science unconferences
To continue the previous post, a summary of some tips for organising a (science) unconference. I covered about a third or half of this in my SciBarCamb session, but I tried to make this a bit more complete.
You may also want to look at Jen Dodd’s 3 Rules for Running Events (Jen was one of the co-organisers for Toronto’s SciBarCamp events). Her rule about not making assumptions is spot on and should be your mantra throughout running anything.
There are really only two things you need to organise an unconference:
The first may be the hardest to find, but the second is the most important.
Everything in the, roughly chronological, list below either relates to finding a location, or to keeping people happy.
No matter what event you’re trying to organise, you can’t just hire a venue and hope people show up. There have to be people who are definitely going to come.
Start with finding a few people who are definitely interested in what you’re planning. Hopefully, some will be able to help you co-organise, but even just having a one-off meeting with people can be very useful to test the water for your ideas.
Picking a date goes hand in hand with finding a location, because your venue of choice needs to be available. You’re obviously aiming for a date at which all the organisers are available, but also try to make sure you’re not competing with similar events, and look at university term dates.
Location can be anywhere, but for practical, organisational, purposes there are two types of locations: Free locations and those that cost money.
You might be able to get a free venue via someone who has access to office space that you can use. Scientists can’t always use their institutes, but some do have access to meeting rooms or contacts at facilities management, so it’s worth asking.
If you get a free location, this saves you so much fundraising pain. Nobody likes fundraising. Of course, if someone offers you space for free, you better at least make them “main sponsor”, or perhaps even bill them as “co-organiser”, because without them you’d be nowhere. Literally.
Venues that are not free can vary in price from affordable to ridiculous. On the affordable side of things are university buildings and related societies – especially in between terms when the spaces are otherwise empty. On the unaffordable end of the spectrum are official conference venues.
If you get to the point where you know you’re going to have to pay for a venue, you’ll also need money. Set a reasonable budget: how much do you think you’ll be able to get from sponsors? Then use that budget to find a location.
I hate fundraising. I hate it so much. “Can I please have some money?” Ugh, it’s the worst. But I also hate not having fun and inspirational events, and sometimes these cost money…
The trick to finding sponsors is to already have sponsors. You look a lot more legit if you already have a company logo on your website, or if you can tell Company Y that Company X has agreed to sponsor. So where do you find your first sponsor?
- Friends or employers of organisers.
- Have someone give you something (space, materials) that doesn’t cost them anything.
Even with a first sponsor in place, asking for money is awkward. Open calls are the easiest and least awkward, but not always succesfull. To approach companies directly, you’ll need to find out who to write to. You can ring them up and ask who normally handles such requests.
Design sponsor packages that people/companies can afford. If you need, say, £1000 for your event, you can get that by searching long and hard for one sponsor to give you £1000, or you can look for 5 sponsors to each contribute £200.
4. ADMISSION FEES
If it looks like you can’t find an affordable venue on sponsor money alone, you might consider setting an admission fee. The problem with admission fees at barcamp-like events is that it negates the idea of the event being accessible for anyone, so if you really need to do this, keep it very low, and maybe consider letting students in for free.
5. REGISTRATION and PROMOTION
Now that you have your venue, organisers and at least one sponsor and/or set an admission fee, you can start to open registration.
If you want variety in attendees, make sure to do a lot of promotion. Emails, online forum posts, posters – whatever you need to reach the people you want to reach before registration closes.
EventBrite is great for handling registrations and keeping track of how many spots are still available. At SciBarCamb, we used EventBrite to release tickets in batches: It gave us time to do promotion, and the new people we approached could see the list of people who already signed up, so they’d know what to expect when they signed up in the next batch. It worked rather well, and it was very flattering to see the first batch of tickets disappear in just over an hour!
Keep participants in the loop about:
- accommodation for people out of town
- if you’re still looking for sponsors
- unconference specifics: How does the talk suggestion system work? Can they discuss topics online beforehand to get some feedback?
If you can afford it, you can order food from a catering service. If you don’t have time or money to order food beforehand, you can always get pizza on the day itself.
Whatever you decide, make it clear to participants whether there will be food or not, and who is paying for it.
There are several ways to let people make the program:
- Have participants submit ideas beforehand. Organisers create a schedule to be published before the meeting.
- Have participants write down suggestions at the start of the meeting and place those directly on a blank schedule.
- Have participants write down suggestions, and let everyone look at all the suggestions before placing them on a schedule. This is the method we used at SciBarCamp/b, in combination with “dotmocracy” on the suggestion sheets to decide which talks were the most popular (and thus needed the bigger room).
If you’re having participants create the program at the start of the meeting, you can’t predict what’s going to happen. You may end up with more talks than there are time slots, or (worse) you might not get enough suggestions. Have some ideas of your own and/or make sure that some of the people attending are definitely suggesting a talk by talking to them beforehand.
9. THE DAY ITSELF
All that’s left are just lots of little things to keep everything on track, including, but not limited to:
- Make sure the schedule is easy to find for everyone.
- Announce venue-specific details.
- Make sure organisers are identifiable.
- Have timekeepers in every session to make sure it ends on time for the next group to use the room.
At the end of the day, optionally, collapse in a little pile of exhaustion.
You did it!