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Category Archives: Non-science posts

Excuses, excuses…

Happy Monday, everyone!

As I sit here, tucking into an impressively disgusting cheese and tomato sandwich (seriously, Tesco – does it really need a layer of mayonnaise?!), I realised that I haven’t posted anything here in AGES! So, this is just to let you know that I am, in fact, alive and will be blogging again in the near future.

I’ve been ridiculously busy lately what with writing a news article a couple of weeks ago (see link below), writing a piece about my research, preparing a presentation that I’m giving this week, helping a friend move home and doing a little thing called a PhD! Phew!

So, in short, I’ll be back blogging soon but, in the meantime, check out the article I wrote and these 2 excellent blogs run by people I’ve met through the Twitterverse: ‘Memetic Drifting‘ and ‘That’s Interesting’.

Cheers,

Ian

 

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on August 12, 2013 in Non-science posts

 

Cake, Computers and Curiosity (or, How Science-based PhD Students Survive)

Happy Thursday, everyone!

I’m experiencing one of those weeks from hell in work. You know the type – nothing’s going right; steps you hadn’t even considered a potential problem go awry… But, rather than throwing my computer out of the window in a fit of pique, I thought I’d channel my frustration into remembering why I’m doing my PhD in the first place. The result is this post, which I imagine will resonate with quite a lot of scientists out there! Enjoy!

One simple computer command with the tiniest of mistakes and one tap of the ‘Return’ key on my keyboard. That was all it took to erase the files I’d spent over a week creating. But, wait – a backup of the server existed. I was saved! Then I found out that the last backup was made before the files were created.

Scones

The perfect cure for stress: Scones with clotted cream and jam! (Photo credit: hijukal)

Cake was eaten; tea was drunk; and I won’t deny there was some tutting (we are British after all, dear). That was externally. Internally, my mind was a maelstrom of what can only be described as some of the fruitier epithets in the English language!

Regrettably, such experiences are not uncommon in the life of a PhD student. As a lecturer in my department tweeted in response to this latest setback, it’s “all part of the PhD process”. This inalienable truth is what, after nearly three years, I’ve finally learned to accept. My own project has, after all, afforded me many opportunities to ponder it.

I’m studying a human parasite called Entamoeba histolytica. It causes Amoebiasis, a disease characterised by symptoms ranging from mild diarrhoea to fatal liver abscesses. The problem is that nobody quite knows what triggers the different symptoms.

I’m comparing E. histolytica’s genes with those of its harmless relatives to find out which genes the killer has that the others don’t. As only E. histolytica causes Amoebiasis, it’s likely that some of the genes required for the disease’s progress will be in that exclusive gene set. I’m hoping to identify a list of genes potentially responsible for causing Amoebiasis that future medicines might target.

Curious George (Photo Credit: PBS and 'Cool Spotters')

Curious George – perfect, if mischievous, PhD student material! (Photo Credit: PBS and ‘Cool Spotters’)

My day-to-day life involves growing cells, extracting their DNA to have it read, or ‘sequenced’, and sifting through the mountains of data this produces on my computer. I’ve had cultures die for no discernible reason other than sheer bloody-mindedness; I’ve had DNA sequences yield data less useful than the Chinese Olympic badminton team; and I’ve spent weeks chipping away at data files to get to the result-filled goodness within, only to find that the results are about as interesting as a Dido album played at half-speed!

So why do I do it? Why do any of us? What drags PhD students up from the ground when our experiments leave us on our posteriors again and again? One word: ‘curiosity’.

No great scientist has ever carried out research for the money or for something to do. Hell, no mediocre scientist has! You simply cannot forge a career in science without being interested in, and enthused by, your research.

If we weren’t interested in reaching that elusive breakthrough we’d surely give up! A PhD isn’t like a normal job – for starters, we work bizarre hours and tasks take months to complete with little reward during that time. It’s our curiosity that gets us through the harder times. I know that, without mine, I couldn’t have created those files all over again to see if I’d discovered anything useful. I hadn’t…. But tomorrow’s another day and the allure of a new idea and possible success will inevitably drag me out of bed to try again!

 
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Posted by on July 11, 2013 in Non-science posts

 

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The Necessity of Breadth in a Modern University Education

Based on a presentation on 21/05/13 by:
Greg Petsko (Prof of Biochemistry and Chemistry, Brandeis University & Member of the US National Academy of Sciences)

Happy Wednesday, everyone! I went to an absolutely fantastic seminar yesterday – one that was funny, insightful, informative and quite moving at points. It concerned the current state of university education and how it influences wider society. I’ll attempt to convey some of the passion that Professor Petsko injected into his talk as I explain his views, as well as offering up some of my own. Enjoy!

English: EPA Assistant Administrator for Resea...

Teaching science is important, but is it all that scientists should consider? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yesterday’s speaker, Prof. Greg Petsko, was in Oklahoma the day before (for those of you reading this sometime in the future, that was the day a significant part of Oklahoma was decimated by a Category 5 tornado). He was 3 miles away from the tornado and had to travel for 24 hours to get to us in time, but he gave one of the most engaging talks I’ve ever attended. I strongly recommend reading his monthly column on Science and Society in the journal Genome Biology. Most of these columns are free to read and you can find a list of them here.

Prof. Petsko started by making a very interesting point. These days, we consider the arts and sciences to be very different beasts. I regularly blame my logical and analytical way of thinking, borne of a scientific education, for making me consider most modern art to be complete twaddle! Yet, many years ago, the famous scientist Galileo took great interest in the arts, whilst renowned artist Michelangelo was a keen follower of the sciences. How have the cross-disciplinary ideals exercised by two of, arguably, the greatest minds ever known disappeared over time?

The professor told us of an event that he believes to have been key in establishing this divide. In 1959, the British politician and chemist Charles Percy Snow delivered a controversial lecture entitled ‘The Two Cultures’. He claimed that followers of the sciences and the humanities had split apart, forming two distinct cultures between which communication was failing. He also declared the British education system to be on the decline. Petsko believes that the way Snow reported his views made the general public, both in the UK and the US, accept that that was the way society now worked and that it took hold from that moment.

I have to say, I don’t fully agree with Petsko on this point. Whilst I don’t deny that there is a clear divide between the sciences and the arts, I’d argue that the divide must have already existed for Snow to have observed it. His reporting of the matter doubtless increased public awareness of the fact, but I’d hardly label him as the single cause of modern day problems in university-level education. The chances are that, if it was possible for one lecture to make people notice the divide and largely accept it en masse, it was already well-established and known by people other than Snow.

Moving past the contentious issue of how we got here though, I have to admit that Petsko coined an excellent phrase during his lecture. He said that the idea that art and science should be separate is a “zombie idea” – that is, “an idea that should have died a long time ago but keeps coming back to eat our brains”. Brilliant!

This fantastic term applies to many different ideas, including the ridiculous, yet worryingly widely believed, thought that “only subjects of practical value have value”. As Petsko pointed out, in the 1970s almost nobody in America was interesting in studying viruses – vaccines existed for all the major viral diseases so it was seen as a pointless occupation to continue studying them. This blinkered attitude meant that when HIV started spreading through the population few were prepared for it.

This is a compelling demonstration of the fact that we cannot know what will be important to us in the future. As such, it can be argued that universities should be offering students the broadest education possible, whilst still maintaining quality, of course. Cutting edge science will almost always become outdated and intimate knowledge of its workings will become obsolete. Yet languages and politics, for example, remain useful for far longer than any of us will be around and may enrich our later lives in ways we can’t possibly conceive of yet.

Prof. Petsko wrote a hilarious, yet persuasive, open letter to the President of the State University of New York at Albany, regarding this matter. The President had recently announced that several of his arts departments were to be closed, essentially for cost-cutting measures to allow the sciences to continue and flourish. I bet he wished he hadn’t.

As Petsko summarised for us, assuming that a piece of information is correct, it is worth something – it has a value – regardless of the subject into which it can be categorised. The value of information from one academic field can, in fact, impact upon another subject. For example, in 1865, the German chemist Friedrich August Kekulé reported the correct structure of the compound benzene for the first time. Chemists had known which atoms made

up a benzene molecule but couldn’t work out how they fitted together. Kekulé realised that the atoms must be arranged in a ring, rather than being linear as everyone had supposed. His understanding came as a result of a dream in which he saw the ancient Ouroboros symbol of a snake eating its own tail, but made up of carbon atoms. Without an appreciation of the arts, it is possible that Kekulé would never have discovered benzene’s structure.

English: east German stamp of Kekulé, discover...

Kekulé and the cyclic structure of Benzene (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Religious symbolism

The religious symbol, Ouroboros (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

During the later stages in his talk, Prof. Petsko attempted to sum up his beliefs with two major reasons why breadth of education is important. I felt that this was the weakest part of the professor’s argument as it seemed odd to try and pick just two reasons for suggesting such an important shakeup in education; plus I didn’t necessarily agree with the reasons he chose.

His first reason was that, without studying the humanities and critical thinking, people would be more easily manipulated by others and taken in by those with authority. It was a fair point that science cannot teach us everything we need to know about the way the world works, though I didn’t feel it was his strongest argument.

Petsko’s second main reason for not separating the sciences from the arts was that, without an appreciation of both, one would risk becoming coldly scientific and the expense of one’s humanity. He illustrated this point by describing atrocities committed in the name of science such as the US Army spraying toxic chemicals over 6 US and Canadian cities to test dispersal patterns of chemical weapons during the Cold War.

I have to strongly disagree with the professor on this point. That suggests to me that he believes scientists lose all sense of morality and conscience by devoting themselves to science. I would argue that the examples he put forward dated no later than the Cold War and that they were merely products of their time and of desperate governments willing to exploit science’s darkest potentials for ‘the greater good’. I thought his was a rather odd statement to make, given the compelling arguments and undeniable benefits that he had previously put forward in an otherwise stellar presentation.

Whilst I may not have fully agreed with everything he said, I hope that, in this post, I’ve conveyed some of the enjoyment I gained from listening to Prof. Petsko talk. I am completely supportive of his overriding view that scope and breadth are essential in modern education and, for the most part, his points were made charismatically and eloquently. Despite my misgivings regarding some of his comments, I think you’d have to agree that he’s clearly struck a chord with me regarding this important modern debate. And I hope that I’ve passed some of that enthusiasm on to you. Whether you agree or disagree, this is a topic that needs to be discussed. For my part, I agree with Prof. Petsko that “the purpose of an education…is to make your life richer”.

 
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Posted by on May 22, 2013 in Non-science posts

 

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News and excitement!

Happy Monday, everyone!

As promised, here is the link to the article I wrote for The Conversation news website.

In addition to this, I have some exciting news! First off, I’m planning 2 major posts this week (I know, I know – you wait 3 weeks for a post and then 2 turn up at once…). I’ll be bringing you Part 2 of the Gremlins article and an overview of a seminar entitled ‘The necessity of breadth in a modern university education’. Not strictly on-topic for this blog but it’s in the same ‘Science and Society’ seminar series as my first post, and it promises to raise some very interesting questions.

Secondly, after attended the Science Communication Conference last week, I’ve invited several fellow bloggers to post on this blog! That’ll mean more topics can be covered here and you’ll be introduced to some outstanding science communicators and their take on the world.

All in all, exciting times are ahead! I’ll see you soon for the next full entry.

 
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Posted by on May 20, 2013 in Non-science posts

 

Busy, busy, busy!

Happy Wednesday, everyone!

Just a quick apology for the lack of posts recently, particularly the follow-up to ‘Just How Scientifically Possible Are Gremlins?: Part 1’. Rest assured, Part 2 is on its way – I’ve just been pretty busy the past few weeks.

First off, I’ve written another feature for the University of Liverpool’s ‘Becoming an Expert’ series, which went live last week. Check it out here.

Secondly, I’ve written a news article for a brand new independent news website called The Conversation, which launches tomorrow (May 16th)! The website is written by academics and edited by journalists so will be well worth a look. Head to http://www.theconversation.com/uk to check it out tomorrow. I’ll egotistically include a link on here to my article over the weekend, once it exists.

I’d post the link tomorrow when it goes live but I’m off to London today for the Science Communication Conference 2013 (exciting!) and I’m not taking my laptop with me. Between you and me, I’m rather terrified as I’m presenting a 9 minute set tonight at The Star of Kings pub in King’s Cross as part of the Science Showoff night! I’ll be talking about some of the weird and wonderful creatures that Evolution has ‘given’ us and explaining why they’ve evolved to look the way they do. If you’re in the area and are free tonight, come down from 7.30 for a great night of science and alcohol – what could possibly go wrong!

Anyway, that’s all from me – I really should pack since I leave for London in just over an hour! Apologies again for the lack of updates – I aim to do better from next week!

TTFN, Ta Ta For Now!

 
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Posted by on May 15, 2013 in Non-science posts

 

Welcome to the Science Gremlin’s Blog!

Hi there, and welcome to my blog!

Whilst working on my Genetics PhD, I’ve noticed that a lot of scientists don’t really know how to talk about their work to non-scientists. There’s far too much technical jargon and statistical gibberish that often makes research nigh-on impossible for anyone to understand!  What I’m hoping to do here is bridge that gap for you and, indeed, anybody else who wandered here by accident. I’ll be posting about scientific seminars I’ve attended or papers I’ve read, but in a way that will hopefully make the research and findings more accessible and, so, more interesting. I hope you enjoy what I have to say and that I achieve, in any small way, what I’ve set out to do!

Interested in science? Don’t want to get bogged down in the details? Then you’ve come to the right place!

The first ‘proper’ post will be coming in the next couple of days!

 
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Posted by on January 26, 2013 in Non-science posts