Today we have a guest post from Andrew Holmes, a visiting lecturer at the University of Chester. His research is focused on animal welfare, conservation and evolution. Outside of the lab, Andrew is the creator of The Sciku Project, a scicomm website that brings together science and poetry using just 17 syllables. He’ll be sharing his thoughts on starting his scicomm endeavour while doing research and welcoming a new addition to his family.
Elegant Nuggets/of Intrigue to Stimulate/Curiosity… or How I ended setting up a science website based around Japanese poetry.
by Andrew Holmes
In the beginning…
I didn’t mean to start a website. Certainly the idea of creating a scientific website held little appeal, since there are already plenty that are far better than I could create. I didn’t even know the first thing about web design. And with a baby on the way (now since arrived), I definitely didn’t have the time.
Then again, I didn’t mean to be reading a book of haiku either, but sometimes the best ideas emerge when disparate concepts collide. In both creative endeavours and in science, it pays to accept inspiration as it comes.
I launched The Sciku Project, a fusion of science and haiku, 7 weeks after the birth of my son. Like Daniel, my website is out in the world, although unlike Daniel, it also has matching social media profiles. Interested visitors can revel in science stories of seventeen syllables.
…I can hear the bemused silence as I write this post. Science plus haiku? But before you leave this post, allow me to elaborate. There are so many benefits to this method of science communication that it’s worth a bit of explanation.
But wait…what is a ‘haiku’?
I like trying new things when reading, something that inspired my aunt Barbara to give me a book of poetry. Reading a solitary haiku captured my imagination and, intrigued, I immediately ordered myself an anthology. Haiku anthologies can be very slim and, consequently, cheap – a welcome fact for the impulsive buyer.
A traditional form of Japanese poetry, haiku consist of 17 syllables (known as ‘on’ or ‘morae’), written in English over three lines of five, seven and five syllables. There are other haiku traditions and rules but those 17 syllables are what stand out when we think of the idea. In essence, haiku are micro-poetry.
Haiku often explore miniature moments in nature. But the small stands without purpose if one does not consider its place in the existence, so haiku frequently reveal minute details within a wider context. They provide a setting for these microcosms within wider macrocosms that are sometimes merely hinted at.
One of the most famous haiku concerns a frog jumping into an old pond (several translations of the poem can be found here). The frog’s jump appears to be the focal point of the poem. But the jump is only relevant, only interesting, within the context of the pond, the environment and the observer.
Haiku are fast food art (but don’t worry, McDonald’s and chippy shop haters—this is a complement). Take the jumping frog jump haiku – Basho’s old pond. The haiku itself takes only seconds to read, but the imagery it provokes and the feelings associated with the poem linger for far longer (although it’s possible that your experience with fast food is different to mine). In reading the poem, I can see the pond and the shaggy, overgrown vegetation surrounding it. Insects are murmuring to each other in the background and the air is fresh and bright after a spring shower. And I can hear that SPLASH, and the seeming silence that follows before the world resumes. All this from a handful of words.
The idea for The Sciku Project came to me during my daily commute. I had started composing haiku in my head to stave off the boredom of the 40 minute journey. Heading home one day I wrote a science-themed haiku as an exercise of mental curiosity. And, surprising as it might be, I enjoyed it! As I continued driving, I wondered whether other scientific themes could be given a similar treatment. My initial curiosity soon turned into excitement: I had found something new and exciting, and by the time I reached home I knew what I wanted to do with it!
When I searched for my new idea online I was disappointed (but hardly surprised) to discover that I wasn’t the first to think of science haiku (or as they are known: sciku). There’s even a book of sciku written by students aged 11-18 at the Camden School for Girls to raise money for a new science laboratory.
But even so, I wasn’t discouraged. Nobody was doing exactly what I had in mind: I wanted to break research findings down into haiku. I wanted scientists and non-scientists alike to join in by sharing their interests, work or research papers through the medium of haiku. I wanted to create a website that anyone could visit as a place to celebrate this fusion of science and art.
The idea that science and art are a false dichotomy is nothing new and cross-pollination has, in fact, been going on for centuries. The advent of the United Kingdom Research and Innovation agency to coordinate STEM funding bodies as well as the Arts and Humanities Research Council points towards a desire for a greater link between these seemingly disparate disciplines. STEM is now becoming STEAM, adding the arts to science, technology, engineering and mathematics. And sciku are one of many ways that we can cross this old divide… if you can get them out there.
I was too mentally invested in my idea to let the mere fact that I’d never built a website stop me from achieving my goal. I spent time researching domain hosting/web-building platforms and their user friendliness, all the while learning a whole new vocabulary of web-terminology. Wordpress seemed to give the best balance of control and flexibility for the ideas taking shape in my mind – not the simplest platform available, but also not overly complex for the beginner. I began building the website in my evenings and at weekends, all too aware of another imminent event.
The Sciku Project reached full term a few weeks before Daniel was due. While waiting for his arrival, I let the website gestate a little longer so I could prevent too much of an overlap, taking my time to fine-tune the micro-aesthetics within the macro-structure of the website until we all were ready.
Launching a website is anti-climactic. I clicked “publish” and a small balloon popped up briefly to say that we were live. Google takes a while to locate new sites, so I couldn’t even enjoy searching for my virtual baby. I sent the link to friends and family and waited for replies. I looked at the site and the site looked back. I wondered how it was going to grow and just what I was going to do now it had arrived. I shared similar looks with Daniel in the days following his birth; I’m still not sure which of them comprehended my looks of panic the most.
Haiku as SciComm?
We live in a time-poor, fast-paced world. As a scientist I try to balance my research with paper writing, grant applications, supervision, teaching and admin as well as my day-to-day life, which is now busier than ever. Other professionals have their own plates to keep spinning. The brevity of sciku makes them an ideal science communication medium, whilst as a bonus the novelty of the haiku-form helps to break the ice. Sciku do the hard work by providing an intriguing hook with which to catch the curious.
Haiku are concise, evocative, exquisite and thought-provoking poems. Their form can help to reveal the beauty of science and mathematics which can become lost among the dry details of manuscripts and conference presentations. Sciku can help us to find the elegance of research once again, to rediscover its charm. Where traditional modes of scientific sharing obscure, sciku communicate clearly, using language that is both understandable and relatable.
As scientists, we are told we should maximise the impact of our work, and it’s a fundamental aspect of present-day grant applications. Ensuring our research is publicised helps with this, but our work can only have impact if we share it in easily digestible and interpretable forms. I can read a sciku in a few seconds and think about it for minutes. A sciku is a moment that echoes in the mind. They are the perfect medium for sharing a scientific story.
It’s easy to get caught up in the specifics and to forget the bigger picture when working in science. And yet, like the frog’s jump, the results of an individual experiment are only interesting and relevant within the context of the wider world and the research that has gone before. By reading and writing sciku, we can gain a renewed appreciation of the reasons behind and the deeper meaning of our work.
Writing sciku has also helped me better appreciate how to explain my own work to anyone outside of my field by helping me see what details and aspects really matter. This creative process helps me to understand the fundamental components my work. This benefit of sciku can be useful in the classroom too: research suggests that composing sciku helps students gain a deeper understanding of their subject matter and promotes logical thinking skills.
Lessons learned and things to come
I didn’t set out to start a website when I wrote my first sciku, but I’m so glad I tried something new. It’s been a lot of work but the entire process is so much fun and extremely rewarding. I’ve learnt web-design skills, gained a greater appreciation for my own research and career, and improved my ability to communicate outside of the confines of research papers and scientific conferences.
I urge everyone to try something new and discover for themselves the many benefits of drafting a 17-syllable scientific poem. Don’t be afraid or intimidated by the idea of poetry. The brevity is liberating and sciku are a remarkably forgiving medium – it’s hard to completely mess up.
If you want to share your efforts then submit them to The Sciku Project, where you’ll also find tips and advice for writing sciku. You can also follow the site on Twitter and Facebook.
Facing the challenges of a career in STEM
Portions of this post were originally shared as part of a SETAC women’s workshop fundraiser
On the night before I started my post-doc, my mother sent me an email with her best career advice. It was my first job after graduate school, and her message was a way to wish me well and to help me start with my best foot forward. Her advice included Be present; Find meaning and happiness in what you do; Don’t sell yourself short; and Don’t look for others to validate what you’re doing.
During those first few months, I remembered her advice and did my best to embrace it. I faced challenges and issues in my post-doc, as expected in any new job , but overall I felt confident in what I was doing. I felt like I was placing myself in the right career trajectory. But a year and a half later into my post-doc, another piece of advice rang loudly in my ears. It wasn’t because I had followed my mom’s advice but rather because I had gone against it. I went home after having a complete crying break-down in my boss’s office, feeling horrible for not having followed my mother’s simple advice: Don’t cry at work.
As much as I tried to move on from what was a quintessentially bad day, I felt myself becoming increasingly distressed and anxious about my job and my career. I felt guilty about my break-down and worried that I would be seen as weak and overly emotional. I felt like I had gone from being an up-and-coming independent scientist to the girl who cried in the office. More than anything, I struggled with the feeling that I was no longer on the right career path. I wondered if I was not ‘cut out’ for life as a scientist or as a researcher.
Unique challenges for Women in STEM: Self-confidence in times of stress
I was fortunate that the stress that had taken over my day-to-day life eventually resolved itself. The months I had spent dealing with new and urgent tasks and the endless shifts in my project’s aims finally came to a resolution and I had a clear path ahead for what needed to be finished by the end of my post-doc. The fear of not having my contract extended was alleviated when the paperwork came through and I was relieved to find that my job would not end as abruptly as anticipated. But I still struggled with feeling like I was not a good scientist. If I had gotten to the point where I cried at lab, was I really cut out for life as a researcher?
It was at this point that I had to force myself to realize that I was not a bad scientist just because I had become frustrated. I was organized, hard-working, and forward-thinking. The thing I was lacking was the self-confidence. Confidence is the resounding voice in your head that tells you “I can do this”—and when you hear that voice, you believe it. Confidence lets you see your positive attributes at difficult times, and also helps you recognize that the mistakes you make on one stressful afternoon don’t have to define you in the long term. We touched on this topic in a post earlier this year and discussed the importance of self-confidence for navigating through the numerous challenges you might face as an early career researcher.
A lack of self-confidence is not a unique challenge that early career researchers face, and I am certainly not the first person to wonder whether I was ‘cut out’ for something or not. In particular, women who embark on careers in science face unique challenges related to self-confidence, even from a young age. When children are told a story of a person who is described as “really, really smart” and are then asked to select a gender for the person in the story, girls as young as 6 years old were more likely to identify that “really, really smart” person as a man. Girls were also less likely to play games that described as being for “children who are really, really smart”.
Another study found that 10th grade girls tended to rank themselves as less skilled in math and science than their male counterparts, even if the girls’ test scores reflected strong abilities in STEM. Even though it was the girls who performed better on tests, it was the boys who saw themselves as being more skilled in math and science.
How can we build better self-confidence for women in STEM?
Our own internal dialogue is a powerful force that dictates our actions and reactions. When we don’t know how to counter our own negative impressions of our abilities or have low self-confidence in general, it can make pursuing a career in STEM challenging. A lack of confidence makes science seem like it’s only meant for the “really, really smart” people. Given the importance of self-confidence in pursuing and staying within a career in science, how can we better encourage women in STEM to stay the course and work through the more challenging times as they come?
One recent study provides an example of the importance of peer mentorship as sources of inspiration for motivating women. The researchers looked at exercise habits and found that people are inspired to run faster and train harder when they see friends sharing their own fitness stories on social media. But the most noteworthy finding from this research was that while men can find inspiration from both male and female friends, women tend to only become inspired to exercise harder when they see stories from other women.
If we want to encourage more women to become scientists, we as women scientists can start by encouraging self-confidence and serve as mentors for girls who are looking for someone to inspire and support them. Another recent study demonstrated how female engineering undergraduate students were more likely to feel more confident in their technical abilities, as well as their perception of their ability to overcome stress or challenges, when they were connected with a female mentor at the start of their program. Female undergraduate students who had no mentors, on the other hand, were more likely to feel out of place and anxious, with 11% dropping out of the program entirely (in contrast, all of the female students who had female mentors remained in the program). Interestingly enough, grades had no bearing on whether a student remained in the program or not—but the presence of a mentor did.
What does the future hold?
It can seem daunting to look at the facts and figures related to women in STEM and contemplate a way forward. But by recognizing the fundamental importance that self-confidence and mentorship can impart on young minds, we can bring all of the best and brightest minds to science—and make it clear to them that they are welcome, and able, to stay.
If you are working in STEM and are struggling to find your place in the community, start by working independently towards improving your own self-confidence. While you work on building yourself up internally, start your search for your networking support team by reading our Research Entourage series. These articles focus on the characteristics of the members of your career development team, the people who can work with you and support you as you move forward in your career.
If you are lucky enough to feel confident in your career path and want to help the next generation of scientists and engineers, you can volunteer to serve as a mentor for girls and women in STEM. You can also explore the outreach activities happening at your institute and get involved with local events happening in your community that are STEM focused. One great example in the UK is Soapbox Science, an organization that recruits and supports women scientists for science communication and public engagement activities.
Becoming a confident scientist
The life of a scientist will always be fraught with challenges as well as rewards, joys, and ‘eureka!’ moments. After my stressful moments in the lab, I realized that my frustration and tears were not a sign of weakness but were instead a realization that the job I was in was not the right fit for me. With this realization, I was able to focus my energy on finding a new STEM career path that was a better fit for both my expertise and my passions. I’m now enjoying my third month as a medical writer, a job that feels like the right area of STEM for me. My hope is that by finding your own self-confidence and bringing together your research entourage, you can find the job that's the right fit for you!
Originally posted on the IEAM blog on 17 August
This post is the last in our series of updates from the SETAC Brussels meeting. We hope you enjoyed our coverage of toxicology research from the meeting!
What are microplastics and why should we care about them?
Microplastics are pieces of plastic or polymer debris that are very small in size, ranging from a shard as narrow as the width of a hair to a piece as large as a marble. Microplastics include pieces of plastic that are broken down from larger items, such as single-use water bottles, or ‘microbeads’ that are added to certain soaps and exfoliators.
Even though microplastics are small, there are concerns they can cause serious damage. Animals that confuse microplastics for food can end up with internal lacerations, inflammation, and nutrient deficiency caused by eating too much inedible material. Microplastics are also widely spread across the globe—scientists calculated that up to 90% of marine birds have ingested microplastics.
Plastic waste can be found everywhere. Coupled with predictions that plastic production could increase to 33 billion tons each year by 2050, it appears that microplastics are not going away anytime soon. Major news outlets regularly highlight the pervasive nature of this waste, including the story of the recent discovery of over 37 million pieces of plastic garbage on a South Pacific island.
Environmental toxicology researchers at the SETAC Brussels meeting (May 2017) presented a range of studies exploring the impacts of microplastics and addressing the challenges that we face in combating this pervasive, persistent, and tiny pollutant. In this post we highlight some of the findings presented during the sessions “Challenges and best practices in monitoring of micro- and nanoplastic abundance and environmental distribution” and “Microplastics, nanoplastics and co-contaminants: Fate, effects, and risk assessment for biota, the environment and human health.”
Microplastic monitoring: Where does it come from and where does it go?
One of the challenges for researchers is that microplastics comprise a large and diverse group of materials, including various sizes, shapes, materials, and sources. Some microplastics are formed by the breakdown of larger materials, while others are added into household products (e.g., microbeads), so it’s difficult to trace the fate of these materials.
Beate Baensch-Baltruschat from the German Federal Institute of Hydrology conducted a survey of plastic monitoring in European freshwater ecosystems. She found that rivers and streams are important for following the movement of plastics since these waterways are a major route for microplastics on their journey to the ocean. The survey looked at active sampling efforts by ten countries across Western and Central Europe. Monitoring data collected by these surveys revealed that there is a wide range of microplastic sizes, with larger particles (0.1 mm to 10 mm) more prevalent in surface waters and smaller particles found primarily in sediments.
Jes Vollertsen (Aalborg University) noted the problem of how the transport of microplastics during stormwater runoff events was not well-understood. To explore the issue, his research group sampled water and sediment from stormwater retention ponds in Denmark to examine microplastic levels. Their survey found that stormwater can hold up to 10 micrograms of microplastics per liter, and that nearly half of this plastic waste builds up in the sediment while the other half slowly discharges out of the pond water over time. Both Vollertsen and Baensch-Baltruschat’s work highlight the importance of monitoring and tracking microplastic movement in different types of environments.
Fabienne Lagarde from the Institute of Molecules and Materials studied how mussels were impacted by microplastic contamination along the Atlantic coast of France. Lagarde and her team identified 73 microplastics across all of the mussels they sampled over two sites, seasons, and habitats (wild caught versus cultivated environments). Eighty-five percent of the particles were polyethylene and polypropylene. Polyethylene is primarily found in single-use plastics such as bags and bottles, while polypropylene is made for more durable materials like plastic pipes and furniture. While microplastic levels did not differ significantly between seasons, sampling sites, or habitats, Lagarde’s results highlight the pervasive nature of microplastic contamination. Over 140,000 tons of mussels are produced in France every year, so studies like this are crucial for understanding potential risk to seafood consumers.
Some microplastics are in the form of fibers, shed from synthetic clothing during laundering. When these plastic microfibers enter the waste stream, pieces that are too small to be filtered out (microfibers) are discharged into the environment. Imogen Napper (Plymouth University) measured microfibers released from wash cycles with synthetic materials and found that a typical 6-kg wash of polyester-cotton blend clothing releases 137,000 fibers into wastewater. Even more microfibers are released from polyester materials (nearly 500,000) and acrylic clothing (728,000 fibers). Napper proposed a straightforward solution of including filters on washing machines to collect microfibers in order to reduce the large number of them that are discharged into the environment.
Microplastic effects: Are microplastics harmful to marine wildlife?
Inger Lise Nerland from NIVA discussed her work examining the impacts of polyethylene microbead exposure on Mediterranean mussels. Nerland exposed mussels to microbeads isolated from toothpaste for 3 weeks. The study was designed to reflect what happens in an actual environmental exposure by weathering the microbeads (allowing the material to break down naturally in seawater) before the exposure started. Nerland and her group found that not only did mussels ingest the microbeads, but that mussels with plastic particles had a higher number of blood cells in their gills, thinner gill tissues, and clumps of blood cells in their digestive system. This study provides more support for the hypothesis that microbead exposure can cause damage to the wildlife they come in contact with.
Theresee Karlsson (University of Gothenburg) looked at how single-use polyethylene bags break down in seawater. These single-use bags are very lightweight, yet somehow scientists find polyethylene deep in ocean sediments. Karlsson cut single-use bags into pieces of various sizes and placed the bags in stainless steel cages. Karlsson’s study showed that the amount of time that plastic pieces were left to degrade influenced the growth of microorganisms, or biofilms, on the plastic. The presence of biofilms changed the density of the plastic waste due to a build-up of calcium and silica. The example of how polyethylene bags change in density when they are bound by biofilms demonstrates how plastic waste cannot be classified in any broad, all-encompassing manner—even waste that starts off as the same material can have a completely different fate based on how it interacts with the environment.
Adam Porter from the University of Exeter highlighted his work demonstrating the importance of marine snow—organic matter, such as decaying animal and plant material, that falls from the surface levels of the ocean into the deep sea. This ‘snow’ is responsible for moving nutrients from the ocean’s surface down to the organisms living in the depths of the ocean. Porter’s work provides evidence on how marine snow affects the movement of microplastics. Porter measured microplastic sinking rates in artificial water columns both with and without artificial marine snow and also measured the difference in microplastic uptake in mussels. This study found that marine snow can bring lightweight microplastics to lower parts of the water column, and that mussels consumed more microplastics if marine snow was present. Porter’s work highlights the importance of considering deep sea organisms studying effects of microplastics in the marine environment.
Ricardo Beiras (University of Vigo) described how microplastics can bind other chemicals, becoming inadvertent vehicles for chemical exposure. Polymers and plastics contain many additives that can absorb other chemicals, so animals who consume microplastics might accidentally also be eating toxic chemicals. Beiras exposed sea urchin larvae to microplastics that were incubated with a toxic chemical (nonylphenol). While the plastic particles did absorb nonylphenol and the larvae did eat the plastic particles, Beiras did not find any evidence that nonylphenol was transferred to the larvae through the microplastics.
There is still a lot of work to be done to gain a better understanding the environmental fate and impacts of microplastics. Several sessions held at SETAC Brussels brought together researchers from numerous fields to share their work. This post represents just a small part of the global effort to understand and mediate the impacts of plastic pollution for both environmental and human health.
For those who want to help in the effort to reduce microplastics, you can start by using your own shopping bag instead of a single-use bag at the grocery store and look for alternatives to cleaning products containing microbeads.
Originally posted on the IEAM blog on 15 August as part of our SETAC Brussels session summaries series.
Circular economy, LCA, and the environment
As we consumers become more aware of how the products we buy and use impact the health of the environment, companies are also looking for ways to make more sustainable products using materials with a more positive environmental impact. Life cycle analysis (LCA) is a way for environmental scientists to clarify the environmental impacts of a material or product. A circular economy is a system of production and consumption that is powered by renewable energy. A clean circular economy also focuses on eliminating toxic chemicals and closing material loops through better design, maintenance, repair, reuse, refurbishing, and recycling.
An LCA includes everything that goes into the creation of a consumer product: gathering raw materials (like wood, coal, or metal), manufacturing the product (the type of factory used, what energy goes into production), how the product is used (single use versus multiple uses), and what happens to the product when it is no longer needed (what components are disposed or recycled). An LCA is completed using three steps: 1) inventory analysis (identify all inputs and outputs, where materials come from, where they end up, and the energy inputs and outputs related to the creation of the product), 2) impact analysis (a value known as an ‘impact score’ indicates the impact of each step in the manufacturing process), and 3) improvement analysis (finding places in the process that can be improved to reduce the impact score, like using less energy).
LCA helps companies understand what they can do to make products more sustainable, reduce negative impacts on the environment, and produce less toxic by-products. Product manufacturing is extremely complex however: raw materials are sourced from around the world, all of which are obtained in different ways depending on the country of origin and the type of material. Companies are constantly looking for better ways to determine the sustainability of new products.
At the SETAC Brussels meeting held in May 2017, researchers presented the latest advancements within LCA towards solving real-world problems in sustainability. Here we highlight the findings from the special session “Think-Outside-The-Box-Session: Clean circular economy: recycling while eliminating legacy toxics” organized by Dr. Niels Jonkers (Ecochain) and Dr. Heather Leslie (VU Amsterdam). We also highlight a selection of platform presentations from the “Advancements in life cycle impact assessment and footprint method development” session chaired by Serenella Sala (Joint Research Centre).
Creating a clean circular economy
Sicco Brandsma from VU Amsterdam highlighted the science behind recent health concerns on the use of recycled tires and rubber for recreational fields. Nearly 90% of all artificial soccer fields in countries like the Netherlands are made of recycled rubber granules, and a single playing field can use up to 20,000 recycled tires. EU regulations currently limit the amount toxic chemicals, such as polycyclicaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) that can be found in recycled rubber on playing fields to 100 mg of chemical per kg of rubber material. But Brandsma pointed out that regulations for other rubber products, such as children’s toys and rubber playground flooring require much lower maximum concentrations of PAHs, closer to the 1 mg/kg range. Brandsma highlighted the need for further research in this area that can address the concerns consumers have about the presence of rubber in places that people come into contact with on a regular basis.
Jane Muncke (Food Packaging Forum Foundation) gave a perspective from the food packaging industry on the future of the circular economy. Food consumption makes up close to one third of all human-induced environmental impacts across the world. Part of this impact is due to waste from food packaging, and the industry is attempting to address these challenges while making sure that chemicals used in food packaging are not toxic. There are currently 8,000 chemicals regulated by the EU in food packaging materials, but Muncke said that monitoring all 8,000 chemicals and understanding how the manufacturing process impacts chemical composition remains a challenge.
Muncke highlighted the importance of food package recycling in order to achieve a complete circular economy but stressed that material recycling should not be done in a way that increases human contact with potentially hazardous chemicals. Proposed solutions include ensuring that food containers are recycled but then reused in a manner consistent with their original purpose, such as reusing cold food containers to hold cold food again and not hot food (where the heat could cause some of the chemicals to leech out).
Giorgia Faraca (Technical University of Denmark) talked about on finding safe ways to recycle and reuse wood products. The challenge in this area is the presence of impurities in wood, such as metals, plastics, and chemical additives including paints and oils. There are EU regulations in place to prevent contact with hazardous materials in recycled wood, but Faraca stated that these regulations also make it a challenge to ensure that high-quality wood materials can be reused instead of simply thrown away. Faraca and her team found that some chemical impurities could be removed completely before recycling. She commented that while some impurities may still occur in recycled wood materials, low enough levels ensure that the material could still be used safely by consumers.
Arthur Haarman from EMPA Technology and Society Lab discussed work on electronic waste. Electronic waste (e-waste) is a fast-growing waste stream in the developing world that includes materials such as used computers and television sets. This waste stream is attractive to recyclers because it contains valuable minerals like copper. However, this waste stream also includes highly toxic materials such as flame retardants and heavy metals. Haarman said that of the 42 million tons of e-waste generated in 2014, only 15% of materials entered a formal and proper recycling and waste treatment process. Haarman then discussed e-waste in India, where informal regulations and cultural perspectives can lead to unsafe handling of hazardous materials. There are ways for recyclers in India to handle plastic contaminated with toxic chemicals, but Haarman reported that the initiatives for recyclers to undergo additional separation steps are not working. Haarman and his group studied the trends of e-waste recycling in India and developed a strategy, coupled with easy-to-use testing methods, that provides greater incentives for removing toxic chemicals from e-waste.
New advances in LCA
Caroline Catalan (I Care & Consult) presented new LCA methods for measuring a product’s impacts on biodiversity. Once finalized, this new LCA method will be able to measure how different versions of a product relate to measures of ecological richness. This method will provide a way to calculate the total ecological footprint of a product, providing a new way for companies to use LCA to ensure that their products are sustainable. Catalan also hopes that the results of this project will provide a connection between ecologists and LCA researchers that is both scientifically and economically sound.
Mathilde Vlieg (Evah Institute) discussed a case study aimed at calculating carbon credits from wood products. Vlieg emphasized the importance of accounting for carbon storage during LCA because of the ability for timber products to uptake carbon before harvest. This carbon remains stored if the materials are recycled, and carbon is released back into the environment if they are burned or allowed to decompose. Vlieg presented data from suppliers and manufacturers, with endpoints including forest age and fire history to calculate carbon sequestration. Long-term models developed for this LCA showed that up to 90% recovery of wood materials is possible even after 60 years of use. These results provide further support to the study of carbon sequestration potential of wood materials and their application in LCA.
Karoline Wowra (TU Darmstadt) discussed the importance of nitrogen in LCA. An over-abundance of nitrogen from agricultural or fossil fuel production can lead to eutrophication, algal blooms, and oxygen depletion in freshwater ecosystems. Many LCA models already account for nitrogen levels but there are many regional differences in nitrogen levels and cycles. Wowra’s group compared different LCA methods to see if nitrogen levels were being incorporated accurately. She found that the specific nitrogen compounds studied and the geography of the region influenced how applicable the existing LCA methods were for a particular area under consideration. Wowra suggested that researchers select LCA methods depending on the goal or scope of the study, for example, an LCA focused on agricultural impacts should include more accurate measurements of specific nitrogen compounds relative to agricultural soil.
Bernard De Caevel at RDC Environment examined using a resource’s market price as a basis for its value within LCA. This project focused on the use of a non-renewable resource’s monetary value as a proxy for that resource’s environmental value. De Caevel and his team found that a material’s market price can be a valid substitute for determining value, but that social and market forces on a resource’s price still needs to be taken into account. His group will continue to develop other ways to determine the value of minerals and fossil reserves for completing LCAs on products which use those non-renewable resources.
What’s next for life cycle analysis, circular economy, and SETAC?
LCA is just one way that science is helping companies make greener products for consumers looking for safe and sustainable products. The SETAC Brussels meeting provided a forum for these researchers to discuss the challenges and considerations needed to apply these methods to address real-world challenges. SETAC will continue to play a role in the future of LCA as a place for researchers in the field to work together towards making the vision of a clean circular economy a reality.
Originally posted on the IEAM blog on 25 July 2017
Welcome to the 2nd post in our series of updates from the SETAC Europe Annual Meeting held in Brussels, Belgium from 7-11 May 2017. After this post we will have two more updates that will be online in the next couple weeks. Enjoy!
Are pesticides hurting pollinators?
The widespread loss of honeybee populations in Europe and the reduced numbers of wild bees in other countries sparked concern among scientists, policymakers, and farmers all across the world. Recent research conducted on historical field data found a potential connection between the use of certain insecticides and changes in wild bee populations. This was especially true for species that are known to visit flowering crops like oil seed rape.
While scientists have been looking in detail at how pesticides might be harmful to bees, there are still many questions on how to find the balance between protecting crops while ensuring the protection of bees and other pollinators. Managing both pesticide usage while mediating risks on wildlife populations continues to challenge scientists and policymakers.
Risk assessment is the primary tool that scientists use to address this challenge. A risk assessment is an evidence-based process that determines 1) how much of a toxic chemical can be found in a specific environment (the soil, water, or air) and how much an animal or person can come in contact with that chemical (called ‘exposure’), 2) how toxic the chemical is to an animal or person (hazard), and 3) the quantitative relationship between the two (risk). The three answers are used to calculate the risk a chemical poses in the environment.
In conducting bee and pollinator risk assessments, scientists are focused on logistical problems such as experimental set up, how much of a chemical a given pollinator will come in contact with, and determining the total toxicity of all of the pesticides currently in use. At the session “New developments in ecotoxicology for the risk assessment of single and multiple stressors in insect pollinators: From the laboratory to the real world” held at the SETAC Brussels meeting, scientists highlighted new findings that can help policy makers choose the best course of action to ensure that pollinators are protected when pesticides are used.
New findings on the impacts of pesticides to pollinators
Are all pollinators affected by pesticides in the same way?
To test whether different bee species respond to pesticides in the same way, David Spurgeon from the Center for Ecology and Hydrology exposed three bee species to several commercial pesticides and compared their responses. He exposed the European honeybee (Apis mellifera), the buff-tailed honeybee (Bombus terrestris), and the red mason bee (Osmia bicornis) to pesticides through their food and compared survival rates. Spurgeon and his group found that pesticide toxicity increased over time in all three species. This has implications for how scientists conduct regulatory toxicity tests on bees in the lab, and Spurgeon commented that scientists cannot rely on a single time point when trying to determine the overall risk from chemical exposure. This is especially relevant, he said, if the bees come in contact with the pesticide on a frequent and long-term basis.
Philipp Uhl from the University of Koblenz-Landau determined the toxicities of several pesticides and compared results between the European honeybee and the red mason bee. Because the European honeybee is the main test species for pesticide risk assessments in Europe, scientists are concerned that using only one pollinator species will make it difficult to accurately determine the risk to other species that may be more or less sensitive. Uhl found that the European honeybee was either more sensitive or had a similar sensitivity profile than the red mason to six of the tested pesticides. This means that using the European honeybee data to complete the risk assessments for these pesticides would be protective for other pollinator species. But for one set of pesticides, the European honeybee was less sensitive, and for certain pesticides there was a 100-times difference between the two species. Any risk assessments conducted using data generated from the honeybee would not provide results that would be protective to other species for these pesticides. Uhl concluded that these species-specific differences in chemical sensitivity should motivate scientists and policymakers to find better ways to test the most relevant species. Uhl commented that this data also indicates how chemicals should be used and what species of bees may be the first ones to be affected.
How do we design experiments to more accurately determine the effects of pesticides?
Natalie Ruddle from Syngenta discussed the importance of experimental design for evaluating toxicity in species other than the European honeybee. Ruddle presented a field study that was designed to determine the impacts of a neonicotinoid (thiamethoxam) on the red mason bee. Since this pollinator is a solitary bee and does not have a central hive nor a queen, Ruddle and her collaborators worked to develop a field method that can measure the reproductive capacity of individual females. Their field setup relied on the use of long half-dome greenhouses where plants and bees were housed together (known as a “tunnel design”). While no negative effects were seen in the red mason bee when they were housed with pesticide-treated oilseed rape plants, Ruddle highlighted the continued challenges of designing these types of field experiments for solitary bee species, noting the need for consensus on how to set up such experiments.
Stefan Kimmel from Innovative Environmental Services, Ltd. discussed the dynamics of how bees are exposed to pesticides in an open field, also using the solitary red mason bee and pesticide-treated oilseed rape plants. Kimmel and colleagues sampled pollinators before and after pesticide application and looked at the amount of pesticides in the flower buds, pollen, nectar, the bee foragers themselves and the hive entrance. Kimmel found that there was a gradient in pesticide concentration, with higher levels in crops and lower but detectable levels found in the nesting sites.
At the end of the session, presenters and audience members discussed the current and future needs for pesticides and pollinators based on EU regulations. While tests conducted in open fields are not currently accepted by regulators, due to concerns about competing crops, Kimmel commented that there are advantages of open-field techniques because the setting more accurately represents how pollinators can become exposed to pesticides and avoids the potential for any harm caused by tunnel confinement.
What’s next for pollinators?
We still have a lot to learn about how bees and pollinators are impacted by pesticide use. But thanks to a better scientific understanding of the risks that pesticides can have on bees in agricultural settings, scientists and policymakers are working together, now more than ever before, on empirical and creative ways to address this global problem.
The latest science presented at the SETAC Brussels meeting highlights how researchers, government institutions, regulators, and agrochemical companies are working together to find the best ways to protect pollinators. SETAC will also continue to be a place for scientists to work together with the Pollinators interest group now being developed within SETAC.
Originally posted on the SETAC IEAM Blog on 17 July 2017
We are finally kicking off the SETAC Brussels summary series! This post is the first of four highlights of research presented at the SETAC Europe Annual Meeting in Brussels, Belgium (7-11 May 2017). Each post features the latest research findings from SETAC scientists on emerging topics of interest. Enjoy!
Why does oceans health matter?
Oceans provide more for us than just the backdrop of our annual summer holidays—they provide food and medicine, help connect people and provide a means to deliver materials across the world, are a source of economic growth for coastal communities, and help moderate climate change. But our strong connection to the marine environment also comes with some drawbacks. Seafood contamination, marine pollution, biological hazards such as red tides and antimicrobial resistance (AMR), and rising sea levels are just a few of the examples of how our own health is closely linked to that of our environment.
A new and rapidly expanding field of research called Oceans and Human Health (OHH) examines the connections between our health and the health of marine environments. This work includes looking at both the benefits and the risks to people and how our actions can influence the health of marine ecosystems. The theme of OHH was prevalent at this year’s SETAC Brussels meeting, where a common theme of keynote and platform presentations was the interconnections between environmental science and human health.
“This area of research is very strategically important for the world, and very important for SETAC as an organization, to move into.” said Colin Janssen, one of the co-chairs of the OHH session. “SETAC researchers are now beginning to focus more on the marine environment, as we are recognizing more and more that human health is not isolated from the environment’s health.” A discussion around the theme was kicked off at the Opening Keynote Presentation by Lora Fleming (University of Exeter) and was followed by a series of platform and poster presentations.
The science that connects oceans and human health
Lora Fleming presented her collaborative work on red tide events in the state of Florida, in the US. Red tide is caused by microscopic algae (Karenia brevis) that release neurotoxins as aerosols, which are then transmitted by air and wind. Large outbreaks in Southwestern Florida were responsible for the deaths of many endangered Florida manatee and dolphin populations.
One significant result from this work was the finding that dolphins had eaten fish with trace amounts of red tide neurotoxin. Since dolphins do not eat dead fish, and it was previously thought that fish consumption did not confer a risk to neurotoxin exposure, these findings provided new evidence of the risks of consuming fish during red tide events. Fleming’s research team provided the evidence needed to change existing policies for red tide event management in order to better protect both marine and human health.
The human health impacts of red tide events could also be seen beyond the beach where direct exposure occurs. Fleming and her team found that red tide outbreaks were linked to increases in emergency room visits and exacerbated breathing problems for people with respiratory conditions such as asthma. Fleming’s work highlights the pervasive nature of red tide events, providing a better understanding of how people are affected by the health of the marine environment.
Maarten de Rijcke from Ghent University later presented results of a study focused on red tide pollution in the North Sea. Rijcke and his team placed caged mussels at a coastal sluice dock and looked for algal bloom neurotoxins in the mussels. Researchers found a complex mixture of toxins present in the mussels after only 15 days, and several of the neurotoxins they found had unknown toxicities. Rijcke highlighted the importance for looking at algal bloom toxins levels in economically important species, as well as looking at toxins more broadly, instead of only focusing on neurotoxins of known toxicities. He stated that chemicals which are not regularly monitored—or for which no toxicity data exist—might still have a negative impact on human health, and that these should be assessed when possible.
Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) in surfers
Anne Leonard, University of Exeter, presented research on how antibiotic resistance spreads through coastal environments. Coastal areas are strongly impacted by human activities, including run-off from agricultural fields and wastewater treatment plants, and are also a place that people have the most physical contact with the ocean.
Leonard collected coastal water samples and counted the numbers of Escherichia coli that could produce a protein that is able to provide resistance to several antibiotics. Leonard then conducted a survey of surfers compared to non-surfers to see if there was a connection between time spent in the ocean and the presence of drug-resistant E. coli. Volunteers provided rectal swabs and filled in questionnaires as part of the Beach Bum survey.
Data from the Beach Bum study shows that surfers were four times more likely to be colonized by drug-resistant E. coli when compared to people who did not surf. While there appeared to be no direct risk from the E. coli on this healthy population of surfers, Leonard commented that their presence in a healthy population means they can easily spread to more difficult-to-treat and sensitive patients. This research also shows that coastal recreational and occupational exposure to microbes might be a significant route of AMR transmission.
The benefits of interacting with the oceans
leming shifted the tone of the platform presentations to focus on the benefits gained through positive interactions with marine environments. She presented results from scientific surveys, interviews, and controlled experiments in the UK. Benefits include better health reported in people who live close to the ocean or other bodies of water, with the strongest effects seen in poorer communities. Her group also found a reported reduction in stress and an increase in physical activity after people visited coastal areas. Researchers also found that people who visited marine areas reported increased interactions among family members and had increased vitamin D levels. Fleming and her group are now working to understand and consolidate the benefits of “blue gyms” in the UK, findings which consistently demonstrate positive benefits from interactions with healthy marine environments.
What’s next for the field of oceans and human health?
A number of research projects across Europe and the United States will continue to conduct research on the connections between oceans and human health. These research projects are also looking to foster connections with other fields such as economics, psychology, and science communication. Learn more about these initiatives in the EU by visiting the Horizon 2020 Blue Health web page and the SeaChange ocean literacy project.
“If we can show that oceans really are valuable, in an economic sense as well as a public health sense, and that healthy ecosystems are good for our own health and well-being, we can promote more pro-environmental behavior in people.” said Fleming. “I hope that researchers in toxicology and public health will continue to take this topic forward as a truly transdisciplinary field. That we can value and treat our world better and own what we do to the environment in a positive way.”
The strategic graduate student
An early career researcher faces a lot of pressures within the academic research environment. We’re expected to work hard and put in long hours on experiments and data analysis, under the idea that more output (or, in our case, more data) will inevitably lead to more papers and more opportunities. Hard work is a crucial aspect of success in graduate school, but what’s sometimes not as clear, especially in the early periods of our research careers, is how to work smart.
Working smart means being strategic with time: set goals, plan ahead, and adapt as needed. But how exactly can we learn to become more strategic in our work? It’s one thing to design a flawless plan of experiments and analyses in great detail…but what about when an unexpected results offers new insights or inspires different experiments? With an endless array of tasks, distractions, and the all-enveloping feeling like we have to be doing something at any given point in time, how can we clearly see and decide on the most valuable course of action at any given moment?
I’ve been interested in answering this question both in a broad sense as well as for my own work-life balance. And while I’ve had wonderful mentors, coaches, and bosses who have taught me how to prioritize my current work while visualizing the future, I also like to find inspiration from other sources. My reading hobby typically leads me towards history books, in part as a break from reading about science but also as a source of awe-inspiring stories. It’s incredible how often the lives of the great men and women of history were defined by how they made pivotal strategic decisions or how a single idea changed the entire course of history.
One of my recent such reads was Robert Greene’s “The 33 Strategies of War”. Greene’s book offers insights on how you can make your own career, or even your entire life, more strategic. The book is interwoven with stories from history highlighting the 33 concepts described in great detail in his book. If you’re not a military history aficionado, there are also a number of stories about politicians, business leaders, and even artists who fought in their own sort of ‘wars’ as they worked to bring their goals and ideas to life.
Highlights from “The 33 Strategies of War”
Greene’s book is not a practical ‘How to make war’ type of book. It instead focuses more on the psychology of conflict and how to approach these situations with a rational and strategic mind. One of the most important facets of good strategy is to have a wide perspective of your situation. In the case of research, you should thoroughly understand the problems that your field is working to solve and the possible solutions:
“To have the power that only strategy can bring, you must be able to elevate yourself above the battlefield, to focus on your long-term objectives, to craft an entire campaign, to get out of the reactive mode that so many battles in life lock you into.”
“The essence of strategy is not to carry out a brilliant plan that proceeds in steps: it is to put yourself in situations where you have more options than the enemy does. Instead of grasping at Option A as the single right answer, true strategy is positioning yourself to be able to do A, B, or C depending on the circumstances. This is strategic depth of thinking, as opposed to formulaic thinking.”
Greene also stresses the importance of acting on the plans you make while being flexible to changing situations. While strategy is the “art of commanding the entire military operation”, tactics refers to the “skill of forming up the army for battle itself and dealing with the immediate needs of the battlefield.”
You can think of strategy as the plans you draw up for the experiments you need complete for your dissertation and tactics as the action you take if you find out that one of those experiments was already done by another lab or is no longer needed because another paper refuted the hypothesis. And regardless of how well you plan, you must also be ready to work hard and to learn from any mistakes you make. As Greene said: “What you know must transfer into action, and action must translate into knowledge.”
Greene’s book discusses how to use both victory and defeat to your advantage. Both victory and defeat are temporary, says Greene, because what matters is what you do with the lessons you gain from each encounter. If you win, don’t become blinded by your own success but keep working hard and moving forward. If you lose, envision your loss as a temporary setback and use the lessons learned to plant the seeds of future victory.
Greene also talks extensively about the way that emotions can cause you to make ill-informed decisions. This is especially true for academics and young researchers, where the pressures to work hard and publish can lead many to mental health problems or simply finding themselves burned out from exhaustion. Many of the stories in 33 Strategies of War show how people extricated themselves from difficult situations and provide hope for the rest of us that anyone can make it through any type of challenge we might face:
“Fear will make you overestimate the enemy and act too defensively. Anger and impatience will draw you into rash actions that will cut off your options.”
To become a strategic student, start by waging a war against yourself
Greene’s book goes into great detail on the many facets of war, including offensive and defensive tactics as well as methods for psychological warfare. What I found the most resonant, especially for early career researchers, were the discussions around internal warfare: ‘declaring war on yourself’ in order to progress and move forward. Greene also focuses on the importance of self-confidence and having a positive mindset—a topic we discussed earlier this spring.
One of the most striking personal stories in this section is about General George S. Patton, the famous WWII general who was instrumental in leading the Allies to victory. But before he was a WWII general, he found himself commanding a small contingent of tanks in France during WWI. At one point his unit ended up trapped, their retreat back to base blocked and the only way forward through enemy lines. He found himself terrified to the point of being unable to move or speak. In the end he was able to muster enough courage and stride forward, but the moment left a mark on Patton. He made a habit of putting himself into dangerous situations more regularly, to face that which he feared in order to become less afraid of the situation.
This is one of my favorite stories from 33 Strategies of War. It not only shows us the human side of a great general from modern history, but it also shows us the importance of facing our fears. There are many unknowns, uncertainties, and even fears we face in our own work: what if we get something wrong, what if an experiment fails, what if we don’t win that grant or fellowship. But putting ourselves into challenging situations is part of how we progress. Facing and embracing what we fear helps us move forward and lessens our anxiety surrounding failure.
Another important consideration for graduate students and early career researchers is the importance of taking time away from our work. We’ve discussed the importance of breaks and time away from the lab to give us perspective on our work and refresh our minds, and Greene also highlights this as a strategic move:
“If you are always advancing, always attacking, always responding to people emotionally, you have no time to gain perspectives.”
Through these opening chapters, Greene explores this internal war and how we can develop a warrior’s heart and mindset. Instead of summarizing the chapter in great detail, I’ve highlighted are a few of my favorite quotes from this part of his book:
“He (the warrior) must beat off these attacks he delivers against himself, and cast out the doubts born of failure. Forget them, and remember only the lessons to be learned from defeat—they are worth more than from victory”
(About your presence of mind): “You must actively resist the emotional pull of the moment, staying decisive, confident, and aggressive no matter what hits you.”
(On being mentally prepared for ‘war’): “When a crisis does come, your mind will already be calm and prepared. Once presence of mind becomes a habit, it will never abandon you.” and “The more you have lost your balance, the more you will know about how to right yourself.”
(About keeping an open mind): “Clearing your head of everything you thought you knew, even your most cherished ideas, will give you the mental space to be educated by your present experience.”
(About self-confidence): “Our greatest weakness is losing heart, doubting ourselves, becoming unnecessarily cautious. Being more careful is not what we need; that is just a screen for our fear of conflict and of making a mistake. What we need is double the resolve—an intensification of confidence.”
(On moving forward): “When something goes wrong, look deep into yourself—not in an emotional way, to blame yourself or indulge your feeling of guilt, but to make sure that you start your next campaign with a firmer step and greater vision.”
I’ve learned a lot from mentors and colleagues throughout my career, but I also enjoy looking for inspiration outside of my normal work environment. Greene’s book “The 33 Strategies of War” provides great inspiration in the form of quotes, advice, and stories from history for approaching life strategically and rationally. Greene’s book is also very grounded and realistic in its approach, and he encourages us to do the same:
“While others may find beauty in endless dreams, warriors find it in reality, in awareness of limits, in making the most of what they have.”
Whether we are focused on our own research projects, maneuvering into the world in search of fulfilling work, or just going through our day-to-day lives outside of work, we will encounter different types of battles. Greene’s book focuses on the importance of goals in waging this war, whether they are personal or professional:
“Do not think about either your solid goals or your wishful dreams, and do not plan out your strategy on paper. Instead, think deeply about what you have—the tools and materials you will be working with. Ground yourself not in dreams and plans but in reality: think of your own skills or advantages.”
“Think of it as finding your level—a perfect balance between what you are capable of and the task at hand. When the job you are doing is neither above nor below your talents but at your level, you are neither exhausted nor bored and depressed.”
How we approach them depends on our own strategy, but we can all face them with courage and strength by adopting a warrior’s approach to facing conflict. Greene’s discussion about internal warfare might be one of the books’ most relevant sections for graduate students. There are numerous quotes in this book and it’s difficult to highlight all of the great advice discussed in just one blog post, but to close off the post, here is a post on the importance of having a warrior’s heart:
“It is not numbers or strength that bring victory in war but whichever army goes into battle stronger in soul, their enemies generally cannot withstand them.”
The origins of a super hero
(Spoiler alert: details of the plot of Wonder Woman in this section—proceed with caution!)
I went to the cinema last Saturday eager to see Wonder Woman and optimistic that it would easily be one of my favorite superhero films. But after the film, I spent the entire way home on the tram complaining about the story to my husband. I’ll avoid extended discussions on my frustrations with films that feature breast-shaped armor for women and my other costume-related annoyances (I know it’s a tropical Mediterranean island…but they were fighting with swords and spears. Shouldn’t they be wearing pants or longer skirts that would actually protect your legs from getting hurt??).
In reality, my frustration went deeper than the lack of proper clothing. I was disappointed with the lack of inspiration from Diana’s origin story in that I didn’t feel it was relatable nor realistic. “But it’s a superhero/fantasy movie!” you’re now thinking to yourself. “Of course it’s not real.” But just because the setting is imaginary, it doesn’t mean that the characters can’t feel real or can’t have a backstory that remind us of our own.
Throughout the film, Diana was following her path towards achieving her destiny. She was brave, personable, cared about protecting people, and had a love of justice and doing the right thing, which are all qualities that we should strive for. But she was also the daughter of Zeus, trained from childhood by an island of Amazons for the purpose of defeating her half-brother Ares. For those of us who aren’t born the daughters of gods, how can our own origin story compare?
From humble beginnings to…?
Of the large number of talented, hard-working, and dedicated PhD students and early career researchers, only a select few will end up becoming tenure-track professors. The origin story of the PhDs who don’t end up with a tenure-track job will at first glance look the same as those who go on to be professors: a love of science, a natural talent or ability that leads he/she to a career in research, a dedication to our project, and the hard work and grit it takes to finish a dissertation. But the story doesn’t finish neatly there—at some point, for many of us, the path of our presumed destiny takes a turn.
Turning off from this traditional career path leads us to a new type of beginning. We go from accomplished academic researchers, working hard on every experiment and fighting for every data point, to finding ourselves in an unfamiliar new working world. Any new career path means starting over: a new work culture, new buzzwords, new colleagues, and an overwhelming sensation that we are no longer the experts that we thought we were.
Last week I embarked on my first day as an associate medical writer. I spent three years of life as a post-doc and felt that there was a place for me in the world of research. But after three years, I realized that following what I once thought was my destined path, of becoming some world-renowned/world-changing scientist, was no longer the path for me. I welcomed the opportunity to adjust my career trajectory and explore a new path in the area of medical communications. It meant starting over with a new commute, a new office, new rules, and a new hierarchy, all while becoming familiar with a completely new way of working.
I may not have achieved what I thought had been my destiny, but starting over and embarking on a new path was something that I really wanted to do. Now I have the chance to embrace a new ‘destiny’, taking the lessons I learned on my previous journey while forging ahead to something unknown yet exciting.
If you feel like you’re having a difficult time with starting over, or perhaps even knowing where to begin in writing your own origin story, here’s a few suggestions and things to keep in mind:
Writing your own career origin story
Embrace your passions and abilities.
Our skills and passions define who we are more than the paths we choose in life. Part of finding the right path involves reflecting on what you’re passionate about. We all have a love or a fascination with science, but was it always connected to something else? In your research, do you feel the most inspired when teaching, writing, being creative, or helping others? A successful career is any path that leads you to feeling fulfilled and that puts your passions and expertise to good use. Finding this path is the true definition of success in a career.
Superhero take-home message: Heroes who follow their heart are the ones who inspire us to do the same.
Be ready to change your perspective.
Embarking on any new path forces us to see things with a new pair of eyes. Even just moving to a new lab or getting a new boss provides us with new ways of working and interacting with colleagues. People who make the most of their changing career paths are the ones who are able to learn from their new perspectives and keep a broad look across the horizon. Be ready with an open mind to embrace a new way of working or thinking and you’ll gain as much from your new situation as you’ll put into it.
Superhero take-home message: It’s not enough to follow your heart—you need to open your mind to new ideas and perspectives to be able use what you’ve learned.
Find a mentor and an ally.
Even a solitary hero needs trusted friends on his/her side, and very few super heroes ever work in complete isolation. In any origin story you’ll always find someone who falls into a mentor or teacher role. This is someone who helps the hero embrace a new perspective and progress through their story. Find a person along your path who will help you do the same, a person who will encourage you to work towards your passions while ensuring that you learn as much as possible. A strong mentor wants to see you succeed—so let them guide you, and at times push you, in order to help you get there.
All superheroes need allies, so find someone along your career path who’s either been through the process or who is even learning alongside you. This ally can become your friend, your confidant, or just someone you can share your joys and frustrations with as you progress. Having a person who can empathize with your situation is a strong reminder that even when you’re struggling or you feel like you’re not getting something right, you’re not alone.
Superhero take-home message: Even the strongest of super heroes can’t save the world on their own. All of us need people to guide us and to support us along the way.
Failure is part of the learning process.
We’re all driven by success and by feeling like we’re good at something. For those of us who always excelled in school, a failed experiment or a critical comment hits us in harder than we expected. But many super hero origin stories show us that even heroes make mistakes, both early on and even when they are at the top of their game. They stumble when trying to learn something new or find themselves unable to move forward when faced with a difficult challenge. Remember that critiques are not there to punish us but are there to help us learn and to make us better. Embrace your failures and strive to learn from them instead of fretting over them.
Superhero take-home message: A hero gains more from what he/she gets wrong than what he/she gets right. Use every mistake as an opportunity to learn something new.
We all have to start somewhere.
Anyone who’s at the top of their field, be it a CEO, an institute Director, or a world-renowned researcher, wasn’t born into that role. They had to work to get to that position by starting at the bottom and working their way up. It’s easy to feel downtrodden if we compare ourselves to others without recognizing the potential of our own career stories and remembering that all origin stories have to start somewhere. Instead of comparing yourself to others, recognize that the starting point of your career is the part of the path where you have the most potential. Your actions and your attitude at this stage will help define how far you’ll go in the future. Take a deep breath and remember that even your first step, however small, is still a step forward.
Superhero take-home message: Even in the most personal of origin stories, many heroes learn that the story is not just about themselves. Be ready to take a step back and see the picture from a broader perspective so you can better see your own potential for growth and progress.
Finding (and becoming) your own hero
Your career origin story is as unique and as varied as you are: it comprises your passions, your skills, the opportunities you embrace, and what you do with the challenges life puts in front of you. Perhaps I didn’t enjoy Wonder Woman as much as I thought I would because I’ve already found super hero inspiration from other origin stories. As my own career path changes trajectory from research scientists to technical writer, I find myself attracted to stories where the hero finds himself or herself in an unexpected place but uses his/her skills, passions, and fortitude to progress and excel. And what’s even more inspiring than tales of fictional super heroes are the people I’ve met who have shared their career transition stories, who took advantage of new career paths and opportunities and found a great place to work that brings their skills and passions together every day.
No matter whose stories you consider inspiring, or what your own path looks like, remember that you can also be your own hero. Whether you’re working hard to find a career that’s the best fit for you, or you simply find yourself on an unexpected detour, your origin story can become one that’s worth telling. No armor or capes required!
Science communication online
Perhaps you’ve marched for science, talked to your congressional representatives, or explained the science behind global warming/GMOs/vaccines with your friends and family but are still looking for other outlets to share your scientific knowledge and passion to a broader audience. Through social media platforms online, it is now easier for scientists to embark in science communication and outreach with the general public.
There are numerous ways to share scientific ideas and results with a wider scientific audience than at a conference presentation or a wider lay audience than your family and friends. Starting a blog is a great opportunity to become an active science communicator: long-form blog writing is a way to share information, teach concepts to a new audience, and engage with interested readers who are curious about your topic.
Starting a science blog is not a trivial task, nor is it easy to maintain a website or keep up with a regular posting schedule. Keeping up with a blog takes time, energy, patience, and good planning. That being said, the potential for rewards for both you and your readers can be worth the effort.
This week we hosted the #SciBlogHubChat and discussed the challenges and strategies for active science bloggers. Today’s post is a summary of how you can start and keep an active science blog and some considerations for maintaining your creative energies. We are also only a few weeks away from celebrating the two-year anniversary of Science with Style. It has been a fun yet challenging two years and we hope to share some of the things we learned along the way!
Step 1: Lay out your blogging goals
Our online presence is becoming more of a part of our lives, and our careers, than ever before. Because employers and collaborators will look at your online presence as a portfolio alongside your CV/resume, it’s important to ensure that what you say online reflects who you are and what your goals are. It’s not enough to set up a blog and let it sit there empty until you write a 5000+ word post ranting about a bad day in the lab. You have to figure out what you want to achieve with your blog and what work it will take to achieve your goals on a weekly or monthly basis.
Start by answering the following simple questions:
- Who is your audience?
- How will you share your material with your audience?
- What ways will you promote your website (Twitter, Facebook, posting on other blogs, etc)
- How often will you provide new material for your audience?
- How much time do you have to devote to writing posts (be sure to include time spent brainstorming ideas, reading relevant papers/articles, and conducting interviews)?
Answering these questions will help you determine the style of your website, if you link your blog to a social media platform like twitter, what sort of language you use in your posts, and how long your posts will be.
For Science with Style, I write posts for early career researchers who come from a wide variety of technical backgrounds; for that reason, my posts focus on professional development and science communication. For my new project, the ToxCity Tribune, I am looking to reach people who are interested in toxicology and environmental science news. I write these posts in a way that is more general in terms of discussing scientific concept and I focus less on themes that are more relevant for early career researchers such as career development.
Science with Style posts tend to be around 1500 words long and the ToxCity Tribune posts are slightly shorter (1000 words). Part of this is the time required to read articles and write complex topics more concisely for ToxCity Tribune whereas for Science with Style I have time to talk more about a topic since there is less background research needed.
Step 2: Set up a clean and simple online presence
There are many hosting websites you can use to set up your science blog. A few examples include WordPress, Weebly, Blogger, and Wix. If you are more social media savvy than I am, you can also explore the applicability of websites like Tumblr and Reddit for your writing activities. Stick with a template that allows you to adopt a simple, clean style for your website; you don’t need anything flashy or complicated that will drown out your message.
Finding the best design for your message will take time and will most likely involve you trying out a few different approaches. Be open to changing things around if the template is not working. The good news with websites such as weebly is that if you change your layout, you won’t lose any of your content.
If you are using a free hosting platform, you won’t have full control over your URL; this service only comes when you pay extra for an expanded hosting package. When you are just starting your blog you can try out a couple of different websites before you commit to a paid plan and custom URL (if having one is important for you). I pay around $60 USD per year for both the URL and the upgraded Weebly package. I don’t make any of that money back on ads or revenue, but I consider $5 a month a low enough cost to feel comfortable with paying for the upgrade.
If you have HTML skills then you can create or customize your own website and only pay the URL and hosting fees. This means an investment in time instead of money (unless you pay someone to do the customization). But don’t feel pressure to become a computer programming or design expert—keep it simple, clean, and invest the time and/or money into the parts that are the most rewarding to you.
You might also want to develop a social media presence to go along with your blog. This can either be connected to your personal account or to a separate, blog-specific account. This will depend on your blogging goals, what type of posts you want to write (more personal or more detached from your own work/experience in science), and what audience you want to reach. If you decide to separate the personal from the professional, you can establish separate accounts to help you follow and find relevant materials for your blog and can keep your personal account for fun or your personal perspectives.
I use @SciwithStyle and @ToxCityTribune to follow accounts that are relevant for each blog. For Science with Style, I follow academic professional development organizations, science communicators, and outreach-related accounts. For ToxCity Tribune, I follow toxicology and environmental science research groups, toxicology papers, science news websites, and government institutions.
Having a social media account also requires you to have a social media plan in place: how often will you post on the account, how will you engage with others online, how will you share and promote your materials, whose materials will you share in return, and who you will follow. Social media can also be a distraction from work or from your writing, so be sure to limit your time to 5-10 minute increments. Distractions aside, I’ve found Twitter to be a great source of inspiration, news, and connections to interesting people I never would have met were it not for a curated account or a hashtag.
Step 3: Get to writing!
Long story short: writing is difficult and it takes time! For a single blog post, I usually spend ~30 minutes planning (developing the idea and preparing an outline), 1-2 hours writing the draft, and another hour editing the post, finding a relevant image, and posting the material.
Keep in mind the amount of time that writing a single blog post will take and plan your schedule accordingly. I dedicate a set time each week to drafting each post, generally with outlines and prep work on Monday night and draft writing on Tuesday, to keep me on schedule.
Part of getting into the writing ‘zone’ involves figuring out your own process and establishing a rhythm. I like starting with an outline and some notes the day before I write the post because it helps take the pressure off of the day that I need to write the post in full. I’ve met people who prefer to do all of their writing in a single sitting. Try a few approaches to see what works best for you and then stick to a routine to help maintain your pace.
Step 4: Hone your writing skills
Even the best writers need good editors. Find a reliable friend, colleague, or family member who is willing to read and edit your posts. A good editor will not only read your post and find any grammatical mistakes, they will also take the time to think of more impactful ways to share your message. This is someone who helps you improve any awkward or unclear phrases and a person who provides feedback on a draft that you can immediately use and incorporate into the final version. Comments like “This is great!” or “I don’t like the conclusion” are not that helpful; comments such as “I like the short introduction” or “You can improve the conclusion by adding another citation” are things that can improve your writing. Ideally, you should also be confident in your editor so that you don’t have to spend time editing his/her edits.
Step 5: Get inspired!
Another challenge with maintaining a blog is finding inspiration for new posts. Inspiration will often come from unexpected places, like a dinnertime conversation with a friend or a flash of insight on your commute from work. Take notes of your ideas as they come…I’ve learned the hard way that it’s very easy to forget even the greatest ideas!
To get inspired, stay on top of what other material is out there by following active bloggers and writers as well as recent science news. There is a lot of material online, but remember that your perspective will always be unique, and there is more than one way to look at a story. You might have a unique perspective as an early career researcher or from working on a topic at a level that most people might not recognize (like an anthropologist studying climate change).
When thinking about stories that might be interesting for others, think about what you like to read about, either for your blog, your work, or just your personal interest: What topics do you care about? What inspires or interests you? What worries or concerns do you have related to science and technology? Chances are if it is something that fundamentally interests you, someone else would also love to read about it.
Not feeling inspired? It happens to all of us! We all run into the occasional roadblock when it comes to writing. Check out our previous post on how to free yourself from writer’s block. When you are in a creative mood, make a list of post ideas and potential blog topics and keep these handy for when you get to a day when inspiration fails to strike.
A science blogger’s life
Starting (and, equally important, maintaining) a science blog can be a rewarding activity if you are ready to commit to the work required to make it happen. Even if you don’t feel that you are a ‘good’ writer, blogging can help you improve your written communication skills by helping you find your writing rhythm and keeping you on track with a post schedule. It’s also an opportunity to receive feedback from colleagues and readers and to share your perspectives with a new audience online.
Once you’ve become an established blogger, you can also more broadly share your work using common hashtags, joining twitter conversations, and guest blogging. Whatever your professional interest or skill level may be, science blogging is a great place for aspiring science communicators who are enthusiastic to share the world of science with a new audience.
A new study from Canada shows that preservatives commonly used in cosmetics, lotions, and shampoos can be found in the urine and breast milk of pregnant women.
The article, published in the April 4th issue of Environmental Science and Technology, looked at the relationship between how often pregnant women used personal care products and the levels of preservatives, specifically parabens, present in their urine and breast milk. The women in the study noted the cosmetics they used on a daily basis and researchers calculated if parabens levels were related to the number of personal care products used.
Scientists from Health Canada, Brown University, Harvard University, and the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute analyzed urine samples from 80 women from 2009-2010. All samples were collected during the second and third trimesters and breast milk samples were collected from 2-3 months post-partum. Women were asked to indicate the number and type of personal care products they used each day in a diary. Products were separated into categories such as deodorants, make-up, shampoos, conditioners, body lotions, hand soaps, and lip products. Four different types of parabens were measured by chemical analysis: butylparaben, methylparaben, n-propylparaben, and ethyl paraben.
Parabens are used in cosmetics and other personal care products, including soaps and shampoos, as an anti-microbial preservative. Previous studies showed that parabens can be found in over 40% of rinse-off products (shampoos and conditioners, body wash, and face cleaners). Parabens are also found in leave-on cosmetics such as lotions and lipsticks, with methylparaben being the most abundant. Recent studies showed that some parabens can act as weak estrogen mimics. This finding, coupled with a 2004 study that found parabens in the breast tissues of women with breast cancer, raised concern about their ability to cause cancer. After scientific review, parabens are still considered safe for use in personal care products by the FDA, but certain types of parabens have been banned in the EU.
The study showed that methylparaben was the most prevalent paraben in both urine and breast milk samples. Methylparaben levels in breast milk were 30 times lower than levels in urine samples. On average, the highest levels of parabens were found in urine samples collected during the morning hours (from 8am until noon) with the lowest levels seen in the evening (from 6pm to midnight). The researchers believe that this is due to women using more cosmetics and personal care products in the morning hours.
Researchers also compared paraben levels in urine between women who used different amounts of personal care products. Women were classified as low users (0-5 products in a 24 hour period), medium users (6-9 products), or high users (10-14 products). When comparing different types of users, medium users had 21% higher levels of methylparaben in their urine when compared to low users, and high users had 161% more methylparaben than low users.
The researchers also found much higher parabens levels when comparing women who did not report using a specific product versus those who did report using a product. For example, women who reported using lotion had 99% more methylparaben in their urine than women who did not use lotion. However, some products, such as oral care products, led to variable paraben levels that did not clearly show an increase with increased usage. This could be due to study participants forgetting to log certain items or differences in how the women used each product.
Paraben levels measured in breast milk did not demonstrate a clear connection to personal care product use. Further analysis showed an increase in methylparaben levels in breast milk in women that reported using eye make-up. However, the magnitude of increase is small, strongly varies between study participants, and is found in only a small subset of the study group.
Paraben levels in urine samples are lower than what was reported in other studies from the US, Spain, and Puerto Rico. This may be due to differences in the types and amounts of personal care product used among different socioeconomic groups. Other studies also found that women are more likely to have higher urinary paraben levels than men, which the researchers believe is due to women using more personal care products.
Parabens are 10,000 times less potent than natural estrogen. Parabens are also far less estrogenic than natural phytoestrogens like daidzein, which is found in soy. Epidemiologists have yet to find any associated cancer risks linked to phytoestrogen consumption, so the chance that an estrogen as weak as parabens will cause harm is extremely unlikely.
Critics of the 2004 breast cancer study which reported that parabens were present in breast cancer tissue point out several flaws with the findings. Researchers did not measure paraben levels in non-cancerous tissues, making it impossible to assign any blame to parabens in causing breast cancer. Parabens also have a very short half-life, which means that these chemicals do not remain in the body for very long and are rapidly excreted.
Concerns about paraben safety led many cosmetics companies and consumers to seek out paraben-free alternatives. Regulators are still working to ensure that parabens are safe for consumer use but the data available now seem to point to parabens being of little concern.