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.
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.
Since the next semester is fast-approaching, the editors of Science with Style and the University of Landau’s EcotoxBlog are collaborating on a guide to help students find their own style of studying. Enjoy!
As Ned Stark (or maybe it was actually your professor) once wisely said: Autumn is coming. Do you find yourself still in relaxation mode after a leisurely summer, or can you already sense that calm before the storm? We’re already well into September, with the next semester looming ahead of us in UK, Germany, and many other parts of the world. Regardless of what mindset you’re in, you’ll soon find that the rigors of the upcoming busy semester of exams and assignments are soon to come.
Everyone has a different way of engaging in coursework: some of us take a lot of notes, others listen, and others, well, don’t really do the whole going-to-class thing. But at some point at the end of the course, we all have to take an exam, write a term paper, or in some other way show the professor that we learned something.
Your professors will spend a lot of time teaching new concepts, explaining complicated subjects, and trying to inspire some interest in a favorite topic of theirs. But one thing a professor can’t do is to teach you how to study in a way that you can retain and reuse knowledge while being examined. Therefore, we here at the Ecotox Blog and Science with Style have collated a few tips that will make the use of your valuable time more effective:
First: Check out this video from Vox, who provide the following tips on their YouTube channel:
Don’t just re-read your notes and class readings. Re-reading isn’t helpful for retaining information. Another downside to re-reading is that the process can make you feel like you’re learning when you are really not. Reading in itself is a passive activity, but when you’re taking an exam and need to recall information, you’ll be doing something much more active. You’ll need to practice active learning if you want to be able to remember a concept thoroughly while being tested on it.
Quiz yourself. Flash cards are an easy way to do this, and depending on your own style there are lots of ways to go about making and using flashcards. You can make card-stock notecards on your own, but if you prefer a more tech-savvy approach you can make your own cards to read from your computer or smartphone. Flash cards provide that active component of studying that your brain needs in order to be able to recall information and facts on demand—just like you’ll have to do during an exam. An important suggestion in the video is to put cards that you get wrong back in the deck, which forces you to review the concept again and again until you get it right.
Visualize concepts. Create a new analogy for a complex reaction or process. Creating this analogy forces your brain to actively process the information, as you need to really understand the concept before you can explain it in a new way. You can also come up with personal connections to help you remember how things connect, such as aligning concepts to characters or a plot from your favorite TV show, game, or movie.
Avoid cramming! Cramming usually doesn’t work well, and even if you pass the exam the information will only stay in your brain for a short while. Especially if the course covers concepts that you’ll use throughout your time in university, it’s worthwhile to invest that extra study time. With better study approaches, you’ll be able to better remember a concept for a longer duration of time, not just to regurgitate it during one afternoon.
Some more tips that helped us and our colleagues during our own student times
Explain an idea back in your own words. Test to make sure you’ve got a concept down by trying to explain or teach it to someone else. You can work with classmates by organizing “explaining sessions” with each other to see if your explanations are on par with how the system actually works. This practice will also help you prepare for exams where you’ll have essay portions, as it forces you to practice how to explain something before you’re given the task on paper.
If you’re not good at staying on-task or studying independently, find an accountability buddy. Some of us find it easy to stay on task with independent assignments like studying or writing, and others might feel the need for an external or firmer deadline. The problem with exams is that there’s no deadline until you get to the exam-which is not when you want to start studying. If you find yourself struggling with procrastination, find a study partner in your class and schedule regular sessions to study together and hold each other accountable for keeping up with your study materials.
Use a study group if you need one, but be sure to stay on target. If working with groups helps you study and keep on track, then forming a study group can be a good solution. But be sure that for each group meeting you have a plan of what you want to achieve and a deadline for how long you’ll work on something. Unstructured group work can quickly fall off track or get sidelined, but having a game plan before you start and a clear objective of what the group wants to achieve will make your get-togethers more productive.
Have dedicated breaks. It’s exhausting to think of having to study “all day” and can also lead to unproductive minutes and hours if you drag things out for too long. Have a set start and stop time for when you’ll focus on studying or writing a paper. It can also help to have a dedicated study space, whether it be a corner desk in your apartment or your favorite spot in the library. Then when you’re done or need a break, you can physically leave the space and let your mind relax. If you’re worried of taking too long of a break, set a timer and allow yourself to do whatever you’d like in that set amount of time before getting back to work.
Find your incentive. Speaking of breaks, we all know that learning or writing the whole day can be very frustrating and that doing something which makes you happy during a break can help you get through a hard day’s work. Just be sure to make your breaks more rewarding by ensuring that they stay limited in size and don’t become as long as a study session. Play one campaign of your favorite online game, watch one episode of your favorite TV show, or do a particular hobby you have for a preset period of time. We promise that this will cheer you up and that you will survive until the next break!
If you’re frustrated or feel like you’re not getting something, ask for help. Even if you study independently, you don’t have to go through the learning process alone. If something isn’t sticking or you’re not sure you’re understanding a concept correctly, talk to your professor or a class tutor and get yourself on track sooner rather than later. If you miss out on understanding the basics at the beginning of the semester, you’ll be much more likely to miss out on understanding the important concepts that will build off of the basics. Don’t feel like you’re a failure if you don’t figure things out the first or second time around—TAs and professors are there to help you (they are even paid to help you do this!).
So what now?
Truth be told, studying for an exam or writing an exam paper will never be anyone’s favorite activities. But if you invest your time wisely and give some of these tips a try, you can work on finding your own style of studying and become a much more effective student. Being more effective will mean more successes for the amount of time you invest, and this will allow you to achieve what any student aims for: getting good grades while still having enough time for the nice things in life :)
We hope guide had some helpful hints for you to study with style. Wishing you a successful start into the new semester!
- Erica & Jochen
PS: We are interested in what works best for you! Any other tips on mastering exams or term papers? Let us know by contacting us at Science with Style or the EcotoxBlog and we’ll spread the word. Any advice from those who already successfully completed their studies is also highly appreciated.
PPS: Want to read more about their Master’s program in Ecotoxicology and their research? Be sure to check out Landau’s EcotoxBlog.
I tend to get in trouble by our lab safety officer once every two weeks for not wearing a lab coat. I always wear one when working with some dangerous or caustic chemicals, but most of my time spent in a molecular biology lab isn’t hazardous to my health. The main reason that I don’t like to wear a lab coat when it’s not necessary is maybe an unusual one: I don’t want to look like a scientist. Even as a researcher who’s been working in a lab for the past 8 years, I don’t want to fit the stereotype of what a scientist looks like or acts like. But what is the stereotype of a scientist? How do they look and, most importantly, how do they act?
During this summer of lab work, writing, and tweeting, I’ve also been thinking about the ‘big gap’ in science, the gap between what the public thinks of what we do versus our actual research. PhD comics author Jorge Cham does a great job talking about this gap in his TEDxUCLA talk. Cham gives an example of good science communication in a collaborative project to develop a cartoon and video about the Higgs Boson. He makes note that this approach to sharing science took a lot of initiative from the scientists themselves, and it didn’t follow the traditional way of how science is shared with the broader community. Cham also comments on how shows like Big Bang theory portray researchers as eccentric and socially inept, which paints an inaccurate picture of scientists and can make the job seem unattractive to young students who don’t consider themselves geniuses or ‘nerds.’ While I do enjoy Sheldon’s banter on Big Bang Theory (because we all know someone like Sheldon in our group of colleagues or friends), I wonder if there’s a better way to talk about who scientists are and what they do.
These wonderings led me to buy the children’s book, Rebel scientists, last week from Amazon. Rebels play a prominent role in modern-day storytelling: whether it’s Star Wars, Hunger Games, Braveheart, the Matrix, or the French and American revolutions, we all love to cheer for the rebels and the underdogs, be they real or fictional. But can scientists really be a part of this adjective?
Dan Green’s book was one of the winners of the Royal Society’s Young People’s Book Prize for this year. The illustrations, done by David Lyttleton, are a real treat for the eyes and help to focus the storytelling on the scientists themselves and how their work fits into the picture of our understanding of the universe.
The book starts off with the timely question of “What is this thing called science?” and Dan describes it in four parts: curiosity, disagreement, discovery, and a long journey. Scientists are the ones who are curious about how the world around them works. They go against the consensus and the status quo when need be. They know that the world has a lot of mysteries that lie ahead and are driven by asking the why and how of everything and anything. Each science subject is presented as a separate chapter called “The story of ____”, with topics including the solar system, the atom, light, the elements, and genetics. Within each story, Dan starts with the early earliest thinkers and their ideas about how the world works, following through to what we know and are working on in science today. The book depicts the scientific exploration using a diagram of a road which connects discoveries together, while also provides road signs that the reader can follow to link to relevant material in other fields. The road even has the occasional dead end at an explanation of an idea that didn’t quite pan out. While the book is meant for a slightly older reader, probably for students ages 10-14, I’m amazed with the breadth of topics that are covered-and even complex subjects like quantum physics that I even had to re-read a couple of times to get the gist of the story. Below you can find a couple photos from inside the pages so you can get a sense of how the story of science and scientists are told by Dan:
I like how the book describes the Galileo’s and Einstein’s of our world: instead of calling them all geniuses or describing them as hyper-intelligent, the famous thinkers of our world are described with a wider breadth of words. ‘Rock star’, ‘radical’, rabble-rousers’, ‘sharp suited’, and ‘mavericks’ are just a few of the adjectives used. There are stories of disagreements between the biggest minds in science and how they came to a consensus about how the world works. There are stories of researchers going against the grain to pursue their ideas and delve into the mysteries that the rest of the world wasn’t able to see. At the end of the book, you can feel like the moniker of a ‘rebel scientist’ isn’t that far from the truth.
Reading this book also got me thinking about the other things that scientists do and that they are that might not come up at first though, since the thought of a 'rebel scientist' also wasn't the first to spring to mind. So what, exactly, do scientists do?
We get things wrong, and that’s OK. There was more than one road in the Rebel Scientists book that lead to a dead end. But it wasn’t mentioned as a bad thing or that the person who thought the idea was stupid, it’s just a part of the process of science. Modern day science is rife with failures, experiments that go wrong, and ideas that lead to dead ends. It doesn’t mean we’re doing our job wrong, but it may not come to mind to non-scientists that as scientists we might not actually know everything. As Jorge Cham said in his talk, 95% of what makes up the universe is unknown…our world is complex and we have a lot more work to do!
We are diverse, but we can do better going forward. A majority of scientists that feature prominently in history are men from Europe and North America. Some women do make an appearance, as well as a few Arabian scientists, but historically the science community hasn’t been diverse. The modern landscape is more inclusive, but we can still do better. What steps can we take in the future to ensure that everyone has the chance to contribute to the scientific community?
Our job is to challenge the status quo. While scientists might be interpreted as know-it-alls or geniuses who can memorize textbooks and equations, a scientist cannot succeed simply by rout memorization of existing knowledge. Scientists have to be rebels that go against the grain, because that’s how we learn, uncover, and discover. To succeed in science, you have to do the unexpected, and being an elite know-it-all will only hold you back from uncovering the secrets that the universe has hidden from plain view. As Einstein said (and you can read more about him on Page 72 of Rebel Scientists), “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”
We do our best when we work as a team and not against each other. There are a lot of dramatic rivals highlighted in Rebel Scientists, and those of us that work in a lab will know of a few other ‘rivals’ of our advisors, collaborators, and colleagues. But what I like about this book is how it highlights the ideas that were put forth not by competing groups but by scientists working together to put the pieces of a puzzle into a single, clear picture. It’s tempting to want to blaze our own trail to fame and glory, so this book is a nice reminder that if the goal is the search for truth and understanding about the universe, working alongside others is better than working in opposition.
Our world is an exciting, terrifying, and unimaginably big place. Figuring out how and why it works the way it does takes brave, enthusiastic, and rebellious minds. If people can rally behind the rebels of the science world as they do for Luke Skywalker or Katniss Everdeen, then Rebel Science will have succeeded in its mission. I hope to see more authors like Dan Green who are working to change the story of science and scientists into something more accurate and more engaging. May the force be with us and the odds ever in our favor!
This weekend I traveled to the Scottish Highlands and hiked Ben Nevis on an unusually sunny Saturday. On a typical weekend I try to think about the upcoming week’s blog post, but this time I had other things on my mind, namely What am I going to pack for the upcoming SETAC meeting? This seems an odd question to spring to mind while hiking the tallest peak in the UK, but it was partially relevant and inspired by the attire of the hikers that I crossed along the trail. While there are some ‘rules’ to hiking clothes, such as sturdy boots, some sun protection, and layers that you can take on and off in case the weather takes a turn, you always end up seeing quite an assortment of outfits on a hike, ranging from the fully equipped hiker with high-end equipment in all matching brands and colors to the person who just looks like they rolled out of bed and hit the trail.
For those of us that work in a wet lab setting or who spend our whole day in an office with other graduate students or researchers, there really aren’t any day-to-day outfit ‘rules’ (except for closed-toe shoes when necessary). As graduate students and early career researchers, we can easily get away with wearing just about whatever we want and as long as it’s comfortable and appropriate for your work environment, there’s little else that needs to be done. That being said, there are times of the year when all of a sudden new rules come into play, and several situations will arise when your most tattered jeans and your most favorite t-shirt just won’t get the job done. One of these important times is presenting at or attending a scientific conference.
Regardless of whether you’re heading to the meeting just to learn some new science and do some networking or whether you’re giving your own platform or poster presentation, scientific conferences are an important fixture in any young scientists’ career. It’s a time for your work to be seen by a bigger audience, to make connections that will last throughout your career, and to leave a good impression on potential future employers and collaborators. Like it or not, your attire will be part of that impression. So given the importance of conferences, what’s the best way to dress for success?
What’s your style?
I’m not going to write this post as a go-to style guide on How to dress yourself for a conference, but instead I’ll focus on the more important question of What’s your style?, since finding the answer to this will set you up for knowing what to pack in that suitcase of yours. Finding your style will take some time, and likely you’ve already gone through some style phases of your own. In high school and college, I didn’t really have a great sense of style, and found myself trying to figure out how I wanted to look by trying to emulate what I saw on other people or what looked nice on a store mannequin. At some point in grad school, and really not even until my post-doc, did I figure what type of clothes I liked and what looked good on me. Since then I haven’t deviated too far away from my go-to outfits, which are generally skinny jeans, fitted graphic t-shirts, and a blazer/sweater combo (since, after all, life in Northern England is generally not adept to being out in just a t-shirt). Finding my own style came down to asking myself what I wanted to convey through my clothes, and the answer was that I wanted a balance of fitted yet casual and simple yet able to be scaled up with a change of shoes or jacket.
I won’t be able to tell you what exactly you should wear at a conference, but will instead I encourage you to think about what message you want to convey through your style in general. If it makes you happy and makes you feel good about yourself, then go for it! Once you figure this out, you can focus on tailoring your conference wear as simply a slightly upgraded version of your regular style.
To be both comfortable and presentable throughout the conference day, think of an outfit that would be appropriate for a long day at work followed by a social event (such as getting a drink or eating out with your friends). Once you have this in mind, take the outfit up a notch in terms of professionalism. Focus on clean and simple outfits that will let you and your work shine. And while I’m all about finding your style and embracing your own sense of you through this blog, I would encourage you to not have your conference style to not be a hoodie and pair of sweatpants. While it’s important to be yourself and to be comfortable, you also want to make a good impression by showing the best side of you possible, so here’s a few tips to help you get there:
These boots were made for walking, and that’s just what they’ll do.
If you’ve never been to a conference, here’s the first thing you should know: conferences take a lot out on your feet. You might first think that you’ll just be sitting in presentations all day, but there’s actually quite a bit of time you’ll not be sitting down. Between walking to the conference center from your hotel and back, going between different session rooms (and if it’s a big conference, the rooms can be quite far apart), walking outside to get lunch with colleagues, and finishing off the day with poster socials and other networking events, which will likely keep you on your toes as you mingle and meet new people. As a bit of perspective, your feet will take as much of a beating at a conference as they would a whole day standing around working in a wet lab.
Since your feet are important for walking, standing, and other necessary conference activities, be sure to set yourself up for success by making them (your feet) comfortable. Again the key here is to focus on getting a slight upgrade of what your go-to shoes already are, and then you’re on your way to being conference savvy while lasting the whole day without blisters or sore feet. If your go-to style is a tennis shoe or casual trainer, then a pair of leather-sided trainers can easily be a nice conference shoe option. If you love boots and heels and wear them on a regular basis, then by all means go with them for the meeting—but only if they are a pair of shoes you’d wear if you were standing all day in a non-conference setting. If they’re not, leave them at home. Girls’ shoes are notoriously devious, as we’ve recently been tricked into thinking that ballet flats are a comfortable alternative to dressing in heels for a more professional look. If you have a pair of often-worn, broken-in flats that you wear around work all the time, then by all means bring them to the meeting. If you just bought a brand-new pair that only go with your presentation outfit, you’re better off leaving at home unless you want to spend your presentation day looking for band-aids to cover up your numerous blisters. The worst thing you can do at a conference is put your feet in so much pain that you can’t be yourself or made to feel like you should go home and change instead of taking advantage of all the networking opportunities.
Pants, skirts, or something in between?
Unless your conference is quite literally on a tropical beach, our official Science with Style recommendation is to avoid shorts at a conference. Even if they are ‘nice shorts’ or the weather is rather hot, shorts are still nearly impossible to help you convey a professional look. Otherwise, stick to the mantra of aiming for a slightly style upgraded version of yourself. If you’re a denim jeans kind of person, then don’t feel the need to stray too far from your go-to bottoms by buying a pair of dress pants that you’ll never wear again. If you go for denim jeans, make sure to avoid trendy washes or that damaged/cut-out look and instead go with a straightforward and simple cut and color, and darker colors can even give the illusion of dress pants if you want to look a bit more formal.
Girls again have a few more options for warmer weather such as skirts and dresses. If you enjoy wearing skirts and dresses and generally go for something more loose or casual fit at work, then at the conference aim for a slightly more fitted cut. Don’t feel like you need to put on a dress or skirt for a conference if you normally don’t wear them, and don’t choose an outfit solely on the fact that it’s dressy. Go for a conference outfit that you like and one that helps you feel like yourself. If you go over the top on dressing up, you’ll be more likely to stand out due to not being comfortable rather than for having great research results.
Topping things off
Bring shirts to a conference that are clean and simple, and as with denim try to avoid anything overly trendy in terms of washes or wording, and don’t go for any tops that weirdly cut or showing skin that doesn’t need to be shown in a professional setting. For me, the thing I like about wearing t-shirts is that they are easy to finish off with an H&M blazer or sweater, which helps tone down the casual feel of the outfit. While I have a large range of graphic design shirts, for conferences I stick to simpler ones that are focused more on good design without much text—messages should be kept to your presentations instead!
If you’re looking for a dressier alternative, button-up shirts are an easy way to have more of a formal look for a presentation or meeting a future employer. Spend the time to find a dress shirt that works for you instead of grabbing the first one off the shelf, and look for one that has a good cut for your body type as well as being made of a breathable material. The last think you want to do is to get all dressed up for a talk in some fabric that’s not cut right or starts making you sweat when you’re standing at the front of a full room giving your talk.
Another fact about conferences for those that haven’t attended one yet: regardless of what country, outdoor temperature, or time of the year that the meeting is in, most if not all conference centers are seemingly designed to only be a few degrees warmer than your walk-in fridge in the lab. You’ll need to keep warm even if it’s hot outside, so layers such as blazers or cardigans are an easy way to dress up an outfit while also keeping you from freezing during the platform sessions. All you need are a couple of top layers that look good with both more casual or more formal conference outfits and you’ll easily be set for a week-long conference.
Accessories for success(-ories)
- Bag it up. You’ll most likely get a free conference back when you pick up your registration materials. At first glance it seems perfect: just what you need for carrying around your laptop, abstract book, and free pens from the exhibition booths all week long! The only problem with this is that this same bag will also be given to the 500+ other conference attendees, which can make it easy for your stuff to get switched around for someone else’s. Save some room in your suitcase to bring one of your favorite backpacks or shoulder bags instead. That way you can carry your conference necessities (and swag) around all week in a bag that you know is comfortable, and you can also find your stuff more easily in a pile of other delegate bags when you’re leaving a busy session room.
- Keep up with the times. Your conference week will be driven by scheduled talks, meetings, and social events. Keeping good time is essential, and is also an easy opportunity to upgrade your style for a conference. I’ve yet to find a nice watch that I like and still rely on my phone for the time, but if you are looking for the opportunity to wear your graduation gift from your grandparents, there’s no better time.
- Kiss and make-up? As with the rest of your outfit, aim for just a slight upgrade of your current style. Don’t feel like you need to be fancy, and for girls you also don’t feel like you need to wear make-up if you usually don’t.
I hope this post offers some useful insights into packing your backs for your next (or even first!) big scientific conference. Just as with hiking, there’s no right or wrong way to do your style, but there are a few suggestions that will keep your feet from getting stubbed on rocks, or rather blistered in the case of long conference days. As for me, I should start packing my own conference bag here soon, now that my favorite blazer is clean and I have my A-team t-shirts assembled and ready for the final selection. If only perfecting my platform presentation was as easy as packing for the meeting!
Our first entry in the ‘Heroes of Science’ series was about Galileo, whose life and work I had been interested in for a while. The next post in the series will focus on someone whose fame is well-known, but whose life and work I didn’t know much about until this week. Even at the completion of International Women’s day last week, there is still a lot of discussion within science and engineering about getting women more involved and how to keep them in research positions. In the midst of hearing about the challenges women face in today’s research environment, I thought back on what the challenges might have looked like over a hundred years ago, when the number of women scientists was far fewer than now, and pondered what it meant to be one of the best scientists (not just one of the best women scientists but one of the best scientists, period) to emerge from that time.
*Disclaimer: As with our previous Heroes of Science post, this post is by no means an exhaustive biography, but is meant only as an overview of Marie Curie's life as a scientist and why she can be considered a Hero of Science. The information presented here comes from our favorite source of fun facts, and there are lots of other resources if you are interested in reading more about Marie Curie.
Even if you don’t know her history, you’ve seen Marie Curie’s name everywhere. Her name (as well as her husband’s) can be found on metro stations, airplanes, research institutions, fellowships, hospitals, and the list goes on and on. But before she was Marie Curie, she was Maria Salomea Skłodowska, born in Warsaw in 1867. Maria was part of a family of teachers who had an enthusiasm for science, but unfortunately who had also lost property and status in Russian-occupied Poland while she was growing up. Her father taught math and physics, and when his school had to stop doing lab experiments by order of the Russian government, he brought his chemistry lab equipment home instead.
Maria attended boarding school but found herself unable to enroll at a university in Poland because of to her status as a woman. She became involved with Poland’s ‘Flying University’, an underground nationalistic Polish university, but her older sister inspired her to earn enough money working as a governess in order to move to Paris and study there. It took a year and a half of work for Maria to make enough money to join her sister in Paris, meanwhile taking the initiative to educate herself with books and self-tutoring in her spare time.
Maria moved to Paris (and thus became Marie) while she was in her mid-20s and enrolled at the University of Paris to study physics, chemistry, and math. She spent her nights tutoring so she could earn money while studying and in 1893 got her degree in physics and soon started work at an industrial lab. She then earned her second degree and soon afterwards met Pierre Curie, who was an instructor in the school of physics and chemistry. Marie was looking for a bigger lab to work and was introduced by a colleague to Pierre. Pierre himself didn’t have a lab of his own, but he did help find a place for Marie. Their mutual love of chemistry and curiosity about the natural world led to a deeper friendship, and Pierre proposed to Marie. She turned him down, as at that time still intent on moving back to Poland. After going back to Poland to visit family, she soon realized that her dream wasn’t achievable: she was denied a place at Jagiellonian University in Krakow because of her status as a woman. Pierre sent her a letter asking her to come back to Paris to work on her Ph.D. and to marry him, and this time she obliged.
For her PhD thesis, Marie decided to study uranium rays, thanks to inspiration from recent discoveries about x-rays and uranium. Using an electrometer similar to the one from her father’s old lab equipment, she was able to determine that the amount of radiation from the uranium was proportional to the quantity of the material, so she hypothesized that the rays weren’t from chemical interactions but solely from the atoms themselves. This was a groundbreaking way of thinking about atoms and was just the start of the groundbreaking discoveries that would lead her to two Nobel prizes. During her dissertation work, she had her first daughter and worked as an instructor at the École Normale Supérieure (ENS). The school didn’t have a lab, so she did her work in a converted shed next to the chemistry department. Her school also didn’t sponsor her research, so she worked to get subsidies from mining companies and governments who were interested in her work. She soon became entrenched in a systematic search for substances that could emit radiation, and also inspired Pierre to join in her endeavors.
Pierre and Marie worked together and wrote numerous papers as they worked to discover the element that was responsible for higher activities than others. Through their work they discovered the element Radium and also coined the phrase ‘radioactivity’. They published 32 scientific papers in the time span of 4 years, including a ground-breaking medical paper demonstrating that exposure to radium destroyed tumor cells faster than healthier ones. In 1900, she became the first woman faculty member at ENS and later received her doctorate in 1903. She was invited to the Royal Institute in London to present her dissertation work, but due to her status as a woman Pierre had to speak on her behalf.
Thankfully, Marie wasn’t denied a Nobel prize due to being a woman, although it did almost happen that way. In 1903 she shared the prize with her husband and Henri Becquerel for their work on radiation. The award was almost only given to Pierre and Henri, but one member of the Nobel committee was an advocate for women scientists and made sure that she was on the list, too. Pierre and Marie used their prize money to fund their lab and to continue their great work. Unfortunately, in 1906 Marie had to continue their incredible work on her own after Pierre died in an accident. Marie was left devastated but still determined to keep working. Before his death, Pierre was ready to accept a new position as Chair of Physics at the University of Paris, a position which the university instead offered to Marie. She took up the role and was determined to use her work and her lab as a tribute to her husband.
While her work continued to flourish with the establishment of the Radium Institute, the successful isolation of radium in 1910, and working to define international standards for radioactive emissions, she still faced adversity. Marie was never admitted to the French Academy of Sciences, in part due to her status as a woman but also from strong xenophobic tensions, which also led to France occasionally shedding a poor light on her great work when receiving national awards. Despite both professional and personal adversity, her work was always on point, and she received a second Nobel prize, this time in Chemistry, in 1911—and to this day she is one of only two people to win Nobel prizes in two different fields.
At the start of World War I, she worked on developing equipment to help battlefield surgeons, and was the first director of the Red Cross radiology department. Wanting to give everything she had to the allies’ cause, she even offered up her Nobel prizes to support the war effort. While her direct efforts to support soldiers and doctors on the front lines was at the time left relatively unrecognized by the French government, she continued to be a leader both in wartimes and as the leader of an institute which churned out four more Nobel prize winners, including her own daughter.
While there are numerous legacies that Marie Curie left behind from her work, what stands out to me is her perseverance as a scientist. She was described as honest and modest, which seems to hold true when you see how she always invested prize money into her and Pierre’s work and worked to build others up in their institute instead of keeping it all for herself. She refrained from patenting her radium-labelling isotopes so that other scientists could more easily do the research they needed to. She also worked in a world that continually told her no, simply because she was a woman. The fact that she continued her research, which was both ground-breaking and Nobel prize-winning work, is proof of her dedication to her role in science and not to society’s expected role for her in the world.
Marie Curie wasn’t just amazing because she was the first woman to do so many things in science, but because she provides an example for all of us, man and woman alike, of how we can let our passions and our curiosities drive us instead of letting ourselves be limited by the expectations of the world around us. She goes to show all of us that where you end up isn’t determined by what gender or economical status you’re born into, it’s instead driven by your ambitions and your goals, and the dreams of what you want to achieve, learn, or accomplish. Marie and Pierre also illustrate a great relationship in science—having someone that is your teammate and collaborator, and a person that inspires you to do your best and that helps you accomplish amazing things. Whether it’s your life partner or your science best friend, being in an inspiring and supporting relationship can make all the difference in helping you succeed.
I have never been a very outspoken feminist, especially in the context of women in science, but I was really inspired by Marie’s story and the energy she put into working towards a goal, regardless of the obstacles in her way. Despite the challenges that women and other under-represented groups face in the sciences today, the world looks quite different than it did 100 years ago thanks to the pioneering efforts of early women in science. My PhD advisor told me about her days as a Masters student, when she would have lunch with the only other female in the graduate department. I see both her and Marie Curie not as pioneers for women in science but really as pioneers, period: people that go into a place that’s new and unfamiliar and that let themselves and their work shine, regardless of gender, nationality, or any other status. Maybe that’s why science is such a great place for everyone that works there, because it’s the merit of the work that’s the focus, not the person who does it.
If you have another scientist in mind that you’d like to see featured in our Heroes of Science series, email your suggestion to science.with.style.blog[at]gmail.com and we’d be happy to feature it in an upcoming post. Until then, we hope you have an enjoyable Easter holiday—whether you get time off from the lab or just enjoy some spare time while eating your weight in chocolate eggs!
Monday morning alarms aren’t known for being my favorite part of the day. Coupled with the unexpected and sad news of the death of David Bowie after an 18 month-long battle with cancer, it was enough to put more than a bit of a damper to the start of my week. In addition to the numerous homages, obituaries, and tweets about our thoughts on this enterprising musician appearing on the internet this week, I wanted to honor this inspiring man, and fulfill one of our Science with Style new year’s resolutions by talking about the ‘style’ side of Science with Style.
In the inaugural post describing the concept of Science with Style, I mentioned David Bowie as one of my inspirations as a person with style. In many ways science is the easier part of the concept to define in clear terms, mainly because the term ‘style’ gets more easily confused with other things. Is it being fashionable? Is it following trends? Is it being different? Is it a specific or unique approach for doing something?
A google image search of ‘David Bowie style’ will lead you to a wide selection of eclectic hairstyles, fabric choices, and colors, in a way that seems impossible for it all to have been adorned by a single man in his lifetime. But it’s all him, and in all the pictures ranging from young to old and in costumes or street clothes, he seems to carry the same confidence and self-assurance throughout his long and equally colorful career. Whether you picture Bowie as Ziggy Stardust, Major Tom, the thin white duke, or any of his many alter egos, he started off as David Jones, an up-and-coming musician who just wanted people to stop disrespecting guys with long hair. Instead letting the things people said about his own style or ideas get to him, Bowie brushed them aside and personified who he was and who he eventually wanted to be.
While you could look at Bowie’s life and say that his characters were never truly ‘himself,’ you can also look at his colorful, chameleon-like shifts in persona and style as an analog of the metamorphosis we all experience throughout life. None of us are the same as we were in elementary school, or high school, or college, or anything in between where you are now and where you were last year. But the similarity between all of these stages in life is that we were ourselves, just at different points of understanding who exactly that person was. Part of the process of growing up is not in getting each step 100% right but in recognizing as you go what worked, what you liked, what made you feel good about who you are, and where you want to go next.
It may sound like an easy thing, but it’s amazing how hard just being yourself is to implement. In my own growing pains, I spent more time than I should have worrying about what other people thought of me. After finishing elementary school, leaving behind friends and entering into a new environment of class periods, gym class volleyball, and puberty, I had a sudden and frightening realization that I was weird. Instead of embracing who I was, I held back. I was shy in class, I didn’t seek out other equally weird friends, and I felt all the time that who I was as a person was lacking because I didn’t meet some nebulous expectation of what a 12-year old girl was supposed to be. While to a certain extent I grew out of the feeling, I still felt this tug during high school and college. But even with that tug of self-improvement and feelings that I wasn’t good enough, I started to grow out of my the self-doubts and continued to work on defining myself in better detail.
Graduate school brought a lot of new challenges: working in teams, learning how to fail (but also to keep on trying), and making PowerPoint presentations with less than 10 words on a slide. I’m thankful in my time as a PhD student that I also discovered that my weird wasn’t weird, it was just me. At the same time that I was starting to learn how to better be myself, I got “Life on Mars?” stuck in my head when my husband started singing along to a cover version of it. I then listened to the original, followed by a summer of having the "Best of Bowie" CD on permanent residency in my car’s CD player. Between blasting 'Rebel Rebel' while driving around campus with the windows down or singing along to 'Queen Bitch' during long pipetting sessions, I was soon completely enthralled with Bowie.
But it’s not just the songs I danced to, drove with, or sung out loud to that made Bowie enthralling. Amidst the stresses and uncertainties of research and grad school, I found solace and relaxation while listening to the “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” album, usually on repeat for hours on end. Never before had one album had a mix of songs with such power and emotion: from the relentless guitar intro of ‘Hang on to yourself’ to the slow build of ‘Five Years’ (which I still haven’t listened to all the way through this week without getting choked up). While it’s considered one of the best rock albums of all time, I didn’t know that fact before I fell in love with it, I just loved the way I didn’t feel alone after listening to it. “Oh no love! You're not alone; No matter what or who you've been; No matter when or where you've seen.” [David Bowie, 'Rock and Roll Suicide']
And in life’s moments that weren’t so serious or in need of a helping hand, I found Bowie was still there to remind me that sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself is to do what you want and not care what anyone else thinks. I got married in September 2012, and while I was not an overly worrisome bride, I still wanted everyone to enjoy the day. I avoided diving too deeply into my eclectic musical favorites for the reception playlist and instead focused on choosing a few songs that I knew certain family members or friends really wanted and let the DJ do the rest of the work. But apart from the slow dances with my husband and father, the song that stands out for me the most was when I heard 'Modern Love' start up on the speakers. I shot a smile at fellow Bowie fan and newly minted husband, and despite neither of us knowing much of anything about dancing, we gave it our all. We probably looked like some damn dancing fools, but I didn’t care. It was one of the best parts of my wedding. It was our song, and we danced our hearts out to it.
I find that even now, with a PhD and a year and a half of postdoc experience in hand and more serious thoughts of what career I’m setting out for, I still have moments that I need reminded of that 'Modern Love' dance, reminders that I’m weird AND I’m me, and that I’m not one without the other. Life as a scientist and as a researcher has a way of making you feel like that who you are as a person is somehow lacking. There’s always a paper that needs to be written, data that needs analyzed, cells that need split. Or an email reply, meeting, conference talk, or collaboration on the ever-growing to do list. Some days we don’t get work right the first time around, and some days we simply can’t do everything that needs doing. Some days we don’t feel like we fit in, especially when we compare ourselves to what we perceive people spend their time doing with a ‘normal’ 9-5 job, while we’re spending Saturday afternoons in the lab contemplating raw data, unlabeled test tubes, and half-written manuscripts.
It’s in those moments of self-doubt and uncertainty that we all need to learn how to better embrace our own sense of personal style. Whether you waltz, samba, tango, or just nod your head to the beat, dance along to the music as life gives it you while you figure out how to fold in your own rhythms to it. Style is not about trends, or fashion, or doing things right or wrong: it’s about doing things in your way, in a way that makes you shine. You won’t get it right the first time, and you won’t meet everyone’s expectations, but as long as you strive for finding yourself, whoever that is, you’ll succeed in the end.
While we can’t tell you how to find your own sense of style, since it is yours after all, hopefully with this post and a few short tips you can set yourself on your way to becoming your own Ziggy Stardust of sorts:
Throughout his life and musical career, David Bowie shared his music and showed us the meaning of style. If science is a way of thinking, then style is a way of living: we are thankful for his legacy of style through music, fashion, and in just who he was as a person. Bowie will certainly continue to be an inspiration here at Science with Style and a go-to musician for times that need comfort, support, strength, and, of course, those moments when you need to just dance.
How to handle criticisms in science: Achieving a balance between confidence and modesty in the work place
Whether it was the new Star Wars movie, sparkly outfits worn by people going out on New Year’s Eve, or your aunt’s Christmas pudding, we all likely spent part of our holiday break making assessments, judgments, and the occasional criticism (especially towards puddings). We can all be very critical at times, judging the outfits worn by celebrities or passing judgement on whether a movie or song or day was good or not. But while some may pity those who live their lives in the critical limelight, scientists also find themselves the brunt end of criticisms, whether these criticisms come from peers, mentors, or colleagues.
Science progresses through a combination of new hypotheses and the constant scrutiny which is necessary to establish and validate them. Unsurprisingly, the scientific field is rife with people ready to tear down what you do and judge each individual piece of your work to make sure that what you’ve done or shown is really worth it’s weight. Those of you in graduate school or early career researchers have likely had your fair share of it already, but here are a few more examples to set the tone for the rest of the post:
The first step in handling criticism is choosing how to respond to it: Learn how to receive critique and grow from it, take the good out of comments, and forget the overly personal parts. At the end of the post there are a few short suggestions of how to do this. Before that, however, we’ll look at the extreme ends of how people can fail to deal with criticism in a positive way:
The softening response: Becoming overly sensitive and losing self-confidence
If you are naturally not a self-confident person, you may find that criticism can hit you very hard and very fast. While you can likely recover on your own with time, the pace of a career in science, especially as graduate students, does not leave you much time in the way of building yourself back up again before the next round hits or before you need to get up and going again. Without time to recover from prior wounds, your outlook can quickly become overly pessimistic. You lose the ability to benefit from criticism and assume you’re simply not cut out for research. This attitude is often self-perpetuating, which can lead to reduced motivation and increased sensitivity to additional comments.
The hardening response: Becoming overly confident and losing self-criticism
On the other side of the spectrum are those who have very high opinions of themselves. They deflect all types of criticism by having an inflated self-image, but by doing this they can lose critical insights by being too quick with their defenses and assuming the critic was wrong. While in no danger of losing self-confidence, they can easily become attached to their own ideas and may deflect valid critiques or alternatives, just because they don’t want to admit they might not be 100% right. Too much pride can lead to a stubbornness which can hinder scientific progress, and can even bring a person to a dead-end halt in the middle of their career if they do end up eventually being wrong.
The nonexistent response: Becoming apathetic
A third option is to become entirely apathetic to the stream of criticism. Instead of defending their own ideas, trying to improve their work, or trying new ideas they do none of it, an apathetic researcher carries on stuck to their plan of research and avoids deviating from it. While not at the extreme of either case, apathy generally leads to mediocre research based on questionable ideas that were never defended nor improved upon, with any chance for greater success or implementation lost in the stagnation of effort.
The balanced response: Stay true to yourself while learning what to fix
As with our rubber vs steel post, there is a balance in work and in life where we must be strong and unwavering yet flexible and adaptable. It’s working towards this same type of balance that helps you deal with and grow from criticism during your career. There are times when you need helpful criticisms to improve your work while not letting the overly negative/personal criticisms get under your skin. Tell yourself that, despite the occasional misstep, you are on the right track and are learning more every day.
For the moments of being too soft: don't take criticism directly to heart, but listen instead to what the message at the heart of the issue is. Instead of taking it personally that your committee member made an off-handed negative comment about figure legends, think less about the tone and more about the message, and work towards making clearer figures for your next committee meeting. And for the times or the people that are too hard: It’s possible that those grant reviewers were all jerks, but it’s also possible they had something valid to say. Even if it was an idea you really cared about, a fresh set of eyes provides a perspective that you wouldn’t have had if you had only looked at things your way-even if the critique itself was a bit of a blow at first.
Part of achieving a balanced response is by knowing what side of the spectrum you tend to stay on and doing exercises to keep yourself balanced Even if you already have some new year’s resolutions on your ever-growing to do list, you can start off the year by working on the following as you muse over your own personal reactions to criticism in the workplace:
Science communication blogs and social media accounts are easy to find these days, now that scientists are realizing the importance of making their research available to more people than just their academic peers. We can blog and tweet as much as we want, but as with biology there’s only so much you can prove with lab work: at some point, you have to put on your waders and head out into the field. This week I realized that my interest in science education and communication wasn't enough; I had to go out there into the real world and see how things work. So last Saturday I left the safety and comfort of my blog posts to help with some science outreach firsthand.
The University of Liverpool recently launched a series of ‘Meet the Scientists’ events at the World Museum in Liverpool, which are aimed at engaging children and their parents with researchers at the University while learning about the science that they do. The latest one was held last weekend (November 21st) and I volunteered to help out. I hadn’t been to the World Museum Liverpool before and arrived a bit early to see the set-up for the event. Before my shift at the feedback booth, I had time to talk to the scientists running the displays. I was impressed by the time and care that everyone put into coming up with an engaging way to both interest and teach people of all ages. The focus was on conveying a message about science in a way that everyone could understand. There were impressive visual analogies, such as the pool noodle/balloon combinations to help show what cells look like and what gives them structure (the structure coming from the pool noodles, of course). The simple activity of coloring in cartoon mosquitoes was tied to a lesson on how malaria is transmitted. When I asked 6-year old child what he learned at the malaria booth, he replied that malaria comes from the germs carried by the mosquitoes, not the bite itself (crucial information on this widespread tropical disease, and probably something that many adult wouldn't know!).
One of my favorite displays was on cancer treatments, which on first glance would be a rather difficult topic to explain to kids. The way it was presented was really fantastic—cancer hits specific parts of the body (indicated by colored cups) but scientists can figure out and use specific, targeted ways to treat it (e.g. putting colored balls into its corresponding cup). It was creative, accurate, and positive, with the goal of talking about a nebulous, potentially scary topic in a way that kids could understand and see how cancer treatments can be helpful.
After doing a tour of the set-up, my task for the day was to collect feedback from the kids and talk to them about what they liked, where they were from, and to hand out a souvenir ‘Meet the Scientists’ petri dish for everyone. For a sunny and cold Saturday the museum was a busy place, and our stands seemed to be full for most of the day. All the kids were engaged with the University scientists at each display and we received positive marks from nearly everyone, apart from one three-year old who was adamant that he did not enjoy the day (I guess you really can’t please everyone). In addition to the petri dishes, kids took home quizzes, fun facts, and a piqued interest in science and medicine. I also enjoyed talking to parents and seeing what they thought, with most of them having a similarly good impression of the event as much as their kids did. I also enjoyed asking kids what they wanted to be when they grew up. Not everyone wants to be a scientist, but I love seeing kids interested in learning new things even if it’s not their most favorite thing. One 6-year old named Isaac gave us some great feedback and wants to come again. When I asked his dream job, he replied that he’d like to be a ship captain. His reply highlights the fact that science isn’t just for scientists: science accepts anyone who is willing and excited to learn. Just because a kid doesn’t dream of a job in biology, chemistry, or medicine doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be encouraged to approach science, or any subject, with curiosity and desire to learn.
In between talking to kids I also talked to my fellow scientists, including some older museum visitors who also had careers in science. As we mused about how lab machines always break at 6pm just before they finish analyzing some crucial samples, or how we sometimes spend 7 hours a day in the lab pipetting, we realized that the running joke was that the science we do now was nothing like the science we were shown as kids ourselves. Our childhood memories included fancy museum displays, television programs on wildlife ecology, astronomy, and chemistry, and repeatedly hearing the message that with science you really could do anything. Then upon starting postgraduate study we abruptly learn the reality of what life as a career scientist is like: long days in the lab, field sampling trips where it rains and you only get half the samples you set out for, tedious chores and meetings and writing papers and all the countless little things it takes to make the breakthroughs that lead to those museum displays and the television programs. How is it that the reality of science seems so different than what we were shown originally? More importantly, can we ever see science like a kid again?
I set out to answer this question by going back to the museum on Sunday after the event, this time to explore the museum firsthand, inspired by the kids I had seen the day before while trying to look at it from a kid’s perspective. I had been to a few other museums in Liverpool, but not yet the World Museum Liverpool, and to be honest I haven’t been a regular attendee of natural history museums for quite some time. Since starting grad school I was more attracted to art or human history museums, as if I was searching for a break from my day job, with art or history providing more things to learn and less overlap with my day-to-day work. I decided to end my natural history museum dry spell and headed back, ready to see science with fresh eyes and with the contagious excitement I had received from a museum full of kids who had spent their Saturday afternoon learning about biology.
My first stop at the World Museum Liverpool was an unexpected and very detailed exhibit dedicated to horology, although in hindsight not that unexpected, since Liverpool was a hub for clock and chronometer makers to be used on the many ships that came in and out of its port. I mused over the beautiful pieces and studied the displays of their inner workings, so complex yet tiny enough to fit inside your pocket, and for the chronometers with even more detailed inner workings so they would maintain regularity even after long periods of use out at sea. I realized how easy it is to forget the complexity it took to accurately tell time before cell phones and digital watches were everywhere, and the amount of time and work it took into making something that could just tell time (no other apps involved). These pieces weren't just the work of expert artists: the people that made watches clearly needed to be people who were extremely knowledgeable and trained in physics and precision machinery.
On the same floor as the horology display was a small exhibit on outer space, highlighting some pieces from the University of Liverpool’s collection of old telescopes and sun dials. These were coupled with examples of more modern tools, with displays explaining how astronomers used slow-capture imagery to understand the contents of galaxies, accompanied by gorgeously detailed modern images, as if to show how far technology has come and how our eye on the universe has expanded tremendously just in the last century.
Downstairs in the dinosaur and geology displays, I had a flashback to a trip I took last month to the Utah Natural History Museum and their impressive dinosaur displays there. Not to speak poorly of the World Museum Liverpool, but Utah does have the advantage of having quite a large number of paleontological sites within its borders. In the Utah museum there was a ‘real-live’ paleontology lab, where you could watch scientists wearing dust masks carefully and meticulously clean bone fragments. I thought about those paleontologists this weekend as I roamed through numerous displays of fossils, bone fragments, and fossilized dinosaur poop. What we get to see on display are the shiny, organised, categorised, cleaned-up pieces of history, but when looking at a skeleton that’s 150 million years old it’s easy to forget the back-breaking and tedious work that went into finding the fossil, getting it out of the ground and cleaning the dirt off. As much as my work has tedious parts to it, seeing a picture of a huge fossil ground in Utah, with what appeared to be endless piles of bones from who knows how many animals, confirmed that paleontologists must be a patient and persistent lot, who go through it all with the hope that they can piece together what life looked like so many millions of years ago.
Holding true to my biologist nature and environmental scientist training, my favorite part of last Sunday spent at the Liverpool World Museum was about animals. I was enthralled with the beautifully arranged display drawers full of butterflies and plants. I thought about the scientists who put these all together, their pride of having a complete set of species from a region or to have a rare specimen, and with what patience and care it took to pin each one so as not to damage or tear the delicate wings or petals. It was also a unique experience to see a large collection of skulls, from great white shark to sperm whale to hippopotamus, up close enough so that you could get a close look and really marvel at the power these animals have. While I’m not a huge fan of insects, I enjoyed the museum’s displays that showed how ants work together, what they eat in the wild, and how they live and reproduce. I enjoyed seeing kids in this exhibit not afraid or grossed out by the bugs but instead curious and interested to learn more about this small but numerous group of animals.
The last stop of the Sunday at the World Museum was the aquarium, which will always be a personal favorite of mine. I didn’t know that the museum had a small aquarium, so I was excited to see some displays not only of tropical species but examples of fish from the North Sea and ecosystems close to Liverpool. There was also a nice taxidermy display on ecological communities, highlighting animals at risk for extinction and explaining the need for biodiversity and good community structure for a healthy world. I couldn’t help but think back to happy childhood summer days spent with my grandparents at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo while watching rays swim and holding my fingers up to an octopus’ tentacle from across the glass. I thought back on my first visit to the zoo aquarium when I was 8, the excitement of that day and of seeing penguins and octopus and sharks so close at hand, of hearing of the plight of oceans and the rest of our beautiful world as a kid and being inspired to do something about it. Even now at 28 and with a PhD to my name, I still feel those natural childlike fascinations and the pull towards doing something good for the planet through science.
After the weekend at the museum, Monday morning came with some retrospections on my own career. The day-to-day life of a scientist doesn’t always make you feel like you're in a position to save the world, but instead can leave you with a feeling that you’re mired in the mundane tasks of science, not its glorious breakthroughs. Whilst that feeling can be hard to get rid of, going to the museum helped me realise something: the mundane tasks, whether they are dusting bones, pipetting yeast, or counting ants, are what need to be done to help create the scientific body of knowledge that the textbooks and museum exhibits rely on. What feels mundane on many days is just the work we need to do to progress, albeit sometimes more slowly than we had hoped. It’s not that we were lied to about what life as a scientist was like, we were just shown the end of the story but not the journey it took to get there.
In terms of how move forward and not to dwell on the occasional misrepresentation of science, take time to reflect back on our own childhood ambitions and remember what got us started on a trail towards science. Ask yourself: what experiences led us to a career in science? What were the questions that got us wondering what else there was to the world and how it works? Who inspired us to dream big and to strive to make an impact beyond money and fame? Remembering what drives our curiosities and inspires us on a natural, child-like level can help re-invigorate our motivation and to get us through the doldrums that we need to progress science as a whole.
With the next ‘Meet the scientists’ event coming up in January, I’m already musing on ways to show kids what science looks and why we do it, to show the story from start to finish. I think it is important to tell kids that science is not just about the neat and tidy textbook knowledge, but also about the experiments it takes to get there, and that good questions are the key to good science. Ultimately, although we have museums and books full of facts, there is still so much we don’t know and still so many things left to discover about how the world works - and that’s why we’re scientists!
You could easily fill up an entire blog talking about all the lives of the great scientists, the pioneers, the giants’ shoulders who we stand on (so to speak). A hero of science isn’t necessarily the smartest, the most well-funded, or the one with the most papers: a hero of science is someone who has recognized the value of the scientific method as a way towards reaching the truth about how the universe works, and not letting any adversity or barrier stand in the way of making that truth known. With this ‘Heroes of Science’ post series, I want to highlight both my own personal heroes of science as well as scientists that stand out for their contributions to the realm of science and to how we navigate through our own careers as professional scientists.
I was partially inspired for this post series by a recent Science Friday podcast featuring a 1996 interview with the great science communicator Carl Sagan. During his life, Carl Sagan was a proponent of the scientific method and had a great passion for sharing science with everyone. After listening to the podcast and remembering how much I loved reading Contact, I started off on ‘Demon-Haunted World.’ I was surprised to hear in the introduction that two of Carl Sagan’s heroes on his path towards a career in science were his own parents, both of whom were not professional scientists or even had a strong inclination for science. In the book Sagan mentions his parents as a source of fascination balanced with skepticism about the world. He touts this balance as a crucial part of life for any career scientist: to be continually interested in learning more, yet cautious when it approaches. Reflecting on his words—with more on his discussion of the dangers of a world full of pseudoscience featured in next week’s post—led me to think about my own scientific heroes. I can’t help but think back a long, long time ago to a 16th century Italian astronomer and physicist, called the “father of science”, and a man who stood up for his views on the place of the world within the universe: Galileo Galilei.
As a disclaimer, this post is by no means an exhaustive biography of the Life and Times of Galileo Galilei, but is meant only as an overview of his life as a scientist and why I feel he is a Hero of Science. The information on his life is based on everyone’s favorite source of fun facts, and certainly there are better sources than this blog if you are interested in learning more about Galileo.
But before jumping off to Galileo, let’s set the scene with another scientific giant: Copernicus. In 1543, just shortly before he died at the ripe old age of 70, the Polish astronomer and mathematician published De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres), a very technical publication using mathematical functions to provide an alternate universal model: one in which the earth revolved around the sun, and not vice versa. With the completion of his seminal work and the first such mention of a heliocentric theory, Copernicus passed away, and unfortunately the immediate impact of his work passed just as quickly. The book was never formally banned but it was removed from circulation soon after initial publication, with a low initial demand due to its technical nature and described as ‘mathematical fiction with no physical reality’.
Jump forward just three years later to 1546, when Galileo Galilei is born and named after his ancestor who was a physician and university professor (no pressure, of course). Galileo went to school to become a physician (OK, maybe there was a little bit of pressure) but he soon realized he had a much deeper fascination for things outside of medicine, concerning questions like ‘why do things move the way they do?’ Galileo asked his father to change to natural philosophy and math, and was given permission (despite the fact that Galileo must have forgotten that doctors earned more money). Galileo soon excelled in a new program, with his skills in applied science, mathematics, and enough of an artistic background to also be an expert of design.
During his scientific career, he taught at the University of Pisa and the University of Padua, penned twelve books, and made numerous discoveries and tools, including the refracting telescope which to this day is still referred to as the Galilean telescope. His efforts were focused on observation, experimentation, and bringing in mathematics to better understanding natural laws. With his new telescope he was able to write the first treatise of observational astronomy, including observing the moons of Jupiter, the roughness of the moon, the Milky Way, and even sunspots. Through his observations he also worked on promoting the Copernican theory of the universe, but was unable to prove the theory at first. He went through theories on tides and comets, but realized that these ideas didn’t fully support the theory of heliocentrism. Nonetheless, he continued to search for scientific and mathematical means to support his claim.
After Copernicus had died, his heliocentric theory was not overly controversial, mainly because the available data, the lack of stellar parallax, did not support it. A parallax is the phenomenon that occurs when you perceive a shift in the position of a faraway object depending on where you are: try looking at a picture on the far side of the room while closing just your left eye, then closing just your right. Similarly, if the earth revolved around the sun, then there should be observable shift in a star’s location every six months (beyond the changes corresponding with the seasons). The lack of this shift was evidence to many in the 1600’s that the heliocentric theory was invalid, even though Copernicus had argued that the distance was so large that the parallax would be negligible to the naked eye (and it wasn’t until the 19th century that there was even good enough instrumentation to detect it at all).
However, the controversy with the heliocentric theory was more than just where the sun and the earth sat with respect to one another: it was about respect for Papal authority. This was seen as especially crucial in Italy, who had just witnessed the effects of the Counter Reformation after the Protestant uprisings against the Catholic church in the early 1500’s. The heliocentric model was attacked by the Papacy using biblical references which were vague at best, including Psalm 96:10 (King James Version) ‘Say among the heathen that the Lord reigneth: the world also shall be established that it shall not be moved: he shall judge the people righteously.’ Galileo argued that heliocentrism was not in contrast to the bible in his letter to the Grand Duchess Christina, and he was soon called to Rome by the Inquisition for his Protestant-like threats to ‘reinterpret’ the Bible. He was ordered by the Inquisition to abandon the idea, with works by Copernicus and other authors banned until they could be re-written by the Catholic church.
Soon after Galileo’s papal hand slap, there was a new pope elected, Urban VIII (one who happened to be a friend and fan of Galileo and who had opposed his condemnation) and Galileo chose to stay out of spotlight. While the papacy might have thought him tamed, he instead spent a considerable amount of time building up his arguments on heliocentrism. After nearly twenty years of work and staying away from controversial letters and treatises, he emerged from the shadows and published “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems,” his seminal work on the heliocentric theory. He had received formal permission and authorization from the Inquisition and Pope Urban VIII, who had previously requested Galileo to give arguments for both the heliocentric and the geocentric (also called Ptolemaic) theories and to include Urban VIII’s personal views within the book. Galileo did so, although in a way to be sure as not to make either the Inquisition or Urban VIII very happy with the result.
Galileo’s Dialogue is set up as a debate, with the players being a Copernican supporter Salviati (named after a friend of Galileo), who voices many of Galileo’s opinions directly and who is referred to as the ‘Academician’ in Dialogue. Dialogue also features an initially neutral but intelligent man named Sagredo (another friend of Galileo) who offers additional comments and direction throughout the discussion. The last character is Simplicio, who holds to the ways of Ptolemy and also voices the direct opinions of Pope Urban VIII. In addition to putting the words of Urban VIII into the mouth of a simpleton (the connotation of Simplicio from Italian), anyone reading Dialogue sees the clear victor in the discussions being Salviati, and with the book being apparent to any reader not an evenly-balanced dialogue but a direct attack on geocentrism. While Galileo’s arguments on the heliocentric theory using tides as an example were not correct, Galileo’s book did touch on a number of other scientific topics and was clearly directed at Rome and her challenges made against science.
Galileo was called to Rome to defend himself in 1632 immediately after the publication of Dialogue, where he was forced to admit that he had held onto his Copernican beliefs after his last trial, despite being told to do otherwise. He was found ‘vehemently suspect of heresy’ and was sentenced to imprisonment and to ‘abjure, cure, and detest’ his opinions on the matter. He remained under house arrest for the rest of his life until 1642, and his Dialogue was banned. While there is much doubt of him uttering the infamous words ‘and yet it moves’ while being forced to recant his theory during the trial, the urban legend brings to life the power of his story and defiance of papal law. During his imprisonment he was forced to read seven penitential psalms per week, while in his spare time writing summaries of his work which were published in Holland to avoid censorship and are credited as the foundation of modern physics.
While his most controversial arguments on heliocentrism were not founded on observation, he still had numerous contributions to the field of science before his death: work on the science of motion, the mathematical laws of nature, and his support for a separation of science from philosophy and religion, which was a new and turbulent idea in his time. He was also willing to change mind in accordance with observations, understanding that information was crucial to bringing an idea to life. Perhaps that’s why he worked so tirelessly to the tides theory, and a shame that only technology more than 200 years after his time could prove him right. He was also a lover of design and of function, and left behind many practical and beautiful engineering works such as his refracting telescope.
Perhaps the reason Galileo first came to mind for me, however, is his relentless search for the truth even in the face of adversity. His quest was for knowledge and for scientific truth, and this is what should drive us as scientists. But all too often we are driven by other pressures: for funding, for acceptance of ideas, for pleasing our outside collaborators or PIs. What should drive us is the search for answers to questions, regardless of what those answers are, whether they are what we thought they would be when we first set out. Being a hero of science means adapting your mind and your ideas to what you see, not in adapting what you see to your mind and your ideas.
To this day, Galileo is still called the Father of Modern Science by more modern scientific greats such as Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking. And while the Catholic church may have negated his works at first, his legacy stands in a more positive light. In 1939, Pope Pius XII made his first speech to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and described Galileo as being among the "most audacious heroes of research... not afraid of the stumbling blocks and the risks on the way…" While we probably won't all become future pioneers of modern science as Galileo was, we all have the opportunity to be ‘audacious heroes’ in our own worlds, to stand up and work towards truth, and to meet the challenges as they come with fervor and with courage.
I hope you have enjoyed the start of our Heroes of Science series. If you have a hero, be he or she modern, ancient, or anywhere in between, send your suggestion and a rationale for you choice to our gmail address or leave a message in the blog post. We look forward to sharing more heroic stories in future posts!