Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Stand up and shout!

Today I was inspired by a New York Times articled titled “Groups Call for Scientists to Engage the Body Politic." Shockingly, the flaccid and uninteresting headline failed to catch my attention but I luckily was drawn in by the interactive quiz feature. The quiz tests your ability to identify pictures of scientists. I got 9/10 but I’m not going to lie I used process of elimination on at least four of the questions and got very lucky. The feature and the article highlight the un-recognizable-ness of some of today’s top scientists.

The crux of the article is that scientists almost always fly under the radar. I am curious to what extent this is by choice and to what extent it is accidental. My guess is that it’s a bit of both. I’m sure some scientists fancy themselves to be well-known but are quite the opposite. And I would also bet that there are a lot of scientists who believe that their scientific research will do the talking for itself. We’re here to science, not to become rock stars right?


There is little point to what I do every day if the work is never passed along and explained to the people who might benefit from it. Use whatever word you like: “end user,” “consumer,” “implementer,” “manager.” First things first: they need to know you exist and they need to know what you think! This is especially crucial in today’s political atmosphere where climate change and evolution are treated as topics of debate instead of important scientific realities.

If we are truly to respect ourselves, the science we do, and the people who can use that science, then we need to get out there and speak.

You will never have a voice if you don’t open your mouth.


PS: If you can name the movie that inspired the title of this post, I will give you a gold star!

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Albatross, Sea Lions, and Penguins: Oh My!

5:40 pm July 2nd 2011

The sun has set over Dunedin and as we drive deeper into Otago County the gloaming shrouds miles of farmland. Hundreds of sheep are still discernable in the faint light that remains.

I am on my way to the New Zealand Marine Science Society’s annual conference and chose to take the weekend before the meeting to see a small chunk of the far south. The 3ish day conference is being held on Stewart Island, sometimes referred to as New Zealand’s “third island,” but in reality a small blob off the southern tip of the South Island.

My first stop was Dunedin, home of Otago University. Immediately after checking in to the backpackers (aka hostel) I headed to the weekly farmers market—a brilliant decision. On top of the delicious apricot loaf and bean soup that I purchased, I was gifted a small chunk of brie cheese and some apples! Some of the Kiwi vendors, being so incredibly kind, seemed to get carried away chatting with me and decided I was a good enough person to merit some free produce. I did not argue!

Having stocked up, I headed to my pick up location for a wildlife tour on the Otago Peninsula. This was also a really good decision. The folks at ELM Tours did a fantastic job of showing us the peninsula’s abundant bird and marine life. The first stop was the Royal Albatross Colony where we viewed Royal Albatross chicks (don’t let the word “chick” throw you off—they are quite large) and were lucky enough to get a fly-by from a magnificent adult bird. These creatures have a three-meter wingspan and measure a bit over a meter from beak to tail. So, the fly-by past our observation hut was really special.

While the albatross colony was cool, I have to say that phase two of the tour was the best. We headed to a DoC conservation area that has a fur seal colony—very cute—and a penguin colony.

Fur Seal:

Additionally, Hooker Sea Lions (aka New Zealand sea lions), which are only found in NZ, like to hang out on that beach. We walked within feet of these feisty and amazing animals. Let me tell you, they are a bit scary and they aren’t afraid of us. In the states, I would have definitely had to sign a liability waver, but it being New Zealand, no one seemed to care that these animals could have mauled us because we wouldn’t have the legal right to sue the tour company anyway.

Nap Time:

Sea Lion Love:

We hit the beach at just the right time to see the penguins come home from a day of fishing and we even got some good Nat Geo-esque action as the returning penguins tried to avoid some lazing sea lions on the beach (video to follow on facebook)! The footage of these goofy birds waddling up the beach and then fleeing back to the ocean at the twitch of a sea lion flipper is definitely worthy of a you-tube voice over. They headed in from sea, crossed the beach, found their mates, and climbed up and over the hill. By far the penguins were my favorite.

Penguin Heading Home:

Having fully enjoyed the peninsula, I spent today in town exploring shops and the museum . Now it’s off to Invercargill for the night and Stewart Island tomorrow!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


Celebrating the Queen’s Birthday

In New Zealand there is a national holiday in observance of the queen’s birthday. This may seem a bit funny to those Americans out there—at least it did to me—but when you think about it, it’s kind of like president’s day. The day affords Kiwis a long weekend to go on holiday somewhere or just relax at home.

I took the opportunity to travel down to the northern bit of the South Island. We visited “the sounds” region and it was a fantastic trip.

On top of the fun and games, I was able to drive on the left side of the road for about an hour without any major disasters!

There were gorgeous vistas:

Exciting roads:

And of course, lovely sunsets:

I also found a stuffed Cincinnati Red's baseball bat in a second hand store!!

The Fabulous Feijoa

If you ever get the chance to eat feijoa (Fee-Joe-Ah) fruit in your life, take it! In my book, the almighty feijoa is one of evolution’s chart-toppers. It is tart and sweet all at the same time. You cut it in half and spoon in out. Yum!

In addition to the actual fruit, one can also enjoy feijoa lollies (aka candy) that are delicious, feijoa vodka that is odd but nice, and feijoa tea that’s always satisfying after a hard day’s work. As I had not seen them before arriving in New Zealand, I assume you can’t get feijoas in the states. This fact has set me on a mission to eat as many feijoa fruits and feijoa-flavored items as humanly possibly while here.

Walks around Wellington

There are so many great things about Wellington that it’s hard to isolate just a few of the city’s attributes as “the best.” However, one of the most enjoyable aspects of the city is the green belt that basically horseshoes around the CBD providing fantastic hiking and stunning views without having to travel any distance. For example, a few of my mates and I explored the “skyline track” that runs along a ridge north of the city.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The enzymes ate my homework!

Edgar Allan Poe was pretty good at what he did but I’m fairly convinced that his stories would have been enhanced had he spent time in a molecular biology lab. No joke. It can be truly frightening because things will just go wrong. Horribly wrong. And you might not know why. In fact—in my case at least—you almost never know why. And to figure it out takes time and then by that point you’re both behind in the work you were meant to do and late to re-do whatever it was that didn’t work.

As you may have guessed, I feel a bit like I’ve been in a Poe-esque story for the last couple of weeks (granted we had a lovely Queen’s Birthday weekend holiday in the middle of it—look for an upcoming post).

Essentially I thought I was all set to send off DNA samples to be sequenced. I had done all the build-up work and I felt really good about the work I’d done. Thiw was likely my first mistake, since the Molecular Biology Gods (MBGs) can smell satisfaction and to them it smells like skunks. Just to be cautious I tested a few of my samples to make sure they were high enough concentration to sequence. They weren’t really. Well, technically they were too low. But I thought, “well, my sequences worked before and not much has changed so maybe it’s just a mistake and it will work.”

Nope. Sequencing didn’t work. The next logical step was to test all the other samples I had waiting to get sequenced. Their concentrations were also too low. At this point I was pretty upset because we’re talking about 80 samples that I thought I was basically done with.

So what happened to the DNA? My theory is that the enzymes I added to “clean” my PCR reaction—the ExoSAP that I talked about in my “scientific waste” entry—was inexplicably eating double stranded DNA in addition to the other stuff it is meant to eat. I’m currently trying to prove this but the little mini-experiments I’m setting up to test it are on the back burner as I try to redo essentially a month or more of work in a couple of weeks—using a different clean-up protocol, of course. It’s a new art called “Turbo Science!”

Hesitantly, I will report that it’s going okay but I refuse to be satisfied with my work thus far lest I upset the MBGs again.

Today, a number of samples went off to be sequenced. So, if you want to do me a favor, cross you fingers and hope that they come out okay! =)

Thanks friends,


Friday, May 27, 2011

Real and imagined boundaries, magical people, and the science/policy interface

Small introductory note:

Let’s be honest, people: my blog is kind of pathetic. Anemic. Atrophied. Wandering hopelessly through the desert without food or water, incapable of muttering a coherent thought. Today I vow to more than double my entries by the end of June (that kind of sounds like a campaign promise, eh?). Let’s get going!

The post:

Johnny Cash was on to something: walking the line. Yes, that sounds good. But the line I want to walk is the line between science and policy. That imaginary bureaucratic, academic, and largely psychological line that we draw between the science we do and the world that can use it.

For some people, the line is more a brick wall. It is an impervious boundary that divides two disciplines. This is embraced by some academics because it makes them feel safe. On the other hand, many scientists lament the brick wall. They do this not because they want to see what’s on the other side, but, perhaps, because they sincerely long for a day when the powerful folks living on the policy side of the wall will climb over to see what’s on the science side. This may very well be a vain hope. Let’s be frank: the folks on the policy side of the wall would much prefer—for good reason—that scientists build some kind of ramp, or whatever complex machinery they need to build to feel smart, and have a go at effectively presenting their work to the “big boys.”

And yet, some scientists have turned this brick wall into more of a semi-permeable membrane. They appear to know how to package their material and present it effectively so that it floats through small, imaginary pores in the membrane, disseminating on both side. My guess is that there are people on either side of the line who would like to make these pores bigger, easier to find, and more frequently used. Or maybe we need someone to navigate the membrane for groups on both sides.

On Fridays when we’re both free, I meet with my supervisor at NIWA to discuss progress on the project, any problems I may have, and whatever tangential topics we discover in the heat of the moment.

Yesterday we chatted about this line and how I would like to be working right at the line, or even—gasp—crossing it frequently during my career. He mentioned that what is really needed is someone whose sole purpose is to patrol the line. No, patrol is the wrong word. Negotiate the line. A liaison, if you will.

This excites me. “Yes,” I said, “I want to be that person!” The problem, he says, is that no one really wants to employ that person (at least it doesn’t seem they want to in NZ) because they aren’t really “billable.” What do they produce? What to they make? I think they make all the science more meaningful by, you know, getting it to be useful to policy-makers. Therefore that person actually makes everything better and makes the research institution an asset to the country. That doesn’t seem to be something that translates into making money, however. Also, it’s not an easy job!

He launched into the job description for someone who might want to liaise between ocean scientists and policy-makers:

--Understands ocean science…broadly…. (does anyone?)

--Knows how to get scientists to explain their work

--Understands policy


--Is perceptive and can compromise

--Good at communicating

--Knows what the policy world needs

--Knows how the science world can help

--Basically, possesses magical powers

Whoa there!! I have to be MAGICAL?!

A moment of thought followed by: “Yes…. that’s still the kind of thing I want to do.” Now I just need to work on those magical powers.