EduTourism (II)

I had just submitted my PhD thesis for review (*mini-applause for myself*) and decided that the two months I had before my PhD viva (or PhD defence) would probably drive me half-insane and maybe I needed an extended break somewhere very far away.

So I went very far away: I booked a trip to Australia. However, still being me (as in: a science communication addict?) and considering my previous experience as an edutourist, I emailed a few universities to let them know I would be around and willing to volunteer at any scicomm event they might have. One university replied. I also signed up to an Australian mailing list and answered a call for volunteers.

So, in between my actual travels, I ended up doing some public outreach slash science communication down under. And boy, it was fun.

The university that replied to my spontaneous volunteering was LaTrobe University in Melbourne, where I had the opportunity to talk to a year 9 class (which are, I’m guessing, 14-year-olds?) about my research and my experience as a PhD student. I slightly changed a previous talk of mine (mostly left out the singing; oh yes, I went to a conference and brought my ukulele once, it was marvellous) and spoke to a class of maybe 30 students about the Physics of Cancer in general, and how my research sort of fits into that field. The students seemed very interested and asked some questions about what it’s like to do a PhD and if all that travelling isn’t very tiring. As thanks, I received a gift card which was super useful because I used it to buy a raincoat. Apparently, it does rain in Australia.

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La Trobe Institute for Molecular Science

The other event I attended was the Science and Engineering Challenge, which is a national competition organised by the University of Newcastle that challenges teams of high school students (I’m guessing 14-year-olds?) to do a range of different tasks related to engineering and science, such as building a water turbine, a suspension bridge, a catapult, creating an encrypted code or building an earthquake-proof structure. I helped out at the Sydney event for two days.

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Students at the final challenge: suspension bridge. It was very suspenseful.

Apart from the fact that I wasn’t allowed to take part myself – I would have loved to build a water turbine and catapult – it was absolutely amazing. My role was to facilitate the aforementioned activities (one for each day I was there), and it was really interesting to see the creativity and competitiveness of the students. Sometimes, the more unexpected design was more efficient, sometimes the group with the most extensive and thought-out plan ran out of time and couldn’t finish their idea. It was up to me to encourage the students to think both logically and out of the box without actually really helping (or so I tried).

As with many science outreach activities, the event relied on volunteers from universities. But more unusually, there were also volunteers from the Rotary and from companies (on Thursday I was there, a bank). This made for an interesting range of ages and backgrounds, which in my opinion was a wonderful extra touch and helped bring home the message that a) one of the most important skills for STEM* is creativity, b) with a STEM degree, you don’t necessarily have to stay in STEM, you can go into a whole range of careers, and c) STEM is really awesome, considering all these people – not all them working in or studying a STEM subject – that give up their time to come help at the event.

Anyway, I went on holiday for 5 weeks all on my lonesome and having a few days of scicomming in between was really fun.


Thank you Jess from LaTrobe University for the opportunity to speak to the y9 class and the tour of the university, and Terry from Newcastle University for signing me up for the Science and Engineering Challenge.

* Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics

Polymath (πολυμαθής)

Sometimes I feel like I was born in the wrong era.

Usually, this feeling is music-related. Now that I have renewed access to my dad’s old record collection (and a record player, #Hipster), I can’t help but feel that rock music from the ’70s and ’80s surpasses anything being made now. Comparing music from the “olden days” to music now is of course not entirely fair; what still remains has already withstood the test of time, current music hasn’t had to (yet).

Music aside, my wrong-time-feeling also applies to how I feel about science and research. Nowadays, scientific discoveries seem to always be the result of hard work of an entire team of scientists for countless years. There is so much knowledge and information out there, it seems imperative to find one’s own little niche and specialise, specialise, specialise. It is impossible to be a master of all.

However, I long for the golden old days of the polymaths and the homines universalis when academics were interested in all fields. They were allowed, or even required, to branch out, study all sciences, not to mention humanities, linguistics and arts. I’m speaking of people like Galileo Galilei and Leonardo Da Vinci. My favourite person, D’Arcy Thompson, would also be considered a polymath.

A polymath is defined as someone with “knowledge of various matters, drawn from all kinds of studies ranging freely through all the fields of the disciplines, as far as the human mind, with unwearied industry, is able to pursue them” (1). I noticed while perusing the wikipedeia page, that the examples given of Renaissance Men are indeed all men. Even if I was born in the right era to be an homo universalis, I would still have been born the wrong gender.

However, there are at least a few examples of female polymaths, and I wanted to introduce you to one of them: Dorothy Wrinch. Just in case you wanted a more nuanced example.
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Dorothy Maud Wrinch (12 September 1894 – 11 February 1976)
Dorothy Wrinch was a mathematician by training but also showed interest in physics, biochemistry and philosophy. She is someone who – even though I’ve only recently heard of her – is an excellent example of the homo universalis I wish I could be. She was also a friend of D’Arcy Thompson, though if I remember correctly, they mostly upheld a written correspondence.

In any case, Dorothy is known for her mathematical approaches to explaining biological structures, such as DNA and proteins. Most notably, she proposed a mathematical model for protein structure that – albeit later disproved – set the stage for biomathematical approaches to structural biology, and mathematical interpretations of X-ray crystallography.
She was a founding member of the Theoretical Biology Club, a group of scientists who believed that an interdisciplinary approach of philosophy, mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology, could lead to the understanding and investigation of living organisms.

She is described as “a brilliant and controversial figure who played a part in the beginnings of much of present research in molecular biology.  (…) I like to think of her as she was when I first knew her, gay, enthusiastic and adventurous, courageous in face of much misfortune and very kind.” (2)
Actually, come to think of it, maybe Dorothy was born in the wrong era. Nowadays, using mathematical approaches to protein structure is practically commonplace. Though I’m not quite sure how well philosophy would fit in.

Anyway, I still feel that interdisciplinary research, and having broad interests, is not the easiest path to go down. But as long as we have inspirational people to look up to, past and present, we know it is worth a try.

(Wow, went way overboard with the #Inspirational stuff towards the end there.)


(1) As defined by Wower, from Wikipedia.
(2) Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin (Wrinch’s obituary in 1976).
An updated version of this post was published on the Marie Curie Alumni Association blog on March 19, 2019.

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LE(-it-)GO

Now a scientist/engineer hybrid, I used to be one of those kids that really liked playing with LEGO. Surprisingly – or maybe not really – I have been able to incorporate LEGO into both my work and my favourite extracurricular activity (public engagement):

As it turns out, I’m not the only one who loves LEGO and science. Who knew? 

1. A truly Lego®-like modular microfluidics platform

Inspired by LEGO, researchers have created a modular system that can be used to build microfluidic channels. In microfluidics, the goal is to control fluids in small channels (micro-sized, usually). It has been used in the development of inkjet printers and is now an interdisciplinary field that will allow things such as high-throughput screening and lab-on-a-chip technology. The major advantage is that low volumes can be used.

The LEGO-microfluidics try to solve one of the problems in the field: microfluidic systems aren’t really versatile, and 3D microfluidic systems are quite difficult to make. By creating LEGO-type PDMS blocks with microfluidic channels, blocks can be stacked easily in 3D networks, but also easily changed around to create a whole range of different configurations.

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Example of a LEGO-like microfluidic system.

While I’m not entirely convinced yet that the production of these blocks is simple, and I have doubts about the alignment of the different channels as well as sealing the interfaces between the different blocks (you don’t want everything to leak out), I always love creative solutions and especially if they are inspired by my favourite block toy! While it might not be super-useful in a research context, it can be used as a public engagement tool to show off some nanotechnology. How can we use microfluidic channels for mixing small amounts of liquid, or separating them out? What are the different types of flow, for example, laminar?

All of this and more, soon near you (perhaps).

2. Liquid-handling Lego robots and experiments for STEM education and research

Another example is a liquid handling tool that has been built using LEGO pieces. LEGO does have quite some educational kits that teach about robots, mechatronics and programming, that allow easy conversion to the development of STEM education tools when in the hands of creative minds. In this case, a pipetting robot was developed that can be used in biology, biochemistry or chemistry demonstrations or workshops.

Using this tool can allow for a very educational and interdisciplinary (+1 for the buzzword) workshop that combines engineering (building and programming the robot) and science (experiments such as performing delusions, measuring pH using a pH indicator or anything).

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The pipetting bit of the liquid-handling robot, compared to a lab pipette.

All of this and more, soon near you (maybe).

Conclusion:

These were just two examples of geeky scientists and engineers proving that you are never too old to play with LEGO. Even if the box says ages 4-99.


Sources and suggested links:
The LEGO-microscope is based on http://legoscope.squarespace.com/
LEGO-microscope pictures by Rolf Black.
The two papers I have referred to and copied images from are:

LEGO education runs various different events and competitions, including the FIRST LEGO LEAGUE, that challenges teams of 9-to-14-year-olds to build and programme robots to complete specific tasks. I helped out at a tournament last year and it was awesome. And not just because my badge said: “Robot Practice Table Supervisor”.

Not just your usual conference (100 years, Part VIII)

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Spotted in the Bell Pettigrew Museum of Natural History (St. Andrews)

Last weekend, I attended the Centenary conference commemorating the 100-year anniversary of the publication of On Growth And Form by D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson. You might have heard me mention this book and its centenary at some point?

It was not just your usual conference. While most conferences centre around a certain field or topic, this one explored the influence of D’Arcy and his book on many different fields It was the most interesting mix of people and topics at any meeting I’ve been at, it succeeded in bringing scientists, mathematicians, computer scientists, historians, artists, architects, musicians and knitters in the same room.

Also, the sessions were not organised topically, but pretty much random, which meant that even if you were just interested in a few talks (on paper), you ended up hearing the wide variety of topics that have something to do with D’Arcy. Personally, I thought this was a very clever choice of the organisers (kudos to them), and I enjoyed hearing about art, architecture, history, and yes, knitting, instead of boring ol’ science for a change.

Part of the comic made to celebrate the centenary. Man says: "Now let me show you D'Arcy himself!". Woman says: "Don't tell me you've got him stuffed as well?"
I also feel like I made some type of personal achievement. I was accepted to give a talk on the Physics of Cancer, which you might remember as the topic of my two FameLab contributions. For each of these, I had written a little song. So, in a crazy phase of over-confidence, I decided to incorporate these songs into my talk. And, why not, I also incorporated Star Wars references, weird cartoon cell drawings and pretty dodgy doodles I had drawn myself.

The response was amazing. I’ve given talks at conferences before but never have I received such positive feedback. Not only because they found the songs entertaining (I can assure you no-one fell asleep during my presentation) but I was also complimented on the clarity and accessibility of my talk (the very mixed audience, remember) and my optimistic approach to a “heavy” topic. If possible, I will from now on take this approach for every talk.
Another panel from the comic. Woman says: "I've just read that in your book". Off-panel D'Arcy says: "Of course - I always quote myself if I want to say something really intelligent."
Finally, I have a new favourite D’Arcy quote (it’s quite convenient to have three days full of inspirational quotes to muse about):

“(…) things are interesting only in so far as they relate to themselves to other things; only then you can put two and two together and tell stories about them.”

Closely followed by this one, actually:

“Facts are pointless unless they illustrate greater principles.”


(The comics snippets and the second quote are from the graphic novel “Transformations“.)

Tweet tweet tweet

Last week, I suddenly found myself in a situation where I had 12k followers on twitter.

Before you think I had some sudden explosion of followers – okay, that would be awesome, but who are we kidding, I’m currently followed by 179 wonderful people* of which hopefully a minimal number is a bot, – I should be clearer. For a week, I was tweeting for the rocur** @iamscicomm.

Well, let’s just say I was slightly overwhelmed. Suddenly, I had a potential readership of really a lot. I actually made it to over 30 responses and likes on some of my tweets, and yes, I am totally bragging but I was quite proud of myself!

The week started with me photoshopping the scientiacristina (in charge of curating the twitter account) beaker into my profile picture.

iamscicomm

I should probably point out that I have next to zero photoshop skills.

Then I had to come up with a plan… What should I tweet about? The goal of @iamscicomm is to talk about the interesting things involved in #scicomm and initiate discussions around communicating science. As in whatever I do (blogging, personal tweeting, etc), I just went for whatever I find interesting. My very elaborate plan (written on the back of a research paper I was reading on the train) was as following: scoping out my temporary audience (what are their reasons for being involved in #scicomm?), sneaking in some D’Arcy Thompson, talking about humour in #scicomm***, finding a niche/audience and how to combine it with a day job.

The most interesting discussions were on humour and the day-job-combo questions. I wanted to wrap up the week, exactly a week later, by briefly summarising my thoughts on these topics, that might or might not have changed after the public twitter discussion.

Topic #1 **** : humour in science communication 

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Pretty much everybody went with “Yay,” with a few people who had some nuances.

So in my opinion (and somewhat backed up by the #scicomm community), the reasons to add some humour to science communication is that it helps grabs people’s attention, makes the scientist more relatable and more memorable, and it helps dispel the idea that “science is boring” (even though, let’s be honest, sometimes it is).

On the other hand, some people might be of opinion that science is a serious matter, and adding some humour might be a distraction. It can lead to misinformation if the message is oversimplified or changed too much. It can increase the problem of elitism if too many inside jokes are used. Finally, it can make the speaker seem unprofessional.

Anyway, the end conclusion seemed to be that you should not try to be funny just for the sake of being funny. Or to show off. If you would like to add some jokes, make sure they are appropriate for the situation and audience. And the speaker, for that matter. If you’re unfunny, better not start making jokes. It will not end well.

Topic #2: combining #scicomm with a research job, how do people do it and do they get acknowledged for it?

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Basically, I was wondering about recognition of doing things like science communication and public engagement. It’s quite common for people, especially people early in their career, to do most of this in their “own” time, as an aside to their – already probably quite demanding – research job. Practically everybody I’ve asked about this in person has said the same: lab first, #scicomm on the side. There are many stories about people either dropping #scicomm because they had no time, or leaving research to focus on #scicomm permanently.

But, in my opinion, #scicomm is not some kind of weird hobby! It is an integral part of science and research. I don’t think everybody should be going out to schools or participating in demonstrations on open days, but I don’t think you should be punished for doing so either.

There are many reasons for doing #scicomm. For one, most researchers are publicly funded so it is only correct for them to communicate their research to those that are paying for it. Indeed, for some funding agencies, science communication and public engagement are becoming a requirement. It is also a way to ensure that people that have to make important policy decisions have the best information available. It could be because you want to inspire the next generation of scientists.

In my opinion, it can hardly be a bad thing. It raises the profile of everyone and everything involved: your university, your research topic, science in general, and yourself. So for the people that enjoy spending some of their time on communicating science and engaging people, I feel that it should be properly recognised.

There are some ways this is happening. Both my school as my university have a prize for public engagement *****, which acknowledges peoples efforts and comes with some prize money to fund future endeavours. But this is after the time has been put in. Can there be a way to recognise that it’s not time lost?

After bringing this up in the twittersphere, the solutions are simple: we either need longer days, a time turner, the ability to clone ourselves or to build robot helpers to do some of the work. All very realistic solutions, obviously.

So those were my conclusions after a – frankly quite crazy – week. I’d like to thank @iamscicomm for the amazing opportunity. Now, back to work!
Now, back to work!


* Oooh, it’s 186 now!
** Rotation Curation, also #RotationCuration or #rocur because hashtags are #thabomb, is the concept of rotating the spokesperson on a broad-scoped social media account.
*** Yes, I am #hashtagging every #scicomm mention. Deal with it.
**** Felt like fitting a more original (read: hipster) use of the hash in there…
***** which is how I got my name mentioned by Stephen Fry and this was such a life-determining event that I take absolutely every chance I can to bring it up again.

Physics of Cancer (2)

Two weeks ago, I told you that physics and cancer are, perhaps counterintuitively, intermingled and that this relationship has biological and clinical implications. I outlined how mechanical forces act on cells and tissue, and perhaps are responsible for one of the many ways of cancer progression.

In this post, I’d like to tell you about how being able to detect mechanical properties of tissue can help with diagnosing diseases. So while the previous post was more about how physics can influence the biology of a tissue, this time I’d like to focus on how biology can dictate physical properties of a tissue.

A very important issue to point out, before going into the differences between healthy tissue/cells and cancer, is the size scale we are considering. Depending on whether we are talking about cells (µm size range) or tissues (100s of µm to mm), we can make quite opposite conclusions: several studies have shown that tumour cells are softer than healthy cells (of the same tissue type), while tumour tissue is stiffer than healthy tissue.

First the cells. Experiments such as Atomic Force Microscopy (which I mention because I have used it myself) show that especially metastatic tumour cells are softer than healthy cells. If we consider what cells do during metastasis, this actually makes sense. (Metastasis is the process where cells migrate away from the initial tumour and spread to other parts of the body.) A softer cell is able to squeeze through other cells, and through the wall of a blood vessel, allowing it to travel to elsewhere in the body. This different mechanical property allows it to behave in its particular way. Knowing this property allows us to predict the aggressiveness (or invasiveness) of a certain cancer. If the tumour has cells that are much softer than other, it is usually a more aggressive type of cancer.

Cartoon of a stiff cell trying to go through a barrier (Ugh I can't get through) and a flexible cell moving through (All this yoga has paid off)

That one time that being less flexible is actually healthier!

This difference in mechanical properties not only makes sense if we consider the behaviour of the cells, it can also help make prognoses and decide on what type of treatments to use.

Next, on a larger scale, tumours are stiffer than healthy tissue. This is exactly what we feel when we are “looking for lumps”. A bit of tissue feels different, namely stiffer, than what it should be. The reason tumours are stiffer is not actually due to the (softer) cells it contains, but due to what sits in between the cells: the extracellular matrix. The extracellular matrix is a very structured meshwork of structural proteins that acts as a scaffold for the cells: it provides the tissue with structural integrity, cell organisation and mechanical strength. For example, there are a lot of extracellular matrix proteins in our skin, which is why it is, well, our skin (hurray for circular reasoning): a sturdy barrier between the outside and the inside of our body. In healthy tissue, the extracellular matrix is usually very well organised. The fibers making up the matrix are regularly cross-linked and have and neatly organised. However, the matrix in tumourous tissue is chaotic. In essence, was “built” too quickly. In this fast-growing bit of tissue, the scaffolding had to be assembled fast to support the rapidly dividing cells. As a result, the fibres are not well organised and the crosslinking is random. It is as if the scaffolding of a building was built too quickly, so rather than nicely structured, there are random beams sticking out in all directions. As a result, pushing down on the matrix does not compress it as much, and it feels stiffer.

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Neatly structured, easily compressed.

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Just ugh. (Also, majestic artist skills, right?)

At a tissue level, these differences in mechanical properties are very useful for diagnosing cancer. Because of different mechanical properties, we can feel lumps, but we can also image it using techniques such as ultrasound, MRI and other imaging techniques. Due to different physical properties, the cancerous tissues interacts differently with whatever wave (light, sound, …) we are using to try and detect it. Thank you physics!

To wrap this up: the physics of cancer is important, and useful, and interesting, and cool and definitely worth researching. And this is why interdisciplinary research is not only a fancy buzzword, it can also increase our understanding certain phenomena and come up with better diagnoses and treatments by approaching the problem from a completely different perspective.

This subject was the topic of my second FameLab performance (Scottish regionals), which ended in a little song (to the tune of “What a Wonderful World” by Sam Cooke), in which I wanted to highlight the importance of interdisciplinary research and how studying diseases from a physics perspective can only be productive:

You know, cancer’s about biology
And perhaps a bit of chemistry
But I’m telling you there’s physics too
There’s physics happening inside you
With one subject you can never be sure
Put them together, and we might find a cure
And what a wonderful world that would be…


Some references I used to verify that my thoughts on this subject were not completely unsubstantiated:

  • Baker EL, Lu J, Yu D, Bonnecaze RT, Zaman MH. Cancer Cell Stiffness: Integrated Roles of Three-Dimensional Matrix Stiffness and Transforming Potential. Biophysical Journal. 2010;99(7):2048-2057. doi:10.1016/j.bpj.2010.07.051.
  • Suresh S. Biomechanics and biophysics of cancer cells. Acta biomaterialia. 2007;3(4):413-438. doi:10.1016/j.actbio.2007.04.002.
  • Kumar S, Weaver VM. Mechanics, malignancy, and metastasis: The force journey of a tumor cell. Cancer metastasis reviews. 2009;28(1-2):113-127. doi:10.1007/s10555-008-9173-4.
  • Plodinec M, Loparic M, Monnier CA, Oberman EC, Zanetti-Dallenback R, Oertle P, Hyotyla JT, Aebi U, Bentires-Alj M, Lim RYH, Schoenenberger C-A. The nanomechanical signature of breast cancer. Nature Nanotechnology. 2012; (7):7 57–765. doi:10.1038/nnano.2012.167

Physics of Cancer (1)

If you are confused by the title, that’s okay. Usually, when we read something about cancer, it is about something biology-related, for example about specific mutations or the environmental conditions that increase cancer risk. A lot of research is happening with regards to the biology and biochemistry of cancer: which tumour suppressor genes are mutated in certain cancers, what are the effects cancer has on someone’s health, what drugs can we use to treat a cancer, … ? But, perhaps surprisingly, studying the physics of cancer also has its merit. Why, it’s a whole field in itself!

So I’d like to talk a little bit about this topic, the physics of cancer, and in this first part, I will focus on how physical forces can change the behaviour of cells (and how this might be involved with disease).

Cells not only sense their biological environment, they also feel their physical environment. They sense the stiffness of the cells and protein structures around them, they sense how other cells are pushing and pulling on them, and then they react to it. And these mechanisms could actually be quite important for the development and progression of cancer.

Recent research showed that the cells surrounding a tumour are under mechanical stress because of the growth of the tumour. As a tumour grows, it pushes on its environment. So the – initially healthy – cells in its direct surroundings, feel a pressure. In this specific study, they showed that this pressure caused the cells to start a mechanical response pathway leading to the upregulation of a protein β-catenin. This protein is involved in activating certain pathways involved in cell proliferation.

Which is exactly what its upregulation leads to in cancer. In the case of colorectal cancer (which I am particularly interested in), a mutation of Apc (adenomatous polyposis coli, in case you were wondering) also leads to an accumulation of β-catenin amongst other things. The APC protein has been linked to many functions, but the best known is its involvement in forming a complex that binds to β-catenin and tagging it for destruction. That way the proteins involved in protein recycling know that the β-catenin proteins can be cut up. But when APC is mutated, β-catenin gets tagged and starts piling up and doing some of its jobs a little bit too well, including inducing proliferation pathways.

So back to the study, if healthy cells are experiencing a constant pressure (due to a big bad tumour growing into their space, or – as they tested in the study – artificially caused pressure), they start acting more “cancer-like”. This suggests that mechanical activation of a tumorigenic pathway, in this case, the β-catenin pathway, is a potential method for transforming cells.
This is just one example of how physics and cancer are potentially related. As a side note, I myself am also interested in how cells respond the mechanical stresses, which prompted me to do an experiment where I placed weights on top of cells.

Cartoon of one cell lifting weights and asking another cell: "Seriously bro, do you even lift?"

Feeling the pump.

This subject was the topic of my first FameLab performance, which ended in a little song (to the tune of “Friday I’m in Love” by the Cure). It’s sung from the perspective of a cell that is stuck next to a growing tumour:

Hello there, I am a cell.
Feeling healthy, fit and well.
Life is good, yes, life is swell.
But my neighbour’s got it worse.

Something about him does not belong.
The way he pushes is just wrong.
They say in him the force is strong,
they say he’s got the force.

He takes up so much space.
And is always getting up in my face.
It’s putting me in a stressful space.

You could say he’s left his mark.
It’s like swimming with a shark.
He’s pushing me towards the dark,
the dark side of the Force,
the dark side of the Force.

Oh, have a mentioned that I like Star Wars?

3 minutes of Fame

In the past month, I took part in a science communication competition called  FameLab, first in the local heat and then in the Scottish final. It was a really fun and educational experience (and by educational, I mean that I learned something, even if it technically was also supposed to be educational for the audience). And even though I (unfortunately) did not make it through to the national final, it was a fabulous – or should I say famelabulous (hahahaha and I didn’t even come up with that) – thing to be part of.

Anyway, FameLab is a competition where STEMers (scientists, engineers, and mathematicians) get 3 minutes to talk about a scientific concept of their choice. Yes, only 3 minutes! And as if that wasn’t hard enough, during those 3 minutes, they get judged on content, clarity, and charisma. I mean obviously you have to talk about something worthwhile and don’t jumble things up too much, but having to be charismatic as well, that just sounds like too much of a challenge!

Without going too much into detail on what I talked about exactly – I might elaborate on that in some other post, though I’m sure you can find it with some smart googling, in any case it was about the physics of cancer, – I thought I might give my insights on how to give a 3-minute talk. And most things can be extrapolated to longer talks.

Well, it’s not like I won, so there is no reason to believe anything I tell you. Also, it’s all pretty obvious stuff that they teach you in any presentation skills course. You know: stick to the key points (the audience only remembers three things or so of what you say), don’t use too much jargon but don’t dumb it down either (be like Shakespeare, jokes for all, and the occasional clever twist for the snobs to smile about), be your own charming self (no need to act), breathe, don’t faint, imagine the audience with no clothes on,… all the obvious things.

I guess the best lesson I learned was that I have an inescapable future as a superhero. “Inevitable avenger” is an anagram of my name and that has to be the most awesome thing someone has ever used to introduce me.

I’ll be using this for everything now.
Yours,
Inevitable Avenger
(See?!)

(Yes, the only reason for this post was to brag about my new cool nickname.)

EduTourism

Last week, I was in New York City.

For the most part, I was on holiday.
*cue 3-line rant about how amazing it was*
I can’t stress enough how amazing it was – obviously; New York is awesome – and how much delicious food we had – lobster sandwiches and NY pizza and (no-Turkey-for-me) Thanksgiving dinner – and how sad I am about being back in the real world.
*end rant*

But alongside the fun and leisure, I also volunteered for a science education event organised by RockEdu, Rockefeller University’s educational outreach office.

Apparently, it was surprising that I would give up half a day of my holiday to volunteer at an outreach event. But to me, it was an interesting experience, an opportunity to try out my outreaching enthusiasm in a different context, make some useful connections and most of all, a whole lot of fun!

After this experience, I’d really like to pitch a new idea: EduTourism (#EduTourism, spread the word, folks): volunteering in educational programmes while on holiday. It gives a new perspective on outreach, it gives you a good excuse to visit another academic institution, and it is a perfect way to interact with locals! Also, it makes you feel that your trip was more than just a – albeit entertaining – waste of money.

What I especially liked about the RockEdu lab, was how organised everything is. Instead of the usual format of a science education team, i.e. a bunch of volunteering PhD students and PostDocs who want a break from their research and the occasional coordinating staff member, RockEdu has a team of 5 or 6 people permanently working in outreach. They write grants, create activities, set up mentoring programmes, coordinate summer projects, etcetera etcetera. Moreover, they have a lab space that is exclusively and specifically used for science education. Instead of activities carried out in some corner between labs or in an improvised table-based laboratory missing crucial equipment or sockets, these benches are meant for education! Classes can come in – for free – and participate in a science experiment tailored for their age and level.

So I spent part of the day helping a group of 16ish-year-old AP bio students through a GFP purification process, something I myself knew about but had never actually carried out. Using blue flashlights and yellow goggles, the whole process could be followed closely, which was pretty neat. We learned about proteins, fluorescence, jellyfish, what doing a Phd is all about. We ran a gel and looked at some GFP-expressing worms as an example of an in vivo application. I thought it all was pretty cool and the students also seemed to have enjoyed themselves (while learning something, of course).

Overall, I’m really glad I took the time to participate in EduTourism, and totally hope that this will become an actual thing.

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C. elegans with GFP. Image from @RockEdu (twitter)

Superscience

I’ll tell you a secret. It’s not really a big secret, I think many people know. But it isn’t out there quite enough.

Here’s the secret:

Scientists are superheroes.

You probably think I’m saying this to impress you, to make you believe that am a superhero. Well, I’m not. Or at least not yet. Because, technically, I’m still a scientist-in-training. So you might say I’m a superhero-in-training. Not quite there yet.

(Side note: when does one actually truly deserve to be called a scientist? Isn’t the goal to keep on learning? Will a researcher always be a scientist-in-training? Or until he/she – I don’t know – wins a Nobel prize? #AskingTheBigQuestions)

I’ll tell you why scientists are superheroes. And I’ll do it by giving an example of one of the supervillains they are fighting: cancer.

Yes, cancer. (Disclaimer: what will follow will be both a huge generalisation, because there is no such thing as “cancer” or “the cure for cancer” because cancer is as diverse as the number of different cells in our body.)

So, if you’re like me, you might have noticed in a geeky moment that cancer cells have a number of superpowers. Officially, these are called “the hallmarks of cancer” . No, this has nothing to do with greeting cards or Kenickie’s hickeys, but are certain characteristics of cancer that can accumulate during its progression and that are typically driven by genetic instability. Like a superpower, they can originate hereditarily, through a genetic defect, through mutations caused randomly, or after exposure to a DNA-altering freak accident, including radiation or chemical exposure.
(I might have given a talk last week that was completely framed around X-men. I was called a dork. It was a good day.)

What type of superpowers could cancer cells develop?

To start with, I would argue that cancer cells could gain the power of invisibility. Often, cancer cells have the uncanny ability to “trick” the immune system to not noticing they’re there. They also cleverly evade any growth suppressors that come their way. If this is down to superb camouflage abilities, shapeshifting talents or just pure invisibility, I do not know. But it’s definitely powerful and it can definitely be used for evil.

They also possess a type of mind control (if we imagine cells have a little will and a mind of their own). They convince their surroundings to grow new blood vessels. For their own gain, obviously, because it creates a steady flow of resources. Which they can, by the way, use in different ways as the usual (but I’m not sure “changed metabolism” is such an awesome superpower unless you really start thinking it through).

Next one: excessive self-multiplication. You know, like Multiple Man. Cancer cells just keep on making replicates of themselves. Until they take up so much space that they don’t have any room anymore, which brings me to the next power…

Cancers sometimes spread out. Certain cells, known as metastatic cancer cells, have the ability to walk through walls (or in reality, evade through cell layers to get into the blood stream and hitch a ride to some other part of the body that might have some extra living space).

And then finally (I might have skipped over a few hallmarks, though) and in my opinion, the scariest superpower: cancer cells can, and often do, acquire is the power of immortality. They find a way to resist cell death. Usually, the body is amazingly good at catching the rotten apples and getting rid of them, but a cancer cell is able to resist. It is immortal. Really difficult to kill. Which is really something to be scared of.

Which means we need to assemble our own team of superheroes to the battle. And that is exactly what is happening. Every day, a team of scientists, in reality just undercover supers, go to work on a whole range of things. Discovering new functions for proteins and unraveling their function in cancer. Discovering new diagnostic techniques. Discovering new ways to model cancer. Discovering new drugs. Discovering ways to battle that one evil in the best way possible, by assembling their expertise, their powers and working together towards that one same goal.

Even Nature, a prominent scientific journal, thinks scientists are superheroes.

Go science!

Nature magazine cover showing interdisciplinary scientists as a team of super heroes

From Nature 525, 305 (17 September 2015), doi:10.1038/525305a