Hoezo? Ouzo!

“Hoezo” is Dutch word meaning “How so?” or “Why?”, and also the name of a popular science quiz that was on TV during my teenage years. From which I distinctly remember that we find blue foods generally yucky looking because a lot of molds are blue and that we think mirror pictures of ourselves look better because that’s what we’re used to seeing (as opposed to other people thinking non-mirrored pictures are more flattering).

The word also kind of sounds like “Ouzo” – an anise-based liquor from Greece that has the cool property of being clear until you add water, aptly named “the Ouzo effect

The Ouzo Effect

For the ouzo effect to occur we need three components: an oil, a water, and an alcohol.

The alcohol (in this case ethanol) and anise oil (also known as anethole) can be mixed. Same for ethanol and water. But anethole and water don’t mix very well: oils are generally hydrophobic.

When you add water to an anise-based alcoholic drink, such as Ouzo but other examples include Pastis and Absinthe, the liquid turns from clear to milky. By mixing these three liquids together, two of which don’t mix well, you create an emulsion: little oil micro-droplets suspended in the liquid.

Usually, oil-in-water emulsions are highly unstable, but in the case of this delicious drink* the emulsion is highly stable, making it of special interest for colloid researchers to study things like nano-droplet and micro-emulsion formations.

Or to make art:

*IMO, I know not everyone enjoys anise drinks.

Video created by:

  • Oscar Enriquez, Universidad Carlos III de Madrid
  • Daniel Robles, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México
  • Pablo Peñas-López, Universidad Carlos III de Madrid
  • Javier Rodríguez-Rodríguez, Universidad Carlos III de Madrid

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1103/APS.DFD.2018.GFM.V0054

More details on the Ouzo effect: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/07/160714091720.htm

A bug(bot)’s life

Throughout the history of technological development, humans have turned to nature for inspiration. From lotus leaves inspiring umbrellas over pretty much everything Leonardo Da Vinci invented, from annoying plants that would stick to your clothes resulting in velcro to gecko-skin-glue; when humans want to invent something new they turn to nature because quite often nature has been doing it for millennia.

Including flight.

Some of the most efficient flying creatures in nature are flying insects. For the limited amount of neurons they have, they are incredibly competent in terms of locomotion, navigation, and maneuverability. For a roboticist working in microscale flight, creating an autonomous flying device as small, light, and versable as an insect is the dream.

A robot scientist dreaming about a winged robot


Therefore, it is not a surprise that researchers study insects to improve their mini flying robots.

One example is a small quadcopter drone developed by Nakata et al., that inspired its collision avoidance system on the southern house mosquito. The researchers hypothesized that mosquitos actively sense sound and airflow specifically changes in the air patterns created by their wings as they move close to an obstacle.

Based on this system, the researchers designed a small drone that would sense an obstacle coming close, and automatically course-correct using this low-power sensing method.

Photo of a drone against the sunset
A drone, staring into the sunset, wishing it was smaller and more maneuverable…

Robotics + entomology = robontomology?

Creating flying robot-insects is not the only reason roboticists are interested in insects. The intersection between robotics and entomology can also be useful to better understand insect behavior.

For example, in an effort to answer the more basic question of how flying insects navigate in their environment, traditional methods proved to be quite limiting. Tethering an insect predictably interferes with flight, as does confining the insect to a room where tracking cameras can monitor their flight. In comes robotics: an open cage mount with an autonomous tracking camera (reactive controller), giving the flying insects free range to zoom, while being able to track the complex flying patterns of moths, fruit flies and mosquitos flying up to 3 m/s.

In other research, robot-insect hybrids can help understand insect brain function. By linking an insect brain to a small mechanical robot, the sensing response of different insects can be closely studied. For example, a Mantis-bot has been used to unravel the mechanism of mantis’ visual sensing and subsequent motor response.

The educational project BackYard Brains, which uses fun DIY experiments to explore the function of neurons and brains, also uses this robinsect approach to show how electrical impulses can control cockroach movement.

Video shows the BackYard Brains tool for steering a live (!) cockroach.

Backpack Beetles

Okay, last one, researchers made little camera backpacks for beetles because… well, it’s just cute as hell!

Picture of a beetle with a camera on its back on a bit of twig.
A Pinacate beetle explores the UW campus with a camera on its back. (Courtesy of Mark Stone/University of Washington)

Okay, no, rather than having a insect-sized robot walking around and taking pictures, the researchers made a considerably lighter camera-backpack that beetles could walk around and take pictures with! A big bottleneck for insect-sized-robotics is that these gadgets require power, and batteries are kind of heavy. So by reducing the gadget to a steerable arm with a camera on it on the back of a beetle, rather than making a whole robot that needs to move around and maneuver, the researchers managed to cut down signficiantly on the weight.

Also, it’s cute as hell!

Thanks for the robot-insect update, Valerie. But what about the Killer Bees?

For the Black Mirror fans, not to worry, no-one is making swarms of bees (yet).

Sources and original research papers linked throughtout the text.

A HeL(lof)a cell

If you’re ever done any cell culture, whether in a biology course, during grad school, or in an industrial research setting, chances are you’ve worked with HeLa cells.

About a week ago, I started drafting this post after my supervisor mentioned “I could just use any cell to test [a new protocol on], like, even HeLa cells.” Then today, via the Instagram account @womenengineerd, I learned Henrietta Lacks was born exactly 100 years ago (+ 3 days). So, it feels even more important to highlight this story: what are HeLa cells, who was Henrietta Lacks, and why is this all so important?

The source of a cell

In 1951, a poor Black woman went to the Johns Hopkins Hospital with cervical cancer. Without asking for permission, the doctors took some of the tumor cells to study and made a remarkable discovery: these cells continued to grow and survive in culture. They were immortal.

Later that year, that woman died, but her cells lived on for decades, and will likely continue to live on for many more. That woman’s name was Henrietta Lacks, and the cells she provided are a staple in practically every cell biology lab: HeLa cells.

 HeLa cells grown in tissue culture and stained with antibody to actin (green) , vimentin (red) and DNA (blue). Image courtesy of EnCor Biotechnology Inc. via Wikimedia commons

An immortal cell

Immortalized cells are incredibly useful for biological research. They can be taken from cancer biopsies (now with consent!) or created by inducing mutations in other cells, in both cases giving the cells the potential to live on forever.

Researchers can continue to grow them in culture, and use the for biological, biochemical, pharmaceutical, and biotechnological research. They are easy to work with, don’t really require any special attention because they just want to grow, grow, grow.

HeLa cells were the first cells that were immortalized, and have been used extensively ever since they were taken from Henrietta Lacks.

The legacy of Henrietta Lacks is immense. A search for “HeLa cells” on Google Scholar prompts 1,730,000 search results (not that this is an accurate estimate of actual research conducted with HeLa cells), and over 17,000 US patents use HeLa cells.

From my personal experience, it seems that HeLa cells are used everywhere, from undergrad cell biology labs to ground-breaking research in both academia and industry. It’s hard to say for sure how influential this one cell type has been, or how much money it has made the companies selling them.

The irony of immortality

But while HeLa cells have been one of the most important ingredients for modern biology, neither Henrietta Lacks nor Lacks’ family recieved any of the benefits. It was not until the 70s that her family was even informed that their relative’s cells were used in such a widespread way. Furthermore, HeLa cells were bringing in the big bucks, while her family had little money (ironically, some of them could not afford health insurance).

As I’ve stated, I’ve used HeLa cells. Cells that were extracted from a Black woman without her knowledge or her consent. Cells that have made companies millions, without any contribution to her family. Cells that have helped us understand basic biology and the function of genes and proteins in our body, that have helped develop new medicines and treatments for cancer, that have taught many of us the principles of cell culture, all without teaching us their origin story and problematic history.

What now?

I’m not saying we should no longer use certain cells, but we should be at least be aware of potential problematic histories. Johns Hopkins University has been working with the Lacks family to honour Henrietta’s legacy, since the 50s, standards of consent and research ethics have been established, and Henrietta’s story is more widely known thank to a book and a movie.

Nevertheless, as far as I can find, her descendants have not been compensated in any way. In a 2017 interview, her grandson Ron stated: “It’s not all about the money. My family has had no control of the family story, no control of Henrietta’s body, no control of Henrietta’s cells, which are still living and will make some more tomorrow.”

So, right after what would have been her 100th birthday, what can we do to give control back to her family?

Sources & further reading:

Into the WikiWorld

Person typing on a mac laptop

We all know Wikipedia. It’s almost impossible not to. 

For me, from a quick look-up of some fact to prove your point in an argument with friends, to double-checking a chemical structure for schoolwork, or to translate an obscure plant name I can’t think of the English name for; I’ve used Wikipedia consistently for well over a decade.

I’ve always known that Wikipedia was an online encyclopedia than anyone could edit. But I’d never even considered making an edit myself. Until one day in April, I received an email from 500 Women Scientists with the opportunity to attend a 6-week wiki-editing course. I’d already been working from home for a few weeks, with a considerably lower workload than usual, and – to be honest – not quite sure what to do with myself. So, I jumped on the opportunity to learn how to use the skills I already have — hey, I’m a scientist, I’ve been researching and writing and fact-checking for years! — to make Wikipedia a more inclusive place.

500 Women Scientists Wikipedia

About 10 women scientists gathered twice a week to learn how to edit Wikipedia with one main goal: putting more women on Wikipedia. I was saddened, but not surprised, to learn that of all the biographies on Wikipedia, only ~18% are about women. That percentage is ~16% if we only look at academic biographies, and it drops down to ~6.5% for female engineers, my own field. 

One potential reason for this is that a lot of Wikipedia editors are men. And – likely due to implicit bias – they write and edit articles about… other men. Even if the academic world is becoming more inclusive, this isn’t necessarily reflected on the online encyclopedia that everyone uses. 

And that’s a problem. Middle or high schoolers looking to learn more about notable figures in a field of interest and don’t find anyone who looks like them or comes from a similar background, might be turned off from pursuing studies in that field. So that’s where 500 Women Scientists Wikipedia comes in. By increasing representation of women in the academic biography category of Wikipedia, either by improving existing articles or writing new ones (for example through the Women in Red Wikiproject, which aims to write articles for “redlinked” women), we could improve representation and therefore make Wikipedia a better and more inclusive resource.

That all sounds good, but how?

Okay, so I knew I wanted to make Wikipedia more inclusive and I knew why, but that didn’t really help me with the “why.” Again, the fact that anyone can edit, doesn’t make me feel comfortable doing so right away! Luckily, the WikiEducators (if that’s the term, the course was organized by WikiEducation, and everything related to Wikipedia seems to have “Wiki” in it!), walked us through the core policies of Wikipedia, the do’s and don’t, and helped us through our first article edits.

Here is a list of things that stuck (but you can find all that is relevant to editing Wikipedia, on – you guessed it! – Wikipedia):

  • Statements on Wikipedia must be verifiable, which does not mean they are necessarily true. It just means there’s a sourceable body of work to back up the statement. This feels counterintuitive (shouldn’t we be writing “the truth”?) but it ensures there are reliable sources for everything on Wikipedia.
  • Wikipedia is not a place for opinion; articles should reflect a neutral point of view. I did like that this meant according to consensus, as opposed to the journalistic rule of equal time. For example, if 90% of climate researchers are in agreement that climate change is real, that viewpoint should be reflected for 90% of the article.
  • To have a biography on Wikipedia, a person must be notable. They have to meet criteria with regards to their academic achievements, prizes won, and impact to merit a presence on the online encyclopedia. In an academic culture where men are typically still more valued than women, this can be another factor for why there are so few biographies about women on Wikipedia.
  • The definition of Wikipedia as an “online encyclopedia” is incredibly broad, and apparently it’s easier to define what Wikipedia is not.
  • You can contribute to Wikipedia in several different ways, whether it’s writing new content, taking care of layout, correcting spelling and grammar, or making Wikipedia more aesthetically pleasing (just to name a few). 

Making the first edit

The first edit was scary! 

What if I made a mistake? What if I undid someone else’s edit and step on their toes? What if I did something that was inherently anti-Wikipedian?

Wikipedia’s mantra is “Be Bold” – make the change! The beauty of a massively open, crowd-sourced, and peer-reviewed platform is that almost everyone there is willing to help. It’s not seen as a faux-pas to make mistakes, and if you do, someone else will come along and fix it. Accidentally left in a typo? Someone will fix it. Mistakenly got a fact not quite right? Someone will fix it. Change someone’s important edits without noticing? They can come back and undo your change. And Wikipedia keeps track of all the changes in the “history” tab, making the whole editing process transparent and traceable.

Shia telling us to JUST DO IT!
Don’t let your dreams be dreams.

Working on the second article was considerably easier. Sure, there are still some really tricky things, like adding images or editing boxes, but overall making edits on Wikipedia is really easy!

“So fix it”

Another Wikipedia Mantra is “So fix it”: if you see something wrong, make it better. 

If you see a lack of representation, write a new article. Make existing articles better (I was surprised to learn about how some articles in the outer corners of Wikipedia are not great). Increasing representation is not just about getting more women biographies on Wikipedia. Black, Indigenous and People of Color academics are more underrepresented on Wikipedia than they are in academia (thanks to the #editWikipedia4BlackLives effort on June 10th and ongoing efforts from the people involved, that will hopefully change), and Pride month brings LBGTQA+ themed “editathons” (sessions where groups of people edit pages together). Wikipedia is a group effort, and together we can all make Wikipedia better: more representative, more inclusive, and more equitable. I myself plan to edit or write one article a week! 💪

Statistics from the course dashboard showing 10 articles created, 96 artickes edited, 1.12K total edits, 20 editors, 38.4K words added, 484 references added, and 99.6K view of edited articles.
Our cohort created 10 articles and edited 96 for a total of 1.12K edits! (retrieved July 3, 2020)

Find out more:

Learn more about WikiEducation, or get started on editing yourself with these open-source resources: https://outreachdashboard.wmflabs.org/training/editing-wikipedia

Read about another 500 Women Scientist member’s experience: https://blogs.agu.org/geoedtrek/2020/07/13/every-edit-counts/

They gave me a certificate, so it’s official!

Eunice Foote and the greenhouse effect

In the last few months, a lot of us have been confined to our homes. We no longer commute daily to our workplace, spend less time stuck in traffic, and have canceled our travel plans. With fewer cars on the road, airplanes in the sky, and shut down of some industrial activities, global CO2-emissions are likely to have decreased. In fact, a recent paper has estimated the emission reductions based on predictive models and reported on a daily globar CO2-emissions decrease by ~17% by April 2020 compared with mean 2019 levels.

The same paper predicts that the total average emission of 2020 will decrease somewhere between 4% and 7% compared to the 2019 average depending on the duration of confinement.

It is agreed upon by most of the scientific community, that changes in the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere have an effect on global temperature, this fact will likely not surprise you. But perhaps it will surprise you that this has been known for a long time.

Not just for a few decades. But for two centuries.*

Climate science in the 19th century, yes, it was a thing.

In the early 19th century, scientists had a suspicion that the earth’s atmosphere had the ability to keep the planet warm by transmitting visible light but absorbing infrared light (or heat), and that human activity could change the atmosphere’s temperature, including Joseph Fourier, who mentioned “the progress of human societies” having the potential to – in the course of many centuries – change the “average degree of heat” in an 1827 paper.

In 1859, Fourier’s theoretical musings were turned into experiments, when John Tyndall, an Irish physicist, published his study investigating the absorption of infrared in different gases. This was the first** experiment showing how heat absorption by the atmosphere could lead to temperature rises, and that certain gasses absorb more heat than others, such as water vapor, methane, and CO2.

John Tyndall’s experimental setup.

Three years earlier…

But wait! Three years before Tyndall’s paper, another paper had appeared in the American Journal for Science and Arts: Circumstances affecting the Heat of the Sun’s Rays, showing how the sun’s rays interacted with different gases, concluding that CO2 trapped the most heat compared to air and hydrogen. The paper was by a woman named Eunice Newton Foote.***

There are no known photos of Eugene Newton Foote, so here is a photo of her daughter, Mary Foote Henderson, instead.

Now, years after her experiments and findings, Foote is credited to be the first scientist to have experimented on the warming effect of the sun’s light on the earth’s atmosphere and the first to theorize that changing levels of CO2 would change the global temperature. In her paper, she stated that:

“An atmosphere of that gas would give to our earth a high temperature; and if, as some suppose, at one period of its history, the air had mixed with it a larger proportion than at present, an increased temperature from its own action, as well as from increased weight, must have necessarily resulted.”

Foote (1819-1888) was a farmer’s daughter and lived in a time where women were typically not considered scientists. She did not have a sophisticated laboratory, so her experimental setup was rather amateurish compared to Tyndall’s a few years later. When her results were presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference, it was not by her, but by Professor Joseph Henry of the Smithsonian.

Eunice Foote’s experiment for her studies on greenhouse gases, as recreated in the 2018 short film “Eunice.”
Eunice Foote’s experiment for her studies on greenhouse gases, as recreated in the 2018 short film “Eunice.” Credit: Paul Bancilhon and Matteo Marcolini

While she gained some recognition for her work at the time, it was rather limited and forgotten by history. Henry presented her work at the conference, prefacing the talk with: “Science was of no country and of no sex. The sphere of woman embraces not only the beautiful and the useful, but the true.” and she was praised in September 1856 issue of Scientific American titled “Scientific Ladies.”

It wasn’t until 2010, however, when her paper was rediscovered by a retired petroleum geologist, that her name was slowly put back on the climate science map.

Three strikes, and you’re out!

According to John Perlin, who wrote a book about Foote:

“She had three strikes against her. She was female. She was an amateur. And she was an American.”

There weren’t very many female scientists at the time. Women had a hard time getting formal (science) education.

She did not have a traditional science education and her experimental setup was nowhere near the sophistication of Tyndall’s. her experiment was a lot more simple than Tyndall’s and was limited in its results: she was not able to distinguish between visible and infrared radiation. But her serendipitous discovery that CO2 traps more heat than the other gases she tested, and her hypothesis about changing atmospheric CO2 affecting global temperature, were the first of their kind.

Finally, Europe was still the epicenter of scientific discovery at the time. The US, and physics in the US, was still very much up and coming. At the same time, communicating discoveries overseas without glass fibers and internet was just not as trivial as it is today.

For many decades, John Tyndall was considered the father of climate science, and granted, he was the first to show that certain gases absorbed more heat radiation (rather than radiation in general) than other gases. But Foote was the mother, first theorizing what we now know to be true: changing levels of atmospheric CO2 result in changes in global temperature. And now, almost two centuries later, she’s remembered for it.

So while you’re working from home and putting less CO2 in the atmosphere as a result, spare a little thought for woman scientist who first linked CO2 with temperature. And that the fact that she did, is pretty amazing.

I highly recommend this Cogito video on the history of Climate Change:

* ± a decade or two. But who’s counting?

** spoiler: it was not.

*** This Foote-note is just for the pun.

I’m into vinyl, baby

Rainbow colored vinyl record

Hi hipsters.

I’m currently in a room with probably about 250 records. None of them are actually mine (except perhaps this one), but the presence of this amount of vinyl has got me on several thought-trains; remembering when I was back home with my parents going through their 70s and 80s music collection while writing my thesis, or when I was basically doing the Pomodoro technique by working on thesis corrections in chunks equal to however long a side of an lp would play; wondering why people are so into vinyl; wondering how sound can possibly make it onto a piece of polymer that can be read out by a needle, and why are some vinyl records black and other super colorful?

What is vinyl? How is vinyl? Why is vinyl?

Okay, I did some digging. Luckily, I possess the ability (and currently, excess of time) to surf the internet and learn things. Through blog posts, very satisfying YouTube videos, and WikiHows, it’s easy to find out how things are made. But let’s dig a bit deeper and look into the production, chemistry and other science around vinyl.

So, go put on your favorite music, on vinyl or otherwise, sit back and read on.

Vinyl: what’s in a name?

Vinyl is a synthetic material containing a specific chemical group (surprisingly named the “vinyl group”) with the chemical formula -CH=CH2:

Chemical formula of the vinyl group
Chemical structure of the vinyl group, via Wikipedia (image by Edgar181 in public domain)

Vinyl is also the common name used for the polymer Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC). Polymers are long chains of molecules that have a repeating unit. Polymers are resent everywhere in nature (think proteins and DNA) as well as in man-made materials (synthetic rubbers, plastics, …). In the case of PVC, a repeating unit is a vinyl group with chloride tagged on. This plastic is made from ethylene (from crude oil) and chorine (derived from salt) and looks like a long repeating chain of:

Repeating unit of PVC polymer chain.
Repeating unit of PVC, via Wikipedia (image by NEUROtiker in public domain)

For vinyl making, PVC arrives in pellets that can be melted together and molded into a putty (apparently called a “biscuit”). This is pressed between two plates that contain the negative pattern of the grooves containing the music. Wait… let’s start from the beginning…

The making of a record: Cut, Plate, Press

Vinyl records are made through the process of cutting, plating, and pressing.

Schematic representation of the sound-to-record process
Vinyl record production in a nutshell. Or rather, a flow chart.

In the first step, recorded sound is etched onto what is called a lacquer disc, which is a flat aluminum disk coated with a layer of nitrocellulose lacquer (basically a layer of nail polish). Recording machines (called lathes) have a very sharp very very sharp heated sapphire tip that will cut grooves into the surface of a blank lacquer disc due to the vibrations of the recording. This lacquer disc can theoretically be played back (which is also done for quality checking), but the material is too delicate for repeat plays.

A record engraver from 1950
Presto 8N Acetate disc engraver (1950) used by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, via Wikipedia (image by oaktree_brian_1976, CC BY-SA 2.0)

It is ideal, however, to create a stamper, the mold used to make vinyl records. To make a stamper, the lacquer disk is first coated with a silver solution. Then, this shiny disk is immersed in a tin or nickel chloride bath for electroplating: tin or nickel particles in the solution are attracted to the silver particles coating the lacquer disk and form a metal layer. This layer will have the opposite structure compared to the lacquer disk: instead of grooves, the physical representation of the sound will be protruding out.

The stamper is then used to press a bit of vinyl putty into a finished record. The two stamper sides (one for A and one for B) are heated to ~ 180°C (~ 350F). The malleable PVC biscuit is placed between the stampers, which are then pushed together by hydraulic pressure – imprinting grooves onto the PVC. Excess PVC spilling over the edges is cut off, et voila, the record is ready to play. This pressing process takes less than 30 seconds and thus the same mold can be reused to make a whole pile of vinyl records with the same music!

You can read in more detail about the vinyl record production process on the internet, for example on How Are Vinyl Records Made? or How Are Vinyl Records Made? (Step-by-Step Guide).

Wait, what about colored vinyl?

PVC is colorless in it’s raw form, so to create that typically black record look, PVC pellets are colored using carbon black. This is the same material that makes car tires black. In cars, it has the excellent properties of being conductive – making sure there’s no static electricity building up in your tires – and of making rubber sturdy. In vinyl, it also reinforces the polymer making the material stronger and more stable over time, ensuring that you can play the record time and time again with the same sound quality (-ish).

Now, PVC pellets can be colored to create different colors using different dyes. Historically, these dyes would not have the same reinforcing effect as carbon black, but nowadays the difference in quality is negligible. In fact, production mistakes have a bigger effect on sound quality and durability than leaving out carbon black.

Not just any color is possible, but some amazing effects can be “melted” into the records, quite reminiscent of glass blowing.

A vinyl record with a cool colorful pattern
Cool effects are made by mixing dyed PVC pellets together.
(Soundtrack for the game Hohokum)

Edit on 4/24/2020: This is extremely satisfying and relevant:

From imgur

Another option is picture disks, which consist of 3 distinct layers: one layer is a clear PVC layer without any music, the second layer has the picture, and the third layer is a clear plastic sheet containing the grooves for the music. This final plastic layer is more malleable than PVC and therefore not as durable; picture records (and glow-in-the-dark records) are more susceptible to loss in durability and sound quality but you’d have to be a real expert to really notice.

An example of a picture record
Thanks to multiple layers, records can feature characters staring into the distance.
(Soundtrack for the game Final Fantasy VII)

Keep on turning

There you go, you have all the information you need to become a vinyl record collector. And impress other record collectors with your knowledge on vinyl. Shall we talk LaTeX next time?

Part of a record collection
A sample of A’s record collection

Sources linked throughout the text. Cover image is from Bit.Trip’s “Greatest Chips”

Attending a conference in your PJs

We can’t hold public gatherings anymore. So conferences and meetings are moving to virtual, which is… interesting?

Last month, I attended Science Talk 2020 (#SciTalk20), an annual conference about everything that’s science communication that’s usually held in Portland, OR. Not this year. This year is was on the internet.

I’ve never been – it’s passed on my radar the past few years, especially because Portland isn’t that far, but the combination of no longer being a student (so no student attendance fees) and the time/effort/cost of travelling (let’s face it, sometimes I’m just lazy), meant I never made the trip down.

This year however, there was no trip required, and I knew I’d probably have the time to attend (two afternoons), so why not? I love the scicomm community on Twitter and this could be a new way to connect.

With no in-person attendees, the SciTalkOrg had to improvise to make a group picture. Where is Waldo challenge: can you find me?
(Image from SciTalkOrg’s twitter post)

You can read a blog post from one of the organizers on how the event went, but here are some of my thoughts as an attendee.

Conferencing at your own pace

I like attending conferences, but sometimes I’m just so tired at the end of the day from always being on. I enjoyed going to the #AAAS2020* meeting partially because I could just go home straight after. Sure, part of conferences – and I might argue perhaps one of the most important parts – is networking, those coffee breaks and meet-ups in bars and connecting over drinks, but attending a conference from your lazy desk chair has some perks:

  • You can get up and grab a coffee or go to the bathroom whenever you want without feeling like you’re bothering the speaker by getting up.
  • You can shamelessly doodle, knit, cross-stitch, … whatever type of “mindless” activity you like without feeling self-conscious. I particularly like this, because even during the most interesting of talks, I have the tendency to fall asleep, and doing something with my hands helps me stay awake.
  • You don’t have to dress up. Well, attend a conference in your PJs. Super comfy. You don’t even need to pack!
  • The catering is as amazing as you make it!

Running chat

One of my favorite things of the conference was the chat room, similar to the chat in a live-streamed YouTube video: constantly running in the background. It was pretty amazing to talk (mostly about the ongoing session but sure, there were also jokes) without bothering the speaker, at another conference, whispering in the back row would be frowned upon.

The chat room gave attendees the opportunity to network and provide resources directly. A lot of questions came up live, discussions got started, etc. It was like having a live tweet feed but a bit faster. In addition to the live-streamed speaker sessions, coffee breaks (with a chat open) gave people to opportunity to connect, discuss, and joke around.

Me during a flash talk, clearly in my leisure clothes. You can see the chat on the right.

So should all conferences go virtual?

Nah, of course not. There are aspects to in-person conferences that would be very difficult to implement virtually, such as networking events, (some) interactive workshops, and exhibition halls. But live-streaming can definitely make conferences more interactive, and accessible. Rethinking how conferences are organized can potentially increase their impact: can some conferences completely or partially be held online to reach more people? Do we really always have to travel halfway across the world for a meeting?

The organizers of #SciTalk20 showed that moving a meeting online in a matter of weeks is possible, with great speakers, wonderful attendees, and a disco party to end with.

* The annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. You can read some of my session reports here, here, and here.

Friends of the Science Pod: Keys to successful (science) podcasting

Image of a microphone with the text "Science Podcasting"

Report on the session “Friends of the Science Pod: Broadcasting, outreach and professional networking” at the 2020 meeting of the Americal Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS2020)

There’s no way around it: podcasting is the-new-thing. And for science communicators, podcasting sounds like a perfect way to participate in science communication, with the potential to reach audiences across borders and disciplines. During the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Dr. Christopher Lynn (Department of Anthropology, University of Alabama), Dr. Sarah Myhre (Executive Director of the Rowan Institute Seattle; 500 Women Scientists), and Dr. Jo Weaver (Department of International Studies, University of Oregon) gathered together to talk about public scholarship, advancing your scientific career on the sound waves, and the ins and outs of podcasting. For science.

Public Scholarship: science is political

Dr. Sarah Myhre, cohost of “Warm Regards” – a podcast about the warming planet, started off the discussion by introducing the concept of being a public scholar. A researcher is embedded in society, and it is therefore impossible to be apolitical. Following the path paved by women of color, Sarah urged us to participate in public scholarship, rather than science communication.

While science communication is by no means unimportant – it brings science closer to communities by making researchers more personable, teaches academics to use clear language and stay clear of jargon, while conveying accurate information from a position of scientific authority – it has some limitations. For one, it lacks a thorough analysis of power. Science communication, in some forms, can be too much of a one-way street.

With public scholarship, however, being in conversation with the community is a central pillar. It takes into account that talking in public spaces makes the untrue assumption that anyone can engage, without taking into account that there is a higher barrier for people from marginalized communities. There are different ways to achieve public scholarship, such as organizing and hosting events, podcasting, writing Op-Eds, and moderating panels.

When creating media – such as a podcast or an OpEd – one should expect a deeply inequitable landscape and be actively countering the harm around you.

Sarah closed off her part of the session with an exercise for the audience: one person was to tell a story while the other actively listened but without showing any form of expression or acknowledgment. It was very uncanny not to receive any body language cues. Very useful though, for in a podcast, the audience is not there to provide direct feedback!

Why Podcast?

There are several reasons to start a podcast, even in the sea of the already so many existing ones! Dr. Christopher Lynn, who co-hosts a podcast on human biological variation in evolutionary, social, historical, and environmental context called “Sausage of Science,” started his talk by pointing out that “the world doesn’t need anything more than what it already has but they might like it anyway?”

Image of a microphone with a quote from Dr Christopher Lynn: " the world doesn't need anything more than what it already has, but they might like it anyway?"

A first valid reason to start a podcast is to propagate good science. But you might also want to promote yourself and gain recognition that can help enhance and advance your career. For grants, podcasting might count as a broader impact. Furthermore, through podcasting, you will build useful, transferable skills. Chris jokes: “Take the scientific approach: do everything once and then hire someone to do the things you don’t like.”

Dr. Jo Weaver, who hosts “Speaking of Race” – a podcast on racial science, chose the topic of her podcast after realizing that racial science was not really being taught anywhere. When they started their podcast, they brainstormed topics while asking the question: What do we think listeners want to hear? – and the rest followed. With 12 topics, the first mini-series was planned out. Because planning is crucial to maintain continuity throughout a podcast series. 

Jo went into some podcasting production details, including making the choice between doing an interview – or content-based podcast. Interviews require less preparation but are considerably harder to edit afterwards. Content-based podcasts are the opposite: there is more preparation required but once you follow a script, there is less editing work to do. And going for a hybrid basically requires a full production team. 

Advancing your career through podcasting

Jo continued by telling us her journey to getting her podcasting efforts more recognized at her institution. It is the general feeling that “If you’re on the tenure track, you need to be publishing.” From the university’s side, podcasting is not really considered a form of scholarship, so there’s no incentive to support it. It is one of those activities that institutions like to “brag” about when it’s successful, but not incentivize from the start.

However, there are several ways to get a podcast count towards an academic record. There are two main options:

  1. Turning content into a more traditional format, including an editing volume, theoretical (methodology) or research articles, “popular” academic writing.
  2. Convincing your institution that podcasting is a useful medium that counts as a teaching and research tool. 

Towards the second point, podcasts can be “peer-reviewed,” not only through their popularity rating but also by getting peers to review scripts or write letters of endorsement. To get your university to pay attention, it is helpful to find a supportive admin, lobby your institution as a group, and/or negotiate upfront in your contract.

The importance of having a brand

The session ended with Chris talking about networking and branding. He pointed out that he, as a tenured, white male, had an easy time doing things without fear and repercussion. Nevertheless, putting your research out in the public is a worthwhile endeavor. 

He paralleled his experience as a podcaster and a blogger. Through writing a lot (for a blog), you get a lot better at writing. Keep in mind that it is very likely that there will be more people reading your blog – or listening to your podcast – than reading your journal article! Blogs and podcasts allow you to build a platform. If you ever go to an editor to write a book, coming with a built-in audience will strengthen your case.

From a practical point of view, Chris advised us to think like a journalist: follow leads, use “strings” to create a narrative appeal, make sure you have an attention grabber (a “hook”) and know that both quality and quantity are important. High production quality, such as editing and sound for a podcast, will ensure that your audience sticks with you. And by putting out a high quantity of content, people will be more aware of you.

So – should you start a podcast?

That’s up to you! In any case, the session was informative, relaying tons of practical tips on how to be effective at podcasting – and thought-provoking – bringing up interesting discussions around public scholarship and non-traditional forms of publication. I would highly recommend to go listen to some podcasts, and see if you can find your niche!

Towards more inclusive scicomm

Report on the session “Building Community for Inclusive Public Engagement with Science” at the 2020 meeting of the Americal Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS2020)

Many researchers and institutions participate in public engagement, including organizing public outreach activities and science communication events to help bridge the gap between science and the community. Unfortunately, too often parts of the community are not reached. Only people who are already interested in science come to a public talk, school outreach activities reach schools in more privileged areas, and the needs of communities are not taken into account when developing engagement projects.

Live sketch during the session by Alex Cagan

During the session on “Building Community for Inclusive Public Engagement with Science,” held on Thursday, February 13, 2020, during the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS) annual meeting, this exact topic was addressed. The session was moderated by Sunshine Menezes (Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting, Kingston, RI), who introduced the speakers and outlined the scope of the panel: how we can be more intentional, reciprocal and reflexive in working towards more inclusive science communication. Those three words summarize the key traits of science communication:

  1. Intentionality: Are we actively thinking about who the target audience is and whether their identities and histories are being represented?
  2. Reciprocity: Are we learning from each other? Are the conversations based on what people bring rather than what they lack?
  3. Reflexivity: Are we evaluating our science communication strategies?

All three points came back in some form in three talks during the session.

Supporting Culture and Identity – Carrie Tzou

The first speaker, Carrie Tzou (University of Washington, Bothell, WA) spoke about supporting culture and identity in science education with equity-focused engagement. What educators should remember is that “when people enter into the practices of science and engineering, they do not leave their cultural worldviews at the door. Instruction that fails to recognize this reality can adversely affect engagement in science” [NRC, 2012, p. 284].

Learning is essentially cultural: what a person learns and how they learn depends on the community they are from. As a Western society, we often forget that for people of different cultures to learn our science, they also have to learn our culture!

Carrie Tzou outlined some strategies for learning that can be implemented to ensure that culture and identity are supported during learning. These include self-documentation, partnerships, and self-assessment. As an example of self-documentation, she told us about a project where students were given prompts, such as “how does your family use water?” to go take pictures in their daily life. This approach connects family and community to learning while broadening the definition of “what counts as science.”

By expanding what constitutes “science” – who does science, what counts as science, and in what contexts – personal identities and culture are supported in learning. Everyone can identify as a scientist and achieve scientific discoveries. As a final point, seeing science as part of justice movements offers new possibilities to understand the relationship between science, equity, and justice.

Seeing Yourself in the Data – Monica Ramirez

Monica Ramirez (University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ) showed us some participatory research projects she had worked on: co-created environmental health citizen science. She worked with “promatoras” – professionals with a similar cultural background as the person you’re trying to reach, helping to bridge the gap between “ivory tower researchers” and the community. In order to develop a successful citizen science project, she had the following tips:

  1. People want to participate if there is a community need, not just for the “advancement of knowledge.” Let the research question stem from the community, as solving a community-identified problem will contribute highly to the motivation of participants.
  2. Build meaningful relationships, by implementing personal support structures and peer education models (cfr. promatoras).
  3. Consider that participants might have limited time and/or access to technology, and incorporate this in the study design.

Equity Oriented Practice in Pre- and Early Career SciComm Professionals – Rabiah Mayas

Finally, Rabiah Mayas from the Museum of Science and Industry (MSI, Chicago, IL) gave a museum-perspective to creating inclusive scicomm. At the MSI, there is a training program for STEM graduate students who want to get into science communication. 

The program structure is inspired by traditional teaching education: initial academic preparation, supported practical experience in the classroom, and finally a lead educator position. In the scicomm space, this looks like training in best practices and K-12 teaching, as well as improvisation exercises. Participants are then allowed to try out their newly learned skills in the museum, allowing space to fail – because you only get good by failing! 


While the world of STEM and scicomm is looking more and more diverse, we still have a long way to go. By building comfort around the language of inclusivity, creating spaces where it’s safe to have these “uncomfortable” discussions, stay aware of our personal identity while pursuing science, we can move towards more inclusivity and diversity. The three speakers of the session have definitely shown it can be done. 

Recommended reading:

Informal Science’s toolkit for science engagement professionals: https://www.informalscience.org/broadening-perspectives

Perspective article on a critical approach to science communication: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fcomm.2020.00002/full

Engaging diverse citizen scientists: https://ui.adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/2018AGUFMNH43B1036B/abstract

Make ’em Laugh

Science Comedy Header

Report on the session “Make ’em Laugh: Science Comedy to Ignite Curiosity and Increase Self-confidence” organized by the Marie Curie Alumni Association at the 2020 meeting of the Americal Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS2020)

Science is the pursuit of knowledge. But what is the point of research if this knowledge is not communicated to others? Comedy is one way to connect people, and it could be the key to bridge the science community with a society that is often susceptible to fake news and clickbait. 

At the annual meeting of AAAS, which took place from February 13–16, 2020 in Seattle, we organized a workshop to learn how to make people laugh with, and sometimes at, science. The session was organized by Valentina Ferro (Vice-Chair of the MCAA) and Valerie Bentivegna (Chair of the MCAA Communication Workgroup) and was facilitated by Adam Ruben (American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington, DC) and Matthew Murtha (MCAA). 

Here are some of the take-home messages.

Comedy — the “rules”

Comedy, like many forms of entertainment, has some formulas that are guaranteed to work. Okay, I’m lying here. But there are some general rules that seem to help when working on a joke.

One format is “the list of three.” Lists of three are quite common in storytelling, and in comedy, this can be by surprising the audience on the third item with a twist. Let’s take the example from The Dick Van Dyke Show

“Can I get you anything? Cup of coffee? Doughnut? Toupee?” 

A cup of coffee is an ordinary thing to offer someone, and so is a donut. But it’s the third element that takes the audience by surprise and makes them laugh. The element of surprise is the other big part of comedy: keep the audience on their feet.

On the other hand, being too formulaic or too predictive can work against you. It might be better to just be silly, remember to have fun, and break the rules if they don’t work for you!

Bring comedy into your “boring” science presentations

I’m not saying science presentations are always boring, but let’s be honest, often they are. Bringing in some comedy into your science can be a way to lighten things up, but you might want to be careful when you’re early in your career. A close-to-pension, established, tenured scientist with nothing to prove can easily add humor into their talks without sounding unprofessional, but, as an early career scientist, you don’t want the humor to undermine your scientific message.

However, there are some tools from stand-up comedy that can help with your science talk:

  1. A microphone is not a wand. Don’t wave it around like you expect a Patronus to come out of it. Microphones work best when they are held an inch from your mouth, and you can help anchor it by placing your thumb on your chin or directly putting the mic on your chin. On a microphone note: use it! Don’t think the back of the room can hear you if you “project your voice,” not to mention that there might be some hard of hearing people that rely on you speaking through the microphone.
  2. Practice. Practice. Practice. You can be nervous to speak in front of a room full of people, but you should not be nervous about forgetting what you’re going to say.
  3. Communicate and connect with your audience. A good way to do this is by going into a talk with the motivation that you have something fascinating to tell, not because you have to.
  4. Use your slides wisely. Mostly images, bullet points for the rest. There are plenty of online resources to help you create amazingly effective (or effectively amazing) slides, find one that works for you!
  5. Constantly be thinking about what the room is thinking. Don’t be the last person to know something odd happening in the room. If something falls, or your projection is cutting out, or anything else is happening that the audience can’t help but miss, don’t ignore it.

So how can you put some humor in your science talk without overdoing it? Use the element of surprise: an unexpected funny photo or meme could get you some laughs without distracting from your data.

One final point

The best advice anyone can ever give is to be likable. Be authentic and relatable. And if you do want to go into comedy, just do it. Often. Go to open mics and try out your stuff. You will bomb sometimes, but it’s by failing that you’ll get better!

Want the learn more about #ScienceComedy? Depending on where you live, there are plenty of opportunities to work on your stand-up skills or just learn how to implement comedy into your science! Some examples are:

This post was originally published on the Marie Curie Alumni Association Medium Page.