Let’s stop being robots!

Recently I’ve had a lot of conversations about how scientists are trained to take the human out of their experiments as much as possible. The conclusion of these conversations is that maybe we’ve gone too far and trained scientists that they should strive to be as non-human as possible. Right now, it seems that scientists are supposed to be robots who work millions of hours a week, have no personality, and have no work-life balance. For example, I often feel guilty about leaving lab early to go to a doctor’s appointment or about not going to lab on the weekend. Besides encouraging young scientists to stop seeking out ways to enrich their lives and take care of themselves, this “robot scientist” culture also really hurts science communication with the public because we end up talking at other humans instead of with them.

Potassium being “Cardbo” the robot in her old lab at the University of New Mexico (SUPER BONUS POINTS if you know where Cardbo is from).

Robot scientists are sad to me because science needs some human component. We need creative (and healthy) people to come up with cool ways to solve really hard problems! We also need to be able to tell the world what’s happening in our labs so that people can learn about cool new science/have opinions on the proper usage of new technology/etc.

So today I want to talk about science communication basics. How can we stop being robots and have productive conversations in which we talk with each other and not at each other? Note: these ideas are important for all conversations – not just science conversations, so you’re not off the hook today, nonscientists. This semester, I am co-teaching a science communication class for junior and senior science majors at CU. To help our students work on science communication, we ask them to think about the intentions behind what they say. Obviously, there is the main intention: to share some kind of knowledge/opinion with an audience (e.g. kale is good for you, don’t smoke, climate change is real, etc). Then there are all these subtle intentions that maybe we don’t think about as much. What other messages are hidden in the main message? Are we concerned friends (Hey, I know you’ve been having XYZ issues and I found that eating kale really helped me feel better…), are we impartial people who are experts on a topic (Kale is good for your body for these main reasons…), or are we secretly judging our audience for not eating as much kale as we do (if you don’t eat kale then you clearly don’t care about your body…)? There are so many secret intentions hidden in the way we communicate that it’s really important to think about all the types of messages we aim to get across (and the types of messages that are hidden in our preferred news sources).

After we figure out our intentions (all of them, not just the main one), it’s important to think about what our personal values are with respect to the topic and how they differ from the values of our intended audience. If they don’t align at all, it’s time to get creative. How will we communicate our messages in a way that aligns with all of our intentions and still shows respect for our audience’s opinions and values? I’m not really sure what the answer is but I think it requires some insight and the capability to act like humans and take responsibility for all of our intentions (not just the main one).

Now it’s your turn to continue our science conversation. I want to learn more about you. What would you like to talk about now? Diseases (Cancer, Zika virus, Salmonella, etc)? Science words that sound scary but are probably just fancy ways of saying normal words? More on reading about science (such as how to interpret numbers, pictures, and graphs)? More on science communication? More on jobs for scientists? Are there non-sciencey things you want me to talk about?

In other news, I am thinking about transitioning the science part of this blog to its own blog, updated bimonthly. Thoughts?

Cucumbers, cats, and how to read about science

Yay science posts are back! Today we are (finally) going to start that daunting question about how to read about science by talking a little about experimental design and what to look for when trying to read about a science topic in the news. There’s a lot going on here so take your time and leave me a comment if something didn’t make sense or you want to know more about something.

Let’s start at the beginning. All science starts with a question, such as “Why are cats afraid of cucumbers?” Then, in order to start answering the question, the scientists have to come up with a hypothesis – their educated guess for an answer. For example, “Cats are afraid of cucumbers because they are green.”

Now comes the tricky part. Scientists have to design an experiment that directly tests their hypothesis. This part is tricky because there are always a ton of potential answers and scientists need to figure out how control their experiment so that solely it tests their hypothesis and doesn’t bring any other factors into the mix. For example, if we wanted to test whether cats hate green, we’d want to control our experiment so we wouldn’t accidentally be testing the cats’ response to different shapes or smells.

Designing a good experiment is really complicated. It’s made even worse by the fact that the very systems that some scientists study are filled with differences. For example, all humans share more than 99% of the same DNA but think about how unique we all are (even identical twins who have exactly the same DNA). The term we use for this phenomenon is called “heterogeneous” and scientists are finding to this day that organisms with the exact same DNA can act completely differently from each other. So with all of this crazy heterogeneity in mind, another way scientists can be cautious about designing experiments that solely test their hypothesis is to replicate the experiment a lot or test multiple subjects (cats, people, bacteria, etc).

Replicating an experiment is really important. For example, if I put a cucumber behind my cat and she doesn’t freak out, can I really conclude that all cats are not afraid of cucumbers? Let’s add some replicates in there! I could put a cucumber behind my cat 10 days in a row and then determine if she continues to stay nonplussed by the cucumber. I could also try putting a cucumber behind my cat at different times of the day to determine if it depends on the time of day. Or I could put cucumbers behind a variety of cats to determine if my cat is just weird and likes cucumbers. All of these ideas would add replicates to my experiment and help me identify if my results are just a weird fluke associated with some other factor that I don’t care about or if they are directly related to my hypothesis.

Tarantula says stop talking about cats and cucumbers!

Good science experiments have established controls and include large numbers of replicates to eliminate “weird flukes.” All of these factors should be listed in the original scientific paper describing the study but these papers are often incredibly dense and hard to follow (even for fellow scientists). However, a good science report or article written for the general public should also list these qualifications. So to test the quality of a good source, I like to see what an article says about controls and replicates.

Here is a fake article that I just made up:

Scientists determine that too much sleep causes cancer.

Scientists at Questionable Science University have completed a study about sleep and cancer. They interviewed two different people who have lung cancer and found that they sleep 7 hours every night. As these data clearly show a link between too much sleep and cancer, people should sleep no more than 6 hours a night to prevent cancer.

Yikes! Does this mean we should stop trying to get a solid 7-8 hours a night?

Tarantula doesn’t like this article at all…

Well, it looks like these scientists talked to two people who already have cancer. I want to know more information about the people who were interviewed for this study. Did the scientists take care to control for other variables like age, race, or gender? What else do these people have in common (i.e. do they smoke? Do they exercise? What type of food do they eat? Are they the same age?). All of these questions could have affected their results in a way that disconnects sleep from cancer. Furthermore, they didn’t talk to anyone who doesn’t have cancer (this is called a negative control and is INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT). Plus they only asked two people! That’s like me saying cats aren’t afraid of cucumbers because my cat isn’t! It doesn’t look like they have any controls or replicate the experiment so maybe this isn’t a great source after all. Yay! Time to get more sleep! -_-

I like to think of science as “a quest for the truth.” Good experimental design is hard but it’s worth it because it helps scientists get closer to finding out the truth! It’s really important to make sure your sources report on good science so that you can learn about the truth! I tried to give you some tools that let you sift through some scientific topics you are interested in so let me know if they help! Go practice the game and then report your findings back to me! :D

Now it’s your turn: tell me about the science you are the most interested in learning about. Or tell me about something completely unscience related. That was a lot of science for one day…

So you think you want to try science

Hey everyone! I thought I would spend today’s post talking about how I got into science.

So it all started when my parents got PhDs (before I was born). There hasn’t been a time in my life when I didn’t know about the option of getting a PhD. Not that that’s what I wanted to do necessarily. Let’s see – I wanted to be a paleontologist or a veterinarian or a marine biologist or a neuroscientist orrrrrr a biochemist? My parents attempted to encourage me to think about engineering so we built a bunch of radios together. However, I was really into cats, dolphins, whales, and other creatures. Hilariously, my 8th grade science fair project nicely merged engineering and animals. My dad and I built an “apparatus” that fed my cats if they pressed on a dispenser with their paws. My project was to train my cats to use the “apparatus” with different paws to see if they would selectively continue to use whichever paw I trained them with to eat. However, mostly my results showed that my cats were scared of the “apparatus”…. except when there was food available.

This is my cat Smokey enjoying the benefits of the “apparatus” – FREE FOOD!

Luckily for me, there was a ton of stuff available for me, a budding young scientist, to do to explore various aspects of science. I participated in Expanding Your Horizons, which was like a mini day of college where I signed up for various science workshops. All I remember now are two different workshops: one in which I learned about math (we did something cool with geometry and shapes) and another where I learned how to give “vaccinations” to oranges. This program is all over the country. Find a location near you for your middle school or high school girl!

Another fun activity I did was I took a marine biology class at the local university one summer. This class was a week long and we did all sorts of fun activities – like going out on a boat and getting sea sick testing various properties of ocean water, studying crabs, and dissecting *gasp* sharks. (Note: this was before I found out how much I loved sharks, though I still wasn’t super excited to participate. Also, our shark was pregnant! Did you know that some sharks give birth to live babies?! Craziness… sharks are so cool!). Anyyyyyyway – most universities have programs like this for high school students. I taught at one last summer and my students got to learn all sorts of biology that I didn’t get to learn until I was halfway through college! Super awesome (fair warning – the one I taught seemed really expensive so check out the prices before you get your kiddos all excited…. :-/)!

Some students might be interested to see if they like doing research in labs. I didn’t get to experience research until I was in college. For my first research project, I did a summer internship in Fort Collins, CO where I studied how a nasty virus called HTLV-1 takes over our cells. It was SO COOL. That was over 10 years ago and yet I can still tell you all about it.

Potassium showing off the lab to her mom at the end of the summer.
I was super proud that I got my own freezer box in the lab. This was my box where I put all of MY samples from MY experiments!

College students – this is the best part – you can get paid to do research! My first research experience was through a “Research Education for Undergraduates” program and it pays you a stipend to play in the lab! Also, at CU, we have the SMART program that I’ve worked for for the past 7 years. I like it even better than REU programs but it’s the same deal – think you might want to try research? Get paid to do it! Plus in the SMART program, you get to present your findings at a national conference (all expenses paid)! Besides summer research, most universities offer a chance for undergraduate students to work in a lab throughout the school year. Step 1: Find a professor you like. Step 2: Talk to him/her and mention that you would be interested in working in a lab. Depending on the professor/school/your schedule/etc, working in the lab could mean anything from making solutions to having your own independent research project so make sure you chat with the professor about his or her expectations for your experience. Also, if you have your own independent research project, chances are that you can apply for a grant through the school and get paid to do research during the school year! Awesome!

A note – high school students, don’t want to wait till you go to college to check out research? See if there is a professor in your area who wouldn’t mind having a high school student shadowing in the lab. We even have a program at CU for high school students to work full time in a lab (disclaimer: also super expensive)! However, you probably won’t get paid for this type of opportunity. Booo…

Since I didn’t do research until I was in college, I spent my summers and Saturdays at the best job ever – working at a vet clinic. I started out volunteering there the summer after my freshman year of high school and then they offered me a job starting that fall! My job started out with me working in the kennel mostly – walking dogs, feeding cats, etc – but then as I was there longer, I got more responsibilities. I learned how to hold animals for procedures, make up prescriptions, help with surgeries, and make surgery packs (which is where you clean all the tools and organize them appropriately for the most common surgeries). Making surgery packs is to this day one of my favorite work chores. There was something so delightful in the cleaning of the tools, the precise arrangement of everything for each pack into this neat square of fabric, the wrapping of the fabric around the pack, the sticking of “magical” autoclave tape (it turned black when the pack was sterilized) to close the pack, and then finally, the placement of the completed packs in the autoclave (=big scary machine that sterilizes things with heat and pressure) to be sterilized. I loved my job. I had so many fun stories about crazy clients and crazy animals. I had my favorite animals who boarded with us a lot (remind me to tell you about them sometime). It was an AMAZING job. I highly recommend it to anyone who thinks they like science/might want to be a vet some day.

So what happened to get me where I am today? Well after I graduated from college, I was still fairly undecided between vet school and grad school so I decided to see where life took me. It took me to New Mexico where I was in the PREP program (which was like a mini version of graduate school) for a year (also I met Cobalt). I worked in a lab full time (and had two independent projects). I also took some fun math and physics classes because I am a nerd and they were cool (also my advisor made me take the chemistry class he was teaching). This program paid me a nice salary and prepped me for graduate school. I really enjoyed working in my lab in the PREP program and decided that grad school sounded really fun (if this was a mini version of grad school, the real thing had to be way cooler). Plus, I really wanted my PhD (see my previous post for more info about that). So I went to grad school.

Note: I just want to remind you that my tuition was paid for for the PREP program and grad school. Plus, I got paid to work in the lab and all through grad school. This is the only advanced degree program that does not require you to be filthy rich or to take out tons of money worth of loans.

Grad school was pretty cool. I traveled all over the US to present my research at conferences and I got to go to France to learn about data analysis. Plus, I learned a LOT about microscopes. But it was also really hard. REALLY REALLY hard. And at the end of it, I realized that maybe I don’t want to do research anymore. As cool as it is being the expert of some crazy problem, and as much as I love sitting in the dark watching cells crawl around on a microscope, I think I need to be out of the lab and in the world with you guys!

So what’s next on the list? Not sure but I hope whoever hires me next is ready for this surgery pack-making, microscope- and camera-loving, stuffed shark- and kitty-cuddling doctor! :)

Now it’s your turn – what’s going on in your life career-wise? Did you have any crazy unexpected turns? What do you want to be when you grow up? Don’t you wish there was a class called “Hello, now that you are (insert age here) and have figured yourself out a little, take this class to figure out your next step”? I would take it!

This concludes our science posts for the month of January but stay tuned! More science is coming you way next month! We still need to talk about how to read about science and how to figure out who to “trust” with your science news!

Potassium’s search for what’s next

Potassium ponders her next career move while on a train in Germany

As many of you know, I received my PhD in Biochemistry last fall. Since then I have been continuing to work in my PhD laboratory getting a paper submitted and exploring my next step as a scientist. Now that I am not struggling to get my degree, I decided it was a great time to explore other areas I am interested in – science education and making science/education accessible to everyone. In no apparent order I have:

  • joined a committee (the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Race and Ethnicity) where I work to inform the Chancellor about what is happening on our campus with regards to race,
  • attended a science education class where I learned how to design science education curriculum using the principles of active learning and backwards design (such fancy words!),
  • taught high school students over the summer of 2015 and will be co-teaching a Science and Society class this semester,
  • co-founded a new seminar series at CU that brings diverse scholars to this campus so that we can expand our network of scholars as well as show that broader community of CU and Boulder that scientists (and professors in general) can be of any race, gender, etc.

As I got involved in all of these activities, I realized that I have a much stronger passion for all of these things compared to working on actual science at the bench. Yes there is a part of me who loves to sit in the dark and look at those pretty cellys on the microscope. And there is a part of me who loves to play with microscopes because they are soooooo cool (I also took a 2 week microscopy course in New York this year). But I really like people and helping to make a difference in people’s lives. I feel more and more that my future career may lie away from the bench and away from those cozy towers of academia.

So then what will I do with myself?

Thus began the epic year of existential crises. It’s still not over yet so if you get stressed out by unfinished stories, maybe skip the rest of this post and tune in next week instead! Basically, it’s been a bit frustrating for me to search for jobs because I’m worried that I’ve worked myself into the corner with this PhD thing. For me, there were two main reasons for getting a PhD:

  1. I wanted to learn how to think critically about a subject (any subject really) and to have the tools be able to answer any question/problem thrown at me. This is really the point of any PhD program. Granted, it would be easier for me to answer questions regarding stuff that I directly work on but really it applies to anything – getting a PhD means that you have solved a problem/answered a question that no one else has answered/solved ever in the history of the universe, which in theory should mean that you now have the tools to look up/learn new skills very quickly.
  2. I had no idea what I wanted to do with myself but I thought that getting a PhD would give me leverage that would allow me to waltz into a room somewhere and be like “Hello. I have a PhD. I know about this stuff and I am super creative! Give me a job!”

Now I worry that instead, my PhD says to everyone “Hello. I like labwork and scientists. I want more of that!” I can’t really find jobs that ask for people with PhDs and do not include benchwork, teaching, or working at a tech company either as a research scientist or technical/medical writer. Maybe I don’t know the right places to look? (Note: if you know of the correct search terms/websites/etc, please please please let me know). Maybe I need to solidify what I’d like to do? I am actually not sure because I don’t know what’s out there in terms of alternative careers!

Right now I have been looking into interesting fellowships and certificate programs. Today I am visiting UC Santa Cruz to look into their Science Communications program. I have also looked a little into some science policy fellowships in DC. All of these sound neat but I’m still not sure if they are right for me. More searching will commence for now!

Next week – more about science research opportunities for high school and college students!

Step 1 – Establishing a sense of belonging

Fact – not all scientists are antisocial nerds who only care about science.

Here are some scientists in the lab on Halloween last year (Super Shark Girl and a Weeping Angel – would they be friends? :-/). They were dressed up this year too but I forgot to get a picture…. :(

Some scientists might only care about science but most have a lot of other things they are excited about. Scientists, like all other humans, have the capacity to be well rounded individuals. We seem to want to forget this idea right now and I don’t know why.

Einstein for example – what do you think of when I mention his name? Brilliant guy. Random equations like E=mc2. Do you know he was also an avid patron of the arts and very actively involved in the civil rights movement here in the US? Yay for well-rounded scientists!

I worry about this behavioral shift because it encourages the exclusivity of science. As humans, we all strongly feel the need to belong. If we don’t feel accepted in a situation, we are less likely to pursue it. In fact, it’s been shown that women and underrepresented minorities often quit studying science, math, and engineering because they worry that they don’t belong or are unwelcome in those fields. It’s really important to me that you feel like you do belong in this conversation about science that we are having so let’s take a moment and establish a sense of belonging by talking about something else that I believe all humans share – passions.

This is how it’s going to work.

Scientists – Why do you do your science? Is it your one and only passion or do you have others? Think about this next time you are talking to nonscientists and start by explaining to them what it is about science that you just love instead of just jumping straight into the meat of your research and why they should care about it. Also make sure you mention all that other stuff you love doing! I know a scientist who traveled to Nepal to help rebuild houses, scientists who volunteer at a local horse rescue, scientists who volunteer with their churches, and scientists who mentor underrepresented undergraduates/high school students to give them the skills they need to succeed in science/life.

Nonscientists – what are you passionate about? Next time you confront a scientist, ask them about their passions and then see if you can find some common ground. Maybe you love photography and the scientist loves microscopy. Microscopes are just fancy cameras for tiny things! Hurrah! Now you have something in common! Discuss!

Okay – my turn:
I am passionate about science because I think it is beautiful. It is so crazy to me that a bunch of random molecules can come together to form cells, which then work together to make humans! It’s even crazier to me that tiny single cells like bacteria can be so evil and trick our complicated bodies to do their bidding. I think that is fascinating.

I am also passionate about other things – I am really passionate about giving people the opportunity to be excited about science (or whatever their passions are), regardless of their race, gender, immigration status, or income. I also love photography and all animals, especially sharks and whales! Plus I am really obsessed with markers right now and I am trying to get all artsy and learn how to color/draw better. I love comics and I am super jealous at the drawing abilities of those artists. Finally I also really love food and trying out new crazy recipes.

Potassium is kind of obsessed with drawing whale sharks right now…

Enough about me – let’s hear from you. Please share in the comments section! And feel free to ask questions about any of my passions too.

In case you are interested in pursuing any of the things I mentioned up there further:
Einstein – you can just Google him and look at his Wikipedia page but there’s also a really interesting book called Einstein on Race and Racism that goes way more into detail about the non-scientist part of Einstein’s life.

Sense of Belonging – I found this Scientific American article particularly informative but if you want to try your luck with papers with fancy words, there are two articles that discuss the basic desire for a sense of belonging and how various groups need to feel like they belong to succeed in science. This topic is a huge area of study at CU Boulder, which I think is awesome!

Stay Tuned! The next “Let’s talk about science” post will probably be in January, though I might get too excited and post something sooner!

Let’s talk about how to talk about science….

Soooooo I was getting ready to write a giant post that answered everyone’s questions about science when I realized how many of you responded by telling me that your eyes glaze over after 5 minutes of talking about science. Then I got worried – blogging is not so good for this type of conversation that I want us to have. It can very easily slip into me lecturing and you skimming because you feel like you are in over your head. I really want to be on the same page as you when I write these. I want you to know that you are talking to Potassium, the girl who likes sharks and whales and who likes taking pictures and being silly. Regardless of my role as the “scientist” in this conversation, I am still human, just like you (for an example – look how happy I am to see a fake dinosaur – below). So what do we do? How can we make this (awkward) medium work for us? Is there any way that I can write these posts in a way to make it more of a conversation? Let’s discuss!

Potassium with a new dino friend at the Dinosaurierpark in Münchehagen, Germany.

PS – Sorry for the super short super meta post about posting. I have been working super hard getting ready for the Thanksgiving break. Plus immediately after the break, my friend L and I are hosting a seminar speaker and we have been sending frantic e-mails out to everyone so that everything will be ready to go before everyone goes on break. Are you traveling for Thanksgiving? Cobalt’s and my families are coming to us! How exciting! :)

PPS – Let’s also set a schedule for these science posts. I want to post them regularly but I also want to make sure this blog is well rounded and I have room for photography and whatever other silly stuff I want to tell you about. What do you think is good for the science? Biweekly? Once a month?

I want to have a conversation with you about science

Don’t turn around to see who I am talking to because I am talking to you! Yes you!

The “lab coat” at the Children’s Museum in Denver may be too small for Potassium but she is still serious about talking to you!

It doesn’t matter to me how much science you know, if you won the science fair or if you hated science and avoided it like the plague. Mainly the point is that I want to have a conversation with you.

I was thinking about the way we discuss science with each other nowadays and I think one problem is that we are not opening ourselves up for a conversation. Everyone is guarded. Scientists are on edge because they are unsure that nonscientists will understand the complexities of scientific topics and why they are important. Nonscientists are on edge because they feel judged by the scientists, especially when scientists take to lecturing because it is probably how they learned science. I am pretty sure no one really likes lectures, especially outside of the scope of academia. I certainly don’t.

Potassium thinks she looks funny when she lectures high school students about laboratory techniques…

Strange things happen when we feel uncomfortable with each other. It’s really hard to communicate when we feel guarded and unsafe. I think one strategy that we (scientists, nonscientists, etc) use when talking to each other about science and popular scientific topics is asseveration (isn’t that a cool word?) – that is boldly stating “facts” such as “People who don’t understand science are not smart.” Or “Scientists are wasting all our money doing nothing for us.” The great thing about this strategy is that it feels like communication – you have told someone your opinion about a topic so yes! Check that off the list. The bad thing about this strategy is that it really gives the people you are talking to no way to respond unless they completely agree with you. Anyone who disagrees with you is completely caught off guard and has a huge energy barrier to figure out how to tell you they disagree. So… not so great for talking about science. Everyone leaves feeling frustrated.

So what do we do about this problem?

I think we need to have conversations about science. We need to start sitting down in coffee shops and bars and really getting to know each other. Conversations allow us to be curious about each other’s thoughts and beliefs as well as be authentic by sharing our own. In this way, we can have a dialog about scientific topics without insulting each other. Hopefully this method allows us to all come closer to an understanding of what science means and what is currently happening in the scientific world.

So let’s have a conversation! First, here’s me being curious:
What do you want to talk about? What scientific topics are you interested in/afraid of/curious about/etc? We can even talk about other topics such as science communication or what do scientists do?
Second, here’s me being authentic:
I am kind of scared about doing this series of posts. What if no one wants to talk to me about science? What if I can’t explain the main points of science to you? What if I just end up confusing us both? I am also kind of excited to see what we end up talking about!

Finally – I am talking on a panel about the difference between tolerance and acceptance on a college campus TOMORROW at CU’s UMC during the Diversity and Inclusion Summit. If you live in Boulder, you should stop by so we can talk about this topic some more! :D

Now it’s your turn!