31 July 2012


What a funny thing it is to be a scientist these days.

We spend much of our time drilling down deep into problems. Many days of research are committed to finding answers to very specific questions. These answers are nuanced with the caveats of our study systems and experiments as we attempt to control nearly insurmountable variables. We describe transcriptional regulation of certain genes under particular environmental conditions given a single genetic background. We explain the effects of rainfall on a single species of amphibian in a restricted environment. The rigors of the academia then press us to focus intensely during the workday in order to produce efficiently designed experiments, gracefully worded grant proposals, and convincing scientific publications. Specific focus to our research, accomplished while focusing intently on a task.

It's interesting to work in a synthesis center (NESCent), where the focus is inherently broadened to include new approaches, novel methods, and disparate data. Before drilling down into the same sort of problem, we're encouraged to think about different ways to approach that problem, and to change the focus of our research. It's also interesting to go back into a classroom, and explain to fledgling scientists how such focused research can contribute to broader knowledge about the world around us. Students' eyes glaze over upon hearing the minutia of an experiment, but they can get excited about the context for the experiment, implications for results,  and future work.

So much focus, in our research, daily lives, and brains. My brain is much happier thinking on a larger scale, and constantly attempts to unite concepts and ideas in unique ways. I love big ideas and broad focus. What is the cliche about our best work being done in the shower, or while driving to work? It's no wonder to me why my epiphanies occur while walking outside or vacuuming. At those times, I loosen up the reins on my thoughts and let my mind go back to those big thoughts. I blur the focus a bit, regroup, and then proceed to fulfill the needs of modern science.

27 July 2012

So you want to get into Twitter...

A few folks have asked me since my last post about time management and strategies for setting up twitter. I'm no expert, but I've been around twitter for awhile and have had a few accounts which I've found to be very fulfilling. Here's a quick to-do list, based on my own management strategies and conversations with other tweeters (also assuming you want to set it up for science networking).

  • Set up a profile to make it easy for folks to find you. Use tag words for your research (this is a good exercise to do anyway for other professional development reasons), and include a link to your blog or your lab's webpage.
  • How to find people to follow? Post on Facebook, Google+, etc to find friends who already tweet. Then look at the list of people they follow for suggestions. Do a quick search for things about which you'd like to read. Look at the lists people have linked to their profiles. They're usually arranged by categories, and you can see which people are important to others.
  • How do you get followers? Be nice, and don't be annoying (I personally dislike people who ask for follow backs, which doesn't seem to happen in the science world). Start tweeting! You might find it easier to also reply to other people. You'll be surprised at how your knowledge might help inform others' opinions or answer their questions. I like starring tweets (making the tweet a favorite) to find them later, or to acknowledge I've read it and appreciate it.
  • What to tweet? Get a paper published? Interesting research article about your field of study released? Going to a conference? Looking for quick opinions or advice? Tweet it! 
  • How much time is this going to take? However much time you'd like. It takes me only a few seconds to do anything on twitter (follow people, write a tweet, reply). I like to use it for breaks during the day to refresh my brain but not get too sidetracked from thinking about science. My graduate advisor, @JChrisPires, reads his timeline and tweets at night while watching TV. Don't feel like you need to read everything! Twitter is a party. Don't feel like you have to know everyone to follow, keep tabs on everyone, and constantly update. Make lists! I have mine arranged categorically, and one for people I want to read all the time.
Hope this helps. Tweet at me! I'll follow you!

"Non-tweeters have no idea what they are missing."

The title of this post is a reply I received on twitter from @JessTheChemist. We had been chatting about using the twitterverse to find articles for our research that were otherwise unattainable.

This sentiment is not new. If you don't tweet, it's really difficult to understand how a bunch of random sentences from mostly strangers can be useful. Lots of my colleagues at work (NESCent) tweet, and many others do not. A few NESCent folks from both camps were talking about this issue a few days ago. "I just don't see the use!" is a common argument.

My twitter philosophy is to cast a wide net. Follow folks if it seems like they might say something interesting. Grad students, post docs, professors, science writers, journals, bioinformaticists, and anyone else relevant to my professional interests. Knitters, friends, family, queers, advocates for sex positivity, and folks relevant to my personal interests. I then tweet what I'm thinking and what seems interesting to me. As a result, I describe reading my twitter timeline as walking into a huge party where everyone's talking about all sorts of things.

What do I get from spending time at a such a party? Up-to-date news from experts in their fields. A broadened perspective about many different issues from people I might otherwise not encounter. Learning where the fresh coffee and cookies can be found at a conference. Making new friends.

For me, that's more than worth the time and effort.

26 July 2012

Not science writing, but writing about science.

When I started blogging again a few weeks back, I mentioned my re-start to a friend from grad school. "What's your theme?" she asked. I had no idea. All the random stuff I think about at work? Bits of hilarity which are too geeky to post on Facebook, and which are too long for Twitter?

So I just started writing. After half a dozen posts, I started to realize what united all of my current and planned writing here. I changed the description up above to reflect that union. I don't really write about science and research in terms of scientific results and conclusions. I take advantage of my brain's natural proclivity to unite disparate ideas. In this case, that tendency manifests as relating the process of scientific research, publication, collaboration, etc. to the rest of the world.

Many scientists consider their work to be intensely personal, but investing too much in our research is contradictory to the objective goals of science. How do these personal issues end up connecting to our vocation? Here, I want to think about higher level issues. Meta-level. The relevance of semantics, the psychology of the scientific process, social issues related to science and academia.

I'm not an expert in any of these areas. I draw from a broad background of training in biology, communications, and history, as well as an intense interest in how things work and possible ways to make them better. I already blogged about being a young, queer, female scientist. I'm also the child of divorced parents, and am divorced myself. I'm a lifelong atheist. So many labels can be applied to me, and all of them impart a particular understanding of things relevant to both life and science: pattern recognition, connectedness, epistemology, and uncertainty. It seems other folks like to read about these viewpoints, and I'm not shy about sharing them.

24 July 2012

Good morning, sunshine.

I love mornings. Some of the happiest times I can remember are at dawn while camping by a lakeside or in the woods. A bit of fog in hanging on the ground, hints of sunlight trickling through the canopy. Calm, quiet, and everything around me just starting to wake up.

I love mornings so much I often keep them to myself. I sit at home, do chores around the house, pet my cat, do a little knitting. I'd rather enjoy the morning and work a little later that evening.

I'm starting to teach next month. I'll have to be at lectures at 8:30 am three days a week. I won't have the luxury of early mornings anymore. This morning I started to work my way back into getting to work early.

I kind of liked it.

23 July 2012

Sally Ride was gay. Does it matter?

I struggled with the title of this post.

Read the standard press release about Sally Ride's death. It remarks on her status as the first female U.S. astronaut in space, her scientific and educational accomplishments, and her legacy as a role model. The last paragraph of the article refers to a partner, Tam. A whole generation of female, queer, and allied scientists scratch their heads: "Sally Ride was GAY? I'm so ashamed for not knowing!"

A deeper look at news tributes reveals that she never publicly outed herself as a lesbian. In fact, she chose to keep her personal life private. Several news articles even include quotations from her former husband, another astronaut, while still relegating her partner of 27 years to the last paragraph.

Sally was renowned, as President Obama has noted, for "inspiring generations of young girls to reach for the stars." She didn't choose to be female, and she couldn't hide it. She accepted the label of female role model and continued her work of encouraging young women to pursue math, science, and technology. I imagine her position as a public figure felt precarious at times, and outing herself would've certainly politicized her career yet again.

After her passing, Sally's family has decided to reveal her sexuality. I'm sure there will eventually be controversy from many political camps. The temptation to dissect her life, decisions, and career will be irresistible, both for opponents of equal rights and those of us who can now relate even more to her viewpoint.

Does it really matter, though? Being gay doesn't affect one's ability to perform scientific experiments, or to educate about science. On the other hand, she purposely chose not to become a spokesperson for gay rights, so should she become one now that her voice cannot be heard? I'd rather not politicize her life any further.

The most poignant writing about Sally's death I've read so far points out two relevant issues. First, Sally was a federal employee as an astronaut, which again highlights the lack of benefits for same-sex couples given our government's failure to acknowledge such relationships. Second, and more importantly, Tam is the survivor and will bear the brunt of any fallout from such an announcement. She has still lost her partner, though, and my heart hurts widespread knowledge about her relationship only after it has ended.

I only offer opinions, and a bit of empathy, from the perspective of a young, queer, female scientist. Sally fought many battles to help pave the road of my career, and regardless of who she loved and when, I am very grateful.

20 July 2012

Old books and plant porn.

I spent a lot of time in graduate school digging through the depths of the internet and library archives for species descriptions of members of the monocotolydenous plant family Commelinaceae. I focused on several genera in this family as a part of my dissertation work, so I aimed to become an expert in taxonomy. I stumbled across a few articles of note in Curtis' Botanical Magazine, so I ordered the relevant issues from the library's book depository.

The day I went to the library to look at said books, I was surprised with a different protocol than with previous books I'd studied. My normal procedure was to look through the books for my articles, decide whether it was useful, and head to the print center to make copies. This time, though, I had to be escorted to the print center and supervised while I made copies. I understood the level of protection afforded this journal once I opened the books--each volume included descriptions of plant species along with beautiful, full color drawings. Quite amusing to me were the drawings which appeared on glossy, fold-out pages like pin-up models. Veritable plant porn!

I recently learned several volumes of Curtis' Botanical Magazine are now available on Project Gutenberg. I'm pleased to see these works being electronically archived and easy to access. I've included here the illustration for one of my study organisms, Tradescantia virginiana, from Volume 3.

19 July 2012

Dark office.

I share an office with two other postdocs, and visitors to our workspace often remark on the level of darkness in the room. We rarely flip the light switch on. We have two large western-facing windows, each equipped with two types of blinds, and these can often be found blocking outside light.

Why so dark, especially when a postdoc in the room next door has no fewer than three extra lamps for his desk? As someone inclined to migraines, I'd just as soon spend my time in the dark, especially if I have a headache creeping. Also, the afternoon sun heats up this renovated textile warehouse something awful in the summer, and blocking out the light keeps me from sweating on my manuscripts (too much). Finally, we're all focused on our computers--at least a laptop, and sometimes also an extra monitor. Who needs light when you're staring at large lightbulbs (I think some of you call them "computer screens") all day? And why risk glare?

We've confirmed, in our own small way, the stereotype of computer geeks preferring dark, closeted places.

18 July 2012

This awesome moth has been hanging around outside the front door to my apartment lately. It's about two inches long, and perched at eye level, irresistible to photograph.

Choice in biological systems

While discussing my research with my committee as a graduate student, I made a reference to plants "seeking out more suitable habitat." A faculty member asked if said plants sprouted legs and walked to a different area before plunking down and setting roots. I was able to resolve this semantic issue because the plants in question are clonal, so they can literally send out a rhizome toward a new area. Her point was well taken, though, and issues related to verbiage in biology continue to intrigue me.

There are common issues in molecular biology wherein enzymes or other portions of biochemical pathways are anthropomorphized in language. These issues arise most often when interactions between molecules are communicated like we would talk about human behavior.

A related but slightly different issue arose in a NESCent seminar today. A discussion about sex allocation included some references to human sex ratios at birth. The ratio of males to females are thought to be altered by a variety of factors, including acute or chronic stress. Someone argued that in certain situations, females may "choose" to alter the sex of their offspring to better suit the demographics of the new environment (i.e., more males to replace those lost in battle).

We're all scientists here. We know that women don't consciously choose to have male or female babies, but someone took issue with the previously mentioned hypothesis because of the failure of that mechanism. In terms of evolutionary time, though, it makes sense. The tendency to produce male offspring when an overabundance of females comprise a population is potentially heritable, and would definitely be positively selected, especially if the male population is low.

I don't know how plausible the latter hypothesis is, or whether selection could mechanistically support it. The point is that "choice" in this instance refers to a trait over which selection occurs throughout evolutionary time. The woman's genetically encoded physiology as shaped by evolutionary time is actually doing the choosing. Such is the plight of evolution research, where misinterpretations of even seemingly innocuous words can yield misunderstandings...even among scientists.

12 July 2012

Science socializing

I was just hanging out with some other NESCent postdocs at a reception for a visiting working group. We were discussing job applications, grant proposals, and other topics relevant to early career scientists. I mentioned a tweet I saw from Evolution 2012 about how only 25% of NSF pre-proposals are invited to apply, and only 25% of full proposals are funded. That's a 5% funding rate for the first pool of applicants.

Silence amongst the group. I suddenly had the urge to go back to my office and work more.

In preparation

I finished a draft of my annual report for NESCent today. We're told to include all manuscripts, regardless of the stage in publication (in press, in review, submitted, in preparation). The first three are nice, easy, discrete categories, but I had trouble with the last. I understand my supervisors' need to comprehend my progress in research, but it seems a very vague term. I asked Twitter how people decided their paper was 'in preparation.' I received the variety of answers I had already considered, from barely a coherent thought to a complete paper that is not quite submitted.

I like the idea of coherence as a standard. For me, a manuscript 'in preparation' is a document that, at the very least, outlines the major themes of the paper. It should be coherent to someone familiar with the material (a labmate or similar peer in the field). I'm preparing to commit myself to my definition of 'in preparation.'

09 July 2012

I've been getting the urge...

...to bring Princess Tradescantia back from the dead (or at least from purgatory). In this incarnation, I'll explore topics at the intersection of science and real life, including open science, bioinformatics, and being a real person with a real life who also happens to also do research.