What To Do On Your Forced Day Off

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Photo: Reeve Jolliffe (Flickr).

Do you remember the NYC blackout of 2003? The subways were crippled and people set off on hours-long walks to get home over bridges and on any buses they could get a grip of. Yeah, well I was there for it. Right in the shit. And if that weren’t enough, I was just as crippled as those subway lines; my feet bandaged from recent toe surgery. It wasn’t for the weak-minded. And can you believe I stuck around and did it all over again when Hurricane Sandy descended on the city and blew out the power grid in lower Manhattan like so many birthday candles?

But never mind the darkness in the streets. It’s the blackness that creeps over your mind when the 4C centrifuge you’re spinning that precious DNA in seizes up like your AK 47 in the middle of an offensive charge that will induce real panic. So what really happens when the lights go out in the midst of mind-blowing scientific discovery, forcing you to abandon your work? Find out here in my article published at Scizzle Blog.

I Discuss Science Art in a Science Discussion

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Art has been a large part of science for hundreds of years; before imaging technologies, any scientific observations had to be drawn by hand in order to preserve the information for future research. This necessity spurned some of the most intricate and beautiful collections of naturalist art we have.

The tradition of Scientific Art (SciArt) persists today, however, with the advent of modern digital imaging techniques, it’s now more the work of artists interested in science than the other way around. This is interesting given the fact that it usually brings a level of interpretation with it, as most artists don’t have a PhD-level understanding of scientific principals and they are usually using science as part of a larger idea.

An exhibit called ‘Common Descent’, on display at Central Booking in NYC looks at the interpretation of science by artists; specifically evolution. In a recent panel discussion about the exhibit, I got the chance to sit down with another evolutionary biologist, Giacomo Mancini, as well as two artists featured in the exhibit, C Bangs and Lynn Sures. We discussed our work and the intersection of science and art and took questions from the audience concerning evolution in the modern age.

The panel moderator, Yasmin Tayag and myself wrote an article chronically the event for the Scientific American guest blog. By all means, head over and check it out, and check out the exhibit if you get a chance; it’s on until June 8th.

Star Wars: Science Fiction meets Science Fact

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Image Credit: Stefan, Flickr

In celebration of the recently minted Star Wars holiday, May the 4th (be with you), the blogging team at the Scizzle Blog put together some themed science lessons. Being part of that team, I have penned two posts that will surely catapult your brain into space. The first, co-written with Chris Spencer, looks at possible evolutionary histories for some of the most notable characters of the franchise. Entitled The Evolution of the Cutest Creatures in Star Wars, you can check that out here.

My second postClones in Space, I Have Placed (can’t you just hear Yoda saying that?), features my debut infographic effort. Displaying the history of cloning technology using Star Wars characters, ships and worlds as a backdrop, it is the perfect visual springboard for titillating conversation on your next date. I’ve even included cloning basics 101 and given you a peak into the future when scientists plan to resurrect extinct species.

Click on through already – I’ve made science fun…

I am becoming omnipresent…

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To my dedicated readers: you can now read even more of my exhilarating stories and insightful thoughts on science at Scizzle, a new blog dedicated to what is sizzling in science. My first post investigates the five W’s of synthetic chromosomes and to be sure, you should be in the know. So click clack, Jack.

Interview: Dr. Joseph Parker talks beetles

I recently had the chance to sit down for a talk with a great friend of mine, Dr. Joseph Parker. He’s a classically trained Drosophila geneticist and self-taught field entomologist, which are really just fancy names for insect guru. In this interview, Dr. Parker and I discuss his most recent publication, Jubogaster towai, a new Neotropical genus and species of Trogastrini (Coleoptera: Staphylinidae: Pselaphinae) exhibiting myrmecophily and extreme body enlargementwhere he classifies a new species of beetle. This beetle is especially interesting because it can mimic ants and lives amongst them, which is no small feat. What’s even better is that the ants end up taking care of all of the beetles needs…well, just watch the video.

There are three flavors of the interview; a highly edited video (3:00) for those of you into brevity that just want the facts about this new species, a slightly longer video (6:30) with some tidbits on Joe’s crowd funding efforts and the full, 22 minute interview in audio form where Joe gives us the little details and I give him a little shit, plus we discuss the sexual dangers of walking into a large ant colony. If you have the time, it’s well worth it.

3 Minute Version:

6:30 Minute Version:

Dr. Joseph Parker Full Interview:

Right click here to download the audio

After watching the video while editing it I’ve realized my interview style is REALLY un-animated. Jesus! I apologize and promise to work on that. Also, I think Joe’s cat is a bit of a myrmecophile itself, or at least it managed to slink around fairly unnoticed while we were shooting this. I’ll try to enforce a ‘no pets on set’ rule from here on out.

Shhh. It’s Top Secret.

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Open access is the practice of providing unrestricted access to peer-reviewed scholarly journal articles and a first step in encouraging data sharing.

I recently wrote this article as a submission to the journal Nature — it was rejected, probably because what I suggest would require a reworking of the publication process, something that lies in contrast with their business model. Data sharing is, however, something scientists and research could benefit greatly from and I hope something scientists (especially those just entering the field) will see the importance of and push for. Data is essential to discovery and history is very clear on the power of people working together to better the world.

As a younger person than I am now, just out of undergrad, I had a burning passion for science. I wanted to explore it and get my hands dirty. I wanted to work with animals and manipulate DNA. I wanted to make a big contribution that would affect the scientific community and the world.

It took me about two weeks of graduate school to realize research is a really slow process. Since scientist’s establish hypotheses based on previous studies and ongoing research, the more known about a problem, the more informed a hypothesis can be. Research is then conducted using tools, which, if you’re lucky, already exist. If not, it can add years to research, so, the more the better. To my dismay, my project lacked both previous research knowledge and existing tools…until I found out it didn’t. In fact, three other labs around the world were doing almost the same experiments I was. So why was I in the dark for so long?

Simple. Experimental secrecy.

And it’s understandable; fame, glory and money go to the winner – the first to the finish line. Technology companies live and die by this creed – we know that Apple will release an iPhone this year, but looks and functionality will only be certain when it’s revealed on stage. If it were common knowledge, another tech giant may copy the design and rush it to market, stealing millions of dollars in potential sales.

For consumer electronics companies however, being sneaky and underhanded in order to get the upper hand on rival companies really only affects other companies, and maybe some shareholders. With scientific research, it affects humanity.

As a rule, scientists are obligated to make their tools available to the community after they have been published. Does this always happen? No. Scientists should also be forthcoming with specific experimental methods following publication. Does this always happen? No. And that’s a sad reality. As scientists, we are conducting research in the study of truth, and yet some are conducting it with lies and deceit.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to blame scientists for being protective of their research. Novel research equals publications, which equal funding, and so it is money, as usual, that drives us to this necessary evil. The fact is that there simply isn’t enough money to fund all labs equally and hence the competition, but this is impeding the goals of our pursuit.

I’m not saying competition is bad, or that the scientific community should consider results true based on the word of one scientist and move on, but what makes science and the scientific community so strong is individual expertise. ‘Two heads are better than one’ isn’t a well-known proverb for nothing. Openness and collaboration have the ability to greatly speed the progress of science, leading to amazing discoveries (the Higgs Boson and Human Genome Project, for example). It’s somewhat ironic that the very people that elucidated the evolutionary benefits of social communities with regards to progress and survival hide things from their peers and make a go of it alone.

And if you’re wondering how the expedition of research will affect you, consider how experimental secrecy could delay drugs and technologies capable of curing cancer, organ failure and climate change.

So how can we, as scientists and citizens, address this issue? First, we can educate the public on the importance of scientific research. A well-informed and supportive constituency is our best bet for convincing governments to increase research spending. Encouraging and educating a next generation of scientists on the importance of progress and the power of collaboration will be critical. And maybe, by relieving the pressures of publishing complete studies in high-impact journals or being the first to publish, we can encourage regular data sharing.

Scientific advancement is the one sure avenue to improving the quality of all life worldwide. It seems morally reprehensible to knowingly stand in the way of that. Maybe in the end, my great scientific contribution, and hopefully that of others, will be in the pursuit of this idea.