Archive | March, 2013

Resources Page

31 Mar

I came across some wonderful resources, articles, and references in the past few years working on science outreach and communication. Sometimes I even lost track of them myself. I figure that I should set up a Resources page to keep a record of them.

Hope that you find the page useful. I will update the page regularly. Feel free to let me know if you have any questions or suggestions.

Check out the Resources page

Do you love your hypothesis? Is that good for science?

26 Mar

So a pretty cool meeting just happened in Durham, North Carolina. The meeting is called Reporting Across Culture Wars. While the name of the meeting is a little bit scary, it was actually where many journalists and scientists in evolutionary biology meet up together to talk about how to better help each other out in communicating science (particularly evolution) to the general public . This is really exciting to see – having come from a research background and now working as a communications person, I can see how easy it is for the two sides to simply misunderstand each other. “Reaching the public” means very different timelines and objectives for scientists and journalists. And the only way to move forward is really to work together.

(oh, and I found out about this meeting through twitter – because suddenly half of the people I follow started using the hashtag #evocomm!)

So while I was following things along on twitter, one particular conversation caught my attention and I storified the conversation (See it in Storify directly instead).

Is loving your hypothesis good for science- (with tweets) · theresaliao · Storify

So I went back to thinking about myself when I was doing research in graduate school, studying cells with the potential to grow to become insulin-secreting. Did I love my hypothesis? I think I really liked it, because if it were proven to be true based on experimental data, it would mean that we would be able to generate a large number of these cells and use them in transplantation. At the same time, I was extremely cautious of my own bias, trying not to fall too hard in love with it –  just in case it didn’t work out.

But, we are all human and bound to have our own bias. Chance is that even without loving the hypotheses, something else might influence us and create the bias. That is why even if experiments work out for scientists and are shown to have expected outcomes, such results are shared through scientific publications so that others can attempt to reproduce the results, or come up with other ways to verify the results. It is by this process that we can try to eliminate our personal bias and make sure that the results we see are indeed the product of objective experimentation.

A lot more other interesting discussions about science, evolution, and the communication of science, happened during the meeting. If you are interested in hearing more about the meeting, checked out its story on Storify, put together by Brian Swite.

Postscript: I originally wrote “That is why even if experiments work out for scientists and that hypotheses are shown to be true based on experimental results, such results are shared through scientific publications so that others can attempt to reproduce the results, or come up with other ways to verify the results.” But I struggled with using the word “true” personally for hypotheses. Artem made a suggestion in his comment below. Per Artem’s suggestion I have updated the line to better reflect what I intended it to mean.

Art and Science: two sides of the same brain, or co-existing somewhere in the middle?

20 Mar

2013 March19 FeaturedImage(Jane and I have known each other for a few months since we met during a Science Online Vancouver event. Last week we both attended the Science and Arts discussion hosted by Science Online Vancouver at the Science World. I invited Jane to write something about her take on the discussion. Jane is currently a postdoctoral scientist working on cancer research at the University of British Columbia.)

As I attempt to write about art, I must first hereby state a disclosure of potential conflict of interest: I’m a scientist and I tend to approach things from a logical, rather than emotional, standpoint. Like many others who have had scientific training, I take a critical approach to information, which has been instilled in me carefully over the years. This approach can spill over into the way we as scientists see life in general, though the following is told purely from my own point of view.

As I moved through the school system I gained an impression that an artistic nature was an innate talent, present from a young age, which had to be nurtured. I felt certain that I didn’t possess this talent and therefore it could never be learned. I resigned myself to being excluded from that club; art felt uncomfortable to me, because I had no clue how to interpret it, never mind create it.

Science, on the other hand, felt safer, more familiar, probably because it had particular rules and followed seemingly logical patterns. Once the basic rules were learned, it felt like riding a bike. I remember moments of excitement while learning about science in my school days, mostly due to the infectious enthusiasm of my biology teacher when imparting stories about the origins of genetics; but mostly science felt good because if I thought hard about a concept I could understand it well enough to keep it in my short term memory for the purpose of answering exam questions, then ostensibly let it go again. To me, it seemed to require no leaps of creativity or uncertainty. Art felt more and more like a foreign language as time went on, one that I had no hope of learning.

For years after finishing school and pursuing further scientific education, the stereotype of science as representing logic and reason, and art as being creative, entertaining and slightly frivolous, persisted in my unconscious mind. At university, the arts students seemed to spend their time in bars or gadding about town, while we were toiling in lab practicals till late. We were ‘meticulous’, they were ‘carefree’ and whenever we did happen to rub shoulders, they seemed more interesting and worldly. But we still secretly thought science to be a more worthy pursuit in terms of answering the important questions about the world we live in. The two groups seemed to have little in common, even then.

These types of stereotypical ideas of scientists (smart but dull) and artists (flaky but fun) came up again at an event fusing science and art, held by Science Online Vancouver on March 12th. The group in attendance meandered through an exhibition at Science World, which had built sculptures and scenes from everyday household objects and brought them to life with ropes, springs and pulleys – aptly named Creativity in Motion.

The discussion afterwards centred on the boundaries and overlap between art and science. Many questions were raised including the notion that by its nature, science is precise and planned while art is creative and spontaneous; this idea was challenged vigorously by someone who said that the process of creating a work of art is often painstaking and subject to trial and error. It was only when we held up both scientific discovery and artistic creation as processes that common threads really began to emerge and dance together, blurring those lines between left and right brain.

For example, people who like to make craft beer can enjoy using a rigorous scientific process combined with artistic licence, to yield a final product that pleases the senses of smell, taste and touch – in other words, a work of art! Forward planning is an element of both processes, as is creative thinking when something doesn’t go according to plan. Monumental scientific discoveries have been made due to mistakes or lucky chance.

I conclude that to make sense of our world, and keep on improving our surroundings and challenging ourselves, fusion of many different points of view through collaboration is essential. There are intersections where science and art can meet, exchange information and create together, such as the Science and Poetry Mashup that took place at 1965 Gallery in Vancouver this past December. Through widening my personal definition of what constitutes art, and expanding the communities of people I meet and whose work I observe, I’m finally learning that it’s not too late for me to become an artist too.

Jane O’HaraBy Jane O’Hara, PhD. I am a postdoctoral scientist at the University of British Columbia, where I do research on breast cancer biology. I want to use my recently-found love of writing, along with other creative methods, to communicate science. Follow me on twitter @Curious_JaneO.

Scientists don’t want to be right [quotes]

15 Mar

Scientists always want to be wrong in their theories. They always want to be surprised.

It’s a bittersweet victory when your theory turns out to be right, because it means, on the one hand, you’re right, that’s nice, but on the other hand, you haven’t learned anything new that’s surprising.

Said Dr. Sean Carroll, physicist at the California Institute of Technology who isn’t involved in the project, commenting on that new results from CERN indicate that the particle discovered in July is a Higgs bosonComplete story by Associate Press.


As a colleague remarked to me recently: ‘It is when experiments go wrong that we find things out.’

From Chapter 2: Experimentation in The Art of Scientific Investigation (1957) by W. I. B. Beveridge.


Science vs. Politics in Canada? Is this the only way?

13 Mar
2013 March 11 Featured Image

Must it be a tug of war between science and politics? (Image credit toffehoff)

This is not an easy post for me to write. I don’t plan to talk about politics much on this blog. But, the case of Science vs. Politics is becoming quite an issue in Canada, so here it is.

The muzzling of scientists in Canada has been covered extensively by local and international media (see the list in my postscript). In addition, last year, it was discussed in a symposium during AAAS, the largest general science conference in the world. It also earned an editorial by the scientific journal Nature, calling the government to allow scientists to speak to the press. In the past few years, Canada lost its National Science Advisor, the approval process for projects requiring environmental impact assessments was shortened, and we almost lost Insite even with strong scientific evidence to support it – muzzling scientists really seems like just “the cherry on top.” *sigh*

Things quieted down for some time until recently the Canadian government asked scientists who are part of an international collaboration on Arctic research to sign an agreement. Instead of allowing scientists to discuss results from the research openly to the general public and the media, the new (compared to that in 2003) agreement prevents scientists from talking to anybody about their results unless they receive permission from the government. Andreas Münchow, a US physical oceanographer who is part of the collaboration, voiced his serious concerns on his blogRick Mercer (a bit like Canada’s John Stewart) had a rant about this:

(here is another one from last year if you are interested)

While the world is moving forward with open access and open science, Canada seems to be going backward with this latest development. Scientists in Canada have the unique opportunity to study many environmental issues that others don’t have access to – the Arctic, the oil sand, resources such as fisheries (1). Not only will research projects in these areas advance our understanding of the environment and allow us to develop new options and technologies, their results will directly impact our lives in the future – and presumably that is why many of these projects are government-funded. Without allowing the scientists to speak out and exchange ideas with others, we are limiting and maybe even damaging our ability to make Canada and this world a better place all together.

Is there no room for science in the political world? I understand that some research results, once released, might be considered conflicting to existing political decisions. But it should not be about being right or left, but about making the best for this nation called Canada that we all share and contribute to. In fact, these risks can be turned into great opportunities for the government to regain the trust of scientists and the public – simply by starting a conversation. The fact that Prime Minister Harper arranged a meeting to chat with Canadian Astronaut and International Space Station Commander Chris Hadfield (unfortunately the public opportunity hasn’t quite worked out as intended) means that he knows how Canadian citizens value science. Then it wouldn’t be far-reaching to hope that he can sit down with concerned scientists and have a discussion about the muzzling issue. At the same time, scientists need to speak up – about the difficulties we encounter, absolutely, but we should also continue to inform and involve the public (including the politicians) in the discovery and the understanding of science. Two colleagues wrote excellent articles on this: Rees Kassen talked about how scientists should engage elected officials, so to slowly work up the importance of science in policy decision making. Ben Paylor, in his op-ed in Vancouver Sun, talked about the importance of improving the public’s understanding of science.

About two weeks ago, a few scientists started the Science Uncensored movement (a follow up of last year’s Death of Evidence rally). On one hand, I hope it will generate some publicity on the issue and increase the awareness. On the other hand, I wish things were better in Canada, that they didn’t need to take time away from their science to support this important cause. I sincerely hope that we can find a bridge between science and politics in Canada, and that soon we can see the government and scientists working together to create a better future for all Canadian citizens.

1: This was mentioned in Colin Schultz’s post regarding finding science communication allies in Canada.


Postscript 1: HT to Artem Kaznatcheev, who sent me the Rick Mercer video and suggested that I write about it. I also participated in a discussion on this issue on Chad Atkin‘s G+ page.

Postscript 2: I do think science should remain impartial when it comes to political parties. There have been concerns in the States about aligning science too closely with political parties. I share such concerns.

Postscript 3:

Postscript 4: Media coverage of the issue

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