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Science, alone, cannot resolve the Ebola crisis

22 Sep

When I first set out to write this article, I was hoping to write about the science – the science behind potential treatments, research going from bench to bedside, the importance of clinical trials.

But, this is not what this post will be about.

At the time this article is written, Ebola is raging through West Africa. So far, 4872 cases have been reported, and 2445 have died because of Ebola.

Ebola epidemic is the largest, and most severe, and most complex we have ever seen in the nearly 40-year history of this disease…No one, even outbreak responders, (has) ever seen anything like it.

– Margaret Chen, WHO Director General

Now, much of the early attention has been on the science. What is Ebola – and why isn’t there a cure? What kind of potential treatments are available? All great, because people should learn about Ebola. But little has been discussed about how it got to the point it is right now.

So if this is not about science, what is it about?

I could only imagine how I would feel in that situation, watching others get sick and die, wondering if I would be next. Then I considered the deplorable conditions — no visitors were allowed, and a bucket served as a bathroom — and how I, wearing my protective ‘spacesuit’, must have looked to the curled man. The idea of becoming sick with Ebola in Sierra Leone frightened me.

– Daniel Kelly, wrote about his experience interacting with Ebola patients

It is about the long-term distrust between the developing and developed worlds, the uneven distribution of wealth and resources, the unsettle political situations in parts of Africa, the lack of local research and healthcare infrastructure.

It is about not even receiving the basic supportive care, which could make a significant difference in the outcome of an infection.

It is about assuming that everyone in this world “should have known better” but forgetting that not everyone has the same access to resources, information, health care, and education that we in developed countries do.

It is about the developed world profit from the natural resources and cheap labours in Africa, and then say “hey, this crisis is not scary until it hits our homes.” Because, until then, it is their problems, not ours.

We clearly have the power to care. The #IceBucketChallenge raised hundreds of millions for ALS research. The iPhone launch had people lining up outside of the Apple Stores for days. Yet, the Ebola crisis seems to have taken a back seat in most news coverage since the very beginning.

I am hoping that the tide is changing. Starting from more people calling for international actions. Starting from developed countries realizing that everyone is affected by this. Starting from WHO and UN taking a real leadership role in this crisis because it needs to be done. Starting from more first-hand stories from those in the middle of this outbreak, like this, this, this, and this PBS documentary.

But more importantly, I hope we will start to change. That we will start to think about crises like this as crises for all; we are simply lucky enough to be born in the developed world, to have access to health care, to have years of education – privileges that not everyone in this world gets to enjoy. And that sooner or later, this crisis is going to affect us all – not just public health-wise, but also politically and economically – no matter where we are. I just hope that more people won’t have to die for it.

Science, alone, cannot resolve the Ebola crisis. But with humanity, we can.


Please take a moment to donate to Doctors without Borders: US link; Canada link (Note that the donations might not be earmarked specifically for the Ebola crisis. This is simply so that they can spend the money for effectively at where it is needed, including but not limited to the Ebola crisis. I am okay with that – they are probably drained by Ebola and could need funding for other important, life-saving initiatives. They also spend 80+% of their money in the field.)

Here are a few great articles I’ve come across:

This week WHO said it needs $1-billion for its Ebola work. That’s nothing more than punk change if the world cared. Canada, for example, found it could afford an average of $1-billion-plus each year of the 12-year war against the Taliban. Yet unconscionably, it’s taken until this week for the world to begin anything like a serious response to the epidemic. But in the words of Dr. Joanne Liu, international president of Medecíns Sans Frontiérès – and where would we be without MSF? – these latest contributions are “absolutely not enough.”

As if proving her point, the Harper government just announced Canada’s latest contribution to this massive emergency: $2.5-million in personal protective equipment for medical staff working in the affected areas. Maybe this was a typo. Or maybe it just doesn’t fit with the Conservatives’ pre-election strategy.

As human beings, we all hope that if we were in need of superior health care, our country and its top doctors would help us get better. We can either let our actions be guided by misunderstandings, fear and self-interest, or we can lead by knowledge, science and compassion. We can fear, or we can care.

If you have more time, check out the following collections of articles on ebola


Let 2014 begin

20 Jan

I didn’t imagine blogging becoming part of my life.

I never thought so many people would read my posts in the past year. Never anticipated the number of my twitter followers would grow from the 24 people I actually knew, to the 350 people whom I became friends with. I never imagined finding a place I belong and becoming a part of the online community for science communication.

I didn’t realize blogging would make my voice a little louder, my imagination grander, and my stance for what I think is right much stronger.

I didn’t think that with all the random thoughts I have, thoughts connecting my life to science, to research, to the society, this blog becomes me, and I become the blog.

I once told a friend that I wrote my blog posts like my diary. This is about half right – the other half, I wrote them like my research thesis. With every comment posted by others, my heart beats somewhat faster. Whenever a friend says “hey I read that post!” A smile floats to the surface – it’s a rush.

I want to thank the friend who practically pushed and shoved me into blogging and twitter. The friends who watched me”grew up” online. The friends who contributed ideas, many of which became actual posts on this blog. And the friends who read my blog. All of you whom I have met, or I haven’t met and hopefully will meet and chat in person one day. Thank you, you are awesome.

Last but not the least, I would like to give myself a little pat on the back. Theresa, thanks for being the stubborn idiot who thinks that you have more than 24 hours a day and isn’t afraid of making some mistakes here and there. Thanks for wanting a little more. Thanks for saying no when you should, and saying yes when you really shouldn’t.

Now, let 2014 begin.

Chasing Ice (aka Do What You Want with Your Grad Degree)

27 Nov

Last weekend there was a free screening of James Balog‘s film “Chasing Ice” here in Vancouver, organized by SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement and the Environmental Youth Alliance. I only just read about James’ project in National Geographic’s 125th Year Special Photo Issue last week (lucky!), so this movie immediately went into the Saturday night spot in my calendar.

The movie focuses on the Extreme Ice Survey project that James started. The idea is to document the changing glacier landscape using time-lapse photographs. While the idea seems simple enough, the execution is hardly the case. Just imagine carrying all the camera gears, some of which you have to build yourself because they don’t exist yet (not built for extreme weathers or long duration without care), climbing hours in -40C weather, and checking regularly to make sure the cameras are taking photos instead of being knocked down by falling rocks or having their wires chewed up by wolves. They also lost the first few months because of malfunction timers, so they ended up making a few extra trips in order to replace all the timers. This is not to mention James had several knee surgeries done in order to complete the project.

Yup, that’s what they did.

But the results were astounding. While you might not understand statistics or mathematical models, one thing you can clearly learn from his photos is that our climate is changing, the glaciers are disappearing, and at once we can really grasp what climate change means. All that ice must be going somewhere? And that is a consequence we can envision.

Through nearly a million time-lapse photographs, we now have indisputable, gut-wrenching proof that ancient glaciers are disappearing…The photographs show glaciers breaking apart and melting faster than we had imagined.

– James Balog, National Geographic

Interestingly, James actually has a background in research, with a graduate degree in geography and geomorphology. He admitted in the movie that he was not so keen on the numbers and statistics associated with research work. However, it appears that he developed photography skills while he was working on his master’s degree, and eventually found passion in documenting humans’ interaction with the natural world. To me, it is clear that his research background supplemented him tremendously in his photography work as well as the Extreme Ice Project, making his photography a work of art and science.

In fact, his story is familiar one for me. When I was working on my PhD, I found myself drawn to chatting with and writing to people about science instead of my *actual* research work. In fact, it was during this time that I got better with writing grant applications, editing people’s work, and planning outreach events. It took a while for me to make up my mind not to stay in research, by which time I was already half way into an expedited PhD program and finished my comprehensive exam. I then did something unthinkable (my boyfriend at the time went “you did WHAT?”). I called my supervisor and transferred myself out of the PhD program to complete with a master’s instead.

Do I ever regret it? Maybe a tiny bit, once in a while, when many of my friends from graduate school are now being called Doctors. But that regret goes away oh so quickly because I love my job so much, and I know that for some friends, I have the dream job that they want. I could not imagine what would have happened if I didn’t take that step to do something about it.

My point is – regardless of whether you are working on your master’s degree or your PhD, your life is really, well, your life. While there are many talks about the lack of academic positions for the number of graduate students we are training, or whether going to grad school is worth the time and the money, perhaps ask these questions instead: Do I really need a PhD to do this? Do I really want an academic career? Can the skills I develop during grad school help me do something I love? And, don’t doubt the value of what others might consider “lost years” if you don’t end up with an academic career. James got really good with photography, and I had plenty of opportunities to work on my writing and event planning, all during graduate school. In fact, now that I think about it, there is so much flexibility in graduate school that it probably is the best chance to spare some time and  do something you love.

I remember talking to my mom about the decision to get out of PhD in one of those sleepless nights, and my mom said,

“Theresa, life is too short, so do what you want.”

I guess that is why James Balog was chasing ice, and I am now writing/talking science. That’s why we don’t let our degrees define what we want our lives to be.

On the topic of making your life an adventure, check out Terry McGlynn’s great post On creating your own path through life. And, regardless what your attitude toward climate change is, I highly recommend that you check out Chasing Ice. For the story, for the striking imagery, and for potentially the last evidence of our glacier that might disappear in our life time.

More than a Photographer: Inspirations for Science

20 Nov

I spent much of my last Friday evening reading the National Geographic’s 125 year special photo issue.


Photography has a special place in my heart for many reasons. My grandpa used to own a camera shop, and I grew up playing with manual SLR cameras with my mom. I am also a rather nostalgic person – just ask the random typewriter I bought because my dad used to own one and I grew to like the “ta-ta-ta” noise. Interestingly, I have often been in the position of archiving – even now, my job involves archiving some of my department’s documents and photos.

While my photography skill probably falls short, and I really don’t have the time or finance to support a photography hobby, photographs can connect me on a level that words or moving pictures sometimes can’t.

The photo issue has several great stories – from conservation, glacier, to mixed-race identities. The one that hit me the most was the story about Congo. The situation in Congo is not new. While the country is rich mostly because of metal mines – gold, tantalum, tin, tungsten, and more (check your cell phone – some of the metal components probably came from Congo), it has been in much tension and conflict. Many mines are owned by warlords; they enslave people to harvest the metals in poor conditions, and then use the money to finance weapons in order to maintain control over the slaves. Despite some major electronic companies putting pressures on the government to do something about it, and the recent defeat of M23 is definitely good news, but there is still a long way to go. I cannot include the National Geographic photos here, but I have embedded below the Flickr album from the Enough project.

The reality is that such situation did not arise in one day. Often times there are complicated historical and geographical reasons. Geographically, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is the 11th largest country in the world. Culturally, it suffered from colonization, insurrections, invasion, and so on.  It is when it comes to international issues such as these that I feel extremely helpless – Me, a professional women with a job and a voice, yet there is not much I can do about it. Once in a while, a celebrity will come on TV to raise some awareness, and this is in the limelight for a few days, and then people forget about it…over and over again.

Something else I realized was how National Geographic photographers consider themselves as having dual responsibilities. On one hand, they take photos for commercial reasons. On the other hand, many of them strive to bring awareness to the issues that they care about.

Photographers use their cameras as tools of exploration, passports to inner sanctums, instruments for change.  – National Geographic

I fall in love with almost every person I photograph. I want to hear each story. I want to get close. This is personal for me. – Stephanie Sinclair

That’s the idea behind the Photo Ark: getting the public to look these creatures in the eye, then care enough to save them while there’s still time. My goal is to photograph as many of the world’s captive species as I can before time runs out. – Joel Sartore

My pictures are about making people realize we’ve got to protect those who can’t speak for themselves. –Michael “Nick” Nichols

This reminds me that scientists often have duel responsibilities too. On one hand, we are hired – either by academic institutions, by the government, or by the industry – to conduct experiments and run activities that technically should advance the agenda of the organization. On the other hand, many of us feel that we have a responsibility to the society, especially those of us who really love our jobs.

Just like photography is more than simply capturing the moment, sometimes science is really more than just experiments and lab reports. Our science is our cameras and the results are our photographs. There is so much at stake here – our health, our environment, our future.

An (in)efficient vacation

20 Aug

I am so sorry, readers…I have been trying to write part 3 for my series on how to study gender bias in science for the past 3 weeks. In fact, my vacation from work started 2 weeks ago, so I had plenty of time to do it! At least that was what I thought to myself.

But I made the same mistake that many people made, thinking that they will continue to be productive work-wise on their vacation, only to realize that this is not the case afterward.

For my readers who don’t know me personally, I have been a bit of a workaholic in the past few months. I absolutely love my job, and love all things associated with it – science talks, outreach events, articles about science. And even though I am not working toward another degree, I take pleasure in reading scientific articles “for fun” :D. But all these are a bit of a trade off. For the last few months I have been missing out on going to indie concerts, cooking, organizing beer hangouts, playing some more sports, and more, so that I could kick start my blog and get a few other online science communication projects going. I think I forgot that while these were not work, it is still “working,”

I had a conversation with my boss a few weeks ago, where he worried that I might eventually burn out. I was like, of course not! I have so many things going, science talks, writing, reading, etc. And he went, “I meant, something that is not related to science?” And I was like, “ehhhhhh…..”

And to top it off, now that I am not “at work”, I miss the environment of constantly being part of the science communication conversations at work. These conversations push me to write about issues, to think about the next article, and to voice concerns. Now that I am not in that environment, it is very hard to move past my writer’s block.

Anyways, I am been carrying the guilt of not writing up part 3 and 4 of my series, but at the same time I would much rather take a proper break and make sure that when I come back to complete my series, the articles will be the best they can be. So, sorry readers. But don’t worry. My vacation ends in 2 weeks so you should find the series on my blog fairly soon 😀 Thank you again for your support and please do continue following this blog in the future!

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