Tag Archives: communications

Missed opportunity? On AAAS President’s Address

14 Feb

Note (Feb 15, 2014): The AAAS President’s Address is now available online via the AAAS website! Please do take a little bit of time to watch it. Opinions are mine but would love to know what you think. Also thanking AAAS for letting me know that the video is available.

In case you don’t know yet, I am currently in Chicago attending both the International Public Science Events Conference (just wrapped up today) and the AAAS annual meeting (American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting, also the largest general science meeting in the world with more than 10,000 participants).

Maybe it is because I have been going to sessions on how to better communicate science and to reach a broader audience for the past 2 days, maybe it is because I am always pretty sensitive about the level of a talk when students and young scientists are part of the audience. But for me, the speech by Nobel Prize Laureate and AAAS President Phillip Sharp on the first night of the AAAS annual meeting, did not to inspire me.

IMG_20140213_185000698 (1)

Philip Sharp is a molecular biologist who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1993 with Richard Roberts, “for their discoveries of split genes.” If you studied biochemistry in the past (oh, wait, I did!), you would know that it is a pretty big deal (well, it is a huge deal). Back in the days, we didn’t know that the DNA code for a gene is not really just one continuous chain of information. What Sharp and Roberts found was that after the DNA code is translated into mRNA, parts of it called “introns”are removed. And it is based on this processed (spliced) mRNA that proteins, the building blocks of an organism, are actually made. The cool thing is that sometimes different ways to splice the DNA code could result in different proteins being produced. You can learn more about it from the slide show provided by the Nobel Prize website.

Like I said, I studied biochemistry for my undergrad degree, so this is really exciting for me.  I was truly looking forward to a talk in which he incorporate his experience and vision (or that of AAAS) for science, for future scientists, and for this AAAS meeting.

Instead, we were treated with “Discovery, Invention & Entrepreneurship need to be better linked for science to meet global challenges.” In my plain language, I think it means that 1. basic science research can significantly inform applied science, while applied science can mobilize basic science, and 2. scientists across disciplines, applied scientists, and the industry should collaborate better to solve the global challenges we will be facing in the next few decades, if not years: health care, food shortage, and I think the last one is poverty. The overall theme was actually quite good, especially considering the debate on funding rationale for basic science research nowadays. He concluded with the following question:

summary question

(If you are wondering, although you really shouldn’t, the expected answer was NO…)

Yet, the delivery just did not match up to the message. As technically the first talk for the day, it was rather stiff, scripted, and factual. Why should I feel motivated to do this? What’s the vision? What would be the significance? (see postscript) The more interesting part of the presentation though, was this quote from Susan Hockfield, the President of MIT from 2004-2012:

quote Susan Hockfield

(Ironically, none of the 5 opening talks this evening was by a female speaker – they are all white males above the age of 50. Nothing against them…but just want to point that out, and I was not the only one to notice that.)

Perhaps. AAAS is not an event for the general public. Yet with so many budding scientists in the audience, and the brightest high school students attending the conference via the American Junior Academy of Sciences, with attendees from all over the world, I feel frustrated and sad that this was a missed opportunity- that this speech did not make me feel like I should go home and think about how I could contribute to moving science and innovation forward. I just wanted to go back to my room and write this post.

It doesn’t mean that all scientists should be perfect science communicators. Not all of us can be Brian Cox or Neil deGrasse Tyson, and not all talks should be like their talks to the general public. Yet I believe that we can all find ways to improve ourselves, or talk to others (scientists, non-scientists, your parents, cousins, pretty much anyone you can find) to make sure the message is delivered to and understood by the audience.

Am I too critical? If you were at the talk, I would love to know what you think. Although this dampened my enthusiasm a little, I am still super excited about all the talks that I will get to attend at AAAS – now the question is, how to I pick which talk to go to…there are so many and all of them are so interesting…

PS. I hope that AAAS will post the video so that there is more context to this blog post. In the mean time, here is a photo I took of the transcription of the talk (via voice recognition I think, so might not be exact). I personally don’t like terms such as framework, model, convergence (which was used a lot), etc etc. I felt quite disconnected…

transcribed speech


#CSPC2013 Science Blogging in Canada (Storify)

25 Nov

A few months ago, we started talking about the need for a science blogging session during the Canadian Science Policy Conference 2013 in our Google+ community – Science Communications Canada. It was exciting that the idea grew into a session for the conference, with the launch of the Canadian science blogging network Science Borealis. While I was unable to attend the session in person, I managed to follow the conversation on twitter. Here is my attempt to capture the conversation via Storify. If anything is out of context or doesn’t make sense, please do not hesitate to let me know.

#CSPC2013 Science Blogging in Canada – Storify

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.

Notes from the Northern Voice #nv13, a blogging & social media conference

17 Jun

(If you want to go straight to the notes, they are here – Storify: Social media & blogging tips from the Northern Voice 2013 #nv13)

This past weekend, I finally had the opportunity to attend the Northern Voice, a blogging/social media conference here at Vancouver. It’s funny to think that a year ago, I owned neither a blog, nor a twitter account. This is the first time that I feel I am “qualified” enough to attend – imagine my excitement!

But the excitement comes with some timidness. This conference is quite different from the science conferences that I am familiar with. The Northern Voice is not about a specific subject or topic, but about the desire to share and communicate thoughts, ideas, and experiences through online publishing; this means that we came from all walks of life – from mommy bloggers, PR managers, archivists, technology enthusiasts, to photographers and (obviously) science communicators. Some of these people have tens and hundreds of thousands of readers! I have only just started blogging not long ago, so obviously don’t want to act like an idiot (or too much of a science nerd :P).

Luckily, my experience at the Northern Voice was wonderful. I met many who are also passionate about sharing their stories, some of whom I think I will be friends with for years to come. I also was able to tweet throughout the conference without any guilt (Come on, it is a social media conference – it was almost expected that everyone would pull out their smart phone/laptop/tablet and start tweeting away. Like what Mark Blevis said before his keynote, “if it wasn’t tweeted, it didn’t happen”)

Anyways, for novice bloggers out there, or for those who are interested in starting a blog but haven’t done so, here are some notes I took during the conference. It is in the Sorify format because, well, I took the notes using twitter.  Hope that this will be helpful for you.

Storify: Social media & blogging tips from the Northern Voice 2013 #nv13

If you have any other tips, please feel free to share them by commenting below!

Sexy scientists are less scary? Why we don’t like the “sexiest scientists” list

2 Apr

My friend Joyce and I often discuss gender issues in science on Facebook. A couple of weeks ago she sent me this list of the Sexiest Scientists Alive! by Business Insider, one of the most popular blogs online. She was not impressed, and neither was I.

*Updated at 4:21pm on April 2: This post was originally a lot more “unhappy” about the list. I took out some stronger language I used in the post in an attempt to provide a more balanced post. However it seems that my consideration was mistaken by Jennifer Welsh to say that I enjoyed the content of the list – this is a misrepresentation of my stance. The content of the list is hardly the point, it is the way that it is presented that is wrong; I find it very troubling that she thinks as long as there is content it is okay to put together a list like this and to label scientists, and pay no regards to the context. So I am writing this to make sure that my readers know I really don’t like the list at all, and regardless of whether there is content or not, a list such as this should not happen. I also edited the content of this post to make sure I get my point across.

I got a sense of the rationale behind the list from the twitter exchange between Jennifer Welsh (science editor for the Business Insider) and Karen James (staff scientist at Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory).

Hm, I don’t think I can say that I will find fashion models more approachable (?) after seeing a list of the 50 sexiest models in the world. I would rather hear about why they became models and the challenges they encounter, and know that they are people just like us – an example being Cameron Russell in her TED talk (coincidentally the TED talk goes really well with this post). While I appreciate the brief biographies and fun facts included in the list, I think scientists can be introduced without being given the “sexy” label. So unfortunately I failed to understand Jennifer’s point.

And then she explained further:

Not sure why a list of sexy scientists can make scientists less scary (are sexy scientists less scary?). There are many scientists who make science awesome and not scary – but I guess they need to be “not bad to look at” in order to make it to the list? I will let you be the judge for the discussion – read more of the twitter conversation.

When I asked Jennifer about the discussion she said

(This is included so that you also get her point of view) I want to point out that if that is the case, then why are they choosing the “not bad to look at” scientists for the list? That’s a quote from the list. Again, doesn’t make sense to me.

Some, including giovannazanardo, raised concerns about subjecting those on the list to sexual stereotypes.

And a few others talked about the list on their blogs. E.E. Giorgi mentioned why the list troubled her:

In fact, I think it promotes a disturbingly negative message, which is: do I need to be beautiful to have my work noticed?

Zuska pointed out in her post “Sexxay Inequality” that:

Sexifying scientists does not and cannot function equally for men and women.

Roxanne Palmer discussed the stereotypes female scientists face, backed with research references, and said:

There’s relatively little harm in discussing the attractiveness of scientists past and present. But sexiness does not exist in a vacuum — the label can have very different connotations, depending on whether you’re a man or a woman in science.

Last but not the least, Sarah Callori described the missed opportunity to inform people of gender issues in science:

The author of “50 Sexy Scientists” could have provided more context within the article about how science stereotypes are a problem and then added in a quick mission statement…

But they didn’t. Instead this article seems to be playing off the stereotype even more in a tabloid journalism sort of way.

If you want to see an example of what the discussion about the list can be reduced to outside of the scientific context, just check out some comments on this forum. Thanks, Business Insider 😦

For me personally, the problem is this. There are beautiful people in any professions, and of course there are scientists who are sexy. But regardless of whether they are sexy of not, scientists should be celebrated for their achievement in scientific discovery and the communication of science. The list emphasizes “sexiness” that is irrelevant in science, using outreach as the justification. Having done science outreach and communication myself for the past 8 years, and having been a basic science researcher before that, I find this extremely disappointing and disturbing.

Yes, the title is attention-grabbing and the post probably received lots of views from those who usually don’t pay attention to science news. Good for Business Insider But please don’t defend it by saying that this is a way science and scientists can reach out to people – because being sexy and “not bad to look at” is not what scientists are about to begin with.

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