Tag Archives: science outreach

#GenderedToys are awful

11 Feb

Okay. I know it has been a REALLY long time since my last post. It’s not because I have been lazy – in the past few months I have spent much of my energy founding Curiosity Collider, a non-profit focus on innovative and interdisciplinary ways to experience science. Plus, at some point my personal life needs to take priority 😀 Now that things are moving along quite nicely, maybe I will start writing a little more…

Anyways, today I want to share this video about gendered toys, which I discussed a few times previously. I love this segment from an Australian show called The Weekly with Charlie Pickering (I think it is very similar to the Daily Show in US). Here it is:

*Sigh* By the way, I do have a box of LEGO Research Institute which I keep in a box and don’t let anyone touch…



From IFLScience to Vaccination

9 Sep

Recently, an article in the Columbia Journalism Review about “I F*cking Love Science” (IFLS) founder Elise Andrew (@Elise_Andrew) stirred up some controversies (see postscript). In the article by Alexis Sobel Fitts (@fittsofalexis), Andrew was praised for being one of “journalism’s self-made digital-era brands.”

If she isn’t already, Andrew is poised to be a new type of media superstar.

I will admit that I am not a fan of IFLS. I started out as one though – I enjoyed the quick wits by Elise Andrew and by the page’s followers, the interesting bite-size science, and some incredible photos as well as funny comics portraying the lives of scientists. I was also very impressed by how fast the number of followers increased. Despite some criticism about people loving pretty pictures and not actually science, I do think that science could start out from an inspiration – a photo, a quote, a story. And, for once, science get to ride to social media wave to reach a larger crowd.

The love faded very quickly though. More than once when I thought about sharing the images, I noticed that some of the images don’t have their sources listed. As a blogger, this is not the standard that I would have allowed on my own blog. I thought that perhaps I was just being too cautious myself, but later on this was rightly pointed out by a few fellow science artists; Alex Wild in particular wrote on his blog, “Facebook’s “I F*cking Love Science” does not f*cking love artists.” The attention caught on, some images were then credited (although this is far from the end of the story – see here and here).

With the strong number of followers, IFLS started a website; writers were recruited, and they began curating articles for the site and for sharing on the Facebook page. Although, occasionally, the titles of some articles would hit a (bad) nerve for me, like:

But, what frustrates me more about IFLS is probably the following – its handling of the vaccination topic.

(Full disclaimer: I get my flu vaccine every year, I was vaccinated per schedule thanks to my parents, and when I travel to a foreign country I make sure to get the appropriate vaccines. If I have kids in the future, they WILL be vaccinated. So you know my stance. And this is what I think of Jenny McCarthy)

There is no denial that vaccination is a tricky topic – one of those that can backfire very easily if thoughts are not put into its communication. In 2012, a study by Cornelia Betsch and Katharina Sachse showed that telling parents “there is no risk” instead of “there are some risks” actually works against parents’ intent to vaccinate their children. Another study published earlier this year (original scientific article here is paywalled, but you can find the pre-print here) by political scientist Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College with colleagues showed that the common tactics used by US CDC (and also in many discussions about the importance of vaccination) – including providing information about the lack of evidence connecting MMR and autism, explaining the risks involved in not vaccinating one’s children, showing an image of a very sick child, or supplying a dramatic narrative – actually are rather useless in convincing parents to vaccinate their children. What’s more, some of these interventions backfired.

Likewise, while Disease images did not have a significant effect on MMR side effects, it did increase beliefs that vaccines cause autism (AOR=1.47, 95% CI: 1.02 to 2.13), though the effect was not distinct from the other risk interventions (F(2, 1734) = 0.96, n.s.).

In addition, our results demonstrate the importance of measuring beliefs and behavioral intent when assessing health interventions. Corrective information about the disproven vaccine-autism link significantly reduced misperceptions, but also reduced intention to vaccinate among parents with the least favorable vaccine attitudes. If we had not measured intent, we might have missed a potentially dangerous backfire effect.

(By the way, this article in Journalist’s Resources covers the study very well, with additional readings as to why this is happening)

Most news coverage painted a rather gloomy and negative picture (here, here, and here), although I would really like to think that it simply means we need to find other ways to communicate the issue – such as the one suggested by Alyssa Rosenberg at Washington Post, “How can we convince parents to vaccinate? Acknowledge their fears” (which is supported by this small qualitative study). Or maybe we should enforce the message with positive imagery as suggested by Glendon Mellow (@FlyingTrilobite). And, there are some preliminary results suggesting that a different way of framing the issue might actually be helpful. Anyways, there are many interesting questions here, and I hope to see a major study in the future.

Now, back to IFLS.

Everytime it comes to the topic of vaccination, it comes out as a sarcastic talk down to the so-called anti-vaxxers (btw a term that I don’t like – you can ask me why in the comments). While I agree that it is frustrating to have heard from some of those who are against vaccinating their children, in the end some are actually parents who are concerned about their children’s health – and genuine concerns are not something I feel we should make fun of.


Images of sick kids


Articles with sarcastic titles, such as this one (by the way, the same CDC press release mentioned in this article was covered in May already by IFLS except its title did not have “Thanks to Anti-Vaxxers”).


And posting articles telling parents that they are lied to (back to what we talked about regarding “corrective information…”)

My point is, if doing all these will make those who decide not to vaccinate their children change their minds, then fine. But this is obviously not working – as Elise herself (or the poster) commented on the Facebook page,

Every time I post about vaccines, I receive hundreds of comments and emails accusing me of being paid by pharmaceutical companies.

Worse yet, based on the available research, it might be turning parents away from vaccinating their children.

I will admit that IFLS is not the only site/person communicating the issues around vaccination in such a negative, condemning way. But, its ability to reach a large crowd is something that is more concerning than two people fighting about this in a bar. The fact that IFLS has a reach to a large following of general science enthusiasts (who might hold diverse thoughts about vaccination), and the fact that it positions itself as a page about “science”, means that it has a responsibility to treat the communication of issues around vaccination with care. IFLS or Elise Andrew could have a very strong stance regarding vaccination, or think ill of the anti-vaxxers, but ultimately yelling, sarcasm, talking down, or scaring the hell out of parents will not achieve the goal of getting more children vaccinated. It simply pushes those parents who do have genuine concerns about vaccines away, and removes the opportunity for a conversation (I quite like what Ben Anderson says in his post, “A tale of two Facebooks” – excellent quick read).

Perhaps, some suggestions from Brian Martin in his post, “Why do some controversies persist despite the evidence?” (originally posted in the Conversation, and interestingly, re-posted by IFLS themselves), could shine some lights:

If new evidence seldom makes a difference in a controversy, what does?

Rather than trying to convince die-hard opponents, it is usually better to take the argument to those whose views are less set. Some people are open-minded and willing to listen. It is also important to speak to people’s values rather than assume that facts speak for themselves.

Behaving in an honourable way can be important. Making derogatory comments about opponents may seem justified and effective, but it can create an image of nastiness and intolerance.

Observers may respond to behaviours, such as debating style, as much as to the arguments. Challengers to orthodoxy need to appear sensible and credible and defenders of orthodoxy need to appear tolerant and fair.

Sometimes, when debates are interminable, it is worth thinking about alternative options. If fluoridation of public water supplies is perpetually debated, then it might be better to sidestep the debate and advocate voluntary measures such as fluoride toothpaste and mouthwashes.

Not every debate has such alternatives, however.

It is wise then to better understand what is driving those on the other side, and to treat them as thinking, caring individuals with a different set of values and a different way of looking at the world.

Indeed, if you are not already involved as a partisan, it might be worthwhile trying to arrange a friendly discussion. Rather than castigating opponents, it is possible to learn about them and from them.


Postscript: This is not exactly on topic for this post so I didn’t elaborate on this earlier, but here are some great reads regarding the controversy about Elise being the cover story of Columbia Journalism Review.

Columbia Journalism Review posted Alexis’ response to the criticism, which in my opinion made things worse. Read the comment by Jenny Morber (@JRMorber), which really resonates with me.

Within and Beyond Academia – Science Communications Intro for Graduate Students

22 Aug

Natasha and I had often chatted about me running a science communication workshop/presentation for graduate students in the department. A few months ago this became a reality – and it worked quite well since there had been some interests among the students to learn about career paths alternative to an academic one.

I put together a fairly short presentation for this purpose. The idea is to talk about the changing landscape of science communication, and to bring a little bit of social sciences into the picture, as the study of science communication often falls into social sciences – and not easily within the reach for science students.

You can go through the slides below via SlideShare. Alternatively, you can also download the high quality pdf through UBC cIRcle (thanks for UBC cIRcle for hosting the presentation!).


I was quite relieved to see many graduate students in the room (Apparently I was competing against an Astronomy talk that offered free pizzas!!). The presentation itself was only about 30 minutes, and we spent another 30 minutes having an open discussion about science communication. A few interesting questions were brought up. For example, some wonder if it was a smooth switch for me to go from graduate studies/research to science communication. The answer to that was no – you can read all about this in my earlier post. Another student asked if she needs to use Twitter, considering all the recent focus on social media and online communications. I personally don’t think everyone needs to use all channels, but it is important to try a few out and see what works for you. There are also a lot of in-person outreach opportunities that have been overlooked now because everyone is going online. In any case, it is useful to have a landing page/online profile where you can showcase what you have done.

Last but not the least, we chatted about whether it is easier to find a job in science communication. Just because it is an alternative to an academic career doesn’t mean that it will be easy. Some institutions don’t even have such positions, so it is up to you to pitch this to institutions and to convey why science communicators are needed. In the end though, it really comes down to whether you are passionate about it, and whether you are good at it – a lot of soft skills are involved here. Natasha also brought up another point – a good science communicator in physics and/or astronomy is likely higher in demand compared to one is other fields of science; I think it is mostly because some of the concepts in physics and astronomy are more abstract and more difficult to explain, so having that background is definitely a plus.

After the presentation, I was approached by a graduate student about the possibility of me starting a department blog. He was very interested in writing, but found the idea of maintaining a personal blog is just a bit too much for someone who is trying to wrap up PhD. I think a department or an institutional blog is a great idea, not just because it will showcase the work done by the department, but also provide an opportunity for students in the department to put together a “writing sample” for the future. Right now, I do have 3-4 graduate students interested in this, but I think it will take more people in the dept interested before I jump into this. I am also going through all the points mentioned by Matt Shipman in his article, Institutional Blogging: Do You Really Want to Do This?  I shall continue to contemplate what he discussed…to start an institutional blog or not…

It’s been too long!

8 Aug

It has been way too long since my last blog post! In the next few weeks you will see more posts because of my current staycation. I have the following planned for the blog:

Earlier this year, I mentioned that I would like to write something about clinical trials. With the latest Ebola outbreak, there are a few things I want to write about. Is it difficult to develop treatments for Ebola? Who is working on this, and why haven’t we made progress? You probably heard that an experimental drug is being used in the US to treat aid workers who are infected Ebola, and my impression is that the drug itself hasn’t gone through a proper clinical trial. What is the typical process for a clinical trial, why is it necessary, and why does it take so long? And then, let’s look at the ethics of drug development: Why is it difficult for drugs for illnesses common in less privileged countries to be developed?

Working in science outreach and communication, one trend I am noticing is the move from rigid teaching curriculum and standards to something focusing more on big ideas, including one that science is a process, not just facts. I am glad to see this move, but at the same time uneasy about it. I plan to work on a series on science education. Why is early science education important? What does this shift in curriculum and standards mean to students, teachers (in my opinion, a component often overlooked in this re-development of teaching standards), and informal science education (science outreach)?

I have always been quite a hands-on, “DIY” person. This probably comes with working in the Physics department and have access to all the cool electronics stuff. With that said, my health sciences background doesn’t lend help here. In the next few months, I will be playing with some basic electronics stuff based on the book Make: Electronics. This means that I will share my success and failures on the blog…

And of course, other than these “themes,” I will continue to share other random inspirations related to science communications and outreach. I am also hoping to update the resources page when I get a chance.

Thanks again for your patience and it’s good to be back! 😀

Field trip at the Chicago Field Museum!

2 Apr

I took a little break before attending two conferences to visit the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. Personally, I am a huge fan of natural history museums in general. Job-wise, it is an opportunity to see what kind of demonstrations and interactive elements museums incorporated into their exhibits. I simply could not miss the opportunity to visit the Field Museum.


The Field Museum was originally born as the Columbia Museum of Chicago after the famous World’s Columbian Expo on September 16, 1893. It was later renamed as The Field Museum after Marshall Field, the owner of several department stores in Chicago at the time and the major benefactor of the museum when it was first founded. The Field Museum is one of the largest Natural History Museum in the US. It hosts over 24 million specimens and objects, and attracts more than 2 million visitors every year. I was told that at any given time, we see less than 10% of all the specimens available at the museum. Pretty impressive.


The Field Museum has a large collection of specimens

Some students visiting the Field Museum. The kid in the photo totally photobombed this :)

Some students visiting the Field Museum. The kid in the photo totally photobombed this haha.

Here are some highlights for me:

Sue the T. rex – Sue is a famous Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton at the Field Museum because it is the most complete T. rex skeleton discovered to date. “It” (the gender of the T. rex is actually unknown) was named after its discoverer  Sue Hendrickson.

At the Field Museum with Sue

Photo in front of Sue!


Sue’s skull weighs 600 pounds, which is too heavy to put onto the full skeleton, so it is actually sitting in a glass cover on the second floor balcony.

The Evolving Planet Exhibit – The Field Museum very wisely incorporated all the dinosaur skeletons into the Evolving Planet Exhibit, so we get to see how dinosaurs and us all fit together in the grand scheme of evolution. Some natural history museums failed to do so, and for me it doesn’t quite make sense to just see all the skeletons in one room without knowing how they are part of the earth’s history. Well done, Field Museum!

I see that someone is having a fascinating time with exhibit...

I see that someone is having a fascinating time with exhibit…

Inside Ancient Egypt – This exhibit is in the basement of the Field Museum (how fitting haha!). It hosts a collection of mummies, as well as the interesting diorama of mummy making…



Wonders of the 1893 World’s Fair – The Columbia World’s Fair hosted 65,000 exhibits in ~200 buildings to celebrate Columbia arriving in America 400 years prior. It was considered the event to see in a life time, and many spent all their savings just for a ticket to the fair. After the World’s Fair, some exhibits remained and became part of the Field Museum collection today. You can find highlights of the exhibit here on the exhibit website.

Using New Technology – Some cases have a QR code, which you can scan with your smart phone for more information. You can also download the museum app and design your own museum tour. Did I mention that there was free Wi-Fi in the museum?

QRCode  MuseumApp

Museum Discount Days – It turns out that Illinois residents can visit several museums and public attractions in Chicago for free on specific days. If you have read my post about museum admission fees, you would know how much I appreciate these discount days can do for science education and outreach.


The Brain Scoop – Okay, this is not really part of the physical “Museum”, but we (conference attendees) were invited to the Nerd Night Chicago before one of my conferences. I had the opportunity to meet Emily Graslie, the Chief Curiosity Correspondent of the Field Museum and the person behind the Museum’s Brain Scoop YouTube channel, in person!


She makes really cool “behind the scene” videos about the Field Museum. I highly recommend that you subscribe to the YouTube channel.

The Field Museum is definitely a must when you visit Chicago. I had an absolutely wonderful time there. Just make sure that you have plenty of time…especially if you are like me, who would attempt to read the descriptions for all the exhibit cases…

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