Archive for the ‘August 2014’ Category

The climate is social?

In August 2014 on August 27, 2014 at 10:20 pm


Sarah: I’ve signed up for my first online course, an 8-week ‘coursera’ through the University of Melbourne entitled Climate Change

Why? Quite simply, I want to be better informed. Don’t get me wrong, I do strongly believe climate change is happening. But I also feel the need to know more. I want to see the actual numbers; I want to be able to argue the case with conviction; I want to wrap my head around some solutions. 

My first bit of learning hit me straight up between the eyes: week one of the course was not about science.

Huh? Surely they’d want to start with some evidence? But instead we heard from Professor Jon Barnett about climate change as a social problem – an issue of people.

By the end of John’s lectures, I could see why this was a good idea. Yes, climate change is about rising temperatures, melting ice, oceans creeping up in levels and acidity, and changing weather patterns. We can take this as a given – the evidence is solid.

But the primary reason we’re in this predicament, and also why we care, is because of us.

People, folks, homo sapiens. Humans created emissions, humans measure and interpret their changing world, humans suffer the consequences and humans have to come up with solutions to ensure the survival of our species and other animals and plants. 

In his lectures, Jon talked about his own particular geographical area of research, the Pacific islands. He spoke of differing levels of exposure, sensitivity and adaptability of the people in these nations to climate change. He talked us through impacts of increased rates of cyclones, altered rainfall (drought and extreme falls), sea level rises and altered local weather systems. He also imparted a sense of hope about the capacity of people to deal with the impacts of climate change, suggesting that climate change adaptation isn’t so different from thinking about sustainable development, and ethical economic development. Dealing with the social arm of climate change doesn’t have to be a massive step necessarily. 

But….with a proviso. Only if we keep the average global temperature rise to around 2 degrees C. After that, the rules will probably change. 

[image thanks to US Pacific Fleet on flickr]


Happy birthday to us!

In August 2014 on August 21, 2014 at 11:51 am


Sarah: ScienceforLife.365 is two years old! 

It’s now National Science Week 2014. During the same week in 2012, I launched this blog as a daily project aimed at sharing the science in my everyday life. I also saw the challenge as a way to make sure I was writing regularly. 

The first year was crazy and wonderful, and ended with my post The Finishing Line, and a BrainBreak morning tea. You can review my thoughts on the professional benefits the initial year of this blog brought to me here

Phase 2 of the blog welcomed the very wonderful Kirsti Abbot as a weekly contributor, and a shift to less frequent posts from me (weekly rather than daily) to free up time for my growing work commitments as a freelance science writer. Guest posts from Heather Bray, Geoff Hudson, Tiki Swain (here and here), Mia Cobb and Cameron Webb have also been wonderful, adding diversity and interest across the breadth of science. 

And what awaits for the third year? 

Kirsti and I plan to continue exploring the science in our lives. I’d also love to continue to feature guest posts (be in touch if you have an idea!). 

But there could be more. It’s hard to ignore the fact that Australia and the rest of the world are now facing many challenges, including that posed by climate change. I don’t often write political posts. And yet I feel a growing urge to tackle this topic. I don’t yet know what that might look like. 

Come along for the ride and we’ll see what happens. It’s social media, after all, right? 

[image thanks to Anna Hall on flickr

National Science Week. It’s on!

In August 2014 on August 15, 2014 at 10:25 am

kirsti Nat Sci Wk selfie

Kirsti: It’s on people!

Although it’s officially National Science Week next week, things are hotting up right now. And for me, it’s going to be rather big relative to other years. For I admit that despite being a scientist and having science in my life every day….I hardly ever went to National Science Week events.

Really. Hardly ever.

Partly this was because I was swanning around remote tropical islands learning about ants (and beer), and then because I had two small children that didn’t make going out very amenable (I think I did go out a few times….) or because I was just too tired, or whatever. I couldn’t even tell you why for most years, but I do know that the islands I worked on didn’t have a National Science Week agenda.

But this year has got me thinking about why it’s important to even have a National Science Week. Not a day, like “National Tree Day”, or “Clean Up Australia Day”, “World Wetlands Day” even though I kinda think these days should be every day. No, we have a whole week of celebrating science.

Here’s why I think it’s important:

1. Questions and answers matter
We all start out as natural scientists; curious, in awe of the world around us. All of it. We ask questions from the moment we can talk and learn so so much in the first decade of our lives that it’s almost incomprehensible there’s more to learn once you leave school! But many people lose that capacity to ask questions. Or maybe it’s decreasing desire to ask questions….or both over time (for various reasons, don’t get me started). I think it is an essential human virtue – to continue asking questions, and find answers to them with a method we know has stood the test of time, ego, funding, politics and scepticism. A national week to remind us of this is good.

2. Gratitude for how we live
Without science, technology and engineering (including medical), we would not enjoy anything like the standards of living and life expectancies we do today in the western world. I am so incredibly grateful for this that, in my books anyway, a week of celebrating it doesn’t come close to the gratitude we should have!

3. Fun times!
There are a plethora of extraordinarily fun, adventurous, exciting, brain bending and joyful things that you can do with science, so this is your chance to do them! Anything!

4. Opportunities in education
Some schools (particularly primary schools) don’t do much science, if any. National Science Week therefore is THE most important week of their year! Where art and music get special teachers and often equipment and instruments, science is left to individual teachers with the confidence to do hands on experiments with meagre supplies. Even if it’s a video conference link up to open their eyes to what is possible, this week in the year can facilitate that.

5. Science needs women
Women are dropping out of our STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) system after graduate research studies at alarming rates. Australia – and other countries – need a kick up the rear end to keep brilliant researchers of all types in work and ensure a well-informed, coherent and sustainable future. National Science Week reminds of us this too, and this year a Wikibomb about female scientists has done this in style.

So Happy National Science Week peeps.

Check out the website for an event near you and try and get to one of the amazing events around the country.

Is an ant worth less than a mammal?

In August 2014, Uncategorized on August 6, 2014 at 4:15 pm

Kirsti Oecophylla Cairns

Kirsti: I’m in the midst of planning an AntBlitz for a National Science Week project here in Armidale.

An AntBlitz is comparable to ECOBLITZ, or BUSHBLITZ, or BIOBLITZ. Essentially, it’s a 24 hour period in which citizens can help us collect ants, sort ants, identify ants and curate a reference collection for a given location. All this activity will go toward helping a local tree group understand their ant communities and document their change over time. Ants are used as bioindicators of ecosystem health, and can be used to measure the impact of various land management practices.

What the citizens don’t see is a whole heap of careful planning and experimental design. We aim to ensure that our projects create useful data, not just a load of dead ants in vials that no one will look at ever again.

Yep, we kill the ants.

We kill them without ethics approval from anyone. We can do this because there are no requirements for ethics approval relating to invertebrates other than cephalopods.

Anything with a backbone? The approval processes, forms, committees and meetings one must work through are time consuming and don’t always guarantee you can continue with your research. And rightly so. Ethical issues regarding the use of animals in research are subjective, highly contentious and tricky to navigate. Humans have made many mistakes in the past whilst using animals in research, and some would say we still do.

But for invertebrates things are different. Reasons given for why these creatures are not protected by ethics approval vary, from citing underdeveloped nervous systems (and therefore reduced capacity to experience pain, stress and distress) to the fact that so many are killed in every day life anyway.

But an important part of my work is about acknowledging moral objections that others may have in killing ants. I argue there is ethical value in killing a relatively small number of individuals representing a social colony in order to learn more about their ecology, their identities, their sociality, and their function on our planet. Killing non-reproductive individuals of a colony formed by hundreds, if not thousands, rarely if ever impacts on their population dynamics. Because turnover of worker ants is high, those individuals we have gratefully taken are replaced. Quickly.

I’m currently developing a Code of Conduct (kind of similar to this one) with respect to how School of Ants deals with ant collections, specimens and curation of our reference collections. I’m really keen to get some feedback on the diversity of opinions on the killing of ants for research purposes.

CONTACT ME if you’ve got a view on this!

[photo by Kirsti Abbott]

Not that Adam

In August 2014 on August 5, 2014 at 10:09 pm


Sarah: Federal member for Melbourne Adam Bandt featured as a showcase interviewee at ANU’s excellent PhD to Present event last week.

Adam trained as a lawyer, and returned to university for PhD studies after 10 years in the workforce. He made many interesting comments about being a postgrad student, and of the broad value of doing a PhD. I jotted a few of these down in case of general interest.

On the process of starting a PhD:

“For me the biggest barrier was just beginning to write. I though ‘I can’t possible being writing until I understand everything about this field.’ But then someone said to me ‘you’ve just to start writing – it will be rubbish but you have just got to start’.”

On the transferable skills coming from a PhD:

“For me it’s less about methodology and more about being to able think about and distill ideas.”

On knowing when to stop researching and just write it up:

“One of the best things I got from working as a lawyer was a recognition that deadlines insist upon themselves. It’s not always going to be perfect, but sometimes you just have to get it done by a certain date.”

“As long as you’re prepared to acknowledge the limitations of your knowledge.”

On why he got into politics:

“It was actually scientists who convinced me to get into politics – reading the science of climate change.”

In answer to a question relating to whether research is partisan or not:

“I think we do badly in Australia in terms of encouraging pure research and letting people use PhDs as a place to explore ideas”

“We need more money, we need more academic independence, and we need to prioritise research as a country.”

On the value of staffers with postgraduate degrees:

“We’re really lucky in parliament because we have a parliamentary library. It’s full of people with PhDs and we’re better for it.”

On whether having a PhD should be overtly stated:

“It’s not something I hide, but to be frank, I didn’t want to be seen as too up myself.”

“We don’t do ‘the popular academic’ that well in Australia.”

On why he is passionate about research:

“Partly it comes from having done a PhD, but more broadly it’s a debate about which way we want our country to go and what do we want to prioritise.”

“I think someone needs to stand up for pure, undirected research. It’s about saying ‘what kind of society do we want?’”

On the role of expert opinions:

“It’s important, especially when people can advance ideas in the public realm.”

“It is important but it’s not sufficient.”

“The attack on the role and the legitimacy of science and research has been mind-boggling, and has a chilling effect on everyone else. It also de-legitimizes science and research more generally.”

A huge thanks to Adam for contributing to the day, and for his frank revelations.

And I’ll forgive him for not being *that* Adam.

[image thanks to chris m on flickr]

Show us your skills

In August 2014 on August 5, 2014 at 9:21 am


Sarah: Having an 11-year old in my house, I’m used to the term ‘skills’.

“Nice skills, loser”

“Oh yes! Skillage!” (after kicking a goal from an acute angle)

“Show us your skills”

Friday last week I was involved in a great event which also talked about skills. But not footy skills. This time it was PhD skills, or more specifically the skills you can pick up during a PhD and which are transferrable to a variety of work settings.

The event was PhD to Present (see program here, and tweets collected under #PhDtopresent here), organised by ANU Research Skills and Training. I was lucky enough to be a panel member, and also to hear a range of fantastic presentations throughout the day. It got me thinking about some of the skills which I use in my current work, and which I picked up during my PhD years. Here are five quick pointers that occurred to me as relevant to my own career, and might sound familiar to you too.

Getting started
The beginning of a PhD is like the biggest piece of blank paper you can imagine. What to do first? Pick something small, and do it. Then pick the next small thing, and do that. Lo and behold, two things are done, and you’ve started. Those small things can include seemingly insignificant actions like reading a paper and making a few notes, getting some equipment ready for an experiment, writing an email to source an antibody – anything that gets the ball rolling. Imagine someone saying to you “what did you do today?”  – you need to be able to give them a concrete answer.

Start in the middle
Once a wise nun sang “let’s start at the very beginning, it’s a very good place to start”. As it applies to writing, I beg to differ. Start in the middle. When thesis or paper writing, this can be the materials and methods section. Not creative, not interpretive, but just a good solid way to start seeing words on a page. For article writing, it can be as simple as writing out the quotes from an interview. Suddenly you might see how other words can form around them, and you’re on your way. I’ve also heard Allison Tait give this advice recently.

Task management
Lots of things to finish, multiple deadlines, many clients. Many of my weeks look like this. The PhD equivalent involved several experiments on the run, a presentation to prepare, and an association event to organise. At home, it’s each of three kids howling for attention/food/love. Best approach? Don’t panic! Deep breath, loudest squeaky wheel first, one thing at a time.

Know thyself
After four years of working on a single research project, most of time on my own, I got to know my own brain pretty well. Mornings = good thinky stuff going on. Afternoons = too knackered to be creative. Exercise = critical for a change of pace and making sure I slept well. All these are quirks I still apply – mornings are for writing, afternoons are for editing or cross-checking boring titbits, exercise is very important.

Pick up the phone
Yes, we can all email, SMS, tweet and Facebook to our hearts content. But nothing works like a real conversation for creating action and connecting as a fellow human being. If you’re not sure what somebody’s email meant, pick up the phone and clarify it. If that deadline is not going to be manageable anymore, pick up the phone and renegotiate it. If you need to find a speaker for a conference session, pick up the phone and have a yarn about it. Even better – if geography allows – arrange a coffee meeting. Real life interactions have less room for misinterpreted tone, and make it harder for the opposite person to send a “no can do” answer back purely out of annoyance.

[image thanks to flying cloud on flickr]



Peer review

In August 2014 on August 3, 2014 at 1:14 pm


Sarah: A few days ago, guest-poster Cameron Webb issued me a challenge

Well I can’t just ignore that, can I? So here are my favourite haunts.

About 400m up the road from my house is a teeny-tiny converted cottage called Espresso Royale. The coffee here is literally delicious. With tables set up in the main room, a secondary sitting-room-styled area and a gorgeous wee kitchen garden back yard, it’s also a casual and flexible venue for both work and family visits. Sometimes I set myself up with headphones, a laptop and a flat white, and type away for an hour or so. Other days I arrange to meet interviewees here – Anthony and his staff always seems happy to accommodate. Lunch options are healthy and yummy, including turkish bread with pumpkin hommous. Also spotted here: PhD/dietician Jane Bowen, wine writer Nick Ryan.

If I’m looking for a bit more hustle and bustle, 1km down the road is Argo on the Parade. Coffee, fresh juices and yummy snacks a go-go. This place is the beating heart of Norwood, and run by the-man-with-the-community-know-how Daniel Milky. In mid-winter, and rugged up to the nines, an outside table is my usual haunt. People I know stream past and stop for a quick chat. Its great way to change up the solo existence I usually maintain as a home office-based freelancer. Also spotted here: journalism guru Katrina McLachlin, Leah Vandenburg from Playschool (well, during the festival anyhow).

As an ex-student of University of Adelaide, Rundle Street in the city is special to me. I used to wander up from the Medical School in lunchtimes and breaks between experiments, and spend money I didn’t have.  Right in this vicinity is Felici Espresso Bar. It’s the place I now meet friends and work colleagues in Kristin Alford and Heather Bray on a ‘need-to-stay-sane’ basis. We sit in the glass-enclosed front corner and chew the fat over matters ‘important and trivial’ (to steal another’s words). I couldn’t tell you about the food, but the coffees are top notch. Also spotted here: science communicator Adam Barclay, community engagement expert and science chameleon Noriko Wynn.

Also Cameron, your fallback position across Adelaide is Cibo.

[image thanks to Mike Poresky on flickr]