Welcome to the Scientopia Guest Blogge!

(by physioprof) Feb 12 2011

This is a new Scientopia blog that will be hosting a wonderful slate of non-Scientopia bloggers for two-week guest-blogging stints. Have fun!

11 responses so far

Society's Beef with Women in STEM

(by rimk) Mar 07 2013


I've decided to stray away from Neuroscience for one post and take complete advantage of Scientopia's diverse platform.

In honour of International Women’s Day  and after some recent personal conversations (okey they were more like one sided rants), I wanted to talk about women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Initially I thought this post would be a breeze to write.

I mean I'm a woman, I'm studying in a STEM field, I organize events for other women in STEM of various ages, I am a community outreach youth counselor who concentrates on gender specific programming, and I LOVE every minute of my day/night..

Then I started the research.

Oh man. Did I ever sink into a blackhole.. I have written at least 6 versions of this post..

Now that I've struggled with articulating it, I've come to realize it’s a loaded topic, what to talk about? The role of media? The cultural differences? The retention rate for women in STEM? The job markets? Public perception of women in STEM? How about the women themselves, how do they feel?

Then I got into the "Geek" and "Nerd" allocations.. yea. I am still trying to process all these facts (read: opinions, stereotypes, discriminatory remarks, racist remarks and of course sexist remarks, its not a happy place out there)

I’ve decided to simply write it from my perspective. Cavaet:  I may be coming from a somewhat privileged standpoint, I grew up with both parents being engineers and with the expectation that I follow suit (yes I picked Neuroscience over Aerospace engineering and yes my father is convinced it's a hobby, but that is rant I can go into another time). Let's focus on the topic at hand..

Girls and society.

“As girls grow up, they are socialized to believe that women are caring and empathetic, making careers that nurture others appealing; more abstract fields like math and physics do not seem as female friendly. Drawing women to these areas requires countering these perceptions.”


From my experience, girls want to make a difference, they want to do something that impacts the community. They respond strongly to the idea of changing the world into a better place. Research has actually shown this to be the case, girls are less likely to enter into a field they perceive to be less likely to help people (Diekman, Brown, Johnston & Clark 2010).

Girls and STEM

Researching, attracting and retaining women in STEM has been a hot topic within university STEM departments and granting agencies (ie.Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada 2010 Report )

It's also been tackled by governments (the European Commission (EC)  “Science: It’s a Girl Thing!” , Japan's Miss Rikei Contest  ) TV shows ( The Erika Show), and even NFL/NBA Cheerleaders .

The media has either loved or hated  the way the females have been portrayed (feminine, girlie, pretty, sexy, ect.)  ...

You may be asking yourself, someone must have looked into this method of attracting girls into STEM more scientifically...

They have. A popular study by, Betz & Sekaquaptewa (2012) make the argument that uber (my word, best way I can describe the females they used in their task) feminine STEM role models were actually discouraging middle school girls interest in STEM when compared to being exposed to a gender-neutral STEM role models. These authors have been quoted saying that having a "geeky" female role model did not motivate the girls to pursue STEM related field either... I encourage you to read the paper, it has some great background, but I am interested in what you think about the experimental design.

Personally I cringed during the EC video, I didn't see a problem with the cheerleaders (although I played rugby in high school) nor did I see anything wrong Dr.Erika.. But then again I am not a middle school girl, so I did my own little n=1 experiment,I showed the videos to my 13 year old sister (affectionately known as the half human), who is a self-proclaimed "jockey fashionable nerd" (her words, apparently it applies anyone who likes math, the shade of purple, plays sax & american football... -_- ). I asked her what she thought of the women in them. Her reaction to them went like this:

In response to the EU video "Why are you showing me such an old video? Are they supposed to be scientists? Why are the girls walking around instead of doing science?"

In response to seeing Erika " She's so pretty, what did she do her PhD in? Where is MIT?"

In response to the Cheerleading video "I think this is cool. Didn't your friend do hockey & her masters? You know what would be fun, if they made this with all the sports!"

So the videos didn't "demotivate" her or make her question her abilities. Granted she comes from a family of female engineers and her older sister (ME) a little excessive with the science/engineering worshiping. I plan on showing these videos to her class (grade 8) in two weeks when I go talk to them about Neuroscience (and embarrass her). I'll update you guys on their reactions in the comments.

Girls, STEM and Society

A lot of arguments I've read online are talking about how feminine these women are and that the videos are objectifying the women behind the science.

It should be about the science, not about how hot or sexy the scientist is.

Agreed.. BUT.

Let's take a step back here people.

Our entire society objectifies women. We can spend days on how women are objectified in the media & the press.

But that is neither here or there. The above videos/campaigns are aimed to the very society in which a women are portrayed a certain way.

Does that make them right? It's not a moral issue. It's an issue of taste and culture.

Does that make them relevant or effective? Perhaps, some girls may find them quite relevant (maybe not the EU one, that one is just horrible.. )

Girls, STEM & Geeks

Scouring through pages and pages of online articles, I came across articles from online communities to articles in Forbes.

You know too much about star wars, you know too little, you're too pretty to be a gamer, you're too ugly to be a comic hero, you're too well dressed to be a nerd, you're too under-dressed to be taken seriously..

There seems to be one take home message among all the judgement out there, you're screwed if your too feminine and you're screwed if your not.

Heaven forbid should you fall into a category that seems to represent more then one thing.

.....What a load of bull$*#!

I get it. We are a visual society, we enjoy the pretty, hell I LOVE the pretty. It's the association between the pretty and the science that seems to be the tough pill to swallow. Not being taken seriously, being brushed aside, having to work harder just to prove yourself..

I also get how videos like the cheerleading ones may send out a type of message we are not comfortable with.. In the end of the day, if it inspires one girl to go into computer science, all the more power to ya.

Obviously this entire women in STEM issue was alot more complicated then I've talked about, and there are no quick fixes..But you know what you can do? Judge. Not other people. But yourself. The next time you catch yourself putting someone in a box based on looks, take a minute and judge yourself. Harshly. Our girls and boys deserve a better society.

That's my two cents (ie controlled rant)

Stay nerdfabulous;)



For your reading pleasure:

Betz, D.E. & Sekaquaptewa D. (2012). My Fair Physicist? Feminine Math and Science Role Models Demotivate Young Girls. Social Psychological and Personality Science. DOI: 10.1177/1948550612440735

Diekman, A.B., Brown, E.R., Johnston, A.M., & Clark, E.K. (2010). Seeking Congruity Between Goals and Roles: A New Look at why Women Opt Out of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Careers. Psychological Science. DOI: 10.1177/0956797610377342



11 responses so far

Your Brokenheart

(by rimk) Feb 21 2013


I’m excited to write to you from our new guest house at Scientopia!! Do you like it?!?!? 'Cause we sure are getting comfy 😉

For the first post I decided to cover a topic that remains a mystery  not only to me and larger scientific community but also (let's be honest here) the greater HUMAN species....


Or really in my case I wanna know what happens in your brain after you get your heartbroken.

You know that feeling, when that one person you thought was your soulmate decides he/she wants to end things. I won't go into details about your chest wanting to explode, or the fact you seem to be obsessively thinking about them every minute of everyday..

I'll simply refer you to any Nicholas Sparks movie.

Hey, you had your lovey dovey time over Valentines day.

But before we jump right into the “removal” of love, let just get a refresher on love in the brain.

Clicky on this video for a 3 min breakdown.

As you can imagine, love is a complicated emotion, it has so so so many layers. While the above video tries to summarize it into compact digestible bits, it really remains one of those topics that scientists struggle to put into nice boxes.

So what dose neuroscience make of this entire heatbreak business?

First of all its "scientifically" called romantic/social Rejection (I really should have paid more attention in my psych classes, would’ve taken me less time to research this stuff), but Imma call it heartbreak. More dramatic.

As you can imagine studying love is messy, by default studying rejection would also be as messy if not more so.

Studies have just recently  begun to delve into the neuroscience associated with heartbreak. The studies I will be referring too (links down below,they are both open access!!) utilized fMRI imaging techniques along with various psych tests, such as comparing neural activation between a picture of the previous lover and a neutral/friend photograph.

When looking at reward, addiction or romantic love, a number of studies have shown that there is a similar pattern of activation in the subcortical areas, which include the ventral tegmental area (aka VTA, personally one of my favorites), the nucleus accumbens core, ventral globus pallidus and the ventral putamen.

The study by Fisher et al. further explored that activation of the VTA with regards to heartbreak; their subjects showed greater activation in that area when viewing an image of the pervious lover then when viewing a neutral faces. They concluded that regardless of the fact that these individuals were no longer in the relationship, the participants VTA and angular gyrus remains very much activated.

They also found that their participants had a more pronounced activiation in the ventral striatum, nucleus accumbens core and the ventral putamen...

Notice something guys?!?!?

Same areas that are involved in falling in love are also still involved in having your heartbroken...

Fisher et al. also found that their participants had significant activation of orbitofrontal/prefrontal cortex, the forbrain regions of the reward system. This finding right here is what I personally find totally cool. You see, the activation of the forbrain suggests that falling in/out of love involves learning. The authors actually hypothesized that this learning process may have used the experience-reward systems (the interplay between the VTA, forebrain & nucleus accumbens). This in turn may shed light as to how the reward system may have been employed & when it is activated in terms of the perceived relationship status.

You may be wondering "Okey, we get that we are addicted.. but why does heartbreak physically hurt?"

Well lovers, according to a  study by Kross et al. heartbreak  hurts because, you guessed it, it actually activates the same "pain area" in the brain as physical pain.  They found that both physical pain and social rejection have overlapping representation in the somatosensory system (the conglomerate of sensory information, from touch to pain to spatial positioning of the body).

Annoying eh?

Questions/caveats of these types of studies are (in my opinion) the ages of the participants, the length/commitment of the relationship, the type of relationship & using psych tasks to invoke memories of the feelings. Feelings are messy.

The good news is that more extensive research is being done in this area. So  go ahead, fall in love, fall out of love, donate your time to science and help us figure this out 😉

Till next time.

Stay Neurofabulous



For your pleasure;

Fisher, E., Brown, L.L., Aron, A., Strong, G., & Mashek,D. (2010)

Kross, E., Berman, M.G., Mischel, W., Smith, E.E., & Wager, T.D. (2011)

David Disalvo's piece for Forbes



2 responses so far

Public engagement should no longer be regarded as a commodity

(by ucannella) Feb 15 2013

I am very proud to share with you here an intervention I have been asked to provide for the Euroscientist magazine, an online publication of Euroscience, "a pan-European association of individuals interested in constructing scientific Europe from the bottom-up". The editor at Euroscientist, towards whom I am very thankful, contacted me when she found out about my publication "Who cares about physics today? A marketing strategy for the survival of fundamental science and the benefit of society", which is available on the arXiv web bullettin.
I hope you will enjoy my analysis at Euroscientist and become curious of the other Euroscience activities if you are not aware of them yet.
Public engagement should no longer be regarded as a commodity

Today, public engagement is mostly regarded as a commodity. If there is good level of funding available, scientists may consider spending money in what they usually call ”public relations”. Otherwise this is the first thing scientists cut because they consider it to be the least necessary.

But public engagement in science is very much needed. At the very least because the public is either an enemy or an ally of research. Examples such as the climate change denial illustrate this point well. In other circumstances, such as the 2009 Shuttle mission, it was people who wanted such mission to happen in order to service the Hubble Space Telescope for the last time even thought it had been declared doomed by US President George W. Bush and NASA President Sean O’Keefe. An unprecedented movement of popular opinion grew to such a large extent that the official decision had to be changed and money reallocated.

To adequately communicate research to a lay audience, it is necessary to adopt the audience’s language and appeal to its own interests. Just like what is done in marketing. Therefore it is not a heresy to mix scientific content with languages that are either non-scientific or even non-verbal, including, for example, by communication through the means of theatre, dance, video-games, comics or music …

This is all part of an approach I dubbed “A marketing strategy for the survival of fundamental science“. Such an approach is critical in order to build a society that is both aware and appreciative of science. A conscious society is the only one able to properly assess how crucial investments in science have to be in the European budget. Or how future prosperity depends on new ideas and how these have to be explored by young and passionate minds.

For example, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) particle accelerator is teaching scientists important lessons about the Higgs Boson, among others. However, some have argued that the money this experiment costs should rather be spent on finding ways to cure tumours. However it is precisely the capacity we acquired by walking down the road of curiosity for the invisible and the minuscule that contributed to finding solutions to cure cancer. Indeed, the LHC smashes particles called hadrons. They are the very same particles used in hadron-therapy, a medical technique that can treat deep cancers in an efficient way.

Many more of these beautiful and deeply meaningful connections have yet to be unveiled to the largest public. Once the level of public engagement progresses, the public will slowly see reduce its disconnect with science and scientists. Instead, the public will start further engaging in a durable and satisfying conversation with these scientists.


No responses yet

Gravity: the dance of space and time, Part II

(by ucannella) Feb 15 2013

In a previous post of mine I briefly introduced a beautiful example of blending science with performing arts: that was "Gravity: the dance of space and time", an initiative in which I took part recently at the University of Maryland, in collaboration with the School of Dance Instructor Adriane Fang and Astronomy Professor Cole Miller.
In the present post I would like to present this performance in more detail, by pointing at the background scientific concepts and how they got translated artistically into the show, which you can see in its final form at this link.
Inspired by the "Dance your PhD" contest, Adriane was interested in bringing some science into dance and that's where Cole and I came to the rescue: though we did not end up dancing in the show as it is required to the contest participants, we got actively involved in the rehearsals, not only building a conversation with the artists but also trying some moves out. I hope my following description will convey the feelings of emotion and satisfaction that I experienced during all the stages of the project.
Even though gravity might sound like something obvious and a completely figured out concept it is actually among the most intriguing domains of current investigations in both theoretical and experimental physics. Just think about the mysterious dark matter and dark energy and the fact that they account for as much as 96% of the total mass-energy density of the universe. In our everyday life we only have one chance to appreciate how gravity is far from evident, when we use the GPS antenna in our navigator or smartphone: if Einstein had not improved on Newton's grasp of gravity the GPS could not exist or work. In Newton's description gravity is a force that propagates instantaneously, for example from the Sun to the Earth: if one could make the Sun disappear we would immediately realize the absence of its gravitational pull on Earth (see for example a video from Brian Greene's documentary "The Elegant Universe"- Episode 1, 9:30 into it). The set in which this happens is as static as a fixed stage, where every actor experiences things in the same way, most notably for what concerns time. Then came Einstein. In his picture gravity is still due to the presence of mass but there is something more profound to it: mass deforms space in a way similar to how a heavy ball acts on a trampoline or to when we sit on a couch pillow; objects put in the vicinity of the deformation fall towards the mass responsible for that, just as we see them falling toward the Earth when we release them to the pull of its gravity. What does this have to do with GPS? The answer lies in the fact that, with Einstein, space is no longer a static stage with one given universal time: there exists a single entity called spacetime, which is a dynamic stage that can do stuff and participates to the acting.
When our GPS antenna talks to the GPS satellite fleet to establish its position relative to the satellites', an exchange of signals is involved in the process; the situation is reminiscent of clock synchronization among people: if everyone's watch shows a different time there are very few chances to recombine all together on time. In the case of GPS satellites communicating to our antenna, synchronization is not so easy: for starters time does not flow at the same pace for everyone! that's what a dynamical spacetime stage entails. If mass can deform space, and space is a whole with time, mass affects time: the closer you are to the source of deformation, the slower time flows for your watch as compared to one which is at a larger distant from the mass. Finally, there's one more source of difference between the pace of satellites' time and the one of clocks on Earth's surface, speed effects: the faster you move the slower time flows for your watch as compared to one which is at rest. It wouldn't be worthy of Einstein if things were not so rich!

I find Salvador Dali's "The Persistence of Memory" a powerful visual handle to grasp the concept of mutable time.

This was kind of a long introduction but it will allow you to better appreciate the dance show, especially its second part: in fact, while the first act represents the motion of astrophysical objects in spacetime, the second is devoted to spacetime itself. For this reason, I'm going to talk about the final half of the show first.
In collaboration with costume designer Kate Fulop, we chose black stretchy costumes to be used in the second act: they were meant to represent spacetime as an elastic deformable cosmic fabric. The moves the dancers perform are both artistically pleasant and scientifically suggestive: they alternate between slow and fast, just as we said time can flow in a specific region of space according to the proximity of this region to a heavy astrophysical mass.

Dancers depicting the spacetime fabric.

Dancers depicting the spacetime fabric.
(Copyright Stan Barouh http://stanbarouhphotography.smugmug.com/Theater/University-of-Maryland-School)

Of course, we did not want the dance performance to be just descriptive: that's what I meant earlier on when I said that the entire collaboration has been the result of a conversation around a scientific theme. Adriane proposed her graduate students to perform their moves according to an interesting interpretation of the scientific concepts: in pairs, the artists would stimulate their partner's movement by transmitting them their own energy through a flow without contact; then the partners would react either by affinity or contrast, that is to say moving towards or against the source of energy, respectively. I personally took part in the rehearsals in which the dancers were exploring this part of their "phrase", as it is called in their jargon: for me it was both new and challenging to try and bring formulae alive in this way. Another distinctive type of the grad students' moves inspired by science was the "stretch and squeeze". In order to explain it let me go back to the trampoline analogy I used to depict how spacetime gets deformed in the presence of mass. Imagine moving the mass around on the surface of the trampoline: you can picture ripples forming on the elastic membrane, just like waves on the surface of a pond. This might make you think of yet another type of waves coming from a perturbed membrane: the ones coming from a drum hit by mallets, that is to say sound waves. Like a buoy is carried up and down by the tide a device probing spacetime ripples would experience two peculiar effects: the aforementioned stretch and squeeze.
The sound you hear at the end of the first act is the melody played by two huge cosmic mallets hitting on the spacetime drum, a couple of merging black holes. This is the result of a simulation where the astrophysical signal expected from the coalescence has been treated in such a way as to shift its frequency to the region audible to our ears: in fact, these gravitational waves do not bring any type of light by themselves, so we will not "see" them but rather "listen" to them with our instruments. Given the variety of astrophysical sources and configurations, scientists expect to listen to a sort of very peculiar concert of gravitational waves: in the next few years instruments will be upgraded to the necessary sensitivity and we could hear as many as a hundred of different "music pieces" per year.
On scene the sound simulation accompanies the evolutions of the last two dancers in the first act: they represent two black holes orbiting around each other in a spiraling shrinking motion dictated by Einstein's equations; the very last stage of the evolution, the merger of the two bodies, is described by the powerful moment of a hug between the two dancers. One of them is still carrying her veil. This element of the costumes is instrumental to the science too. When an astrophysical object passes by another its companion experiences a varying gravitational field, thus the companion deforms its shape. This is fancy talk to refer to Earth's tides; due to the varying distance of the Moon our planet gets periodically deformed on two sides: the one closer to the Moon, which is feeling its gravitational pull more strongly, and the other farther from the Moon, which is feeling its gravitational pull less strongly. At a more quantitative level such tidal deformations, and their physical effects, are nicely represented by simulations such as this one from Caltech.

Dancers playing star encounters in the universe

Dancers playing star encounters in the universe.
(Copyright Stan Barouh http://stanbarouhphotography.smugmug.com/Theater/University-of-Maryland-School)

The first act of the performance is then a joyful succession of star and black hole encounters, something that cannot happen in our astronomical neighborhood because it is not very populated. While this is good for the survival of the human race on Earth it is kind of boring for the curious scientists. Soon they will be able to add yet more information to their comprehension of astronomy by opening a new observation window on the Universe: this is what scientists such as Cole and I call gravitational wave astronomy; together with Adriane, her amazing students and her friendly colleagues we happily participated in building a representation of the subject that could be attractive to non-scientists. We hope we succeeded. Now watch the video of the performance again and see if you think likewise.

One response so far

It is written “science communications”, it is to be read “solid foundations for a future of prosperity in science, economy and society”

(by ucannella) Feb 04 2013

Last year on October 23 a petition has been addressed by Nobel Prize awardees and Fields medalists to the representatives of European governments: the object: rumors that research funds will be cut on occasion of the end of November meeting to discuss the European budget (http://www.no-cuts-on-research.eu/index.php?file=home.htm).
Back then no agreement was found among the leaders, who are to meet again this week on February 7 and 8. In view of this new summit it is the European Industrial Leaders that put up a "campaign to stave off possible cuts to the European Union's research budget" (http://news.sciencemag.org/scienceinsider/2013/02/fully-fund-research-european-ind.html?ref=hp&goback=.gde_2757561_member_210416760#.UQ6W7h7hya4.twitter).

The sword of Damocles that is threatening the European funds for scientific research represents, at a closer look, an extremely dangerous risk for the future of all European citizens, not only scientists. 
The current well-being of most of us Westerners, in Europe as well as the US, is based on easily identifiable pillars: scientific studies, at first abstract and then applied, that brought us electricity and computers, just to quote a couple of examples. There would not be anything of all that we are used to if some ancestor of ours had not been so curious to think about the why and how of natural phenomena, which sometimes have weird names such as “quantum field theory”.
The example that I personally like to quote most often, given that I am both an Italian and a physicist, is related to CERN and its accelerator LHC, now operating underground in the Geneva area: the acronym designating this experiment stands for Large Hadron Collider, that, in plain language, corresponds to a sort of dodgem whose cars are minuscule particles, which belong to the category of hadrons ... hadrons as in “hadron-therapy”, a technique of modern medicine that is used to cure deep cancers in a unique way (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Particle_therapy). How else could humanity have discovered the existence and behavior of the subatomic world other than walking down the path that has brought to build the LHC in order to discover and study the Higgs Boson?
This link is just one example of a connection between fundamental science and well-being that is obscure to most people. It is then apparent how the issue of an accurate positioning of research in European funding policies represents, in reality, a much wider problem, which requires a unity of intents that goes far beyond academia and laboratories: it concerns all of us, together with our kids.
In such a context the voice that reaches the ears of our political representatives should be a single powerful one that collects many more people than just the industrials or the scientists. The latter should lead these unitary efforts: in fact, in order to have a weight in society, before politics, lobbying is needed.
This goal can only be achieved if the general public is involved in the process and engaged in a two-way conversation; how does one go about conquering support from the public? by speaking its own language, studying its interests, meeting it where it is to be found, which most certainly is not at the entry to the Ivory Tower. 
A marketing strategy is needed; that's right: marketing, as in advertising campaigns; in fact, where else does the success of advertisement lie if not in its ability to sympathize with the public, to be in its shoes, to touch its emotional chords, one category at a time? 
The time is over, then, to simply rely on press releases in order to reach the public: communication has its own tools, science is the product to be advertised, in a proper way of course. In such a context it is not a heresy to bother mixing scientific content with languages that are either non-scientific or non-verbal even: theatre and dance, for example, or video-games or comics ... 
This list could go on and would cite many efforts that either have been just proposed or are already being implemented. What is still missing, which I personally believe would represent a qualitative leap, is the unity of intents: “united we stand, divided we fall”, as the saying goes. There is a notorious instance that exemplifies what I am advocating for here: the history of Hubble Space Telescope. In 2003 it had been declared doomed by US President George W. Bush and NASA President Sean O'Keefe, in charge at the time: no more maintenance for the telescope, the money that the necessary Shuttle mission would have cost had to be destined to bring astronauts on Mars. The scientific community succeeded in exciting such an emotion in common people that the two lobbied against the official decision, pushing Bush and O'Keefe to change their minds ... incredible! But true and repeatable. Incidentally, that's the story of how today you can enjoy the Hubble IMAX movie (http://www.imax.com/hubble/).
The present situation, worsened by the economic and financial crisis, represents both a test bench and a turning point: if the lack of awareness and the poor appreciation of science by the public are not confronted vigorously, no petition will ever suffice.
In conclusion, putting forth petitions and campaigns is very welcome, in that they try to protect everyone's future. However in order for the largest public to be appreciative of science it has to be aware first and this can only be achieved if the public is engaged in a two-way conversation. My recipe for tackling this problem at its roots is in a paper I titled “Who cares about physics today? A marketing strategy for the survival of fundamental science and the benefit of society”. An example initiative is the dance show "Gravity", about which I posted a contribution previously. The paper is available at http://arxiv.org/abs/1210.0082, I hope you will find it interesting.

No responses yet

Who, what, why, when, where

(by ucannella) Feb 01 2013

Hi there!
I hope you have appreciated my first two posts: my "Ode to the Higgs" and "Gravity: the dance of space and time"; I'll return to them in the future but now it is time for me to tell you something about me: Who am I? What brought me here? Why do I like being a Scientopia guest blogger? When did I start doing what I do? Where have I made my experiences so far?
Before you give up reading let me assure you: I'm not going to write a novel of my life but, as I feel some background is important, I'll just sketch a few chapters of my biography anyway 😉
Who. I like to define myself as a "sociable physicist", that is to say someone who is equally appreciative of the conquests of the human mind, as well as of them being shared with those who did not take part in the endeavor … other than paying for that through their taxes. And that is What brought me to this point of my life, where I've realized that my deepest passion for the physical sciences has to be expressed through what it is generally called public outreach. I've recently read a blog post debating about what meaning to assign to "public outreach": is it something resembling preaching to the converted or does it really reach out to people who do not know why science concerns all of them? As much as I value initiatives falling in the first category, such as public lectures or popular science books, I believe they have to be accompanied by a larger set of efforts. This attitude is best defined, I think, as a marketing strategy for fundamental science, which is how I called it in a paper you can find at this address: http://arxiv.org/abs/1210.0082. There I explore why it is important that the scientific community reaches out to the largest public, through a variety of means and approaches that are tailored on the target audience. Another salient aspect of my proposal is the somewhat invasive character of the suggested outreach: you have to use your target audience's interests in order to have it pay attention to a scientific content whatsoever. That's where marketing kicks in. Of course among the means I propose to be more efficiently used and exploited by the scientific community are internet and the world of social media: you can't hope to reach out to the public if you do not have a presence where the public is and spends time. Therefore I couldn't be happier when I was offered the chance to participate as a Scientopia guest blogger: I've just started browsing the many blogs the Scientopia community comprises but I could already gather that it's a very convenient setting to have diverse interests and backgrounds all hosted under a common umbrella. Why: check.
When and Where. About a year ago I took the decision: I put aside research and committed to popularizing science. I was starting my second year as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Maryland, just outside Washington DC, which I had joined after four years of doctoral training in theoretical physics at the University of Geneva, in Switzerland. All along those years I've promptly taken any occasion to share tales of my personal journey in the world of the physical sciences: be them related to the exploration of advanced concepts or concerning visiting scientific cathedrals, such as the Large Hadron Collider at CERN or the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. However most of the people with whom I could talk did not show the interest I was hoping for: in general they did not feel much drawn to the theoretical aspects, however fancy their names were, or proud citizens of a country that sponsors the pursuit of knowledge. They did not know that those cathedrals I revered so much serve two purposes: the first is the scientific goal they are after, the second is to empower mankind with new means for growth and prosperity. The most eloquent examples of how this is true are both related to CERN (before being a physicist I'm Italian and I'm proud of my country being among the pioneer countries which founded CERN just after World War 2). First, the Large Hadron Collider, the experiment that has discovered a new particle of Nature, be it the Higgs Boson or not, has the word "hadrons" in its name: this is a category of subatomic particles subject to the strong nuclear force; had scientists not been curious about what lies at ever more microscopic scales and how it behaves, we would have not known that hadrons exist and that they can be used as very precise projectiles to be shot at tumors lying deep down inside the human body. Second, the World Wide Web, the network we now massively use to communicate, work, exchange and look for info, travel, buy, etc: its father, Sir Timothy John Berners-Lee, was working for CERN when he invented it. Both connections between fundamental physics and everyone's life are so profound you'd wonder how we (read: our governments) do not try and find more ways to keep this healthy process alive. That is the mission I've chosen for myself: to make people aware, first, and appreciative, afterwards, of why science is both beautiful and useful. I'm confident this experience at Scientopia will serve this purpose of mine, as well as teach me how to do it better along the way.

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Gravity: the dance of space and time

(by ucannella) Jan 31 2013

Our solar system is in a sparsely populated part of our galaxy and thus, fortunately for us, encounters with stars are rare and distant. However other regions in the Universe, like the center of our galaxy, are more crowded: they are packed with stars that either orbit each other or a central massive black hole. In the vicinity of heavy objects in fast motion, space and time do not behave in the way we are familiar with; rather, they behave as a single dynamical entity, space-time, such that its fabric stretches, twists, torques and even vibrates like the membrane of a drum, giving off the "sounds" of the Universe in the form of gravitational waves.
Around these subjects of cutting edge research a dialogue has been established between a couple of enthusiastic scientists and a curious, inspired community of artists: the result is "Gravity", a dance show that has recently been performed at the University of Maryland. Take a look at its recorded video and stay tuned for some more detail on the blending of physics with dance.

Gravity: the dance of space and time

Choreography: Adriane Fang
Costume Design: Kate Fulop
Projection Design: Andrew Kaufman
Lighting Design: Paul D. Jackson
Performers: Star Cluster: Jennifer Alcott, Chelsea Brown, Christina Camacho, Ellen Clark, Kayla Coutts, Katie Gundlach, Rachel Mucha, Nicole Turchi
Gravity Grads: Robin Neveu-Brown, Erin Crawley-Woods, Jessie Laurita-Spanglet, Nicole Y. McClam, Megan Morse-Jans, Lynne Price

This work was created in collaboration with Professor Cole Miller of the Astronomy Department and Doctor Umberto Cannella of the Physics Department. Special thanks to Laurie Frederik Meer and James Forsberg for their valuable input.

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Ode to the Higgs

(by ucannella) Jan 30 2013

The Higgs boson is my name
which to you might sound insane
I came to put order in some mess
as I give every particle its mass
I've been hidin' for billions of years
but now I am in every mouth and ears
My potential looks like a Mexican hat
and on it now you know where I'm at
They made me come out in a cave
and they're really kind of brave
LHC is the machine at CERN
which did so well since on was turned.  

It does not end with me getting to fame
Coz we've only started playing the game 
You won't wait long for some more fun 
Coz in reality it's only just begun 
It took 50 years for an idea to test
Now for sure we can't just rest
So much stuff we don't know yet
We could call Hawking and make a bet
Most of the Universe is still obscure 
We need imagination of the most pure
Our ignorance amounts to a grand 96%
So we hope for some strange particle event 
To shed some light on the dark sector
We rely on some smart physics doctor 

If all this doesn't ring you any bell
Then there's one more thing I'd like to tell
A weird connection called spinoff 
that we should really not break off
What we discover due to curiosity
Turns out to benefit all humanity 
Get then ready for some insanity
There's something called hadron-therapy 
That can cure people's cancers 
With best precision and least dangers 
This is just one meaningful example 
Of a pattern that is quite more ample 
We explore Nature to understand
What is the picture the most grand 
In trying to know of every piece its place
we get something you can't quite replace
To discover a particle called Higgs Boson  
We opened wide a brand new horizon 
In conclusion that's the story
Of why I deserve so much glory
So the moral of the story is
Don't forget what my name is

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10 things to remember when writing about autism science

(by emilywillingham) Oct 22 2012

[This post is a slightly amended version of a post that first appeared on my personal blog.]

Many popular science books have a narrative that may not necessarily stand up to precise scientific scrutiny. Indeed, a criticism leveled at many such books is this lack of care in qualifying scientific results and interpreting them with caution and caveats. It's an understandable instinct. Think about the good storytellers you know. How much care do they exercise in avoiding hyperbole or sins of co-mission and omission in telling a "good" story? Some writers of popular science books commit these sins to tell a good story, too. Others do not, yet their work is popular and well received. It is possible to be accurate and cautious and still tell a rousing tale.

The problem with writing about science, though, is that science isn't just a story. It's about facts and open questions, and it's almost never defensible to write as though a door has closed, a box has been checked, or a mystery has been completely solved. We owe it to readers to avoid simplification to the point of a sin of omission and to avoid overinterpreting to the point of hyperbole.

When it comes to writing stories about health and medicine, the stakes climb. With these stories, we're not writing only about scientific findings. What we write is also about people. Many writers seek a narrative hook, a personal story that frames the rest of the piece. I can't even count the number of autism-related stories that open with a (very real) tale of woe featuring an overwhelmed or traumatized parent talking about the grief and horror of having a child with autism. This tactic catches the reader--and happens to be one that the largest autism nonprofit in the United States also employs--successfully tugging at heart and purse strings and attracting mouse clicks. But this tugging and this narrative approach are so frequent in such stories as to be near-cliches, and they do few favors for the autistic people these stories are really about.

The presentation of autism as a monster to battle or a stalker out to destroy your life has repercussions that some autistic adults argue go beyond an unfair and painful characterization of what they believe is Who They Are. News stories about autistic people whose parents and caregivers have murdered them often carry a clear attitude of "autism is so hard, no wonder they got killed." When every news story you read describes autism as a horrific affliction and all of those with it as suffering, when mainstream news organizations persist in focusing only on what parents have to say about autism rather than talking to autistic people, when stories focus on preventing autism--with worms, no less--autistic people, real, living, breathing people, feel pain and get angry and argue that even if they are nonspeaking, they can be perfectly capable of communicating for themselves.

If you are someone who writes about health and medicine and who covers a story related to neurobiology--particularly autism--please consider the following 10 suggestions. They might help you avoid the pitfalls of hyperbole and poor interpretation and causing pain to autistic people.

  1. Interview an autistic person for insight whenever possible. If you need suggestions for leads, feel free to contact me. If you were writing a piece about any other human condition, would you talk only to parents or relatives of people with that condition if the people who have it could communicate for themselves?
  2. If a researcher claims to have "solved" autism, please exercise healthy skepticism and follow up with someone who doesn't have a dog in the hunt. Of all of the neurobiological conditions, autism may be the most variable. It's extremely unlikely that any one research path or group or hypothesis will explain all autism. Don't ride that wave with them.
  3. Don't generalize. Stick with what the findings say, not what the discussion or the conclusions or the authors or the news releases say. Have an ear for when someone is overgeneralizing. Example generalization: "X causes autism." What causes autism has not been established, and the causes themselves--and how they work--are likely going to form a very long list. We are still very early in formulating that list, much less what the items on that list do.
  4. Don't mistake correlation for cause. When a study reports a "link," that term usually means a mathematical relationship: When X was more frequent, autism was more frequent." That doesn't mean that X causes autism. It doesn't even mean that X has anything to do with autism.
  5. Don't overstate the meaning of risk. Risk is a scary word, although we all live with the 100% risk of dying someday, regardless of what other risks we face. When a study result refers to "increased risk," look at the numbers. If they say that the presence of factor X was associated with a relative risk of 2.1, for example, then the population with factor X had twice the autism compared to the group without that factor. If the average risk of having a child with autism in the absence of that factor is 1%, then this particular factor was associated with about a 2% risk. And relative risk applies only for that study--it does not tell you what the actual risk is. 
  6. Keep in mind that even these links don't imply a true causal relationship. They're just math associations. A famous example of how these relationships can end up being misinterpreted is the protein CRP and heart disease. Because of a mathematical association between the presence of this protein and the occurrence of heart disease, researchers thought for a pretty long time that CRP might cause heart disease, and drugs were even targeted to lowering its levels. Turns out, it doesn't cause heart disease, so the drugs were no use. Instead, it's either a side effect of heart disease (reverse causality) or just higher because of some indirect influence. Now, take any recent X factor you've heard is "linked" to or "causes" autism and substitute it and autism into the above story to understand how unpromising correlation can really be.
  7. Be aware of how you write about autism and of the fact that autistic people may read what you're writing. How you describe autism is, for those readers, describing themselves, their very being. Please try to avoid lapsing into the parlance of affliction, suffering, disease, desperation for a cure, war, and despair or comparisons of "low" and "high" function. A good science geek knows that function is often a matter of environment, not a constant measure. Although some autism parents may disagree, one key to making this world a better place for autistic people is for society not to see or treat them as unhearing, nonverbal, illiterate rocking obsessives who don't understand what people are saying about them. Unlike neurodegenerative or fatal diseases, autism is not universally perceived or lived as a negative condition, and it's important to remember that.
  8. If the study in question is about mice, never talk about how the results will lead to a therapy or a cure or write about the mice as though somehow, they are just tiny humans with tails. Mice have misled us before. They are only a way to model what might happen in a mammal sorta kinda related to us. They are not Us, otherwise we'd live in tiny, crowded places, having 10 children at once and ignoring them when they grow fur, and this autism thing wouldn't be an issue.
  9. Don't use phrases like "gene that causes autism" or "gene that is linked to autism" or "faulty gene" or "defective gene." What you really want to say is "gene variant" or "version of the gene." There isn't an "autism" gene; there are gene changes that might be linked to autism.
  10. Also avoid referencing "environmental factors" without providing some specific examples. Those examples should not be "chemicals" or "toxins," which are vague, meaningless, and stupid. Established environmental risk factors for autism include parental age and extreme prematurity. Try those, but handle with care.

Finally, I know deadlines are tight, but never take a paper author's interpretation as The Final Word. Try to find someone not connected with the work and get their comment. Journalism 101, I know, but it's surprising how often articles do not include this kind of balance. By balance, I don't mean "gives the other side." I just mean, "possibly modulates enthusiastic author's overinterpretation or overselling of results and their significance." 

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STEMinist Profile: Christine Clarke, Research Associate, Microbiology

(by Ann Hoang) Oct 12 2012

Christine Clarke, Research Associate (Microbiology)

Taxon Biosciences

What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
Both of my parents are scientifically-minded – my father has a degree in biochemistry and my mother has hers in kinesiology – and they did a good job of instilling my siblings and me with a sense of wonder about the natural world. Not only a sense of wonder, but a sense that there were answers: answers that we were equipped to find ourselves. Equipped with those mental tools, it became irresistible to try and find the answers.

As soon as I took high school biology, everything clicked with me and I knew that was what I had to study. Nothing was more inspiring or more meaningful to me, so I knew it was my calling. Luckily, biology is still as exciting and fulfilling to me today as it was when I was a child.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
The coolest project that I have worked on has been a microbial ecology study. Science has become very interdisciplinary these days, so don’t be surprised when I say that we were using next gen genetic sequencing techniques to study microbes on the community-level (rather than on the individual species level) in order to better understand the geology of the area. Microbes have an ecology going on just like the traditional “a lion eats a zebra” example.

We used the microbial community to sense what was happening in the environment both chemically and geologically, because geology affects microbes while microbes affect geology. Using next gen sequencing, we were able to identify certain core “consortia” of microbes which always seemed to co-occur (they all seemed to need each other to survive).

Using targeted isolation techniques, we were able to find and grow all the species in one such consortium under laboratory conditions, and then study their metabolisms both individually and as a community. We were able to produce a carbon-flow model of what happens in the environment, and how those microbes interacted to produce some of the mineralization we observe and by-products they produce.

The study of biogeochemistry is becoming very important, especially now as we learn more about things like the nitrogen cycle and the methane cycle, both of which are driven by microbes but have global-scale effects.

Role models/heroes:
Melissa Jurica is one of my major role models. She is a brilliant woman who has been able to start a family and stay in academia – no small feat. It is true that in the USA, STEM women tend to leave academia for industry if they want to have a family and/or children because industry is more accommodating towards maternity. This shouldn’t be the case, but it is.

A few more of my heroes include: Dorothy Hodgkin because, really, X-ray crystallography is intense and never fails to impress me; Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins for their work in evolutionary biology and for helping the public and non-specialists to understand and conceptualize the major points of their field; Margret Sanger for helping forward birth control advocacy and sexual rights; and Betty Dodson for helping women accept and embrace their sexuality.

Why do you love working in STEM?
I love working in STEM because it gives me a chance to explore the world around me and make discoveries about life itself. It is a very gratifying experience to contribute to new data and discoveries, and I think it gives me a healthy sense of self-worth and pride in my abilities.

When months or years of work suddenly starts to fall into place and you start making sense of all your meticulously-collected data: that is the greatest feeling in the world. I also love that it forces me to keep learning new things every day, and that I am always finding new things that amaze me or blow my mind.

Advice for future STEMinists?
If you get bogged down by the day-to-day drudgery of STEM work, take some time to step back and look at the big picture and remind yourself of the big questions you are asking. Sometimes STEM work can feel tedious, especially since there are times when you must focus so much of your brainpower onto a tiny (yet crucial) portion of your work, and that can get both mechanically tedious and mentally exhausting.

If you find yourself in that situation, taking a short break to reflect on these things will give you a better perspective, and instead of feeling stuck you can recognize that your work has not been mundane. Much of the progress in STEM builds up slowly over time, which is why looking back is helpful.

I will also say that you should really work on building a solid foundation in math and computers. This might seem obvious but a lot of people (men and women) shy away from math and computers, especially in some of the biological disciplines. However, those fields actually do use a lot of math and computers on a daily basis, so if you beef up your mathematics, you will stand out as being very valuable in your field. Don’t assume that you won’t need mastery of math or computers for any STEM job you want to pursue.

I can guarantee that no matter which field you want to work in, both skills will help you succeed and advance. For example: yes, an ecologist needs to be very good at ecology, but everybody else working in ecology does amazing ecology work as well – that’s why they’re in that field. But if you’ve also taken a class in programming, are familiar in Linux, and are not scared of using mathematics; you’ve got an edge. You’re valuable.

Favorite website/app:
I have two apps that are very impressive and absolutely indispensable:

Sigma-Aldrich’s “Substructure Search” is invaluable to me, and also free to use (they want it to help you buy chemicals from them). They have brought together MarvinSketch, JME Molecular Editor, and ChemDraw (all amazing) in one applet. You can “sketch” an organic molecule, and then have the applet calculate the IUPAC name for what you have just drawn (and vise-versa). IUPAC naming is a good method of standardization, but it can get tricky.

Common names are easier to remember, but are not standardized (and often result in 10 different names for one molecule). This does lead to trouble sometimes! That’s why we all remember our O-Chem professors giving extra credit problems on our homework with a drawing of a very huge and ugly molecule, with the deceptively simple instructions “Give the IUPAC name for this molecule.”

I use this applet for my work all the time, but I can imagine that if I had this as a child, I would have loved to spend hours drawing the weirdest molecules possible, trying to “stump the program.” I think this is a natural tendency kids have, but in the process they would still learn a lot about molecular naming and be entertained by discovering that this atrocity they have just drawn actually has a name.

The ARB Project is another free program that I could not do without. If you have a Linux computer, you can download it and start making phylogenetic trees (the image on their homepage is a good example) at home. You don’t even need to generate your own genetic data to get started, you can download some reference trees of genetic sequences submitted by other scientists from http://www.arb-silva.de/and then start playing with them in ARB. You learn a lot about taxonomy and phylogeny just by playing around with trees in ARB.

Website and Twitter: My personal Twitter account is @Steenaire, and my personal website is www.certainly-strange.com. I mostly blog about personal things or post silly doodles, but recently I have decided to try my hand at science reporting that is accessible and interesting to non-specialists. After reading far too many “evolutionary narratives” in popular science reporting, I decided that if I really wanted anything to change then I should be contributing.

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