Field of Science

Deciphering protist shapes

A while ago, while rigorously procrastinating, I came across a slightly odd tiny freshwater flagellate that was sufficiently morphologically non-straightforward it lent itself well to 3D reconstruction/sketching practice. Figuring out cell shape from micrographs isn't as easy as it looks – for one thing, the bloody cell is three dimensional, while the images are flat and further complicated by DIC optics – and thus a very fun exercise! And then, once you've got a cell shape in your head, you have to figure out a way to draw it out for others to see. I still suck, but the sketches at the end looked kinda pretty together with the micrographs, so here they are:

I still have no idea what this thing is. Acts vaguely ancyromonad-like, but may well be a glissomonad or something else entirely. Pretty positive it's biflagellated. Probably nothing too earth-shattering (and may well be well-known by everyone but me), but if anyone has some sort of research interest in this thing, let me know – don't have time to deal with it myself. Not that I'm likely to find it again... Here's the pics and videos:

Science Online 2011 ramblings

By now, about every aspect of Science Online has been thoroughly blogged and overblogged, so for a comprehensive review, see the Science Online 2011 website, namely the Blog and Media Coverage page. I don't think I have much to add, but I'll ramble anyway. After all, this is why I have a blog, right? Plagued by an epic writer's block lately though, so lower your expectations accordingly. Even more so than you should normally when approaching this place. In fact, since this has been sitting in my drafts folder for about four five six days, I'm just going to hit random parts of the keyboard and hope the result resembles English somehow, while torturing you with a sequence of cumbersome, poorly linked clauses, so I can get back to regular blogging, ideally with readable sentences that time.

Cheesy as it sounds, the highlight of the conference was definitely the people. In a way, it's more of a 'reunion' than a conference sensu stricto, as some put it. A major aim of the conference is to humanise the blogosphere, as knowing each other personally should make the environment more pleasant and less aggressive, and I think it works. Without knowing the physical entity behind an online alias, it is sometimes easy to find yourself carried away with something they wrote, as opposed to evaluating the person as a whole. We all have our quirky opinions, and we all write stuff from time to time that can piss off someone, somewhere. Sometimes it's too easy to get fixated on a single idea you find personally irritating, and forget that there is more to the poster than that one comment. Knowing each other in a more personal manner could diffuse some of those conflicts.

I was pleasantly surprised by how little of the general blogosphere drama carried over into the physical conference. People generally seem more chill offline. Maybe I was just oblivious to the real picture, as I usually am (drama usually passes by me without even acknowledging my existence – I guess that has its own perks), but everyone was really friendly and full of energy. Combine that with Deep Sea partying and North Carolinean hospitality*, and great times were had!

*I'll ramble about 'surprising' non-homogeneity of North American cultures in a later post...

The group of attendees was surprisingly diverse in the professional/occupational sense, including a range from students and scientists to full-time writers and journalists to PIOs and librarians and some people behind things like PLoS and Mendeley. There were those with various artistic talents, from science illustration (eg @flyingtrilobite/Glendon Mellow) to music (eg. Adrian and Kevin's GFAJ-1 Arsenic Blues – though that recording does not do it justice) and comedy (@sciencecomedian/Brian Malow). Being somewhat locked up in the ivory tower by this point, it was great to meet people with real jobs who actually talk to people outside academia. Science Online is also unusual in that everyone was on a fairly even level, regardless of professional rank. Your professional hierarchy and reputation were irrelevant since there was hardly anyone from your own field. Thus, faculty, students, librarians, writers, postdocs, etc all spoke on equal ground, which was a wonderful experience in itself. As much as some try to suppress hierarchy at traditional academic conferences, it's still clearly there, and your rank in the field does matter. At Science Online, your online presence was more important, but that hierarchy is, thankfully, less rigid, and still rather nebulous in concept.

The use of Twitter at the conference was rather's as if between all the smaller discussions and conversations in the physical realm was a broader conversation in the electromagnetic waves of Twitterland. The badges had a place for one's Twitter handle, along with a QR code for the website. It's as if we had multiple identities, and I did for sure. I went by my blogger alias (shocking plot twist: Psi Wavefunction is not my legal name ;p) since that's how people know me online. Given that, I still preferred by real name in offline conversations. Which made it even more awkward. Some people insisted on calling me Psi – I don't mind at all, but it was odd to be called by something other than my real name!

I won't even try to go over all the highlights regarding people and events, but I'll just casually mention some snippets, in a totally random manner and order. Mostly my own reactions to them, since others have already discussed the topics in greater detail (and insight).

First off, our keynote was Robert Krulwich, a journalist and co-host of Radiolab. In attempting to attract an audience who typically think they don't care about science, they have a very interesting approach to explaining complicated topics: acting stupid. Stupider than their listeners. We like feeling smarter than others, so it often works better when the teacher (sensu lato) speaks the language of a novice rather than an expert, and asks such questions of the guest experts that the audience would never 'stoop' to. Ie, very basic questions, prodding for very basic answers in return. That way, the audience doesn't feel like material is dumbed down for them (which may feel somewhat insulting, and definitely distanced), but rather for the host, ie Krulwich. Of course, there is also much humour involved, and the programmes are, as a result, entertaining. It's amazing what these people can do, as it is incredibly difficult to convince someone a topic is interesting once they've made up their mind it's not. Making it relevant is not enough – making it relevant and fun, without the feeling of distance (and definitely not lecturing!) is an art, and one we really need more of.

* This happened around hour 56** since I last had sleep, so I shamefully admit to not processing much information at that point

**let's see, got up around 9ish on Tuesday, hung out + packed all night, went to Seattle on Wed, hung out, flew out Wed night, horribly packed flight with stopover at Washington DC, too short to sleep much, arrived at RDU on Thu around 9am, couldn't check in or sleep, keynote around 8pm...yeah. Must've been a zombie by that point.

Went to the history of science panel, where we underlined the importance of understanding the context of scientific discoveries, and the richness that the extra dimension (time) adds to scientific stories overall. And historical context provided properly, not crudely mocking the past thinkers for coming up with such "ridiculous" hypotheses. Probably most of the stuff we think today will be laughed at in a couple centuries or so, if we as a species make it that far. The historical aspect includes not only the history of one's field, but also the sociopolitical context of the time, since science is not this purely 'objective' holy thing independent of human thought; science is a human process, and thus carries with it the stamps of every generation's worldviews. It can only make more sense that way. Where possible, good science writing should happen in four dimensions.

With John Logsdon and Julie we directed a discussion on improving public outreach for small and/or obscure "micro"-disciplines, with emphasis on internet presence. I'll make a separate post on this topic later.

I was also on a panel my awesome co-moderators on beginning blogging and issues like the impostor syndrome, which was a great lot of fun. Others have blogged about it already, and I'll add the links once I find them (soooo many #scio11 posts to catch up on...!).

There is currently some talk about compromised diversity in the blogosphere, but we must keep in mind that we are biased by being an anglophone blogsphere, and the conference was in North Carolina, which was difficult to get to even for those of us on the other coast, let alone from overseas. I personally doubt pushing labels could help much, and think the problem, where it truly exists, lies deeper than online presence. Yes, some races/ethnicities/groups are underrepresented in the English-speaking blogosphere, but that may have something to do with the same races/ethnicities/groups being underrepresented in the educational system in general, and not with the internet or the community.

When I read blog posts, I pay very little attention to the background of who writes them, aside from their field of expertise/activity. If I find the stories interesting, I'll read them regardless of the gender of the author, and I don't feel particularly obliged to read a story I wouldn't otherwise touch simply due to their background. On the internet, it is especially easy to be truly 'colourblind' (in the metaphorical sense too), since you don't even see the author unless you look. So the issues with diversity online are probably a direct result of the problems offline, which are much harder to fix with online means. Maybe instead of focusing on the skewed diversity of bloggers, we should first look at how blogging can help the problem closer to its root. Eg, are underprivileged groups even reading any of our stuff in the first place, and if so, what can we do to be more useful to them, etc.

But I'm not sure it's entirely helpful to start shelving ourselves into categories like "female blogger" or "white blogger" or whatever. I don't particularly care for being read as a "female immigrant Russian atheist blogger". I would prefer to be read as some person whose writing people occasionally find interesting. My background would be a digression, perhaps interesting for my regular readership, but far from necessary for the main goal. But then again, maybe as a scientist I underestimate the average reader's desire to understand the blogger's character – would love for my readership to chime in on this!

Anyway, those were my [somewhat obligatory] two cents on the diversity issue, and I'll probably leave the discussion there. It's not that I don't care, but rather that such topics are not my forte, so I prefer to lurk quietly. But, by all means, feel free to discuss here!

And lastly, before I forget, some nebulous panel ideas for #scio12:
- Online presence of non-English languages
- Issues/specifics of niche blogging
- Dealing with "writer's block" (successfully, unlike Upper 1974 J Appl Behav Anal)
- Making the most of course blogs

Next up, eventually I'll put up some pictures from the overall east coast journey. And post some fucking protists, at last! =D

Mystery Micrograph #26

And we're back with a fresh batch of Mystery Micrographs! I'm sure you missed the frustration that goes along with attempting to ID an obscure microorganism no one cares about from a limited set of grainy photos. I understand. Today, labmate and I discovered this 3D maze puzzle thing our supervisor oddly (and cruelly) left in the lab, and spent a good 4h cursing at it. I expect my Mystery Micrographs to have a similar effect, if only to make up for all the emotional suffering we experienced today trying to solve a children's game, to no avail yet. At least my micrographs aren't aimed at 5-year-olds. Anyway, I assume you've all taken advantage of my absense to go off into the faraway mountains* and undergo rigorous daily training in the high art of protist taxonomy. So here's a slightly evil one. I want the genus. Enjoy!

Fig 13 is x400 (To be referenced later)

* Ironically, rigorous training in protist taxonomy with a black-belt master would currently entail going to places with rather unimpressive/lacking mountains...

Back from Science Online 2011 and the east coast

*brushes off a layer of dust* Long time no see! Done travels for the time being, am here to stay in one place for a while. ScienceOnline 2011 was absolutely fantabulous, as was my little trip up the eastern states to Massachusetts (look, I even learned how to spell that!). Never been to eastern or southern US before, which is embarrassing for someone who's lived on this continent for two decades. Well, I guess the North Carolina Research Triangle barely passes for 'south', but it was definitely different already, enough to pique my interest in further exploring the southern US someday. Passed by New York City on my train ride north, and was a very obvious hick, glued to the window in total awe – so big! I really don't get out much these days, and seeing a little bit more of the world, of only briefly, was quite necessary at this point. Hell, it was my first time in Seattle since passing through there c.10 years ago, even that was worth the effort of flying out from there (well, that and the substantially cheaper tickets, of course).

Apparently people don't mind us bloggers revealing random oddments of our personal lives, like travel. At least a couple people found the preceding snow camping post interesting, so I'll do something with my east coast photos too. The ones without people in them, since we don't want any careers terminated prematurely due to the context of those photos and the ethanol-rich atmosphere ;-) (for some idea, look up the hashtags #DSNsuite and #TheGam, at your own risk). You can also read the potentially incriminating records of the #scio11 tweets here, sorted by days of the conference. And yes, that hashtag is still alive and well because we just can't stop, and #scio12 is up and running already too...

So I intend to have two posts, one summarising the conference and my thoughts on things, and another on my rapid 'tour' past 8 states (and Washington DC) in 24h. Behold, I even have blurry photos of the Washington Monument in the distance, at night!

Before embarking on attempting to write something marginally passing for coherent and maybe even intelligent about Scio11, I must point out that the organisers of the conference, Bora Zivkovic and Anton Zuiker, are fucking awesome, and we in the science blogging community are really lucky to have them around!

To be continued.

Why I did not blog this weekend...

Happy New Year, everyone! (hey, it's still January...) While I did only get back a week ago, with plenty of urgent offline matters to attend to, I was totally going to dust off the blog this past weekend. But I didn't. As much as I enjoy protists and writing for you, I just had to take the liberty to sneak off from the internet and enjoy THIS:

That's right, I actually went outside and explored those pointy things outside my lab window up close and personal. (have I mentioned being able to see snow-capped mountains from the lab pretty much year-round, except for maybe late August-early September? ;p) Tried out backcountry skiing (telemark) for the first time, though that didn't work out too well due to a combination of an impressive sheet of ice, steepness, busy trail with ruts and holes everywhere and bindings that didn't want to fit the skis were mostly carried. Uphill and downhill. Ah well, will actually check snow conditions next time (some seasoned skiers also resorted to carrying them so we didn't feel so bad).

Went with a pretty large group (university-affiliated), the point was actually winter camping. In snow caves. Igloos too, but those are freaking impossible to build, it turns out. If Canadians really did all live in igloos, we'd all be structural engineering geniuses up here. My friend and I resorted to a simple cave to start with:

Yes, you really do wake up to that shade of blue. Does the ceiling look thin? There's a good half a metre of snow up there. Amazing how much light it lets in. It had pretty good insulating properties, kept things warm - at around 0˚C. The other option was -12-15˚C outside...oh yes it was freaking cold. Meanwhile, in the distance lay the city with it's non-freezing temperatures and sane people who got to sleep without worrying about hypothermia and frostbite. Without their hair freezing to snowy walls even!

Sure they had the warmth and luxurious comfort, but did they have this to surround them when they woke up?

Did they get harassed by these rather bold birds as they tried to eat breakfast? Seriously, that little grey bird (apparently a jay) would approach you to about 20cm away and not care. Even the ravens were a little more cautious...
And where there is ice, there are ice sculptures. Natural or man-made. (neither of them are mine)

One of the wonderful things about camping is that you get a rush of euphoria from the simplest things. Like hot tea. Or getting home with all your toes still intact. Somehow, those things become much harder to appreciate back in the city.

Apologies for total off-topic-ness and protist-less-ness (was going to sample but it was waaay too cold), but it's kinda fun to step back and look at a different scale from time to time, especially for a microscopist. And I'm ashamed for not having taken much advantage at all of living in such a beautiful place. Anyway, protist blogging shall return later, after I get back from ScienceOnline 2011, which should be after the 19th. Also, there may or may not be some exciting announcements to make. Watch this space...