Field Operative David Winter at Real Scientists

“Slugs and snails, and puppy dogs’ tails” – these and the 95% of animals species that are invertebrates (well, except for the puppy tails) – are the critters that preoccupy this week’s Real Scientists curator,  David Winter/@TheAtavism. He’s an evolutionary geneticist who spends time fossicking about in the leaf litter of New Zealand’s forests, combining field work and post-doctoral research with blogging at The Atavism and occasionally sticking his neck out for science, for example, here and here.


So how did David end up in science?

” I think, ultimately, I just want to know stuff. When I was a kid I used to read science encyclopedias for fun, and even remember building my own pitfall (insect) traps. At high school I was mad into chemistry, even spending some of lunch times running my own experiments (thanks to a supportitive teacher).”

Chemistry experiments at lunch time? Hard. Core.  David went on study genetics at University and eventually a PhD at the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand.  In choosing evolutionary genetics, instead of medical research, David wanted to “answer old questions with new tools,” using molecular biology to answer age-old biological questions like where does a species begin and end? Where do species come from? How does evolutionary change happen? David gets the best of both worlds – the field and the laboratory.

David’s interests in invertebrates extend from snails and peripatus to placazoans, spiders and harvestmen [Ed.: sorry guys I am not linking to that], to vertebrates like kiwis, the awfully cute reptile tuatara and bellbirds.

So what research would he would like to do, if money and time were no object?

New Zealand has the most diverse land snail fauna in the world. There are around known 900 species on our islands (and probably hundreds
more waiting to be discovered) and, shamefully, we know very little about them. I’d like to start fixing that.  In particular, I’d like to reconstruct the evolutionary history of snails using genetic data. Because us lowly land snail geneticists have so few resources available to us, it would require part of a run on one of these modern sequencing machines. If I could get a grant to cover that I reckon we’d create a useful resource for land snail genetics in general, and
make a real start on getting to grips with the diversity of our own species.

” Getting to grips with the diversity of our own species.” There’s the key. Snails could be another model organism, waiting in the wings, to teach us more about speciation.

Apart from snail and placazoan hunting, David plays soccer, brews beer and cycles up the sides of eroded volcano cones for fun. In addition to his blog, David is also published in the anthology, Best Science Writing Online.

This week, we look forward to David  sharing some of his research and writing, especially some of the finds on his recent field trip to Hauturu/Little Barrier Island.  Got any queries about snails and New Zeland’s unique flora and fauna? Ask David.

Tweet ya Later – Farewell and thanks, Will J Grant

We bid thanks and farewell to the scienceytastic, word-and-punctuation-inveting, map-loving social media butterfly Will J Grant/@willozap after an engaging week tweeting for us at Real Scientists.  Will’s real-time tweets from his own lectures, coal-hunting (for Santa?) and design exploits entertained us for the past week on Twitter.  


In truth, the coal was for his upcoming TEDx Canberra Salon talk (April 17th GET YOUR TICKETS) on climate change politics, which we are very much looking forward seeing, here at Real Scientists HQ.  Will also crowd-sourced retail designs for his talk and gave us insight into how, as he said “knowledge of politics and the political process.”  This knowledge and these skills are immensely important addition for the scientific skill set, something that all scientists must recognise that they need.





Best of all, Will has engaged you, his Real Scientists audience on a scale we haven’t seen before, proving that science communication is as essential as technical skill in science.  Thanks Will, and all the best. We’re look forward to his upcoming documentary, and we’ll definitely let you know more about his TEDx Canberra talk as information comes to hand.

Tweets from SocSciSocMedSciCom: Dr Will Grant, ANU

Dr Will Grant of the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at ANU joins RealScientists this week as our curator. Will is a political scientist and sociologist by training, with a particular interest in the intersection of science, politics and society, and how the relationships between these have changed with the evolution of new technologies. He completed his PhD at the Uni of Queensland, as classy and intelligent people are wont to do, looking into at the political impact of the development of scientific geography – namely, maps.


“All scientists are interested in maps,” Will told us, “but for me they have a particular appeal. They’re obviously amazingly beautiful, revealing and useful artefacts – but they’re also a form of scientifically generated technology that has profoundly shaped our interaction with the world. Maps – as lots of people will tell you – are far from neutral depictions of the world. They’re powerful, and have been used for centuries by the powerful to perserve their privilege. But – under certain circumstances – they can also be intensely democratic. Any good map will not only tell you something about the world, it’ll also tell you something revealing about the perspective of the mapper.”

Apart from Apple Maps of course, which tell you bugger all. So how did a social scientist with no particular background in science communication end up immersed in teaching and researching that very field at the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science? “For them it’s a recognition that knowledge of politics and the political process is a key part of the skill set of good scientists and science communicators. For me it’s an unexpected – but good – fit. In my Phd, though I didn’t know of the explicit discipline of Science Communication, I did a lot of work in Science and Technology Studies, History and Philosophy of Science and Critical Geography. I teach Science and Public Policy, Science Communication and the Web and a public speaking class, while supervising research students on these sorts of topics.”

Aside from his research and teaching interests he is also a regular contributor to The Conversation and The Drum, and is involved in the making of a short documentary on the communication of complex science, or as he calls it, ‘science communication research communication’. Will tweets at @willozap when he’s not tweeting for us, which statistically is most of the time. We are looking forward to Will sharing his interest in maps, art, cooking and those weird running shoe things with the individual toes. Seriously, what’s with them.

Stars in their eyes

Astronomical thanks to @astrokiwi, Michele Bannister of the Outer Solar System Origins Survey, for her star turn as this week’s @RealScientists curator. Michele’s kept up our meteoric standards of universally fascinating science tweetage, and we’re over the moon with the stellar response; even had we tried, we simply couldn’t planet better. Of course, if you have any thoughts, send them through; we always value your feedback. Remember, comet is free.

Yes, I’ll stop now.

Congratulations also to @TheWah for cleaning up in @AstroKiwi’s RealScientists Space Haiku Competition, with his submission ‘Solar wind smashes | Interstellar medium | Termination shock.’ The Wah is a Queensland-based educator and science communicator who co-hosts science, comedy and stupidity podcast Smart Enough To Know Better. He will be receiving a package of astro-goodies from Michele, shortly before he is mugged for said package of astro-goodies by disgruntled coordinators of RealScientists who weren’t allowed to enter. Thanks again to Michele for the brilliant idea and the prizes!

If you missed any of Michele’s curation, check out

Next on Real Scientists, @willozap aka Dr Will Grant of the ANU’s National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science. We’ll have more on Will very soon.

In space, noone can hear you scream. Tweets are fine though

From the jungles of Peru to…. OUTER SPAAAAACE. Because why not. Next week we are welcoming planetary astronomer and expatriate New Zealander Michele Bannister, aka @AstroKiwi. Michele is a postdoctoral researcher with the Outer Solar Systems Origins Survey, a four-year research programme using the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope on Mauna Kea to search for small distant icy worlds.


Michele’s love of astronomy began at the small distant icy world of the Mt John Observatory near Lake Tekapo in NZ’s South Island (above). Hard to see the attraction really. It has since taken her around the world, from Antarctica to Hawaii to California, Canada and Canberra. Well, you can’t have everything. Michele recently completed her PhD at the Australian National University’s Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics, looking for new dwarf planets like Pluto in our Solar System. Now a freshly minted planetary astronomy postdoc, Michele is currently a visitor at the ANU’s Mt Stromlo Observatory, and from mid-year she’ll be at the National Research Council of Canada’s observatory in Victoria, BC.

Our very own Upulie asked Michele what drew her into such a fascinating field of research. Michele’s reply was really quite beautiful, in the way it captured the things that inspires and drives science and scientists down the career paths they take. As a recovering scientist myself, it’s long been a fascination of mine – and I would guess many of our followers – the individual inspirations and circumstances that lead otherwise highly intelligent persons to dedicate their lives to the pursuit of science, with its poor pay, insane hours and non-existent job security. Over to Michele:

Looking Out

I lived by the beach growing up, and would come home with my pockets full of rocks & shells. Fortunately both parents and teachers were encouraging of this and let me be curious about anything…I remember being at Sydney Observatory for my mum’s birthday one year, because the news had reported a comet was crashing into Jupiter. And we waited and waited (the line stretched around the building) and then got to the telescope just as the dark scar on Jupiter from the comet came into view. Breathtaking.

Getting into science in a career way, I knew there were two good departments in New Zealand for astronomy, and had ideas of applying to those. I remember my chemistry teacher at high school coming in very excited one morning, and showing me the flyer for a brand new scholarship in astronomy for undergrads at U. Canterbury. I won it the next year. Part of the scholarship was funding for a trip to go to observatories around the world over summer, and to go observing twice at Mt John (Canterbury’s observatory by Lake Tekapo) with a grad student. That was utterly amazing. As a first-year undergrad, I got to go observing/interning for weeks at the Keck, La Silla, Cerro Tololo, Gemini and Very Large Array telescopes, visit the Jet Propulsion Lab and Caltech, and the two-thousand strong astronomers’ annual meeting in San Diego. It was a pivot point for sure: I got to see what astronomy was like at both the university scale at Mt John and the big science side in Hawaii and Chile.

Why planetary science? I gave a talk to the dept after coming back from the scholarship trip. There was a professor visiting Canterbury, Hans Zinnecker, and he asked me after the talk what in astronomy I found most interesting. I replied, the large-scale understanding of the universe from cosmology, and planets. “Ah!”, he said. “The search for God, or the search for oneself.” Somehow that clarified things wonderfully for eighteen-year-old me. I could be an astronomer who studied planets!

Then there were field trips with the geology department. New Zealand is a fantastic landscape for geology: mountains both glacier-carved and volcanic. I fell in love with the sense of deep time, the great breadth of past written in both the sky and land, that is common to astronomy and geology. And then I found there was a field called planetary science: a field where you could do both astronomy and geology, the field that tries to build our understanding of everything from how planets come to be to their geology. So then I did a project in the year after undergraduate, the transition year NZ calls Honours, on the permafrost glacial features of Antarctica’s Dry Valleys, a place cold and dry and icy like the planet Mars. Glaciers on other planets!

After that, I went towards the astronomy side of planetary science for my more recent research. I use telescopes instead of rock hammers and ground-penetrating radar, to study small icy worlds like Pluto. I still have a love of all things rocks and ice, just they tend to be further from the Sun these days…

Lake Tekapo by night (via

As someone who will be dragging the family to Lake Tekapo at Easter, starguide in tow, whether they like it or not, I’m particularly looking forward to @AstroKiwi‘s curation of RealScientists this week. I hope you are too.

Farewell, Pocket Attenborough Phil Torres

Jaguars, beetles, pumas, butterflies, beetlejuice drinking wasps, monkey-riddled cacao…this is a shortlist of  some of the things our very own tweeting-Gerald Durrell, Phil Torres, has shared with us on his adventures in the Peruvian Amazon this past week. If he’s not teaching us about iridescent beetles and their equally sparkly mites (mites are like the lice of bugs. I know, eww), he’s successfully making dedicated arachnophobes watch videos of spiders that create clever booby traps and silken nets to capture their prey.  Phil’s taught us what essentials you need to go exploring in the tropics – apart from a detached attitude towards dry socks and giant tarantulas – to  enthusiasm and patience,  that truly, only tough guys can chase butterflies through six inches of Amazonian mud.

Copyright Phil Torres, All rights reserved, 2013

Copyright Phil Torres, All rights reserved, 2013

Phil has been hugely popular with our Real Scientists audience this week, fulfilling requests for pictures of various fauna, helping us recognise tapir butts and turtle footprints, sending us tragic photos of how he had to entertain wild macaw chicks. He’s been accessible and a joy to watch.  There are still requests pending – no otters have been spotted yet and there’s some deficit in the monkey department. No Morpholino butterflies have been spotted in their full iridescent powder blue glory.  If you ask very nicely, he will keep us updated on his decoy-building spider and if you ask even more nicely? Perhaps we will hear from him again at Real Scientists. In the mean time, please be sure to follow his continuing adventures on his personal twitter account @phil_torres, Peruvian adventures at Peru Nature and his own blog The Rev Science. Thanks, Phil, it’s been an amazing week, and all good wishes for your future PhD studies.

If you missed anything from Phil’s week of curation, please check out Storify:

Next up, we are delighted to welcome Dr Michele Bannister/@astrokiwi, who’s curiosity and love of science and the stars has led her to a life in astronomy, poetry and adventure.  Stay tuned for more!

Phil Of The Jungle

We are thrilled to welcome to RealScientists conservation biologist and science educator Phil Torres, who will be curating the account this week (March 10-17) from the field. And when we say ‘the field’, we don’t mean ‘the coffee shop across the street from the lab’. Phil’s field is the jungles of Latin America, having been based deep in the Amazon in both Ecuador and Peru for the last year and a half. His research focuses on how butterfly populations are affected by abiotic factors, like salt, and by biotic factors, like mammal-hunting humans and defaunation.
Phil was first introduced to the art/science of studying butterflies by Dr. Andy Warren at the age of seven. Andy was (and still is) traveling around the world to exotic locations researching and discovering new species of butterflies. Phil thought that sounded like a pretty awesome life, and decided at a young age he would do the same, and focus on rainforest conservation in Latin America. And, following careers as a model, a TV presenter and journalist, and in public science education in Los Angeles, he’s done exactly that. His work has ranged from investigating reforestation in the jungles of Puerto Rico to demonstrating nature’s cool evolutionary defences by getting lethal African Spitting Cobra venom shot into his eye, which maybe wasn’t that clever, but probably cheaper than Botox off-the-shelf in LA. He has also been fortunate enough to participate in scientific expeditions in Venezuela (where he was held at gunpoint) and Mongolia (where he got lost in a forest full of quicksand) and has assisted in discovering over 40 new species.


His own finds include a new species of spider that creates a spider decoy in its web, and this fuzzy caterpillar. The decoy spider, which he discovered in 2012, is the only animal known to construct another animal from scratch, and was featured in Wired, BBC, National Geographic, ABC News and CNN, amongst others. So far he has resisted the temptation to name it something daft, indicating he’s more grown up than most Drosophila geneticists.
Having survived the scariest, hairiest, this-makes-Bear-Grylls-look-like-Liberace* moments the world’s nastier jungles could throw at him, his next high-risk adventure will be taking on an Ecology and Evolutionary Biology PhD at Rice University in Houston. Finally, a Dr. Phil who we actually WANT to see on television. Phil’s twitter handle the other 51 weeks of the year is @phil_torres. He blogs at and from his Peruvian base at the Tambopata Research Center at And remember kids, as Phil always says: “Only tough guys catch butterflies.”
I did mention he’s an ex-model, yeah? And has three times as many Twitter followers as me. Not that I’m bitter. BRB, making voodoo doll.
*Thought experiment: would Bear then be obliged to lobby for his own banning from the scouting movement? Answers on a postcard

So long, and thanks for all the brain food

Huge thanks to Dr Kristin Alford for curating Real Scientists this week. It’s been a real eye-opener and privilege to have an insight into her incredibly busy life, and to the kinds of big ideas and thought processes she uses and teaches.  Kristin made us look at the language and ideas we use in our day to day work, both scientific and otherwise, the cultural contexts that influence language and the decisions that we make.  There was an #onsci chat held on Thursday, 7 March, curated by Kristin for Bridge 8, engaging scientists, communicators and the lay public to think about how science can inform the future.  We got to sit in on some engaging conferences and see how we could use daily events as teaching moments about science. There was a sneak peek into the new Creative Thinkinganimations that Bridge 8 is working on, and an insight into the immense amout of work that goes into organising the Australian version of I’m a Scientist, Get Me Out of Here.

Best of all, Kristin’s summarised her week herself; the Storify for her week is available here. It’s an invaluable reference point.  What I got most out of this week is that it’s not enough to plan for the future, to come up with ideas, you have to seriously envision and map out what it will look like and how it will come about.  That’s important in science and the future of science, and how we want to change the world. Thanks, Kristin.

Our next curation rotation takes us to the jungles of Latin America to meet Phil Torres, conservation biologist. Details soon!

Tomorrow, Tomorrow, we’ll need you, tomorrow: Dr Kristin Alford joins Real Scientists

Dr. Alford with the Governor General, Her Excellency Quentin Bryce

Dr. Alford with the Governor General, Her Excellency Quentin Bryce

From the beamline to the role of science in society and the future: this week we welcome Dr Kristin Alford: TEDxAdelaide organiser, science communicator, ex-engineer, future strategist and founding director of Bridge8.  We thought we’d take a big picture view of science from the eyes of a foresight strategist and former engineer turned science communicator. How can science inform the future? What will the future look like?  These are the questions that occupy Kristin in her work.

This strategic view isn’t something we focus a lot when we’re doing the hard yards in the lab and something we wanted to explore. Kristin and animator James Hutson of Bridge8 produced the brilliant Critical Thinking animations featured on Brain Pickings last year, and runs many science communication programs.She’s responsible for bringing the hugely successful UK I’m a Scientist, Get Me Out of Here online reality show for scientists to Australia, now its third year.  Her main work focuses on foresight strategies for companies and government, and recently, with the Governor General, launched Negotiating our future: Living scenarios for Australia to 2050, exploring the role science has in our future.

Kristin also hosts the monthly online science chat #onsci and moderates online science communication teaching courses.  She’s a huge figure in science communication in Australia and we’re looking forward to her novel take on science and science communication as well as marvelling at her jet-set incredibly busy lifestyle, managing multiple projects while bringing up three daughters. Kristin is based in Adelaide, Australia. She usually tweets at @kristinalford, but for the next week she’s with us. Enjoy!

Beam there, done that

Our thanks to Dr Helen Maynard-Casely of the Australian Synchrotron for a brilliant week of curation here at RealScientists. Excitement, despair, ennui, frustration and elation… and that was just one late-night run on the beamline. All worth it when some Brand New Never Discovered Science comes off, which is the reason any of us who’ve ever picked up a pipette, dropped a test tube, sworn at a instrument printout or pressed GO on the big shiny control panel do it for: that moment of unmatched beauty and clarity when the data comes together and speaks to you of new findings, new possibilities, new worlds. Or even what those worlds might be made of.


If only we all could…

For those who missed any of Helen’s Synchrotronic tweetage, catch up via Storify: (again, thanks to ScienceSarah)

Just a reminder that after this week you can keep following Helen at @Dr_HelenMC, and the Australian Synchrotron at @ausynch. And why wouldn’t you. Seriously. Get onto it.