Galactic archaeologist: Dr Nick Bate joins RealScientists

Our curator for the coming week on RealScientists is @ickbat, better known within the Physics department at the University of Sydney as Dr Nicholas Bate. Nick is a postdoctoral fellow in the Sydney Institute for Astronomy (SIfA), which conducts research in areas including stellar astrophysics, plasma astrophysics, cataclysmic variables, black-hole binaries, masers, pulsars, supernovae and their remnants, the interstellar medium and the Galactic Centre, normal galaxies, the Magellanic Clouds, clusters of galaxies, active galaxies & quasars, gravitational lensing and cosmology. Nick’s views on where he is and how he came to be there:
I was probably always going to end up working in astronomy — books on space as a kid, trips to the museum to see asteroids, visits to Parkes and Siding Spring Observatories on family holidays, undergraduate physics, PhD in astrophysics (both at Melbourne Uni), and now here. I’ve meandered a bit, though. I also studied history at Uni (took a year off to decide if I was going to be an historian or an astrophysicist), I worked as a consultant for the Environment Protection Authority for a little while, and I had a 6-month period between astrophysics jobs working in geothermal energy research.
These days, I study diffuse stellar substructures in the halo of Andromeda, the nearest large spiral galaxy to our Milky Way. These objects are the remnants of dwarf galaxies that have fallen in to Andromeda and been torn apart, and they offer important insight into how galaxies grow over cosmic time. Andromeda is perfect for this work: it is far enough away that we can study it without having to take images of the entire sky, but close enough that we can hope to see very faint objects.
(Incidentally, my official job title is ‘Pandas Postdoctoral Researcher’. PAndAS as in Pan-Andromeda Archaeological Survey. No actual pandas, just lots of opportunity for cute paper titles: “PAndAS Cubs”, “PAndAS in the mist”…)

A panda, yesterday

A panda, yesterday

This was a change of field for me. Prior to this job, my research was in quasar microlensing. There, we used statistical simulations of light bending around massive objects (‘Einstein’s telescope’) to study what’s going on around distant supermassive black holes, on scales much smaller than we can reach with even our best telescopes. I try to keep my toe in that field, but there’s never enough time!
When I’m not sciencing, there’s about a million other things I like to do. I’ll read just about anything that passes in front of me (although my first love is sci-fi), I love the opera, films both arty and actioney (I’ve got a particular soft-spot for the flagrant disregard of the laws of physics), drawing stick figures, basically anything that involves nerding it up.
Nick wearing a hat, like all good archaeologists (well, Indiana Jones at least)

Nick wearing a hat, like all good archaeologists (well, Indiana Jones at least)

Please welcome @ickbat to RealScientists and be sure to enjoy his tweets!

Call of the whale-d: thanks and farewell to Michelle Weirathmueller

This week RealScientists has been joined by Michelle Weirathmueller, PhD candidate at the University of Washington in the US, tweeting about (amongst other things) her research using data from ocean bottom seismometers to track the migration of fin whales by listening for their calls. This requires a lot of code-slinging and stats to write programs which can aid in deconvolution of acoustics data and picking the fin whale calls out from everything else.

As you can see above, Michelle also uses comics to communicate her own and others’ research, through her Science x Comics project. You can keep track of Michelle’s work via her website, or via her twitter account @michellejw. Or you could listen to a bunch of seismography data to try and figure out how her project’s going, but it’d take a lot of analysis. If you missed anything from her week on the account, check out Storify: Part 1 (Sun-Wed) | Part 2 (Thu-Sat)

Thanks again to Michelle and good luck with your research. Next week: galactic archaeology with the University of Sydney’s Dr Nick Bate, aka @ickbat.

Whalesong and Earthquakes – Michelle Weirathmueller at Real Scientists

“When Seattle scientists set out to monitor earthquakes off the Northwest coast, they expected their underwater seismometers to occasionally pick up the booming voice of the fin whale — the second-largest creature on Earth. But what they wound up with was such a cacophony that they had trouble zeroing in on the actual tremors.” – Seattle Times 


From the depths of the Universe to the depths of our oceans.  Our curator this week, Michelle Weirathmueller (Twitter: @michellejw), is a PhD student at the University of Washington, Seattle, who studies the sounds of whales.  No really. We’ll let Michelle explain:

“Basically, I’m a PhD student in the School of Oceanography at the University of Washington.  My background is in underwater acoustics and signal processing – I love studying underwater sound!  I was lucky enough to land a spot in William Wilcock’s lab, looking at baleen whale calls in data collected by ocean bottom seismometers (OBSs).  OBSs are deployed all over the world to record things like rumbling undersea earthquakes or seismic signals. They just happen to also be sensitive to the low, booming calls of nearby fin and blue whales.  I spend a lot of time digging through this data, trying to find ways to squeeze as much information out of the “squiggles” as I can.  I ask questions like, how many are out there?  Are they moving?  How much variation is there between calls? My focus for the time being is on fin whales, but one day (maybe soon?) I hope to also dig into the blue whale calls as well.”

The breeding and migration habits of fin whales are not well known, which is odd for the second largest creature on earth. Since they seem to inhabit deep water offshore, they’ve been hard to track. So using this method is one way of tracking their movements.  But it’s also a way of distinguishing between earth tremors and whale song – separating out the many, many curves they found in the OBSs.  All this can be done using a ready made tracking system, already there on the sea floor. And it can only get better as countries employ more and more OBSs for their seismic monitoring.  To do this, the Wilcock lab has designed its own software to distinguish between tremors and whale song, which means that like many scientists, Michelle has to be multitalented:  build her own unique programming for her work.


As well as getting one of the coolest jobs on earth tracking whales, Michelle runs a number of outreach efforts.  She has a blog, The WaveForm Diary, and draws cartoons to explain scientific concepts and the research of the many scientists she interviews.  We can’t wait for her to share all of her amazing work with us this week. Please welcome Michelle!

A stellar effort: thanks and farewell to Dr Simon O’Toole of the AAO

Dr Simon O’Toole of the Australian Astronomical Observatory was our curator on @RealScientists this week, talking planets, stars, weird astronomy and science communication. @drsimmo took on some Seriously Big Science Questions during his week, including ‘Is there life in the universe?’ (probably), ‘What the hell is a hot subdwarf?’ (something to do with naked helium cores), ‘Should institutional press officers be put in an institution’ (lest we see more garbage about zombie diamond-core planets with glass rain) and the real biggie, ‘What can you do with a PhD if you no longer want to do science with it?’ (you’ll have to figure that one out for yourselves though). Cataclysmic variables, stellar evolution, neutron capture, money for old roAp, why NASA’s Kepler mission has been made of awesome… yeah it’s been a bit busy here…

Via the always scienceawesome XKCD

Simon also talked about his new scientific life as web and information administrator at the AAO, how realising the permanent, penetrative anxiety that comes with ‘publish or perish’ was making his life in and outside the office unhappy. Science – particularly trying to build a career and a life on ‘soft money’, living from grant-to-grant, hand-to-mouth – asks a lot of the people in it, in many cases disproportionate to the rewards it offers. It’s safe to say the majority of PhD grads aren’t in active research within 10-15 years, either because they’ve left the research world, or it’s left them. Simon talked of the pervasiveness of Imposter Syndrome amongst science types (and others), and how believing that voice which tells you you’re more crap than everyone else – rather than making an honest assessment of your abilities and skillset and using THAT to inform your future career path – is a journey to scientific miserableness. Of course, it’s not necessarily any better to believe the opposite…impostorvsdunningkreuger

Lastly (but most importantly) Simon helped us promote the @RealScientists At The Pub event (OK, tweetup) we’re holding at the Mitre Tavern in the Melbourne CBD in a few Fridays’ time. This is a very informal sort of get-together for the whole RS community – curators, followers, admins, friends and hangers-on. We’ll be holding similar get-togethers in other locations – starting with eastern seaboard Australia since that’s where most of our admins are close to! – in the near future, so come along and say hi. Expect one in Sydney at the end of September; date and location TBA.

Thanks again to Simon for his tremendous week on the account – if you missed anything, catch up on Storify: Part 1 | Part 2. Keep following him at @drsimmo, and keep up with the goings-on at the AAO via their website.

Next week: we head across the Pacific to visit with Michele Weirathmueller, PhD student in oceanography at the University of Washington. (Actually she’s from New Brunswick in Canada, so we’ll need to cross continental north America as well…) Does science, draws comics, is generally awesome. We’ll have an intro post up for her soon, but in the meantime check her website out at

Why you should tweet for @RealScientists

In response to a few queries we’ve had over the past while about how people can become @RealScientists curators, how we in Team RS go about selecting potential curators, and general advice-seeking about the tweeting of science, we’ve decided to write a Thing about tweeting as a scientist, and tweeting as a @RealScientist.

Firstly, as a scientist, why should you tweet?

Yeah, why should I tweet?

Because there’s no better way of communicating directly with the end-users of your research – the people who paid for it, one way or another.

But how can you say anything meaningful in 140 characters?

Practice! Just give it a go.

But I don’t have anything to say!

You seem to manage when you’re asked to write a grant or a paper, don’t you? Or when your parents or family or mates down the pub ask for the once-over-lightly version of your project?

But but but can’t you get fired for tweeting stuff?

Only if you’re a dick. General rule is, even if you’re nominally anonymous, it’s a public forum and you need to stand beside everything you say. Even hiding behind a dinosaur with a hat is no guarantee of safety. Don’t tweet anything you wouldn’t say to someone’s face, or have published in the paper with your name beside it. Don’t call your boss a clueless gurning arsewomble, even if he IS, and everyone in the office says so. That’s not necessarily peer-reviewed data.

In terms of how to tweet as a scientist, there’s actually some good resources out there to help – Christie Wilcox aka @NerdyChristie of Scientific American’s Science Sushi wrote a tremendous multi-part series about the whys, wherefors, hows, dos and don’ts of science tweeting: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 2.5 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5. Also, Tweet Your Science has been putting together a repository of academic resources on tweeting science, as well as running events and establishing databases of active science twitterers. There’s no right or wrong way (the above ‘don’t be a dick’ rule notwithstanding) to twitter about science (or about anything). Take time to find your own voice and you will find your own audience.

So how do we go about picking curators for RealScientists? Well, it’s fair to say we (meaning the RS admin team – @dryobbo, @upulie, @sciencesarah and @reneewebs) don’t see ourselves as gatekeepers – it might seem ironic given the name of the project but we don’t sit in judgement on what is ‘proper’ science or who is a ‘real’ scientist. By and large, the people who nominate themselves for curation know whether they’re scientists or not. Generally, we aim for people who are doing active research – although we’ve had and will continue to have science communicators, educators, policy makers and so forth – because that’s what we feel our followers are interested in hearing about, that’s where the ‘unmet need’ is in terms of whose voices are heard. Despite half our team being science communicators, we are supporters of the idea that one day professional science communicators might not be necessary, if all researchers could be citizen science communicators in their own right. Of course, that’s not feasible right now, but our hope is to showcase best practice in that area.

As a guide, most of our curators have been postgraduate students (PhD/MSc), postdocs or beyond, but that doesn’t preclude. We’re fairly agnostic in terms of speciality – most of our team are molecular biologists by background, but we’ve probably had more astronomers through the account than anything else – and welcome all denominations. We do tweak the scheduling in order to get a good ‘mix’ of specialities – also to try and tie in with potential curators’ field work or conference trips. We also do a bit of ‘due diligence’ around what sort of stuff a potential curator tweets in their own timeline, how they interact with people and so forth – we’re not shy of engaging with controversial subjects in the science sphere, but we do require them to be engaged with in a rational, non-confrontational way (i.e. without abusing people.) My own timeline, as my followers would wearily attest, is science interspersed with sport, cars, off-colour jokes, beering and swearing, so we understand that people who are scientists or into science aren’t necessarily tweeting about science 24/7, and we keep that in mind when assessing potential curators.

At any given moment we’re usually booked up for a few months in advance, although occasionally earlier vacancies appear, so if you do have some cool field trips or conference junkets lined up that you think would be fun to live-tweet for RS, be sure to sign up well ahead of time and let us know about these things when you do. Nominating yourself as a curator is easy – send an email saying you’re interested in curating, a bit about what you do (links to relevant websites if you have them), your Twitter handle (it’s amazing how many people don’t include this and we have to go searching!), and if relevant, particular weeks or periods you would prefer.

If you do end up tweeting for us, congrats and welcome to the family! It’s a lot of fun and you end up making huge new networks of followers and followees (is that a word?). One other thing to remember: rotation-curation is hard. It’s actually kinda scary to be air-dropped into someone else’s account with someone else’s followers, particularly if there’s thousands more than you’re used to. We’ve had excellent curators on RS so far, and new curators have often commented they’re nervous about maintaining the quality level that’s been established – that’s a natural reaction – don’t worry about it. As an expat Aussie living in NZ I had the chance earlier this year to tweet for @PeopleofNZ and even though at the time my personal account had more followers than it did, I still did the first-day ro-cur noob thing – froze up completely, then thawed out and tweeted a rapid-fire brain-dump of unmitigated faff until people politely asked me to not. Like with Twitter itself, you will find you need to take time to get the pace of any ro-cur account and its followers, and we get that.

Also, at some point we will get as many RS curators together as we can at the pub and talk nonsense, so there’s that to look forward to. It won’t be IFLSLive, but it will be fun.

Yours in continued scitweeterage

Dr Y

The Exoplanet Factor: Dr Simon O’Toole joins RealScientists

Dr Simon O’Toole of the Australian Astronomical Observatory is our next contestant on The Science Is Right @RealScientists: discoverer of worlds, enabler of research, communicator of science, manager of information and writer of words. Here are some of them, because they’re better than we would have come up with.

SJOT image

I grew up in Penrith in the western suburbs of Sydney. Science is pretty strong in my family: both my parents have a science degree, and my dad went on to get a PhD in cell biology; my uncle has a degree in nuclear physics; and a cousin works for CSIRO.

Despite this, I decided to do aeronautical engineering at university, and was accepted to do my degree at the University of Sydney. Along the way, I decided to spend the extra year and get a science degree. Then in 3rd year I wrote a review paper on the recently discovered extrasolar planets (or exoplanets).
I ditched the engineering part of my degree, did honours and was then accepted to do a PhD in the then little understood hot subdwarf stars, which are hot old stars nearing the end of their lives. Not quite exoplanets, but I picked up all the skills and techniques I’d need for that field along the way. I submitted in August 2002 (graduated the following year), and then moved to the town of Bamberg in Germany for a three year postdoc.

My time there was perhaps my most scientifically productive: lots of papers, new collaborations and new ideas; some of them were even good! I got my hands on data taken with the Hubble Space Telescope, and did element abundance analyses of hot subdwarf stars, finding that they are extremely peculiar objects. Contrary to expectations, their upper atmospheres are loaded with heavy metals such as nickel, titanium, tin, germanium and lead. This material cannot be produced in the stars, so they are the fingerprints of the formation gas cloud. We even measured the lead isotope ratio in a couple of objects, still the only time this has been done outside our solar system.

Three years in small-town Germany is tough when your partner is not there, though. I loved my time in Bamberg, made some good friends, developed a love of good German beer, but at the end, it was time to come home. I was lucky enough to get a job at the then Anglo-Australian Observatory (AAO) working in the field that got me into astronomy in the first place: exoplanets.

Man can not live by beer alone (allegedly)

I still love the field of exoplanets even now; I mean after all, how many people can say that they’ve discovered new planets? It’s hard to top the thrill of discovery, but as a scientist, this is not just about stamp collecting (to paraphrase Ernest Rutherford): we are trying to understand how planets are out there, and more importantly how many planets out there are like our own Earth.

Along the way, I’ve done an ever increasing amount of public outreach and education. I’d done a little bit before joining the AAO, but the opportunities have come thick and fast. There’s always something astronomical going on somewhere. Some highlights:
* Being interviewed by ABC TV about the definition of a planet (I’m still not completely happy with it);
* Filling in for Professor Fred Watson on ABC Local Radio Evenings for a few weeks – there’s nothing like talkback radio to keep you on your toes!
* Performing at the Nerd Gala as part of the Sydney Comedy Festival – it still blows my mind that I made people laugh for 15 minutes;
* Doing a piece with Derek Muller at Veritasium on life in the Universe which stemmed directly from the Nerd Gala gig;
* Speaking with countless school kids about science, inspiring them about our solar system and the universe; and
* The Chelyabinsk meteor inn February this year: I had just written a column for The Conversation about another asteroid (2012 DA14) when this meteor came hurtling through the sky, so I got to comment on the Chelyabinsk event as it happened and then write another piece on Forensic Astronomy.


While no longer active in research anymore, I think of myself as more of an enabler of research these days, whether it be by providing the tools to other astronomers, or by inspiring school students to get interested in science.

After seven years as a Research Fellow and then Deputy Gemini Scientist at the AAO, Simon moved into a research administration role earlier this year, and is now the web and information administrator at the AAO. He no longer gets asked to help fix broken-down Geminis by smart-arses like the author.
Simon blogs here and tweets there, but for this week he’s with us on RealScientists. Welcome him!

Nematode, quoth the raven: thanks and farewell to Dr Matt Hill

nematodesAnytime you think you’re having a bad week, remember this: you could be infected with entomopathogenic nematodes.

Thanks and farewell to Dr Matt Hill aka @InsectEcology for a great week of insect ecology and evolution from the Western Cape of South Africa, which took us into the realms of scientific publication and review; through the finer points of life as an ECR (as distinct from an ECSR, which is a rock band from Melbourne); around the socioeconomoecological mores of eating insects for food; and down this great big tree-lined hill. If you missed any of Matt’s week catch up on Storify: Part 1 | Part 2 We wish Matt all the best with his paper submissions and in getting his R’s into gear. Keep following him @InsectEcology, and if you see him at INTECOL 2013 next week, buy him a beer. Not Castle Lager. Noooo not that.


Next week: Dr Simon O’Toole of the Australian Astronomical Observatory, aka @drsimmo.