Extra! Extra! Dr Akshat Rathi joins Real Scientists

From the Florey Institute in Melbourne to Angel, London, we welcome journalist and ex-chemist Dr Akshat Rathi (@AkshatRathi) to Real Scientists.  Dr Rathi is Science and Technology Editor at The Conversation UK, a branch of the successful  The Conversation initiated in Australia.  Akshat “grew up a nerd after being born in 1987 in Nashik, India.” He studied chemical engineering in Mumbai because maths and chemistry made sense to him. He took up organic chemistry for a PhD at Oxford University. The routine of lab and the fear of becoming too specialised got to him, and he ended up “wiggling” [sic] his way in to science journalism. Dr Rathi is now science and technology editor at The Conversation (UK) and his work has appeared in Nature, The Economist, Ars Technica and The Hindu, among others.

Dr Akshat Rathi (C)

We asked Akshat our usual round of questions to find out more:

1. How did you end up in science?
I liked science in school. Excellent teachers made me good at it. There is little more an Indian kid needs to do to make his parents proud. Before university, chemistry was my favourite subject. I liked maths a lot too. So a compromise was to study chemical engineering, which I did in Mumbai.
Sadly, it turned out engineering maths was a lot less exciting than calculus and trigonometry. So I ended up spending lots of time swirling chemicals in a flask. And because I didn’t feel like I had enough time in university, I decided to go for a PhD in organic chemistry. This I was fortunate enough to pursue at Oxford University.
2. How did you end up in journalism?
Chemistry lab proved to be exhilarating and exhausting, which is what I wanted. But I left because I couldn’t hole myself into working on one tiny area of chemistry for too many years. Science writing was far too much fun and I couldn’t get enough of it. And it also happens to be equally exhilarating and exhausting.
3. What do you enjoy writing about the most?
Things that make me think twice. A lot of science is incremental progress, but every so often there is a story about a leap. It happens because the researchers weren’t quite expecting the results or because they’ve been at it for a lot of time. I love capturing those stories.
4. How do you see science communication progressing in the digital age?
What we have today is really exciting. Lots of people, including many scientists, using many different channels to get the science across. There isn’t a day when I feel it’s been a boring day for science. The UK, in particular, is a hub of some of the best science communicators in the world, and they have learned to adapt to the digital age quite well. I learn from them everyday.
5. The Conversation – what effect do you think it has on disseminating information, busting myths etc
I’m biased, but I think that what The Conversation UK does is unique. Some academics are excellent communicators, there are many who like communicating but could do with help. We work with them to shape articles to be more accessible. In that way, The Conversation does a great job of helping a wider audience to tap into the knowledge held in our universities (and too often sadly behind journal paywalls).
In that sense, I believe The Conversation is one of the best advocates of open access. Where it’s not about putting out jargon-heavy scientific papers into the public, but about translating them into words that are easy to understand and hopefully apply.
6.  We’d love to hear your thoughts on science writing!
There is a side of science writing that is usually criticised, but not enough. There are still too many publications exaggerating scientific claims to nonsensical levels. The shake up in journalism because of the digital revolution has caused an upheaval, which has left many good publications to cut specialist reporting and turn into click-baiters. The internet has accelerated the spread of bad science writing.
While new outlets like The Conversation and Nautilus and multimedia projects like Radio Lab, Brain Scoop and Veritasium have done much to fill up the gap, but we still have a long way to go before science is usually understood correctly by most readers. It’s a challenge which keeps me going.
7. Tell us yer hobbies!
I’m a dabbler. I love photography, iPad drawing (yes, it’s a thing), swimming and traveling (when I can afford it). Some of these I’ve dabbled in for a long time, others are passing fads.
So please welcome Akshat Rathi  – and The Conversation UK – to Real Scientists!
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Will design vectors for caffeine: thanks and farewell to Dr Dave Hawkes

To give you a quick run down of topics I hope to cover this week here is a list of topics I have written or podcasted about this year ……

— realscientists (@realscientists) October 20, 2013

Viral vectors, anxiety, HIV/AIDS, evolution, vaccines (esp HPV), anti-vaccinationists, crowd funding, babies, chiropractic, and homeopathy

— realscientists (@realscientists) October 20, 2013

To be honest there are probably more but only half way through my first coffee

— realscientists (@realscientists) October 20, 2013

 

And just quietly, there were a few of those as well. It’s been said before that scientists are primarily devices for turning caffeine into research findings, and our curator for this past week, Dr Dave Hawkes of the Florey Institute in Melbourne, certainly did not a great deal to disprove that theory. In between espressos Dave took us through all the aforementioned and more. He introduced his new Pozible crowd-funded research project Name The Virus, amongst other new projects from the Florey, showed us through his wardrobe of fantastically bad sci-geek shirts, daveshirthurled half-housebricks at homeopaths (metaphorically speaking, of course), wondered aloud who gets to call themselves a doctor (and who gets to decide who gets to call themselves a doctor), watched paint dry, and did a metric skipload of marking. The joys of the modern academic researcher, most of the workload of a lecturer without the security of tenure…

We wish Dave all the best with his future adventures, and recommend you keep following him. Next week: Dr Akshat Rathi, Commissioning Editor (Science + Technology) for The Conversation UK.

Hi Doctor Dave! Introducing Dr Dave Hawkes to RealScientists (or just letting him introduce himself)

Last week saw Real Scientists reach the 6000 follower mark, much to the delight of [Admin]. Photos of cartwheels are still forthcoming. Big thanks to @DrMegsW/Dr Megan Wilson for her week curating the fascinating field of developmental biology. This week we welcome molecular virologist Dr David Hawkes (@mrhawkes) from the Florey Institute, Melbourne, Australia.  Here’s Dr Hawkes in his own words:photo

My name is Dave and I’m a scientist. It’s this sort of sentence that I have tried to avoid throughout my career. Don’t get me wrong I am very proud of the work I do and the people I get to work with but it is more the stereotypes that come to peoples minds when they think of scientists.

I am currently working as a neuroscientist/virologist for the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health in Melbourne. My work focuses around a recently discovered neuropeptide called relaxin-3. This neuropeptide was discovered around 10 years ago and our lab has shown that it appears to play a role in eating, sleeping, memory, learning, addiction and responses to emotional stress. While I am fascinated by all of this the part of our work the thing that really puts fire in my belly is the techniques we can use to investigate relaxin-3.

Viral vectors are a special type of virus that have been modified so that they can’t cause disease. These viral vectors can be used to help investigate the role of specific cells in the brain in a huge number of diseases, virual vectors from our lab have been used to investigate addicition, eating and sleeping disorders, stress, epilepsy, stroke and even multiple sclerosis. I get to spend a good part of my time dreaming up new and really cool viral vectors and then get to create and use them to help us understand the brain.

As my wife often complains, I probably spent almost as much time involved in science outside of my work as I do in. I spent three months in Bristol in the UK in 2009 and became aware of a whole host of topics, through Ben Goldacre’s book “Bad Science”, I hadn’t heard of – homeopathy, anti-vaccination, alternative medicines, and many others. Although I had spent five years working on HIV I wasn’t really familiar with HIV denialists and other anti-scientists. I know that as scientists we are really focused on our own area but I think we really need to look at our research from the point of view of the general public. Since 2009 I have become heavily involved in trying to combat anti-vaccine misinformation and am currently an administrator of the Stop the AVN facebook site which has a weekly audience in the tens of thousands. I also recently published a paper exmining the risks and benefits of the HPV vaccine –http://www.infectagentscancer.com/content/8/1/22 which I co-wrote with two people I met through Facebook.

I have also been involved in a wide variety of science related organisation which have been fantastic for networking and looking at science from a more political point of view. This Monday we are launching a corwd funding project called Name the Virus (@Namethvirus on twitter or https://www.facebook.com/namevirus on facebook or http://www.pozible.com/project/34853) which aims to raise $10,000 to enable us to create 4 new viral vectors. The great part of this project is that anyone who donates $20 or more cn contribute a name for one of these new viral vectors. Any (socially acceptible) name which gets over $2500 will be used, so maybe @realscientists followers can help create the “RealScience” viral vector?

I have come to the conclusion that as researchers we are not fully utilising social media to form collaborations, access new research, or contribute to community discussions on science. I am hoping that my time as curator of @realscientists will allow me to both give you an idea of what I do as a scientist, in and out of the lab, but also hopefully make you aware of the world of science outside of academia – blogs, podcasts, twitter, google hangouts, facebook and others I haven’t even heard of yet.

Thanks Dave for your kind words about Dave. Now, here’s Dave!

Devo’d you’re leaving us: thanks and farewell to Dr Megan Wilson

drmegswho

RealScientists would like to say a hearty thanks and fare-thee-well to Dr Megan Wilson of the University of Otago, NZ (aka @DrMegsW) who put in sterling service as our curator for this past week. Megan was our first ever developmental biologist curator, though it should be noted her research also has a strong evolutionary bent – illustrated by the broad array of different model organisms she has used and continues to use in her research, from flies and bees to mice and fish, to answer questions about the genetic pathways that underpin developmental processes, and how these have changed through evolution. Her week took her from her lab in the Anatomy Department in Dunedin’s University of Otago to the top of the South Island to the Cawthron Institute in sunny Nelson, for a meeting on sea squirts – which the Cawthron investigate as an invasive pest, while Megan researchers for what they might be able to tell us about the ancestor of all chordate animals.

Muh-muh-muh MY CIONA

Muh-muh-muh MY CIONA

Megan outlined the challenges of doing research at the bottom of the world, a full day’s flight from the research powerhouses of the US and Europe, while balancing research with university teaching, outreach and of course home and family life – challenges shared by all early-career researchers in academia. She also gave us some fascinating insights into how developmental biology (in both teaching and research) has moved through the ages from the descriptive, observational nature of early embryology to today’s molecular techniques such as in situ hybridization, quantitative PCR and RNA interference, whereby in her words ‘we break things to understand how they work’. And, of course, bombarded us with images of lovely south island scenery, making everyone furiously jealous.

otagohbr

If you’ve enjoyed Megan’s tweets, you can keep following her on her personal account @DrMegsW, as well as checking out the Australia/NZ Society for Cell and Developmental Biology on Twitter and Facebook. If you missed any of Megan’s week on the account, catch up on Storify: Part 1 | Part 2

Coming on Monday: molecular virologist Dr Dave Hawkes of the Florey Institute.

Research and development: welcome Dr Megan Wilson to RealScientists

This week we move from the west coast of Australia to the deep south of New Zealand, to welcome developmental biologist Dr Megan Wilson of the University of Otago, Dunedin.

otago022968Megan’s research is in the field of developmental biology, understanding the formation of an adult form from a fertilized egg.  She is particularly interested in researching the molecular control of pathways that underly embryonic development, and how these developmental pathways have changed throughout animal evolution.  To this end she have made use of a number of developmental models including mice, Drosophila (the venerable fruit fly, hero of genetics research), the honeybee Apis mellifera, and most recently sea squirts – which as chordates, and the closest invertebrate group to the vertebrate lineage, can tell us a lot about the evolution of developmental pathways in early vertebrates.

Megan began her scientific life as a biochemist, characterising the structure and function of sigma factors (gene regulatory proteins) involved in infection and virulence in the pathogenic bacteria Pseudomonas, before changing path and joining the group of internationally renown developmental biologist Prof Peter Koopman at the Institute for Molecular Biosciences, University of Queensland, working on the molecular genetics of mammalian sex and gonad development. Megan then spent several productive years as a research fellow in the Laboratory for Evolution and Development at the University of Otago, run by Dr Peter Dearden. After her appointment as a lecturer in the Department of Anatomy at Otago she has established her own research group in the form of the Developmental Biology Laboratory, using both vertebrate and invertebrate models to explore how gene expression is regulated during embryonic development and how these pathways evolve. Having been part of the sequencing consortium which published the genomes of Honeybee and Aphid, particularly involved in annotation of the developmental genes in both, she has continued to use next-generation sequencing approaches to investigate developmental biology questions in her current model systems. You can find out more about Megan’s research and her lab group at wilsonlab.otago.ac.nz.

seasquirts

Harvesting sea squirts is a glamorous business

 Away from the lab, Megan is passionate about education and outreach. Aside from teaching undergraduate and postgraduate students as a lecturer, Megan is also involved in outreach education activities at local primary schools, setting up a mini-undergraduate lab for the junior classes on human anatomy and on honeybees, which the children and teachers enjoyed. Megan writes about New Zealand developmental biology for the Node, the community hub for developmental biologists run by leading journal Development. (Longer-term RealScientists followers may recall the Node was coordinated for some years by former RS curator Eva Amsen aka @easternblot.) Megan is also one of two NZ representatives for the Australia and New Zealand Society for Cell and Development Biology (ANZSCDB), and following their annual meeting this year at Combio in Perth, is now leading the society’s embryonic push into social media. Embryonic, heh. See what I did there. You can follow the ANZSCDB’s baby steps into social media on Twitter and Facebook. RealScientists isn’t Megan’s first foray into rotation-curation Twitter accounts, following a very popular stint on her national account @PeopleofNZ in August. (Next week’s curator @mrhawkes has also taken science communication to national ro-cur levels, and we’re very excited to have them both on RS in the next fortnight.)

Muscle development in the developing mouse embryo. Not particularly related to what Megan does, but pretty.

Muscle development in the developing mouse embryo. Not particularly related to what Megan does, but pretty.

So why development? In her introductory column at the Node, Megan explained why she became a developmental biologist:

The NZ developmental biology community is vibrant and diverse, and overlaps with a range of other disciplines, from medical research to evolution and ecology. It wasn’t always the case, though.  As a Biochemistry undergrad, and then a PhD student at Otago in the late 1990s, there were very few options for studying developmental biology. My interest in developmental biology came from wanting to know more about the genetic disorder my brother had, Tuberous Sclerosis Complex (TSC). TSC affects multiple organ systems, but particularly the kidney, brain and skin, causing benign tumors to grow.  I wondered why these tumors occurred in only a few organs and why symptoms varied so much between individuals.  In order to really understand the origin of this disorder, I had to learn a little developmental biology, became fascinated by it, and this sparked a career shift.

We asked Megan our usual set of questions and she gave this set of answers:

1. How did you end up in science?
Science is what I enjoyed most at school.  I also did history and classics, but always found out something new when I studied science.
2.  What keeps you in it?
I still enjoy it, learning new things everyday and making new discoveries myself – trying to solve questions and doing the experiments to find the answers. I also love teaching, seeing students develop into scientists.
3. What do you like to do in your spare time (hobbies kids etc everything!)
I go to the gym, playing with the kids (Mr6 and Mr4), taking care of the hens (we have six chickens), reading… not much spare time though!
4. Where do you work and live, and why?
I work at the Dept of Anatomy as a lecturer, at the University of Otago in Dunedin – where I grew up, and did my PhD before returning here for a research position. The plan was for just 3 years but we have now been back in Dunedin for almost 9. Dunedin has a great lifestyle, especially to raise kids in, and a fantastic research-focused university environment. Having grown up here, it’s also important to me being close to family.
5. If you could do any project, with money no object, what would you do?
The hard thing would be to pick one project over so many I would want to do. It would likely to be examining the role of some of my favourite transcription factors in development, via ChIP-seq and transgenics, to understand how they act in controlling gene regulation, how they integrate multiple signals to make a functional tissue/animal. At the moment we’re doing some of this using mice and sea squirts embryos.
meganw
Please welcome Megan to RealScientists for her week of curation!

Telling the stories of science: thanks and farewell, Marisa Wikramanayake

marisaPerth-based science journalist, writer and editor Marisa Wikramanayake took the reins of the account this week for a breakneck whistlestop tour through the worlds of science communication and journalism, fiction and non-fiction writing, and science editing. In doing so she gave us a valuable insight into ‘the other side’ of science journalism – as researchers or as people interested in science, the view is often taken that science journalism is in a crisis, that the media doesn’t respect science, that editors and owners don’t properly resource science journalists or journalism, that those journalists sent to cover science are usually ignorant of science, indulge in false balance and cheap distortionary hyperbole to whip up superficial interest and artificial debate. Some of that may be true. But what is also true is there are a great many passionate and engaged science journalists out there – like Marisa, and like Joel Werner who tweeted for us earlier in the year – who tread the tightrope of endeavouring to understand, advocate and translate science from the bench to the spoken or printed MSM word, balancing the pressures of telling the truth and telling the story in an engaging way which will connect with their readers and their editors.

In one particularly fascinating thread, Marisa led us through the process and the conflicting pressures of researching, crafting and structuring a scientific story for various media platforms, an exercise as informative for baby science journalists as it was for researchers who’ve seen that process from the ‘bench’ side, often with their fingers over their eyes in horror at what was being ‘done’ to ‘their’ science in the name of telling a printable or marketable story. The understanding that ‘their’ science is ‘our’ science – all of ours, as taxpayers, as health system patients, as citizens of a society that values scientific and intellectual endeavour – and that for better or worse, the heralds which trumpet the tales of that science are now and in future primarily going to be the MSM – needs to be accepted by all sides. Of course, the rise of the ‘citizen science communicator’ – both in terms of lay people with passion for science and scientists with a passion for communication – makes this acceptance easier.

The sheer volume of engagement on the topics Marisa brought forth for discussion can be illustrated by the fact we broke Storify trying to archive them all. We’ll have a comprehensive archive of Marisa’s time on the account shortly, but for now we recommend you check out her website, where she’s popped up a few curationary Storify archives of her own, as well as following her at @mwikramanayake. Thanks again to Marisa and good luck in the future.

Next week, we return to the bench with developmental biologist Dr Megan Wilson (@DrMegsW), from the Department of Anatomy at the University of Otago, New Zealand.
Sweet as bro.

The Write Stuff – Marisa Wikramanayake joins Real Scientists

From sunny Florida to Perth, Western Australia, we welcome word wrangler Marisa Wikramanyake to Real Scientists.
Marisa is a Sri Lankan-born, Perth based journalist, writer and editor – “word wrangler” covers it, really – who has been fascinated by science from an early age, as detailed in her contribution to the Letters to Sir David project.  Spending most of her time writing, she  also geeks out with scientists, debates journalism practice and in her “spare time”  tries to write novels while editing other writers’ work. Marisa currently occupies a chair at Curtin University’s Digital Media Unit, helping to run the social media channels and chasing down  staff and students to write news stories.Her journalism credits include being in ground zero of a bomb blast twice, having her phones tapped and being a tad freaked out by the Scientologists. Publishing-wise, her first book came out at 17 and her natural habitat is a secondhand bookstore, a library or a literary festival (she’s covered the Galle Lit Festival with Richard Dawkins and has just finished organising IPEd’s latest national editing conference). She also pokes her nose in at Australian Women Writers, where she is the non-fiction editor, and lends her geek goddess expertise to the Guys Read Gals project and the Society of Editors (WA). To find out more about Marisa and her work, look her up at her blog at marisa.com.au or on Twitter @mwikramanayake.
Marisa Wikramanayake
We asked Marisa our six-seven questions to find out the nitty-gritty:
1. How did you end up in science writing?

I studied both science and arts subjects throughout school and university. I had a blog as a teenager and wrote about politics, popular culture, geography, history, philosophy, anything I wanted to rant about. A year after I landed in Australia and started a degree here, a newspaper editor in Sri Lanka saw the blog and asked me to write a weekly newspaper column about life in Australia for a Sri Lankan audience. I did this till 2009 when my editor got assassinated by which time I had graduated and was freelancing as an editor (of books and corporate documentation and policy articles) and another editor who had been a silent fan of the online blog & column posts called up Science Network WA’s editor at Scitech and recommended me. I got a call one day out of the blue, went in and got given a story to do which got published with no edits because it was exactly what he wanted.

Whatever I do, I really can’t let go of either the science or arts side in my writing, editing or journalism. The theme of straddling two things is a weird constant in my life.

2. What is your day job?

My day job changes. Right now I am an “online writer” for Curtin University in Perth which means I help to run the social media channels but I also update the content on the websites and I write the news stories for the news section (but not the media releases – that’s PR’s role). It’s a ton of fun because I get to write about cool things that researchers are doing as well as what the students do and I get to think of new ways to use social media to promote certain courses or departments or services or students/staff involved with Curtin. I like that I get that permission to go off and try new things. Right now I am helping run G+ hangouts for various events and groups so that online students can chat or watch livestreams and participate and potential students from across the world can ask all their important questions before flying into Australia. I also want to use it to showcase research that academics are working on or services that people can use and allow people from one campus to talk to those on another (Curtin has campuses in Singapore and Sarawak and partner institutions in other countries).

The rest of the time I am a freelance journalist and editor. I take on editing work for either organisations working on corporate documents (sometimes scientific) or I edit manuscripts for authors. As a journalist I mostly review books for the West Australian newspaper (they gleefully give me all the non fiction and crime fiction) or for the Australian Book Review and though I haven’t had much time of late to do it, I am on the list of freelancing journalists for Science Network WA where I cover all sorts of science. I am one of the few generalists – most people pick a science to cover and stick to that.

Oh and then I try to write books of my own and try to finish my Master of Communications in Neuroscience & Science Journalism. And I have a few other projects dealing with writers and literature and Secretary work for the Society of Editors (WA). If you asked me what my actual calling/work/real job/career was I’d say writer. As in books. Everything else just is awesome stuff to help others but also help support the said writing of books.

3) Why science writing?Hmm… 1) I like to write about things that are important – my job is to communicate something to someone whether it’s my message or someone else’s. I think science is important.

2) I want to surround myself with people who are passionate about things and scientists are passionate to the point of obsession about what they work on and that to me is wonderful. I adore the enthusiasm and excitement. It’s the same reason I love hanging out with writers and artists. Passion is great. I also admire how focused and dedicated they are – I focus on many things at once and try to tie them all to writing which I love but scientists just love one thing or one aspect of a topic and generally do all sorts of things to do with it. 3) I am good at this. I had a great education in Sri Lanka, US and here that taught me a lot about the concept of inquiry and logical and critical reasoning and the scientific process. I could be a social scientist but I couldn’t pick one branch of science to specialise in so being a straight scientist is out for me but I can hop around different branches of science and keep asking “Why?” or “How?” And that makes me a better novelist and a better journalist and I can understand what most scientists are doing and then explain that to others. And the more people talking about science the better.4) Where were you born?

I was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka in 1983. I never did fit into any sort of stereotype of a Sri Lankan girl. My whole upbringing was also a tad bit more liberal than most of my peers had it and English was my first language. I was a fish out of water from the start – maybe a mudskipper living in the intertidal zone or something. It did feel like straddling two worlds – my peers had a culture and I had another borne out of a more odd mix of Western and the Sri Lankan one that my parents knew of. Oh and we had a civil war going on so that complicated a few things as well – there were lots of things that I felt I could have done but was unable to.

I ended up knowing a lot about Western culture as well and being a bit of geek and nerd which was weird because only boys were supposed to like that stuff. I moved to the US a month after I turned 18 for university but I had to leave after two years – where I was felt too much like a bubble and I had traveled a lot as a child and wasn’t used to my concept of the world having to shrink to just the borders of a state. I found it hard to cope if I couldn’t find out what was happening in the rest of the world or discuss it for example. So I upped sticks and moved to Perth in 2004.

After starting life in three different countries now I feel the urge to move somewhere else though I don’t know where just yet. 🙂

5)  Other hobbies?

If I hadn’t been a writer… I would have been a dancer or an archaeologist/historian/anthropologist. The most awesome thing I learnt during my stint in the US was how to differentiate between hominid species by looking at skulls. The most awesome thing I did as part of my degree at the University of Notre Dame in Australia was go on an archaeological dig. My degree was a BA in English Literature and Geography with an Honours in Archaeology/Historical Georgaphy. I studied the evolution of a port city urban landscape over thirty years.

As for hobbies – I write stories, I read but I also like photography and painting and I dance of course. I can cook very well and I love to fish but I am not so great at that though apparently I talk to my fish when I catch them. These days I mostly try to catch up on sleep because I am lucky – most of my work involves a lot of exciting things to do with one or more of my hobbies.