Christmas cheers: Dr James Smith curates RealScientists


Hi, I’m RealScientists admin James Smith. You might remember me from such posts as ‘All the blog posts Upulie didn’t write’, and ‘Hey, these [Admin] tweets aren’t awkward at all!’. This week, however, sees my most challenging role yet: getting to do what I’ve been privileged to watch nearly fifty other researchers and communicators do since RealScientists kicked off in February of this year. I’m your curator for the next week. Merry Christmas.

Spirit Animal

The author and his spirit animal

Given the Christmas-New Year period is a bit like the midnight-to-dawn graveyard shift on radio, we really felt it wasn’t fair putting one of our enthusiastic applicant curators in for this week. Also – dammit – the team behind RealScientists have a lot of real science we can talk about. Between Upulie, Sarah, Renee, Bernard (our silent partner) and myself we have a prodigious history of bench research and teaching, science communication, research admin and related experience in pretty much any and every career path you can forge in and around science.

That’s certainly the case with me. BSc Hons in molecular parasitology at the University of NSW; PhD in developmental biology at the newly-minted Institute for Molecular Biosciences (also where our friend Marga Gual Soler completed her PhD), Uni of Queensland; then a headlong mashup of technical sales, undergrad teaching, research grant administration, postdoc research in evo-devo at Otago Uni, and stay-at-home househusbandry – in amongst moving countries, getting married, starting a family, and having a minor run-in with cancer – before being coaxed out of ‘retirement’ (OK being coaxed off the couch from watching ESPN) to become Research Manager for the Sir John Walsh Research Institute, a Research Centre of the University of Otago.

What’s the SJWRI do? We’ll get to that. Basically, all the research you can imagine fitting into the remit of a (NZ’s only) Faculty of Dentistry, from public health & epidemiology to microbiology to immunopathology to materials science. It’s about as broad and diverse a portfolio of research as you can imagine fitting into the same building, which makes it very cool.

What’s a Research Manager do? Pretty much all the things those other jobs on my CV do, mashed up into one do-everything role. Research – understanding the work of everyone in the Institute and how that fits more broadly into the local/international research landscape. Teaching – helping to mentor postgrad research students like PhDs through the process of becoming proper grown-up scientists. Selling – not to the researchers, but selling the researchers and their research to the funding bodies and the stakeholders of that research. (Which is everyone in the country, if you take a broad enough view.) Administration – because people who are good at research usually suck at stuff like keeping their research accounts in order and getting their funding applications in on time. Plus a huge wad of science writing, web stuff, event management and marketing & communications.

It’s actually a lot of fun, but it’s the sort of job you kinda have to make for yourself, around your particular skillset. Someone else would do this job completely differently. One of the themes I’d like to get to this week, is how YOU – in particular the research students amongst our followers – find those opportunities to broaden your skillset to make you more employable down the track. You may be a gun bench scientist, but if you have a bunch of other things you can do – and be recognised for doing them – it’s going to make your long term employment prospects a little more secure.

We’ll get to that, and the state of the research funding environment, and what we can all do to reinforce the role of science in society, and what goes on behind the scenes of RealScientists, and a bunch of other fun stuff. Really, though, I just want to trigger a few discussions, spark a few thoughts, but in as suitably laid back a manner as the season dictates.

And above all that, I and the rest of Team RealScientists want you all to have a relaxing, safe and enjoyable holiday this Christmas, or personally relevant seasonal spiritual/cultural festivity.


Such a great Chemistry – thanks and farewell, Chad Jones

This week at Real Scientists, Chad Jones of @TheCollapsedPsi podcast fame tackle some big questions in science and science communication head-on.  One of the biggest issues in science communication is combating popular perceptions of  scientific terms, for example: Is everything a chemical?


Chad coordinated a huge discussion about this (will be available in the Storify shortly) and even put together a Youtube video for a longer explanation:

It’s one of the bugbears of scientists: pointing out that “everything is a chemical”  technically speaking, rather than substances communal perceived to be toxic chemicals,, but as Chad points out, it’s not always true to make that generalisation.  It’s of the challenges of science communication.

Chad also took us round his lab and allowed us to virtually play with his lab toys, like this 4.7 T magnet:


You can never have too many magnets on Real Scientists.  So please thank Chad for his huge week tweeting for us with such clarity and verve, especially while unwell, and for sharing your work and music with us.  You can follow Chad’s continuing adventures on twitter at @TheCollapsedPsi and his podcast and blog.


This week also saw the revelation of what the Insect Isengard/Insect Stonenhenge structures discovered by graduate student Troy Alexander were all about, as promised by last week’s Real Scientists curators, Phil Torres and Lary Reeves.

© Wired

© Wired

The structure is a carefully guarded egg sac by an as yet unidentified spider.  The hatchling finally emerged just before Phil and Lary left Tambopata, as the entire structure collapsed to reveal a tiny spider.  It’s an amazing structure, but still more amazing given the amount of effort that’s required to make this structure, as spiders don’t usually put this much effort in to take care of single babies, but, rather, produce many to increase chances of a few surviving. You can read all about the exciting discovery at Wired and io9.

Supra-man – Chad Jones joins Real Scientists

After an exciting week in the field – and how good is the Amazon as a place for field work – we must return, as always to the lab to really get to the essence of things [Ed: biased author of post is a molecular biologist].  We are delighted to welcome our next curator, physical chemist Chad Jones of Brigham Young University in Utah.  Chad/@TheCollapsedPsi is a graduate student and podcaster, co-hosting the podcast The Collapsed Wave Function can be found via his blog of the same name.

had earned his Bachelor of Science in Chemistry at Weber State University. His brother “told me I wasn’t smarty enough to get a BS in Chemistry. I wanted to prove him wrong.”  Chad went on to Brigham and Young to pursue higher studies,  where he researches gas phase conformations of supramolecular complexes. What to know what supramolecular complexes are? Tune in to the tweets 🙂



As well as bringing up three boys, who “are currently experiencing the unique upbringing that comes with having a science nerd for a father;” Chad ended up in science because:

“..because I became passionate about it during my college years. I never saw myself as a scientist. I thought I was going to be a musician. Things changed. I think sometimes people think they have to say things like “ever since I was a boy I wanted to be a …” to prove they are passionate about something. To me the opposite is true. If your dreams and passions today are the same today as they were 15 years ago that could be a sign that you’re not working on them at all.  Passions change. Dreams change. Career ambitions change.  Some people do have the same dream job from childhood to adulthood. That’s great for them, but you shouldn’t be ashamed of that’s not the case for you”

Chad started his blog in 2011, and since then has won awards for his science communication, written articles and become an expert in the subject of chemistry for He is a passionate advocate for science education and communication and we are privileged to have him on board at Real Scientists.

And what does Chad like to outside the lab?

“Music is still a hobby of mine. I don’t imagine myself add a famous rock star anymore, but I still like to play guitar when time allows. Not nearly as much as in high school. I played guitar 6-10 hours per day for many years. I would skip school to play and write songs with friends. I also like biking and hiking. Utah has some beautiful mountains that many here just ignore.”

Please welcome Chad Jones/@TheCollapsedPsi to Real Scientists!

Back to the Jungle: Thank you Lary Reeves and Phil Torres

It’s been quite a week at Real Scientists as Phil Torres teamed up with Lary Reeves in the Peruvian Amazon and brought us a week chock-full of the most awesome animal spottings and a feel for what field work in one of the planet’s most important tropical rain forests is like.

We were treated, after some slightly terrifying photos of clawless-scorpions-on-faces, real macaws in the wild:

Macaws in the wild, copyright Phil Torres

Macaws in the wild, copyright Phil Torres

The parade of  insects began with a greeting from our insect overlord:


Our Probosciid Grasshopper Overlord, © Lary Reeves

Our Probosciid Grasshopper Overlord, © Lary Reeves

Thing © Phillip Torres

Thing © Phillip Torres

And many, many glorious monkey shots:



We got an awesome insight into field work as the crew climbed up trees, into mud pits and wandered the jungle in daylight and night time to search for new species, new samples and new animal behaviours – while ill, in Lary’s case.

Brothers in Arms: This is Phil carrying Lary because Lary cannot get his legs wet © Phil Torres

Brothers in Arms: This is Phil carrying Lary because Lary cannot get his legs wet © Phil Torres

So thank you, Lary and Phil for such an entertaining week – straight from the jungle:

Besties: Lary and Phil

Besties: Lary and Phil

There were also many other critters, including many spiders and frogs and more monkeys. So thank you, Lary and Phil for another spectacular week live front he jungle. Be sure to checkout the Storifys if you missed out on any of the tweets: Storify Part 1  Part 2 . 

And then, of course, there was this: coming tantalisingly close to discovering what critter makes these:

© Phillip Torres

© Phillip Torres


Unfortunately due to circumstances out of our control, Phil and Lary weren’t able to make their big announcement about the strange structures first reported by Wired during their time on RS.  However,  keep following Real Scientists and we’ll be sure to update you when the story breaks officially!

You can  follow the continuing adventures of Lary on twitter at @BioDiversiLary and Phil at @phil_torres.  You can also find out more about the Tambopata project and work at Peru Nature  because we, too:

© Phillip Torres

© Phillip Torres



Dark Matters: Thanks and Farewell, Bryan Gaensler

It’s been a huge week at @realscientists, as Prof. Bryan Gaensler, director of Australia’s ARC Centre of Excellence for All-sky Astrophysics agency for astrophysics tweeted up a storm.


“here’s everything I need to stay busy, sane, & on top of the cosmos” – Prof Gaensler (C)

In fact, it’s been pretty epic: Bryan managed to travel both interstate and overseas, visit  Mount Stromlo’s destroyed telescope, manage multiple meetings AND several hugely engaging debates and conversations from science, academia and writing that drew responses from scientists and non-scientists alike.


The remains of Mt Stromlo’s Observatory. Image copyright Prof. Bryan Gaensler

One of the most interesting debates surrounded the issue of sexism, both implicit and overt in science, particularly the physical sciences and the insecure nature of the academic life.  Prof Gaensler talked a lot about ways of overcoming some of the barriers preventing women from entering or progressing up the ladder in the physical science. You can find these debates, including some great conversations about Dark Matter and Dark Energy, in the Storifys: Part 1Part 2Part 3 and Part 4. We thank Bryan for his huge effort in tweeting and engagement while travelling cross-country and the planet!  We wish you all good things for your research. You can follow Bryan’s continuing adventures at his regular account, @SciBry and the CAASTRO work on Facebook.

And we were delighted to see Real Scientists hit the 7000 follower mark, which means that your humble correspondent will have to do cartwheels in celebration. A huge thank you to the entire Real Scientists community for your continuing support.


Next up: The Return of Phil Torres!

Welcome (back) to the jungle: Phil Torres and Lary Reeves tweet for us from the Peruvian Amazon


Earlier in the year we had conservation biologist, entomologist and all-round good guy Phil Torres tweeting for us from his adventures in the jungles of Peru, which was implausibly brilliant. Those of you who were with us in March will remember Phil; here’s a link to the bio post we put together at the time, Upulie‘s forlorn farewell post, and the superb Storify archive of Phil’s week on the account, assembled by Sarah. For those who’ve joined us since then, and missed out: you’re in luck. Phil’s back. And this time he brought company. Joining Phil in exploring the Amazonian wilderness – and in curating RealScientists this coming week – is University of Florida graduate student Lary Reeves, aka @BioDiversiLary.


Lary’s interests are in conservation biology and biodiversity, which he’s studied in systems as (bio)diverse as flying foxes, butterflies and tortoises, from Florida to New York to the Phillippines. Like Phil – and colleague/mentor/fellow former curator Dr Andy Warren – Lary’s research passion is finding and identifying rare and novel insect species. Occasionally, with his face.


While this will be Lary’s first stint on RealScientists, it’s not his first stint in the Amazon. He comes prepared…

…so there’s not much else to say but prepare yourselves for another amazing week of live-tweeted fieldwork on RealScientists!

We are the 95%: welcome Professor Bryan Gaensler to RealScientists

Sturgeon’s Law (1958) states that 90% of everything is crap. This was first posited for bad science fiction, but is now thought to apply equally to everything in modern culture, apart from Nickelback albums, which are 100% crap; hewn with craftsman-like care from a single billet of purest weapons-grade crap. Worryingly, the Universe itself is more than 90% crap. Well, not so much crap, as stuff we know next to nowt about: dark matter, and dark energy. As Professor Bryan Gaensler of the University of Sydney said earlier this year in the Fairfax press, ’95 per cent of the universe is made of dark energy and dark matter, and we have no idea what they are.’ Professor Gaensler is an Australian Laureate Fellow at USyd, founding Director of the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for All-sky Astrophysics (CAASTRO), author of popular astronomy book Extreme Cosmos, former Young Australian Of The Year, connoisseur of science fiction (presumably including the 90% which is crap), Manly Sea Eagles NRL supporter (booooo!), and as of this week, curator of zero-percent-crap, all-killer-no-filler science rotation-curation account RealScientists. Huzzah!


Prof Gaensler is a Sydneysider by birth and upbringing, and a USyd graduate by training. Having previously held positions at MIT, the Smithsonian Institution and Harvard University, he returned to USyd in 2006 as a Federation Fellow, before being appointed the foundation Director of CAASTRO. His research focuses on the origin of magnetism in interstellar space, the demographics of neutron stars and black holes in our Milky Way, and the identification of transient sources of radio emission. His list of awards and accolades is as long as your arm, particularly if your name is Mr Tickle; aside from the above, he gave the 2001 Australia Day Address to the nation, was a 2005 Alfred P Sloan Research Fellow, is a winner of the Pierce Prize (2006) and the Pawsey Medal (2011), and in 2013 was elected as a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science. He has authored over 240 scientific papers (including first author papers in both Nature and Science) with more than 10,000 citations and an H-index of 60. He is also a passionate communicator and educator, having published dozens of articles in newspapers and magazines of science and innovation, while Extreme Cosmos was published worldwide by Penguin in July 2012 and has subsequently been translated into Japanese, Polish, Italian and German. Check out his personal homepage on the USyd website, where he talks more about his research:

As Director of CAASTRO, I am working to establish Australia as the world-leader in wide-field radio and optical astronomy. The CAASTRO team aims to answer major unsolved problems in astronomy, to develop innovative ways of processing enormous data-sets, and to enable a diverse set of opportunities for students and early career researchers. By bringing Australia’s top astronomers together into a focused collaboration, CAASTRO aims to cement Australia’s reputation as an international leader in astrophysical research, and to build unique expertise in wide-field radio and optical astronomy. CAASTRO also aims to position Australia to lead the science programmes planned for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), a radio telescope for the 21st century that will answer fundamental questions about the origin and evolution of the Universe.

As a Laureate Fellow, I aim to use the unique capabilities of the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) to conduct the Polarisation Sky Survey of the Universe’s Magnetism (POSSUM). POSSUM is based around an effect called “Faraday rotation”, in which light from a background object is subtly changed when it passes through a cloud of magnetised gas. By measuring the Faraday rotation in the emission from millions of distant galaxies over 70% of the sky, POSSUM aims to transform our understanding of magnetic fields in galaxies, clusters and in diffuse intergalactic gas, and to thus address key unanswered questions on Milky Way ecology, galaxy evolution and cosmology. The data from POSSUM will provide a substantial legacy to the astronomical community, while the new instrumentation required for this project will test the technology needed for the SKA.

He also gets interviewed a lot, so if you’d like to learn more about him, take your pick from the below….
…Or just stay tuned to the RealScientists Twitter feed this week and let Bryan tell you himself!

Saving the world, one plate of chips at a time: thanks and farewell, Dr Hannah Thompson

Dr Hannah Thompson aka @halften/@DoctorSpudly was our curator for the last set of seven on RealScientists. Hannah’s a plant pathologist who’s looking at making the sideways move into research-led policy, which instigated some welcome debate over what constitutes a ‘scientist’ – the narrow (some would say* prescriptive, exclusionary and naive) view that only active bench scientists can call themselves scientists, to the broader view that anyone who does, uses or advocates for science is a scientist, that it’s less a job description, more a mindset or a calling.

*I would say. Loudly. Even if not specifically asked.

Hannah also made the case very strongly for why her field is so important:


I reckon so. If you missed any of Hannah’s curation, catch up on Storify. Keep following her on her own account(s), and keep following RealScientists – next week we have Australian astrophysicist Professor Bryan Gaensler, aka @SciBry!