Engaged to Science – Sam Askin joins Real Scientists

After a splendid week (when is it not) following the Boston adventures of physicist Seth Zenz, we return to the Souther Hemisphere for our next curator; biochemist, science communicator and founder of Sciengage, Sam Askin/@samaskin.
Sam hails from the North Queensland town of Townsville, born and bred. Townsville is next to the Great Barrier Reef and home to James Cook University.  Sam was always interested in science while in school, but was torn between choosing science or communication design. After deciding on science – “in the end science won because it didn’t ask me for a portfolio!” – he had a bit of a bumpy ride picking a specialisation until he hit his stride in 3rd year.  From being bad at chemistry in high school, he ended up as a protein chemist.  Sam’s first child was also born just before his final exams.
..”that was an experience! I’ll just say that he wasn’t one of those “sleep all the time” babies. Still, I smashed those exams, and was ready to do whatever it took to support my new family, in or out of science. “
“..I had no intention of doing honours because..but one of my lecturers had obviously seen something in me and convinced me to do the course. I have now been in that same lab for over five years, as an undergrad volunteer, and honours student, and now a research assistant. I have been lucky enough that my boss has essentially handed me post-doc responsibilities despite my not ever undertaking a PhD, and as such I have managed my research projects largely independently, and have been very involved in building the the lab to where it is today. “
What does your research involve?
“Over my tenure I have developed a fluorescence-based protease activity assay (my honours project), a new quasi-universal diagnostic detection platform based on real-time PCR, an affinity-tag-based protein quantification assay, and am now working on protein charactiersation and drug discovery using a whole range of biochemical assays, including a new, high-throughput assay developed in-house. I am working on proteins called biotin ligases, which are critical to eukaryotic and bacterial life, and how they can be targeted in diseases like Tuberculosis and Melioidosis. “
However, Sam’s lab is an example of what can happen in the fickle space of science funding. The lab went from a million-dollar grant to zero in three years, seven staff to zero.
“The entire foundation now having to be rebuilt from scratch as all of our team moves on. I am now stuck in that space many scientists fear but is part and parcel of the industry; the no-contract-what-will-I-do-now-space. Fortunately, during my time at JCU I discovered science communication, and @realscientists, and Twitter! While new to the space, I saw some gaps as I was trying to find people and resources, and went about trying to think of ways that I could address those gaps…”
Cue the birth of Sciengage. So why Sciengage, and why this particular format?
“My vision was to create a single online space that people new to science, or without a vested interest (or with one), or with any level of curiosity, could come and discover many of the awesome science resources already out there. It seemed better to bring this to the world than to try to be another resource telling the same awesome science stories. I also am implementing some intitiatives and talking to some great organisations about filling other gaps in science engagement. I blog on things that follow this space too; consolidating awesome posts on particular topics, areas of the online world science is yet to fully tap into, featuring science art, and science research that doesn’t grab the biggest headlines.”
So, where to next?
“My journey through science is still young but has had its share of twists and turns already…The next month is going to be a big one for me. I am unemployed within a couple of weeks with nothing but a fledgling science startup to boast… who knows what I may end up doing next!?”
Please welcome protein biochemist and founder of Sciengage, Sam Askin!

A Particle-y Good Week – Thank you and Farewell Seth Zenz

This week at Real Scientists, we got the serious lowdown on everything you ever wanted to know about all things CERN and LHC. Tweeting from a conference in Boston on jet physics (which is nothing to do with planes), Seth provided us with a veritable jet of information for this past week. Despite some serious jet (the plane kind) lag, Seth was answering ALL of the questions we had about the Large Hadron Collider, the Higgs boson and particle physics. There were also some fascinating insights into dark matter, dark energy, supersymmetry, gravity… so generally just all the incredible physics to blow your tiny mind to sub-atomic particle-sized pieces.


Seth rocking a CERN Google Hangout

In addition to particle physics were some discussions on topics including what constitutes a scientific question, and the funding of blue sky or fundamental research as opposed to the more applicable or industrially relevant sciences. The storify of Seth’s week will be available shortly is here. Keep up with Seth and his explorations in physics by following him @SethZenz.

CERN comes to Real Scientists – Dr Seth Zenz

The search for the particles and forces responsible for the modern universe is an ongoing one, and qne of the most venerable and prestigious organisations dedicated to accomplishing this task is CERN.  CERN was founded in 1954 as the world’s largest particle physics laboratory, and now houses multiple particle accelerators, as well as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), possibly one of the most advanced instruments humans have ever built.  As we all know, two major experiments run thy the LHC provided evidence for the existence of the elusive Higgs Boson in 2012, in one of the most exciting scientific announcements in recent times.



So we are absolutely delighted to welcome Dr Seth Zenz (@sethzenz),  Dicke Fellow in the Princeton Physics Department, to Real Scientists. An American abroad, Seth works on the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) detector at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva, Switzerland.  We first met Seth when he hosted curator Marga Gual Soler when she visited the LHC last year while hosting Real Scientists

Seth will be at a new techniques in physics conference while he tweets for us.  For more background on the CMS experiment and his science, here’s Seth in his own words:

The LHC has now started to answer one of the great outstanding problems in particle physics: what is the origin of the masses of the W and Z bosons and the tremendous differences between the electromagnetic and weak forces? The Standard Model (SM) of particle physics explains this via the Higgs Mechanism, which predicts a particle called the Higgs Boson. In 2012, the CMS experiment observed a particle, with a mass of about 125 GeV/c2, that decays to pairs of photons or Z bosons at approximately the rate predicted. But is it really the SM Higgs Boson?

To answer this question, Seth is major contributor to the CMS search for Higgs decays into pairs of bottom quarks, focusing on Higgs production in association with a W boson.  The latest results of this search, the most sensitive yet, have come tantalizingly close to providing evidence for this decay, but a definitive discovery will require new techniques and new data.  To this end, he currently focuses on the development of the search in the presence of very high collision rates, working toward planned upgrades of the LHC and CMS.  These studies make heavy use of the internal structure of hadronic jets, for example by optimizing the rejection of additional collisions, identifying displaced decay vertices of bottom-containing particles, and potentially using the substructure of merged jets when the Higgs has very high momentum.

Precision tracking of charged particles is critical to understanding these jet properties within the Higgs analysis. Seth works on the operation and maintenance of the CMS Pixel Detector, a high-precision silicon tracking device at the core of CMS, as well as measurements and modeling of the radiation damage that limits the Pixels’ longevity in the intense LHC environment. He brings to bear his Ph.D. thesis results on jet properties measured with charged particle tracks and graduate work at UC Berkeley on the initial testing, calibration, and operation of the ATLAS experiment Pixel Detector.

Seth engages with the public about his work, and the broader enterprise of experimental particle physics through the international Quantum Diaries blog; as a host, organizer, and contributor to CERN’s Google+ Hangouts; and on Twitter.

Please welcome Dr Seth Zenz to Real Scientists!

Crowdsource This: Thank you and Farewell Ethan Perlstein

For the past week Real Scientists have had the pleasure of hosting Ethan Perlstein, where we were treated to tweets about  drug discovery, genetics, orphan disease advocacy, evolutionary pharmacology, fundraising for research and more!

Networking is a crucial part of science, and as a ‘small science’ businessman, it is an area in which Ethan has particular expertise. From the should-be-obvious (be sure to display your nametag prominently), to the slightly more nuanced (spend time making one or two solid connections rather than flitting around like a butterfly), Ethan precipitated a discussion about networking which brought forth some excellent advice applicable to anyone wanting to expand their networks at a conference or meeting.

Hello! My name is...

Hello! My name is…

Ethan also gave us an insight into the relatively new service of lab benches for hire. Laboratory based sciences are so infrastructure hungry it can be difficult to get started if, like Ethan, you aren’t already employed by a university or research organisation.

Finally, as we all know, you can’t SCIENTS without moneys, and Ethan also spent a lot of the week meeting with investors and pitching, pitching pitching. So thank you Ethan for making small science big for us this week, and be sure to keep up with his adventures on twitter at @eperlste. Psst, we even hear that @PerlsteinLab might be hiring soon!

Catch up on anything you missed on storify, and next up, someone you’ll CERNtainly be interested to hear from – Seth Zenz, a physicist who works at the LHC.

A Scientist of Independent Means – Ethan Perlstein joins Real Scientists

Once upon a time, a scientist was an independent being: a man (more often than not) of independent means who was able to pursue his curiosity about the natural world and fund his own research.  Dirac was the last of these gentleman scientists, until the advent of the modern grant system run by governments world wide. But times are changing.

The word is out: science funding in Western countries is decreasing or stagnant, funding to universities is in decline, we’re producing more PhDs than we have jobs for.  It’s harder for young scientists to break into the funding cycle, year after year, established labs struggle to stay afloat. Scientists are rethinking their career trajectories and looking for new ways to fund their work.

So what’s a keen young scientist to do? Strike out on your own, of course! Which is what our next curator, Dr Ethan Perlstein/@eperlste did.



Ethan started out working in laboratories while in high school. He ended up pursuing sociology at Columbia University, but moved into molecular biology for this graduate work at Harvard:

 I was always interested in science from the time I was kid. In the summer before college (1997), I interned at the National Institutes of Health. That was my first real taste of basic research — and I got hooked. Although I didn’t major in a hard science (I actually majored in sociology), I went straight to grad school after college and didn’t look back.

After his doctorate, Ethan gained a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship at Princeton, where he managed a lab for five years, researching the effects of anti-depressants on yeast.  He began to establish a field he calls evolutionary pharmacology.   
The more I learned about drug discovery as a young grad student, the more I saw an appeal. I’ve always sought out areas of research that balance curiosity-driven and applied impulses. For example, a small-molecule drug can be used to dissect basic cellular processes in the lab but may also have therapeutic promise in people. I like that two-for-one aspect.
Following his postdoctorate at Princeton, Ethan applied for many jobs, unsuccessfully (more about this process here).  He still wanted to carry on his research in this novel field. Having joined twitter prior to his job-hunt, Ethan had a network to toss ideas around and an understanding of how to go about promoting his work. He decided to the only solution strike out on his own.  So began a successful crowd-funding campaign that allowed Ethan to  begin his own independent laboratory
I chose to become an independent scientist/biotech entrepreneur in part because my prospects for landing a coveted tenure-track position and securing sustainable grant funding were slim, but also because the balance between basic and applied I had sought shifted decidedly toward applied when I became aware of the enormous unmet medical needs in orphan/rare diseases, which is the core mission of Perlstein Lab.
So why choose yeast as a model organism for studying the effects of drugs?  Why not other model organisms?
In grad school and during my independent postdoc, I worked mostly with yeast for all the reasons that other researchers gravitate to it as a model organism — genetic tractability, ease of use, community effects, etc. Now as I push forward with my new venture, Perlstein Lab, I’m throwing three other primordial animal models into the mix — worm, fly and fish.
So do you think independently funded science is the way forward? What do you think of ventures like GenSpace in NYC?
I’m very excited by community biolabs like GenSpace. I actually looked into joining one in the Bay Area after I relocated here from the East Coast last Spring. I ended up joining the professional biotech incubator QB3 because my resource needs were greater than what is currently available in a community biolab setting. But I think the line is becoming increasingly blurred as the coalition of professionally trained scientists and citizen scientists reaches critical mass.
What do you do in your spare time?
Being a founder of a biotech startup is a full-time job! But I always carve out some time for basketball, hiking and yoga. 
What advice would you give to other scientists contemplating this path?
When I saw the writing on the academic wall, I realized that I would no longer benefit from an institutional affiliation. In other words, I’d have to start doing all of my own marketing, branding and networking. The very first step in this process was joining Twitter in early 2011, and then seeking out communities of mutual interest. I also started creating a robust online presence with a science blog and lab website.
So the independent scientist has returned,  but this time, with crowd-sourced funding: everyone’s invited.
Going indie is my Plan B! So there’s no looking back now..
Please welcome Dr Ethan Perlstein to Real Scientists!


Merry New Molecular Year! Upulie Divisekera curating for Real Scientists

Greetings, Real Scientists followers!

Welcome back after our little hiatus, we hope you managed to have a little end-of-year-break before you headed back to work after the holiday season.  In Australia and in many research institutions, this often means a shutdown over the Christmas period and many are going back to work tomorrow.  Warm New Year greetings and wishes to you! We at Real Scientists hope this year will be a great one for you.

Which brings us to our first Real Scientists curator for 2014, another Real Scientists admin staffer, Upulie Divisekera. Yes, that’s me.  You may remember me from such posts as “the ones James didn’t write” and “sorry I haven’t replied to your email yet.”  I’m James’ New Year period equivalent.  We estimate the official end of the graveyard shift as next week, when we will be joined by star biologist Ethan O. Perlstein.

As James said in his post, between the Real Scientists curators of Sarah Keenihan, James Smith, Renee Webster, and silent partner Bernard, there’s a wealth of bench, administration, communication and writing experience between us. I’m a molecular biologist currently moonlighting in a chemical engineering lab (the engineers wouldn’t touch the biological project) who’s been through a variety of research labs as a research assistant, in everything from parasitology to cancer immunology and nanotechnology.  I’ve also had a brief stint in evo-devo like James, for my Masters.  And now I find myself doing a lot of science communication on the side.


So I will have a go at my least favourite things:  writing a bio for myself!

I’m an Australian of Sri Lankan descent and grew up in Hobart and Melbourne, Melbourne is very much my home town. I spent a few years in Sri Lanka from the age of 10-13. I’d always been crazy about science, from a young age.  Like most kids I started out with a fascination for space exploration and fossils and dinosaurs, and while I’ve ended up in molecular biology, these things have always been side interests that have never left me.  My parents trained in economics and were unable to answer my questions about all things scientific, much to my despair, but always encouraged me in my interests and even bought me a toy microscope which I treasured as a 10 year old. When I was 11, my father ended up working for a research institute which was the best thing to ever happen to me, because it meant there were people I could ask questions from and actually have them answered.  The newly created Institute of Fundamental Studies in Kandy, Sri Lanka, was under the Directorship of Sri Lanka’s most famous scientist at the time: Professor Cyril Ponnamperuma, who led the team that studied the moon rocks bought by Apollo 11.  This made him a god in my eyes: he had worked for NASA!  Prof. Ponnamperuma was a biochemist and it was the first time the word entered into my vocabulary.  Not only was he a great scientist, but he was a great communicator and strongly believed in making the institute a place for all kind of people. He set up outreach programs and seminars on science and the arts, installed a poet laureate for the institute, and created free programs for high school students which included field trips. And I was allowed to go to a lot of these programs.  So as an 11 year old I got to see my first Atomic Force Microscope and X-ray Diffractometer, though I didn’t fully understand what they were for. He was a great role model and mentor.

I was always interested in astronomy and planned to be an astronomer, to follow in Prof. Ponnamperuma’s footsteps, but someone put a book on molecular biology in my hands at 13 and I was hooked. I stopped thinking about spectra and started dreaming about genetic engineering.  After moving back to Australia, I ended up sticking with molecular biology, and completed my Honours in molecular parasitology at the University of Melbourne with Prof. Malcolm McConville.  Molecular biology turned out to be a great set of tools that I could take to any field of biological research. I worked at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute with Dr Lorraine O’Reilly and Prof Andreas Strasser for a few years on the molecular genetics of cancer and apoptosis before heading off to Canberra to work with Prof. Robert Saint on fruit flies.  I ended up converting the PhD I started there and returned to Melbourne.  Most recently, I worked at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, where I worked on cancer immunology and therapeutics with Assoc. Prof John Stagg and Prof. Mark Smyth, some of the most rewarding research I’ve ever done.  Now I’m based at a university where I work on bioengineering, changing my research spots again, I guess, with some very challenging work.

In the past few years, I’ve branched out into science communication on the side, finding myself writing articles, doing a TEDx talk and other things which has made me an enthusiastic advocate for training scientists to communicate with their work and to increase our engagement with the public. I look forward to your questions this week!

Thank you to Dr James Smith – before he fades back into the shadows

Merry New Year! Those of you who have been keeping up with us know most of the Real Scientists admin-types are based in Australia in different cities, where there tends to be a bit of a long shutdown over the Christmas-New Year period.  With the advent of the holidays season, we felt it would be unfair to schedule one of our curators on, so we decided to take on the tweeting ourselves – and Dr James Smith, one of our administrators, blog writers and our go-to graphics guy came to our rescue.  Which was terrific in many ways – not only did we get to know James a lot better, but we got some gold-class discussions on science, the false separation of science from humanities and where a science career can take you, to name just a few topics traversed.  


James love for evo-devo (evolution and development) came like a lightning bolt from the sky in the form of a skilled biology 101 lecturer. One lecture and he was hooked on it for life. Ending up with a molecular biology degree and moving to Queensland to pursue a PhD in an evo-devo lab, James met his wife and one of our former curators, Dr Meg Wilson there.  After some more wrestling with research, James ended up leaving the lab, to work with researchers in a non-laboratory role:


ImageThe course of a scientific career never runs smooth. But the some of the best discussions of the week – apart from some excellent primers on molecular biology and developmental biology, and how to think about your PhD (we’ll have the Storifys of these discussions up soon) came from James’ engagement with the humanities. Too often, the sciences and the humanities are regarded as twains that will never meet, but James’ own background and experiences show how the critical thinking and analytical skills applied in both fields of knowledge can feed into each other and enhance the way we think about our research, whatever field it’s in.  Hopefully, with the changing nature of science careers and the increasing engagement with the sciences will result in more discussion and unique work.  On that note, here is one of the beautiful sciencey books Dr Smith was putting together for his sons:


So thank you so much James, for the brilliant discussions, taking time out from your holidays to tweet for us (and thanks Dr Megs!) and sorry the internet connections in rural NSW were not friendly to you.  Hmm. Maybe we should have you on again sometime soon.


We here at Real Scientists would like to thank you for supporting us over the course of our first year in 2013. It’s been a blast – a privilege and a pleasure to run this site and to host so many fantastic curators.  We look forward to your support and engagement over 2014.