Salty polymers & plastic added metals: Adam Micolich joins Real Scientists

Stuck at a deskTaking over @RealScientists this week we are thrilled to welcome Associate Professor Adam Micolich from the very impressive sounding Condensed Matter Physics Nanoelectronics Group at the University of New South Wales (UNSW). Keen followers of Real Scientists might remember him from the photo tour of the UNSW given by one of the previous resident tweeters the Museum of human disease.

Adam has had an intresting route into science from technical drawing to flying planes and dealing with fractal art. In addition to all that he also runs his own youtube channel and chats about the trials and tribulations of academia in his blog. Both of which you should check out, but before you do please read through Adam’s own mini-autobiography where he expands on all these subjects.

I work in the School of Physics at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia — the other big university in Sydney and I’d say, the better and more modern one 😛 I am a physicist by training but would say I’m now more of a nanotechnologist, as my interests extend a bit beyond what many purists would consider physics. My research is on nanoscale electronic devices: how to make them, how to use new materials in them, how they work and how they might ultimately get used, be it in computers or as tools for biology. A big focus of my last four years has been research, as I’ve been on an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship; but I also have a keen interest in teaching and science communication. Now that I’m back in a more traditional academic role, I’m picking up those bits again – they’re often as fun as research, perhaps more so. I have my own youtube channel where I post videos of some of the experiments I show in lectures and a blog where I sometimes post on issues in academia.

I probably had a fairly typical childhood for a scientist — generally curious, wanted to know how things work, found science interesting at school. But, I wasn’t always so devoted to science as many might expect – it was always an interest amongst other things. Early on I wanted to be a radio host (still do some days…) and used my first electronics kit to build a radio transmitter and run a radio station out of my own bedroom, sadly to zero listeners. In high school, science competed with computing and technical drawing for my interests – the latter almost convinced me to abandon science at the end of my first year of university to do architecture instead (the paperwork was too onerous, so I gave physics one more year and just kept going).

Even still, I didn’t end up in science directly. I was always keen on aviation, and after several years in the Air Training Corps (aka Australian Air Force Cadets) I left school to take a position at the Australian Defence Force Academy as a trainee pilot. This didn’t work out so well – I got dropped out for medical issues (the fitness requirements for pilots are fierce) – and so I transferred back to UNSW in Sydney to do my plan B, which was physics. I did learn to fly a plane though, which was great fun, and if I have the money some day I might go back to flying for fun. Needless to say, when my job has me flying on small planes I’m very happy (the best was probably a flight down the Florida keys in a plane without a cockpit door, so you could see straight out the front windows).

Coming into university my initial interest was astronomy, as it is for many, but I quickly got a bit disillusioned by it — too much image processing for me. The time where I found my passion in physics was in 3rd year when we started doing proper laboratory experiments. The practical side of physics is something I’ve always liked, and something I spent lots of time tinkering around with as a kid: lego, electronics kits, etc. My parents refused to buy me a chemistry kit as they thought I’d burn the house down! They bought me a physics kit instead – which was just as dangerous. Before long I had a summer vacation scholarship at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) and I was well and truly hooked on experimental physics. The following year I did a research project on nanoscale electronic devices, and I’ve been working in that area ever since – more or less…

I did my Ph.D. working on nanoscale semiconductor devices called ‘billiards’, which are basically just tiny pool tables where the balls are electrons. The idea was to study how the wavelike nature of the electron influences how it bounces off edges in devices, looking for new phenomena that might be of practical interest in future electronics. We were interested in how chaos theory might be involved in the dynamics of the electrons (studying chaos in wave-particles is a field called ‘quantum chaos’) and my Ph.D. thesis explored how this turns up as fractal structures in measurements of the current that flows through the device. More about how this works in the week on @realscientists…

My Ph.D. project led to a side project with my supervisor where we looked at whether the famous drip paintings of the American abstract artist, Jackson Pollock, were fractal. Little did I know, but my supervisor had returned to physics a year or two earlier from an extended break that involved being an art school student in the UK (he was always torn between the two: physics and art). Suddenly he had a student who was good at writing computer code, legacy of a childhood that began with an Atari 2600 and ended with a Commodore 64, and together we set about analysing scanned images of Pollock artwork. We showed that there are fractals in Pollock’s work, which lead to a lot of media attention. Ironically, despite my best research efforts, that side project is still the thing I’m most known for. Such is life…

CleanroomSince then I have worked on lots of aspects of a field people tend to call ‘device physics’. Half of this has been pure curiosity-driven ‘basic’ research including things like how electrons behave when confined to two-dimensions, one-dimension or zero-dimensions at very low temperatures and high magnetic fields. The devices are tiny, with features as small as 10 nanometers, and made in a cleanroom to avoid issues with dust, contaminants, etc. The temperatures, as low as a hundredth of a degree above absolute zero, are amongst the coldest in the universe when we do these experiments, and the magnetic fields are large enough to drag small metal objects around the lab if you aren’t careful. The goal is to better understand how electrons behave in nanoscale devices so we can use that knowledge as the foundation for future technologies. The other half of my work has been more applied research, including projects looking at how to add metals to plastics to make them superconducting (the process is a little like inking a tattoo) and how to make nanoscale transistors where we can control the current using a salty polymer gel. Curiously, the gel happens to also be one of the key ingredients in laxatives 🙂

nanowire transistor

My job now is basically an interesting mish-mash of research, teaching and other stuff – some of which includes science communication. I spend a lot less time in the lab now, which is mostly the domain of my team of talented young scientists, but I tend to make the odd cameo appearance when life gets tricky or we’re kick-starting a new project. I just finished teaching introductory quantum mechanics for 2nd year students at UNSW (I’m marking the exam this week!) and next session I am teaching the first half of the first year physics course. This part of the course is on electricity and magnetism, which is really cool, as it has some of my favorite practical demonstrations. Around that I’m involved in things like helping to upgrade our teaching labs and with committee work for organizations like the Australian Nanotechnology Network.

climbingIn my spare time (of which it seems I have very little these days!) I do all sorts of things. I’m an avid skier and wish I lived a lot closer to the snow than I do. I used to surf a lot, but live too far from the beach now for it to be practical, given Sydney traffic. I do lots of running, a bit of rock climbing. I can play the bass reasonably well (lots of red hot chili peppers) and I’m trying to learn the piano. I’m a passionate Formula 1 fan (one of the nuts who stays up late Sunday nights) and I like watching cricket and rugby league (especially state of origin), ideally over a few beers. Speaking of beer, I love beer – and I mean the proper stuff, not those horrible lagers… I like reading and often have several books on the go at one time, switching between them. I’m a huge fan of Hunter S. Thompson (read just about everything he’s written), Irvine Welsh, Haruki Murakami and Scandinavian crime novels (Nesbo, Läckberg, Roslund & Hellström, etc). I am also a serious politics junky, but will try to indulge in that a bit less this week perhaps 🙂

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Let’s Get into Physics-Al, I mean Tom – Thank You and Farewell Tom Gordon

Well, the solstice has passed, we’re almost halfway through the year and here at RSHQ the puns ain’t getting any better (sorry not sorry). Thankfully, Real Scientists is only a little bit about indulging the terrible senses of humour of the admins, and mostly about the awesome work that real scientists like this week’s curator Tom Gordon are doing every single day.

Tom gave us a brilliant run down of the Sydney University outreach program Kickstart, which he runs not only at the university, but all over New South Wales. Kickstart allows physics students to participate in experiments that might not be possible in a high school setting, and gives students a taste of university life and laboratories while still in high school. Tom sees an incredible 25 % of all NSW Higher School Certificate students through this excellent program. He also shared with us several pictures of the Kickstart experiments:
 

A cathode ray tube, something that’s quickly become closer to a museum specimen than an ever day item students can relate to.

A cathode ray tube, something that’s quickly become closer to a museum specimen than an every day item students can relate to.

is it an insulator? is it a metal? No! It's a semiconductor!

is it an insulator? is it a metal? No! It’s a semiconductor!

Like a number of other previous curators, Tom took to the airwaves during his time at Real Scientists on ABC Radio Dubbo.

@Gordeauz for all (well 2) of your senses - twitter in your eyes and radio in your ears.

@Gordeauz for all (well 2) of your senses – twitter in your eyes and radio in your ears.

Tom also ran us through his career highlights, from the Questacon Science Circus to behaviour of algae on the Vomit Comet.

An ongoing theme throughout Tom’s week was physics education, and ways we can get students to engage with, and continue studies in physics – including using games in science education. Tom’s even doing a PhD on this so it will be interesting to see how his research in this area progresses.

You can continue to follow Tom’s  adventures in physics and science communication on Twitter, where he is @gordeauz.

We’re trying something new this week, since Storify has been giving us a little bit giant coprolites of trouble. To catch up on Tom’s tweets from this week, click here to see the whole week’s worth of content on the Twitter website. If you have thoughts (proton-like or electron-like) on this new way of collecting each curator’s tweets, please let us know in the comments here, on our Facebook page or on Twitter.

Roll up to the Physics Circus: Tom Gordon joins Real Scientists

This week, Real Scientists leaves Boston, US to head to Sydney, Australia to meet science communicator Tom Gordon/@Gordeauz at the University of Sydney.  Tom trained as an astrophysicist and now works as a science communicator in the Department of Physics.  Tom works with a lot of high school kids as part of his outreach work and maintains an active interest in all things physics. We’re delighted to welcome Tom Gordon to Real Scientists.

 

Here’s Tom in his own words:

 

I’m Tom Gordon

I’m the science communicator at the School of Physics at University of Sydney and I love my job! I get to work with people with the brains the size of planets, and talk to as many people as I can about their work. It’s great. Also I get to show off some physics experiments to high school students, it really is a gift. I love the growing field of science communication and I’m excited about seeing it develop.

I studied astrophysics and I guess my claim to fame is that in 1998 when I was in second year, Professor Brian Schmidt, @cosmicpinot, was one of my lecturers (I still remember him writing on the board some equation with  Lambda at the end, he looked relieved and we wrote it down, little did he or us know that it was his nobel prize winning work!) Another one of my lecturers was Aiden Byrne, the now CEO of the Australian Academy of Sciences. Good times.

I also have a Graduate diploma of Science Communication otherwise known as the Science Circus, and a Masters of Space Science from the International Space University. Meaning I have studied the international space industry, for which Australia plays no part!

I’m currently doing a number of research projects that will eventually go towards a PhD in Physics Education. My are of interest is into Engagement, Education and Enrolment in Physics and Science, by looking into Public Awareness of Science (PAS), Public Understanding of Science (PUS) and Public Involvement in Science (PIS)

I have a 3 kids, an electric lawnmower and a 5.25″ tabletop dobsonian telescope.

Masterclass in genetics over – Thanks to Anna Wronski

We’d like to say a big thank-you to Dr Anna Wronski for her time on @RealScientists this week. For those who haven’t yet read her Intro post, Anna is a postdoctoral researcher at Tufts University in Boston, MA and studies the genetics of breast cancer. And in addition, as of this week, she also blogs at ‘Mostly Science’.

Anna started her week by explaining her background and scientific loves, interspersed with some photographs of amazing food. She then spent time explaining a number of areas of her work, with stunning microscope photographs and details on breast cancer rates and pathology. She also discussed her experiences with looking for science blogs and the problems of trying to find like-minded science-communicators.

This then led to a great defense by the followers of @RealScientists where they proved that while some blogs might be hard to find, that doesn’t stop their owners coming to find you! It’s the first time ever  I’ve known someone accidentally build an index of open science blogs. Following this, Anna then spent the middle of the week teaching us all how to run a PCR and how to culture cells . She brilliantly aimed both at a wide audience so anyone can understand the techniques. I strongly urge you all to go read the excellent storifiys, which collect the tweets together.

In addition to these specific master classes in complex-biology practices, Anna also shared some amazing photographs from her current work and her PhD.

Finally throughout her time on the twitter account, Anna has kept the tweet rate high (~200 per day) by diligently answering hundreds of questions from followers around the globe. Topics ranged from PCR technique suggestions to burger recipes.

So again thank-you to Dr Anna Wronski and her great work on the @RealScientists twitter account. If you want to read any of what was covered this week then you can look through all of her tweets in part 1 and part 2 of the storify.

Diversity is Strength – Thanks and Farewell, Joanne Kamens

Flower

Also she took a few moments to absolutely not brag about her loverly looking flowers

This week we thank Joanne Kamens for her excellent week at Real Scientists.  As mentioned in our introductory post, Joanne is a strong advocate for science mentoring and the not-for profit company Addgene for which she is an Executive Director. Even if you didn’t read the post you can’t have missed either of those passions while following her time on @RealScientists.

Over this week Joanne has given a free master class on managing scientists, through countless tips for aspiring researchers, established researchers and even some distressed researchers in need of advice. She even found the time to tweet the contents of her module on ‘Managing Scientists’ which we summarised as a Storify.

In addition to this wider advice, she also discussed one of her personal passions – encouraging women in science – by answering numerous questions from @RealScientsts’ followers about their problems and experiences, providing advice on getting jobs, and why the big wide world outside of academia isn’t too scary.

And she spent sometime introducing us all to the Addgene plasmid sharing service that is available to scientists around the world. This included showing us to some of the Addgene team in costumes, chef’s hats and face masks.

If I had to summarise this week on @RealScience in a snappy one liner (which technically I think I’m meant to do) if would be that Joanne said she wanted to share her love of mentoring and she spent the week on @RealScience showing people what a good mentor is.

You can catch up on all Joanne had to share with us through 3 collected Storifys; Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3. You can continue to follow Joanne both on the Addgene blog and on her own twitter account @JKamens

From farting cows to breast cancer research: Dr Anna Wronski, everyone!

Byron Bay 2011Anna has done such a brilliant job answering our curator questions, I don’t think you need much from our end, so firstly:

How and why did you end up in science?

I was always a curious child and I was extremely fortunate to have parents who nurtured and fostered that curiosity. I loved reading anything I could get my hands on. Ironically, I did not begin to love science until I studied it in University. As a child, I much preferred history and literature and wanted to study philosophy and have great discussions. I was at odds as to what to “become” when I was finishing high school and floated from being a teacher to perhaps study science, given that there appeared to be a lot of fluidity surrounding it and it didn’t seem quite so definite. I “dabbled” in science. I did at work placement at the CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization), trying to identify the presence of methanogens, bacteria that produce methane gas, from cow stomach samples. The title of the poster I presented was “SAVE THE WORLD – STOP COWS FARTING!” Emissions from agricultural livestock account for a large proportion of the gases that contribute to climate change. I attended the Siemens Science Camp and participated in the Royal Australian Chemical Institute Titration Competition (although I hated chemistry!).

However, I never had grand plans to become a scientist. On the advice of my dad, I decided to pursue biochemistry as it was apparently the hot topic in science at the time (it wasn’t – I think he was confusing it with genomics, as the genome sequencing project was beginning to churn out results I was accepted into a Bachelor of Science program at the University of Western Australia – and fell in love.

Due to family reasons, I moved from Perth in Western Australia, to Brisbane in Queensland, on the East Coast of Australia and finished the majority of my Bachelor of Science at the University of Queensland.

I was enthralled by the theoretical work, the sharp realization of what we do know … and the wide gap of what we do not understand. This gap only got wider the more I studied. I felt like my eyes had been flung open. But most of all, I fell in love with the people. Young, bright students like myself who loved nothing more than to sit around during lunch and argue about science and the world around them. I was okay at lab work and passed my classes – but the real spark came when I did an independent research project. I was fortunate enough to do several projects, one analysing mouse brain sections at the lab of Prof. Linda Richards at the Queensland Brain Institute and another, a computational project predicting locations of splicing along the BRCA2 gene with Prof. Melissa Brown. I joined Melissa’s lab as an undergraduate Honours student (a practical year between undergrad and PhD in Australia) and following a relatively successful year, started my PhD with Melissa.PhD_books 2012

During my PhD, I investigated potential molecular mechanisms by which Brca1 mutations could cause breast cancer. Mutations in the two breast cancer susceptibility genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2, were the two biggest genetic determinants of breast cancer risk. However, it is still relatively unknown as to why mutations in BRCA1 causes an increase in breast cancer risk. Using a mouse models that had a disruption in the Brca1 gene, that caused similar effects as seen in humans with BRCA1 mutations, I tried to identify genes that could co-operate and help Brca1 in turning cells in the mammary gland into ones that could form tumours.

At the conclusion of my PhD, I moved to Boston, USA to do post-doctoral research at Tufts University with Associate Professor Charlotte Kuperwasser, working in the field of breast cancer.PhD Graduation 2013

Why did you choose your current field, and what keeps you there?

I chose breast cancer because there is so much we still do not know about it and over 10% of females will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetimes. What keeps me in this field is the dynamic nature – discoveries are constantly being made, forcing us to re-think previous hypotheses, there are still many gaps that we need to fill and a huge need to fill them. We are only really beginning to understand just how complex breast cancer as a disease is.

Tell us about your work, and why people should be interested in it?

I am currently a postdoctoral researcher at Tufts University in Boston, MA, working on identifying the genetic cues that determine lineage commitment within the mammary gland and how that pertains to tumorigenesis. In particular, we have a focus on stem and progenitor cell populations and how that determines the type of breast cancer that occurs.

Over a decade ago, scientists profiled the expression of genes from a series of breast cancer samples and noticed they could use this information to separate them into a number of groups. These groups could also determine how lethal the tumour might be. The luminal and basal breast cancer subtypes expressed genes that are also expressed on normal luminal and basal cells found in the mammary gland. From this, it was hypothesised that perhaps luminal-type tumours could arise from luminal cells and basal tumours from basal cells. This was significant because the basal-type breast cancers are very aggressive, have a poor prognosis and cannot be treated with targeted drugs, like luminal-type tumours can.

However, experiments conducted by my current lab and others around the world several years ago, demonstrated that inducing tumours in basal cells didn’t create basal-type tumours, it caused the formation of rare forms tumours. In contrast, inducing tumours in luminal progenitor cells could form commonly found tumours, including ones that were basal in nature. This suggests that the cell population within the mammary gland that is disrupted and gives rise to mammary tumours may be the luminal progenitor cells.

Our lab is very interested in what factors could cause luminal progenitor cells to transform into tumour cells.

Do you have any interesting external/extracurricular obligations?

I am a member of the Tufts Postdoctoral Association, we are trying to revive the organization and organize social and career-orientated events to enrich the postdoctoral experience of postdocs at Tufts University.

I am also hoping to start teaching again. I was the head lab tutor for several undergraduate courses at the University of Queensland in Australia and I loved trying to spread the word of science!

I am hoping to also be able to work on my fledgling blog!

Any interesting hobbies you’d like to share?Gordon Mammary 2011

I love cooking and experimenting with recipes. I tend to go through stages of different types of recipes and styles. My PhD lab appreciated the cheesecake phase that lasted over a year! I also love reading and use my time commuting to work to read everything from fantasy novels to non-fictional books about the economy (I highly recommend Flash Boys about high frequency trading!).

How would you describe your ideal day off?

Sleeping in, then making a delicious, fresh lunch followed by a walk and catching up with friends over a few drinks.

Please welcome Anna to RealScientists!

Add this! Joanne Kamens joins Real Scientists

The path of true research never ran smooth, or in a linear direction.   Some of us make it to and through a PhD and then out of research, others leave academia, it’s really a relatively small number that ends up there. Life outside academia can be full of extraordinarily wonderful opportunities: for research, for building things, as our next curator’s amazing career shows. We are delighted to welcome Dr Joanne Kamens (@JKamens), Executive Director, of AddGene (@addgene), a not-for profit biological resource centre (BRC), to Real Scientists.

 

Addgene - Joanne Kamens 1

Joanne trained as a geneticist at Harvard, after which she moved into pharmaceuticals and worked for BASF/Abbott for 15 years.  She then went on to work at  RXi and is now with AddGene.  AddGene is a unique biological resource centre: like the American Type Culture Collection (ATCC), which is a repository of all the cell lines used in tissue culture: AddGene does the same for plasmids, the small DNA vectors that can be used to transmit information between organisms.  It’s a great resource for scientists,  you can read about it here at Nature.  AddGene and the ATCC are just two examples of the kinds of resources scientists need to do their research. Adequately funding and maintaining these collections is also a major challenge in science policy.

Joanne has also been extensively involved in activism for Women in Science and diversity in science issues, founding a number of support organisations and winning awards like the

 

To get to know Joanne better, we asked her our usual questions:

 

Why/How did you end up in science?

I usually think a scientist is something you are, not something you do. I was a young math geek (very unusual for a girl in Minnesota in the 70’s) and was good at science in school. As for many young people, I had a great 10th grade genetics teacher who encouraged me. I had my sights on Med School but one semester in college, and I knew it was the basic research science that had hooked me.

 

Why did you choose your current field/what keeps you there?

I loved genetics from the start. It was so predictable and in college I took a grad level seminar on all the “classic” papers in the field of genetics.  When I got to Grad School I did my research in a lab that focuses on molecular biology tools and tricks for research.  My lab was one that developed the yeast two-hybrid system to use genetics to study protein interactions.  My advisor was the first person to fuse to pieces of a protein together and show that both could work (seems so obvious in this day and age, but many told him it would not…it became a classic and famous Cell paper).  Now at Addgene I get to think about molecular biology technology all day and I still love it. While in Pharma I did 15 years essentially as a molecular immunologist.  Immunology is fascinating and complicated.  I loved  learning this field. Like all scientists I think, what drives me is learning new things.  As long as I am doing that I am happy.

 

Tell us about your work?

Now I am the Executive Director of Addgene.  That is like being the CEO in non-profit lingo.  Addgene is a  nonprofit dedicated to accelerating research and discovery by improving access to useful research materials and information.  We fulfil this mission by helping scientists share plasmids (small useful circles of DNA) to collaborate.  My work is awesome because the 40 Addgenies I work with are awesome and scientists all over the world love us. I will tweet more about Addgene, but we deliver plasmids to 78 countries currently at a rate of about 450 plasmids/day.

 

Motivation: why should the lay public care about your research?

An enormous amount of research resource is wasted world wide and we can’t afford this if we are going to cure human diseases better and faster.  Say you are in Qatar studying diabetes..why should you wasted time remaking a plasmid with insulin on it when someone in Australia already did.  Addgene helps you find what you need (we have 35,000 different items so far) and then make sure you can access that plasmid. We solved a lot of problems for the scientific community which is why they appreciate us.  “I’ve always considered myself a scientist first even now that I am in management and operations [at Addgene].”

 

Do you have any interesting external/extracurricular obligations?

For over 15 years I have been advocating for equity and diversity in science and in the workplace. I am especially active in women in science, but wish I could do more for all diversity if I had more timeI  founded the current Boston chapter of the Association for Women in Science.  I was Director of the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association Boston Group Mentoring Program for 3 years and still work with this program.  I am very enthusiastic about what good mentoring can do especially peer mentoring. I will tweet about my blogs on this topic.  In 2010, I was honored with the Catalyst Award from the Science Club for Girls for longstanding dedication to empowering women in STEM.  In 2013 I became a Fellow of the Massachusetts Academy of Science recognizing scientific accomplishment and service to the science community.   In 2013, I was named one of PharmaVoice’s 100 Most Inspiring Commanders & Chiefs.  I serve on a number of other nonprofit boards and I speak widely on career development topics in person and via Webinar.   I currently blog at blog.addgene.org

 

Any interesting hobbies you’d like to share?

I am addicted to New York Times Crossword puzzles.  I read modern fiction and occasional nonfiction somewhat voraciously as time allows.

 

How would you describe your ideal day off? (Scientists are people too!)

Tough..I love my work so often a day off is finishing up some work stuff and then reading a good book in a beautiful place. I just got back from a vacation in Greece and the views on the islands of Crete and Santorini are indescribable.

You can also listen to Joanne talk about her work on The Postdoc Way podcast.

I did not need to pipette to be happy. What makes me happy is looking at data.”

Please welcome Joanne Kamens (@jkamens) of AddGene (@addgene) to Real Scientists!