The Genuinely Magnificently Oarsome Heather Bray Joins RealScientists!

IMG_20131121_173816This week we have the lovely Heather Bray curating RealScientists. Heather is doing fascinating stuff with Agriculture and GMOs (apologies for the orsome average title), and normally tweets @heatherbray6. Heather is a Senior Research Associate at the School of History and Politics, University of Adelaide, Australia.

Why/How did you end up in science?

Just natural curiosity I guess. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t learning or finding out stuff. We had lots of reference books at home when I grew up and I loved reading through them. I wanted to be an archeologist at first, fascinated about the combination of science and history. Then I encountered agriculture! This was science you could eat! It grew and moved and people were a part of it. I loved it! I was lucky enough to go the the National Science Summer School (now National Youth Science Forum) at the beginning of Year 12 and that was when I definitely decided I was going to do a PhD and be a scientist. To be paid to find out stuff – how cool!

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

Well the getting paid to find out stuff didn’t go so well for me. A combination of some unfortunately personal circumstances and inability to attract my own salary in a system that was (and arguably still is) unfair meant that I wasn’t long in research. I had to find something else to do with my life and I naively decided that if I could make more people understand the importance of science then other people wouldn’t have to go through what I did. So I became a science communicator. After a few years I knew that we needed to think differently about how we engage the community in discussions about science in agriculture and food, so I started on a path to move back to research. Now, after 14 years, I’m back in full-time research, working on projects looking broadly at how people relate to science in food production. Getting paid to find out stuff. Yeah!

Tell us about your work?

I’m a research-only academic, in a History department. I work on two main projects – one on perceptions of animal welfare in livestock production and the other looking at the history of genetic manipulation science, activism, regulation and community attitudes in Australia. We’ve just finished a project on ‘ethical’ food choices and there are lots of other little projects in that space too. I love what I’m doing now. It is challenge being interdisciplinary but it’s what we need to be doing to solve complex problems.

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

Ultimately my work aims to enable the community to have the conversations we need to have about how our food is produced now and into the future. Conversations are two way things. I want to find ways to get scientists, food producers and the broader community talking together about food production in a way that all can be understood and make sense of the trade-offs we may need to make.

Do you have any interesting external/extracurricular obligations?

I’m still involved with a community radio program that I started in my old job. I really enjoy it and have just been asked to join the station’s advisory board. I’m also on our local Australian Science Communicators committee

Any interesting hobbies you’d like to share?

I’m an academic and a single parent, so there’s not a lot of time! I’m a little bit nanna and I like to crochet and sew and make things. At the moment I’m running and I’m doing my first ever fun run, Adelaide’s City to Bay on my last @realscientists day.

How would you describe your ideal day off?

Spending the day with a good friend, walking around looking at stuff, an Art Gallery, endless chatter, ending with a fabulous meal and a glorious wine.

It will be great to hear about things from an interdisciplinary standpoint this week. Everybody please give a warm welcome to Heather!

With a Direct Line into your brain, Emma Burrows Joins RealScientists!

Emma BurrowsThis week we have Emma Burrows from The Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, in Australia. Emma normally tweets @embws, and sent us a wee blurb in addition to answering our usual incoming curator questions, so I’ll let her take it away!

Dr Emma Burrows leads a multidisciplinary research programme at The Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health which aims to understand neurobiological mechanisms involved in autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Since completing her PhD in 2011, a key objective of Emma’s research has been to develop novel and innovative technologies for characterizing preclinical animal models of ASD. This is a critical step in improving translation of findings from basic science to the clinic. Emma travelled on a Victoria Fellowship in 2013 to work with Professors Bussey and Saksida and their team in Cambridge, UK. There she gained expertise in developing novel cognitive tests for rodents using touchscreen technology. Emma has since established this research in Australia and through collaborations with the Bussey-Saksida Lab and locally, psychiatrists and neuropsychologists who specialise in ASD, is currently designing novel tasks for assessing cognitive inflexibility in mouse models containing ASD-associated mutations. Once established, this testing platform will be translated from mice to human ASD patients using iPad interfaces. Furthermore, Emma has successfully seed funded a project investigating communication in ASD mouse models, with a team of engineers, psychologist and behavioral neuroscientists. This project involves automatic classification of mouse ultrasonic vocalizations using human speech recognition software and represents the first attempt to do this at this level of sophistication.

Why/How did you end up in science?

My first memory is of conducting a scientific experiment. I was 3 & watching ants sip sugar water I had dropped near their nest. I have always had many questions & now that I’m a scientist I can spend all my time trying to answer them.

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

What makes us different, how do we learn, do people see the world differently? These questions & more led me to study neuroscience. There is so much to learn about the brain. I wonder if we’ll ever work it out?

Tell us about your work?

I am hoping to understand how gene mutations associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) can lead to changes in behaviour. I am hoping to understand how some people with ASD have difficulty with language & attention. If we can figure out how these gene mutations cause behavioural impairments we can begin to develop new therapies to improve quality of life for people affected by ASD.

How am I doing this?

My work involves training mice to play attention games on touch sensitive computer screens. They are like iPads for mice. Using touchscreens we can investigate how well our mice learn & pay attention. Mice are genetically similar to humans, and use the same brain areas for attention & memory as we do. I work with mice that have been modified to contain a gene mutation that has been identified in human studies. Our mice learn to chose between two pictures on the screen and get a shot of strawberry milkshake when they get it right. These games are similar to those being used to assess memory & attention in people.

Did you know that mice have a secret language? Mice communicate with each other using a bird like song 10x higher than our audible hearing range. First I record mouse songs using specialized microphones. I am working with a team of engineers & physicists to design a new computer program to detect mouse calls. Its similar to the speech recognition software that Telstra use. We use this computer program to decipher the sounds in the recordings of mouse songs. This is the first time we have a program to help us understand what they are saying. The genetically modified mice that I am listening in on are showing very interesting calls. We are just uncovering them now after a year of hard work. Follow me this week to find out more.

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

It’s likely you know someone with Autism. Having problems with attention & language means that you might not be able to work, or go to school and you might struggle with basic tasks like going to the supermarket. This causes a lot of distress, not only to people living with ASD but also to their families and friends.

Do you have any interesting external/extracurricular obligations?

I am part of a very important conversation, women in science, and the difficulties we face sustaining a career over our working lives. While many of PhD students in science are women, men take on the majority of the senior roles.

Taking time off to have a family, and being unable to keep up with current literature, often prevent women from returning to their career in science. It’s a very competitive field and one that moves quickly. Other issues such as lack of confidence, the need to spend time away from family to train overseas, and not seeing appropriate role models, are also cited as reasons for this disparity.

I co-chair our institutes gender equity committee & am part of a bigger collaboration between 4 of Australia’s largest medical research institutes championing change in the area.

Any interesting hobbies you’d like to share?

I was born in Tasmania & visit my family & island home as much as I can. There are still so many places I am yet to explore. A group of us flew to the south west on a tiny airplane to walk for 6 days to the most untouched & spectacular area I’ve ever seen. I am an explorer outside of Australia too. I’ve travelled all over the world from NYC to Burma.

How would you describe your ideal day off?

I love to sail. It’s one of the only places I can truly stop because we are always moving.

Ok, firstly – I love a good strawberry milkshake; I volunteer now for when you want to move to human trials. Secondly – I’m looking forward to hearing more about your work, and about your experiences with the woman-in-science campaign, and the discussions that are sure to eventuate amongst our brilliant RS followers.

So – a massive, milkshake-fuelled welcome to RealScientists for Emma Burrows!

A veritable twitter Frentzy! Thank you and farewell Sophia Frentz

Our curator for the week August 31 – September 6, Sophia Frentz sure lived up to her name and gave us a full week of tweeting frentzy! For a refresher on Sophia’s background, you can check out her introductory post here

As a seasoned debater, Sophia was ripe for stirring up discussion amongst the Real Scientists community. To catch up on all of the tweets from Sophia’s week at the helm, go here and if you didn’t quite get your fix of science interspersed with debating and haikus, get on to following Sophia’s regular account @sofaf

And finally, in order to graduate to official Real Scientists Alumnus™ status, Sophia completed our rigorous exit examination:

How did you find your week as a curator?

Really good! I enjoying being able to yarn about a range of fields and while initially I was worried that my wide-ranging interests would disappoint some of the followers who were in it for the science, I had an overwhelmingly positive response.

Were there any lowlights?

It kind of bothered me that a bunch of people bailed after I posted a spate of haiku. Yes it was like 15 tweets in a row but I made sure to do them all at once so if you didn’t want to see them you didn’t have to see them (could just skip that particular few minutes).

It can be a shock talking to 12,000. Did you find the sudden rush of interactions (good and bad) daunting?

Not particularly, although occasionally getting back to my desk to 50 notifications was a bit off-putting. My tumblr dashboard runs at a similar speed of notifications fairly often so it was OK.

Is there anything you wanted to get out of / do on the RS account that you didn’t manage to fit in?

Not really, I felt a bit bad that my weekend was so busy but hopefully that was made up for by the rest of the week!

Do you have any tips or advice for future RS curators?

Bask in the fame, don’t let it put you off! It’s quite nice to have all the RS followers interested in you for a week, so just revel in that ^_^

We really want RS curators to show people a rounded view of life as a scientist. Other than yourself of course, are there any other people/accounts that people should follow if they liked you and what you covered?

@jshb32 does some science haiku, regularly retweets haiku. Otherwise I mostly follow debating accounts, who unfortunately don’t science very much. If you liked my humour then the @daily_kale might be your speed.

What TV show do you think everyone should go watch right now?

Orphan Black

Thank you Sophia from all of us here at RSHQ for your fabulous week in the drivers seat.

Thanks for a wild week from David Steen curating @RealScientists

BwGEv6uIEAAjdM4Last week (24-30th August) David Steen (@AlongsideWild) took over @RealScientists to tell us all about things that live under rocks, biodiversity, preservation.

You can read all of David’s tweets at this handy collected link. You can also view his collection of cool wildlife photos as a collage here (warning contains snakes… so many snakes).

As is our habit here at Real Scientists I’ll leave it to David to tell us more about his week via our post curation Q&A.

How did you find your week as a curator?

I really enjoyed my week as curator and the opportunity to talk about the things I’m passionate about to a new audience. I know a bunch of the Real Scientists tweeps followed my at my usual handle and I’m looking forward to continuing the conversation there. Tweeting at Real Scientists also exposed me to a diversity of opinions and viewpoints that I don’t typically encounter so that was great for me in that it prompted me to refine some of my stances on various issues as well as how to communicate them.

It can be a shock talking to 13,000. Did you find the sudden rush of interactions (good and bad) daunting?

Prior to my stay I paid attention to previous curators and the extent of interactions and engagement so I believe I was prepared for the rush.

Were there any lowlights?

There weren’t any lowlights. Of the thousands of interactions, the vast majority were interesting and insightful; there were only a couple that suggested to me the person was more interested in arguing than discussion.

Do you have any tips or advice for future RS curators?

Don’t overwhelm the audience, this is a marathon not a sprint. Don’t assume anyone just tuning in has followed a conversation from the beginning. Ideally make each tweet stand-alone or be explicit when you’re tweeting/re-tweeting a series of messages that pertain to a certain theme/conversation. Retweeting something when the context isn’t clear is a good way to confuse and disengage someone. Don’t be afraid to let the conversation move away from what you originally intended, but at the same time don’t let a few vocal individuals moderate your time, for every individual engaging with you there are likely dozens if not hundreds more silently watching.

Other than yourself of course, are there any other people/accounts that people should follow if they liked you and what you covered?

I try to give a non-academic take on wildlife ecology and conservation news and commentary and generally don’t use Twitter for personal reasons. For a similar Twitter philosophy, the following accounts come to mind:

@jgold85; @laelaps; @whysharksmatter; @AlistairDove, @kwren88, @Mojoshark

Many apologies to the many excellent Twitter accounts that I have failed to remember off the top of my head.

What TV show do you think everyone should go watch right now?

Although I enjoy movies I don’t watch a lot of TV and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a TV show that I thought everyone should go watch. That said, I enjoyed The Wire and Breaking Bad, I think those programs demonstrated what can be done on television. My guilty pleasure is The Walking Dead.

A huge thank you from the RS team and our followers across the world, David! Farewell!