A million ways to die in the east: please welcome the Museum of Human Disease to RealScientists

This week on @realscientists will be a bit different. For a change, we don’t have a solo scientist curating the account, but a museum!
The Museum of Human Disease is the medical pathology teaching collection held by the Faculty of Medicine at the University of New South Wales, in the beach-fringed eastern suburbs of Sydney, Australia. This collection, basically, is a repository of how people die. The MHD is a collection of bottled human organs and tissues, all of which have suffered damage caused by some form of disease process (pathology). museum_banner_4 Unlike many other collections of this type, the MHD is open not just to medical students but to the general public, opening their doors every day* for anybody to come in and learn. The collection is extensive, with approximately 2000 sample pots, representing between 95% & 99% of the ways Australians will die this year and in fact most years. Everything from age old menaces like tuberculosis to the modern malaise of cardiovascular disease. The Museum of Human Disease was established by Professor Donald Wilhelm, foundation Professor of Pathology at the University of New South Wales. Thanks to his foresight, and to the tireless efforts of Dr S.G. Higgins (Museum Curator of long standing), the Museum has been meticulously updated and maintained over the years to reflect the changing patterns of disease in our society.

The MHD hosts some 13,000 visitors to the Museum each year, most being senior secondary students studying Biology for the NSW Higher School Certificate (Uni entrance exam). This week the museum has some 35 different groups booked in and will run 15 tours in the week for 60-70 students each time.  On top of that, museum staff will be running a couple of Video conferences, dissections, preparing for Teacher training days and speaking to academics around campus to prepare some other events we have coming up, as well as re-writing our visitor catalogues, finalising our Zombie Apocalypse Holiday Program and giving blood. So their small team of 2.4** are kept busy, thus will be sharing the tweeting around a bit so you get an insight into how they make medical research as public and communicable*** as possible. The MHD are on Twitter and Facebook, as well as maintaining their own website. Expect to hear from Education Officers

Julia Kiss and Phil Dye, as well as museum administrator Derek Williamson, who introduces himself as follows:

Hi I am @derekjw and I run the Museum of Human Disease. I studied Zoology a very long time ago and during my studies I worked (loose definition) with some fantastic science people, from lecturers to fellow students and the one thing they taught me was that I was never meant to be a career scientist.  There are attributes that make a good/great scientist and they weren’t in me.  So the next best thing has been talking about science.  I have been doing that ever since, to absolutely anyone who will listen.

I have to add that I consider myself very fortunate to have stumbled into science and been given the freedom to stay at the periphery, talking to people doing amazing things for such a long time.
Originally from Perth in the far west of New South Wales, I had the great good fortune to travel most of WA, from shining white sands and Indian Ocean to the brilliant red of the outback and I would happily discourage everyone from going to any of it – just stay away. Now I live in Sydney.
When it comes to science and talking about it, to me there are only two reasons to do such a thing – to make the world a better place and open people’s eyes to the wonder of everything.  I hope that the work we do at the Museum, including our time here on @realscientists, reflects that.
At home I am doing a citizen science project using recently created versions of the human genome.  So far with n=2 the data is probably not very significant – except to me.  But I am learning plenty about sleep deprivation and the early onset of grumpy old man syndrome.
I will happily discuss endlessly with you on two topics – How much science/art is needed for something to be science-art and that you don’t have the right to smoke. Actually there are a few others.
What should you expect from @realscientists this week? We will retweet things we like- mostly from medical research, but some museums, some communications and other folks we like.  We will link to some of our specimen images and some details about what they represent.  We will keep you updated on the day to day affairs of the office and our meetings etc.  There should be some great quotes and questions as we get them from our secondary school and public visitors.  Maybe some of our medicine and medical science student volunteers will get the reigns to highlight a little of their life here.  Really a complete week in the life of us. We will warn you if images are not for the squeamish with this hash tag #notforthesqueamish.

Museum of Human Disease UNSW

Please welcome the team from the UNSW Museum of Human Disease to RealScientists!


*Well, not Saturdays and Sundays… or public holidays… or the two weeks over the new year holidays.. and very occasionally on Saturdays and Sundays, but not regularly

**The 0.4 is a part time person, not the result of some sort of hideous wasting disease that could result in ending up as an exhibit in the Museum

***You see what we did there, right? Cos communicable disease… oh forget it


Microbes red in tooth and claw: welcome Dr Mel Thomson to RealScientists

Our curator for this coming week is Dr Mel Thomson of the Molecular Medicine Research Facility at Deakin University School of Medicine, Geelong (about 100km south-west of Melbourne, Australia). Mel is a microbiologist, researching bacterial pathogenesis – how bacteria cause disease – with a particular focus on Helicobacter, the bacteria which cause stomach ulcers. She’s also very active in science communication, advocacy, crowdfunding and social media – check out her blog at http://drmelthomson.wordpress.com/ and follow her on Twitter at @Dr_Mel_Thomson (which she’d appreciate, as she’s hit Twitter’s arbitrary ‘2000 following’ limit and needs only a hundred or so more followers to get around it!)

Here’s Mel’s story, in her own words:

image_2I was interested in science from a very young age and would constantly dismember my dolls to see how they worked…which drove my family nuts (and beheaded many dolls). I had a brilliant teacher in Grade 5 who was all about maths and science and had us conducting experiments to answer posed questions like ‘Does salt lower the freezing temperature of water?’ (My very first official experiment at age 11. The answer is yes!)

I grew up on a farm, so had many opportunities to observe ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ first hand and am still using some of those empirical observations to inform my work today (like using medical maggots to heal wounds).

As the genetic revolution was starting around the time I was in high school, I decided I wanted to become an genetic engineer. I also had a passion for plants and then decided I would be the person to invent the Blue Rose. This was a much cherished ambition until I reached botany classes in my undergraduate degree at the University of Melbourne. Boredom drove me from an interest in plant based genetics and into the Microbiology field (the subject I had taken to fill in my timetable between genetics and biochemistry)

My passion was then ignited for the ‘us versus them’ narrative of clinical microbiology and I when on to complete my Honours degree on the host-pathogen interactions between Rotavirus and mammalian cells. But my passion for a certain London Bobby also grew during my first degree and I married and emigrated to the UK in the same week of my degree ceremony.

I then worked as a research assistant at Great Ormond St Hospital in London, in the Immunobiology department at the Institute of Child Health. I was employed for my tissue culture skills to work on a project that was investigating a mouse model of oral tolerance to peanut antigens…in the hope of developing a treatment for life threatening peanut allergy.


It was an interesting time to work at GOSH as they first cured a child of SCID using gene therapy whilst I was there (before the side effect of cancer was subsequently discovered) and was also during the time of the MMR debate. But living in London was too expensive for me to have a garden (and a dog!) so we decided to move to Yorkshire to enable us to have the rural idyll and a house that wasn’t attached to any others in the vicinity.

I got a job, again as a research assistant, at the Cancer Research UK department at St James’s Hospital in Leeds, again, based on my tissue culture skills. I worked on the role of CD40 and apoptosis in a bladder cancer model, using primary (non immortal) cells. But during this time, I became frustrated with the general perception that as I was ‘just an RA’ And while I was a ‘good pair of hands’ in the lab, I seemingly no active intellectual capacity attached about the neck.

I decided at this point to continue my scientific training and applied for PhDs. I was constantly knocked back for these positions, owing to the fact that UK educational institutions failed to understand the concept of the Australian Honours system and had a bias against more mature candidates (less malleable…!)

I then applied for a Masters of Research in Biomolecular Structure and Function at the University of York, to improve my chances of then getting a PhD scholarship and give myself a UK qualification to override my Australian degree. I was one of only two students to receive a distinction in this intensive one year course and then started door knocking with this qualification in hand for PhDs. Ironically, the same institutions that had refused my applications the year before all offered me scholarships but I decided to stay in the lab at the Biology department at York where I had done a Masters project. I got on well with the lab head (Dr James Moir) and after already spending 5 years post under grad in research labs as an RA, I knew that the relationship with your supervisor is the most important thing for ensuring success of your PhD project.

So began my 3 year PhD, funded by the BBSRC, working on the enzymes in the denitrification pathways of Neisseria meningitidis. It was a fruitful time (5 papers from my PhD in the end) but as my fertility clock was counting down, I decided to plan to have a baby during my ‘write up’ year. So, I finished my 3 years of lab work, heavily pregnant and gave birth to my son in Dec 2007.

After a few months at home with him, I started to get itchy feet and wanted to get back into the lab. I needed part time work with flexible working hours to care for my son (as well as work on my PhD thesis…the other baby!) so I took a job doing mmelanie-thomsonicrobiology QC in a local goat milk diary. That was an interesting 6 months but enabled me to get ‘back to work’ after a hiatus for child rearing… without the intellectual challenge of research science (for which I am eternally grateful!)

I managed to finish my thesis write up (no procrastinating as I was paying someone by the hour to mind my baby) and hand in almost on time for my deadline. I then did another short term project for my internal thesis examiner at the Hull York Medical School before securing a post doc position back at Jimmy’s Hospital in Leeds, at the shiny new Leeds Institute of Molecular Medicine. It was to work for a member of the ‘Helicobacter Royalty’ (Professor Jean Crabtree), the woman who had discovered one of the major virulence factors of H. pylori earlier in her career. It was to work on a huge EU funded project being run across Europe and South America on host-pathogen interactions of a gastric microbe, so my research life had come full circle to gastrointestinal pathogens.

During this time, I tried to have a second baby…the first attempt ending in a late miscarriage. And while I was attempting to get pregnant for a third time (as sand in my fertility clock was rapidly disappearing) I decided to apply for a lecturing position at the Deakin Medical School in Geelong, so that I could bring my young family back to enjoy the Australian lifestyle. I was offered the position on the Thursday….and found I was pregnant on the Sunday. I still had 3 months notice period to work at Leeds before I could return to Australia to take up my new position and I arrived at Deakin 4 months pregnant.

I somehow managed to set up the rudiments of a research program in the 5 months before my daughter was born in Oct 2011 but owing to the archaic maternity leave system in Australia (based on years of service as opposed to the clinical needs of the mother and baby) I returned full time to work as the family bread winner 6 weeks after the birth. And didn’t get to take a day off for the subsequent 9 months as I had been compelled to take recreation leave in advance to get even as long as 6 weeks off post partum on full pay. (As to keep a roof over my family’s head)

The following year, I had two fabulous Honours students in the lab, one of who is still with me as my first PhD student (and she is fabulous!) I have slowly grown my research program to encompass local clinical microbiology concerns of my clinical collaborators like the Bairnsdale Ulcer and Implant infections.

My nascent science style is collaborative and driven by clinical need. As I work on some infections that are transmitted in an unknown way from the environment to human and animals, I embrace the ‘One Health’ multidisciplinary approach and also live by the ‘bench to bedside’ mantra. It makes my track record look completely random and hence I have also had to embrace non traditional funding models to support my research, like crowd funding. (See @mightymaggots and @hips4hipsters)

I like to communicate my science to anyone who will listen and can be found alternatively bending a politician’s ear about Emerging infectious disease threats or teaching preps how to form a hypothesis to test by experimentation using live maggots in any given week…and I am excited by the opportunity to take the reins of the @RealScientists account as it amplifies my signal and gives me more metaphorical ears to bend!


Please welcome Mel to RealScientists!

Numbers never lie: welcome Dr Mónica Feliú-Mójer to RealScientists

‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics’, 19th-century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli was supposed to have once said. However, since that line was likely made up by Mark Twain, ‘making up quotes about people’ should possibly be included as a fourth category. Statistics have come a long way since Disraeli’s prime ministership in the 1800s – even since his name was coopted into the title of Cream’s best album in the 1960s. Indeed, in the big-data era, statistics are crucial to making sense of science. Even in biology – especially in biology – which is disappointing for everyone who went into biology because they didn’t like maths. *raises hand sheepishly*

It’s the job of our next curator to make biostatistics make sense to people. Dr Mónica I. Feliú-Mójer, aka @moefeliu, is the Manager of Outreach at the University of Washington Department of Biostatistics (@UWBiostat). She is also the vice-director and news editor-in-chief of Ciencia Puerto Rico (@CienciaPR), an organization leveraging social networks to engage scientists in science communication and education. RealScientists followers will recall @CienciaPR through our former curator Dr Greetchen Diaz. Mónica’s bilingual outreach efforts focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) topics and opportunities, as well as increasing diversity in science and science communication. In 2013, she received the COPUS Paul Shin Memorial Award for her efforts to increase public understanding of science among Hispanic audiences. Her work has been featured on international media outlets, such as Univisión and VOXXI, among others. And this week, she’s featuring on RealScientists!


How and why did you end up in science?

I was a scientist by vocation before I was one by training. Growing up in a home in rural Puerto Rico, nature was the ‘play laboratory’ where I developed an intense interest in science. I collected rocks, had pet-lizards, and wanted to understand how things around me worked. Nine-year-old me would have loved to become a scientist, except I didn’t know what that meant. I had never met a scientist. I thought science was done elsewhere, by people who looked nothing like me.

Then when I was 11 years old, a very personal experience got me interested in the brain and how it affects behavior. So, early on, I wanted to become a psychiatrist because it was the only profession I knew about that was related to the brain.

Once in college, two words changed my life: “Try research,” said my freshman Biology professor (first scientist I ever met), as she handed me an application for a summer research program. After my first month in the laboratory, the thrill of discovery got me hooked on research and I decided I wanted to become a research scientist. That initial experience introduced me to neuroscience, the field where I eventually earned my Ph.D.

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

When I moved from Puerto Rico to the United States to pursue a research career, I wanted to be able to stay connected to my community. One of the strongest motivators for me to go train in the U.S. was to be able to use my knowledge and experiences to contribute to the advancement of science in Puerto Rico. Originally, I thought I would accomplish that by coming back to Puerto Rico after completing my Ph.D.

Even before I started my Ph.D. (I did a three-year stint as a research technician at MIT before starting my Ph.D. at Harvard) I kept thinking: “I want to give back. I want to pay it forward.” In 2006 I found a way to do this when I became involved with Ciencia Puerto Rico, a non-profit organization that uses social networking to connect and engage members of the Puerto Rican scientific community with science communication and education. Long story short, it was through my volunteer work with this organization that I discovered my current path as an outreach scientist and science communicator.

As a child, I didn’t have any scientific role models and mentors, or many science education resources in school. Having experienced many of the challenges that keep students from developing an interest in science, and the science literacy and problem solving skills needed to thrive in the complex world we live in, I have a strong interest in using my scientific training to bring science to the masses, particularly young people who, like me, do not see themselves readily represented in science. Having the opportunity to share science, to educate and inspire people through science is what moves me. It gets me out of bed every morning and keeps me up working late at night.

Mónica collecting her PhD from Harvard

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

I am the Manager of Outreach at the Department of Biostatistics at the University of Washington, Seattle (UW). In this role I lead, create and maintain a range of outreach efforts to attract attendees to Departmental programs such as the Summer Institutes, a series of short intensive modules in basic and advanced biostatistical principles and methods (which I also co-coordinate). I do outreach to alumni and the general academic community. I help create awareness about biostatistics and the research and people in the department among lay audiences through news articles and social media. I am also creating initiatives that will allow scientists and students in the department to reach out to K-12 students, something that has never been formally done in the department and for which I am very excited. This position allows me to combine my experiences as a research and an outreach scientist and my passion for sharing science.

Before working in a biostatistics department, I had a limited impression of the breadth of the applications and research topics in the field. I thought biostatistics had to do with clinical trials and not much else. Since then have learned that biostatistics is so much more! Biostatisticians develop the tools that allow scientists to interpret and exploit data from the genomes of humans and other organisms; to help law enforcement combat wildlife crime; and to predict the transmission patters of infectious diseases, among many other things. I have gained a great appreciation for the interdisciplinarity of the field. Biostatistics is a field where biology, public health, math and computer science come together.

I like to say that biostatisticians help makes sense of data and turn it into useful knowledge. It is a very exciting field. We live in an increasingly data-centric world, and biostatistics’ will help provide answers to some of today’s most pressing challenges, from science to business and finance.


Do you have any interesting external/extracurricular obligations?

I am the volunteer vice-director and news editor of Ciencia Puerto Rico (CienciaPR). It is through my work with this organization that my passion for making science accessible and relevant to underserved audiences is most powerfully realized. For CienciaPR, I write about science for lay audiences and help fellow scientists do the same (in Spanish and English). I blog. I co-created, co-edited and was a contributing author for the book ¡Ciencia Boricua!, an anthology of multidisciplinary easy-to-understand science essays written by scientists for the general public and the first book to actively contextualize science to the Puerto Rican reality, by making science meaningful and relatable. I mentor students. I tweet. I am also heavily involved with the administration of the organization. I get to be inspired everyday by working with a passionate team of volunteers who are committed about promoting science and research.

I also speak publicly about my experiences as a Latina woman in science and a Spanish-language science communicator. I use contextually-relevant and experiential-based lessons to make science and scientific role models accessible to underserved audiences.

Any interesting hobbies you’d like to share?

I love to read. Unfortunately I don’t have as much time to read as I would like. I enjoy being outdoors. Strolling through the park, hiking or just sitting outside in the sun. I also love baseball, wine and beer tasting and chocolate.

How would you describe your ideal day off?

Sitting at the beach on a nice sunny day, with a good book, good music on my iPod. No cell phones, no emails. It’s one of the things I miss the most about living on a tropical island.


Or failing that, jumping out of a perfectly serviceable aeroplane…

Please welcome Mónica to RealScientists!

Y leaving so soon? Farewell and thanks, Dr Melissa Wilson Sayres

Another tremendous week of @RealScientists has come and gone under the stewardship of evolutionary geneticist Dr Melissa Wilson Sayres of UC Berkeley. As discussed in her welcome post, Melissa’s main research focus is to understand the evolution of sex chromosomes (X and Y in mammals), and is also interested in using the unique properties of these chromosomes (e.g. that they spend different amounts of time in the male and female germlines, and are subject to different selective pressures) to address how genetic mutations accumulate. To address the first area of interest, she is cataloging and interpreting variation among Y chromosomes from populations around the world. She has also been comparing diversity of sex and non-sex chromosomes across hundreds of individuals to determine how population demography, selection, and sex-specific mutation processes combine to contribute to the accumulation of mutations in the human genome.

Melissa talked about her research (of course), but also job applications, collaborations, courtroom science (the ideas of uncertainty and reasonable doubt), science funding, why or why not to do a PhD, how to become a bioinformaticist (you don’t have to learn how to code, but it helps), the role and importance of academic outreach… you name it, Melissa dived into it. And if that wasn’t enough, during her week of tweeting for RealScientists, Melissa jetted cross-country to the Conference of World Affairs (#CWA2014) in which she was involved in several panels. particularly on sex and gender. This inspired some deep and meaningful dialogue about the complex meanings of these concepts, and how concepts of sex and gender are ascribed those meanings in a genetic, cellular, physiological, psychological, legal and societal sense.

Though it’s possible the only thing which inspired more comment than those discussions were Melissa’s sciency leggings…

Screen Shot 2014-04-13 at 6.07.02 pmMelissa’s legged it (sorry) for a hard-earned refreshing beverage, but you can rewind through her fantastic week of curation via our Storify account. We thoroughly recommend keeping up with Melissa by following her on Twitter at @mwilsonsayres.


Next week: We prove that science isn’t scary; our next curator Steve Maguire has video evidence. He joins us shortly.

Why Y? Evolutionary biologist Dr Melissa Wilson Sayres joins RealScientists

As we observed in a post mid-last-year: sex is bizarre. In an evolutionary sense, in particular. Despite sexual dimorphic species existing throughout animal kingdom, there isn’t a lot in common between the ways different animals – for instance birds, reptiles, mammals – trigger the development of male vs female embryos. Mammals, as we know, use the inheritance of the sex chromosomes X and Y to determine sex – XY embryos typically develop as males, XX as females. The sex-determining region on the Y chromosome (Sry) was defined in the late 80s and shown to be necessary and sufficient to drive male development in mammals in the early 90s; apart from some defects in sperm production, XX mouse embryos (chromosomally female) which are ‘transgenic’ for an introduced copy of the Sry gene develop as normal males. Which raises the question – so what’s the rest of the Y chromosome for? It’s tiny (compared to other chromosomes), carries few genes, and the main job it has to carry out – determining maleness – can be done by one gene.

MelissaWilsonSayresThis is a question of particular interest to this week’s curator, Dr Melissa Wilson Sayres of UC Berkeley. Melissa’s research uses bioinformatics and genomics to study the evolutionary dynamics of sex chromosome evolution, male mutation bias, and pregnancy. Recently she published work in PLoS Genetics showing that human Y chromosomes are much more similar to each other than expected, and that this is because natural selection is acting to maintain the useful gene content that still survives there. Rumours of the Y chromosome’s demise are, it appears, somewhat exaggerated. “After that initial loss of genes, the primate lineage has been whittled down to a core set of genes that are necessary in humans for function,” Melissa told The Huffington Post. “Although there was initially a huge loss of genes from the Y chromosome, that rate of loss has transitioned from a gush to a trickle, and we expect that there will not be much more loss from the human Y chromosome.”

Aside from her research interests in evolutionary genetics, Melissa is also an advocate for science outreach advocate, having spearheaded several efforts to communicate science to the public including developing the content and infrastructure for a bi-annual workshop to introduce teenage girls to diverse scientific disciplines that has now been running for seven years, and organizing hands-on science activities for over 10,000 participants at the National Science and Engineering Festival. In addition to increasing appreciation of science among youth, Melissa is a vocal advocate for evolution education at all levels. She writes about her own science and other primary research articles for the public on her blog, mathbionerd.blogspot.com, and discusses evolution with anyone who wants to engage at pandasthumb.org. She tweets at @mwilsonsayres, apart from this week, when she’s tweeting for us!

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I was born in Stillwater, Oklahoma. I lived in Oklahoma for five years, then to Garland, Texas, then Tempe, Arizona, then to Syracuse, Nebraska (yes, such a place exists, where I graduated high school with 43 people. I majored in Mathematics at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. Then, I drove ~1,025 miles East on I-80 to attend graduate school in Integrative Biology: Bioinformatics and Genomics at The Pennsylvania State University in State College, PA. After graduate school, we (my husband – a physical chemist, our 5 month old daughter, and our adopted Chihuahua-mix) piled in the car and drove the 3,000+ miles West on I-80 for postdoctoral positions at UC Berkeley.

So how did you end up in science?

I always liked math. For awhile I just liked doing it, and thought I was good at it. During high school, I started to worry that I was particularly good at it, but I liked it, so I kept taking course after course. Then, in college, I majored in math. The summer between my junior and senior year of college I did a research experience for undergraduates (REU) in the Math department at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln in “Math Biology.” We modeled tumor growth to the point of metastasis using a series of differential equations, and something clicked. For the first time I really appreciated Biology, outside of the pre-med scheme. That year I applied to graduate programs and decision day came down to choosing between a program in pure mathematics and a program in bioinformatics. I choose the program in bioinformatics and can say that I found what I love to do. Even so, it took a few rotations to find my particular motivation in science. First, I worked growing yeast (the lab smelled amazing) and studying how proteins interacted with their chromatin. Then, I learned about microRNA in the mustard weed, Arabidopsis. Finally, I did a rotation studying sex chromosome evolution, and I was hooked. For now, and forever.

What is is about evolutionary biology that interests you?

The sex chromosomes are pretty amazing for a lot of reasons: the spend different amounts of time in the male and female germ lines, they carry a unique set of genes, they evolve following different patterns that the non-sex chromosomes, selection acts differently there, they are involved in sex determination, they used to look identical but now are very different, and on and on!


How did you end up in outreach? What’s been the highlights of that side of your work?

I can’t help myself. I like talking about my research, and about science in general wherever I am. If I’m on a plane, I bring up my work. Today I was at a toddler birthday party and I talked about armadillos with the adults, and explained pollen to the kids. Now, I still talk to whomever I’m with, but I also write about my field of science (both my own research and the research of others) at my own blog: mathbionerd.blogspot.com, and at pandasthumb.org. I get a lot more discussion and tangents at the latter, especially from people who don’t accept that evolution happens.

I started doing formal outreach during graduate school. I had just joined the local Graduate Women in Science (GWIS) group, and together with another grad student, we put together a day-long workshop to help a local girl scout group earn a badge in Engineering. Afterwards I was hooked and put together the infrastructure to recruit more troops, and to run bi-annual workshops, that are still being continued three years after I’ve left: http://www.clubs.psu.edu/up/gwis/GSW.html.

In a similar vein, I organized an activity, and volunteers from across the US, to teach the ~10,000 people about polymer chemistry at the USA Science and Engineering Festival. Here’s a picture of us, making about half of the 10,000 samples: http://mathbionerd.blogspot.com/2010/10/4354.html

I also have worked with local high schools, both in Pennsylvania and California, judging science fairs, and talking to Biology classes. Most recently I’ve ran an activity teaching the basics of phylogenetic analysis: http://mathbionerd.blogspot.com/2012/04/teaching-phylogenetics.html.

So what’s next for you and the family?

Now, with a few months left on our postdoctoral positions, we do not yet know where we will be, other than our lease ends, and we won’t be staying in California. I’ll be sure to share whenever I know!

We wish Melissa all the best with the job search, and for her week of curation on RealScientists!

Science, art, and everything in between: welcome Dr Greetchen Díaz to RealScientists

Our curator this week is Dr Greetchen Díaz (aka @greetdiaz) of the Nebraska Center for Virology, at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Greetchen hails from Puerto Rico, describing herself as ‘a Latina who loves art, music, history and science (not necessarily in that order).’

Dr. G. Diaz

Greetchen was the first member of her family to complete an advanced degree, and was inspired to succeed by her science and math teachers at school – her intellectual curiosity inspired by the encyclopedia she read as a child, learning about science, history, geography and cultures. Greetchen studied in a math and science specialized high school, an hour away from her town. During those years she thought of becoming an astronomer, fascinated by space and the possibility of discovering life on other planets. Then, she learned that she was not good at physics, so maybe being an astronomer was not a such good idea at all! She became interested in biology and after high school she completed her Bachelor’s degree in biology at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez, followed by a Masters in biology in the same university. Her Masters research investigated the fungal diversity present at a hypersaline environment in Puerto Rico. She subsequently enrolled in the Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology interdisciplinary program at The Ohio State University where she worked in Anita Hopper’s laboratory at the Molecular Genetics department using yeast as a genetic model to study protein trafficking to the nuclear membrane for her PhD. In 2012, Greetchen joined the Nebraska Center for Virology at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. As a postdoc, she is using yeast as a genetic model to study DNA replication and maintenance of the Human papilloma virus (HPV), which infects human keratinocytes of the skin or mucous membranes and its long-term persistence causes precancerous lesions and invasive cancer.


Greetchen aspires to be a professor in academia. Her objective is to be part of the new generation of scientists interested in developing programs to improve undergraduate education and research experience in STEM for minorities. She would like to use different and innovative strategies in science teaching, research and science communication:

As a scientist, I have always enjoyed to communicate my research results to scientific audiences. However, what I enjoy the most is to simplify scientific data and communicate complex concepts to general audiences in presentations that will be easier to understand and apply.

Since 2008, Greetchen has been a volunteer of “Ciencia Puerto Rico” (@CienciaPR; www.cienciapr.org), a non-profit organization dedicated to promote science and education in Puerto Rico. During her time with CienciaPR she has worked on different initiatives to increase science education, science literacy and public understanding of science. At CienciaPR, she is the founder of the photo-blog Science is all around you which highlights images from the natural world in Puerto Rico and explains the science behind them. Also, Greetchen is the founder of the blog section Borinqueña, which emphasizes on the contribution of Puerto Rican and Hispanic women in science, and provides a space to discuss topics of interest about the empowerment of women. Greetchen writes, edits, identifies topics, and manages teams of bloggers and guests contributors for both blogs. In addition, she is part of the team of writers/editors of the featured CienciaPR monthly story were they profile the work of an outstanding CienciaPR member or discuss a scientific topic of relevance to their community.

As a scientist, I believe that communicating science is crucial for our society as it contributes to its economical and educational development. I understand that it is an important component of our democracy. I believe we have the right to know about the scientific discoveries that will impact our lives. Also, it is important for the general public to know about the people who make science (the scientist) and their important role in our community. I see me in the future not only as a researcher and an educator but also as an effective communicator that will motivate people’s curiosity about science and discoveries. ¡Que viva la ciencia!

We are thrilled to have Greetchen tweeting for us this week on the account, and trust you will be too!

Cancer patience: thanks and farewell to Nicole Cloonan

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Our curator for the past week on @RealScientists, Dr Nicole Cloonan aka @ncloonan, is a newly-minted group leader at the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute on the northern fringes of the Brisbane CBD. Her research looks at the roles of microRNAs in gene regulation and disease, particularly in cancer. Nicole’s tweets deposited us directly into the life of a new lab head, navigating the trials and tribulations of establishing new experiments, new collaborations, competition, publication, and finding and protecting work-life balance.

MicroRNAs are small molecules, generated from long ribonucleic acid (RNA) precursors, which target specific genes, and regulate the expression of their protein products. As Nicole explained, what we think of as individual microRNAs are effectively a suite of multiple microRNA molecules with similar, overlapping specificities, and it is through this spectrum of on- and off-target effects that seemingly non-specific microRNAs enact their observably specific function. The profile of microRNAs in a cell can be seen as a shorthand ‘readout’ of the cell status, and because of its size, is quicker and easier to characterise via sequencing than other genetic ‘readouts’ such as the entire genome (the DNA) or transcriptome (all the transcribed RNA of the genes being expressed at any one time).

QIMRBerghofer Cloonan lab

Nicole’s first major programme of experiments in her first six months at @QIMRBerghofer (yes, it’s taken that long to get all the data together – patience is a virtue!) has been looking at microRNAs in cancer, to see if there are any microRNAs that affect the way cells respond to chemotherapy drugs. Basically, this involved taking approximately 2000 known human microRNAs, introducing them into human-derived cells in culture one at a time, then blasting them with chemo – compared to chemo-treated cells without introduced microRNAs. The data is fresh, so it’ll be a while before this makes it to publication – which was another big issue Nicole touched on, from battles over authorship to the real problem of open access, and how to pay for it.

All in all, it was a good week for Nicole – she got a paper out, entertained & informed more than 10,000 people on the internet, and found a name for her lab robot!

QIMRBerghofer Cloonan robot

Meet ‘Tik-Tok’. I thought that was a Teletubby, but apparently not.

A big thanks to Nicole for her great week on the account. We’ll have a link to a Storify of her tweets here shortly. You can follow Nicole at @ncloonan, and she also has a website for her lab and a research blog at genomicbiology.org.

Next week, we head to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Nebraska Center for Virology to meet postdoctoral researcher Dr Greetchen Diaz, aka @greetdiaz.