Plants, humans and culture – Olivia Sylvester joins Real Scientists

Two descendants of wild grasses have profoundly influenced the course of human history: wheat and rice. They  are some of the most important cereal grains on the planet. Different cultures have grown up around them, different civilisations. They’ve been bred, genetically modified in the modern age and play an important part of our everyday lives. The way that plants are used by people is the area of interest for our next curator, Olivia Sylvester, an ethnobotanist at the University of Manitoba, Canada. We’re delighted to welcome Olivia (@farmsforests) as curator this week, particularly as Indigenous Day falls this week.  We asked Olivia our usual questions to better understand her work, and we’re delighted to be having a scientist at the intersection of science and culture.

 

Olivia Sylvester

 

Why/How did you end up in science?

As a young girl, I was fascinated by science and everything it had to offer; when my friends were reading about Nancy Drew, I was reading Scientific American. I was interested in scientific inquiry because of the cool factor but also because science generated information that can help humans live in harmony with the beings we share the planet with. I started out my career working in Western science (botany) because of its potential to help protect biodiversity and promote sustainability. In addition to working in Western science, I have since learned the importance of using Indigenous science and other forms of knowledge to work toward our world’s sustainability goals.

 

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

 

I chose to specialize in ethnobotany after I moved to Costa Rica (I lived in the country from 2006 to 2010); the field originally appealed to me because it allowed me to add in a social dimension to my scientific work. Costa Rica stimulated my interest in this field because there are so many people that live in rural areas and make use of a diversity of tropical plants for food and medicines. After I became hooked to this fascinating field, I learned that this work has many important implications that have sustained my interest. For example, I have spent most of my PhD working with the human rights aspects of ethnobotany; in other words I try to understand what plants Indigenous peoples use. I hope to use these data to support peoples’ human rights to access these plants for their food and medicine systems.

 

Tell us about your work?

I am an ethnobotanist who specializes in people’s use of plants in tropical rainforests; more specifically, I am interested in how people use wild edible plants and how these people can retain access to these plants in forests that are often not managed for food use.

For more information on my PhD research, check out my 3 Minute Thesis: 

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

I like to remind people that my work is also important because it links culture to our scientific understanding of plants. I work with so many people who have strong cultural histories associated with plant use; my work highlights the diversity of plants they use but also the key cultural connections. In a world where many of us have become disconnected with nature and where the market economy drives people to leave rural areas and dwell in cities, it is key to give attention to those people who carry important knowledge about our world’s wild plants. My work not only highlights these historical and cultural relationships with plants, my work can be used to ensure people retain their rights to use these plants into the future.

Do you have any interesting external/extracurricular obligations?

I am a beginner salsa dance instructor.

Any interesting hobbies you’d like to share?

I am especially interested in music; I play guitar and I also do Latin dance. My other hobbies include learning languages, swimming, running, hiking, camping, tennis, reading poetry, and cooking.

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

My ideal day off would involve exploring a new area of the world; the exploring wouldn’t be too strenuous, just walking the streets and learning about new cultures, new foods, and histories of a place. I enjoy visiting Latin American destinations but I often just take time exploring towns and sites in my neck of the woods.

Please welcome Olivia to Real Scientists!

 

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Science Journalism from Indonesia: Thanks and farewell to Dyna Rochmyaningsih

We’d like to thank Dyna Rochmyaningsih for tweeting for us for the week of the 20th July! As you can see we’re running a bit behind on the farewell posts at the moment – but we’ve been trialing a new system for information/feedback gathering, and hope it’ll streamline things in future.

Dyna is a Science Journalist from Indonesia, and if you’re interested you can pop back and read her intro post here.

Dyna quite fearlessly jumped into the deep end with regards touchy topics in science during her week tweeting for @RealScientists – the religion and science discussion, for example. If you want to recap her week of tweets, hit this link here for a time-stamped search of her stellar efforts.

As part of our new outro process, Dyna answered some more questions for us. (The constant desire for data collection – it’s the scientists’ curse!)

How did you find your week as a curator?

It was great. Curating for RS is a good way to find out how scientists think in their perspective. I love to share my love for science such as cooking science (this one was really fun) and the clash between science and religion (this one was sensitive, controversial, but many people were so engaged!). And the best thing is, everyone seems listening to you because you are RS. That’s what I felt. Hehe

Were there any lowlights?

I was a bit discouraged when someone said that my tweet sounds like a rubbish. It was controversial science though, I was trying to explain the situation but perhaps he thought I supported that controversial science (electricity cancer therapy). But I think it’s minor.

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

Yes, people were still discussing on vaccine or GM, while I was trying to make a new thread. I couldn’t RT all the tweets

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

I wanna engage more with science journalism and get more connection with international science journalists.

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

Share what you really love about science. That could be fun!

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

Cosmos definitely.

Thank you so much, Dyna! We really enjoyed having you with us. If you want to follow Dyna, she continues to tweet @dynablossoms!

I’d like to be, under the sea in a crustacean garden – Zen Faulkes joins Real Scientists

Who doesn’t love crustacea? Lobsters, prawns, crabs, mantis shrimp – these wonderfully colourful, multi-segmented organisms make (1) delicious eating if you are not vegetarian (2) excellent model animals for studying all kinds of biological processes.  So we are delighted to welcome Associate Professor Zen Faulkes (@doctorzen) of Texas Pan-American University to Real Scientists. Dr Faulkes is a neuroethologist – that is, someone who studies animal behaviour by looking at the evolution of  the nervous system.  He works on To find out more about his work, we asked Zen our usual set of questions:

 

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Q: How did you end up in science?
A: As with most things, it was a combination of external and internal factors.
The main external factor was Jennifer Mather, a comparative psychologist at the University of Lethbridge who studies octopuses. I took classes with her with as an undergraduate. One day, I walked into her office, and she sort of shut the door behind me, and asked, “How would you like an enserk?” “Great!” I replied. “What’s an enserk?” Turned out that it wasn’t enserk, but NSERC, an abbreviation for the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, one of the major Canadian research funding agencies. The department I was in had NSERC summer scholarships for undergraduates, but apparently they thought the applicants that year were a little weak. So Jennifer headhunted me to be a summer student. That was very helpful in eventually being accepted into graduate school.
And for you undergraduates out there, the moral of the story is: get to know your professors, so they get know you, by name and on sight. They can help you.
The internal factors were a combination of vanity, arrogance, and hedonism. Vanity because I wanted a Ph.D. I wanted to be able to call myself “Doctor Zen” and sound like the villain from a bad kung fu movie. Arrogance because not only did I think I was smart enough to do a doctorate, I also thought that I was clever enough to land on my feet and do something else if the whole science thing didn’t work out. And hedonism because I went into grad school because I was having fun doing science.
Q: Why did you choose your current field and what keeps you there?
A: Another professor in my undergraduate department at the time was W. Jake Jacobs. He was very interested in the issue of how to describe behaviour, and had written a paper about a movement analysis system developed for dance that fascinated me. I was very gung ho to try to use movement analysis system to try to link behaviour and neurobiology.
That led to my doctoral work in neuroethology, where I started working with sand crabs. I have mostly worked with crustaceans since then. Part of that is because a lot of crustaceans have cool looking armor and spines, and the more my animals look like prehistoric beasts, the happier I am to work with them.
I have not been particularly loyal to any one topic, though. This is the great advantage of academic freedom: you do get to follow your nose and reach out and try new kinds of projects. And I’ve been lucky enough to have managed to do that a few times.
Q. Tell us about your work.
A. That’s tough. I joke that I have a branding problem, because I can’t easily summarize my research in a few sentences. I’m not an “I study biochemical pathway X in cell type Y” kind of researcher. My publication list over the last few years runs the gamut from neurophysiology to ethics to parasites to ecological modelling. And I’ve published papers on about twenty different species.
I just try to tackle whatever question comes to mind that I think I can actually answer. And some of those questions are driven by unplanned observations. I’m out digging on the beach, and there’s a species that I’ve never been seen before. I’m looking at a nerve cord in a microscope, and there something moving in there that I hadn’t paid attention to before.
Here are a few examples of projects I have on the go right now:
Pet trade: The sale of animals as pets is almost entirely unregulated, and pet owners have not done a great job of keeping their pets contained. I’ve been doing research on the sale of crayfish through the pet trade, particularly marbled crayfish. Marbled crayfish were literally unknown to science in the 1990s, and now they’re one of the most common and readily available crayfish in the pet trade.
Parasites: I recently co-organized, with Kelly Weinersmith, a symposium on parasitic manipulation of hosts (see Integrative and Comparative Biology 54(2) for collection of papers).
Nociception: As a crustacean researcher, everyone asks you, Does it hurt lobsters when they’re cooked alive”? I may not be able to answer that question, but I might be able to get at what kinds of nasty stimuli crustaceans’ nervous systems can detect.
Sand crabs: I did my doctoral research with these mostly obscure digging critters. I’ve just decided that I will be one of the people in the world who will care about them. I’ve got a long term monitoring project of one local population, and I am slowly piecing together what their basic biology is. We don’t have answers for super simple questions like, “How long do they live? How do they mate? What do they eat?” This is not unusual for a lot of invertebrates, though.
Q. Why should anyone care about your research?
A. Because people are curious about the world. We spend so much time now trying to justify practical outcomes and return on investment that I think we sometimes overlook that it’s just great to learn new things.

More about Zen’s work can be found at his blogs, MarmoKrebs and Neurodojo. So get ready for an amazing week about crustaceans of all kinds – like most animals, they are more than meets the eye. Please welcome Zen!

High Impact Tweeting: Thanks and Farewell, Meg Rosenburg

Once upon a time, billions of years ago, around a small Class G yellow dwarf star located in the unfashionable western arm of the Galaxy…

…a molecular cloud condensed into large and small planets, some of which captured moons and various space objects (think about it, Phobos isn’t like other moons).  The new solar system has an asteroid belt, several large outer planets and is visited by a passing parade of interplanetary objects that rain down on the new sun’s new planets.  Some of these objects, asteroids, meteorites, hit these newly formed planets and moons, forming impact craters.    These are the planetary features that our most recent curator, newly minted Dr Meg Rosenburg studied for her doctoral work in her quest to better understand the history of moon.  In her week at Real Scientists, Meg taught us that these craters aren’t just surface markers or blemishes on the moons and planets: they are a visible history and memorial to events of the solar system’s development.

Starting off with a tour of craters on the moon, the earth and other planets and how we go about measuring and interpreting them, Meg started #CraterCountdown, a nightly run on different kinds of craters (with photos!)

and talked about the various ways we can measure their size and age.

Meg also talked about the collaborative nature of science, particularly given that some of the data for her thesis came from NASA’s Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA). Much of the work we do as scientists depends on other scientists and engineers making the acquisition of that data possible, and this collaborative approach is lost in common pop culture tropes of the lone genius scientist.

In addition to the scientific side of how we measure and observe the ancient history of the solar system, Meg talked about Women in STEM and the importance of female faculty role models, and her outreach – particularly her work as a producer of the PhD Movie. We asked Meg how she found her week curating for Real Scientists.

 

How did you find your week at Real Scientists?

I thought my week went well overall.  I was a bit nervous going into it, especially because I had a couple days of travel at the beginning (coming back from a family union over the 4th of July), and I think I could have planned topics ahead of time a little more than I did, but it turned out well anyway.  I made up a couple of hashtags to help me with the transition back to the west coast (#RSplaylist) and to set up a serial activity (#CraterCountdown) in hopes that people might decide to tune in regularly.  It seemed like the biggest factor in the latter effort was time of day, though, so I’m not really sure which time zone(s) I was hitting best with which tools.  It might be cool to see a distribution of @realscientists followers somehow.

 

What kind of engagement did you get out of it?

I got a range of reactions to my core topic (impact cratering).  Many people told me they had never thought about craters much before so it was interesting to them.  A couple of people who work on similar topics asked me very detailed questions, and one person requested that I get more into the details of the science.  In general I tried to mix it up: talk about my specific research in some detail for a bit, then switch to either issues/experiences in academia or science-related visits, etc.  Everyone was very enthusiastic and respectful – I’m so grateful for that!

What were your favourite discussions?

My favorite discussion was the Friday afternoon #womeninSTEM conversation.  I don’t think it managed to cover everything (by any means!) but it was nice to hear about different experiences and strategies, and I’m still finding great role models to follow on Twitter from recommendations.  #CraterCountdown also generated some fun conversations, especially when people had visited one of the sites before. I haven’t visited any of them except for Meteor Crater – I’m pretty jealous! Someday I’ll have to take a world-wide crater-themed tour. [Ed: I think we should do this]

Any particular highlights and/or lowlights?!

I was really touched that many people took the time to tell me they enjoyed my tweets. Going into this, I really wasn’t sure that anyone would be interested in my research and other interests, so it was great to have some positive feedback.  I was also overwhelmed by the positive response to #RSplaylist.  Since I had to spend several hours flying on Tuesday, I thought people might think it was lame, like I should have planned better to not be traveling that week.  It turns out there’s really an appetite for science videos out there! I’ll try to be more conscious going forward of recommending the good videos I come across on a more regular basis.

 

You can checkout Meg’s Real Scientists science video playlist here.  You can also catch up on Meg’s tweets for Real Scientists, with responses and without responses.

The multitalented Meg will also be tweeting for another rotation-curation account, @WetheHumanities this week, you should checkout her tweets there as well.  Recently, Meg’s been tweeting about aerial photography:

which, as it turns out, relates to theories of crater formation, and how we view our world from above.

So we thank Meg for her most excellent week tweeting at Real Scientists. Be sure to follow her continuing adventures at her regular account, @trueanomalies.

 

Keepin’ it Real: thanks and farewell Adam Micolich

Did you know that Jackson Pollock’s works, including the famous Blue Poles, contain fractals and the fractal nature of the work is what is so appealing about it?  This week’s curator, Associate Professor Adam Micolich, helped physicist Richard Taylor investigate Pollock’s work, to determine whether this was true. Like art, science is a creative endeavour. Unlike some art, though, science is largely a collaborative endeavour: collaborative, discursive, requiring discipline and hard work: topics that Adam elaborated on this week, as well as the ups and downs of a research career.  He highlighted the changing nature of the scientific career and the enormous requirements made of students and researchers alike and how to deal with those challenges: basically, a behind-the-scenes look at academia.

Being a scientist isn’t easy. If you manage to stay in the game for long enough, you end up with some great skills and some idea of how to manage the system and Adam was adept at letting us in on some of these secrets. Young scientists particularly can feel pressure to work all hours to produce results, at risk of burning out. Work-life balance is a huge issue for many scientists, and a recurring theme at Real Scientists. It was great to hear Adam’s perspectives and tips for handling this so it doesn’t take over your life. During the week, Adam talked about how,  increasingly, it’s becoming harder and harder for scientists to maintain this work-life balance, have a successful career and work the system to ensure you survive and can continue to gain funding: for your work, your postdocs and students.  You want your staff to succeed, but without burning out, it’s all a team effort:

Apart from Adam’s Salade Niçoise recipe, this is Adam’s Time Management Guide, aka How Not to Lose Your Mind as a Scientist:

We also got to see some of Adam’s group’s awesome work in nanoelectronics using “salty polymers” and some of the awesome old equipment lying around.

There was also a lot of robust discussion around issues in science, perceptions of scientists and dealing with modern academic life which Adam covered with verve and great openness.  You can catchup on the week’s tweets from Adam here.

We always appreciate the discussions that come up with the Real Scientists account and we hope to continue providing a safe, constructive space for this kind of profitable and ultimately, enlightening discourse. Both the curators, who give up their whole week for free to engage, and the audience, are critical to this engagement and we hope the community will continue to be supportive and constructive.

 

So, thank you Adam for your week at Real Scientists and introducing us to the world of nanoelectronics and the perils and pleasures of academia. Please be sure to follow Adam on his adventures at his regular account, @ad_mico.

 

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.

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!