Overlords

By Radha Desai

One of the questions I get asked often is which one is better Academic research or Industry research. I don’t have a clear answer on that and most definitely there cannot be a common answer for everyone. But let’s focus on just one aspect of this question. The management! For the career academics…. this means your boss.

My sweeping statement is this… Industry provides better bosses. The years of litigation that companies have had to deal with has led to this new age corporate environment where bosses are required to adapt a certain minimum acceptable demeanour. The ‘overlords’ in academia could learn a thing or two from this framework that many like to poo-poo!!

In industry there is a sort of separation of church and state- the manager and human resources or personnel. Although in practice, the managers have almost complete control over their reportees , because of the looming presence of the HR framework and rule book, the line of ridiculous behaviour is crossed less often.

The academic overlords have a different perspective and dimension, complete domination! That amount of responsibility and total control over a bunch of smart individuals who are seemingly there just to execute your vision is addictive. Not everyone is able to shoulder this responsibility with grace. This leads to often repeated ridiculous interactions between supervisors and their ‘people’. There are of course many excellent exceptions this rather binary viewpoint, and I believe that things are evolving. There is a shift in the pyramidal structure of research groups which encourages more lateral interaction. So the question really is can you be a researcher in academia and not have tunnel vision? Yes and no. An academic research group head is more like an artist. And the people working in the group are junior artists working in their studio, filling in the colours into an imagined masterpiece. Their work is more about ‘professing’ their beliefs and perspective to their audience. I think the most challenging aspect of this is to separate the realisation of artistic vision from the responsibility of nurturing the new generation of scientists. Is there enough incentive for an academic researcher to fuel careers and not just publications? And if not, then the their place in the university universe becomes questionable.

Some weird notions exist in the academic mindset which are irrelevant in 2012 and best left ignored. Being a good manager of people does not make you less intelligent , it shows a sort of emotional prowess that can enable fruitful collaborations and help develop a team that works like a well-oiled machine. My hope is for more professors and teachers who embody genius inspiration and not ruthless aspiration.

Radha Desai is a Neuroscience PhD Candidate at University College London (UCL), where she investigates the role of mitochondria in brain diseases.

Evolution – Controversy in the Classroom

By Jess Devonport

The teaching of evolution and creationism in schools has long been a controversial issue full of divided opinions and angry rhetoric. Last year three new free schools run by creationist groups were approved in the UK, leading to concerns over teaching creationism alongside evolution as a scientifically valid theory.

Creationism and intelligent design

In the US the issue seems to be even more hotly contested. A number of states had considered “academic freedom” laws, which would have allowed teachers to present creationism as an alternative theory to evolution. Louisiana was one such state, which introduced the Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA) in 2008, making it considerably easier for teachers to introduce creationist theories as scientific thought and present criticism of evolution and the origin of life.

Intelligent design (ID) is often used interchangeably with creationism, even though many creationists do not subscribe to it. ID is creationism in a cheap lab coat; it is a way to present faith-based creationism as a scientific theory, using complexity in life (such as the eye) as evidence for an external creator or designer.

Personally, I see absolutely nothing wrong with encouraging critical thinking in students; it’s an essential part of the scientific process. However, neither creationism nor ID are recognised scientific theories and, therefore, have no place on the science curriculum.

Campaigning for education reform in the US

Following the Louisiana Science Education Act, 14 year old high school student Zach Kopplin wrote an English essay on the subject; when it became apparent that no one else was going to take up the issue, he stepped up. Now, at 19 years old he has become one of the most active and successful advocates of science education reform in Louisiana.

Kopplin identifies the problem of teaching evolution alongside creationism: “Creationism confuses students about the nature of science,” he says. “If students don’t understand the scientific method, and are taught that creationism is science, they will not be prepared to do work in genuine fields, especially not the biological sciences. We are hurting the chances of our students having jobs in science, and making discoveries that will change the world.”

In the UK it was announced last year that free schools in England must teach evolution as a “comprehensive and coherent scientific theory” in order to maintain their funding. I thought this was a great move; although I really feel that evolution should be taught as a matter of course, without financial conditions attached to it.

I’m really not sure what it is about the theory of evolution that makes some people so uncomfortable, so unwilling to accept it as a fundamental concept in biology. Could it be that evolution and the idea of common descent challenges their view that humans are unique and special? It might be argued that we are still unique in our own way, I mean, how many other species evolved in the same way as Homo sapiens? I would have thought 7-8 million years is enough distance between humans and the dirty apes; clearly it’s not enough for some.

Jess Devonport works in marketing and communications within the life sciences; she also occasionally blogs at Two Thirds Nerd Twitter: @neverjessie

The ‘Clevers’

By Radha Desai

The world of science is in a way the most inclusive of all sorts and at the same time the most elitist about intellect. The need to feel clever, be clever and surround oneself with other ‘clevers’ pervades science like a narcotic, can’t live with, can’t live without. It often seems to be the wind beneath your wings and simultaneously the reason for crippling insecurity.

The word ‘innovation’ is bandied around in a cringe-worthy fashion ever since the corporate world got a hold on it. But for us researchers it is a way of life and livelihood. There is a great deal of appreciation for an elegant idea and the promise of a new hypothesis. A drive for invention and discovery that stems from hard work on the shoulders of original thought. In this scenario, the pressure a researcher feels to be clever often manifests in strange but predictable patterns. It’s a different species almost: Homo Sapiens-Clevenrensis- the Clevers. Here are some often found stereotypic Clevers, found mostly in researchers, but they all have close relatives in other spheres.

The Bully-Clever: Makes themselves always noticed by being brash and loud and slams down anything that does not arise of their cerebral thoughts. Often hated by others secretly, but, are not challenged.

The Ant-Clever: Carries twice their own weight in work, work incessantly and always tow the line. If they lose the scent trail or get no more instructions, they appear lost and flustered.

The Elusive Clever: Keep to themselves,  often the most elegant thinkers, but hate to be the center of attention. A rare glimpse of plummage display in the form of the presentation of their work, often stuns and amazes.

The Cynical Clever: Jaded, but not disenchanted. Has a healthy or unhealthy obsession with the pessimistic.

The Energizer Clever: The enthusiastic always full of ideas, finds it hard to follow one train of thought. Their stochastic movements sometimes hits a spot of brilliance, should be allowed to bounce.

The Melancholy Clever: Unlike Cynical, the Melancholy always has an unhealthy obsession with the pessimistic….. Can drive the other Clevers into a spiral of sadness with mere presence

The Yoda Clever: The Zen Buddha with all the answers. Possesses a serenity that calms the surrounding Clevers, the one in whose reflected glory we live and flourish (The rarest of them all).

The Weasel Clever: The trouble maker, the one who is driven to madness by fierce competitiveness and every once in a while succumbs to dubious practices of sabotage and backstabbing to get ahead. Dangerous but not lethal.

The Good Athlete Clever: The front-runner, fiercely competitive and possesses a driving force that elevates the rest of the Clevers by their magical powers of pace and enthusiasm.

The Bad Athlete Clever: Fiercely competitive, with a streak of evil. Their method of brutal success leaves behind a wake of destruction…. Lethal and most likely to win at the Hunger Games.

Within the research world all these Clevers co-exist and there are several combinations of these, and sometimes a Clever will be a chimera of two or more of these Clevers. The co-existence is precarious at the best of times, which makes for an environment rife with energy. In a well-balanced group, the resulting synergy is positive and dazzling. In a dysfunctional group, the synergy results in a black hole of misery. Most times it’s just somewhere in between. The Yin and the Yang of a research group determine not just the dynamics but also lend a unique environment-identity to the group and dictate the level of success. Every level of seniority has every type of Clever. When looking for a supervisor, if you find Yoda or Good Athlete…. you will live and love science and be inspired! That is the hope I have for fledgling scientists.

Radha Desai is a Neuroscience PhD Candidate at University College London (UCL), where she investigates the role of mitochondria in brain diseases.

The Science of Christmas 2011 – A review.

With rounds like ‘Chilly Challenge’, ‘Tree-mendous Trivia’ and ‘Digital Ditties’, the alliteration was out in force for Scientific Kitty’s first ever event on Sunday.
The pub quiz, called The Science of Christmas, took place at the cosy Cumberland Bar in Edinburgh, and the turn out was great despite the appalling weather.

Inside, the fire was roaring, the Christmas tunes were playing and the drinks were flowing as our teams battled it out for the very prestigious science ‘hamper’ (bag) we’d put together. The winning team consisted of Sofia, Silvia, Andrea, Xiying, Lawrence and Max – a multidisciplinary team from the University of Edinburgh.
Some select photos from the event are displayed below, and if you’d like to have a go at some of the questions the teams were posed, click here.

Meowy Christmas!

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Let’s get quizzical

The Science of Christmas 2011

Scientific Kitty's first ever event was a pub quiz called The Science of Christmas. It took place at the cosy Cumberland Bar in Edinburgh on a very chilly Sunday evening in mid December. The quiz was designed to test participants' scientific noëledge (geddit?!) on a range of topics to do with science AND christmas. A fun time was had by all, and we were very happy to receive just one complaint... that the questions were way too hard. WELL! Scientific Kitty suggests the teams start revising for next year's quiz now, because we're not dumbing down! Give it a go yourself and see if our teams were right, or if they were just making a mountain out of a Christmas pudding. (Err, to be fair to our teams, we should probably point out that most the questions were not multiple choice, so they were pretty solid actually...)
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Inception

Matt Wall discusses ‘Inception’ and the science of dream-hacking.

“If you need me, me and Neil will be hanging out with the Dream King. Neil says ‘hi’, by the way…  

- Tori Amos ‘Tear in your hand’ from ‘Little Earthquakes’ (1991).

Dreams and the unconscious mind have long held a fascination for film-makers and other artists. This interest might derive partly from the stubborn refusal of the media world to progress away from a psychoanalytic perspective in their analysis (an approach which was already out of date in the 1960s in psychology, but, bafflingly, still seems to have some currency in media-studies departments), but also partly perhaps because of the limitless creative opportunities that trying to put dreams on the screen affords. A highly influential early example of dreams on film is the Salvador Dali-designed dream sequences in Hitchcock’s ‘Spellbound’ (1945), which (as you might expect) is disturbingly surrealist and seems to be what David Lynch based a substantial part of his early career on. Another well-known example is Kubrick’s ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ (1999), based on Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle (‘Dream Story’), which some have interpreted as an extended meditation on the nature of fantasy and dreams.

One of the big hits of last summer was ‘Inception’ by Christopher Nolan; a rare blockbuster in that it featured a highly convoluted plot, an ambiguous ending and the action taking place almost entirely in a dream-world. Inception is essentially a heist-movie, with the standard elements of ‘getting-the-team-together’ at the beginning and ‘oh-no-the-plan’s-all-going-a-bit-wrong’ towards the end, however the clever twist is that the operation takes place inside the victim’s head, as part of a shared dream-state. The technology which allows this multiple sharing of consciousness is never explained, but it doesn’t really matter; a great deal of thought clearly went into building up a consistent logic for the dream-world(s) and the means of operating within them, which makes for an instantly and deeply interesting and absorbing film. Use of impossible architecture like the Penrose staircase and other tropes such as zero-gravity which are not found in the real world make some really engaging sequences, and the creativity displayed in the use of visual effects (the exploding café, and Parisian streets folding in on themselves in particular) is stunning.

While the idea of being present in, and actively manipulating, someone else’s dreams is currently science fiction, a number of recent pieces of research have actually begun to take tentative steps in that direction. One of the recent advances in brain-imaging methods that’s generated a lot of excitement in the last few years is a technique called Multi Voxel Pattern Analysis (MVPA). This is a method of analysing fMRI data which relies on looking at broad patterns of activity across a brain region; a classification algorithm is ‘trained’ with some input in the form of brain images from two different categories, and can then (when given some new brain images) successfully predict which category the images belong to. So, a participant could be looking at either faces, or houses, and the algorithm (given the right examples in the training phase) could tell whether a face or a house was being presented, based on their brain activity. Some parts of the media have got quite excited about this technique and have called it ‘mind-reading’ however at the moment it’s somewhat limited by the algorithm having to go through an appropriate training phase with each participant. The technique has developed well beyond the simple two-category stage though, this press release from UC Berkeley details one of the most recent and exciting experiments in this area, where in fact movies are reconstructed from brain data. This technology is actually strongly reminiscent of another film, Wim Wenders’ sprawling, ridiculously-long, occasionally-magnificent but more often teeth-grindingly ponderous Until the End of the World (1991). In this film several of the characters become obsessed with an invention that allows them to record and play-back their dreams. Since we know the visual cortex of the brain is highly active during REM (dreaming) sleep, it’s not a huge leap to imagine that it will perhaps be possible to record at least a rudimentary version of a dreamer’s visual experience using a fMRI scan and further developments of the MVPA technique to reconstruct the content.

Another related piece of recent research concerns so-called ‘lucid’ dreamers, the small percentage of the population who manage to become aware that they are in a dream while still dreaming, and can then influence the dream environment. A team from the Max Planck institute in Germany gave specific instructions to a lucid dreamer, and then scanned his brain while he carried them out, in his dreams. The instructions were to clench first his right first, and then his left alternately for ten seconds, and this dreamed ‘movement’ was evident in characteristic alternating activation patterns in the left and right motor cortex; the participant’s actual hands never moved. This research represents an impressive leap forward as it’s the first time that the specific content of a dream (the movement) has been visualised by an external system. Another good report on this experiment is here.

Another set of researchers are coming at the idea of dream-hacking from a different angle. A project called ‘Power Dreaming’, due to launch next year, and funded by the US army, is seeking to provide therapy for the large number of veterans who suffer from nightmares as a result of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). While details are somewhat sketchy at the moment, it appears the aim of the project is to reduce the power of negative, traumatic dreams through alternative soothing stimuli, generated through virtual reality and delivered through 3D goggles. A more detailed write-up on this project was recently published by Wired.

So, while ‘Inception’ remains science fiction for the moment, the dream-recording device which featured in ‘Until the End of the World’ in 1991 is now taking its first steps towards being a viable technology. In fact, I’d be very surprised indeed if more than one group of researchers was not actively working on extending the techniques mentioned above in this direction already. Within a decade or two we could all be routinely recording our dreams and playing them back over breakfast. It sounds far-fetched I know, but, you gotta dream, right?

Matt Wall is a cognitive neuroscientist currently working at UCL, specialising in fMRI. He does occasionally dream in MRI scanners, but only by accident. His main web-page is here and he also writes the blog ‘Computing for Psychologists’. Twitter: @m_wall.

Scientific Kitty’s first ever event: The Science of Christmas – PUB QUIZ!

Come along to The Cumberland Bar on the 11th of December to take part in Scientific Kitty’s first event – The Science of Christmas!

It’s a pub quiz designed to test your scientific noëledge (sorry) on subjects as diverse as the physics of sleigh travel, the psychology of gift giving and the genetics of dwarfism.

Teams of up to 6 can battle it out to win our very exciting science hamper. We’ll also have a party snack buffet and Christmas crackers for one and all.

The entry fee is £2 per person and tickets must be purchased in advance from http://www.wegottickets.com/sct/3nwaFVkDnM (there won’t be any tickets on the door). If you want to come along but don’t have a team then never fear! Get a ticket, turn up, and we’ll find you some festive friends.

Meowy Christmas from Scientific Kitty!

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Contagion

Samantha Price reviews the recent medical thriller Contagion.

This isn’t Science-fiction, this isn’t 28 days later, this is Contagion.

Last weekend me and my other half went to see Contagion. A film I hadn’t seen advertised on the television or papers. In fact I only found out about it via Twitter. That said, I expected the cinema to be empty.

Did I honestly expect non-scientists to see this film? No. I expected the room to have a handful of scientists and students. On immediately walking into the dimly lit screen I realised I couldn’t have been more wrong…

Packed, the cinema was packed! Contagion it seems had managed to entice the non-scientists! So before the film had started, Contagion had managed to do what few Science films/documentaries have managed. Get the non-scientist – the general public – in!

The film was made brilliantly, perhaps my favourite film of the year. The eerie music, the red letters displaying ‘day 1, day 2’, etc. Another exciting thing about this movie was that high profile actors and actresses were involved (gives you a hint that it’s going to be good). Plus, you don’t know whether these well-known actors are going to survive! 10 minutes in and they’d already killed off Gwneyth Paltrow. You didn’t know whether Matt Damon, Kate Winslet or Jude Law were going to be next! So from the opening scene you were gripped.

The story is about a virus that has mutated from a pig and bat virus, which then quickly changes its host to humans. The story follows how in a matter of days this virus travels worldwide. With air travel and high human contact this is a highly possible – We all remember Swine Flu. That originated in Mexico and quickly became a worldwide outbreak. Then there’s the E. coli cucumber outbreak. International travel in such short time frames has allowed outbreaks to spread faster than before. Also, how many times do you touch your face in a day? 300 times. As well as this you’re touching all kinds of surfaces. Makes you realise how easily infection can occur.

So this highly virulent virus in Contagion develops even higher virulence further into the film by mutating! The film deals with how difficult a new virus is to sequence, grow and identify. The film also addresses the issues with developing a vaccine and identifying the source. What is interesting though is how the government reacts, the control measures they implement, and how the public reacts. From social isolation to riots. You get a real sense of watching this film and thinking “this isn’t a film, this could happen, this is real life”. It felt to me like I was watching a documentary or the news and not a film.

The film also shows how the power of social networking and the internet, can impact on an outbreak. Jude Law plays a blogger who shows how you shouldn’t believe everything you see on the internet.

The Science is spot on, which is scary as you do get a real sense that unlike your typical ‘monster horrors’ this could happen and it would be a lot worse than Big Foot chasing you!

Overall, I highly recommend this film. The scientific content is excellent. The acting is great and it’s great for engaging the public in science.

Samantha Price is doing a PhD in Applied Microbiology at De Montfort University, and is also a registered biomedical scientist who has a passion for communicating science to the public. She’s on Twitter here.

WANTED: Scientists to review films books and TV programs

We are looking for scientists to review films TV programs or books with a scientific slant.

Reviews can be text or video.

You choose the film/TV program/book, old or new, you can write/video as much or as little as you want, and in any style.

It doesn’t have to be sci-fi – it could be an episode of The Big Bang Theory, a documentary, a medical jargon-rich film… Nearly anything goes really (if it just reminds you of something science-related then that’s fine with us).

We want you to review the film/book/program, but most importantly we want you to comment on the science.

Whether you want to submit regularly, or just contribute a one off review please get in touch at ScientificKitty@gmail.com or on Twitter @ScientificKitty or comment below…

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