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9 Reasons Sanford-Burnham Blogs

Posted by Mary Canady October 15th, 2012 .
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Heather Buschman, Ph.D, scientific communications manager at Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, explains why she and others blog at Beaker, the Institute’s science blog. Heather will speak on the expert panel at our ScienceOnline event on October 22, 2012.

At Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, it became apparent a few years ago that we needed a new way to communicate the Institute’s science to the lay public. We produced a quarterly newsletter and we issued press releases when necessary, but many smaller discoveries, events, and other tidbits slipped through the communications cracks. We lacked the ability to share breaking news. So, in March 2010, we published the first post on our blog, Beaker. Since then, we’ve shared nearly 500 blog posts on everything from autophagy to zebrafish. We’ve used Beaker to tackle issues like NIH support for translational research and to show our support for Prop 29, the California voter initiative that proposed to fund cancer research by increasing the state’s tobacco tax. We’ve covered our wacky game show-style fundraising events and paid tribute to a beloved supporter who passed away. We’ve reported on more than 100 research publications and shared more than a few personal stories.

It’s a lot of work to keep this hungry beast fed—we try to publish new posts three times a week. Why do we do it? Here are 9 reasons (in no particular order) we blog at Sanford-Burnham:

  1. To increase the public understanding of science. These days everyone needs to understand complex scientific information—to make personal health care decisions, to vote on initiatives and elect representatives who will shape scientific policies, to make healthy consumer choices, to serve on a jury, and more. It’s up to individual scientists, research institutions, and funding agencies to help educate the public. By far, the most read Beaker blog post is DNA 101. It doesn’t even mention Sanford-Burnham or our research, but it seems to be something that a lot of people want to know about.
  2. To keep up with the daily news cycle. Like most institutions, we not only produce our own news stories, we also want to earn coverage in traditional news outlets (newspapers, magazines, TV, etc.). The conventional way to let reporters know what’s going on is to send them a press release. But many journalists are growing weary of the dry, formulaic press release. I can’t say I blame them. We believe that blog posts are becoming the new press release. Blogs allow for more context, images, video, and interaction. Beaker is a place to report news, but also to tell engaging stories. We can even write in the first person! What’s more, as the pressure to produce more news faster, to feed the 24-hour news cycle with an ever-shrinking staff, we find that reporters are increasingly turning to places like Beaker as an information source.
  3. To provide useful, timely information. When there’s big news in the world and we want to provide background information or expert commentary on it, we turn to Beaker. For example, when John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine last week for their work reprogramming mature cells into pluripotent cells, we quickly responded with a Beaker post called “Stem Cells 101.” When the FDA approved Truvada, the first HIV prevention drug, we asked our HIV experts to comment on it.
  4. To demonstrate your tax dollars at work. And make the case for continued NIH funding! Tough economic times mean everyone has to make tough budgetary decisions. We hope that by explaining our research findings in lay terms, Beaker is playing at least a small part in demonstrating to the general public and our elected officials how NIH dollars (and funding from other federal and state agencies) are used and why it’s important to keep investing in basic and translational medical research. For example, check out this post about a recent study funded by the NIH and the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.
  5. To give people a place to engage us in conversation. What’s important to the general public? What do people want to know more about? How are we doing? We’d never know unless we provided a place where people can comment on our stories. Right now, we’re also running a short reader survey on Beaker. (Please participate at beaker.sanfordburnham.org!)
  6. To build an easily searchable “history” of our research findings. By posting new content roughly three times a week for the past two and a half years, we’ve built an impressive library of news, video, images, quotes, disease-related information, and more. Beaker keeps it all nicely categorized, tagged, and easily searchable. Barely a week goes by that we don’t benefit from this, whether it’s a potential donor wondering what sort of diabetes research we’re doing or a reporter seeking stories for National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
  7. To show the human side of science. Let’s face it: most people think all scientists are nerdy men who where white coats and, well, lack social skills. We use Beaker to tell stories about the people behind the science—some who even look like this. We’ve also shared some very personal stories. Here’s mine.
  8. To make it easy to follow us. People and reporters can choose to receive our content by visiting our site, subscribing by RSS feed or email, or by following us on Facebook, Twitter, or other social media sites. We don’t have to flood your inboxes with unwanted emails.
  9. To let people know they can make a difference by donating. Most of Sanford-Burnham’s revenue comes in the form of grants, but we are a nonprofit organization that also relies on philanthropic support. Beaker helps us remind people that they can directly support medical research by donating to Sanford-Burnham. No marathon running or mustache growing required!

Why do you blog? Let us know in the comments below!



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The Evolution of Crowdsourcing

Posted by Mary Canady October 12th, 2012 .
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Assay Depot’s Kevin Lustig explains how crowdsourcing is changing how scientific research is done in anticipation of our ScienceOnline event October 22nd 2012.

In James Surowiecki’s book “The Wisdom of Crowds” he lays out the criteria for successful decision making by large groups[1]:

  1. Diversity of opinion
  2. Independence
  3. Decentralization
  4. Method of Aggregation of Results
  5. The most successful outcome will be achieved when the four criteria are all present. When you think about it this is very similar to the requirements for successful evolution of a new species. Under selective pressure (e.g., an environmental change that makes the current food source scarce), evolution is more likely to triumph when a species has:

    1. A high level of genetic diversity (diversity of opinion)
    2. Independence (this is a given, evolution has no inherent bias towards one gene over another)
    3. Decentralization (also given, there is no central decision making body, just random chance)
    4. Method of aggregating results  (survival of the fittest, better genes survive and aggregate)

    Viewed in this light, our attempts at crowdsourcing are really attempts to duplicate the effectiveness of evolutions blind watchmaker, and our ability to succeed with this new model of innovation has never been greater than it is today. The Internet has brought people together in ways that were not possible before; the amount of data that is available to those people has also increased to levels that were undreamed of even a decade ago.

    Successes in crowdsourcing to date have been largely restricted to solving mental problems, software or other things that do not require expensive equipment or lab space.  Whirlpool famously transformed itself into one of the most innovative companies in America, in part through the use of crowdsourcing to solve problems and generate new ideas.  In her now famous book about the transformation Dr. Nancy Tennant discusses how Whirlpool went from generating all of their new ideas internally, to over 30% from crowdsourcing during her tenure, with a stated goal of getting to more than 50%[2].

    Examples are now starting to pop up in the Life Sciences. Witness the success of the Foldit program / Game from the University of Washington in Seattle[3]. Foldit challenged on line gamers to rearrange the amino acids in a particular protein (a Diels–Alderase enzyme, one of the work horses of modern synthetic chemistry) with two goals 1. Increase activity 2. Increase stability. The resultant sequence obtained through crowdsourcing was not just better but 13 times better than the starting sequence. Not only that but it is not a solution that could have been arrived at by traditional techniques, the current state of the art in protein engineering  ‘directed evolution’ tends to introduce point mutations; adding, removing, or changing a single amino acid in the sequence. The new structure obtained through crowdsourcing included a 13 amino acid insertion, something beyond the scope of traditional techniques.

    More involved biological research has been waylaid by the difficulties involved in obtaining access to the tools and techniques of modern biology. Most people if so inclined can participate in a thought exercise, can help dream up a new product concept, or can play at manipulating a protein sequence on their computer. But if you need access to a DNA sequencer, or the ability to run a toxicology experiment, well that has historically been a bit more challenging. Enter Assay Depot, an innovative company on the forefront of a new model of decentralized science. Whether it is providing Citizen Scientists with access to the tools and services they need (everything from sequencing a gene, obtaining clinical samples, or even running a phase 3 trial), to providing big Pharma with a low cost, outsourced mechanism to get their own research done.  For the first time in history, all of the resources required for serious biological research are available to anyone that wants them. In one location you can find all of the services you need to take an idea from inception all the way through the drug development process and into patients.

    It is this new model of research that will drive the next generation of discoveries across the entire life sciences industry, including drug discovery. Crowdsourcing and the rise of the citizen scientist represent true quantum leaps forward for research science. A move away from the current model that revolves around uniformity of thinking, institutional dependence, and centralization (the very antithesis of Surowieki’s four axioms) to a rapid, open model that unleashes the power of human intuition at unprecedented levels, borrowing from nature’s most enduring model for coming up with new ideas.

    Perhaps in conclusion, it is worth remembering that the idea of the “Citizen Scientist” is not a new one! Indeed until quite recently in our history of science, it was the modus operandi. So it was that the Modern Atomic Theory was developed by a Quaker School Teacher (John Dalton), the first dinosaur was discovered by a country Doctor (Gideon Mantel), and perhaps the single greatest contribution to science (the Theory of Relativity) came to us from an Austrian Patent Clerk.


    [1] The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations, published in 2004, written by James Surowiecki
    [2] Unleashing Innovation: How Whirlpool Transformed an Industry, published in 2008 written by Nancy Tennant Snyder
    [3] Foldit paper: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=foldit-gamers-solve-riddle


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Interview With ScienceOnline Panelist Suzanne Kennedy: MO BIO Blogger

Posted by Mary Canady October 11th, 2012 .
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Leading up to our first ScienceOnlineSoCal event October 22nd, we’re featuring posts about and from our panelists. I had the chance to speak to Suzanne Kennedy (@suzyscientist) about her experience writing on the MO BIO blog, The Culture Dish.

Besides being MO BIO‘s R&D Director, Suzanne is a veteran blogger, having also written for Bitesize Bio since ’07. The MO BIO blog was started in September ’09 and they post about twice a month. The topics include technical tips, news, events, interviews, and product information. The company, founded in 1993 and located in Carlsbad, specializes in products for DNA/RNA extraction and purification. Suzanne said that they’ve found blog posts with technical tips are the most popular. In posts where products are featured, MO BIO does a great job of adding value by including application information as well.

I asked Suzanne about the benefits of the blog to MO BIO, and at this point she started talking so fast I couldn’t keep up with my notes. She said they get a lot of positive feedback from customers about the blog. In addition, she thinks they get more interactions with customers who might have been intimidated to contact her before. She said that the blog ‘opens a door’ of communication between the scientists who help develop the products and the researchers who use them. These scientist-scientist connections are mutually beneficial as customers may be able to help shape products by expressing their needs or by beta testing early versions of products.

Suzanne also said that scientists also look to her for help on topics outside of the scope of MO BIO’s products, if she posts tips in a certain area. To me, this fact is a sign that researchers are more hungry for help online than ever, and ScienceOnline connections are more becoming more important. Join us October 22nd to help us build these bridges!


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New Feature on the SDBN Website: Top News & Jobs

Posted by Mary Canady July 27th, 2012 .
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Each week we chronicle San Diego Biotechnology news, events, and jobs. Now, we’ll provide you with the top news and jobs each week at the end of the day Thursday. The top news is determined by the popularity of items in our daily emails. The top jobs are the ones that are featured, contact us to learn how you can get your jobs listed here. Bookmark the pages below and check back on Fridays to see what’s hot in San Diego life science!



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Building A Life Science Team To Meet Your Goals

Posted by Mary Canady July 24th, 2012 .
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Presentation by Mary Canady for the SDBN July 23rd Speed Networking event with hyperlinks and audio.