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#ScioSoCal Panelist Karyn Traphagen: Science and Serendipity

Posted by Mary Canady October 21st, 2012 .
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Just when we started getting serious about a ScienceOnlineSoCal event, Karyn Traphagen, their Executive Director, contacted me out of the blue on the day I was going to reach out to her. The rest is, as they say, history, and Karyn flew out today to be a part of our panel Monday. I spent some time with her this afternoon and found that the serendipity that resulted in her joining us tomorrow is likely a theme in Karyn’s life, as she describes herself as a “boundary bridger.” Karyn’s journey through many scientific disciplines has prepared her for her role in shaping the non-profit ScienceOnline which seeks to empower scientists through connections, conversations, collaborations, and community (the 4 C’s).

A nice interview with Karyn can be found on the Double X Science blog and I urge you to read it to understand Karyn’s highly interdisciplinary background. Karyn described the three areas ScienceOnline is focused on:

  1. Events. ScienceOnline has its main event in North Carolina in January, and is branching out to have satellite events in the Bay Area, Seattle, Denver, Washington DC, Chicago, and of course Southern California. These regional groups will help people to connect in real life and to discuss the issues specific to the region.
  2. Community. Both in these geographical groups, and online globally, ScienceOnline seeks to build a community which can tackle the tough questions about science communication.
  3. Tools. ScienceOnline seeks to help facilitate the ’4 C’s’ through tools such as ScienceSeeker which collects and curates science blog posts and news. Karyn said that some exciting new changes will be launched soon, stay tuned!

Karyn got very passionate when talking about the bigger picture for ScienceOnline. She sees a culture in which scientists often replicate their mentors and keep with outdated systems for communication and eschewing outreach. She sees a major disconnect between research and the public, and this has resulted in a funding crisis and distorted views of science. If we’re doing science to save lives, isn’t it important that our work is understood?

There are myriad tools for scientists available to leverage the 4 C’s, and there are many topics which can be discussed which don’t divulge intellectual property (e.g., news, publications, events). Karyn and I discussed the fact that understanding the amazing benefits of participating in the ScienceOnline community is highly experiential and we hope that we can better understand the needs of the region on Monday. Karyn’s interdisciplinary experience will surely help us to create a ScienceOnlineSoCal group which will benefit us all. Please join us!

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Building a Digital Lifeform Through an Open Source Project

Posted by Mary Canady October 19th, 2012 .
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Stephen Larson, panelist for our October 22nd ScienceOnline event, describes the OpenWorm project, a fascinating initiative that demonstrates the power of researchers working together online.

Can a large scale biological simulation project be run as an open source project?

With well funded efforts like DARPA’s synapse project and the Blue Brain project it seems like it would be difficult.  But that’s what the passionate group behind the OpenWorm project believe and have been making it a reality for the past year.  Some basic facts about the project:

The project has already produced a “Worm Browser” that allows anyone to see the anatomy of the organism that is being simulated.  The project has also made great progress in marshalling the facts that are known about this organism into a “connectome” that can be simulated.  Finally, the project recently published a paper that outlines its previous work and points directions to the future.

We need help!  If you are interested in helping out, whether or not you have any special expertise, please send an email to contact@openworm.org or check out the contact page on the website for more ways to connect!

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How Does Great Science & Communication Benefit You? Ask #ScioSoCal Panelist Miriam Goldstein.

Posted by Mary Canady October 18th, 2012 .
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We are very lucky to have Miriam Goldstein on our ScienceOnlineSoCal panel October 22nd for several reasons. One is that she is very busy right now as she’s in the final process of writing her Ph.D. thesis at UCSD’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO). Another reason we’re lucky is that although many would consider that Miriam is just beginning her scientific career, she’s gotten more press than many do their lifetime. Miriam clearly understands that science communication is important, and her experience can help researchers utilize this tool to improve their own careers. I am going to step in and write this post so that Miriam can concentrate on her thesis, but she’ll be available at our event Oct. 22nd for questions.

At SIO, Miriam studies the impact of plastic debris on marine invertebrates. In 2009, she was the Chief Scientist on the student run Scripps Environmental Accumulation of Plastic Expedition (Seaplex). One of the studies done on the ship involved collecting water samples and Miriam’s team found that the amount of ocean plastic has increased 100 fold in the past 40 years. In addition, Miriam’s group found that this debris is altering the habitat of a marine invertebrate, and this could have major implications for the ocean’s ecosystem. These findings received worldwide media attention, including the BBC, NPR, and my favorite, The Onion.

Like most ‘overnight successes,’ Miriam has been working hard as well as communicating her science for years, she has blogged since 2007, continues to blog, and has been getting great media coverage since 2009. Of course, she works on a subject which is very topical, which helps. However, the fact that she communicates online regularly with the public and other researchers has likely shaped her research topic and goals to be in line with what people care most about. This benefit helps science communicators throughout their careers to get funding and jobs, among other things.

Additionally, Miriam is in tune with the educational needs of students ranging from high school to graduate studies. Check out her impressive work teaching students in San Diego. Through her important research and science communication, Miriam’s work puts a spotlight on San Diego’s important ocean research. Can you imagine the impact if we had active ‘research spokespeople’ for all of the scientific areas we excel at locally? Please join us October 22nd to learn from Miriam’s experience about how you can improve your career and research.

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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.

    References:

    [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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