Monday, April 25, 2011

Message in a Box

                When people ask me what I do, I reply, “I work with frogs,” which is true, but it leaves out salamanders, other components of the amphibian food web, undergraduates, graduate students, and other research scientists, not to mention exciting research questions that can cause the mind to sizzle.  And in response, I usually get some bizarre question from them about an amphibian on their land that sounds like a tale out of a Dr. Seuss book, but with less rhyming.  This week in my seminar on communicating science with the public, we are all trying to boil down our field of research to a simple “message box.”  The message box is the research statement equivalent of packing up your house to move: Ideally, you label the box with something like “Kitchen—pots, pans, potholders, wooden spoons,” which gives you a good idea of what’s in the box (and where it should go) without providing extraneous details like “Kitchen—frying pan, 2 qt sauce pan, 3 qt sauce pan, 4 qt pot, 6 qt soup pan, potholders made by Mrs. Hamilton, 15 wooden spoons, ladle, 3 whisks, and salad tongs."  Even worse would be a message with so little information that you may know that 20 boxes belong in the "Kitchen," but you'd be hard-pressed to locate your can opener in a digestive emergency.  ( own work description suffers from the can-opener in a box in the kitchen problem.)  My research objective is to understand how human alteration of habitat in various ways impacts amphibian communities, all of which has implications for global amphibian population declines.  There are lots of interesting details, but I’m boiling in my 6 quart soup pan today, and here’s what is left:

                For now, that is my message, and I’m sticking to it.  

Monday, April 18, 2011

Taxing Jobs

          I just finished reading a book for a publisher about a scientist’s personal account involved in the struggle for funding for research of an emerging issue at a state agency amid administration conflict, which has me thinking of the potential power and weakness of government research.  I worked for the US Geological Survey for a little over three years after finishing my graduate degree.  I worked with very good scientists who were doing important and valuable research, and it gave me some critical experiences that helped define my career objectives and goals.  Ultimately, it also sent me applying for academics jobs, and not only because there were no forms to fill out that were screened by “personnel” in an office far, far away from the actual position.
One of the strengths, perhaps the greatest, of government research at places like the USGS is that they have a built in network of scientists that they can draw upon when an emerging issue arises.  Many government agencies have research scientists and a number of technicians available for conducting research.  Although they are often stretched to fulfill their research mission, they have a full time staff (along with term and temporary staff) which often allows some time to run additional studies with other collaborators or to evaluate some issue “emerging” in their area.  My lab has recently started a collaboration with a USGS research scientist (one I had not previously worked with)—he sent us some tadpoles of a species he was interested in, we were able to do a research study in my lab, and then he was able to find people at two separate USGS labs to run chemical analyses on our water and a test for a pathogen we were using.  I know people working on this particular issue, but without funding, we would be hard pressed to find other people to run these critical analyses.  It is cool that the framework within an agency allows for this type of interagency collaboration, which meets their research goals and also answers an interesting research questions.  Universities often have relatively reasonable labor (i.e., undergraduates) that gain from the research experience without costing the agency much or any money, making government-university collaborations beneficial for both. 
Government also has the power to fund large, long-term projects that influence everyone—for instance, computer technology.  Thank you, NASA.  Because science has a great value to society, it makes sense for tax dollars to support research because it’s something that helps all of us, but it can take many years (and tax dollars) to reach the goal—a sort of cultural delayed gratification.  When I was at the USGS, they were also able to fund an Amphibian Research and Monitoring Initiative across the nation, which has monitored amphibian populations and habitats, and funded research on issues that could be contributing to population declines.  The number of people that was involved is this initiative is likely not rivaled by any other group of people working in this research area. 
However, one of the weaknesses of working in government research is that the scientists are often at the mercy of political and public whims.  It’s one of the main reasons I decided to not try to find a job in USGS during the early Bush administrations.  There was some pressure at the agency where I worked to limit interpretation of one’s data—not that they were trying to suppress the results or outcomes, but I did feel like they were trying to limit the conclusions I made so that I couldn’t really make any conclusions at all.  Could have made things easier, since the discussion is the hardest part of the paper to write:  Discussion—see results.  However, I didn’t take their advice to heart and said exactly what I wanted to say.  The idea that an agency would even attempt to limit the researcher in this way made me extremely uncomfortable.  What are people with families (or just themselves) to support going to do if that sort of pressure was strong?   The discussion part of a paper is for putting your data in perspective and for pointing toward what the data overall suggest.  If the scientist who did the study can’t do that, who can?  The peer-review process, where other scientists read and evaluate your work, prevent scientists from extrapolating way beyond their data or making outlandish conclusions.  Politics should not influence science, but because of the way government research is funded (through the government), there is always that danger.  And if nothing else, science can be weakened by government through lack of financial support, which has rendered whole agencies powerless to enforce the laws that are on the books.
There were a lot of things I liked about working for the government—the scientists were good, the hours were sane, the pay potential was good, and the mission was clear (research)—but the other challenges would have made the job frustrating to me for the long haul—besides the fact that getting a permanent position required the patience of Job (I had one friend who was temporary at USGS for nine years and then they let her go, which has sent her on a trajectory she never imagined [hello, industry]).  Academic jobs, though, where research is a major focus also require federal or state funding for research which is also vulnerable to whims of politicians and the public, but there’s a lot you can do in ecology on a dime when necessary and you can be just about as outlandish as you wish (at least after tenure, but often before as well).  The author of the book I just reviewed retired from her state job pretty ticked off and after reading 305 pages I can understand why.  She believed in the agency’s mission and that seemed to blind her to the fact that the agency was failing to understand environment issues or support research within their mission.  I wonder if that experience is more common in government than academics, or if it all depends on leadership and vision of the people administrating away.  So far, I am happy to be in academics, even if my own mother doesn’t seem to think I’m working unless I’m teaching class.   

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Channeling Martha Stewart

                Martha Stewart, domestic and business goddess, has long been one of my heroes.  The woman is a genius in her ability to use every day items in unexpected ways.  Who else can turn a lollipop into a flower or a trellis into a garden organizer?  Well, maybe someone else could, but Martha does.  One of the realities of science is that you are often channeling your inner Martha Stewart to solve problems in the lab or field.  All good scientists have to be part construction worker, part baker, and part crafter.  All lab scientists know the necessity of following a recipe to run gels or make a nice petri dish full of agar.  Some of my earliest field experiences involved building 6 foot walls for a terrestrial enclosure out of aluminum flashing.  The terrestrial enclosures, which were being built for salamanders, involved making “Z-channels” to combine to pieces of flashing and rivets to secure the Z-channel and walls together—and all of this fabrication was done in mid-state SC in the middle of the summer back when I was apparently a real trooper.  That was about the time I learned about Martha Stewart (who I naively suggested was all about “crafts for elitists”).  Little did I know then that she had the makings of a real scientist.
                Well, you can see where this is going.  I had a Martha Stewart moment this week after reading some reviews on a recently rejected manuscript criticizing the way we collected samples of algae that grow on things (periphyton), which is a food source of many tadpoles.  We typically collect the periphyton from the sides of the ponds, something these reviewers found impossible to believe.  Reviewers’ minds are often limited by their own limitations, sadly; this makes their criticism irritating, because our method works, but I was trying to think of another way to do the sampling to avoid future criticisms by limited minds.  I googled periphyton sampler and, ah good, there were a couple available.  Here’s one:
 A profession periphyton sampler.  Fancy, no?

How much would you expect one of these babies to cost??  They look simple enough, but they cost around $80-120 dollars for each one!!  I need 36, so that wasn’t going to work.  I started brain storming things that float that would hold slides and I was googling away.  Then I remembered something I had it the lab.

A field biologists staple. 

                Yes, pool noodles.  We’ve used these in experiments to float enclosures in the field and there are a few sitting in my lab taking up space.  Once I found myself an Exacto knife from the tool box and bought some slides from Danny in the store room down the hall, I was well on my way. 

Simple and elegant.

                For the price of some slides (and some pool noodles if they’re not laying around your lab or garage), you can have some lovely periphyton samplers.  I was as proud as Martha Stewart must have been when she realized simple glass jars were much prettier for dish soap, so I posted a picture of them on my facebook page.  Of course, I was looking for some praise.  My grad advisor saw them and left this message:  Sun may not get to the slides.  To which I replied:  Don’t rain on my parade.  Well, he could have a point, but I’m already trying them out.  Fortunately, the sun and the samplers both move and will give the relative differences between our experimental treatments so we’ll give it a try.  The only thing that could go wrong are the slides all sliding out (or the wind turbine by my ponds  falling on my ponds and crushing my experiment).  In the 
meantime, I’m counting this as one of my own collection of Good Things from the lab.  (I wonder if this will get me on a special edition of her show:  Science Crafts?)

The sampler at work.  Time will tell if I am a genius...or not. 

Monday, April 4, 2011

Where Poetry and Science Can Intersect

As part of a seminar this week, we are discussing “science on the radio” as a means of communicating with the public.  We listened to three pieces—one on ice, the estrogenic compounds leached out of plastics, and stem cells—as examples of how scientists interact with the public through the radio.  Even though many people claim to not read poetry often, I think the vivid images that are brought to life by poetry are used in the every day.
Well, exactly.

The program on ice served as a good contrast in ways of conveying scientific information. The scientist who was most successful communicating to the public from all these programs was Dr. Eugene Stanley, a physicist from Boston University.  He used a series of analogies to convey scientific ideas—he was very poetic and enthusiastic.  He describes the chemical structure of water as a pyramid of positive and negative charges, with oxygen at the center “where the mummy might lie,” rather than the boomerang shape we often learn in school.  He describes the bonds of water, hydrogen bonds, like a jungle gym when the bonds get stronger (when the temperature goes down), but if you sawed the jungle gym up, it would take up less space and become more dense, as water is more dense as a liquid.  That’s great!  In contrast, the author of the book Ice:  The Nature, the History, and the Uses of an Astonishing Substance, Mariana Gosnell, is the person you would most expect to be bursting forth with metaphors and analogies; but, she had no magic in her language.  While Stanley had been invited back on the show from a previous visit, I doubt the author will be invited back.
Part of the unexpected discrepancy in ability to convey science to the public might be related to how authors and scientists interact with the public.  Authors might be in their element alone with their page; they do not necessarily spend a lot of time interacting with the public and being a good writer does not make you a strong public speaker.  Even though we might expect scientists to be, on average, comfortable doing isolated tasks like experiments in the lab or field, or writing papers and grants, many of these activities involve a lot of people and explaining the science behind the tasks in understandable terms.  Scientists also spend a decent amount of time teaching (often) and giving talks at scientific meetings as part of our work; as a result we learn to communicate our science to these audiences.  The act of teaching in a lot of ways sets the stage for scientists to effectively communicate with the public, because we must explain often complex functions or ideas to students who for the most part are not familiar with them—not so different than talking to the public.
I teach introductory biology with two other scientists, one of whom dresses up like “Euglena Man” during the topic of the evolution of protists via endosymbiosis.  Euglena Man is the human personification of a protist with very few apparent super powers, but with a flagella which is, in a word, ominous.  The professor dresses up like a Euglena (Man) to highlight the number of membranes in his Euglenid plasmids, which differ between protists and non-protists as a result of algal cells swallowing bacterial cells that began to be associated with these cells (the endosymbiotic hypothesis), leaving in many cases an extra membrane or two.  He uses a bit of drama to drive home the point, memorably.  Now if only he could only acquire some super powers, he may be able to go public or at least make his debut in a comic book. 
If he's going to go on a science tour, I think he'll need a leisure suit 
worthy of a super hero.

In contrast, a radio program on embryonic cells required the producers of the show to apparently coach the scientist on talking with the public.  He used an analogy which he said one of the producers came up with—that “pluripotent” cells (like skin cells reprogramed to have the potential to become any kind of cell) were not a blank canvas the way embryonic cells were (meaning they could become any type of cell), but they were more like a painted canvas that had been painted over where some bits still come through.  Now that is a really great analogy, but likely one the producers came up with because the scientists had a tendency to use acronyms like IPS (induced pluripotent stem cells) rather than using the King’s (and Queen’s) colorful English. 
Communicating with the public will require us scientists to sit down and think outside of the box about other ways of looking at our study system.  I’m thinking about my research with insecticides in aquatic wetlands.  When you add insecticides in an environment to eliminate a target pest, it sometimes affects other components of the ecosystem and can change the function of food webs.  So, insecticide exposure is like taking an antibiotic—it has a targeted problem, like a sinus or skin infection, but it also affects other parts of the body and can leave you with a bit of diarrhea.  Is that poetic enough?  Well…I can work on it.