Saturday, 5 October 2013

Chimp holding a skull
Steve Jones begun his talk at the Henley Literature Festival by breaking the news that he was not the same Steve Jones who played guitar in the Sex Pistols. I was personally quite glad about this because it would have made writing this article on genetics somewhat difficult.

The Welsh geneticist and snail fan-iteration of Steve Jones has a new book out called The Serpent's Promise: The Bible Retold as Science. In the words of one of his reviews, it is a “re-cranking of the Darwinian barrel organ – accompanied by the monkey of New Atheism as it screeches petulantly at religion.” Sounds awesome, right?

His talk focused on the role of genetics in the nature versus nurture argument, using the bible as his starting point. Are we born already tainted by Adam and Eve’s transgressions in the Garden of Eden or, to put it in more scientific terms, is it worth trying to fight the genes we’re dealt at conception or are we all screwed before we even get started?

What does genetics tell us?

Are you sitting with a few others? If so, check out the two people closest to you. Statistically speaking, two out of the three of you are going to die as a result of your genes. Cheery thought, right? Although, in Shakespeare’s time, two of you would already be dead so that’s something to be thankful for. It was with this introduction that Jones begun his discussion of what genetics can—and what it can’t—inform us about who we are.

Clearly plenty of human attributes are linked to our genes. Thanks to my parents, I am at risk of developing high blood pressure and have my mother’s nose (in a jar on the mantelpiece, mwah ha ha). But it’s not a simple case of Genetics=Destiny, despite what certain scientists and members of the media would lead you to believe.

“Ignorance more frequently breeds confidence than does knowledge.”

Type ‘Scientists find the gene for’ into Google and more than 10,000 pages pop up. Among the hits is the slightly dubious premature ejaculation gene. Jones was quick to explain how this kind of reporting contributes to the public misunderstanding of genetics.

Overhyping the role of genetics is what was behind the UK’s disastrous Eleven Plus education policy in which they attempted to identify the ‘naturally talented’ kids worthy of a decent schooling. Take a class of kids and measure their IQ and there’ll be a natural variation in their scores. But we now know that, during childhood, genes can only explain 10% of this variation (interestingly, this goes up to 70% in the 65-70 age range). You see this when you look at twins adopted into different families—their environment plays a far bigger role in academic performance than genes do.

So the Eleven Plus didn’t really measure a child’s potential, all it did was deprive some kids of an education that could have drastically changed their life.

Extreme poverty drags everyone down regardless of genes

The part of the talk that stuck with me the most has to be how the contribution of genes to IQ differs dramatically depending on how rich you are. Among the top percentile for income, the contribution of genes to the population’s variation in IQ comes in at 0.7 (70% of the variation can be explained by genetic variance). Bottom percentile for income, and it drops to 0.1. For these people, their genes don’t make the damnedest bit of difference. Cue embarrassed shuffling from some members of the entirely middle- and upper-class audience.

It’s a similar situation when you consider the ‘gene for criminality’ found in half of the population. Yup, that’s the one responsible for testosterone production in the violent, dangerous creatures otherwise known as ‘men’. If you look at murder rates by age for men and women, those in possession of a Y chromosome commit around 10 times more murders than women. The peak age for criminality is between 20 and 30, gradually tailing off into ‘grumpy old men’ as Jones put it.

Compare the graphs for the UK and Detroit, and they look identical until you notice the scale of the Y axis. In the UK, the peak murder rate is 25 in 1 million. In Detroit, it’s 1000 in 1 million. Men still commit 10 times more murders than women but something about the environment has changed the scale of the problem. I’ve never been to Detroit and, after listening to Jones’ talk, I am not sure I want to.

Do our lizard brains impact on criminality?

Setting aside the limitations of brain scanning as a science, it can be used to demonstrate something really clever about how genetics can influence criminality. There’s this primitive little bit of the brain called the amygdala responsible for emotional responses and, if you surprise someone in an MRI scanner, you can make this region light up.

The degree to which the amygdala is activated depends on levels of a protein called monoamine oxidase A (MAO-A)—an enzyme involved in the transmission of nerve impulses. Those who are genetically programmed to produce low levels of MAO-A tend to respond more strongly to sudden shocks, giving them a worse temper than those who produce normal levels of MAO-A.

But MAO-A levels are not deterministic when it comes to aggression and criminality. There are plenty of people who make low levels of MAO-A (Steve Jones, for one) who don’t run around fighting and murdering. And there are people with normal levels who, thanks to their circumstances, end up taking a less than virtuous path in life. The interesting difference appears when we compare the effect of stress and trauma on antisocial behaviour in those who make low and high levels of MAO-A.

Normal levels of MAO-A + unstable childhood = 3 times higher rates of antisocial behaviour.
Low levels of MAO-A + unstable childhood = 20 times higher rates of antisocial behaviour.

It seems that, in this case, genetics can predispose someone towards violence but environment plays a huge role in deciding if a person will live up to their ill-fated inheritance. Should genes, therefore, be taken into account in the justice system? Should upbringing? Or are we all ultimately responsible for making the best of whatever cards we are dealt?

"We don’t need more geneticists, we need more theologians"

With genome sequencing becoming easier and cheaper, Jones believes that we will soon reach a point where it is possible to sequence the DNA of every child born in Britain. The problem is that this won’t tell us very much. No matter what genes we are born with, nurture still gets a look in. It’s why I get frustrated every time I see newspapers sloppily reporting scientific developments with headlines such as Are you a victim of the hunger gene? It misleads people into thinking that human behaviour can be explained in genetic terms when it is far, far more complicated in reality.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Let’s imagine for a moment that uncertain job prospects and too much caffeine pushes me over the edge and I gather up every monkey in the world and shut them in a room with a bunch of computers. Sometime later, I return to a lot of flung poo and, among all the random strings of letters typed by the unfortunate (and now cannibalistic) monkeys, I discover that one capuchin has typed the sentence: “HELLO KAT”.

This is a version of the Infinite Monkey Theorem, which basically states that a monkey hammering on a keyboard for an infinite amount of time will eventually type out the complete works of William Shakespeare. It’s all about probabilities.

Give a million monkeys ten years, and the probability that one of them will type ‘HELLO KAT’ entirely by chance is 1 in 2. The same as guessing the outcome of a coin toss*. Throw in all the other 9 character sentences that can be made from the letters on a keyboard, and the likelihood of one of the monkeys NOT typing something meaningful by chance is practically zero.

But what happens if I now take that one, single monkey, and I publish a paper saying that I have found the world’s first literate capuchin? Disregarding all the random sentences typed by all the other monkeys, I proclaim that there was only a 1 in 1.8x107 chance that my monkey could have randomly typed ‘HELLO KAT’. Those odds are so slim that surely this particular monkey must have intentionally hit those particular keys?

This is an example of Survivorship Bias, in which only focussing on the successes while ignoring the failures can lead you to make incorrect conclusions.

The same thing happens when it comes to careers. I can’t count the number of times I’ve listened to a leading scientist explain how they made it to the top using their formula of:

(Being smart) x (Choosing the right field) (Hard Work) + (Networking) = Success

The thing is, this doesn’t take into account all the people who are plugging the exact same numbers into the exact same formula and coming up with entirely different results. When something is heavily dependent on chance and luck, you can’t make conclusions based only on the survivors—you need to check the graveyard too. The road to permanent scientific positions is littered with the tombstones of postdocs who have fallen along the way and I can’t believe I didn’t notice them until the point at which I was down on my hands and knees, scrabbling around in the dirt.

The stupid thing is that others did try to warn me when I started out, but I didn’t want to listen. Looking back, I wish I hadn’t been so quick to disregard the experiences of older scientists finding themselves in the same position I am now in. It was all too easy to presume that they’d done something wrong; that they hadn’t tried hard enough or they simply weren’t very good at science. Understanding the role that luck plays in a scientific career wouldn’t have stopped me from becoming a scientist, but it might have made me less of a dick.

Now that I am picking myself back up and heading off for pastures new, I am experiencing yet another example of Survivorship Bias. People who know that I write science fiction novels in my spare time keep sending me articles about self-publishing success stories. Why are you trying to find a traditional publisher when E. L. James self-published 50 Shades of Grey and look at her now! What they don’t realise is that, for every wannabe author who becomes famous from self-publishing, there are hundreds of thousands who fail miserably.

When it is a scientist who tries to tell me how to be successful as a writer, I ask them if they would self-publish a scientific paper that had been rejected by a few dozen journals. It’s not the same, they say, science isn’t subjective like writing. You either do it right or wrong. Then I sit back and wait for them to do everything right and find that it still isn’t quite enough.

*Let’s just say there are 50 keys on my keyboard. So the probability of that monkey hitting the first ‘H’ is 1/50. The probability that the ‘H’ will be followed with ‘E’ is (1/50) X (1/50) and so on. I worked it out, and the overall probability is 1 in 1.9x1015, which in the grand scheme of things is extremely close to zero. But let’s say that a monkey can type at a speed of 200 characters a minute and it manages to type around 100 million strings of 9 characters over one year. If we work out the probability that the monkey will type ‘HELLO KAT’ at some point over the year, it works out at 1 in 1.8x107 – still very, very unlikely. But what if we give a million monkeys ten years? Now the probability that one will type ‘HELLO KAT’ entirely by chance is up to 1 in 2.3. Entirely doable.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Science embodied as a person would be a rubbish date. You’d be so dazzled by Science's awesome that you’d not only end up paying for dinner, but you’d find yourself promising them your undying loyalty. Then, before you know it, you're feeling guilty for not spending all of your time with Science and Ohhh that Kool-Aid looks really tasty*.

Misplaced loyalty to a career undoubtedly isn’t unique to scientists, but it does sometimes seem to be worryingly common in my profession. How many non-science people do you know who’d continue to work when they’re no longer being paid? Not many, yet it is all too common for end-of-PhD students and sometimes even postdocs who need to do that last experiment for the paper. And don’t get me started on the long hours and weekend work that seem to be the norm in most research laboratories.

We tell ourselves that we’re doing it for our own benefit—because we love what we do and want to give ourselves an edge in a very competitive environment. But lab heads and universities happily take advantage of this devotion to our careers and there comes a point where they are benefiting far more than the temporary scientisit. Like the vampires inexplicably romanticised by young adult fiction, of course employers aren't going to say no to willing victims eager to be sucked dry of their intellectual creativity*. But maybe they should.

Sure, less PhDs would get funded because it would cost a hell of a lot to keep paying every student until the moment they submit their thesis. Some papers wouldn’t get finished if universities couldn’t find extra money to keep on postdocs at the end of a grant. And the scientists would be the first ones to complain and defend their right to be exploited. 

With four months left in the lab, I’m not sure what scares me more—coming to the end of my contract and not having a new career to move on to, or finding a new position with time to spare and having to leave my project unfinished. Come December 31st, neither my current boss nor my research career is going to be buying my New Year’s Eve beers, so why do I feel like I would be letting both down if I don’t stick it out until the very last chime of Big Ben?

I’m sure that there are few lab heads out there who, if offered the professorship of their dreams, would turn it down out of loyalty to their postdocs and PhD students. So why do some temporary staff like me feel so guilty at the prospect of jeopardising a lab’s future grants and papers by making a selfish decision that would be in our best interest? It's like I have to keep reminding myself that my contract with the university is for a three year postdoc and not my soul. 

My relationship with Science has reached the point where I’m sat comfortably on the sofa in jogging bottoms, with barbeque sauce smeared around my face. Science is out there being all sciencey and cool, and here I am, clinging on to the memories of all our happy times together*. I keep telling myself that loyalty is only worth as much as the rewards it yields, that I could be so much happier in a new relationship, but it is so hard to not feel guilty about leaving. 

*I blame impending unemployment for all this melodrama. If any potential employers are reading this, I really am entirely sane. Please give me a job. 

Thursday, 1 August 2013

They can't really break your arm with their wings

On leaving laboratory science and why it’s going to be awesome (but first a rant)

A few years ago, I went on this residential course for postdocs whose years’ experience was greater than their output of Nature/Science/Cell papers. We made paper bridges for hamsters and drew our innermost feelings on giant shields for a reason I can’t quite fathom. Later, when we’d all got to know each other through the medium of unrelenting pessimism and beer, we went around the room and stuck post-it note ideas for alternative careers on everyone else’s shields.

My alternative career suggestions? Science fiction novelist, science journalist, or primary school art teacher.

Today, with five months left of my contract and the decision made that it is time to move on to a new career, I find myself looking back on those suggestions and thinking how absolutely, ridiculously na├»ve they were. We all know that there are more postdocs than there are permanent research jobs, and that most of us will have to pack up our ‘transferrable skills’ in a little knotted handkerchief and venture out into the big wide world. But this enthusiastic ‘You can do anything you want with a PhD!’-mentality doesn’t help anyone. It’s right up there with patting a five-year-old on the head and telling her that of course she can grow up to be an astronaut if she Just Dreams Big Enough.

It’s the science journalist suggestion that bugs me the most because I hear this from students. All. The. Time.

“What are you going to do after your PhD?”
“Oh, you know, I’ll probably just go into science journalism.”

No experience, no training, no particular interest in science communication. But, for some reason, there seems to be a prevailing attitude among a worrying proportion of scientists that having Dr in front of our name somehow qualifies us to hop out of the lab and easily pinch someone else’s hard-won career. It might be our plan B, but it will do. And I worry that it makes the rest of us look like dicks by association.

This is my big problem with PhD training.

Universities are churning out all these slightly entitled 25-year-olds with no idea of how the real world works. Students are paying more and more for their undergraduate courses, and the teaching is becoming increasingly structured with teaching fellows taking the lectures instead of researchers. To me, it feels a bit like we’re spoon-feeding people who should be able to learn independently by this point in their life. Then some start a PhD and a small minority never pause to consider that maybe they should stop thinking of themselves as a student and start acting like an adult.

No one really fails a PhD—I've seen far too many poor students saunter through their vivas with no problems after spending 3 or 4 years treating their PhD like a hobby rather than a professional job. And this devalues the PhD for everyone else. With so many of us wanting to use our skills in other careers, I'd kind of like it to represent the pinnacle of scientific education and not become an esoteric qualification unworthy of respect.

It's hard enough for the best and the brightest scientists to secure fellowships or lectureships, so why are we letting people continue wasting their time and money on a pointless PhD that won't help them become a scientist and hasn't taught them anything they couldn't have learnt better in the workplace?

There is no grading for a PhD but maybe there should be. Or maybe the standards just need to be higher and more consistent. Would I have passed if this was the case, or even got a project in the first place? I like to think I'd have risen to the challenge but we will never know. 

But what does this bitter little rant have to do with me leaving science?

At the end of the day, it’s not the poor job prospects and uncertainty that got me (although that didn't help). No, it’s being part of a system that spews out more and more PhDs despite knowing that there just aren’t enough jobs, then tells us that we can do anything we want with our little qualification and starts again with the next batch of naive wannabe scientists. Throw enough people at Science and a few will stick. Everyone else? Transferable skills!

It lets everyone down—the students who don’t have a clue and the postdocs who become demoralised at the thankless task of mothering adults who don't know why they’re doing a PhD in the first place. Science and scientists are complicit in a system that screws over postdocs in more than one way and it's shit.

So I'm going to take all my 'transferable skills' and find a job that makes me happy instead of frustrated; challenged instead of used; that respects me for the things I am good at instead of treating me like a disposable scientific thinker, broken equipment tinkerer and exhausted nursemaid.

I’ve always felt like leaving science and starting something new would feel like I’d failed. And I guess this is part of the reason why I’m jumping before I am pushed. But, now that I’ve told my boss that this postdoc is it for me, I feel inexplicably happy. I have no idea what I will be doing after Christmas, and it’s going to be awesome finding out.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

One of my pet hates? Cartoon animals with breasts (I'm opening myself up for some horrendous Google searches, aren't I?).

Let's take Madagascar III as an example. All the animals in the first two iterations are relatively animal-like (other than the, you know, part where they can talk). Then we get to the third film and a love interest for Alex the Lion is introduced - a leopard called Gia.

Here's how I imagine the animators discussing how to draw Gia.

Animator 1: So she has to be, like, sexy. The viewer has to want to bang her or they won't believe the relationship between Gia and Alex.
Animator 2: Dude, you want to have sex with a big cat? That's got to be kind of dangerous.
Animator 1: Oh come on, don't try to tell me you didn't have a crush on Nala from the Lion King. That bit where she looks at him all sexily with those big eyes? [Mimes a lewd act]
Animator 2: Jesus, what have we become? [Drinks coffee laced with whiskey]
Animator 3: OK, so let's give her long eyelashes. Nothing says girl leopard like mascara.
Animator 1: Yes! And we can make her Italian. That accent...
Animator 3: [Leaps up from chair with fist thrust in air] And a little, tiny waist and BOOBIES!
Animator 2: Wait, what? Isn't that a bit weird?
Animators 1 and 3: Shut up, it will be hot.
Animator 2: [Stabs self in brain with pencil]

It's just...I mean, yeah, we need to humanise cartoon animals to a degree otherwise we'd just have Springwatch the Movie. But why always with the boobs?

The only thing worse has to be when characters based on non-mammalian animals are given the same hourglass figure to designate them as an appropriate love interest. Antz, a Bugs Life and, my personal favourite, Happy Feet. A penguin with breasts is a disturbing, disturbing thing.

Well at least mice and rabbits are mammals, I suppose...

But this? Yeah, this is odd.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Is there a formula for scientific success, or do some scientists simply ‘get lucky’?

When in doubt, draw a graph. This is not so much useful advice as a way of life. The pros and cons of various DNA ladders? The best flavour of soup for ten minute incubation breaks? Or the relationship between things breaking and student proximity? Questions all vastly simplified through the liberal application of pie-charts, bar graphs or, in times of great need, 3D scatter plots. In my experience, there are only two things that can't be better explained in a graphical format: cats and scientific careers.

Surely there should be a positive correlation between the amount of effort a scientist puts into their career and the likelihood of scientific success? But, no, instead of a nice straight line with an R2 value of 0.99, I keep getting something that looks like the teeth of a career-eating monster. "Aha," says Reviewer 3, "the author has failed to take an important variable into account: creativity." And, for once, he/she does have a good point. Is there any scientist out there who hasn't entertained the scary possibility that their lack of seventeen Nature papers might just be due to a lack of scientific ability?

But natural talent isn’t enough, and neither is hard work. I still can't get the numbers to add up. There's something else at work here: luck.

An extreme-graphing habit doesn't exactly leave much room for futile emotions such as jealousy. But, when it comes to scientists who seem to get all the lucky breaks, I can't seem to help but daydream about all the terrible accidents that might befall them. Contaminated cultures, ripped protein gels, background on their western blots. I know, I'm an awful person.

Yet luck is something that anyone embarking on a career in the lab needs to consider. With only 5% of early career postdocs progressing to the next level – a fellowship or lectureship – there is the very real possibility that many good scientists are going to find themselves chucked out of the lab along with the out-of-date plasmid extraction kits. Actually, that's not true – no one would throw away perfectly useable consumables just because they are past their use-by date.

Choose a slow-paced lab in which to pursue a PhD, or the wrong project in some cobwebby corner of science into which even your supervisor doesn't want to venture, and your career is already off to a shaky start. In today's competitive scientific environment, no one can afford to treat a PhD as a learning experience during which they can gradually learn how to be a fully-fledged scientist. Yet no one seems to tell you this when you're getting to grips with your pipette.

With the big grants increasingly going to big established labs, the chances of making a real impact during your PhD can depend on being in the right lab at the right time. Pick a mentor who will champion you through fellowship and lectureship applications, and you have the chance to sink or swim on merit alone. And these are the lucky guys and gals that test my composure more than temperamental cell lines. I don’t doubt that they’re brilliant, but it sometimes feels like they've had all the opportunities.

But maybe it's just that they've taken advantage of their fortuitous circumstances, and managed to get themselves in a position where luck is on their side?

We are always hearing how so many of the big scientific discoveries are down to luck. Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin when one of his bacterial Petri dishes became contaminated with antibiotic-producing mould, right? Only, what no one seems to mention is that it was Fleming's scientific curiosity (and stubbornness) that got penicillin through the ten long years it took to find a way to turn it into a drug. That wasn't luck that was, um, science.

Much of the work we do as scientists is preparing ourselves so that, when those moments of serendipity strike, we are ready for them. Perhaps the same goes for careers and the 'lucky' guys aren't lucky at all.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

If you see a baby seat left by the side of the road, DO NOT STOP!!! Local police have released a warning that criminal gangs are using this ruse to lure women into stopping their cars to check on the baby. The location of the car seat will usually be beside a wooded area, and the woman will be dragged out of view of the road, beaten, raped, and left for dead. Their car and possessions will be taken by the thieves! These are desperate times and unsavoury individuals will take desperate measures to get what they want. Please inform all the women you care about!!! This nearly happened to my friend's wife but, luckily, she didn't stop.

And then their kidneys get stolen and then...oh, wait. Setting aside the point that any criminal gang attempting to make a living in a rural English village possibly isn't intelligent enough to come up with such a complicated scheme, surely something so horrific would have been, like, in the news?

What this is, dear gullible Facebook and email acquaintances, is an urban legend. Stories such as these, like 19th-century folk-tales, seem to mirror the anxieties and beliefs of the people who tell them. Little Red Riding Hood? The story takes on a new meaning when you remember that, once upon a time, girls really might just have been eaten/molested by wolves/men if they strayed into the forest away from the safety of the village.

The baby seat tale isn't much different from Little Red Riding Hood, especially if you believe the interpretations of the original folk tale as being a warning against the dangers of sexual predators. Innocent victim lured away by criminals, leaving her entirely at their mercy to suffer what is commonly perpetuated as the worst fate that can befall a woman - rape.

As a woman, I've had this rapey fear drummed into me from an early age, via cautionary tales of foolish girls wearing short skirts (urghhh) and warnings about the dangers of shady men prowling the nighttime streets. Never mind that most rapes are perpetrated by someone known to the victim; never mind that this kind of myth can be harmful when it plants the seed in people's minds that rape isn't really rape unless it is committed by a violent stranger.

We can see a similar collective hysteria when it comes to paedophillia and recidivism - that's the likelihood that a criminal will reoffend. Studies have suggested that sex offenders are actually less likely to be rearrested after their release from prison than other criminals. But the widespread belief that re-offence among paedophiles is pretty much guaranteed has worked its way into how such criminals are sentenced (I'm not getting into the argument over punishment versus rehabilitation here, only that misconceptions shouldn't play a part in our justice system).

And are we still talking about the dangers of vaccination? A quick look in the news tells me yes! After all, what is a wealth of scientific information in the face of an internet-sized storm of relatable stories about kids whose lives have been ruined by vaccines? The irony is that, along with saving millions of lives, vaccines also immunised the public against their fear of vaccine-preventable diseases. No one is scared of measles anymore. But what about that girl who so-and-so's friend's aunt knew who was eaten by the family cats RIGHT after getting the MMR vaccine. Coincidence? Complete fabrication? Whatever, it's a good story!

Urban legends are a way of sharing and reaffirming our collective beliefs about the dangers surrounding us. Humans are hard-wired to want to tell stories and doing so creates a sense of community that brings us together and shapes how we live our lives. But it's not always a good thing when it makes us scared of things that aren't actually dangerous (vaccines, rural rape-gangs, Muslims), while at the same time we end up underestimating the real dangers (roads, alcohol, measles).

Some links:

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Masterchef Gregg Wallace Bingo. Yeah.
My theory? Gregg Wallace and John Torode have been replaced with automata programmed with a set number of nonsensical phrases and the ability to construct strings of adjectives that would be better suited to an erotic novel.

But Masterchef is a bit like the boy who cried wolf. There is only so many times I can hear "Food doesn't get any tougher than this" before I start to think that, well, it clearly does get tougher otherwise you guys wouldn't keep making more series. And I wouldn't keep feeling compelled to watch you suck on your forks as if simply eating the food isn't good enough TV.

And, while I am on this little rant, what is with all the food programs in the world insisting on describing a hunk of fish as "cooked to perfection"? Dudes, either it is cooked or it's raw. Tasty or not tasty. Intestinal worms or not intestinal worms.

And does no one else really, really hope for the wondrous day when one of the contestants overcooks their scallops (perched artfully on a smear of what looks like poo) to such as a degree that "Food doesn't get any tougher than this" actually works as a sentence?

Next episode Wed 27th at 8pm, BBC1. The contestants will be facing a tricky palate test - pappardelle with meatballs and tomato sauce. Yay!

Friday, 1 February 2013

In their words, "Guru Magazine is an exclusively crowd-sourced, free science-themed magazine. Released bi-monthly, it’s designed to be read and understood by regular people (like you and I). This means, like Wikipedia, it is shaped by its readers and dependent upon its contributors."

Issue 10 is out today and is full of great stuff, such as "Five reasons not to prepare for a zombie apocalypse" plus tips on how be a hit on Valentines day with all the right dance moves. Hmmm, dancing tips from scientists...

Oh, and I have an article in which I manage to quote both Lewis Carroll and Francis Crick.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

If you do then the British Science Association Media Fellowships are for you.

Experience first-hand how science is reported by spending 3-6 weeks on a summer placement with a press, broadcast or online journalist such as the Guardian, The Times or BBC.

You will work with them to produce well informed, newsworthy pieces about developments in science.

Come away better equipped to communicate your research to the media, public and your colleagues.

You will develop writing skills that could help you produce concise and engaging articles and funding applications.

For details about the scheme, including eligibility and online application form, visit our webpage.

Application deadline: 11 March 2013


So I was a British Science Association Media Fellow last year and had so much fun that I briefly considering changing my name and appearance so I could apply again and work at one of the other media hosts. But, unfortunately, science does not pay well enough for facial reconstructive surgery to be a viable option.

If anyone does have any questions about the scheme, please get in touch and I will be happy to help.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Faecal transplants are highly effective in treating recurrent Clostridium difficile infections compared to conventional antibiotics. The transplants proved so successful that the trial was stopped early to give other patients the chance to benefit from this slightly icky-sounding treatment, which is proposed to repopulate the gut with good bacteria to suppress the growth of Clostridium difficile. The results were published in the New England Journal of Medicine this week.

Oh, what's that? You're confused about the dramatic change from those word-things to the above explosion of anthropomorphised microbes? So I am trying something new - cartoon-based explanations of new scientific papers (Sci-toons?). I figured there are already many, many people writing about science on the internet, but how many illustrate their articles with vaguely menacing pictures of bacteria? Not many (although maybe there's a reason for this)!