Ink

The Legacy of Apollo 11

Past, Present & Future

On July 20th, 1969, 50 years ago, a team of astronauts led by Commander Neil Armstrong made history by landing on the surface of the Moon. This was merely 55 years after the first commercial flight flew between St. Petersburg and Tampa, Florida. The Apollo 11 mission was the culmination of the Space Race, and lasting just over eight days, it represents the challenges and opportunities of spaceflight. The question now is, what will come in the next 50 years? 

Let’s talk about climate change.

How should we approach and discuss climate change? Engage with illustrations or with data? At the Experimental Vlog we discuss climate change with two personalities: Steven McEntyre (an artist) and Prof Nicklebreth (a scientist). While they have opposite thoughts on how to present scientific data, they both can appreciate that climate change is real and that we must do something about it. Being our first episode, we hope that these personalities join us later for more exciting discussions. Like all our Spawn Theory videos, this was completely unscripted and unplanned, anything that would suggest otherwise is just a coincidence.

Climate Change

Killer Ducks

And 5 other health risks.

Most of our human body is covered in microbes—sorry germophobes. In fact, several of these microbes are good for us, and play very important roles in our organism. You might frequently hear that we have good gut bacteria that keep our intestines healthy, but did you know that Staphylococcus aureus are part of our body’s microbiota? This little guy is however most commonly associated with MRSA, which corresponds to specific strains of S. aureus that are resistant to antibiotics. This is something that we can expect in a world with five million trillion trillion bacteria (even Microsoft Word cannot handle this number and suggests to delete the repeated word).  

Think about it: the air that we breathe, the surfaces that we touch or the water that we drink, all have these microscopic travellers. On a normal day, this is something that we might don’t think about. If someone coughs in their hand and then reaches out to greet you, then you might be more receptive to how germs travel from host to host. But what about those everyday things that we do that might be harnessing the health risks of everyday microbes?

Leadership & Science

Breaking down the personality of the scientist.

How does the personality of the scientist affect their leadership in research? Here I reflect on how important teamwork in research is (in both academia and industry), but also outline why bad leadership deters so many young researchers from continuing in research, particularly within academia. Academic research is somewhat predictable, it employs academics based on their career progression and it acknowledges that an academic can continue to build their careers and bring new opportunities to their institutions. Industry now has become either the place for recent graduates or those fed up with academic research. I once found myself in a room of fed up post-docs now employed by the same employer. In a way, I felt that my own linear experience through the academic lifestyle and specific interests where no place for this role in industry.  

We all want to change the world.

…but we also want a career.

As the new year rolls in and celebrations pass, we begin to wonder what lies ahead. For some of us this unexplored year brings excitement as well as insecurities that we might not be willing to admit. For most of us, however, we are in sync to the yearly rhythm of life, and neither look forward to the new year nor welcome it with fear. We welcome it as we would welcome any other day; with a gratefulness of being alive. The value of the individual is so often disregarded in our ever so growing population. To tackle the problems of the world we form collaborations and networks including a little something of each individual personality, bringing forth diversity in both intellectual and emotional intelligence, and create a much stronger force to solve complex problems. But we mustn’t challenge the importance and power of the individual. After all, what motivates us, as individuals, to pursue these projects can be a combination of selfishness and aspiration to make a difference to a world that needs much of it.

Is a tablet a computer?

What’s a computer? Perhaps you have come across this question. It originates from an Apple ad showing a young girl working on an iPad with a Smart Keyboard and at the end she is prompted with the question: “whatcha doing on your computer?”.  She replies, “what’s a computer?”. I personally don’t like the ad, since it exaggerates the places where you can take and work on an iPad, but it is Apple’s way of stirring up discussion and debate. It is a statement that could be perceived as ignorant, because it is very unlikely that an adolescent does not know what a computer is in this day and age. Or perhaps it’s just a question; a direct and open-ended question asking to the philosophical level. I would accept the latter, hadn’t it been the way the girl said it, being that she ignored the question she was being asked.  

A PhD in isolation.

A PhD is by definition a degree that represents up to four years of original research. Within that time, you will be expected to specialise on something very specific, but which has a significant implication in a broader topic. You may feel like a PhD project is like throwing a pebble into the ocean, meaning that its contributions will not largely affect the broader context. A PhD requires a high level of maturity and professionalism, and its outcome will not only depend on your ability to collect results, but on the ability to be productive even in challenging situations. A PhD requires frequent planning and re-planning, as well as commitment. But this commitment comes at a cost. As you progress through your specialism, your knowledge will become very specific and while you may know basic concepts, you may become isolated from knowledge and skills that are obtained by other means. 

Where have all my good friends gone?

Starting a PhD is a leap from your undergraduate or taught postgraduate. Like going to a new school, you will be faced with meeting and getting to know strangers, which may eventually be more than acquaintances or may just remain as colleagues. Then there’s the feeling that you’re sticking to more education, while everyone else you know wants to head out to the real world and search for a real job. Your good friends have graduated and most have left the university campus. Or maybe it was you that left, and embarked on your adventure, leaving behind everyone that you knew. It is not surprising that some prospective PhD students are scared of being isolated and left all alone during their degrees. In fact, I don’t think you have experienced a true PhD without feeling isolated and alone from time to time.

Why PhD?

I went into the PhD thinking it was going to an easy experience. Thinking back on it, I wouldn’t necessary say it was hard either. I think the hardest part of it was accepting that there is a learning curve and an aspect of personal development. I started a PhD directly after finishing my undergraduate degree, and having completed a successful final year project, I felt I was ready to continue academic research. I wouldn’t say that I was scared about starting a new degree. To me, it felt like the next logical step in my education. I briefly considered doing a Master’s degree, but the mere issue that it would have involved going to lectures and taking exams, deterred me from it.

The truth about academic jobs.

The last question of my PhD interview five years ago was: what do you want to do after your PhD? At the time, I wanted to go into industry with a plan to return to academia and perform my own experiments. Four years later, I am not sure I still think that way. Employability and the value of the PhD has always been in the background during the degree. On the first day of the programme, the Graduate Director told everyone that about 10% of PhD graduates get a post-doc and something like 2% of those get professorships. At first, I thought it was about the competition based on the mere number of applicants and positions to be filled, but in reality, competition has very little do with it. There is competition within science, of course, and that plays a significant part to an academic’s development (see here), but to say that only 10% of PhD graduates get a post-doc because they managed to out-compete other contenders, is too simplistic. 

Breaking down your viva.

There is nothing original by writing about the PhD experience and how to prepare for the viva. If you have submitted your thesis and are waiting for the viva, you might spend a full day reading other people’s experience on blogs and forums. In fact, this article could very well be another generic guide on how to prepare for the viva, that you may or may not read. Reading through other people’s experience and advice may give you that tiny confidence boost that you need. You might already know everything about what to expect on the day. And yet, you are still reading this. I guess one of the first things that we learn on a PhD is to gather as much information from several sources before coming to our own conclusions.

5 reasons to be excited for your PhD viva

The PhD is not a linear experience, and getting to know your subject and be comfortable with your results takes time. Some days you might feel really excited about the results and think you understand, then be faced with a complex question that you can’t answer. And then the entire project seems to collapse and those exciting new results don’t seem so great anymore. 

130 Degrees of Freedom

We all must travel at some point in our lives.  Whether that is short distance to and from school or work, or long distance like going on holiday.  In fact, migration has been an important part of human evolution and enabled the spreading of genes—the principle of genetics.   But travel, in which ever context, takes careful planning and assessment.  While travel may pose some risks, the results are rewarding.  Much like species that risk everything at a chance to mate, opening our travel networks, ensures the well-being and survival of our species.  

Improving crop production

What’s C4 photosynthesis?

Energy conversion in eukaryotes is strictly regulated.  In C4 plants, solar energy is converted to chemical energy, driving the carbon fixation engine of C4 photosynthesis—a complex network of finely tuned biochemical reactions, tightly regulated transport networks and underlying regulatory mechanisms [1].  It evolved from the classical C3 pathway, which solely uses ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase/oxygenase (Rubisco) as the primary carboxylase for CO2 fixation [2].  During C4 photosynthesis (Fig. 1), CO2 is initially fixed by phosphoenolpyruvate carboxylase (PEPC) in mesophyll cells producing a four-carbon compound that is subsequently transported and decarboxylated in bundle sheath cells, concentrating CO2 around Rubisco, thus maintaining a favourable concentration of CO2 for suppressing rates of photorespiration [3]

Spoken Art

The Challenge Episode 1 “Blinded Science”

Often times, we don’t get a chance to explain ourselves.  Ironically, when we do get ample time to explain ourselves, we don’t exactly know when to stop.  I know, I often run into those moments when my partner in conversation is grinning at me, with a look of confusion on their face.  Or when explaining an idea to a colleague, that I should have rehearsed beforehand, but thought I could explain it well.  When asked by a job interviewer “why do you want to work here”, those unprepared  would have a hard time finding an answer to such a broad question.  Even if prepared, getting all the thoughts together, so to sound natural, can be as difficult.  

The Wasp’s Dismay.

Do you ever the feeling that you’re being watched?  Judged?  Isn’t that what we scientists do most of the time?  We selfishly study areas that intrigue us, searching for new problems and explanations so that we feel that we reach understanding.   We take a living thing, like a plant or a cute rodent, and destroy it; break cells open so that we can study what’s inside.   We play with reason and rationale to justify our methods, and for what?  To write a paper that may or may not be published?   To build libraries of information which are never reviewed? 

Shaping the Future

There is a special relationship between art and technology that has impacted the way that we live, think and envision what the future may bring. Pioneer science fiction writers such as Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and Isaac Asimov, to name a few, introduced ideas that were well beyond their time, fuelled by their experience, passion for science and ability to artistically link fact to fiction. Although science fiction writers often paint scenarios that go beyond the reachable scope of science in a given era, their works are written like dreams of scientific capabilities and adventures. Film adaptations bring these novels to life and artistic interpretation takes the fiction into a new dimension.

The prize-tag of science.

As students, we are constantly being tested.  We can be assessed by the way we approach a task, complete a task or report the information we have gained from a study.  Our hard work is rewarded by high marks, but sometimes it’s also about the reward of completing the assignment.   Institutions, universities and companies need a measurement that indicates how competent a candidate research student, academic researcher or potential employee is for a given position.   As a scientist, we are also being assessed, but in a different way.  While we are given more freedom in our research and how we get to answer a research question, we are expected to be able to present our data to an audience and make the effort to ensure that the research will move on forward, be funded and go beyond what was originally planned.   At the core of it, it’s ticking boxes of small accomplishments during the duration of a long term project and providing sufficient evidence of progress being made.  We aren’t necessarily being graded, but instead pushed forward by supervisors, the university or our own uninhibited desire to do more research.   

Watch Dogs: behind the game

In today’s day and age technology is all around us.  We depend on it for our work, communication, transportation and health among other things.  From the first computer that filled up a single room, technology has stretched through our lives such that we would have several pieces of tech around the house, on our desks, nightstands, kitchens and even bathrooms.  For most of us, the use of technology is key in our work, we use it create documents, presentations, keep in contact with colleagues and store information.  The transport of information has increased as the number of personal computers and the use of them increased.  We know about the risks of viruses that jump around from infected computers to healthy computers and protect our devices by using anti-malware software.  We protect our technology with passwords when we can and that is practically it.  

Pursuing a career in science.

Communicating science amongst researchers and university students is something that we are aiming to improve.  But there is another age group that we must not forget.  Anyone who has taken biology during early school years can remember how different it was from any other class, that is if you allow me to not call physical education or lunch, a class.  Sometimes even referred to as the fun class, or is it just me?   Well anyway, the reason why I recall it being more fun than another subject was because of the opportunities to do hands-on experimental work.  Not every school has a Large Hadron-Collider to aid in the teaching of physics and young children and volatile chemicals don’t mix well—literally.  But never mind these extreme cases; biology had the fairest range of experiments that were safe, fun and interesting.  

The future of science communication.

Every story needs a beginning, but I am not sure where my story begins. I guess we can trace it back to my early days when I was diagnosed with a case of attention deficit disorder, after showing interest in several toys during a psychological assessment. A toy was given to me every five minutes and apparently it would have been normal to finish playing with one toy before moving on to the next.  I have always argued that if the doctor handed me a toy to look at, I would look at it, regardless if I already had one to play with.  I felt that they rushed their diagnosis and defined me into a category.