Death and the Penguin, science edition?

a.k.a. Musings about predictability in science

death-and-the-penguin-300dpiOne of my favourite books is Death and the Penguin, by Ukrainian author Andrey Kurkov. The protagonists of the book are Viktor, a young writer who’s struggling to survive in post-Soviet Ukraine, and Misha, a king penguin, whom Viktor adopted from the local zoo after it went bankrupt and who now lives in Victor’s bath tub. To pay for bills (and frozen fish for Misha) Viktor accepts a job writing obituaries for the local newspaper. However, there’s a twist: the people he writes about aren’t dead – yet. Once he writes about their sad passing, they mysteriously die. For example, a senior politician he writes about, falls from a sixth-floor window: “was cleaning it for some reason, although apparently it wasn’t his. And at night.”, the editor of the newspaper comments.

Recently, I was reminded of this obscure plot in a somewhat surprising setting: as an avid listener to pretty much all Nature podcasts, I also follow Backchat, a monthly podcast produced by the Nature team, where they discuss some behind-the-scenes of various stories. One of the things I have found most fascinating is how (or rather when) some of the stories are written. Yes, you guessed it: they’re often written before they happen! Continue reading

InstaScience: a visual exploration of #ThisScientificLife

You may have noticed that the frequency of posts on this has gradually declined over the last year or so. In part, this is because I’m not sure that the various forms of social media I follow (twitter and blogs mainly) have upheld the promise of democratization, “getting your voice heard” and hearing other people’s voices the way I had hoped they would. Continue reading

Sometimes it’s the little things

lego-chickenpoxToday, the Office of the Dean at our Department sent an e-mail to the staff mailing list, informing them that a case of chickenpox had been diagnosed in a student. The e-mail also informed people they were decontaminating the areas where the student had classes, but wanted to make people aware of the possibility of exposure and asked them to look out for symptoms of chickenpox, just in case.

So, first of, I was fascinated to “encounter” a case of chickenpox. Of course, I know that the vaccine isn’t 100% effective, but the number of cases are so small in the countries where I’ve worked I didn’t really expect to ever encounter one.

However, what also struck me was that the e-mail was sent to the staff mailing list. Now, in case you’re not familiar with the US academic system, postdocs do not count as staff. And this isn’t just a wording issue. It means that postdocs are not eligible for a bunch of things that staff are entitled to (eg here at UPenn, staff are allowed to take 2 classes per semester, postdocs are not). We are also not on the staff mailing list. Which may seem like a minuscule detail. But considering that e-mails concerning important issues (which apply to everyone in the department, not just staff – such as a case of chickenpox) are sent are sent out via this mailing list, it shows just how these little things could potentially have wide-ranging consequences. Surely, including postdocs on such e-mails is not too much to ask for?

(Oh, and just a footnote: I received the e-mail because our tech forwarded it. Other e-mails we receive via our PI. I’m not sure other postdocs in the department are so lucky to have co-workers who look out for them.)

The listening game

The last few weeks have been busy: I was visiting old friends in Germany and San Francisco and other old friends came to visit me in my new home, Philadelphia. Since most of my friends are also scientists, naturally much of our conversation evolved around academia, gossip about old co-workers and experiences with new labs. Interestingly, although our careers have diverged extensively, there was one recurring theme that linked many problematic experiences: PIs who don’t listen.

Pis who don’t listen… Cartoon [De Niro as Newton] by RedPen BlackPen.

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Paying for equal opportunity

I came across this open letter to the CEO of Yelp from an employee, asking for better wages – and the response: immediately firing her. It reminded me of a post that’s been lingering in my drafts folder for a while about investments in academia. Obviously Yelp has very little resemblance with academia, but in both worlds, believe it or not – money talks! It especially says a lot about how institutions value their more junior/more lowly ranked employees.

More specifically, one of the things that’s been bugging me for a while is the dichotomy between what academic institutions say (nominally supporting diversity and equal opportunity) and what they do. Because, more often than not, it’s just lip service, and they don’t really give a dime. Literally. Obviously, there are also a lot of mindset problems between the here and now and generating true equal opportunity workplaces (think no further than the recent sexual harassment cases in science or or the complex issues LGBT academics face), but sometimes, sometimes a little financial investment could be enough and go a looong way.

Two issues that seem particularly unfair – and easy to fix – are the absence of affordable daycare for young professionals and that most internships in academia are unpaid*. Continue reading

Nerdy, happy things: names in science

A friend once described the TV show The Big Bang Theory as “it’s so nerdy you feel kind of dirty for understanding the jokes”. I know where he’s coming from, but sometimes it’s these little nerdy things and insider jokes that show the real soul of scientist (sometimes weird and twisted, sometimes funny, sometimes touching and sentimental…). Particularly good examples are scientific names of substances, methods or species. And so, just to start my 2016 blogging year on a happy note, I’d like to showcase some of my favourites  :) Continue reading

Scientists abroad: citizens of the world or second-class citizens?

In Notes from a Small Island the American author Bill Bryson describes his first ever visit to England. Eager to discover the country, but thoroughly unaware of local habits, he ends up spending the night on a bench in cold, foggy Dover, with a pair of underpants on his head as an improvised headwarmer. Despite this bumpy start, this night was the first spark of a love affair with the country and Bryson has since spent the majority of his adult life living in Britain.

I often think of this story, when I think about scientists on the move, starting a new position in a new country.


Moving country is a frequent feature of scientific life. This infographic from a 2012 Nature News Feature (Richard van Noorden: Global mobility: Science on the move) shows the most prominent trends in migration.

In many ways, these scientists resemble Bryson: they move, eager to discover not only exciting new science, but also a new place, it’s traditions and people. Also, even for seasoned “movers” there are always local procedures and issues that catch them unaware and unprepared. Unfortunately, unlike for Bryson, this time abroad often does not turn into a love affair with the new place – instead it remains a constant uphill struggle, battling with administration and customs that put scientists from abroad at a financial disadvantage or cause emotional stress. Even more annoyingly, often these problems could be resolved with minimal effort on behalf of the academic host institutions, making it all the more frustrating to be stuck in a one-(wo)man war against the system. To give an simple example: When I moved to France a few years ago, my university required a mandatory X-ray of the lungs within the first month, which could only be obtained from a short list of select doctors. I –like many other foreign postdocs – arrived with only rudimentary knowledge of French, only to discover that none of the shortlisted doctors spoke English! It was extremely discomforting having to strip to the waist in front of a rather severe nurse who treated me like an idiot, handled me less than gently and didn’t speak a word of English. Surely, it must have been possible to put at least one doctor on the list, who spoke English?!?

Intriguingly, having spoken to scientists elsewhere, I have found that many of us struggle with the same problems when we move abroad. So I have collected some of these below, together with some suggestions on how to fix them. Continue reading

The Future of Online Content in Science?

Last month I attended my first ever unconference about the Future of Content. It was a great meeting about various forms of online media, from blogging to podcasting to infographics. The meeting wasn’t aimed at researchers and/or science communicators at all, but there seemed to be a lot of parallels between issues in the media world and issues in the science world. Intriguingly, the media world seems to have come up with a lot of cool ideas to tackle some of these issues, so thought I’d share a couple of these* here. Continue reading

What’s in a word?

I’ve just walked out of a wonderful meeting that has kind of left me on a “science high”. The Raj Lab (my new scientific home in Philadelphia), Thomas Gregor’s lab from Princeton and Dan Larson’s lab from the NIH had a get-together, talking science, methods, data. It was really great, with loads of lively discussion. But I don’t want to discuss any of the actual science here. Instead, I’d like to share some ideas about scientific terminology, how a given word might have different “baggage” attached to it depending on your background/training, and whether fuzzy definitions may actually be useful in biology.

RNA molecules (white spots) in a cell. The nucleus (the blue blob) is stained with DAPI and the white dots in the nucleus are transcription sites.

RNA molecules (white spots) in a cell. The nucleus (the blue blob) is stained with DAPI and the white dots in the nucleus are transcription sites. Picture from Raj Lab website.

Continue reading

Some thoughts about measuring the goodness of peer review…

A few weeks ago I attended a postdoc training about responsible conduct in research. A major focus of the event was an emphasis on being unbiased and avoiding any conflict of interest when reviewing a manuscript or a grant. Naturally, that state seems very much desirable. However, some of the case studies we discussed left me with a bad aftertaste: it seemed as if the concern about conflict or bias was massively outweighing the fact that peer review can also provide added value to science. In my – limited – personal experience with peer review, I have found reviews that were comprehensive and thoughtful (even if they were negative) much more valuable and constructive for my research, than any of the 3-liners declaring my paper to be excellent. This dichotomy got me thinking about the purpose of peer review and it’s relationship to science and the publishing process. Here a couple of points I’ve come up with: Continue reading