Hatching the Birdphiles

By Michael Wheelock, @MSWheelock Northern Starling I like birds. Not in the casual “oh yeah, penguins are cute” kind of way, but in the “wow, look at the iridescent purple on that Northern Starling” kind of way (side note: Shakespeare introduced the Starling to North America. Well, sort of). Unfortunately, I’ve been caught up in the NYC hustle lately and haven’t had any time to enjoy this little hobby. Flashback to mid-January- I was in New Orleans to meet up with some friends, celebrate a birthday, and eat some alligator. On the last day of the trip, my girlfriend suggested we go for a walk in the local park. It was sunny and 75oF out (on a day when it was 20oF and snowing in NYC), so I was more than excited to soak it in. Things began normal enough, with small talk and puppy ogling (“that black lab was awesome!”). That is, until we got to the edge of a small pond and I saw this:   Domesticated Swan Goose (Photo: Michael Wheelock) What is that?! I asked my girlfriend for her iPhone and took a quick photo. She knew I liked birds so this

Fiscal Cliff Part II: What can scientists do to protect the future of basic science research?

By Christina Pyrgaki, @CPyrgaki In Fiscal Cliff Part I, I talked about how the fiscal cliff will affect science and what citizens should do about it. Part II is for scientists: how can we protect the future of scientific research? Researchers are trained to write for scientific journals or funding agencies, but they are not necessarily trained - or inclined - to write for broad audiences. Many scientists shy away from advocating science to lay audiences, either because it is too hard or because there is no incentive. Now, with the fiscal cliff looming, scientists need to re-examine this notion. In a recent survey Research!America reported that a whopping 72% of Americans believe that Congress and President Obama should take action to expand medical research within the first 100 days of the new Congress. While this number is very encouraging, we should note that 20% of people were “Not Sure” about important science and medical funding topics. This needs to be rectified! Here, answering “Not Sure” means one of two things: either people do not have the necessary information to answer the question or they do not consider the question important enough to think about. In either case, sciences loses.

Notes in the Margin: Beatrice Tinsley

By Carol Feltes Beatrice Tinsley (Wikipedia) In recent years, it has been so gratifying and interesting to see female scientists finally revealed, their contributions to knowledge noted, and the tribulations of their careers in a gender-biased bureaucracy made known. Princeton Press’s new book, Heart of Darkness: Unravelling the mysteries of the invisible universe, brings us a story of modern cosmology and many of its lesser known players, including Beatrice Tinsley.   Tinsley was so frustrated with an establishment that refused to acknowledge her own contributions to research (she was the wife of an academic), that she ultimately divorced her husband and gave him custody of the children in order to have her work recognized.   Heart of Darkness is not strictly biographical; it tells the story of the science, bringing in the people and their contributions along the way.  Tinsley is notable, because she made fundamental contributions to what we know about galaxies and the universe – and then died of cancer at age 40, the year she finally made full professor at Yale.   These views are the work of individual authors, do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of The Rockefeller University, and are not approved or

A 3 Billion Dollar Mistake: Why the American government should think twice about a Brain Activity Map (BAM)

Update: The United States government has released more information about the specifics of their brain mapping project, now called the BRAIN Initiative. I break down the details and discuss the pros and cons here. White matter fibers in a human brain imaged by diffusion spectrum imaging. (Copyright Laboratory of Neuro Imaging, UCLA and Randy Buckner, PhD. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, MGH.)   By Gabrielle Rabinowitz, @GabrielleRab In the 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama praised American scientists for developing drugs, engineering new materials, and “mapping the human brain.” This scientific shout out was not just a pat on the back for American researchers. Rather, it was a veiled reference to a new multi-billion dollar research initiative planned by the Obama administration and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). So what is this plan? As the director of the NIH, Francis S. Collins tweeted: Obama mentions the #NIH Brain Activity Map in #SOTU — Francis S. Collins (@NIHDirector) February 13, 2013 The Brain Activity Map (BAM) is a project that will bring together federal agencies, neuroscientists, and private research foundations to create a functional map of every connection in the human brain - numbering in hundreds

On the Importance of Fun

By Dan Gareau, @LASER_Beam This guy knew how to have fun. Science is a creative process and scientists are creative people who like to have fun... but scientists are not known for being flashy. A paper in Cell or Nature is typically where scientists stop and where the threshold of “success” has been set. However, there is another direction that is rarely taken: distilling and polishing scientific content for non-scientists. When scientists do more to explain how science relates to nearly every aspect of our lives, the results are far-reaching. Take the popular blog, “It’s Okay to Be Smart,” and the graduate student behind it, Joe Hanson. In just over a year, Joe managed to provide enough valuable content to land him on Time magazine’s 2012 list of must-see Tumblrs, and eventually helped him get his own YouTube show on science. His effort is helping to raise public awareness of science, and to show that science is, in fact, cool. But, Joe is only one scientist out of many that actually speaks to a broad audience. Why don't more scientists do this? The problem is that science is hard, and communicating science to a general audience takes a

Surfing the Wave of Ocean Exploration with Dr. Robert Ballard

By Simona Giunta Dr. Robert Ballard (Wikipedia) In November, oceanographer Sylvia Earle, leader of the first all-female team of aquanauts, amazed the RU community with a personal account of her underwater experiences.  Naturally, this excitement was amplified when Robert Ballard visited RU as the guest of honor for the Insight Lecture Series. Widely known for having found The Titanic, Dr. Ballard amused us with the truth about that discovery. I wasn’t supposed to find it! The search for the Titanic had been a great cover story for the US government to send us looking for misplaced nuclear submarines and other military missions for years! While the notorious relic 12,000 feet below the sea did not excite the US military, it did bring a wonderful wave of attention from children - a wave that Dr. Ballard decided to ride. RMS Titanic, photograph from 1994 (Wikipedia) His mission soon became to make aquanauts as cool as astronauts. “Why is NASA’s budget 100 times larger to explore outer space than to explore our own oceans anyway?”  he questioned. To emphasize the importance of funding oceanic research and to inspire new generations of aquanauts, Dr. Ballard founded The JASON Project

PhD, check. Now what? Six Tips for Finding Your Dream Job

By Nidhi Ruy Graduate students and postdocs in biological and life sciences face a daunting career landscape. The path from earning a PhD to securing a career in science is far from straightforward. Currently, less than 15% of postdocs with PhDs in biological sciences find themselves in tenured faculty positions within 6 years of earning their degrees. So what are the remaining 85% of highly educated and highly capable scientists to do? Many were able to find answers to some of their career concerns on Thursday, January 10, 2013 as Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, The Rockefeller University, and Weill Cornell Medical College jointly hosted a Tri-Institutional Career Symposium. The event took place at Memorial and focused on career options for science PhDs. The day was organized into five broad areas of interest; each one included short talks by presenters and concluded with a panel discussion, through which audience members were able to voice their questions and concerns.  The varying backgrounds of the panelists allowed for multiple perspectives in response to audience queries. I found the general advice and encouragement from various presenters to be more useful than any field-specific advice, and have included summaries by topic following these six

Notes in the Margin: The Best American Science and Nature Writing

By Carol Feltes At the end of each year I look forward to the new annual collections of great writing known as the “Best American Series.”  For people who don’t have enough time to indulge in a generous and interesting diversity of high quality literature during the year, choosing to read this series is a no-brainer. There are many varieties of the “Best American” series - short stories, essays, sports, travel,  etc.- but of course my favorite is “Best American Science and Nature Writing.”  Each year the series editor collects a bunch of great articles, and invites a special guest editor select the top 20 articles. This year Tim Folger, series editor and notable science writer himself, invited Dan Ariely, a behavioral psychologist at Duke, to do the honors. And he did something wonderful. This year’s volume includes a strong nod of appreciation to one of the great evolutionary biologists of the 20th century: Lynn Margulis.  Her great contribution (and at the time great controversy) was the theory of endosymbiosis, or the idea that various cell organelles originated as separate organisms.  She suggested that the cells in our bodies originated as collaborations of various free living microbial precursors, such as

Fiscal Cliff Part I: The next big challenge for science

By Christina Pyrgaki, @CPyrgaki For the last 35 years, the University of Lake Superior has published a list of banished words - words in the English language that are deemed overused, misused, or useless. Topping the 2013 version was a term that no American has been able to escape the past few months: fiscal cliff. While I agree that “fiscal cliff” has been overused, I do not know if it is fair to call it misused or useless. The term paints a clear picture of an entire nation standing at the verge of a cliff, in grave danger of falling off the edge at a single misstep. This analogy is not too far from the reality that the US faces, as our society truly is standing on a financial precipice. Several articles published over the past year have described our ominous situation, and have attempted to figure out how it all began. My favorite, posted in Forbes Magazine in November of 2012, talks about the Congressional passing of the Budget Control Act of 2011, which dictates the automatic, across-the-board cuts in federal spending.  But, Congress never really intended for this sequester to go into effect. It was meant more as

Sensationalism in Science, Part II

By Gabrielle Rabinowitz, @GabrielleRab In Part I of this post I explained the harm that can result from over-hyped science reporting. But what if scientists’ own enthusiasm for their work is what sparks the hype? As Rob O’ Sullivan of Dar-winning pointed out in a comment on Part I, scientists in poorly funded fields sometimes rely on hype to raise funds. As science funding is increasingly threatened by federal cutbacks, scientists need to reach out to the public to explain why their research is exciting and important. As we reach out, we need to be careful that our sincere enthusiasm doesn’t feed the hype machine. Every scientist needs to consider the consequences of their words. Hype on Mars No one knows better about shrinking funds and the need to excite the public than NASA. I’ve already mentioned the “arsenic life” incident of 2010, where NASA scientists did nothing to stop the overexcited press from exaggerating their findings. Last November a much more cautious NASA research team unwittingly let their enthusiasm become the source of hype. The senior scientist from NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory, John Grotzinger, told NPR that he and his team had discovered something in a soil sample from Curiosity that was “gonna be one