Thursday, 28 April 2011

Julio: Distraction and Research

(Third in a series of blog posts written in response to this New Yorker article In Praise of Distraction)

Watching YouTube videos or use Facebook, Twitter or visit shopping sites is definitely a good way to relax and spend some time without thinking about mathematics. But to solve difficult math problems and learn difficult math while watching a funny video on YouTube can be a difficult challenge and I do not think is the proper way to do research, at least not for me.

The best thing that works for me is that when I try to learn math or to solve a problem I try to stay totally focused on this task. And when I'm not thinking in mathematics (which is hard to do) I try to use the time to just relax and leisure and this of course can include visiting the internet. So I try to follow the following rule: when I'm working and researching I just try to do this and keep me focused and when I´m not doing research I use my time to relax and fun and I just try to do this and not think about work. This way I think is the best way to take my time, at least works for me like that!

Posted by Julio

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Papi: If you don’t have time, turn off the Internet.

(Second in a series of blog posts written in response to this New Yorker article In Praise of Distraction)

I used to spend lots of time on line. It started when I first moved here; being away from home, it was the only way to communicate with family and friends, either through Facebook or Skype. Then I used my FB contacts as participants for my psychology experiments. And then I had to return the favour to those who participated in my experiments; mainly through gifting in FB online games. After that I was all day long online.

When I realized how much time I was spending on FB talking about life and not actually living it I was shocked. Currently I play only one game online and only when I can’t sleep at night (not very often). I prefer spending time with real people outside my little student room. Reading this out loud, sounds like an addict’s speech. Oh, well I am Papi and I am an Internet addict…

Posted by Papi.

Milly: PhD PhindingDistraction (worst title so far)

(First in a series of blog posts written in response to this New Yorker article In Praise of Distraction)

I spend most of my time at work in the biology department running experiments, writing or just thinking. Due to the never ending list of things I have to do, but would rather not, I’m easily distracted. The internet is probably my worst enemy.

Today I found myself and a friend searching for socks in various different animal shapes. Our favourite were a pair of shark socks that look like they’re eating your legs...once again I am distracted.

Since the development of the internet, a PhD student like me no longer needs to spend hours in the library searching through books of abstracts and reading whole journals to get to the necessary information. With one click of a button I can search the entire web and I am rewarded within 0.7 seconds (so I’m told by Google).

But does this make us more efficient? Do I miss interesting journals and relevant papers because I’m not spending these hours in the library? The lure of the internet is often too much and I find myself bombarded with useless information.

I don’t think I could go back now I’ve used things like Web of Knowledge, Google Scholar and Mendeley (a bit like facebook for scientists) for so long. It seems we have entered a new era of researching….

Posted by Milly.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Angel: Manipulating biologies: convergences and divergences of bioart and biosciences event

Controversial and unconventional, those are the words that come up into my mind every time I remember the content of Tuesday April 12th's "Manipulating biologies: convergences and divergences of bioart and biosciences" event at the Grant Bradley Gallery. As a scientist, I have been interested about the kind of concept that makes art and science relationship closer or distant. Nevertheless, my interpretation is more related with art being source of inspiration to science and not in the opposite way. Kira O’Reilly and Professor Paul Martin showed up their experience trying to answer scientific and philosophical questions based in the human body as a subject of research performing biotechnical techniques.

My body as a specific place to experiment and create science...

Kira O’Reilly's art is able to shock any kind of person with sense of safety, or well, conventional people dedicated to experimental science. I mean, when the artist showed pictures about injuries in her body, evoking traditional Chinese medicine, this act wasn’t anything out of conventions, many people use piercings or tattoos over their bodies. However, the idea to use her body as a material to create art and to ask oneself where the border of life begging and end sounds strange.

...decontextualization of flesh from the body as material, as living, to understand conditions to exist what is life...

 Kira O’Reilly and Jennifer Willet - Untitled (Hamster Ovaries Protocol) series - The Art and Genomics Centre, University of Leiden, The Netherlands, 2008 Photo: Rune Peitersen

Breaking every rule is a good start to ask new questions and as a consequence create new perspectives about daily activities that might to be common for each people, for example persons involved in science. Let’s use the infinity behind your eyelids, close your eyes for few seconds draw the naked body of a woman inside a fume hood in your laboratory – keep in your mind these questions: What does it mean for you? What if you are the person inside this small place used to protect you against toxic substances? To be honest, when I saw that picture I felt totally confused because the elements are familiar for me, but something inside me said: What is the aim of this? It’s wrong. The most important thing is that maybe this outrageous picture has changed something introspective about me and the lab environment.

...researching how to build or rebuild tissues...

Professor Martin is carrying out a research in embryology, their main interest is focused on understanding the mechanism involved in the creation of human tissues. Professor Martin  has the belief that there are aspects from life sciences that can inspire artists to create art. During the talk was cited the case of a woman that created some fashion designs inspired by embryos. On the other hand, he declare that scientist has to think a little bit as an artist but the work of a scientist because they have to be a good observers.

These talks showed that both disciplines can interact in a dynamic dialog using different and common techniques or methods that allows the expansion of the knowledge and understanding of life.

Posted by Angel

Monday, 25 April 2011

Tania: Bristol University's Botanic Gardens

I was very honoured to be given a guided tour of the University's Botanic Gardens last week by its director, Simon Hiscock, professor of plant and pathogen biology. It was a glorious day, the sun shone as we wandered around, it was the perfect visit. As a writer, I was inspired by every aspect of the gardens - from their design, plants interspersed with artwork made by one of the Gardens' employees, to the sections they are divided into, which include a working Chinese herbal medicine garden and a section with plants grouped according to the very new DNA-based classification.

Instead of trying to put it all into words, here are some pictures I took. The place is fabulous, educational and peaceful, and it's open to all every day. I will be heading back there to spend more time and also, perhaps, to run some kind of creative writing workshop. I want to write there, dammit, that's the main thing!

James: An Interview with Dr Tom Scott

When I was asked to interview someone from my research group I knew instantly the man to go to. Dr Thomas B Scott, PhD, MSci, Director of the Interface Analysis Centre (IAC) and Honorary Lecturer in Earth Sciences. The reason for this is I thought Tom’s mentality would be perfect for it, coupled with the fact I myself have found want to ask him questions about himself as he has risen to success early in life, something any aspiring academic would want to emulate.

Tom did his PhD here at Bristol in environmental geochemistry and mobility of uranium and its potential for uptake by iron and iron-bearing minerals, which he loved to such a degree that he stayed to do research, which lead into his current area of research: Nuclear materials - safe storage, environmental transport, structures and fundamental properties.

When asked why did you come into, and stay in, academia his response was: “I like the idea that any day you could come into the lab, run an experiment and find out something new that nobody has ever seen before. I'd also like to leave a positive mark on humanity by contributing something which helps make a better world”. I feel this shows the kid-like excitement of discovery and the hope to do good in the world. However, with being director and honorary lecturer Tom doesn’t just get to do research, as he pointed out himself, he misses working in the lab everyday (even if it is just to stop us making a mess). One of the extra things that Tom really enjoys about his job is getting new grant funding for the IAC, indeed in his own words "I like winning!" and "winning" grants at times has given Tom so much glee that he has run round the department for a round of hi-fives.

When asked what a typical day was in the life of Dr Tom Scott, the response surprised me somewhat:

Get up at 6.40am; breakfast; help get little ones fed; get dressed; help get little ones dressed; get to work by 8.45am after dropping off little ones at nursery; check emails; deal with urgent issues;  planned phone calls; meetings; 1-2 hours personal research work; 1 hour (or more) of student work and/or issues; Have lunch in office about 4pm; pick up little one by 5.15pm; get home and have dinner; get kids in the bath and then bed by 7.15pm; 8pm onwards check emails and continue working for a few hours; go to bed knackered and hope the little ones sleep through.

The things that stuck out to me most where the time he has to get up in the morning coupled with the time until lunch, add to that continuing to work after getting his children to bed. It gives me more respect for him, and I think in future will stop me being so miffed when I can not find him to help me with my own ends. I get up after him and never do work after I have left the office.

One of my more benign questions during the interview was: Do you work to music? Some people are very different, for instance I have music on constantly where as other require complete silence. Tom it turns out tends towards classical music most notably Ludovico Einaudi, an Italian composer and pianist. Little known fact, as well as being known in classical circles Ludovico has also done some music scores for films mostly in Italian but also ‘This is England’.

When asked about time out of the office at conferences and whether he thought them productive, he used the example of a conference in Slovakia he had just been to. To make the most of his time there he went with a “game plan":

1) Deliver a kick-ass talk that showed the AWE and all others attending that  in Bristol we're doing some fantastic science and have some fantastic facilities.
2) Then capitalise on the interest generated by my talk to cultivate international research links and collaborations with other senior researchers. Down the road this might lead to FP7 or similar funding.
3) Spend time with guys from the AWE, to strengthen relationships and engage in future research planning. This is VERY important.
4) Watch talks to improve my general background understanding in different areas of actinide/nuclear science. It’s also a prime opportunity to spot good PhD students from Europe that are close to finishing. I can then target them to bring them to Bristol on Marie Curie fellowships.
5) Have a few full nights of sleep.

This is quite different to the "jolly" I thought they were going on off to Slovakia, I was expecting it to be more like a holiday but on expenses.

Finally I wrapped up the interview by asking what Tom’s short and long term goals were. To which the response was some simple things like "go skiing" and "teach the kids to play tennis". Some personal challenges: "complete the 3-peaks and run another half marathon". Then there were loftier goals which are "grow the IAC; become a Professor; start and own a successful company; retire by 55; keep doing research for fun."

Posted by James.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Poetry and Extremophile DNA

Fascinating small article in today's Observer entitled "How does a poet ensure his work lives for ever?":
Many artists seek to attain immortality through their art, but few would expect their work to outlast the human race and live on for billions of years. As Canadian poet Christian Bök has realised, it all comes down to the durability of your materials. Bök has written a poem, "The Xenotext", which he is inserting into the DNA of a particularly resilient form of bacteria, Deinococcus radiodurans. This extremophile bacterium can survive exposure to cold, dehydration, acid and vacuums, meaning it could live on in outer space should the Earth cease to exist.
Bök is not one to shy away from a challenge. In his most recent book, Eunoia, each chapter uses words of only one vowel. He has spent nine years researching the Xenotext project and, despite having no academic training in biochemistry, he is doing all the genetic and protein engineering himself. Using a "chemical alphabet", Bök is translating his short verse about language and genetics into a sequence of DNA, which will be implanted into the genome of the bacteria. The protein that the cell produces in response will form a second comprehensible poem.
This is not the first time someone has married art and microbiology. In 2003, US scientists inserted a DNA translation of the song "It's a Small World" into D radiodurans to show that the bacterium could be used as a means of information storage in the event of a nuclear catastrophe. Last year, the American genetic entrepreneur J Craig Venter coded a line from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – "To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life" – into DNA, only to receive a cease-and-desist letter from the notoriously litigious James Joyce estate.
Let's hope Bök will have fewer problems with "The Xenotext". He is now in the final stages of coding and a model of the protein goes on display with the two poems at the Text festival in Bury from 30 April.

 Interesting stuff... here's the original article, if you want to comment.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Imagination is More Important Than Knowledge: Science-inspired fiction and poetry open mic night!

A wonderful time was had by all last night at the Grant Bradley gallery at the University's Changing Perspectives science-inspired fiction and poetry open mic night. I was host for the evening and, to kick the whole thing off, read my stories Experimentation (from the lab coat I'd written the story on for the Changing Perspectives exhibition) and Healing Wounds.

I was then more than delighted to hand the mic over to 14 readers, who read short stories, poems and excerpts from longer works, all in some way taking science as their starting off point. We moved from oxo cubes to cockroaches, aspirin to drowned cities, speculative Wessex fiction to gifted children, Brian Cox (!) to Pingu the penguin.

I have to say that I don't know about anyone else but I found it all extremely inspiring! We had such a range of readings, across many "genres" (although I hate labels), different styles and tones and subject matter. I loved it all: thank you to Jo, Cath, Stewart, Mary, Mazzy, James, Caleb, Amy, Franca, Tom, Colin, Gavin, Andy and Katrina!

Becky Jones - PhD student from the biochem lab I've been embedded in and organizer of the Art of Science competition - and I had the impossible task of picking just four people to give these wonderful books (above) to, so congrats to Jo, Caleb, Amy and Franca - but really congratulations to everyone, it was a wonderful celebration of using science as inspiration, whether you have any scientific background or not, none is necessary. As Einstein said: Imagination is more important than knowledge. I think he would have enjoyed last night.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Welcome to the new bloggers!

The first Science Faculty blogging course has been running for several weeks now and it's time that the new bloggers made their first appearance here! So, here are excerpts from the first exercise I set them for homework, a blog "inspired by" our first session. Do leave a comment, give them some encouragement!

My first blog meeting ever
As I was walking back home, I was thinking a lot about my first blogging experience. Why do I want to learn how to blog? What do I hope to gain? Truth be told, I’ve never really paid much attention to blogs. I have a Facebook account and a page so I can promote my research, but I never thought about blogging. Even worse, I had no idea that the Science faculty had one (yes, I am deeply ashamed of my ignorance).
Then again, there are so many things I don’t know. Ever since I moved to Bristol from Athens, every day is a new experience. Sometimes I feel like I am a toddler exploring the world around me. My limited capacity processor (aka brain) tries to process the stimuli, and though it is not always successful, I still make an effort anyway. Like in the dream, I keep trying to dial the right number or wake up trying.
So, back to the original question: to blog or not to blog? Would the world be interested in my thoughts? Would I care if they didn’t? How would I feel if people didn’t like my way of thinking? Would I get upset?
I have no idea whatsoever. There is only one-way to find out. I think I should blog. I should just say what I think and see what happens.
Hello world !!! My name is Ypapanti, I am Greek (thus the I-don’t-think-I-can-pronounce-this name) and you can call me Papi.
Ypapanti Chochorelou, 3rd year Psychology undergraduate. See the Science Faculty portrait of her here.

Blogging Everywhere
Last Tuesday was the kick off for the first Science Faculty Blogging Course, and to be honest, I was skeptical about the idea of a blogging course, because, I've always had the idea that write a blog should be very intuitive, not too sophisticated, that you don’t need to have previous instruction - basically, such a friendly coffee talk! However, it was totally cool, because somehow the blogging experience became real with people with different background and interests. So, I would like to share my experience reading and writing blog stuff using my iPod and some exciting apps...
...In my experience, I will always prefer to edit and publish entries on a PC or laptop, but sometimes the ideas don’t pop up in the right moment, for those kind of unexpected moments, I use a text editor called Plain Text. As the app of the same title, it’s a simple editor like the default notes app, with the extra features that allows you to create and organize folders and sync everything with Dropbox. Nevertheless, the minimalist paper-like user interface makes the experience of writing and creating something simple and elegant, without distractions (nasty ads), only you and an entire world to be walked and discovered.
Well, I’m at the end of this first entry, so the only thing that I have to say is that almost every app is good. Maybe these that I’ve reviewed are the more boring, complex, least reliable and awful in the whole world, but it all relies on the experience of each user. Which ones are the best for you?
Angel Sanchez, PhD student, Chemistry.

My first blog post
Does the following paragraph grab most audiences?
“A significant seismological event of magnitude 9.1-9.3 has ruptured the fault boundary between the Indo-Australian and southeastern Eurasian plates on the 26 December 2004. Rapid fault slip of up to 15 meters occurred in the southern portion of the belt but to the north the slip was much smaller.”
I’ve just described the technical details of the 2004 Boxing Day Sumatra earthquake. But I definitely haven’t engaged you (unless you are a seismologist). Simply put, this was an earth-shattering event only surpassed in magnitude by the recent Japanese earthquake. There was so much energy that the Earth literally tore apart - the ocean floor ripped apart for over 1,300 km. That’s roughly the distance of Edinburgh to Prague. Hopefully that’s a bit more readable.

(I hope you’re still reading, I’m now trying to be a little less science-y but old habits die hard and all).

This is the reason why I think scientists need to bash down their barriers and blog! It’s not just the journalist’s role to bring science to the public – scientists and journalists need to work together. This is why I am going to start learning how to write again and try to make science engaging and fun for all. (See, even by just writing that last sentence I feel unscientific and bordering on cheesy).

So blogging is what I am learning to do and this is my first attempt. Hopefully why I want to blog has come across to you reading this and that you made it to the end. Actually, I think that what I wrote isn’t just specific to blogging, more of a call for scientific engagement but I am seeing scientist blogging more and more and it’s time I got involved.
Elspeth Robinson, PhD student, Earth Sciences.

On the Difficulty of Communicating Mathematics.
In the first session of the blog course we were asked to write a little post about what we had done that day, 03/29/2010. I then wrote about my usual day of research in mathematics and how to practically use only pencil, eraser, paper and some books and sometimes the computer.
It was then that the theme for my second homework for the blog course arose. When I told course participants and the instructor of the course that I do research in mathematics I saw, I believe, from the questions from some of the people and their expressions, that they are interested in math and really would like to know what research in mathematics is.
Some of the questions that arose on the day about research in mathematics were:
1-) Why research in mathematics is important?
2-) Why is mathematics important and which is the usefulness of the mathematics?
3-) How is research in mathematics done?
Answering these philosophical questions is not a trivial task and must be analyzed carefully. n the rest of my post I'll try at least to start with this discussion and those questions that arose as a curiosity of the participants in the blog course. Due to the small space here I will deal with a more different and simple question: What are the main areas of research in the department of mathematics at the University of Bristol and what they mean?
The research in mathematics can be divided into research in pure mathematics, applied mathematics and in statistics (note that this division is not an absolute truth, because even the division of pure mathematics, applied mathematics and statistics can be discussed as a philosophical question about the nature of the mathematics). At least here in the department of mathematics at the University of Bristol...
Hopefully in the next post or on the next opportunity I will try to explore these issues and other questions which arose through the curiosity of the participants of the blog course.
Julio Andrade, PhD student, Mathematics
To blog or not to blog…..what is the question?!

I arrived about an hour late for our first blogging session. High on Lemsip it took me a while to locate the group through the misty paracetamol fog but there they were. My fears that this had all been some cleverly orchestrated practical joke were set aside. I had been looking forward to this course for a while so I wasn’t going to let a dose of freshers’ flu defeat me! I was slightly worried that, having spent the last three years of my life writing as a scientist in short, staccato sentences, I would have lost the ability to string together a sentence of more than 5 words. That one was 37, all is not lost.
So this last session got me thinking about what I wanted to get out of this. I did a quick search to see who was blogging in my field and I stumbled across a number of blogs devoted to interesting biology and weird science. Most with an aim to engage people with information both bizarre and visually appealing. One to aspire to is Arthropoda, the collective thoughts of a grad student from the University of Maryland. It has a great combination of interesting personal encounters with strange animals, stunning photography and sound but easily digestible science.
The wildlife in Bristol seems less exciting but this is probably because it is too familiar and I don’t pay it enough attention. Searching “most boring blog” via Google to get some perspective led me to ‘the dullest blog in the world’ with entries such as ‘Straightening the doormat’:
February 7th, 2010
I noticed that the doormat was at a slightly crooked angle. I reached down and moved the mat back into its correct place. The edge of the mat was then perpendicular to the door.’
Back on topic (not entirely sure what it was to start with) its really impressive and quite daunting the number and quality of science blogs out there. If I’m going to make my own I’ll have to find something I’m passionate and knowledgeable about, two things spring to mind, deep sea fish and cheese. Perhaps I can combine the two. I’ve searched it, it doesn’t exists, horay! Time to get thinking of a snappy title.....

Milly Sharkey, PhD student, Biology.
Stream of conciousness
I have blogged before and enjoyed it, however, I felt every word I wrote must be perfectly crafted as any and every person in the world would be able to see it once posted.
Yet just in the short opening to our first meeting I realised that blogging isn’t supposed to be perfect it is supposed to be an opening to a dialogue. Now thanks to that the ‘chore’ of writing being lifted, I can’t stop myself from writing. I find words flowing back on to the page with ease, an un-hindered flow of conciseness onto the page. With no ugly read lines appearing, or even worse green ones.
Further more the best thing, arguably, I took away was meeting everyone else. I love meeting new people and learning about them. So a collection of scientists from so many walks, of which I know little to nothing, panders to my urge to learn. It will be interesting to see how we all feel about each other’s subject. Although we are all scientists your view of the same science can be different. I know from personal experience as I think that I took the easy option when it came to sciences. For instance I have the up most respect for biologists and organic chemists as they are required to learn so much more. I just learn one thing and apply it, probably in a vacuum with no friction or other external forces to make it easier. {}
This first session has just wet my appetite and I look forward to more. I think this could lead to a very fruitful end, and the production of something worth reading or even better worth commenting upon.
James "Ed" Darnbrough, PhD student, Physics.

Positive and negative charges

When I left the first workshop (which I really enjoyed), I did also feel some trepidation about what I would write about. Working on the assumption that it is always best to go with your instincts, and the first thing that comes to mind, I decided to write this post about my ambivalence about blogging. Tania had said write anything at all about the first session that comes to mind and so I decided to take on board what she said about having an authentic voice, which is of course true. Speaking with honesty will always encourage an honest response.

So what is my ambivalence about then …. The true definition of ambivalence is to be in the state of having both positive and negative valence towards someone or something. Today, although part of the online generation, I have very conflicted feelings about the constant exposure that is a natural product of being part of the social network. It has to do with being an essentially private person, or maybe just a product of an older generation than my fellow bloggers in this group. In truth, I feel uncomfortable about revealing too much of myself to complete strangers, even though, when blogging to what would hopefully be a wider audience, they would be people I probably wouldn’t ever know.

This reluctance of mine is why I resisted joining Facebook for so long, despite the numerous people who used to moan at me because I wouldn’t join. Of course, now I am on it I wonder why I didn’t join long ago. ...

However, the downsides are that I worry too much that Facebook separates me from real-world interactions with people - how often do I send a quick Facebook message when I could phone instead, hear my friends’ voices and have a proper chat. The other ‘negative’ which relates more to blogging (and I may seem a bit intolerant here) is to do with the sheer banality of some people’s Facebook posts. The same is true of blogging – I have previously read some which have just been incredibly boring and, frankly, puerile. Having said that, there are numerous blogs out there which do inspire, enthuse and interest me enormously.

Still, this all sounds horribly negative which I didn’t want it to do. The reason I joined the course is that I feel very passionately that I want to post on the science blog in order to share and communicate my love of science, and, in particular, how the application of scientific techniques to archaeological problems has, over the last few decades, significantly increased our understanding of the actions and behaviours of past peoples.
Julie Dunne, PhD Student, Organic Geochemistry

Well, that's your - and their - first taste of blogging on the Science Faculty blog, I think it's going very well. There will be more coming soon - if there's something you'd like them to blog about, leave a comment, we'll see what we can do.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Win beautiful books - come and read your science-inspired fiction and poetry!

On April 19th at 6pm at the fabulous Grant Bradley Gallery in Bristol, I am hosting an open mic night for fiction and poetry in any way inspired by science. This is part of the amazing Changing Perspectives month of exhibitions and activities bringing together art and science.. This event is completely FREE to attend (but booking is required, click here) and you can win one of several great prizes, including these books:

The White Road and Other Stories by Tania Hershman (yes, that's me)

I will be judging, and the theme of the evening can really be interpreted however you like - any genre, any style, as long as something scientific in some way was the inspiration. (I wrote more on my thoughts about this on the Wellcome Collection blog)

To prepare for the open mic, I will be jointly running a science-inspired fiction workshop on Wed 13th April, which once again is completely FREE, at the Grant Bradley Gallery, 2-4.30pm - booking is required, see here. Come and write!