Barbequing ‘healthy’ alternatives


Australia Day BBQs. Where ‘yummy’ trumps ‘healthy’

Australia day for many is an obligatory day of barbeques. The sausages are cooked to perfection with charcoal on the outside and still some raw bits in the middle and often stuck between slices of ultra-white bread with tomato sauce. Then eaten. And washed down with beer.

In terms of healthy eating, this is an epic fail. Never mind the fat content of the sausages or the carbohydrate load of the bread, charred meat is straight up carcinogenic. But we won’t mention that because it’s Australia day and it’s a barbeque and stop being so un-Australian.

Exactly what constitutes healthy eating is the subject of ongoing online debates with the same foods killing or curing you in equal measure. As far as I can tell, everything inexpensive and readily available seems lethal while expensive and precious super-foods are the only things that can save humanity.

Different diets have surged in popularity over the years and each have very loyal followers. Team Paleo hold the romantic idea of eating as our ancestors did all those millennia ago without acknowledging that we may have changed as a species over that time.

But it’s the rules I don’t get. No potatoes or lentils? That doesn’t even make sense. People have been eating versions of these crops for thousands of years and there seems no reason to stop now.

And yet at its core, the Paleo diet is a good idea. Less processed foods means less refined sugar and more fibre and that has to be beneficial.

Team Alkaline seem to think that anything acidic is evil and anything alkaline is pure and good and disease-preventing. Yet different systems in our bodies have different levels of acidity for different purposes.

The acid in our stomach is perfectly suited to food digestion and enjoyed by the microflora that live there while our blood is ever so slightly alkaline. Both systems are pH-buffered, which means that the extent of acidity or alkalinity won’t change with what we eat, so there seems little point worrying about food pH.

The really confusing part of the Alkaline diet are the explanations as to why it recommends eating acidic fruits like lemons and berries. Apparently lemon juice isn’t actually acidic despite containing large amounts of citric acid. And having a pH of 2, which is less than 7 and therefore, by definition, acidic. My bad.

After a valiant attempt to get over the term “Alkaline”, I realised that this diet does have some really great elements. Basically it says to eat more fruit and green leafy vegetables, drink less alcohol and stop smoking. That’s got to be good for you.

Many of the popular diets may work for some people because they are effectively touting the same tried and true practices that have existed for generations – eat more fruits and vegetables, lentils and grains, eat less fats and sugar and eat meat in moderation. But that’s boring. Better to add some crazy rules and fancy words to make it sound like it’s a completely revolutionary diet that must be tried.

Ultimately, people can and will eat how they like. Curiosity and a willingness to try new foods and test new ideas are always good strategies. For me, I’m happy with the “everything in moderation” approach. Including the odd carefully burnt sausage at a barbeque.

Breaking through a stagnation in scientific advancement


Making sense of data can be like trying to find an image in a Magic Eye picture. Image:


Research, by nature, is repetitive. The need for demonstrating real effects demands the repeatability and reproducibility of results. This can come at a cost of sanity when initial promising results fail to recur in subsequent samples.

This has been my experience of late when I attempted ‘one last experiment’ before writing a brilliant paper based on an important and surprising finding. That was a couple of months ago. Since then, all my efforts in repeating the experiment have failed to yield good data.

In fact, the only consistent and reproducible trend seems to be the increasing depth of the dint in the wall from where I have been banging my head whilst trying to figure out what’s happening.

So now I’ve taken to desperate measures. I have gone back to the literature to try to explain the phenomenon. Has that helped? Well, no. Not really. It has thrown up many more variables that may influence the results but not offered any solutions. This probably comes back to why I started investigating this topic in the first place.

Then I went on to further desperate measures. I went for a coffee break and then came back to review the data through fresh (-ly caffeinated) eyes. And suddenly, like one of those Magic Eye images, the data resolved itself into a hazy outline of a solution.

I have been studying these samples and this phenomenon for weeks and have accumulated a great deal of data on the topic. Now I know exactly what doesn’t work and, in knowing that, a solution to why it doesn’t work is becoming more obvious.

Maybe soon, with more coffee and squinting, a real solution will present itself and I will get my ground-breaking paper.

Failing that, I should at least be able to produce a strong correlation between the standard errors of averaged replicates and the depth of dints found in walls at head height.

Five New Year’s resolutions worth keeping


Running. One of those admirable New Year’s resolutions that fade by about January. Image credit:


The time of year has arrived to break all the resolutions of the New Year. A couple of weeks of eating well and exercising regularly are surely sufficient to meet the well-meaning criteria we set out on December 31st. And now there’s the whole rest of the year to make ourselves feel guilty enough to make new promises next December.

This year I have been incredibly efficient with my new year’s resolutions. I went for a run* on New Year’s eve AND New Year’s day, effectively achieving two years’ worth of resolutions within a couple of days. On top of that, I have been snacking on fruit** for the whole year – up until last night when I found another packet of chocolate hidden at the back of the pantry.

Aside from these health-related-and-thus-completely-unrealistic resolutions, there are some resolutions that are really worth keeping. Here are 5 things worth doing this year:

1. Contribute to Wikipedia

Ever Google-d your research topic and brought up a cringe-worthy entry in Wikipedia? I have. It made me sad. But instead of wallowing in sorrow, this year I resolve to make the change and add my (comparatively) knowledgeable voice to THE most popular go-to reference source on the planet.

Adding or improving entries in Wikipedia is the best way to get accurate knowledge out there.

2. Call out bad science

So many information sources spout blatant rubbish as ‘fact’. Some are harmless, others are potentially dangerous. Last year I happened upon an anti-GMO article that was full of scare-mongering rather than a considered and factual argument. I met with the editor, explained why the article was incorrect and they generously agreed to publish an article based on actual science.

It may be a small thing, but in a world of peer-reviewed information, there is no place for bad science.

3. Publish that back-log of data

Research has been going solidly for, like, ever, and most of my time has been spent generating data and coordinating projects. This year it’s about time I sit down and assess the data and get those papers written.

After all, if the data isn’t published, the knowledge doesn’t exist.

4. Tell people about research

Non-scientists really don’t know what the life of a researcher is like and many don’t understand scientific processes. There are so many science communication programs around – like national science week or science in the pub – it’s easy to get involved and tell interested audiences about science in real life.

5. Have coffee breaks with colleagues

Ok, admittedly this is an easy one. But occasionally when work pressures are on, it is useful to remember to stop and take a break with a coffee and colleagues, and discuss research problems, safety issues, the weekend, the weather or the latest reality TV show. Return to work mentally refreshed and with a new perspective.

Now all I need is to make these resolutions more of a reality than my ridiculous ideas about eating well and exercising.


*Some might consider ‘walk’ more accurate. Or, at best, ‘shuffle-stagger-walk’.

**Raspberry-swirl ice cream counts as fruit, right?

Post PhD perks


Attending conferences can be hard work but always worth the effort. Image:


The best perks we get as researchers are not actually pens that are shaped like micropipettes. Nor is it syringe-shaped highlighters, sticky-note paper, or any of the other pretty awesome free stuff that I’ve scored from various lab equipment suppliers over the years. It is the chance to attend international conferences.

This notion was brought to my attention very early in my honours degree. If I do really good work, not only might I save the world and get a Nobel Prize but I would also be PAID to present my work overseas somewhere. And, better than that, people might actually want to hear what I have to say and I could travel around lecturing to various universities.

That was the dream. That dream lead me to a PhD and, eventually, to reality. I am becoming increasingly suspicious that my research may not directly save the world and, unless serendipity steps up sometime, a Nobel Prize may not be heading my way anytime soon. But I might contact the committee again anyway, just in case they lost my number.


The micropipette pen is prized among lab-supplier free stuff. Image: Plaid ninja


One thing reality has shown me is that I do have is the real chance to present at a conference. At this time of year many of us start to peruse the conference alert websites and prepare abstracts for faraway places with relevant topics.

Conferences are where ideas are shared and networks and collaborations are formed. It’s also just cool to get paid to travel regardless of the reams of paperwork that inevitably ensues.

And in meeting other researchers, there is always the possibility that a new idea will spark a stream of thought that leads to a Nobel prize-winning breakthrough, or that a new collaboration will lead to a discovery that will ultimately lead to the world being saved. Hope springs eternal.

At the very least, if all else fails, attending the conference will invariably bring me more lab-supplier-stamped free stuff. And it’s almost worth it just for that.