Telling stories for science

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Humans are great story tellers. Always have been and always will be. No matter what happens. Image: newyorker.com

Humans are story tellers. Some might say that is what separates us from other animals. Well, that and IPods. Particularly since even insects have language and it seems that everyone is using tools. Homo habilis is not as impressive as Homo fictus, the story tellers. Unfortunately this message hasn’t gotten through to scientists.

We all have a story, so writers like to tell us and then don’t give us any ideas of how to go about extracting that story. At some point during science education – I blame the PhD – we scientists lose the ability to tell stories. Conversely we become very adept at stringing facts together and critically analysing details.

But stringing together a story is a complete mystery. This is very problematic when it comes to trying to communicate scientific results to a non-scientific audience. I can spot a spelling mistake or inappropriate apostrophe use a mile off, but figuring out the correct sequence of words to turn an idea into a story is a whole different challenge. And it’s the story that most people will remember, not the details.

Practicing is the best way to get better at anything and this includes telling stories. Just telling friends about something that happened on the weekend is a good start – and, of course, this is yet another reason to engage in communal coffee times.

Even when writing scientific papers, having a story in mind helps get the message across. This simple idea makes the paper flow more logically and is easier to follow than the randomly- strewn-together series of facts that is the alternative.

Knowing what the key message of the paper also makes writing the paper easier. Particularly in nominating what is important to include and needs to be dealt with before publication and what can be reallocated to that wonderful section of ‘future research’. This helps keep on topic and to the point and that’s also good for the reader.

Stories are great for science, both for writing articles for other specialists and for engaging non-specialists. We just need to remember how to tell them.

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Coffee for the good of science

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Coffee breaks help generate a rapport between colleagues and avoid the need to settle disputes with cage matches. Image: mmaweekly.com

 

Locked away in our laboratories, researchers tussle for access to equipment and resources. The overriding sensation is a tense mutual respect. We generally acknowledge each other’s space and equipment but this respect is tenuous and can breakdown in an instant.

Something can go slightly wrong on a project and suddenly next week’s deadline is ominously close and that person needs all the equipment RIGHT NOW. This then encroaches on other people’s deadlines as resources they have booked and planned to use are suddenly inaccessible, and the whole ‘mutual respect’ thing descends into cage matches.

That isn’t quite true. We haven’t got a cage in the lab yet but I’m sure it’s included in next year’s budget.

This is one of the key reasons why research institutes usually have a ‘social club’. It’s a way of forcing people to get to know each other outside the lab in friendly environments and even footing. The same can be said for such activities as ‘lunch’ or ‘coffee breaks’.

Anything that involves the coming together of people – preferably in combination with food and drink intake – can improve relations.

As science becomes more multidisciplinary, being able to get along with other people who are not quite in the same team or have the same objectives is an increasingly important skill. Getting out of the lab and gathering around food with colleagues is a simple but effective method for creating better relationships and building stronger teams.

So go on, put down that pipette and have a coffee. It’s for the good of science.

Simple science can be clever science

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Science sometimes requires skills like Macgyver’s. Image credit: comicbook.com

Science has made leaps and bounds in recent decades with the development of sophisticated instruments that measure deeper and deeper into our world. Discoveries can now be made that confirm the existence of gravitational waves, the structure of proteins and everything in between. This is a golden age of scientific exploration.

And yet there isn’t a laboratory in the entire world that could function adequately without such equipment as a marker pen.

When we talk science and stand in awe at our capabilities and technological advances, it’s easy to forget that much of science uses very rudimentary equipment. Particularly in applied science where a new project with industry means having to measure a characteristic of a real world sample right now.

This includes, for example, the level of sediment in a tank. How do we measure it? Get out a marker pen and draw a line on the tank where the sediment comes up to. Genius.

Or when we need to compare the filterability of samples too small for the real method, how do we do it? Pour the sample through the filter paper and mark the receiver flask with the volume filtered every 10 seconds. Marker pen wins again!

The genius of early scientists was in developing ways measure the world around them. Today determining the structure of an unknown molecule, for example, is very straightforward, as long as you have a nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer and mass spectrometer handy and really, who doesn’t? But a century ago this was a real challenge and involved a massive array of indirect measures to get the final structure. And some genius. That always helps.

Even in modern labs, it is an invaluable skill to be able to develop practical and reproducible methods on the fly using everyday, inexpensive lab equipment. Sophisticated equipment is essential but expensive and any cost savings to a research budget is applauded.

Particularly if there is a solid element of ingenuity associated with it. Like rigging up a large hadron collider in the basement using rubber bands and lengths of pipe. I think that might have actually been a Macgyver episode.

While high tech science paves our way to a deeper understanding of the universe, we must remember that it is also the simple things in science that help push that knowledge forward.

Death at every turn

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Wolverine-like powers are a side-effect of safety inductions. Image: screenrant.com

I no longer fear death as I have recently become immortal. I can walk through battle fields unscathed, sky dive sans parachute and car surf without fear of injury. At least, I’m pretty sure that’s the case. It certainly feels like safety is pulsing through my veins now that I’ve undergone a safety induction.

The main point of a safety induction is to make people stop and think of everything that can hurt or kill when undertaking a particular task or even when being in a particular location.

At a winery, there are large machines known as ‘crushers’ that can effortlessly do to an arm what they do to grapes; huge open vats of bubbling, seething liquids that can suck you under like something out of a B grade horror movie; and the rolling potential agony of the forklift. Not only does a forklift have pointed prongs of pain at the front but the potential to driving over you when reversing and can drop an unbalanced load on your head.

In the lab there are chemicals that can kill instantly or slow and painfully or cause irreparable damage like blindness. A quick scan of any commonly-used lab solvent reveals the stuff of nightmares. Danger is the norm in the lab.

Now that I have been inducted into the realm of safety, I can see hazards everywhere. That crack in the footpath is a potential trip hazard and should be fixed immediately. There are cars driving at speeds that can kill an unwary pedestrian should anyone accidentally cross the road whilst texting so the speed limit should be lowered. A tree near a building might cause grievous scratches to anyone not ducking low enough under the branch and should be cut down.

This is a dangerous world and no matter how hard we try to eliminate all dangers more just keep cropping up. Perhaps a better solution is to introduce safety inductions for life. A proper walk through and checklist of all the things that can kill you at any given moment, wherever you are and whatever you are doing.

Similar to the brilliant Dumb Ways to Die YouTube clips but with a form to sign stating that you Acknowledge and Accept the Risks of Living and understand that Not Complying with the Safety Rules of Life will result in you being Removed from Life permanently.

Maybe then we can finally feel safe and in control. But maybe not to the level of actually car surfing.

Lab therapy

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Ice cream makes everything better. Image:normalisadriersetting.wordpress.com 

I did something crazy the other day. It was one of those laboratory clean up days that precedes the arrival of important visitors and the lab was abuzz with activity. Holding a tray of 100 samples, I walked up to a group of people and stopped their conversation.

“Watch this!” I said and tipped the whole tray of samples into the bin. The crowd gasped in shock and awe and someone said “how could you?!” I just grinned in triumph.

Throwing out samples is one of the hardest things researchers have to do. Samples can take days, weeks or sometimes months to prepare for analysis and by that time they become more precious than platinum.

Even when the project is finished and even after the paper is written, even then the final stage of getting rid of the samples is still gut-wrenching.

What if one of the tests needs to be repeated? What if something else needs to be measured? Some tests only need 25 uL of sample and having to repeat months-worth of work for 25 uL is why therapy was invented. This sort of thing can take years to come to terms with.

There are, however, more effective means of therapy than sitting on a couch with a therapist. One of them is smashing glassware. Admittedly, this is only recommended when disposing of glassware that is already broken. Scientific glassware is never cheap but there’s no point gently disposing of something that has a hairline fracture when you’re having a bad day.

Another great remedy for frustration is hurling something out of a window, preferably the instrument causing the frustration. Although, given that the cost of analytical instruments can easily run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, this one is best left to fantasy.

As for my recent craziness, those samples had been on my bench for months as a ‘just in case’. And then I realised I didn’t actually need them. The trial hadn’t worked and it was a complete do-over so there was really no point in keeping the 300 samples.

The simple act of throwing out these samples made me feel lighter, like a huge weight had lifted off my shoulders, and just plain old happy because of the giddy recklessness of it. That’s better than therapy any day.

Accidental talents

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Working in a lab may make you a better dancer. Image: psu.edu/khallmusic 

Research scientists have unusual skill sets. Some skills are expected, like good experimental designs and writing decent scientific papers. But other skills develop as side effects of repeated lab work that are just plain weird. Useful, but weird.

One of the key skills that I’ve developed is the ability to transfer small amounts of liquid from one vial to another. I should really have that on my resume. My entire PhD consisted of evaporating solvent from compounds that I isolated from leaves and then dissolving them in the smallest volume possible. And then transferring that concentrated solution to a more convenient container. An important skill.

Another accidental talent of many researchers is the Art of Finding Stuff. Before any new experiment can begin, Stuff must be found. Mostly containers. Science revolves around the particular vessels that are available for storing liquids and many experiments are designed around the size and number of available storage containers.

Labs also contain many hidden and long forgotten chemicals and glassware buried in the back of drawers labelled with very unhelpful names like “Things in here”. The real skill comes from remembering what’s actually in these drawers from the last round of rummaging, thus reducing the time taken to locate useful items.

One of the more unexpected skills that I’ve developed as a researcher is dancing. I don’t mean the tragic happenings that occur when I listen to dance music, which is unfortunately more related to seizures than elegance. I mean the delicate balance of interactions that come from performing coinciding experiments with other lab users that is surely on par with the grace required for, say, ballroom dancing.

The necessary politeness needed to work very closely in another’s space and the acknowledgement that both parties must move in a particular way to meet similar objectives are common elements in both dancing and lab work. There’s also the inevitable give and take required for both parties to achieve their objectives. With practice, this becomes smoother and more natural, making this more art form than science.

More often than not that act of doing science takes much more than scientific knowledge and we don’t even realise that we’re building these skills. If only that was the same for exercise.

The black hole of research time management

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Time management in research can be a bit surreal. Image: Pinterest.com

Time management in research is something of a dark art. The golden rule is to carefully calculate how long it takes to do the various tasks and test the various samples. And then triple it. And add a week.

This generally works well for most projects, but sometimes an experiment reaches a tipping point beyond which the time required to finished the project escalates exponentially. Some liken it to crossing the event horizon of a black hole, beyond which time has no meaning. This is exactly what happened to me this week.

All I really wanted was to test four samples. Four. That’s a small number, it should be easy to get that done. And then I realised I had to include controls because that’s science.  The treatments have to be compared to samples without treatments. And compared to a positive control, a treatment that is known to work, just to make sure the method is actually working as it should.

So that’s up to 6 samples. That’s still a small number. No problems.

But then I want to test all these samples in different conditions. After all, just because it works in one, doesn’t mean it works in all of them and vice versa. And then I’ll need controls for each of those different conditions as well.

Now I’m up to about 40 samples. That’s a bigger number but still manageable.

And then I need to consider doing everything in triplicate because that’s also science. Just because it works once, doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a fluke. Or something else happened to the sample so the effect wasn’t actually anything to do with the treatment.

And suddenly there are 120 samples. That is a lot of samples. Now everything takes infinitely more time and I have to factor in little things that are normally taken for granted. Like labelling sample tubes. That’s the morning gone.

And there are just too many samples to comfortably fit into the handy carry containers and too many to run the tests all in one go. The time it takes to do anything has spiralled out to infinity. My quick and easy test has become a major undertaking with exponentially greater complexity and a very distant end point.

My only solace is that at the end of it, when I eventually get there, I know that the results will be real effects and the science behind those results will be sound. That makes for a project that is more likely to pass the peer-review and add to the global understanding of that topic.

But first I need to navigate this black hole.