The Olympics of scientific conferences


The Olympics closing ceremony resembles the close of a good scientific conference

The truly great thing about the Olympic games is the closing ceremony. Not because I’m anti-sport as some may suggest, but because this is when the athletes dispense with any animosity towards their competitors and enter the arena as friends. This is much like scientific conferences.

One of the key perks of being in research is going to conferences in far away lands. Having said that, my last conference was in my home town, but either way it’s always a great opportunity to meet with your peers.

Conferences can bring moments of great triumph and exhilaration. Like when you see the name tag of the person across from you at the lunch table and realise that you’ve read absolutely all their papers and follow their work obsessively.

You want to go over to them immediately and gush about how inspirational their work has been but you kind of want to be cool as well.The triumph is when you get the nerve to hold a normal conversation with them without them thinking your crazy. I’m still working on that last bit.

Occasional moments of exhilaration also occur when someone reads your name badge and approaches you to gush about your work. This never gets old. Ever. The struggle for me is to also be cool about it and not give them a great big bear hug of gratitude.

Then there are moments of despair. Like when someone presents their data exactly in your field but they’ve done it better. And with the most advanced technology. And are ready to publish. But always from despair rises hope, usually in the form of a new collaboration.

All this networking is exhausting. But by the end of a good international conference, any barriers between countries have been broken down, new alliances have formed and new ideas are set in motion. This is science at its best.

Now to follow up on all these leads and get some new data to present at the next conference. The training for the next event never ends and that’s just how we like it.



On the brink of greatness

Colombia Nobel Five Things

Research papers can lead to Nobel Prizes, but usually they just lead to more research. Image:   

One of the key things l love about my job as a research scientist is data. Months of slog work in the lab produces great swathes of data and finally getting a chance to process it and understand what is happening is pure happiness. Particularly when combined with varying concentrations of coffee and chocolate.

This is a particular characteristic of all research scientists, I’m sure. (And yes, I am aware of the irony of proclaiming a love of data and then ignoring any such data to make sweeping generalisations about a large portion of the population. But it’s for the good of making me feel more normal so I’m willing to go with it.)

Processing data is the point at which we can see if all our efforts and hypotheses have made any inroads into the unknown. If they have, either by proving or disproving a hypothesis, it is triumphant.

The process involves turning spreadsheets into works of art, although admittedly a peculiar brand of art. I enjoy turning reams of numbers in to very pretty graphs and, ideally, correlations and trend lines. Constructing those is rewarding on a level that is second only to writing the paper.

A research project isn’t finished until it is published in a peer-reviewed journal. At least, that’s my opinion. I know many scientists who disagree with me on this one. For them, the true joy lies in discovering something new and broadening their knowledge but getting the word out there to the broader communities of scientists and non-scientists is nothing but a chore.

But publications are the bread and butter of research and while the peer-reviewed process might be flawed, it is still the best system for ensuring the majority of science is carried out in a reproducible manner and that the conclusions are matched by the data.

Now, after many, many months of producing data, I have finally had a chance to sit down and process it. And it worked! I have evidence that supports my hypothesis and I have made tiny inroads in hitherto unknown regions of knowledge.

Now all I have to do is write the paper, get the co-authors (my managers and other people who helped produce the data) to read it, get them to agree with how it should be written, get the reviewers to agree that the work is of sufficient quality, incorporating all possible controls and blanks, and voila! Another science paper published. Greatness will be mine! I might just go call the Nobel Prize committee and give them a heads up. I’m sure they’ll want to know.

In reality, even without a Nobel Prize, it’s being able to shine a torch onto new knowledge after months of slog work in the lab is what makes all the effort worthwhile.

Lab therapy


Ice cream makes everything better. 

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


Working in a lab may make you a better dancer. Image: 

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.

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.

Before Paris: The humble beginnings of climate change research


Climate change wasn’t always this high-profile

While headlines are made about the official acknowledgement of human-induced climate change this week, more than 30 years ago it was just an odd result that a researcher observed amongst the reams of other data collected for a project. Here’s what might have happened sometime in those first years before “global warming” was established as more than just a crazy nutcase idea:

The researcher’s boss leaned back in his chair and frowned at his employee. “Well obviously you did the measurements wrong,” he said.

The researcher shook his head. “We checked the instrument calibration and the baseline. The nights have definitely been getting warmer over the past few years.”

“Then it’s most likely a sunspot or solar flare,” the boss said. The researcher drew a slow breath. He knew he should have waited til Thursday to tell him. The boss was always more receptive to new ideas on Thursdays.

“The nights are warming,” he said. “The days, not so much. Kind of thought solar activity might change daytime temperatures more.”

The boss sighed. “Natural anomaly then. It’s not like the temperature has never changed before. Write up your other results and don’t mention the temperature thing.”

That researcher did write up his other results but included a comment in the discussion section of the paper about the increasing temperatures. Another researcher somewhere else read the paper, found the comment which happily concurred with her findings and published her results, citing the first paper with a statement to the effect of “See? It’s not just me.”

Now, several decades on, we come to the epic Paris Agreement. It might not be perfect but it’s definitely a start. This is a triumph of thorough research and an ode to the persistence and perseverance of the researchers involved.

And so, for the people who made those original observations and recordings and noted it in peer-reviewed publications, and for all the other people who read the minor comment in those publications and made this the goal of their research, and for all the people who thought the whole thing was bollocks and set out to disprove it but accidentally found more evidence for it, this is victory is yours. Kind of makes it all worthwhile.

Bringing together ancient foes for the benefit of humanity

Uniting the scientific disciplines is almost like uniting ancient enemies

Scientific disciplines have been increasingly segregated for 300 years. This works brilliantly to achieve a deeper understanding of the world around us but it’s less helpful for solving the problems of the world. Collaborations are now essential for moving science forward but how easy will it be to bridge the yawning chasms between disciplines?

Years of study still focuses students in a particular discipline. This is still essential for ground-breaking research in one area and yet the research jobs of the future will have to include more broadly skilled scientists.

The main problem is language. Limited cross-discipline association for centuries has created an almost Darwin-like speciation of narrow-skilled scientists who can scarcely communicate with other scientists.

This is useful for nerd jokes. The funniest jokes are those that you know there are people who just won’t get it.

Pure genius

It is still a mystery as to why people think there is some sort of overriding scientific jargon when the scientists themselves can’t speak to each other. The divide is still evident in my lab with limited associations between chemists and biologists.

Some jokes never get old

On a good day, a synthetic chemist may speak in a similar manner to a natural products chemist and yet these organic chemists will not communicate with an inorganic chemist. Unless the inorganic chemist is surrounded by a cluster of microbiologists speaking in their tongue.

With such deep divisions between disciplines the idea of throwing money at a multi-disciplinary collaboration and expecting outcomes at the same pace as single discipline projects is optimistic. Yet it can be achieved.

Firstly, nothing brings ancient foes together like a common enemy. And, like so much of science, an unanswered communal problem is the best way to motivate the different disciplines to unite.

Secondly, science degrees need to place more emphasis on using a common tongue throughout science. Communicating complex ideas in a simple form is the future of science and will help bridge the great divides between disciplines, and even between scientists and other professions.

With a common enemy and effective communication, the new and improved armies of science can march forth for good of the world and achieve what no one has achieved before. I think there could be a movie about that.

Riding the rollercoaster of scientific discovery

Science is all about ideas and problem solving and that’s why we love it. But it’s also about lots of hard work to get reproducible results and getting your paper through the potentially gut-wrenching peer-review process.

It’s exhilarating and demoralizing in equal measures although the fewer highs far outweigh the many lows. Some researchers may choose to take everything in their stride but I chose to ride that rollercoaster.

This happened recently for example. I was stuck on a problem that prevented the research from progressing to the next stage. It would be ground-breaking if I could crack this problem and open up a whole new avenue of inquiry. I was motivated.

A great idea did come to me at about 3 o’clock one morning, the Hour of Greatest Wisdom, although the incomprehensible gibberish that I found in my notebook the next morning suggested that this was probably not a real solution.

Then I was explaining my problem to an indulgent non-expert who let me go on and on about the problem. I’m assuming they let me. They didn’t physically stop me from talking so that’s about the same, I’m sure.

In explaining the problem in simple terms, I suddenly had an idea. A clever idea. Genius, in fact. It could even lead to a promotion or, possibly, a Nobel Prize.

But an idea is never enough. It has to be proven to work and the results must be repeatable and reproducible. So I went back to the lab and tried my idea while rehearsing my Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

It seemed to work first time. I had that moment of bated breath that hovers between “Wow, it worked!” and “uh oh, can I do it again?”

I tried again and it still worked. And again. Excitement was building to glorious heights! I told everyone who would listen – or, indeed, who did not walk away quick enough – about this great idea.

Only then did I recheck my calculations. I’d missed a dilution factor, changing the status of my results from “proving I’m clever” to “no significant difference”. I slumped into the low of the “I hate science” mantra and raided the chocolate box before going back to the literature to start again.

After many more attempts, I did solve that problem. Perhaps not at a Nobel Prize level but it did allow us to move on to the next phase of the project. The lows in science can be pretty low but they are always trumped by the exhilaration of new ideas and new discoveries and, because of this, I recommend the rollercoaster ride.

Remember the little things

Lab work can be difficult, repetitive slog work where everything should work as planned but then just doesn’t. And for no particular reason.

Except possibly that today is a Tuesday after a waxing gibbous moon and the yeast appear to have some sort of religious holiday and can’t possibly start fermenting. Or the store has run out of the particular incense required to sooth the HPLC gods and now the baseline pressure won’t stabilize and it’s a Friday night and you need these results on Monday.

But there are everyday triumphs as well. Like remembering to top up the solvent before the column runs dry. Or reaching an hour-long incubation step in the methodology bang on lunchtime. These sorts of triumphs are rarely reported in the media and yet it can be the little things like this that keep us going.