Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Sometimes Science

Sometimes science is all fun and exciting.

Tissue on the myograph doing what it's supposed to be doing.

Sometimes science is spending 8 hours doing data entry and generating graphs.

Data entry in excel.

My first week back to the lab after the holidays has been a bit of both so far. Plus throw in an afternoon spent going through my inbox.

So here's to all us grad students back in the lab this 2015.

Here's to good data.

To high impact publications.

Here's to research funding success.

To scientific meetings in exotic locales.

Here's to Science.

Now head off to the pub across the street and grab yourself a drink. Is it Friday yet?

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Science Sundays: Hypnic Jerks

A few nights back, just as I was falling asleep my legs decided to give a sudden, spastic kick. Much like Elaine doing the little kicks dance.

It's like a full body dry heave set to music!

This sudden kicks on the edge of sleeping are fairly common for me, and for people in general, especially children. However, I sometimes startle not only myself out of sleep but Kevin as well. Having woken both of us up one night, I told him that I thought I read somewhere that you have a twitch like that because sometimes falling asleep tricks your brain into believe you're dying, so it gives a big kick to make sure you're still alive.

Kevin laughed at me.

So the next morning I thought I'd read up on what exactly is happening when I give a little kick in my sleep.

It turns out the name for this phenomena is the Hypnic Jerk or Myoclunus. Potentially anxiety, caffeine before bed, stress or extreme tiredness can cause these pre-sleep kicks, but they can also happen in people experiencing none of these things. There's no harm done by a kick or two, but if your jerks and spasms are keeping you up through the night then you should probably consult your physician.

But the real question is why do they happen? What is going on in my brain right on the edge of sleep to make me suddenly spasm?

Unlike the rapid eye movements we experience in REM sleep, which may be linked to the intensity of dreaming, the hypnic jerk is believed to be independent of your dreams. However, I do notice that mine sometimes are accompanied by a sudden sensation of falling. This seems to fit with one popular hypothesis of the origin of the hypnic jerk.

It is a common believe that the hypnic jerk is a left over response developed by our tree dwelling ancestors. As our furrier relatives settled in for the night in a cozy tree nook, their muscles would relax as they fall asleep. Relax too far however and you're falling out of the tree. Perhaps the hypnic jerk monitors the loss of tension in your muscles, if you become too slack and in danger of falling, then a sudden wakeful spasm might just keep you in the tree.

So while I am not in any danger of falling out of a queen sized bed, part of my ancestral instincts still worry it might happen. It's good to know that my subconscious brain is looking out for me.

Are you among the 70% of people who experience hypnic jerks?

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Books for Young Health Scientists: The Double Helix

From the opening line:

"We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid (D.N.A.). This structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest."

to the closing remark:

"It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggest a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material."

Watson and Crick's 1953 Nature paper presenting the DNA double helix to the world, while only a single page in length, may have been "perhaps the most famous event in biology since Darwin's book." And those are Watson's words, not mine. But what lead up to this pivotal moment in science's recent history?

About a year and a half ago I read Francis H. C. Crick's What Mad Pursuit and wrote about his "Gossip Test." While Crick's book details the discovery of the double helix, it spans a much broader history of biochemistry and molecular biology. And to be honest, wasn't as exciting a read as Watson's Double Helix.

I picked up a copy at my neighbourhood used book store and read it this weekend. In print since 1968, the book details the story of Watson coming to the Cavendish Laboratory in 1951, up until the publication of their model of DNA. Oh and by the way, he was only 25 at the time of publication. While the book was strongly protested before publication, by the likes of Maurice Wilkins (who shared the 1962 Nobel Price with W&C) and Crick himself, and has received heavy criticism since; it remains an important perspective on such an important period in science and the scientific process itself. The book has been credited with bringing DNA to the public and was listed #7 on the 1998 Modern Library 100 Best Non Fiction Novels.

Note I said non fiction, the book has been heavily criticized for Watson's approach, however I would note the author takes care to note, in the preface, that:
"I have attempted to re-create my first impressions of the relevant events and personalities rather than present an assessment which takes into account the many facts I have learned since the structure was found."
 And goes on to point out that many of the ways he might recall these events may differ from the recollections of the other people involved "and so this book must be regarded as my view of the matter." The book, which has also come under fire for his treatment of Rosalind E. Franklin (who's X-ray crystallography data lead to W&Cs discoveries), also contains an epilogue in which Watson comments on how his relationship with Franklin improved overtime, he notes her successes as a scientist and acknowledges the obstacles she faced as a woman.

With all that said and done, take the book in hand with an awareness of its criticisms, and then dive in to read the story which plays out as fast paced and exciting as any Hollywood film, and get to know science, and some of the most renown scientists of all time from the perspective of Honest Jim (an early title dropped in favour of the Double Helix).

I personally enjoyed the book immensely and cannot wait to get my hands on Watson's follow-up autobiography Genes, Girls and Gamow. Thee book was made all the more enjoyable having just read: The Writing Life of James D. Watson, by Errol C. Friedberg, and so I was on the look out for all of the Watsonisms throughout. Apart from being a superb scientists, James Watson has a skill with the written word that is enviable.

What have you been reading lately? In between published research articles of course.

Monday, September 23, 2013

LinkedIn for Career Success: 7 tips to stand out from the crowd

This past Wednesday, The University of Calgary Career Services hosted Steve Watt, the Canadian Marketing Manager for LinkedIn. He spoke to a packed lecture hall of undergrad and grad students alike, eager to learn how to optimize the use of LinkedIn for building your professional brand and finding long term career success.

As per usual, I took notes... here are the highlights!

The current standards for hiring are incredibly inefficient, both for the companies doing the hiring and for you, the applicants. Steve Watt boasts that he is proudly a disruptive force, trying to shake things up in the traditional game of job seeking. Teaching companies and talking to students about what the changing world, including of course LinkedIn, means to you and how not to get left behind. What it all comes down to in a nutshell?

Don't think in terms of your Resume and CV any more, think about Building your Professional Brand.

And what better social media service for building your professional brand is there than Linkedin? It's all about getting out of the stack of hundreds of similar resumes and into real, human connections with the people making the hiring decisions.

Steve offered up 7 tips to stand out from the crowd. (as to why 7? Lanny McDonald wore 7 when he played for the Leafs! yeessh not another Leafs fan!)

7 Tips to Stand Out from the Crowd

1. Start with a Photo and Headline: simple facts, profiles with photos get 7 times the clicks as those that don't have them. But remember, go with something professional. As for your headline, it should be a true statement about who you are. Steve's best advice, ask yourself, would anyone say the opposite... and if no one would then how does it make you stand out?

2. Write a Compelling Summary: if your headline was the bait, here's where you get to real them in. Stay tight and concise, no one wants to read forever, and don't forget to update it as you grow and change.

3. Recommendations and Skills Endorsements: Nothing goes farther than an authentic recommendation, I mean if I wouldn't buy a camera on Amazon without reading some good reviews, I probably wouldn't hire you without seeing what people have to say. Go for quality over quantity here. Skills Endorsements, relatively new to LinkedIn, however develop a picture of you in the aggregate, if 50plus people say you have great salesmanship skills, it must be true.

4. Every Employee is an Ambassador: What if you aren't actively looking for a job? Your LinkedIn profile should still best represent the organization you work for. A robust, well connected profile makes your company look least that's what you can tell your boss when he catches you updating it on company time.

5. Engage Your Network: this is digital networking. How can you drive traffic to your profile? establish yourself as a leader in your field, share articles, join groups, and get involved in conversations.

6. Did I Mention Join Groups?: There are over 2 million groups on LinkedIn, and some of them are amazingly robust communities. Seek those which are big and vibrant in your field. Join in and think of it like a cocktail party, take a couple laps around the room to get the mood, and then ramp up your engagement, Make sure you leave the impression on people that you want.

7. Take advantage of LinkedIn Today and Influencers: LinkedIn Today is a newsfeed you can tailor to your interests, and may be full of important news that sets you aside from your peers at an interview. Influencers are established, successful individuals, who you can follow (similar to a blog or twitter) and try to absorb their knowledge.

How have you successfully used LinkedIn along your career path? Which of these tips are you going to make use of ASAP?

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Should You Go to Grad School?

You're facing the end of your undergraduate degree, and the thought of leaving the cozy bosom of the academic life behind terrifies you. Lets be honest, college was probably the best 3-5 (or more) years of your life, and you're not ready to give that up yet. Or maybe you just don't have some other plan.

If you weren't like me (already set up with a graduate supervisor long before I crossed the stage to grab my diploma) you might be wondering if graduate school is right for you. How do you make that decision? Well that is one of the topics I'll be addressing in the Prospective Grad Students section of this blog. But in the mean time, why not try out this choose your own ending adventure, brought to you by the people at .

Its a bit of fun, and includes helpful tools like a prospective salary calculator for your life 20 years down the road, with and without gradschool. And if you don't like your ending, you can easily back track and take a different path!


Thursday, May 30, 2013

Why Scientists Curse the Name Eugene Garfield: Impact Factor

Eugene Garfield seems like a likable enough name, if one that brings to mind images of a fat cat eating lasagna. However at a recent departmental retreat during a science trivia game, his name came up as one to curse. This is of course because he is credited for subjecting us to the terror of the Impact Factor.

A much better method for calculating impact factor, in my humble opinion.
The further you advance into the wonderful world of academia and science, the more aware you become of the hefty weight of the impact factor. For those of you unfamiliar with it, impact factor is a numerical rank applied to journals based on the number of citations they receive in a year (not unlike google's page rank, calculated based on links back to your page). Top journals, Science, Nature, NEJM etc have high impact factors, and it is therefor more desirable to publish in them, as they increase the likelihood your own work will be cited and deemed influential.

However impact factor wasn't intended as a tool for scientists per say, but rather for libraries to determine which journals to purchase. It bears in mind to remember that while impact factor means something about the rank of a journal, it does directly reflect the quality of all the science published within.

And scientists, in of themselves, do not have impact factors.

Except wait, I was at a meeting in Toronto this past week and the way people were talking, it seemed like we did.

In the increasingly competitive realm of academia (only 15% of PhDs will attain the coveted tenure track position one day) a numerical ranking of job applicants may seem like a great idea. Much like a GPA for those of us who are no longer taking classes, our CVs are being read like transcripts. You may be asked to include the impact factor (quoted to up to 3 decimal pts!) of the journal of each of your publications, add or average them up and your potential employers have a simple way to rank all their applicants.

While the value of publishing peer reviewed papers in high impact journals should not be understated (and anyone of us may be willing to sell our souls for a Nature paper) should a scientist's value really be quantified this way? Increasingly the science community has called for better understanding of the true meaning of impact factor and rallied against its prominence as an evaluative tool of science and scientists. Recently, a multidisciplinary group of scientists, editors and publishers met in San Francisco to outline suggestions for moving away from the impact factor.

The San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA)

And this past month, the editor-in-chief of Science wrote an excellent editorial on the topic.

Impact Factor Distortions

At the end of the day, science is rapidly becoming more multi-disciplinary and expansive than ever, and the research scientist, an individual who's value far exceeds only his/her publication record. So while the impact factor may not be all bad, it is important to remember it is certainly not all good either.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Writing that Research Proposal 005

This past week I finally wrapped on my research proposal, a labour of love, hate, and 8months of carrying stacks of papers around. While completing it and having my supervisory committee sign off on it marks the countdown towards my candidacy exam next month, having it finally finished couldn't feel any better.

The research proposal is a critical endeavour of the graduate career, whether it be a master's or PhD program. Typically undertaken after a year of preliminary experiments and background reading, it may be simply a necessity of your program or, in my case, provide the materials around which you will be tested for candidacy. In either case it may represent the first time you, as a student, are asked to think creatively and critically, independent of your supervisor, proposing a hypothesis and the experiments suitable to test it.

I began my own efforts on my proposal at the end of last summer, throwing a blank poster board up on the wall of my living room, and brain storming a concept map around the data I had collected so far. From that map I tried to arrive at a clear hypothesis, and a set of three major research aims.

From September to December, I wrote, scrapped it, and rewrote my draft a number of times. Without deadlines enforced by anyone other than myself, I struggled to prioritize this project over numerous others that sprung up with harder deadlines (applying for funding, submitting abstracts for meetings etc). And that is nothing to say for balancing effective reading and writing with the experiments necessary to move the project along.

Then came the rounds of edits from my supervisor, the flip-flopping back and forth between styles of presenting my aims, and going through things with a fine tooth comb (I am a notoriously bad speller, and incredibly fond of typos). The finished product, 20 full single spaced pages of text, 9 additional figures and some 60 or so references....oh and literal blood sweat and tears put into the effort. (Who ever said there's no crying in science?)

Along the way, here are some things I've learned that would make it go smoother next time around (only there had better not be a next time).

  1. When you read papers, take notes! Detailed notes that you can write from. And organize, organize, organize. You'll want to be able to find the reference easily when your train of writing needs it.
  2. When you get fed up with writing, take a break. Burning yourself out on one go will only make it harder to get back to it later.
  3. Practice writing and reading often. The major pitfall of many proposals is that unclear writing leads to mis-communications leading your committee wondering what you are trying to say (or if you know what you're talking about). Reading other peoples proposals, papers etc. will help  you develop your own writing skills. In particular, if you can read bad examples, you'll learn in a hurry what to avoid. If you're are ESL, take advantage of a friend to read through and give comments on the writing.
  4. Say exactly what you mean. Avoid unnecessarily flowery text, or ambiguous statements. This is your proposal, so be confident enough to make clear statements, and be ready and willing to defend them.
  5. Remember it's just a proposal, you may never do half of what is in it. Science is often a study of opportunity, a novel or unexpected result may take your project in a directly you could have never predicted. So avoid the sense of anxiety that if you can't complete everything you propose you've somehow failed. Take this as an opportunity to write you ideal project proposal based on what you know now.
  6. At the end of the day, sometimes you just have to leave good enough alone. Remember this is a document that only a handful of people will ever read, and is intended more as an exercise in developing the knowledge and skills you will need to apply for grants and run your own group one day. So maybe after that 5th or 6th round of revisions, just call it done.
  7. That being said, take it seriously, the skills you have the potential to develop, through preparing an excellent document, will help you enormously through the rest of your career.
I hope some of this advice will help you when you undertake your the writing of your own research proposal. Although I may have hated it at many points along the way (and am dearly looking forward to burning a copy in a bonfire when I finish my candidacy) I managed to produce a document which I am immensely proud of.
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