This blog is currently on hiatus owing to work commitments. Whilst I still keep an eye on the goings on at RiAus, and contribute to the work of the good folks at eLife, little will be added to this blog for the foreseeable future. Simon Says remains open for business, albeit at a reduced capacity. Thanks for stopping by, and I hope the archive of content found here will prove to be of interest.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Outreach Resources: The 12 Experiments of Christmas

TODAY I co-presented, along with a team of four other PhD students, a science Christmas Lecture for a theatre full of Year 7 students (ages 11-12), called 'The 12 Experiments of Christmas'. It was a journey through the human body, packed with experiments, demonstrations, explosions and things vanishing. It asked the following crucial Christmas questions, amongst others:

If there were a power cut at the North pole, what vegetables could be used to power Father Christmas' workshop?
If the reindeer went bonkers and ran away, how else might Father Christmas power his sleigh?
What happens to your Christmas dinner?
If all the elves went on strike, who/what else could make all the presents?
And, most importantly, what happens to reindeer poo?

It was a LOT of fun and I am indebted to the team for working so hard on it and never giving up. There was a time this was not going to happen and I am very, very glad that it did. Many thanks to the schools who came, and to all our willing volunteers.

Read on for outreach resources and notes.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

But How Do They Know? | The Evolution Enigma

Badongo, Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust,
September 2011
Source: me
Earlier this year the genetic sequence of the gorilla was revealed for the first time. It led to a flurry of news articles, flagging new findings that parts of the gorilla genetic sequence are more similar to humans or chimpanzees than those species are to each other — which defies the traditionally accepted order of species evolution — and other tantalizing titbits of information on our handsome cousins. But punctuating these articles was a statement that slipped by without explanation, to be accepted as written and memorized by fact fans everywhere. Thus: the last common ancestor of gorillas and humans lived 10 million years ago.

But this is a big statement.

We frequently read and hear phrases such as “scientists tell us”, followed often by superfluous details of a larger tale. But rarely is an attempt made to explain how such knowledge is acquired. You know the type: “humans and fruit flies are 60% genetically identical” or “sea levels will rise X metres by the year Y.” But how do we know these statements are true? Do we know they are true? If no explanation is given, should we be surprised if many refuse to accept scientific consensus?

This, then, is for everyone who has heard something and sought to know more, who has shouted in frustration: “BUT HOW DO THEY KNOW THAT?”

So: 10 million years?

Friday, 26 October 2012

Using Twitter as a Postgraduate Researcher

I was invited to give a talk on how academic researchers can use Twitter (and social media generally) as part of the University of Birmingham Graduate School 'Think Graduate School Fridays' talks series. Below is my contribution. The talk seemed to be well received and I had some great questions to answer, from which I learnt that there are now a lot of pictures of kittens stored in the Library of Congress (which is archiving 50 million tweets a day).

If you are on Twitter you can join in the conversation using #tgsfridays.

If you're wondering about the cute animal in the middle, you'll have to come when I present the talk again when all will be revealed.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012


"Octopuses make it notoriously difficult to get recordings from electrodes inserted into the brain, because they can selectively shut off blood supply to an area of their body or brain. That's if they allow the researchers to insert electrodes at all. Jennifer Basil, a cephalopod researcher at the City University of New York tells the story of one colleague who took on that challenge: "He thought the octopus was anaesthetised, so they put the electrode in and the octopus reached up with an arm and pulled it out." That marked the end of his work with octopuses. "He has worked with lots of animals but he said 'that animal knows what I'm thinking. He doesn't want me to do this so I'm not going to'," Basil says."

Eight arms, big brain: What makes cephalopods clever
, Caroline Williams, New Scientist 2816, 2011

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

5 Motivation Strategies for the PhD Blues

Last weeks' #phdchat was on the subject: "Down in thesis dumps: sharing motivation strategies for the low points as a researcher". It was my first time participating in the weekly Wednesday evening debate, and I found it very interesting, so thought I'd briefly summarize 5 things that stood out to me from it.

Unfortunately, it is inevitable that during a PhD things will go wrong. Sometimes they go wrong quite badly, and time will tick by with little or nothing to show for it. I know, I've been there. It's all well and good saying 'make sure you have a good support network' or to say to seek the counsel of a good friend, but such advice is not hugely practical, and some people don't have those away from work to turn to. So, what can you do that is practical to lift yourself (and your project) out of the PhD blues?

Monday, 17 September 2012


"I have three things I'd like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don't give a shit. What's worse is that you're more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night." 

Tony Campolo, Christian Evangelist, speaking in church

Thursday, 30 August 2012

The Public Engagement in Science skills challenge!

ONE of the key challenges in science communication is the relay of precise, specific information to a (largely) non-expert audience. A further challenge is to find and use opportunities in which to flex such skills. Often a spark of interest from an inquisitive punter can be quickly dampened by the need to explain background information as a prelude to the correct factual answer; in fact, it might be better to twist the initial question to the more impactful ‘why is this interesting?’, bringing in layers of detail as and when they are required rather than from the start. Nonetheless, one should never shy from explaining the tough stuff, because sooner or later you will need to, and you better be equipped for when your fleeting opportunity arises. Certain topics, by rote of glamour and prior exposure, are more digestible to the public than others, and are consequently easier to talk about.

These thoughts come from a conversation had today between a number of students, scientists and public engagement aficionados on Twitter, and from it I suggested to one of our undergraduate students that he ought to put pen to paper, or finger to keyboard, and just write. It is only then that you truly appreciate what certain audiences know, and what makes good communication.

As the idea developed, it became something worthy of a bigger challenge, to which I now invite you to participate. This is open to all who have an interest in science writing and communication, but particularly those who have never tried before.

Don’t worry if you don’t know what you’re doing, that’s precisely why you should join in!

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Brain Awareness Week 2012/Outreach resources

Some of the resources we used for our visit to ThinkTank museum in March (available to download from SlideShare).

Keywords: genetics, neuroscience, outreach, science, activities, wordsearch, puzzle, quiz, brain awareness week

Monday, 21 May 2012

Don't Destroy Science (or the reputation of people with genuine concerns)

RESEARCHERS at Rothamsted Research are currently conducting a field trial of a genetically modified wheat crop engineered to express a naturally occurring repellent of aphids, a major crop pest. Many crops and plants already do this, so it makes sense to see whether it might prove an effective tool in a staple species that we rely on so heavily for food. We face two issues: a global food demand increasing inexorably, and a global abuse of pesticides, which are wreaking havoc on the environment. Thus, if successful, the crop could be used to help in the fight against both problems, as the plant would create its own natural deterrent, increasing the efficiency of yield and boosting food output. We don't know if it will work, so we have to experiment.

Genetic modification is always a sensitive issue, so the researchers have taken every effort to avoid contamination of other crops, given that the trial is in the open air. This is not just common sense and efforts to appease objectors but a legal requirement. For more information on the science, I recommend this article by the Guardian, and this article by my friend Nelly, who works at Rothamsted (though on a different project).

An anti-GM campaign group called Take The Flour Back has vowed to demonstrate against the trial on May 27. It is their right to be able to do so. People will have misgivings and a discussion ought to ensue about the ethics and practicalities of the trial. Yet though the scientists have offered to talk, the protestors have said no. On the contrary, the protesters have vowed not simply to demonstrate... but to 'decontaminate' - that is, to destroy the crop.

This is illegal, irresponsible and unjust, but most of all it is counter-productive.

Thursday, 26 April 2012


‘Dove!’ an Awá woman named Parakeet said. ’Let’s call her Dove Awá – doves sing and walk on the ground.’

The Awá wait to choose their children’s names until they reach an age when the right name presents itself. Another of Parakeet’s daughters is called Forest Tree. One particularly wriggly child has just earned the name Earthworm.


Wednesday, 28 March 2012

No flies were tormented in the making of this blog post

ONE of the more memorable practicals I got to do as an undergraduate student involved the recording of proboscis extension in house flies in response to sugar. It was all about sensory perception and sensitivity, and it required us to immobilize a poor fly on to a wooden splint, then watch its response — as measured by how much it extended its proboscis, an event that precedes feeding — to varying sugar solution concentrations, as well as other, less palatable foodstuffs.

It was memorable not for the result but because it was a monumental failure: the poor flies didn’t take kindly to the burning wax required to fix them to the splint, and the few whose wings had not been singed stubbornly refused to behave, probably in protest. Unsurprisingly, and reassuringly, that practical is no longer run, but I will never forget the experience.

So it came as some surprise to stumble across a new paper in the journal Neuron this month on the response of the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster to varying sugar solution concentrations, as measured by proboscis extension. And a rather nifty experiment it is too, expanding the framework of my undergraduate practical to a much smaller organism and on a far smaller level. While such a paper might not grab headlines, it struck me as an excellent model from which to introduce some of the techniques that they used. Plus, it just happens to be on the organism I work with daily.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

How can you research without knowledge?

SCIENCE is a subject for the inquisitive. It is an exploration of all avenues of human intrigue, seeking answers by experimentation to every question, from the silly, through the mundane to the mind-bending. From ‘why is the sky blue’ to ‘which crabs are the fightiest’ through, of course, to the applied sciences, looking for solutions to disease and issues that affect us and our planet, science seeks truth in the most fascinating of questions and challenges. We are enriched by the knowledge it unveils.

To achieve this, science as a subject needs a vast base of specialists working on a wide range of models. But, of course, times are tight, funds are spread thin, and inevitably science is taking a hit. Specialists are disappearing, unable to justify funding for their work from research councils, who are, in turn, under pressure to prioritise work with human applications. The diversity of projects is diminishing and the range of organisms being observed is narrowing. Our knowledge base, consequently, is taking a hit.

Recently, the University of Birmingham announced plans to close its teaching programmes in Biological Recording, including its Masters course, held at the Field Studies Council site in Preston Montford, Shropshire. The closure of these courses, I believe, is a serious blow to science in the UK.

But first, a disclaimer. I have been associated with the University of Birmingham for 8 years, studying there first for my undergraduate degree in Biological Sciences. I'm now there studying for a PhD, with extracurricular interests in the wider School of Biosciences, being on student and postgraduate committees. I'm currently in talks to represent doctoral researchers of the School of Biosciences on a certain social media platform in an official, endorsed capacity. You'll understand then that I choose my words carefully here.

I'm disappointed in the university for making this decision, but I acknowledge that its hands are tied. The academic world is changing - indeed it has been for a while - and not for the better.