No free lunch

This summer, as part of his series, Randall Munroe tackled bird droppings. His post ends with a calculation of how many miles per gallon a car would need to be able to go so that everyone in the US could sustainably run their car on bird poop. While I’m pretty sure he wasn’t being serious, it turns out that measuring the amount of droppings needed to keep America running isn’t so far-fetched.
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Grad school can really get you down. Between long work days, failed experiments, department politics, and grim job prospects, it’s very easy to start forgetting why we tried so hard to get in here in the first place. I’ve definitely had my moments of doubt about whether or not I really want to voluntarily devote my whole life to this Science thing. But seeing some of the epic scientific successes of humanity tends to really remind me what this is all about.
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Good things in small, self-assembling packages

It’s been a while. The last two months have been super-busy, but I’ve also been exposed to a lot of cool science. In May, CSHL hosted a huge symposium on plant biology. The conference included a few talks that blew me away, and I hope to write a bit about some of them in coming months. One, by Pamela Silver, really stood out. Dr. Silver runs a huge and incredibly prolific lab at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard. During the meeting, she talked about her lab’s latest project on biofuels. Continue reading

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Suggested Reading

It looks like the Science Monster has finally caught up with me, so the next few weeks will be rather blogging-poor as I struggle to prepare for my committee meeting and write a number of non-blog, way-less-fun-but-more-important science things. When I return (or interspersed between conferences), you can expect blog posts about everything from mosquitoes to maize to the plant mega-conference happening two days from now (poster status: almost ready).

“But I want to procrastinate NOW!”, you may say. Fair enough: let me lead you to other places you can procrastinate while I try to do some actual science.

I’ve actually spent a lot of the past week reading up on this Rothamsted (hopefully) aphid-resistant wheat trial that I wrote about last week, and on GMOs in general. Fortunately, the wheat at Rothamsted is still safe, following extensive outreach by the scientists involved in the trial, a twitter storm, a counter-protest, and extensive police presence. I was really interested to read a few blog posts/articles about the protest itself, and I’d like to share these with anyone else who’s curious about how stuff went down:

A post from Jules, a grad student at Rothamsted who participated in the counter-protest in support of the wheat trial (I also really enjoyed her original post about the trial itself)

A post from Rebecca, who received her PhD working at Rothamsted and was also at the counter-protest.

(The above posts are great because both authors have some interesting things to say about conversations they had at the protest.)

Another good read is this blog post from Tom – I disagree with some parts, but that only makes things more interesting. Tom apparently had participated a while back in drafting some of the science policies of the Green Party (UK), which (somewhat controversially) recently decided to support the anti-GM protesters.

Finally, I want to point out this editorial in The Guardian, which is music to the ears of anyone who thinks science communication is worthwhile. Sadly, I have a feeling that it overstates the role of outreach in protecting GM plants during a protest at which police outnumbered protesters. But it’s still pretty inspiring stuff.

Happy reading, and I hope to be back soon!

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Communication Breakdown – the Rothamsted GM Wheat Trial

Scientists are repeatedly reminded about the need to talk to the general public about what we do. Science profoundly affects society; besides, our research is often funded by public money; if we want the taxpayers to keep supporting us, we’re told, we need to be open about what we’re doing with their cash. And so, researchers get to work. They give TED talks; they go to local schoolboard meetings; they go on TV, teach classes, tweet and blog. But it turns out that there are two sides to the outreach equation. So what do you do when you reach out to the public, but the public refuses to be reached? Continue reading

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Dear Scientists

One of the best parts of the CSHL First Grade Science Fair, which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, comes after the fair itself, when the kids write Thank You notes to the science fair participants (most of them addressed to “Dear Scientists”). Jessa, who organized a lot of the fair, kindly scanned the 100+ pages of notes and forwarded them to all of us this past week, so I decided to include some highlights here for everyone to enjoy.

Representative of the general sentiment.

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My research. For ten-year-olds.

One day recently I really needed to set up some moss cultures ASAP, so I was browsing blogs instead. And I came across this blog entry, in which The Bug Geek (also a grad student) laments about the difficulty of describing her research at a level that would be accessible even to kids. And then she put out a challenge to fellow scientists: to describe our research to an audience of ten-year-olds, in 250 words or less. So of course I was like, “challenge accepted.” Continue reading

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