What in the world are cephalopods!?: Meet Morag Taite

Morag Taite is an Irish Research Council funded PhD student working with Dr Louise Allcock on cephalopod evolution at the National University of Ireland Galway. She will be taking part in Soapbox Science Galway on 7th July with her talk: “The evolution of octopuses and their relatives from ancient to present day oceans”

 

 

By Morag Taite

 

Now I know what most of you are thinking, what in the world are cephalopods!?

Cephalopods are a class of marine molluscs that include species more commonly known as octopuses, squids and cuttlefishes. Cephalopods evolved during the Cambrian Period (around 530 million years ago) and were once one of the dominant life forms in the world’s oceans. However, these cephalopods are not like the ones we know and love today. Ancient cephalopods had external conical shells. The modern cephalopods that most people would recognise today, the octopuses, the squids and the cuttlefishes are not found in the fossil record until at least the Cretaceous period (around 145 million years ago). (photo: Fossilised conical Belemnite shell)

Modern cephalopods inhabit all areas of the world’s oceans, however, certain groups tend to inhabit particular areas. Octopuses tend to be found on the sea floor, although there are octopuses that live in midwater areas, squids are found in midwater areas and cuttlefishes in coastal areas. Cephalopods are extremely flexible in body shape and lifestyle. They have diversified hugely into different forms which allow them to live in such diverse habitats. (photo: Cuttlefish)

 

So why did I choose to study cephalopods?

My fascination with cephalopods began while I was working on the IUCN red list of endangered species for Dr Louise Allcock in the National University of Ireland, Galway. The IUCN red list is the world’s most comprehensive inventory of the global conservation status of biological species. This work involved extensive research of each species, inputting the information into the IUCN website and analysing the information to judge the appropriate red list category. It is a scientifically rigorous approach that determines the threat of extinction to all species. This work has a major influence on conservation as the  IUCN Red List of Threatened Species plays a prominent role in guiding the conservation activities of many groups such as governments and scientific institutions. It provided me with an invaluable insight into cephalopods of the world, including their ecology, population structure and also their threats.

 

(IUCN Categories)

 

And what exactly am I studying?

My current research is focussed on cephalopod evolution. Several groups of the 800 living cephalopod species have diversified due to their rapid response to drivers of evolution and different adaption strategies. My project aims to study the evolutionary diversifications of such groups eg dumbo octopuses and bobtail squids. The groups I have chosen inhabit different habitats, therefore, will have responded to different environmental pressures. I aim to study the evolutionary history of these groups and how these relationships have changed over time. Why is this important? My work is important as it will assist with the understanding and prediction of how species will respond to future environmental pressures and will contribute to improving the cephalopod tree of life.  (Photo: Dumbo Octopus)

 

 

 

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There is no such thing as a stupid question: Meet Sophie Arthur

Sophie is a PhD student studying stem cell metabolism at the University of Southampton. Originally from Wales, Sophie studied that the University of Bath before moving to Southampton. Currently in her final year of a PhD, she also makes time to communicate her science through blogging at Soph talks science, amongst other social media activities. Sophie will be speaking at Soapbox Science Brighton on 2nd June 11am-2pm with her talk “MARVEL-ing at stem cells: how to regenerate your body”, sponsored by the University of Southampton

 

SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place – and what are you most looking forward to/excited about in taking part? 

SA: I am really passionate and enthusiastic about science communication and have been trying to break down the stereotypes associated with being a scientist for nearly two years now through my blog and Instagram. But I wanted to challenge myself and push myself completely out of my comfort zone by doing a live science outreach event like this, rather than just be typing away behind the scenes on my phone or laptop. I had seen other inspiring female science communicators take part in Soapbox around the world last year and I just wanted a piece of the action. I also work with stem cells so I am really excited about the opportunity to challenge any stigma that is associated with them and share why I love researching them and their huge potential with people that might have just been in Brighton for a day at the beach but ended up learning something from me and the other amazing ladies that are taking part.

 

SS: Tell us about your career pathway

SA: I always wanted to be a doctor whilst I was growing up, but by the time I reached Sixth Form and was applying for university, I had realised that medicine wasn’t for me. There were two subjects I loved at school; biology and French – so making the decision about which path to follow was a tricky one, but I think you already know which one I chose. I studied Molecular Biology at the University of Bath. I wanted to study a subject that was broader than the ‘Genetics and French’ course that I thought was perfect for me and would give me more options to work out which area I wanted to specialise in. As part of my undergraduate degree, I had a 12 month placement at Public Health England doing research on Group B Streptococcus. This opportunity gave me the skills and experience that a three year undergraduate degree never would have been able to. It made me realise what it meant to be a researcher and made me fall in love with discovering something new which inspired me to want to do more research during my PhD. I am now in the final few months of my PhD at the University of Southampton studying stem cell metabolism. I am finishing up all the experiments in the lab and then just the small task of writing up four years’ worth of work into my thesis and hopefully becoming that doctor I always wanted to be growing up, even if it’s not the doctor status I originally envisioned.

 

SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science? 

SA: I always wish I had a more inspiring answer for this question. I have a career in science just because I loved science at school. I grew up in a very small village in South West Wales so my exposure to scientists was pretty much non-existent, apart from the ones I learnt about in textbooks. I was always interested in the human body and as I progressed through school and then through to university I became more and more fascinated by the smaller facts of our body. I always used to think it was fascinating how our muscles and brain would coordinate for example so we could walk. But as my knowledge grew, I was amazed by how a handful of proteins would coordinate in our muscle cells to help them to contract so we could walk. I became more and more inspired to work out how all these tiny proteins and DNA all collaborated to allow us to do everyday things.

 

SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?

SA: Piecing together all the data I collect to work out what it means, coming up with a theory and testing that gives me so much happiness. If you watched me in the lab, I do a lot of adding colourless liquids to other colourless liquids, spinning and shaking tubes and churning out a load of numbers from that in a nutshell. So it might not look very exciting but getting that final piece of the puzzle and getting an answer to your question is such a buzz. Plus the likelihood is that you are probably the first person in the world to ever work that out!

 

SS: Research in STEM is increasingly multi-disciplinary. Which subjects do you use in your work?

SA: My research is pretty much pure science. I obviously use biology, but I also need to understand some chemistry to know how the reactions in my tubes are working and I need maths to do any calculations I need and perform any statistics on my data. You have always got to be reading around your specific topic though so I have been reading recently about how microgravity can influence stem cells – so there is potential that my future research could branch out into physics or engineering even. But I am a believer that science is never finished until it is communicated, so whether that is using my blog, Instagram or events like Soapbox, my work as a researcher who shares their science with others involves writing, photography and art skills too.

 

SS: What 3 attributes do you consider important to your work (e.g. creativity, team-work, etc), and why did you pick these?

SA: Resilience, creativity and teamwork!

Working in research is full of highs and lows but quite often the lows are much more common than the highs and the lows can last for much much longer than you wanted them too. Sometimes you can be doing an experiment that will work perfectly and when you go to do it a second time, it just stops working. Research can be infuriating sometimes but you have got to be resilient and get back up after each knockback and be determined to fix that problem.

Piecing together all your data to work out what it means requires some creativity. It is very easy to get sucked into the minute details of each and every experiment you do so it’s good to remember the bigger picture sometimes and work out how your research fits in and then coming up with new hypotheses to test further.

While you have your own research project to be getting on with, the likelihood is that you are part of a lab team. You might have to share reagents and equipment and workspace, so it makes your life so much easier if you work with your colleagues rather than against them. Replace things. Order things. Be organised and book equipment in advance. But most important talk to them! Discuss any problems you might be having, or any thoughts you are having. They might have experienced the same thing and can give you some advice rather than you wasting time trying to figure it out for yourself. You also never know what you might learn from them or what opportunities you may get.

 

SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be? 

SA: There is a huge pressure on scientists, especially early career researchers, to publish, publish, publish. And those publications have to be positive results. I would love to see a change across the scientific community that publishing negative data is just as important as positive date. I don’t know about you but knowing that one protein doesn’t affect my stem cells for example is just as important as knowing that one protein does affect my stem cells. Negative results are starting to be published more now but I still believe it is not widely accepted and that needs to change. Scientific research is all about advancing our knowledge and I believe we will advance quicker if we know the negative results as well as the positive results.

 

SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female student considering pursuing a career in academia?

SA: Do not let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. Follow what you want to do, network inside and out of the lab and find a mentor. Working in an academic environment can be toxic sometimes but having a network of people for advice and to talk to will help you to stay on the path to achieve whatever you want to.

 

SS: What words of encouragement would you give to children who might be interested in a career in science?

SA: Explore everything that you might be interested in. It is better to try something and not like it, than to never try it in the first place. Always be curious and ask questions. Always remember there is no such thing as a stupid question. It is never too late to learn something new and be inspired!

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Follow your heart: Meet Tara Salter

Tara is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Sussex, studying Astrochemistry. After an undergraduate degree in physics at the University of Oxford Tara did not want to do a PhD straight away and so went to work at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) in the surface and nano-analysis group. There she worked on developing the metrology (measurement science) for new mass spectrometry techniques, undertaking a variety of research, from understanding the fundamentals of these new techniques to making them more reliable and repeatable, and also analysing different commercial samples. Whilst working at NPL she received a PhD in conjunction with the School of Pharmacy at the University of Nottingham. Tara’s current research uses laboratory experiments to understand how molecules would behave on dust grains in the extreme conditions of deep space.

Tara will be speaking at Soapbox Science Brighton on 2nd June 11am-2pm with her talk “We are made of starstuff”.

 

SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place – and what are you most looking forward to/excited about in taking part? 

TS: I have participated in public engagement events before and always found it exciting to talk about my research to anyone and everyone! Soapbox science is a different format to anything else I’ve encountered and I’m looking forward to the challenge of communicating my research in a different way.

Everyone has heard about space, but very few people are aware of the chemistry happening there. I’m excited about telling people about this new and growing field.

 

SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science? 

TS: From a young age, I’ve been interested (and good) at science, particularly maths and physics. I knew early on that it was something I wanted to study in depth and things have just lead on from there.

 

SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?

TS: Recreating deep space in the lab is pretty cool, literally!

 

SS: Research in STEM is increasingly multi-disciplinary. Which subjects do you use in your work?

TS: I did a physics degree and now I work in a chemistry group. I use understanding from both chemistry and physics in my research. I also have to understand the astronomical applications of my work. I think that at some level, things are not clearly defined as one particular subject!

 

SS: What 3 attributes do you consider important to your work (e.g. creativity, team-work, etc), and why did you pick these?

TS: Problem solving, practical adeptness and perseverance are all important in what I do. A lot of my work is in the lab and so I have to be happy to be hands-on with the kit including addressing problems when it doesn’t work and not giving up when things don’t go smoothly. Problem solving and perseverance also apply to data analysis when trying to interpret results and deciding what experiments to do next.

 

SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be? 

TS: Lots of things, but particularly short term contracts! Moving around for positions can be great, but this often occurs at a time in life when you would like to settle down a bit.

 

SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female student considering pursuing a career in academia?

TS: Try to get experience of as many different aspects of research as you can. It’s a good idea to go to conferences, firstly to practice presenting your research which really helps focus on what the important points are, and secondly to talk to other people about their experiences in the wider academic world.

 

SS: What words of encouragement would you give to children who might be interested in a career in science?

TS: Follow whatever your heart tells you to. If you are interested and passionate about science then your natural curiosity will take you a long way to succeeding.

 

 

 

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Role-Models and Women Researchers: Meet Divya Seernani 

 

Divya Seernani (@DSeernani), Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, University Hospital Freiburg is taking part in Soapbox Science Berlin on 1st June. She will give a talk entitled: “I see it in your eyes: What Eye-movements can tell us about Brain and Behaviour”

 

 

By Divya Seernani 

For a while now, I have been thinking about gender issues, a bit differently than I did before. I could attribute this to a lot of life events, but the part I’m going to focus on started with the release of Wonder woman. I saw the poster and thought ‘wow, that’s a superhero movie I would see!’ I surprised myself by saying this because I always thought of myself as someone who hated superhero movies! And then it hit me, all the superheros in the limelight of my childhood years, were men.

This incident was followed by a flight I took to a conference in Vancouver. Taking flights = watching movies. On this particular flight I watched ‘Finding Dory’. Apart from being a brilliant movie, this film does the rare and wonderful thing of showing a marine research centre. A research centre! In a kids film! I couldn’t help but wonder if I would have wanted to study marine biology had this movie released 20 years earlier.

So I started thinking…what was I watching and reading as a child? I did remember learning about Marie Curie pretty early on. One would imagine that the way she is celebrated would make any little girl want to grow up, be like her, and win the Nobel Prize! Well, not me. Little me didn’t identify to her black and white pictures, didn’t completely get why radioactivity was cool (the only other thing I knew about it was that it made spider-man), and definitely did not get why being killed by your own discovery was celebrated (it was also confusing why she did not get some superpowers). Grown up me totally gets why Marie Curie was awesome, but still doesn’t identify with her pictures and still definitely doesn’t want to die of something she discovers (thankfully, this isn’t possible any more given my line of work, but still).

Growing up as a girl in India, my text books were filled with martyred women. Women who had sacrificed themselves to nobel causes of society, and typically too old for a young girl to relate to. Savitribai Phule, wearing a sari and having a resolved face, who rose above caste and patriarchy to teach young girls and send them to school. Rajput and Maratha queens who made a mark in history with their bravery. And even Kalpana Chawla, the astronaut of Indian origin, made famous after her death. That’s the thing…a lot of these stories I could remember ended in death. And none of them were a kurti wearing woman from middle class Mumbai suburbs. I wasn’t facing caste issues, my parents promoted my education, I wasn’t a queen and I couldn’t drape a sari. And I did not want my career to kill me.

So naturally, 10 year old me turned to Cartoon Network. The only scientific influence from cartoon network that I can think of is Dexter’s Laboratory…remember that? The tiny nerdy boy who had a complete secret lab doing cool stuff, and the only thing his older sister was capable of doing was messing it up in idiotic ways. Although I liked watching this show, I remember DeeDee’s character making me really uncomfortable. Even as a child. I remember feeling like I really wanted DeeDee to be smarter! Another show I really enjoyed watching was Powerpuff Girls, but I couldn’t help notice that even there, a male scientist had created these awesome girls, with sugar, spice and everything nice. (I recently watched the new, more recent Powerpuff Girls and was baffled at what it had come to! Buttercup was fighting to impress a Boy!!! Tarnished my childhood memories!)

Although I do remember a good show a little while after, somewhere in High School – Captain Planet! He may have been around earlier, but I was probably too young to understand it. I think he was the closest I came to liking a superhero. He saved the planet from pollution and garbage and made it all green! (yes, I’m regressing and writing like 12 year old me now! :P)

There was one other thing that really stands out from my childhood. Tigers being endangered. There was a drive in my school and all over the country to ‘Save the Tiger’. All the kids had to get some signatures and get people to sign a petition to save tigers. As a by-product of this event, I landed up getting a subscription to the Sanctuary Asia Magazine. My parents really encouraged me reading. They had, in all fairness, gotten me tons of scientific books before this point, including huge volumes of Tell Me Why series, books on space and so on. These didn’t hold my interest long enough though. While I got my parents intellect and curiosity, I was not a part of their patient encyclopedia generation and my idea of fun varied considerably. The magazine was my idea of fun. So naturally, when my reading-encouraging parents found out, they did not hesitate to get me subscription after subscription for plenty of years. This magazine had games on fun facts about how ecosystems work, small sections that made endangered animals sound really cool, fun and worth saving. What was best was, the centre page was always an award winning wildlife picture! All of this without a gender stereotype to it.

It was experiences like this that fascinated me and drove me closer to science. The Sanctuary Magazine, a visit to the Planetarium, nature trails and field visits. I write about the magazine more than the rest because the others were isolated incidents. The Sanctuary Magazine was a constant for many years in my life, so was Cartoon Network, so was my school curriculum. And so were the people in my life, which eventually got me interested in psychology, over anything else.

Fast forward another few years. I’ve figured out I like science and psychology. At that point I couldn’t study both together, so I chose to study psychology. I didn’t even know they could be combined till I reached the final year of my undergraduate degree. One would assume things would have changed somewhat now and I am full of role models in my career of choice. Maybe they did. In fact, my undergraduate years were full of women because men (and most smart women) in India are still discouraged from taking subjects like psychology, sociology and literature. This meant that I was surrounded by mainly women students and professors, all smart enough to have taken mainstream professions, but chose psychology. Some of them, particularly the professors, were working in challenging fields of research. Most of them were encouraging us to get into research and develop a critical attitude to our thoughts. Another 3 years send me to my post-graduate degree in Bangor, where men and women were all doing brilliant research, with cool gadgets and I got to work in a room named after Faraday! I got to do science!

Now, as I do my PhD, I feel like I am re-creating my mental image. Of a woman cognitive scientist. And I need to create this image for myself because it isn’t any of the images I had grown up with. I think I still don’t have a role model. First of all, I can’t just take a woman researcher I admire. I didn’t have to face the resistance of the women before me. In fact, I now work in an environment where flexible work hours, bringing babies to your work and even breastfeeding in public are non-issues. Secondly, I can’t take a fictitious figure because there isn’t any book, TV or cartoon character who is female, smart, slightly nerdy, interested in looking good but puts comfort before style, loves her work but isn’t a workoholic, enjoys scientific podcasts but but also mindless comedy, is a Harry Potter Fan, enjoys fantasy works, but not a Superhero fan, is all for Gender-equal toys but had a cool toy kitchen set growing up herself, enjoys indulging in good food but also an entire morning of Yoga ….basically a regular, smart girl with normal hobbies and personality traits that don’t neatly fit into a sketch. Lastly, I can’t directly take someone from my real life, because although I admire a lot of women, I don’t want to completely turn into any of them.

I wonder if my other colleagues face similar challenges, male and females alike. A lot of  new age researchers blog and tweet about their work, making science more approachable than ever before. Open source software and scripts are the new wave in science….a community where money was till date generated by paying for journals. Universities are designing degrees in scientific communication, to make sure findings reach the masses. BBC doesn’t just make documentaries any more but has cool science podcasts that even children listen to. Funny, understandable science podcasts, mind you! And women in science are not as The Big Bang Theory shows it to be. No woman scientist I know looks as unkept as Leslie or dresses as conservatively as Amy. Women in science are doing to science what Anushka Shankar has done to classical Indian music – giving it a makeover, and making it cool! The more veteran scientists are doing their part too! For e.g. a recent conference I attended (ECEM 2017) took a radical step and made sure that 50% invited speakers were female!

The portrayal of science is changing. Gradually, and to my great pleasure – from within and from outside the industry. I hope that if I have a daughter, and someone asks her what she wants to be when she grows up, she won’t hesitate to say a marine explorer, an astronaut, a physicist, a neuroscientist, a forest ranger, an archaeologist, or simply someone who knows stuff and figures things out.

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Viruses at Soapbox Science in Halifax!: Meet Alyson A. Kelvin

Hello! My name is Alyson and I am a Virologist. I work as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Dalhousie University and the IWK Health Centre, studying viruses to find out how they make you sick. Since each one of you lovely people are your own individual, composed of unique characteristics, how you respond to a viral infection depends on your age, genetics, and health status. Viruses operate inside of your body’s cells to modify the action of the cell and your overall health. This dynamic relationship of Viruses versus You is called the host-virus interaction. Sometimes, as with the recent emergence of ZIKA virus in Brazil, the virus causing a specific human disease is not immediately known and scientists must hunt for the disease origin. Since viruses are not visible by the naked eye, at times it is difficult to know which virus is causing disease, who it is infecting, and where in our bodies it is targeting.  These are the questions that drive me as a virologist and inspire me to think of myself as a Virus Hunter!

 

What is Soapbox Science?

 

So… Soapbox Science. I will be at Soapbox Science Halifax on the morning of Saturday June 16 at the Seaport Farmers’ Market talking about Virus Hunting from my handmade soapbox. Please come and see me. Bring your questions and enthusiasm. What is Soapbox Science you ask? Soapbox Science is an event giving the public an opportunity to interact with scientists, hear about our research, and ask questions. At our Halifax event, there will be 12 scientists, including myself, speaking about our work which ranges from viruses to insects to solar power. I will specifically be talking about the viruses causing outbreaks and pandemics including Ebola, Zika, pandemic Flu, and HIV. The focus of my research is to understand how these viruses emerged from their animal reservoir and how we can protect all types of people from disease. For example, I have previously searched for flu in ducks by collecting duck poop and testing it for different strains of influenza virus.

 

My daily work clothes in the lab includes a Powered Air Purifying Respirator (PAPR) to protect me from respiratory viruses including influenza. You can ask me about how viruses spread from one person to another (modes of transmission), the unique ways each virus cause illness, and how your illness may differ from another person. I have previously talked with high school students for Let’s Talk Science and Let’s Talk Microbiology. For the Soapbox Science event, I will have pictures and models of these viruses for you to look at as well as interactive activities to get involved without ever having to see a real virus. The goal of my research is to keep the community safe from harmful viruses, therefore your questions and ideas are valuable to me, too!

 

Women in Science

 

One of the most exciting aspects of Soapbox Science is that it features only female scientists up on the Soapbox. My fellow female scientists and I have spent years on our crafts and are excited to speak with you about our research. Why is it important to have a female-inspired event? Historically, women have been underrepresented compared to men in the scientific disciplines. Furthermore, although there have been many but fewer excellent female scientists in the past, their contributions have been underrecognized in scientific textbooks and historical records due to gender biases. Stereotypes portraying women as less intelligent, less competent, and less suited in the STEM disciplines have existed for centuries. And this is not only a historical problem. Trends of gender bias and underrepresentation continue today.  A recent article by Ed Yong gives clear evidence that gender imbalance is still a significant problem. Specifically, Ed shows how female scientists are less likely to be recognized and quoted for their scientific expertise than men, thereby shaping our perception and opinion of women in science or lack thereof. Furthermore, a current NSERC report illustrates how women are underrepresented at every academic level in the sciences, from undergraduate student to university professor. Statistics Canada found that only 18% of university faculty members at Canadian Universities were female. The roots of imbalance are now beginning to be researched so we can understand why this occurs and how it can be corrected. Often referred to as “The Leaky Pipeline” and “Death by a Thousand Cuts,” research has suggested that the cause of gender imbalance is multifactorial. A landmark study published in PNAS investigating hiring preferences by both male and female scientists showed that males were statistically preferred by the scientists for lab positions. Another study has provided evidence that letters of support written for females are written in the tone describing a research trainee whereas letters for males of the same academic background are written describing males as equals and colleagues. Accounts of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct by men have also been a continuing problem for women in science. Women in field as especially vulnerable.  Together these studies and others show that factors contributing to the loss of women in science include unconscious bias, higher standards applied to women for the same job, and harassment and abuse in the workplace. Soapbox Science is one initiative working to bring change. It is a platform for female scientists to raise their scientific voice and be recognized for their contributions in STEM.

 

 

WHAT WORRIES ME about the gender imbalance in science is that it affects every aspect of our daily lives. When scientific efforts only come from half of the human population, then the progress gained is through a single lens or gender perspective.  Both ideas and research priorities are lost when decisions are made by committees lacking diversity. This is highlighted by research dominated by single gender studies. For example, in the past, drug discovery and evaluation research was done using a standardized cohort of single-gender subjects. This strategy has proven to be inappropriate and deleterious as hormone and biological differences between genders affects drug action. To correct this previous imbalance in research, both the Canadian (CIHR) and American (NIH) research funding agencies are now requiring a balanced approach when investigating biological and health problems.  They are also putting in place gender balance regulations to ensure that both sexes are equally represented at the researcher level as well as in research studies. Close to home, Dalhousie is now consciously increasing diversity in hiring by instituting positive policies for employment equity. To do this, the school has made internal goals for equity in hiring, training, and promoting women.  Furthermore, the Faculty of Medicine has developed its own policy that builds on the central policy of Dalhousie.

 

 

Conclusions

 

Want to hear more about my work or discuss women in STEM? Want to meet a scientist? Do you have any burning science-related questions? Come to Soapbox Science in Halifax the morning of June 16. Not in Halifax on that date? I’ve got you covered, too! I will be coming back with more blog posts before the Soapbox event with more information on my Virus Hunting, and after the event I will give an update on how the day went.  Do you have questions for me? Please comment on this post and I will get back to you.

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The importance of taxonomy: Meet Teresa Darbyshire

What was I thinking when I said yes?

by Teresa Darbyshire

Soapbox Science is a fantastic initiative to promote the role of women in science by getting them to stand on a soapbox in the middle of a city centre and explain to and, hopefully, enthuse, people about what they do. This year, the Cardiff event is being held on 2nd June, outside Cardiff Central Library, by the St David’s Centre.

 

So again, what was I thinking?

 

Well actually, I was thinking that most people don’t understand taxonomy, what it is and why it’s important, let alone why I would want to look at worms all day, and I want to tell them.

 

I want them to understand why it is important, not just to me, but why they should care too. Taxonomy is the science of naming, describing and classifying organisms (showing how they are all related to each other and patterns of evolution). It is just one aspect of my job but the one that often gets the most interest and questions and, I think, possibly the least understood part. In 2010, the Census of Marine Life returned an estimate of over one million species living in the oceans, of which around one to two thirds are thought to be unknown. Add to that more recent research that shows that many species are, in fact, species complexes that consist of multiple species that are almost indistinguishable in appearance and, actually, the estimate of undescribed species suddenly rockets.

 

But so what? Why should people care about whether we know what all the different creatures in the sea are and give them names? Well, that is what I want to explain along with a little about how we come up with names. To this end I now have the job of ‘creating’ a worm that people can help name on the day using various features and information that I will tell them. Names tell you something about the animal, sometimes appearance, sometimes where it is from, but importantly, names are unique and help you identify that one animal from a group of others that may look very similar.

 

The montaged image on is just one of two that I have created to show people what marine bristleworms (polychaetes) look like. Most people think of earthworms when you talk about worms but actually polychaetes are so much more: more colourful, more detailed, many have eyes and jaws and some can even grow big enough to bite you! They all have interesting names that I will help explain to demonstrate what names mean.

 

Intrigued? Want to know more? Then come down to the event on Saturday 2nd June and find out how we name species and why it is important!

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Get out of your comfort zone: Meet Iulia Darolti

I am a final year PhD student at University College London. Through my research I am addressing questions about the evolutionary processes underpinning the extraordinary differences between males and females that we frequently observe in nature.

You can catch Iulia on her soapbox as part of Soapbox Science London on 26th may where she will be giving a talk: “The genetics of the sexes: How males and females evolve to be different”

 

 

SS: How did you get to your current position?

ID: I have always been fascinated by the animal world so I completed my undergraduate degree in Zoology at The University of Manchester. There, I became very interested in evolutionary biology, more specifically in the evolution of mating systems and mate choice and in evolutionary conflicts of interest between males and females. In my final undergraduate year, I decided I really wanted to pursue a career in academia. I was then very fortunate to obtain a PhD research studentship at University College London where I am now able to further explore these areas of evolutionary biology.

 

SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?

ID: I think I was attracted to science studies in general from early school years and I owe this to some very inspiring science teachers that I have had along the way. I also used to watch a lot of documentaries which have increased my curiosity about science, biology in particular. Later on, my undergraduate supervisor provided me with valuable advice about what to expect from an academic career.

 

SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?

ID: I am constantly amazed by the incredible differences in shape, function and behavior that we see between males and females of the same species. Having the chance to contribute through my research to our understanding of the evolutionary causes and mechanisms behind this diversity is in itself fascinating to me.

 

SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?

ID: Having the chance to share my passion for science with the public, and who knows maybe even with some young scientists in the making, is definitely one of the main aspects of Soapbox Science that attracted me. I also think this is a great opportunity to get out of my comfort zone as Soapbox Science provides an opportunity to discuss science in a different way than what I am used to.

 

SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – excitement? Fear? Thrill? Anticipation?

ID: Excitement!

 

SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?

ID: I would change the instability that short-term research contracts and highly competitive funding schemes could bring, especially at early career stages.

 

SS: What would be your top recommendation to a PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?

ID: Make sure you find an area of research that you are really excited about, persevere in everything you do and most importantly be confident in your abilities even if at times things may seem overwhelming.

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Even ‘experts’ are normal people too: Meet Jess Fisher

 Jess Fisher (@jessjessfisher), University of Kent, is taking part in Soapbox Science Canterbury on 23rd of June where she will give a talk: “Happiness hotspots: why we need nature in the city”

 

 

 

 

 

SS: How did you get to your current position?

JF: I’m about half way through my PhD at the University of Kent. I’ve always wanted to work in conservation, but since I didn’t get the A levels I wanted, I ended up on the only BSc Zoology course I could get into. One of the lecturers there told me about the University expedition society, and I ended up running some research trips with a group of friends, which got me into fieldwork. That helped me onto an MRes at UCL partnered with the Institute of Zoology, which led to research assistant work, before I ended up on this PhD.

 

SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?

JF: Camping trips when I was young, a very cool geography school teacher, and plenty of David Attenborough.

 

SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?

JF: Travel for fieldwork and conferences abroad is definitely number 1. As for my PhD, I enjoy looking for the positive relationships between people and wildlife instead of at the pessimistic trends we continually in conservation.

 

SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?

JF: During my masters I volunteered at Soapbox Science in London supporting one of the researchers at the Institute of Zoology. I think I had to wear a gorilla mask…

I also recently saw a Facebook post from a local asking the public what this insect was… (it was a dragonfly!). This reminded me that there is definitely work to be done!

 

SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day

JF: Exciting!

 

SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?

JF: Imposter syndrome is probably the biggest one for me. So many people think ‘I’m definitely too stupid to be doing this’, or ‘I got here by accident’. Whilst I tend to go with ‘fake it til you make it’, the longer I’ve been in science the more I’ve come to realise that even ‘experts’ are normal people too!

 

SS: What would be your top recommendation to a woman studying for a PhD and considering pursuing a career in academia?

JF: Don’t ask don’t get! Create opportunities for yourself whenever and wherever you can.

 

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Against all odds, into science: Meet Anna-Maria Getoš Kalac

Prof. Dr. Anna-Maria Getoš Kalac, University of Zagreb – Faculty of Law; Max Planck Partner Group for Balkan Criminology, is taking part in Soapbox Science Munich on 7th July with her talk: “Violence Research Lab; Gewaltforschungslabor”

 

 

 

SS: Why did you choose a scientific career?

AMGK: I would not say that I planned or even deliberately picked a scientific career. It was more the other way around. Science somehow chose me. I always knew exactly what I did not want: a career as a female crime investigator in the Croatian police, after finishing my criminalistics studies, or a career in the Ministry of science and education… Out of this “avoiding” of my “don’t wants” I slipped, really by chance and against all odds, into science. After graduating in Croatia I got a scholarship and enrolled in a master study program in Germany. I was really good at it, I mean really good, and excelled at all tasks. One thing lead to another, and a few years later I got my PhD, was already heavily involved in teaching at my law faculty in Croatia, while doing research at the Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Criminal Law in Freiburg.

 

SS: How did you get your current position?

AMGK: My current position as Head of the Max Planck Partner Group for “Balkan Criminology” I got, again, by avoiding what I did not want. And that was to limit myself to teaching and sporadic mediocre research at my “academic home” at the Zagreb Law Faculty. After having obtained my PhD and a couple of months resting from this exhausting and seemingly never-ending mega-task, I felt somehow empty and in search of a “meaningful scientific occupation”. I actually missed my PhD project, or better to say the scientific challenge it posed and all good and bad that comes with it. Discussing this “emptiness” during one of my brief “scientific wellness holidays” at my “scientific home”, the Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Criminal Law in Freiburg, with my PhD mentor Prof. Dr. Albrecht, we decided to apply for a Max Planck Society funded own research group for me, that would enable us to “build up” criminology in Croatia and the whole of Southeast Europe. I was basically frustrated that there was no one at my “academic home” in Zagreb and only a hand full of people in my whole region, whom I could jointly work with and conduct criminological research. Instead of settling with this situation or moving abroad into a more appealing research setting, I chose to change something. I got lucky, and the application was approved.

 

SS: What do you do in your everyday work life?

AMGK: That really depends on the season and my whereabouts. When at my “academic home” in Zagreb and during the winter semester, I teach. I teach and teach and really teach a lot. The time is focused on faculty work and students. The little time that remains I spend on project management and finalizing far overdue papers. But, then the summer semester starts and I am free to focus on science and research. Then I work on new project ideas, organise data collection in the field, analyse the data once its available, go to conferences and project meetings, network with fellow scientists, discuss new ideas and findings with peers. Basically that is the time of the year I am most creative and do what I like best: research.

 

SS: What is the most exciting aspect of your research?

AMGK: Currently and with the focus on violence research, it is the discovery of the complexity of the concept and phenomenon of violence itself. It is exciting, even thrilling, to see how your own understanding of highly complex issues, that at first seem incomprehensible and a complete mystery, slowly but steadily evolves. First you think, based on what other scholars before you have been doing and found out, that you understand what violence is, why it occurs, how it might be prevented etc. Then you outgrow this phase and start critically questioning what you think you know, typically inspired by a paper or talk you heard or by a case you came along. Then you think you know nothing. And this is usually the most frustrating, but also most exciting point in my own research. What is violence? Is it only physical or also psychological, verbal, sexual, political, institutional? If you want to empirically research it, how will you define it? What do you include, what do you exclude? You struggle with the concept and construct of violence, think about new angles from which to approach it and so on. Then you discuss your ideas with peers and expert practitioners from the field (prosecutors, police officers, judges), get feedback, look at real cases, adjust your concepts and definitions etc. Basically, I would say this is the most exiting aspect of my research – detecting new areas of engagement and finding the best way to tackling them. The process of acknowledging how little I actually know about the “how” and “why” of one person injuring or killing another, while finding a way and the means to enhance my understanding of human violence and still my own scientific curiosity.

 

SS: What challenges do you encounter in science?

AMGK: Far too many I would say, with the most frustrating probably being the challenge of research funding. Working at a faculty or outside of an already existing research project with acquired funds for research work, it is very difficult to do empirically based criminology. During the years I had to become a “genius” in getting project funds and/or motivating others as well as myself to do a lot of volunteering. And in order to get your research funds you most commonly have to fit your scientific visions into the funding priorities of those you would like to pay for it. This is usually a difficult compromise, especially when you want to do basic research in social sciences, where the focus is predominantly on applied research. I guess the other challenges, like finding and keeping good staff, acquiring and keeping your independence, getting access to data etc. are not really unique to science as a work field. I would however say that being and working as a scientist is unique in one particular aspect, and that’s the working hours. You constantly puzzle around one or several research questions in your head and cannot limit this to some conventional working hours. It needs some time in the morning when I get into the office “to think myself into the problem” and to start “puzzling”, writing and working. And this “puzzling” does not stop when I leave the office to pick up my kids, or when I am on the playground or leave for the gym late in the evening. It is like a parallel side-show in your head to everything else what you are doing, and you constantly switch back and forth between off-work activities, like life, and your scientific “puzzling”. I believe it is like that because I am truly engaged with my science, not my work, and genuinely curious about the questions I study.

 

SS: What are your most promising findings in the field?

AMGK: My most promising findings in the field of violence research are, that it is possible to scale violence outside of the context of human behaviors, normative classifications, or justifications, purely based on its physical impact. People, if presented with several actual cases of violence, are able to intuitively ‘rank’ these cases merely on the basis of information about the physical aspect of the violence (e.g. the time the incident lasted, the injuries that occurred, the weapon or means used etc.). Their ‘rankings’ are frequently along the same line of though: how much suffering or pain did it cause? This indicates that it should be possible to design a universal “measure for violence” based purely on the “physics of violence”. Eventually, this might enable us to discover violence types and interrelationships that we have so far missed, because we have been preoccupied with normative classifications, motives, causes, justifications, vulnerabilities and a general outrage about violence.

 

SS: What motivates you to give a talk in Soapbox science?

AMGK: To show to the general public that what we are doing in science, even if basic research, has a potential impact on everyday life. To fascinate young people to consider a scientific career and to meet my peers in a casual environment. It is a great opportunity to promote my research and to popularize science. Of course, the Croatian Science Foundation, who is funding the “Violence Research Lab” in Croatia and the Max Planck Society that funds my Balkan Criminology research group will be very happy with the PR as well.

 

SS: Do you have a few words to inspire other female scientists? What can we do to attract more women to STEM fields?

AMGK: I would say go for it and never accept a “No”! I am the living example of fighting my way through very unfavorable research settings, firstly as a criminologist at a law faculty, but also as a young female scientist in a highly conservative academic setting, where back in 2013, when I was a “fresh” assistant professor, it was unheard of at my faculty (and even broader at my University) that someone on that level independently lead their own research group, let alone autonomously picked and employed their own research staff, or even disposed with their own research funds. It has been a constant struggle, and in many aspects still is, even as an associate professor, but it gets easier and in the long-run pays off. The whole challenge gets much more complex once you have kids, and here I believe is much space for improvements. In societies where it is still commonly accepted that the mum has the lead-role in child care and general housekeeping affairs, it is virtually impossible to keep up in the competition with our male peers. You “loose” not only the time(s) spent on maternity leaves, but with wanting to be a “good mum”, even if you are lucky like I was and find a temporary stay-at-home dad, always are torn between being a scientist and a mum. It would be much more attractive, not only for female scientists with kids, but for our male colleagues as well, if the scientific setting in general were a bit more family friendly. The MPI in Freiburg, where I currently am for an extended research stay of one year, is a good example, with reserved places in a nearby kinder garden. Good child care possibilities, flexible hours, or a financial support for babysitters and house-help are as important as strategically enhancing the share of female scientists in all fields of science and scientific management, esp. at top positions. Compared to 10 years ago, a lot has been accomplished with special scholarships for female scientists, trainings for women in science and raising awareness for the issue as such. But we are still far away form a scientific setting in which STEM fields are as attractive to women as they are to men.

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Science, and understanding how science works, is important for everyone: Meet Antonia Misch 

Dr. Antonia Misch (@AntoniaMisch), LMU Munich, is taking part in Soapbox Science Munich on 7th July where she will give a talk: “Wir und ihr: Warum sind Vorurteile wichtig? (Us and them: Why stereotypes matter (for better and for worse))”

 

 

 

SS: Why did you choose a scientific career?

AM: I love learning and exploring new things, and my work allows me to think about so many interesting questions every day! As a social developmental psychologist I study the development of social behavior, and so the questions I am thinking about are really relevant to many issues in our society. The most exciting part is that I can actually investigate and answer these questions by running real experiments.

 

SS: How did you get your current position?

AM: After high school I was thinking about studying psychology, but wasn’t sure whether I wanted to become a psychotherapist. At that time I didn’t know what else to do with a psychology degree. Then I heard that the psychology department at the local Max Planck Institute was recruiting interns to run psychological studies with children. I did an internship there and loved the work so much that I ended up staying until after my PhD. After that I moved to the States for a postdoc position at Yale in order to study the development of intergroup cognition. When I returned to Germany 2 years later I was excited to get this job at LMU Munich, and that’s where I am now.

 

SS: What do you do in your everyday work life? 

AM:

  1. Reading & Writing & Thinking
  2. Teaching
  3. Running experiments/ Supervising students who are running experiments
  4. Statistical analysis

 

SS: What is the most exciting aspect of your research?

AM: I love the freedom to investigate pretty much any question that I am interested in (within my field, of course). Another exciting aspect is that my research allows me to connect and collaborate with many interesting researchers from all over the world.

 

SS: What challenges do you encounter in science?

AM: One needs perseverance, patience and the ability to juggle multiple projects at the same time. Job insecurity is also a huge challenge.

 

SS: What are your most promising findings in the field?

AM: In my dissertation research I found that already 5-year-old children value group loyalty, and that they also show loyalty to their group themselves, sometimes by covering up their group members’ moral transgression.

One of my current studies shows a promising avenue to reduce children’s ingroup bias (which is a natural tendency to prefer members of the own group to members of another group): I found that the mere anticipation to collaborate with members of the outgroup is sufficient to diminish ingroup bias.

 

SS: What motivates you to give a talk in Soapbox science?

AM: I think that science, and understanding how science works, is important for everyone. Therefore, we scientists have to do a better job in making it understandable and accessible for the general public.

Furthermore, I would like to help to increase the visibility of non-stereotypical scientists in order to challenge a few beliefs about the world that perpetuate societal inequality. For example, when it comes to gender equality most people think that we live in an equal world because theoretically every woman has the same choices and chances as a man. But what most people don’t see is that from early on children’s desires and beliefs are shaped by the world they see and experience. And when young children see that all the powerful and smart positions are filled by people who are White and male, they will automatically start to believe that there is a deeper reason for that, such as that men might be inherently smarter than women. Research from the US shows that already 6-year-old girls think that men are smarter than women, and this belief impacts their own fledgling identity directly – girls perceive themselves as less smart compared to boys of the same age (needless to say that these beliefs are wrong). But educational and career choices are made based on the assumptions of what one perceives as achievable and suitable for oneself, and thus certain stereotypes prevent people who do not fit the stereotype from pursuing a particular career, for example in academia. I would not only like to challenge these stereotypes, but also raise awareness about the development and existence of implicit assumptions.

 

SS: Do you have a few words to inspire other female scientists? What can we do to attract more women to STEM fields?

AM: My advice for young women in academia (or actually in any field) would be: Don’t be intimidated by the confidence of your (male) colleagues. It does not mean that they are smarter or more knowledgeable than you, but most likely it is due to the fact that we were raised in a society that fosters boys’ and men’s confidence more than the confidence of girls and women.

Furthermore, I think women in science have to be more visible. So we should talk more about our research and our passion for research in public, as well as try to be good and approachable mentors for our students – all of them!

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