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Filtering by Tag: science

THANKFUL FRIDAY

Cindy Maddera

Not too long ago, maybe near the end of September, we had a couple of weeks of rain and cloudy skies. It was bleak and dreary and many of us wondered if we were ever going to see the sun again. Actually, this scooter season, I ended up getting caught in the rain more times than I ever have during a scooter season. I worried that we were going to move from Summer right on into winter without getting a Fall. Eventually the clouds went away and the sun came out. Everybody’s basements dried out. The weather shifted from warm and muggy to cool and dry. The days have been sunny with mild temps while the evenings and nights have been down right cold.

Turns out warm days and cold nights is the perfect weather recipe for amazingly vibrant Fall leaves. We all learned in basic biology about how plants use chlorophyll to make food from the sun. Trees make lots of chlorophyll during the months were have the most sunlight, Spring and Summer. As Summer turns into Fall, trees start breaking down chlorophyll to prepare for the darker days when we don’t get as much sunlight. As chlorophyll, which is also a pigment, is broken down into smaller molecules, underlying pigments like yellow and orange show through. Reds and orange come from sugars that get trapped in the leaves. On warm sunny days, more sugars get trapped in the leaves and then on cool nights, chlorophyll breaks down. The leaves end up being more vibrant and stick to the trees longer.

Science is beautiful.

Every time I step outside, I think I’ve stepped onto the set of some Hallmark Channel made-for-TV Thanksgiving movie. The trees are so vibrant and breathtaking that they don’t even seem real. Just when I think it can’t get any prettier, another tree shifts over to flaming red or blinding gold and I mumble “are you fucking kidding me?!” to myself because I just can’t believe I’m in Kansas City and not Vermont. The concept of a true Fall season is still new to me. I’m not sure I will really ever get used to it. When the leaves change color here and last for weeks, I am so pleasantly surprised. I think of it as my consolation prize for the colder temperatures and the impending winter. Fall is here to overwhelm the optic nerves with vibrancy before we settle into the cold dark gray of winter.

I am thankful for that vibrancy.

THANKFUL FRIDAY

Cindy Maddera

Yesterday, I went with my friend and coworker, Jeff to teach a group of fourth graders about microscopes. We took a basic light microscope and some samples. Jeff has done this before and has his presentation down pat. He's made a device that attaches a webcam to the eye piece on the microscope that he can then project the image on a screen. I was just there as a sort of assistant, helping out with samples and chiming in with bits of information here and there. I have more experience with bacteria and amoeba than Jeff does, so I was able to talk about those things with the kids. 

We had some really interesting samples to show them and discuss, but the best, most exciting sample was a dish of pond water. Jeff had collected a water bottle full of water from a pond near his house. We had a large petri dish that we poured the water into and placed on the microscope stage. Then we sat back and just watched as various larvae, microscopic water fleas and water mites, and other creatures swam into our field of view. It was at times thrilling and a little scary Occasionally something really large would swim by so quickly, it was unidentifiable. The whole room would erupt in shrieks and gasps. The kids and the adults in the room totally loved every minute of it. The previous year they had a guy from the local science museum come and talk. Apparently he was not that great and when we wrapped things up, someone said "they were WAY better than the guy from last year." 

I really shy away from doing things like this, mostly because I feel queasy when I'm on any kind of stage. I have to say though that I had a lot of fun yesterday. I have forgotten how fun it is to really look at something like pond water, to see all the life swimming around. It is the whole reason I am where I am today. The first time I looked at bacteria through the eyepiece of a basic light microscope, I was hooked. It's all I ever wanted to do. So, I am super grateful that I went and helped out with career day yesterday. It was a good reminder of how it is I ended up where I am today. It was a good reminder of how fascinating the world is around us. There are more bacteria living on this planet then there are people, something like five million trillion trillion. Some of them live in the most extreme environments like Antarctica and inside Old Faithful at Yellowstone. Some of them live in and our bodies, helping us out by providing protection against infections or with digestion. To me, this is mind boggling amazing. 

I am thankful to be working in a field that constantly amazes me. 

YOGA AND SCIENCE

Cindy Maddera

Yoga Journal recently ran an article on the safety of jumping back to plank or chaturanga. What I loved so much about this article is not just how it discusses the anatomy involved in performing jump backs, but how they visited an Applied Biomechanics lab to take actual scientific measurements of the impact on joints when jumping back to plank and chaturanga. Their data showed that there was no more force placed onto the joints than as if you were walking. The article goes on to say that hopping back is perfectly safe if you can hold plank properly without sagging in the belly. The same goes for hopping back to chaturanga. I stand with the quiet rule on this. If you can't hop back without making a sound, then you should work on your core strength and skip the hopping.As a research scientist, I want to see this experiment done with non-seasoned yogis because this is the side of yoga that I can totally relate too. What's the impact of hopping back if you don't have proper form? How can teach my students to stay safe in hope backs? 

Yoga has some stigmas and one of those is the whole hippy dippiness of it. I mean, Yoga Journal followed the anatomy article with an article on crystals and their healing powers. You guys know me and know how hard I rolled my eyes at this. The only time I was not fully engaged during my yoga teacher training was when we got to the not scientific lulu stuff like auras and energy bodies. I was all in on those lessons that focused on the anatomy of the human body because I could see it in action. I could place my hand on the body part that was working and feel the muscle working. I could also look at the scientific studies and publications about yoga. There are many many NIH funded research programs that involve studying the effects of yoga on health. There is published data that shows both the pros and cons of a daily yoga practice. For instance, studies have shown that yoga is a great exercise for relieving low back pain. Pranayama or breathing practices yoga was taught to relieve asthma when in fact there is no evidence that yoga improves asthma. Pro. Con. All scientifically based research.

The yoga we see today is not the original yoga. It has and continues to be modified to make poses safer and more accessible and even to fit trends. Yoga battles with preconceived ideas from non-yogis. There are people who believe yoga is a religion. There are many who think you have to be flexible to do yoga. There are people who think yoga is sitting in lotus with your eyes closed while chanting. Linking actual scientific research with yoga is a pretty powerful tool for battling those preconceived ideas. When I tell my students that chanting "Om" can be good for them I can point to a scientific study in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care that shows that humming increases the production of nitric oxide in the nasal passages. You end up humming as you chant "Om". The extra nitric oxide helps you fight of sinus pain and infections. 

I like have scientific evidence to back up some of the lulu sounding things I say.

THANKFUL FRIDAY

Cindy Maddera

Way back, when I was finishing up my Masters Degree, I was working really hard and writing my dissertation. My advisor did not read my dissertation before my defense, which I did not completely pass. My committee sent me away with revisions. I did those revision and my advisor again did not read my dissertation before my final committee meeting. Though my committee was happy with the revisions and passed me, I still had to turn in a complete dissertation approved by my advisor. Meanwhile, I had gotten a job in Oklahoma City and marked the calendar in our lab with my last day at OSU two months in advance. I spent those two months staring at my dissertation. On my last day, I took my lab key to my advisor and he looked at me confused. I told him that today was my last day. He looked at me and said "You can't leave. Your dissertation is the worst thing I've ever read." 

I was too shocked to argue with him or to even believe he had finally read the paper. My advisor had been unavailable every time I had gone to him to talk about my paper. For months, I had asked him at least once a day if he had read it yet or if we could sit down and talk about the paper. Every time he would either put it off or tell me that things were going just fine and to just keep writing. So for him to tell me at the very last minute that my paper needed a complete and total rewrite was like being dropped into the Arctic ocean. I managed to stammer out to him that my last day had been scheduled and on his calendar for two months and I had a commitment to this other place. I handed him my key and left. I enrolled in more nothing hours so I could have another semester to turn in my dissertation and earn my diploma. I heard nothing from my advisor for over a month. I rewrote my dissertation and sent it to him. Then Chris basically had to stalk my advisor to get him to sign off on the final revision. 

The whole process rocked any confidence I had in myself and things only got worse when I started that first job out of graduate school. I went into a core facility that required all kinds of molecular biology lab techniques that I had zero experience with. I don't even know how I got hired for the job and I was terrible at it. I would have good days where I'd get reactions started and a gel loaded and every thing would go just right. Then the next day I would repeat all of the steps from the good day and everything would practically catch on fire. The other women in the lab were not the most kind and it was often very much a Mean Girl kind of environment. It was not a big shock to me when the facility lost a grant that I was the first and only one 'laid off'. In fact I had already started looking for another job before I got the news. By the time I started in Margaret's lab, I was pretty convinced that I was not smart enough to be a research scientist. Since I had no other prospects or talents and was the sole breadwinner of our household, I didn't really have a choice but to join Margaret's lab. 

This turned out to be the best decision (other than the scooter purchase) I have ever made because this is when I started to get some of that lost confidence back. Turns out that I am not as dumb as I thought I was. I was just stuck in a job that was not suited to the way my brain works. Now I'm super confident in my work and sometimes I even say some really smart things. That confidence spilled over into other aspects of my life and for a brief moment I believed that I could do anything. My confidence got rocked again when Chris died. I just sort of lost myself, doubted myself, forgot that I was not just Chris and Cindy, but my own person. To be honest, my relationship with Michael hasn't really helped me regain that confidence. I still doubt myself. Recently I was asked to conjure one word to represent something I want in 2018 and was surprised (and a little embarrassed at the selfish idea of it) to see the word "me" float around in my brain. It reminded me of the video that's gone viral of the toddler who refuses help buckling her carseat. She tells her parent "You worry about yourself!" 

Worry about yourself.

In these first few days of this brand new year, I have felt more solid in myself than I have in the whole of all of last year. Some of that has to do with regaining some lost confidence and some of that is due to focusing more on worrying about myself. There's gratitude to be had in these lessons. I am grateful to feel that maybe, just possibly, I could do anything. 

 

DANDELIONS

Cindy Maddera

Remember when you were a kid and thought dandelions where the most beautiful flower and you picked all of them in your yard and then proudly held them up in your clutched sweaty little hand as a gift to your mom? At some point in adulthood, probably when we first started caring for a lawn of our very own, those bright yellow blooms became the bane of our existence. That dime sized blister on my thumb is the result of digging those invasive plants out of the vegetable garden. I've seen Josephine eat them. In fact she dragged half of the ones I pulled from the garden off into the yard to chew on while I worked. As I tugged and pulled each dandelion plant free, I thought "I used to love these. I used to think these bright yellow flowers where stunning." 

It is a wonder how perceptions change with age. When the Cabbage was in pre-school, Michael asked her if she had any black kids in her class. He wanted to make sure that she was in a class of diversity. The Cabbage looked at him oddly and said "Black kids?!? Kids aren't black!" She didn't know about the terms we adults have created to describe skin that is not white. Michael, not wanting to mess up anything, just said "OK" and left it at that. He realized that kids don't see color the way adults do. They recognize that there are different skin colors but they haven't been told about ethnicities or about stereotypes. They learn those things. From grownups. Eventually the Cabbage will notice that the color of her skin will afford her a certain sort of privilege. I would have hoped that we would have fixed the privilege of skin color before that happened, but it doesn't look like that's the case. 

iBiology recently posted a video series on Mentor Training to Improve Diversity in Science. I watched it because I thought it would be important and educational for me to watch. I thought I might learn how to talk about diversity and race with confidence or without the worry of offending someone. I also wanted to hear if they addressed the lack of young African American women in science. I see this here and I wonder how to fix it. They don't really address that, but they do talk about how important diversity is to making scientific discoveries. This is not a message I needed to learn, but it was one I was happy to hear because I don't think it is said often enough. It's the reason why I shared the video to Facebook. The messages presented by Dr. Angela Byars-Winston and Dr. Sandra Crouse Quinn are messages that applies universally, not just in the field of science. 

Let's say there's a committee of people put together to solve a specific problem regarding the whole country. The committee consists of ten people. All of them are men. All of them are very very wealthy. All of them are white. How effective do you think they will be in solving a problem that affects all of us (white, black, hispanic, middle class, female, LGBQT, farmer, working class) in a way that is helpful to all of us? Wait...that's pretty much the situation we have now. Bad example. I'm saying that having a diverse group allows that group to approach questions to a problem in a more effective way because we all add something unique to the table. 

It's not about not seeing color. Not at all. It's about embracing color and recognizing the beauty and strengths in having a diverse society. It's about being respectful without expectations. Treating others the way you would want to be treated. 

MYSTIC VOODOO YAYA

Cindy Maddera

Not too long ago, Michael and I were watching Ghostbusters (the new one) and things came up that started a small conversation on the belief of ghosts. Michael said "Could it be that little Miss Scientist Cindy believes in ghosts?" I said that I wasn't sure but there was definitely an unseen force messing with stuff in my dorm room when I lived in Chickasha. I am almost positive that if you interviewed any young lady who lived in those dorms, you will hear a story about some weird unexplainable encounter that happened to them while living in that building. More than half of those young ladies will say those encounters where with a ghost named Nellie. I don't know who or what it was, but someone liked to turn the water on and off in the bathroom sink of the room I shared with no one. There was also a nighttime incident where I was sure there was someone standing on the other side of my bed, but when I turned my head to look, all I heard was the click of the door. When I got up to check the door, it was locked. 

Ancient Greeks gave us our earliest western philosophy that the soul is the thing that gives a body a life. Science has yet to prove the existence of the soul and in fact, Physicist Sean M. Carroll wrote that the idea of a soul is the antithesis of the quantum field theory.  Yet there are several theoretical physicists out there who disagree with Carroll. The idea of a soul and what happens to it when the body dies is the greatest unanswered scientific question. Maybe there's really no such thing as a soul. Maybe there is and souls just transfer to the next new life. Maybe some souls just travel around on the winds until it transfers into the next thing. That would explain why Josephine sometimes reminds me of Pepaw. Maybe this is why I believe that something not in a human body was hanging out in my dorm room. Maybe this remains the great unanswered scientific question because there are bigger and more important things to figure out like cancer and sustainable energy. There's a lot of maybes.

I've always walked a line between the scientifically explained and the voodoo sciences. I suppose there is the part of me that wants to believe in something magical. Ghosts are not particularly a joyful experience, but the idea of being in the presence of something unexplained is thrilling. Despite knowing that there is a scientific explanation for rainbows, I am still thrilled and in awe whenever one shows up in the sky, especially if it is one representing all the wavelengths. My massage therapist uses a heated 'bio-mat' containing amethysts crystals. You can tell me whatever you want about magic purple crystals healing my body while laying on a heated table with someone rolling the knots out of my shoulders and I will totally nod my head in agreement. I have purchased mala beads to aid in meditation. I have scrubbed my body with salts to clean my energy. I have burned sage in our house to promote wellbeing and because we like the way it smells. Recently, I purchased a candle that, when burned, is supposed to foster creativity. 

That candle is sitting on my desk, still in the box and I think it's already working. Since it's purchase, I've gotten my fancy pants camera out three times to just take pictures of stuff. I have also written this rambly post on unexplained phenomena. I am a scientist who believes that there is a scientific explanation for everything but that it is just fine and dandy to believe in the mystical until that explanation is found. I am a scientist who understands the power of the placebo. I am a scientist who gets that there is a basic philosophical human need to believe in something, anything really. 

I am a scientist who is going to go home this evening and light that damn candle in hopes that it will light a fire under my creative butt. 

TRUTH OR DARE

Cindy Maddera

NPR aired a story on March 15th about how Monsanto recruited scientists to co-author papers that defend the safety of glyphosate. Glyphosate is a chemical compound found in such weed killers as Roundup and Rodeo. Monsanto is the company that make genetically modified seeds that are resistant to weed killers like Roundup. So farmers can spray their crops with weed killer without killing their crop. The problem is that weeds also start to get more tolerant of the weed killer and then farmers have to use higher concentrations of weed killer to stop the weeds. Turns out that glyphosate probably causes cancer, along with some other commonly used pesticide chemicals and insecticide chemicals. 

Some of you are probably shrugging your shoulders and thinking "so what, everything causes cancer." That's almost true. Cancer has been a problem since the beginning of multicellular organism existence on this planet, but if you can avoid something that may specifically give you cancer, you should probably do so. Also, in Monsanto's case, they are selling a product that they have promoted as being safe and it actually may not be safe. This story leads to a bigger problem though and that's one of scientific trust. Corporations paying scientists for research skewed in their favor is not new. In the 60s, the sugar industry funded research that downplayed the role of sugar in human health. Scientific papers are retracted all the time. Up until recently, most of those retraction were due to other scientific discoveries that disproved the findings of that paper. Recently though, we've seen a lot of retractions due to fraud and with the U.S. being the most guilty of fraud related retractions. This comes from a review published in 2012 regarding 2,047 life-science and biomedical research papers retracted that year.

That is not only embarrassing but incredibly dangerous. There's no wonder that people in general have a mistrust of scientific information. But what that paper doesn't say is that there were over 28 million papers submitted and published between 1980 and 2012 and of those 28 million, 2,047 were questionable in some way. Do not think that most scientists are out there trying to dupe you when it turns out to just be a couple of bad apples. This science business I'm in is very competitive. In 2013, there were about 40,000 postdocs (think interns) and about 4,000 of them had been so for six years or more. Getting your own lab and moving on in academia is hard and funding research is expensive. The National Institute of Health has about a 32 billion dollar budget that helps to fund more than 300,000 scientists. Divide 32 billion by 300,000. It doesn't leave you with much for lab supplies, consumables and research technicians. Forget about buying any expensive equipment or maintaining service contracts for those things. I am not condoning fraud in any way, but I can see how a scientist desperate for funding could find a way to tweak his/her findings to work in their favor. 

When you hear about a new scientific discovery on the news or read about it online, here's a few things you can look for that will give you some sort of an idea of the validity of the science:

  1. First, check the news source. Is the information coming from a reliable news source? This infographic has been circling social media and is a good representation of reliable news sources for all news, not just science. 
  2. Second, make sure the story is not an opinion piece. 
  3. Third, check the article for links to the original source of information. The original source should be the actual journal article from a reputable scientific journal. 
  4. Fourth, check the original article for funding information. All articles contain an acknowledgment section that includes how the research was funded. If they list a major corporation like Exon, I'm going to question their science and thoroughly read their paper as well as check their references and other research being done in this field.   

Bottom line though, when a researcher has to go to corporations for funding, their research is going to lean to the favor of the corporation. This happens more and more as government funding is cut from scientific research. You can help by encouraging your senators and representatives to support funding for scientific research. Making donations to non-for-profit charities like the AIDS Walk of Kansas City is another way to help. Above all, when you read those headlines that sound too good to be true, read the actual article and ask questions.

Question everything. 

 

THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD: THE THIRD (AND FINAL) LESSON

Cindy Maddera

I knew all about the Scientific Method when I started this series. I just didn't really think too much about it. Now that I'm breaking it down for you guys and really getting into the nitty gritty details of it all, I am reminded that my job is hard. In the last lesson, we had formed a hypothesis and were starting to design experiments to test that hypothesis. If we take a moment to go back and look at our Scientific Method, we will find that testing the hypothesis becomes the most convoluted part of that flow chart.

Experiments fail and then you have to figure out if the experiment failed because of human error or if because your hypothesis is wrong. Then you have to account for the steps in your experiment that may have serious consequences to the outcome of that experiment. Remember how I said I was working on staining yeast cells with a nanobody I've labeled with a fluorescent dye? Don't worry. I'm not going to test you. I will tell you that yeast have pretty strong cell walls. They are difficult to stain without first permeabilizing (punching holes) the cell wall. We use an enzyme called zymolyase to chew up the cell walls of yeast. This is the part that can vary. If you leave the zymolyase on too long, the cells completely fall apart. If you don't leave it on long enough, you do not get good staining because the dye or in our case, nanobody, can't get through the cell wall. So now I don't know if my experiment is not working because the nanobody doesn't work or if it is because I didn't permeabilize the cell wall enough. 

These are the kinds of factors and variables that scientist dig their way through to get answers. Once they have experiments working, they must be repeated multiple times. We are looking for results that are consistently repeatable and after we've performed those experiments many times, we have to make sense of the results. If those results don't support our hypothesis, we start all over again from the beginning. If the data shows that our hypothesis is true, then we write up all the information to submit to journals for publication. Communicating the results means writing up everything, your background research, how you designed the experiments, the exact protocol for those experiments, and an explanation of the results from those experiments. Once that paper is submitted, it goes through a peer-review process where others in that field of research read through the paper before recommending it for publication. Those reviewers often want more questions answered and recommend a few other experiments before the paper can be published.

Even after publication, there are other researchers who will repeat those experiments from your paper to determine if your work is repeatable. I hope that now when you read a headline that starts with something like "Scientists discovered..." you'll have a better understanding and maybe even respect for the work that went into that discovery. Sometimes those discoveries may feel like they conflict with your core values. We all tend to reject information that is threatening to us. My wish is that you understand, by breaking down the method to which scientists come about their discoveries and information is complex and not just pulled from thin air to spite you. Understanding this process may even make those discoveries less threatening. The information discovered is more than a snappy headline. 

And this concludes our study of the Scientific Method. What's next? What do you guys want to learn about? Send me some ideas!

THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD: LESSON ONE

Cindy Maddera

I wanted to start an educational series here on science. I get the impression that non-science people are unaware of what a scientist goes through to get her research published or the questioning of the science behind their research while publishing and after publishing. The idea is to help you have a better understanding of blanket statements like "97% of Climate Scientists agree that humans are the cause of global warming" and why those scientists think (not believe) this is true. To do that, I'm going to start by breaking down the Scientific Method. Some of you may have a vague memory of learning something about the Scientific Method in middle school science. Words like 'hypothesis' and 'analyze' probably ring some bells for you. 

For today's visual, I'm going to reference Science Buddies because they have a great diagram that breaks down the Scientific Method.

First off, let's start by asking a question about something we observe. It helps if the question can be measured, but for today, we're not going to worry too much about that. We're going to keep things simple, like will I burn my hand if I place it on the stove? After you develop a question the next step is to do some background research. You want to look around for reliable sources pertaining to your question. Has this questions been asked before? What are the steps that scientist used to answer the same question? Is that scientist's data repeatable? Your question can change depending on what you find in your background research. You might find that other scientists who asked this question found that they only burned their hands part of the time when placing it on the stove. So now your question might be "why do I only burn my hand some of the times when I place it on the stove?"

Asking the question sounds like the easy part. It's the background research that makes your question more complicated. Here's an example of a question I've been working at my job. Can I stain a GFP-tagged protein with a nanobody to achieve greater microscopic resolution in the less than 100nm scale? I do not present this question to you to be condescending, but as an example of the complexity of the kinds of questions that scientists are asking. That's just asking the question. After that, there's developing a hypothesis and coming up with an experimental design. The scientist has to figure out what experiments to do to answer this question along with all the variables involved in running that experiment. There's a lot of steps that happen in between asking a question and communicating those results. 

I hoped this helped explain some things or at least put things in a better perspective for you. The science is more than a one sentence headline designed to grab your attention. Maybe next week we'll dig a little deeper into the Scientific Method. That middle part with all the experiments and testing is thick. So..join me next week when I discuss variability in experiments, also known to other scientists as gremlins in the lab.

THANKFUL FRIDAY

Cindy Maddera

Earlier this week, Michael was ranting about the latest ridiculous tweet from our President (it is becoming an evening ritual) and he said to me "You should run for office!" I just rolled my eyes and walked away. The next day someone had posted an article about scientists now making a push to get elected to local, state and federal office. It just makes sense to have people who understand the science, make policies for said science. I shared the article on my newsfeed and then had a number of people comment on how they would vote for me if I ran. You guys are sweet, but I'm not running for office. Do you know how much I hate public speaking? Do you know how much public speaking you have to do when you run for office? Answers to both of those questions are equal. 

It is the end of the first week for this new President and I feel like I have been yelling all week. Week one and I'm already exhausted. I just thought that I had grown out of my activist phase, like activism is for the younger folks. Except now I find myself on the defense against a President who doesn't know the difference between a fact and a lie, who wants to censure scientists, and a population of people who think lying is perfectly okay. I don't want this blog to become a place where I am constantly pointing out injustices and wrongs and public service. And I'm not going to let that happen. When I realized this was only week one, I vowed to step back and pace myself because there's a long road ahead. 

So, here's some stuff I am thankful for this week. First of all, I'm thankful for all the sweet "I'd vote for you" comments. It means a thing or two that you guys have that kind of confidence in me. I am thankful, as a scientist, that I still have a job and that no one has come to burn me for a witch (yet). I am thankful for all of the scientists who, despite gag orders, have stepped up to make their voices heard. I am thankful that we are getting a camp trailer and will spend the summer traveling to some National Parks before something bad happens to them. Michael found an egg in the chicken coop. This might mean the chickens are going to start laying eggs again. I am thankful for that one egg. 

I am always thankful for you.

Hope your Friday is filled with things to be grateful for. 

SCIENCE ADVOCACY

Cindy Maddera

The conference I attended in San Francisco had a couple of different sessions on Science Advocacy. The first one I sat in on was a talk by Ann Reid from the National Center for Science Education. The title of the discussion was "How to solve a problem like science denial?" and she talked about how science deniers are threatened by science and the information that comes from scientific discovery. I sat there listening to numbers and percentages I'd heard before like how 25% of the population does not believe the earth revolves around the sun and I was somewhere between on the verge of bursting into tears and throwing up. This talk was not so much "Hey! Look at how cool science can be!" and more "How to deal with confrontations because people are now going to think you are a witch and not a scientist." I had visions of angry mobs with pitch forks. 

There was an emphasis in this talk on making yourself (the scientist) less threatening. Scientists often say things that conflict with core values. A good example is the topic of evolution. Evolution conflicts with religion and beliefs and those kind of people either believe in evolution or they don't. The 'believing in science' thing is a phrase that I struggle with. Science is not a faith based religion. There's no believing in the facts that come through scientific discovery. Yet, that angry mob I am envisioning are not thinking analytically. Dr. Reid gave the audience some really good advice on dealing with people who do not think analytically. She told us to ask questions and listen respectfully and be personal. She showed this graph that shows how people see scientists as competent, but not particularly warm. We don't illicit comforting feelings. In fact, we're seen as the second most competent job but with the warmth level just above a lawyer. 

So, the second session on Science Advocacy, which turned out to be a table discussion, was all about how to turn socially awkward scientists into more personable, lovable creatures. This session turned out to be not at all what I thought it was going to be. I thought I'd be sitting in an audience, listening to someone talk about how to develop a two-minute speech that would convey what I do as a scientist without being threatening. Instead, I walked into a table discussion where me and Sarah (we tagged along together to this) were placed at one of the front tables. The guy moderating our table looked at us and said "Let's hear your pitch!" and flames whooshed up my neck and into my cheeks as I stammered for actual words as opposed to the sounds of "uh...uh..um..." that I was making. 

Here's the thing. I don't talk about what I do. Period. I do not talk to Michael about what I do. I do not talk to family about what I what I do. I do not talk to friends about what I do. I just don't talk about what it is I actually do as a scientist with anyone. I noticed a long time ago that when someone would ask me what it was that I do for a living and I said "research scientist" their eyes immediately glazed over or they would nod their head and say "that's nice." before turning and walking away. I have heard "Is she speaking English?" from people as I have talked about some aspect of my job. I do not talk about what I do because I have yet to come up with a simple way of explaining what it is that I do without being condescending. I suppose, if pressed, I could write something about what I do, but at that moment when the mediator at our table said "GO!" I could not form a complete sentence or even say the word 'microscopy'.

My friend told me this story about an interaction she'd had with a small child recently. The child was holding a garden hose and then asked Heather where the water came from. Heather started explaining the water cycle to the small boy when his grandma walked over and looked Heather in the eye while she turned on the water faucet. The kid just wanted the water on and had zero interest in evaporation and condensation. In general though, I feel like this is what it is like for any scientist who has been pressed to explain their work. In order to explain my work, I feel like I need to give you ALL of the information including the big picture part because my work is just a small part of that big picture. My part in the water cycle is turning on the tap or pumping that water to the tap. The questions scientists are asking are big and complicated questions that can't be answered all at once. We have to take small chunks out of the big question. That's what I do. I work on a small chunk of a much greater question. Hopefully the answer to the small chunk leads to answers in solving the big ones like curing cancer or Alzheimer's. 

In the meantime, I'm going to be sitting over here working on my two-minute pitch so I look less like witchcrafty when the angry mob shows up. 

THE ACCIDENTAL ROLE MODEL

Cindy Maddera

Right now, the Cabbage is into science. I say 'right now' because she's six and next year she'll probably be into something different, like law or cosmetology. But for right now, science is her thing. She likes bugs. We passed the time waiting for Michael at Harbor Freight, looking at pictures of moths and butterflies on my phone one day. We have a family membership for the Union Station because it gets us into Science City for free whenever we feel like going. This turned out to be a great way for Michael and the Cabbage to spend the day during the summer when it was too hot to do anything outside. I think there was one day they spent the whole time watching movies at the planetarium and eating free popcorn. 

For the past two or three weeks, the Cabbage has been asking to go to Science City. "When are we going to Science City? I want to go to Science City." It's a loop she's been playing over and over. Our weekend schedule has been super busy with other things. We've done fun stuff like visit Randy and Katrina in Branson and a zoo day, but none of this has been Science City. The last time she said something about it I told her we would go the next weekend she was at our house. I cleared the schedule for it and she started a count down of days before we would be at Science City. No one realized this until Michael went to pick her up on Friday, but her class went on field trip to Science City that day. The day before we were supposed to go. Didn't matter. The Cabbage said she wanted to go to Science City again on Saturday even though she had just been there the day before. 

So, Saturday, we went to lunch and then to Science City. I like Science City. It's big and open, with lots of running around space. Many of the exhibits are hands on. It's one of the few places I feel comfortable enough to take the Cabbage where I feel like I can let her roam free and explore on her own. We wandered around, making electricity by riding bikes and changing tide flows with magnets. They have those spinny top looking chairs that don't tip over. The Cabbage and I spent a good ten minutes just sitting in those chairs and rolling around. Then I got lost in Force and Motion and when I came out, I found Michael and the Cabbage talking to a woman in the Spark!Lab. Michael was helping the Cabbage write on a piece of paper. I heard the woman ask the Cabbage "Who is your favorite scientist?" Then I heard the Cabbage reply "Cindy!"

I'm sure the woman in the Spark!Lab was expecting to hear something like Einstein or Curie. She definitely was not expecting a "Cindy!" I mean, I'm not really a famous scientist (I just play one on TV) and of course I was totally flattered. The Cabbage has asked me about my job many times and has said that she too wants to be a scientist one day. So I was not all that surprised or humbled to hear that I am her favorite scientist. I'm the only scientist she knows. Suddenly the responsibility of being the only scientist she knows becomes a boa constrictor tightening around my ribcage. I have instant doubts. I don't know why, but I don't see myself as really a scientist. I hardly ever wear a lab coat and I have a hard time explaining to people what I do exactly. Mumble mumble microscopes seems to be my most frequent answer to what it is that I do. 

Though it is really sweet, especially since the Cabbage and I had a rough summer where we didn't really get along all that well. She went through a "I want my mom and dad to live in the same house" phase, even though she was too young to even remember the time they all did live in the same house. Any way, she's over that for now and into bugs. I'm over it too and trying to think of ways to be better at being that scientist role model. It's not as easy as being an accidental tourist. 

CAMP SCIENCEHIPPYCOMMUNE

Cindy Maddera

I'm sitting on my little twin sized bed in my shared room inside a cabin that holds three other rooms. The talks this morning are all mRNA and transcription, a topic that makes my eyes glaze over. I took this morning off. I walked all the way down to the beach where I saw a dozen different kinds of birds and a washed up horseshoe crab. The wind was cold coming off the water and when I finally made my way back inside, my cheeks were a rosy pink. This is my last day of the conference and it has been a surprising experience. My brain is full of new science stuff, so full in fact that I think some of it is leaking out my ears. 

I don't talk about work here. It's pretty much one of the first rules of blogging to never talk about work. Today, though, I think I'm going to break that rule just a tiny bit. In the last year, my job has changed in a good way and I didn't even realize that I needed that change. When I finished graduate school with my masters degree, I was at a loss of what to do next. I knew that I was done with school and that a PhD was not my future, but I had no idea what I was going to do. I took a job in a sequencing facility and did factory science for a couple of years. I found the job to be tedious. There was no creativity required, just skillful pipetting and I started looking for other options. That's when I met Margaret and Philip and I went to work in Margaret's lab. I spent the next nine years playing. My work challenged me and fostered creativity and a passion for science that had been squashed, really since graduate school.  

Things changed after I left Margaret's lab. I lost the creativity and passion and work just became a job, a way to pay the bills. Even the new fancy pants job lacked the creativity and passion I had had before. But then this last year, our department was restructured and I went from just doing a job to doing work that once again challenged me and fostered creativity and passion. I didn't even realize those things had been missing from my current job until I attended this conference this week. I have learned so much and have been so inspired. Of course the setting for the conference helps too. It's basically a scientist commune with cabins and a garden. It's a place where scientists can bring their families for the summer. There are these black and white pictures dotting the walls of the bar depicting BBQs with James Watson manning the grill and a framed display of bar napkins full of scientific doodles. Margaret told me this place is rich with history and I long to hear stories of Summer's past.

You should imagine me at age eight when science was becoming a thing for me. It was 1983 and we sent Sally Ride, the first American woman, into space. My dress up game was an over sized white shirt that became a lab coat and I studied grass and rocks with a magnifying glass. Everything science was so exciting, so fascinating. I stood in awe of the discoveries. Cindy age eight has never really gone away. That fascinated excited girl still exists, she's just been sleeping for the last few years. I went to this conference not knowing what to expect or even if I was smart enough to be there. The last thing I expected was to see eight year old Cindy again, but that's what happened. I went all the way to a science conference in New York to wake up an eight year old Cindy. Long way to go for a wake up call? Maybe, but totally worth it.