Some comments after the Interscience symposium

On Thursday and Friday I was lucky enough to attend the Interscience symposium held at the University of Vienna and hosted by the Vienna Doctoral Schools. The idea was partly to show off the new doctoral schools that were supposed to join students together and partly to encourage interdisciplinary communication. There were four invited speakers with the rest being PhD students from the fields of maths, physics, biology and psychology.

Overall, it was a great experience and I got to see things that I ordinarily would not. I can’t say I followed everything (especially the maths) but many of the speakers were nice and clear and I got a better understanding of many different topics. I probably should’ve taken notes during the talks but I do remember two things that came up which I do want to mention.

First, one of the speakers was giving an idea of the sense of scale of various objects and mentioned the size of a “virus cell.” Viruses are not/do not have cells. They exist as viral particles or virions which are small protein structures that surround their genetic material. Those particles can then infect host cells which the virus uses to reproduce. As I recall, it was a physicist that made that mistake so it’s easily forgivable.

The next problem was slightly less forgivable as the speaker was an assistant professor although it is also so widespread a mistake that many accept the error as not being an error. The problem was that she displayed this as the symbol for medicine.

170px-Caduceus.svgThat symbol is called the Caduceus and, despite what you may think, it is not the symbol for medicine. It is the staff of the messenger god Hermes and represents thieves, merchants and messengers. The correct symbol for medicine is the Rod of Asclepius; a plain staff with just a single snake curled around it.

Most professional medical associations do use the correct symbol with the incorrect one seeming to have originated due to a mistake made by the US army in the early 1900’s. Unfortunately, UCT”s Faculty of Health Sciences used the incorrect symbol on their centenary tie (which I have) and that’s just a little sad. You can read about the two symbols in more detail in this article in the Journal of Pharmacy & BioAllied Sciences or this blog post by Dr Keith Blayney.


Sci-Hub is necessary but it is not a solution

There is a large and important debate in the scientific community at the moment which concerns access to research publications. Currently, a large amount of research is only available if a researcher or institution is willing to pay, often exorbitant fees, to access it. The debate has focussed on many issues, such as whether it is right for publishers to profit off research that is funded by the public when the researchers receive nothing or how a combination of high costs and funding limitations further the research gap between developed and developing countries.

There is increasing pressure, for example by the European Union and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to move to something known as open access, where authors pay a publication fees but where the research is then freely available to everyone. One player that often comes up in these discussions is Sci-Hub. Continue reading

Profit > Humanity?

This is a bit of a weird post because, in one sense, I’m actually criticising a journal publisher for making articles open access but, the bigger point, is that it is for a limited time and reveals a very troubling mindset. First, let’s talk about what sparked this. Scientific publisher Springer Nature is currently holding its Change the World event. It’s chosen about 180 of the best scientific articles it published in 2016 and is making them available for free. That’s great! But… at the end of this month, those articles will no longer be free unless they were originally published as open access articles.

I am using Change the World as an example but what I’m going to say here applies to all scientists that promise to improve people’s lives then publish behind a paywall. Springer Nature is framing its event as being a huge benefit to the world. I trust science, I’m sure that what is in those papers really can make a difference to the world. But lets just assume we really believe it when they say: Continue reading

Isolation of Ustilago bromivora strains

I published a new article in Bio-Protocol this week describing how to isolate strains of Ustilago bromivora from the spore material that forms on infected plants. It’s certainly not all my work; the protocol is a modification of a published protocol and has been worked on by many people in the Djamei lab, as indicated in the acknowledgements. I just happened to be the one who chose to write it up.

After the publication of our previous paper on the U. bromivora/Brachypodium pathosystem, we were approached by Bio-Protocol to publish certain protocols in full in their journal. You would think that people would be eager. It’s a lab protocol and writing it up takes very little work yet you get an article published. I was the only one that expressed an interest in writing this up. I imagine it’s because it’s not a “sexy” paper but that mindset neglects something very important. Science is not just about findings; it’s a way of discovering how the world works which can be applied to any situation. At the foundation of that is the idea of sharing one’s methods so that, at least in principle, anyone with sufficient skill can repeat what you have done. Continue reading

Was the Red Cross poster racist?


The Red Cross swimming safety poster.

People are very quick to make judgements, especially in our current society which seems to favour outrage as a response. This happens especially quickly when it comes to topics like sexism, racism and so on. These are all real problems which affect many people but we must be wary about jumping to conclusions without sufficient evidence.

There is an article in Slate magazine which talks about the Red Cross and racism. The starting point of that discussion was a 2014 safety campaign poster which was pulled last year for being “super-racist.” It earned that dubious distinction because:

A “cool” blonde girl waits her turn by the diving board, for example, and a “cool” fair-skinned dad minds his small child. The vast majority of the “not cool” rule breakers, meanwhile, have brown skin: One boy runs through a puddle, another dives too close to a swimmer, and a little black girl pushes a white girl into the pool.

Continue reading

Ignorance Trumps science

One of the most frustrating things about hearing news about Donald Trump is the complete disconnect between the fantasy world in his head and the real world that we all live in. Most of the time, people like that are ridiculous but can be, more or less, ignored. With Trump it’s different because what he does has a large amount of influence.

Given what we know about climate change and the stakes, it’s extremely depressing to see Trump pulling the US out of the Paris climate change agreement, especially when all his reasons to do so seem to be nonsense. He is basically flying against all the climate science that we have and upsetting most of researchers in the process. Continue reading

Weird science

I get the contents from a number of journals emailed to me and I then browse through to see if there’s anything interesting or relevant to me. Some might wonder why I do it that way when there are services which will send you only articles that fit specific key words. Simply put, my interests are much broader than just what I am working on and, this way, I can find things that I would otherwise miss.

For example, I would’ve missed seeing this abstract for research showing that people with lower back pain are more likely to have lower back pain later than people who didn’t have previous back pain. It’s about as surprising as a prediction that the sun will rise tomorrow. However, it was nothing compared to the weirdness I found this week.

An intravaginal ring for real-time evaluation of adherence to therapy

Now that’s a weird title! Continue reading