Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Falmouth Road Race


Many calories were burned in Woods Hole/Falmouth this morning. Around 10,000 people (so the rumors say) ran today in the 37th annual Falmouth Road Race. Since the race path runs right near our Oyster Pond Home, a number of Summer Student Fellows and Joint Program Students traveled down to Surf Drive to watch the runners.

The man in first place (below), who I’m sure ended up winning, had a good 30-second lead on the second pack.

There were very serious runners…

Some not so serious runners…

Some really young runners…

And then there were these guys….

The Falmouth Road Race is a huge event and draws people to the area from all over the world--last year the winner was a gentleman from Ethiopia and the ladies winner was from Kenya. Last summer I was out of town for the madness and I’m happy that I got to see it this year!


Saturday, August 1, 2009

Who is the scientist?


I am currently sitting at a picnic table, basking in the sun behind the Redfield lab building. It is a gorgeous day!

Today’s entry is about a lecture I attended yesterday afternoon as part of the 2009 Woods Hole Diversity Celebration. Dr. Steven Shapin (pictured below), the Franklin L. Ford Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University, delivered a talk entitled “Who is the scientist?” His aim was to explore the role of scientists in today’s industry-driven, “professionalized” research climate.
I was a little disappointed by the low turnout of students—I for one was eager to get a historical and sociological perspective on the evolving role of scientists in society and the perception of science by the public, but I suppose that Friday afternoon isn’t the best time to draw students to a history/sociology talk.

Dr. Shapin covered a wide range of topics, from the intelligent design/evolution debate to the transition of science from an avocation to a vocation. As I listened to the lecture, I couldn’t help but boil some of Dr. Shapin’s diverse talking points to a few main ideas: (1) an over-involvement of scientists in politics or a take-over of policy-making by scientists would diminish the structural integrity of a political system, (2) an over-involvement of politics in science (ie too much state-dictated research) would de-legitimize or taint scientific research, and (3) there is a historical need to distance scientific research from traditional social ideas about morality.

He spoke about the naturalist fallacy that equates what is natural with what is good and the lessons we can learn from atomic scientists like Richard Feynman who worked on the Manhattan Project.

Slipping casually and comically into British, German, and the occasional Sarah Palin accents, Dr. Shapin discussed the tenuous link between morality and science. He seemed to imply that it is important for science to be extricated from morals or that it was historically important for scientists to focus not on the social ethics or even necessarily the implications of their work but simply on the work and the “truth” behind scientific discovery.

As part of the generation that is confronted with climate change, decreasing biodiversity, habitat destruction, and environmental turmoil, I consider linking science WITH policy a moral imperative, especially when it comes to environmental policy and conservation science.

I realize that my ideal scenario is far from current reality and that there are, as Dr. Shapin highlighted, problems in a marriage between science and policy. The major take-away message for me, then, is that you cannot make a blanket statement about “science” as it pertains to policy or to ethics. There is an inherent difference between situations in which the involvement of science in policy leads to a negative result (as I believe it did with the atomic bomb) and when the involvement of science in policy leads to a positive result (as I believe it will with climate change and conservation).

For my generation, and for scientists who work on environmentally important research, true integration of science into policy is essential for a successful conservation effort. We will just have to face and work through the proposed sociological problems with that fact.

I really enjoyed this lecture and would encourage everyone to ponder the role of science in society and think about their own perceptions of science and politics. Dr. Shapin also has a few books out that I am considering tracking down at the local public library.

Enjoy the lovely weekend everyone!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A Diversion


Sometimes lab work requires a lot of waiting. Usually it’s a good idea to use that down time to read papers, or go through data (when you have data to go through). Sometimes I like to clean up the lab or do some minor lab tasks like sterilizing pipette tips or replenishing supplies.

But what can sometimes be more important than any of those responsible activities, especially when not everything has been going well, is to leave the lab. Just leave for a couple of hours. Divert yourself and then return later. That’s what I did today.

Summer Fellows at WHOI live in row house apartments that are conveniently located between Woods Hole and Falmouth (picture below). We have easy access to the Shining Sea Bike Path and when it’s not raining, I commute to work on my bike.

We live right near Oyster Pond, one of the Cape’s ubiquitous ponds that lend themselves to scenic walks and expensive property. We’re lucky to live near this particular pond because on it’s shore is a beautifully landscaped garden called the Spohr Gardens.

When I got home from the lab, I jogged down to the gardens with my camera and took a few pictures. Note that I don’t really jog, but I thought it would be a good change of pace.

Tonight, it’s back into the village for a bit of work at the library.


Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Or shall I call you doctor?


Kate’s Defense

Finishing a degree is both a joyous and possibly stressful occasion. This summer, after 6 years of hard work and determination, Kate Buckman, the PhD student in my lab, completed her doctoral work. Yesterday, she gave her public talk and closed-door defense. The public presentation lasted about 45 minutes and was followed by questions. Then there was the scary part (or at least I imagine it was scary for Kate)…

When you complete a PhD, you have a committee of specialists who are meant to keep you and your work on track. When you defend your thesis, you are holed up in a conference room with your committee and they essentially grill you on details about methods and results until they are satisfied that you (a) are 100% comfortable with and confident in the work you’ve done and (b) can stand up to rigorous peer review in the scientific world. After many questions and intense discussion, you leave the room and the committee “deliberates.”

When Kate’s committee was deliberating, we sat around the lab distracting her with mindless internet surfing. (picture below)

When eventually called back into the room, the PhD committee gives you a list of revisions and possibly another list of things they think you still need to complete, including lab assays or statistical analysis. Rarely are the revisions extensive and almost always, the student leaves with the knowledge that he/she has completed the rigors of life as a PhD student.

Kate’s talk was awesome and her closed defense session went really well (I wasn’t there, clearly, but I heard great things)! Now I get to call her “Doc” whenever I ask her questions. =) After the successful presentation and defense, we held a lovely reception for Kate in the lobby of our lab building. Dr. Tim Shank, our adviser, gave a lovely toast to Kate and everyone enjoyed a bit of champagne.

Future Directions

Being present for Kate’s defense really got me thinking about what course I want to take now that I’m navigating the post-college waters. As I think I’ve said before, I am ultimately interested in being involved in marine conservation policy. I am extremely intrigued by the interaction of science and policy and want to find a niche working to bring policy makers and scientists together on common ground.

There are several ways I think someone could end up working to accomplish that goal including any number of policy or science masters degrees, PhD programs, and law school options. The possibilities abound. I have to say, though, it’s pretty inspiring to see people like Kate come out of the Joint Program with many years of hard work and a lot to show for it! Hmmm… Dr. Eleanor Bors has a pretty nice ring to it…

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Did you know that… (Part One)

…there are large gaps between what scientists think and what the public believes?

My mother recently e-mailed me a NY Times article that highlighted differences in views held by most of the science community and views held by most Americans. You can read the article online at

The article reports results of a recent survey that investigated public perception of important scientific issues. Interestingly, “the proportion [of Americans] who name scientific advances as among the United States’ most important achievements has fallen to 27 percent from nearly 50 percent in 1999, the survey found.” Is the US lagging in science or is there a misconception on the part of the public about what we do and accomplish?

I wonder how much governmental respect, or disrespect, for science affects public opinion. For example, cuts in funding and open disregard for scientific advice by policy makers likely gives the impression that science isn’t that important. What is the relationship between science and politics, and how does the political climate affect public perception of science? While answers are rarely straightforward or obvious, we should all ponder such questions.

In addition to the declining opinion of scientific achievement, the article mentions that many people don't believe scientist's assertions about evolution and climate change. As a biologist, it is hard to consider evolution and climate change as things in which you can chose not to believe. That being said, I think differences in opinion about such topics bring up the really important issue of how science should be treated in education.

What we learn in school can really affect our opinions when we enter society. If the general public were more well versed in science, they would be more inclined to dig deeper into issues of evolution and climate change and might research such issues on their own, coming to more informed conclusions.

According to the NY Times article, “the report said 85 percent of science association members surveyed said public ignorance of science was a major problem. And by large margins they deride as only “fair” or “poor” the coverage of science by newspapers and television. Only 3 percent of the scientists said they “often” spoke to reporters.”

To be sure, the news fixates on sensational stories: explosions, car chases, murders, sad stories about neglected dogs, women who birth 8 children in one go. Okay, those things can be important, but why is science so infrequently in the news?

Why is a 1-hour special focused on a possible pickle-pricing scam at the local supermarket more important for the average American to read/hear/see than a story about climate change, coral reef decline, or deforestation?

The simple truth is that people don’t think science is pertinent to their everyday lives. They don’t think that environmental issues affect them nearly as much as the local pickle-pricing scandal. And while I contend that drinking clean water, breathing clean air, and preserving global ecosystems is MORE important than what is usually on the news, the onus is on us to convince people that they need to pay attention.

We could blame the public for not being interested in our science, but ultimately it’s our job to make them listen, right?

There are two sides of every coin.


Wednesday, July 15, 2009



I’m working on a longer entry to be posted soon about communicating science to the press and to the public. It’ll focus on the discrepancies between beliefs held by the science and the non-science communities. In the meantime, however, I am going to cave in under some pressure from my friends to do a follow-up on the 4th of July, the Barn Olympics, and some other goings-on around WHOI.

Fourth of July Parade

Woods Hole has a 4th of July parade every year. Most of the participants, I’m led to believe, are form the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), which is down the street from my Lab (Redfield Laboratory). The parade route goes right through the heart of the village (see aerial view of the village below, from

This year, many of the parade groups featured depictions of marine animals (see the jellyfish and the blue lobster below)…

…while others focused on smaller biological agents, like viruses (below is an image of the virus group).

Barn Olympics

In one of my previous entries I told you about the Barn Olympics, but I never told you how they went. For those of you just joining us, the Barn Olympics is a day-long, fun-filled event that is organized by Joint Program graduate students at WHOI.

This year, many grad students and summer student fellows partook in the activities, which included a photo scavenger hunt. Our team did okay in the rankings (we weren’t last) and we had a blast! I’ll share with you some of our scavenger hunt picture.

Below you’ll see my team—“the interweb”—each with a different species of flower.

Some of the more interesting tasks included interacting with tourists. Here’s our very own Sam with a tourist family in Woods Hole:

Fish for Everyone!

One of the summer student fellows is an avid fisherman. He fishes more than anyone I have ever met in my life (and my dad’s side of the family is from Alaska, so that’s really saying something)! The quality of his fishing experiences seems to match the quantity because last week he brought home part of a 100-something pound bluefin tuna caught up in Cape Cod Bay.

This, of course, meant sushi for everyone last Friday night when the boys dorm hosted a surf ‘n turf dinner party!

On Saturday, I was lucky enough to join fisherman Willy on the WHOI dock for a little bit of relaxed, casual fishing. I caught a very small sea bass (picture of me brimming with excitement below). We threw everything back that we caught.

Fishing was fun, but our trip to the dock was sweetened when I made a couple of new friends: the autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) ABE and Sentry! They are both WHOI submersibles and I’d never seen either vehicle in person. I took the opportunity to snap a picture of ABE:

Until next time,

Friday, July 10, 2009

Ethics in Science


Yesterday the summer students gathered in the Clark building (above) for a workshop about ethics in science. While I think many went into the 3+ hour meeting emanating what might be called less than positive vibes—or at least mild skepticism—everyone I’ve talked to came out of it feeling more conscientious about ethical issues in science and happy that we’d spent that time discussing such issues.

We talked about intellectual contribution, teamwork in a lab, authorship on scientific papers, presenting data in an accurate and transparent way, the role of the lab adviser in overseeing his/her students’ work, the responsibility of scientists to the greater community, conflicts of interest, secrecy surrounding lab techniques and results, and many other topics.

The workshop focused on a series of scenarios, or case studies that presented situations in which there was ethical grey-area. Often, people would have an immediate visceral reaction to each scenario—“Sandra shouldn’t have gone behind her colleague’s back,” or “Bill shouldn’t have told John about his friend’s research,” etc.—but through group discussion everyone noticed nuances about each scenario that often changed initial impressions about the ethical issues involved.

For me, the most interesting question that arose was about authorship on papers and what it means to make a “significant intellectual contribution” on a piece of scholarship.

Science today is rooted in cooperation. Interdisciplinary teams are able to answer more complex questions more thoroughly and accurately. But the involvement of more and more people on a research paper can raise serious issues about who contributes what and how everyone should get credit where credit is due.

Issues highlighted at the workshop spurred further discussion between students later in the day that will hopefully continue throughout the rest of the summer.