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Scientists: Stay Quiet or Speak Up?

Scientists should not be ‘advocates’ or ‘activists’.

I’ve heard this argument over and over in the last couple of years, and more strongly since the elections and recent organization of the March for Science scheduled for April 22, 2017.

The discussion first came to my awareness back in January 2015, when I attended an Association for Women in Science (AWIS) panel called “Social Media and Activism in Science”.  The general feeling was that if you wanted to speak up, be careful about what you say. I was particularly inspired by Kathy Barker, author of At the Bench and At the Helm. She is an advocate for scientists being advocates.

During my 2016 summer graduate ethics course, we discussed that scientists, if they advocate or speak outside their scientific field, should make sure they explicitly state they are wearing different hats and sharing their opinions as “informed citizens”.

The conversation came up again in October during a panel at the inaugural celebration of California Leatherback Day hosted by NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center. One speaker adamantly stated that  scientists should not be advocates in any way to which one audience member publicly disagreed bringing up the point that scientists are the most informed and should be able to speak about what they know.

Then again, as tensions continued to stir amongst the scientific community with the new presidential administration disregard for science  (TimeThe Washington Post, The New York TimesThe GuardianScientific American, Snopes), scientists banded together to organize a march much like the Women’s March on Washington.

“The mischaracterization of science as a partisan issue, which has given policymakers permission to reject overwhelming evidence, is a critical and urgent matter. It is time for people who support scientific research and evidence-based policies to take a public stand and be counted.” ~March for Science 

I watched as my science friends circulated news of the march over Facebook.  Some shared confidently, others apprehensively. The reactions ranged, airing a plethora of concerns: from “A march will mischaracterize science”, “It will make science a political protest”, “A march will undermine [scientists] credibility”, to “Its a great thing”, “Shows solidarity”, “This will encourage the scientific community to publicly rally together”, “Science cannot be silenced”. Robert Young of the New York Times even wrote a widely circulated piece on why the march is a bad idea voicing his concerns and alternate suggestions for what scientists can do in the community.  In a Science article, Jeffrey Mervis shared Some Unsolicited Advice to the science march planners.

The whole time, I kept wondering: Why not? Why shouldn’t scientists speak up? And more importantly, I thought: WHO wants us to be silent? Our colleagues, the public, policy makers?

As a young researcher, with no credibility yet gained, figuring out how best to proceed on this facet of my career is a high priority for me.

In my reading of the freely available document On Being a Scientist: A Guide to Responsible Conduct in Research, I hadn’t come across any mention to keep quiet. On the contrary, the guide addresses this issue in the section titled, The Researcher in Society (see page 48; for copyright reasons I cannot reprint any text without charge, and since I’m a poor grad student, I’ll just paraphrase.).  Scientists have a responsibility to share their knowledge with society. Researchers CAN assume different roles in public discussions and provide expert opinion and advice; they have a right to express their views and to work for social change. The guide even acknowledges the concern that colleagues and members of the public may perceive scientists-gone-advocate as a biased individual, but this perception should not come at the expense of objectivity in the scientist’s work.

In my opinion, scientists have devoted their lives to studying certain issues in their field. Their ideas are scrutinized by peer-review and the scientific collective. As professionals and the most “informed citizens” on the issue, aren’t they the best group of people TO be speaking up about what they know?

This might also strike a chord with me personally because I am a naturally shy person. Speaking up has been something I’ve worked on since the awkward stage of middle school.  It’s also reminiscent of the time when I was learning to speak French and we were told the French are very particular about their language and do not like it butchered. The first time I ever traveled to France I was so paranoid I would mess up the accent that I didn’t speak for the first couple of days. Then I realized, many travelers were visiting France doing their best to communicate, botching the language left and right, and guess what? No one died, no one got beat up, people were talking! So I started talking too.  I had fun interacting with Francophones, and I got better at it over time. As an adult, the idea of “someone” now saying I should be quiet on certain issues, to not ruffle feathers, for fear of being misinterpreted, actually feels like a threat to my own growth as a communicative human. The more we take opportunitites to practice sharing our ideas with a general audience, the better we will get at it over time.

Going back to the issue of scientists being ‘advocates’ if they speak up, I finally gained clarity on where I stand on the matter after hearing speakers at two public events:

On February 18th 2017, the Union of Concerned Scientists held a panel at the AAAS – The American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting titled Defending Science and Scientific Integrity in the Age of Trump. The general consensus was that we should come together, stand up and speak up.

And most recently, I attended a very insightful public lecture by Naomi Oreskes on March 14th, 2017. The Scripps Institution of Oceanography Master of Advanced Studies in Climate Science and Policy (MAS-CSP) program  invited her to speak on “The Scientist as a Sentinel”.

Dr. Oreskes speaking at TED (Image credit: TED)

Naomi Oreskes is a historian of science, a Professor of the History of Science and Affiliated Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard University. She is also well known for co-authoring Merchants of Doubt,  a book that was required reading during our summer course.

I was excited to hear in person her elaboration of the invitation teaser:

“Scientists are often reluctant to speak in public on contested issues, for fear that this will “politicize” their science and have a negative impact on their credibility. During the lecture, Dr. Oreskes will examine these concerns by exploring historical examples of scientists who have spoken up on scientific issues of broad importance, including nuclear weaponry, ozone depletion, and climate change.”

The talk was solidifying for me. The biggest take-away I jotted down addressed the following:

“Scientists will lose credibility. If we speak up we’ll be viewed as activists or advocates.” 

She reminded us that this is not a modern issue.

Scientists throughout history have dealt with their work being silenced and the need to speak out. Traditional thought has held that ‘facts speak for themselves’. If scientists just put the facts out there, all will be good.

But the catch is, they don’t. #AlternativeFacts

As a historian, Dr. Oreskes looked at many individuals who were well respected in science, and who became strong public figures.  In no historical cases did speaking out undermine their credibility, and no nobel prizes were revoked. In fact, she deduced that scientists weren’t targets because they spoke out. They became targets because of the great implications of the work they were doing (theory of evolution, nuclear weaponry, ozone hole depletion, atmospheric CO2, etc.), which then drew them to speak publicly exactly because their work was being attacked.

Instead of two extremes: keeping quiet, or being so outspoken you get arrested, she argued for a Responsible Scientists Ideal, urging that we as knowledgable professionals have an obligation to speak up and advocate for specific policies that control matters which threaten human health and life on this planet.

And while we cannot specifically answer questions outside of our field of expertise, we can forge collaborations with experts who are able to address policy, economic, and social questions.  She encouraged us that it is OK to do some extra homework and look into what experts of those fields are saying; to offer some potential solutions to our human-caused problems. If we come across situations where facts are totally disregarded, like with the denial of climate change, we can flip the argument and instead talk about values. About losing freedoms, fairness, accountability, realism, leadership in advanced technology, and good ole hard work.

I want to echo what Naomi shared with us:

The facts don’t speak for themselves. Someone has to speak up for them…and that is us, [the scientific community].

I would love to know what discussions you’ve had about this topic and how you’ve approached the argument ‘To speak, or not to speak’.

Update: On April 11, 2017, Nature released an article in support of the March for Science. Read that article here.



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Seeing the world in 360 degrees – Nikon KeyMission360

A friend lent me his Nikon KeyMission360 camera, so I thought I’d test it out on a recreation dive at La Jolla Shores, San Diego, California. Unfortunately with the underwater lenses the black band cuts the frame. Maybe one of these days the viz will clear and I can get better footage! The plan is to figure out how to use a camera like this so I can film us working underwater during a scientific dive!

Beach entry at La Jolla Shores

Surface swim

Exploring the canyon

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Illegal Science Pirates are Under Lawsuit

(*Attention – update: April 28, 2016 2pm publication by Science, a must read article on this issue)

Have you heard of Sci-Hub? Its a site which prides itself on being “the first pirate website in the world to provide mass and public access to tens of millions of research papers”.

It was established in 2011 by neuroscientist Alexandra Elbakyan, a researcher native to Kazakhstan and now living in Russia. She has made more than 48 million research papers freely available online.

“A research paper is a special publication written by scientists to be read by other researchers. Papers are primary sources necessary for research – for example, they contain detailed description of new results and experiments.” – Sci-Hub

Sounds like something all researchers should have access to, right? The truth is, the widest possible distribution of research papers to scientists is heavily restricted by copyright laws.


It is well known in the scientific community that students and researchers have been helping each other to download literature that stands behind these paywalls of publishing companies. Without that exchange, gaining knowledge from the published scientific community, which could help those doing basic research, can be very frustrating.

The catch: Elbakyan with Sci-Hub doesn’t own the copyrights to these articles; the publishers do. Therefore, spreading this knowledge is illegal. One of the world’s largest publishers, Elsevier, has filed lawsuit and on 28 October 2015 New York district court ordered that the site be shut down.

Alexandra is fighting back.

“My goal is not only to make the website run indefinitely, but also to make its operation perfectly legal.” Alexandra says in her interview with Vox Science & Health.

This has sparked much discussion in the community.

New York district judge Robert Sweet argued that “Elbakyan’s solution to the problems she identifies, simply making copyrighted content available for free via a foreign website, disserves the public interest.”

Fiona MacDonald with Science Alert reminds us that “journal publishers have also done a whole lot of good – they’ve encouraged better research thanks to peer review, and before the Internet, they were crucial to the dissemination of knowledge.”

However, for years now, over 15,700 Researchers have protested against Elsevier’s business practices.

Alexandra points out “All papers on their website are written by researchers, and researchers do not receive money from what Elsevier collects. That is very different from the music or movie industry, where creators receive money from each copy sold,”

“Scientific publishers are finding themselves in the same spot that record companies faced a few years ago,” lawyer Toby Butterfield says. “It was only when iTunes and other services made it swift, easy and cheap to buy individual songs that people began turning away from infringement to get their music. So publishers, like record companies before them, have little choice but to get redress from blatant infringes in whatever ways the courts will allow.”

It’ll be interesting to see how this lawsuit turns out.  Stay tuned…

Relevant Links

Science Alert – Researcher illegally shares millions of science papers free online to spread knowledge

Interview with Alexandra on Vox

Nature – Pirate research-paper sites play hide-and-seek with publishers


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Implicit Gender Biases Creeping Around the Undergrad Classroom

On February 11, 2016 Deborah Bach, with the University of Washington’s UW Today, reported on a recent study (published February 10, 2016) done by University of Washington researchers. Headline read:

Male biology students consistently underestimate female peers, study finds

This article discusses what University of Washington researchers found when they looked at gender bias of ~1,700 males and females who enroll equally in biology courses at the undergraduate level.

“Previous research has focused on gender biases among faculty in STEM disciplines, but less is known about how current college students perceive women in STEM and how their views might impact female students.” -Deborah Bach states.

What do implicit biases mean for the future of young women in STEM?

Read more about the study on UW Today or read the original publication  at PLOS ONE.


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Two Women Devoted to Conservation – Top Finalists for $250,000 Indianapolis Prize

Big congratulations to all six finalists of the 2016 Indianapolis Prize – the world’s leading award for animal conservation.

  • Joel Berger, Ph.D.: Wildlife Conservation Society, Colorado State University
  • Dee Boersma, Ph.D.: University of Washington, Department of Biology
  • Rodney Jackson, Ph.D.: Snow Leopard Conservancy
  • Carl Jones, Ph.D.: Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, Mauritian Wildlife Foundation
  • Carl Safina, Ph.D.: The Safina Center at Stony Brook University
  • Amanda Vincent, Ph.D.: Project Seahorse, The University of British Columbia

“Our world is unquestionably better off because of these heroes and we hope others will not only take notice of, but also join in their noble work to save wild things and wild places.” – Michael Crowther, president CEO of the Indianapolis Zoological Society.

Special Shout Out

In keeping with Woman Scientist themes, we want to give a special shout out to the two women scientists who are in the top six finalists: Amanda Vincent  and Dee Boersma.

amanda vincent

Amanda Vincent (University of British Columbia) was the first person to study seahorses underwater and started Project Seahorse to bolster conservation of these rare fish. She has also received support from National Geographic. Be sure to look through the photos, videos, and blog posts for more fascinating information about this woman’s career and research projects.

Dr Boersma

P. Dee Boersma (University of Washington) has documented the impacts of climate change on penguins and successfully stopped oil tanker lanes through penguin colonies. She has also received support from National Geographic. Read more about her career in the UW News.

Prize Award

Twenty-eight conservationists were nominated for this year’s prize and join the ranks of recognized conservationists making strides to save species. ​ Six conservationists made it into the finals. To see the finalists from prior years since 2006 click the side tab year links.

From 2006 through 2012, winners of the Prize received an unrestricted cash award of US$100,000, which was increased to US$250,000 for 2014 and subsequent years. This is the largest international monetary prize given to an individual for the conservation of animal species – sponsored by the Eli Lilly and Company Foundation.  Beginning in 2014, five other finalists each received a US$10,000 unrestricted cash award.

The presenting of the Indianapolis Prize and the Lilly Medal will take place during the biennial Indianapolis Prize Gala hosted by Cummins Inc. where the winner and finalists will be honored for their selfless dedication, scientific expertise and lasting success.

Previous Recipients

Thank you to all the dedicated conservationists out there who spend their lives saving the Earth’s endangered animal species!

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Women in Science Summit 2016 Recap

On January 28th, 2016 a one-day Women in Science Summit 2016 event was hosted by Dr. Heather Tallis, The Nature Conservancy’s acting chief scientist, Dr. Meg Lowman, chief of science and sustainability at the California Academy of Sciences, and Dr. Rita Mehta, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz.

Speakers included: Jane Goodall (Gombe Reserve), Sylvia Earle (National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence), Dawn Wright (ESRI), Pam Matson (Stanford University), Jane Lubchenco (former head of NOAA), Kathy Sullivan (the first woman to walk in space) and others.

The day was filled with 8 hours of discussions and panels between women (and some men!) in various fields at various stages in their careers. Thankfully the entire event was archived for our leisurely viewing pleasure.

If you didn’t get a chance to listen to this event live or archived,  I wanted to share the tidbits that I took away from each session.  Please feel free to skim through my bullet notes. They’re here for you!

Tidbits of Wisdom I Took Away From This Event:

  • Just because you take time off between undergrad and graduate school to make money does not mean you’re not a serious scientist. -Sue Rossner (6:05:20)
  • “I spend time thinking about how to be a better mentor than who can I find to mentor me.  Its important to recognize that at different stages in our lives we need different kinds of mentors.”  -Liz Hadly (3:50:36)
  • Remember, it’s important to share our struggles so we can learn from each other. You never know where you’re going to find allies and when you do, lean on them for support when you’re feeling challenged.
  • Make it a part of who you are to always ask questions and don’t be discouraged by those who say you’re “too this” or “too that”. Don’t listen to people who say you can’t do something. We are the beneficiaries of all that has been accomplished by those who came before. -Sylvia Earle (4:52:03)
  • When shaping this planet’s future, strive for excellence! And remember, there can be more than one way to do that! -Kathy Sullivan (4:49:00)
  • Time has its limits but hopefully our energy from love for what we are doing is unbounded. Learn to manage your energy. -Dawn Wright (7:07:07)
  • Unconscious biases. We all have them. Try to become aware of yours. And then speak up about them! This isn’t just about men vs women in the field of science. Men and women are not separate species. We are all individuals with personalities and biases, the more we can have open discussion and educate each other into embracing diversity, the better.
  •  The bullies that exist are just a handful and they get away with it because we aren’t looking at the ideals of science, instead we are using organizational shortcuts to get certain places.We need to challenge the legacy of social constrictive beliefs. We need to articulate and keep approaches that work and toss out things that get in the way. -Carol Muller (4:04:11)
  • Young scientists need opportunitites to build self-confidence. Young women and young men need to believe in themselves. The best way to do that is to gain experiences. Building experiences builds the confidence needed to override hesitancy. – DC Randle & Rodolfo Dirzo
  • Recognize the importance of putting yourself in positions where you look like a leader. Ann Russell shared a revelation she had while working in the field of Oceanography. Typically, in this field the men were shown in leadership positions. The person driving the boat was in charge, the captain, the leader. A man. Sure, women were doing science, but they were not depicted as leaders. Then one day it dawned on her: If leaders were the ones driving the boat, then all one has to do is learn to drive the boat! Despite this being a scary undertaking, she persevered and gained this skill. It was at that moment she  recognized the importance of looking like a leader.
  • Jane Goodall had a very supportive mother who allowed her to follow the career she did. Her mother told her, “You’ll have to work hard, take advantage of opportunities and never give up.” So Jane’s advice to us follows (44:29):
    • 1) Don’t jump into any career unless you’re really truly sure its what you want to do.
    • 2) Don’t be afraid to change direction if you’ve made a mistake.
    • 3) Have the courage of your convictions. Listen to other views and think about them but if upon reflection you still think you’re right, don’t give up your own belief.
    • 4) Follow your dreams by working hard, taking advantage of opportunities and never giving up.
  • Gender is not just male or female, there is a whole spectrum. If we continue to be courageous and diversify, positive things will come out of just about every situation. -Panel Discussion about direct and indirect perceptions of gender in science (1:14:00).
  • Remember: Not every scientist is a self-promoter, so when thinking of people to publicly recognize make sure to think outside the box and include those who aren’t good at self-promoting and  who don’t get the same type of exposure to certain opportunities.
  • In an effort to  get underrepresented communities into science its sometimes more about getting the parents on board. A lot of times these parents have no experience with higher education or science and may not understand why it would be good for their kid. Reach out … talk to families of young women in underrepresented communities. -DC Randal
  • In order to make cultural change in the sciences, we need to stop evaluating excellence only through our own looking glass. We need to set new metrics and measures to evaluate excellence. -Pam Mattson (5:17:13) Panel on building institutions that are more inclusive.
  • Jane Lubchenco reminds us:
    • In an age of science and technology, stories matter. “Those who wish to create a better world will have to make storytelling a center of their efforts, not an afterthought.” -James Murdock (2:40:00) 
    • Re-envision what it means to be a scientist, and a woman in science. Choices for women in science these days are far different than back in the day.
    • Most students (undergrad/grad) are exposed almost exclusively to scientists in academia and this limits their thinking about possibilities. They need exposure to scientists in other walks of life across the spectrum.
    • “Alt-Ac” Careers are out there. Universities don’t necessarily prepare students for these alternate academic careers but that is the real world. Universities should provide better role models for students by bringing in outsiders who are not just from other universities but who are doing excellent valid science in sectors of NGO, consultants, government and federal positions, start-ups, etc.  (5:42:14)
    • What should scientists do with a PhD? There are diverse career paths. When she was in grad school the only acceptable goal was tenured professorship. Academia was the path and there was much arrogance within the academic community. Today’s success in science should not be defined as becoming a professor at a University. Leaving academia should not be seen as failure. Stop using the term “leaky pipeline”. Men and women should be able to leave without criticism.  
    • If you want to break out of academia look for resources in parallel worlds. There is a wealth of knowledge online so find people who have done something similar to what you want to do and take advantage of networking to get those skills.
    • What do we do about scientists in the pursuit of knowledge that stay in the Ivory Tower? Scientists should engage in society to know what knowledge is needed. To communicate in multiple non-traditional ways. Embrace your obligation to be in service to the global community.
    • How can you know what path is right for you? There are a lot of ways. Interact with established individuals in different worlds. Find internships. 
  • Jane’s Continuing Advice
    • 1) Don’t pigeon hole yourself, be open to new opportunities. Be entrepreneurial 
    • 2) Be creative in responding to challenges. Family is a challenge female and male professors deal with.  Don’t let your job stop you from having a family. Find support in the work place. Choose your partner wisely. Be with someone who will support you. Assist each other in your passion. It will usually be the case that life may not be equally good for the both of you. So take turns on which choices are better over the years.  
    • 3) Seek out skills beyond academic training. Leadership, communication, writing, managing, negotiating skills. These skills are not typically taught but they will enhance your competitiveness.
    • 4) Recognize smart ways to disrupt a system vs career killing ways to disrupt the system. Learn the community and the rules before you try to change them and then elevate others as you make innovative change so everyone is supportive of the new.
    • 6) Remember the saying “One hand up and one hand down”. As you reach up to climb higher, reach your hand down to assist those below.
    • 7) Learn to believe in yourself. Its OK to be different and think different and disagree with people. 
  • An Alt-Ac speaks to us! Dawn Wright (6:49:00) was an academic for 17 years and now works in industry. Read her blog post on the courage to escape academia. Escaping or re-inventing yourself is freeing.
  •  Kate Clancy (50:00) shares with us statistics on minority women participation in science. She says its so low, the National Science Foundation can’t even parse it.
    • Data for minority women who earned PhD in science and engineering still under 5% in 2010, under 6% in 2015.
    • Science and Engineering careers in academia and industry: white men (51%), white women (18%), asian men (13%), asian women (5%), “others” (other 13%).
    • # of women in color in faculty positions has decreased, even as white women in STEM increase. Women from underrepresented minorities pay the highest penalties in science.
    • Poor arguments that are out there for why this may be include 1) Women must have lower abilities, 2) Women have different work/life expectations and don’t want it as bad, 3) Science is an unwelcome environment that stops people who disrupt quid pro quo, 4) If you’re not recognized by your peers, your accomplishments are meaningless, 5) Only you can promote yourself, 6) Women who choose to have children experience a gap in publications so they fall behind, 7) Specialists get more recognition than inter-disciplinarians but women choose more interdisciplinary and collaborative projects, 8) Women aren’t putting in the time (but of course they are! In fact, of the work time they do put in, they are bogged down with more teaching and service than their male counterparts.)
    • At some point we’ve realized how people perceive competence based on gender and race and other identities. She discusses an interesting anecdote at 1:04:29: We are still catering to a man’s world. These experiences of feeling professionally undervalued and having a lack of confidence in our competence shape a woman’s career!
  • We need broader change to acknowledge importance of scientists being recognized for teaching, research, and also outreach and engagement with society. -Jane Lubchenco
  • Emily Graslie (1:40:10) is The Field Museum’s ‘Chief Curiosity Field Correspondence’ and ‘Host and Writer’ of the educational YouTube Channel called The Brain Scoop, one of the largest science channels on the internet hosted by a woman. Emily claims she was “too lazy to become a scientist” but she has a deep passion for art and science communication. Growing up she watched a lot of science educators and communicators, most of which were men. One of the biggest female role models she wanted to emulate was actually Ms. Frizzle of Magic School Bus! When reality set in that Ms. Frizzle was an animated character, she set out on a mission to put women’s faces in the media limelight. Below I’ve posted one of her most viewed episodes, “Where My Ladies At?” which talks about the lack of women in these educator/science communicator roles. Be sure to check out all her other videos! 
  • Diversify your networks. Maintain reality by having feet across a lot of boundaries and borders. Link those boundaries. Keep your feet in as many networks as possible.  -Jose Fregoso (7:41:52)


2-minute video recap:


Big thanks to California Academy of Sciences for putting on this event. Obviously there are so many more invaluable points that were discussed during this event which could have been added to this post. We look forward to Women in Science Summit 2017.

To the future!


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Young Ladies And Their Brilliant Ideas – Recent News

This month I heard about two young ladies who have created brilliant ‘why-didn’t-I-think-of-that-already‘ ideas (yes, I’m holding back envy while simultaneously full of admiration).

  • Kina McAllister used Kickstarter to developed “Stem Box”
  • Cindy Wu developed “Experiment” to be the new Kickstarter-like platform for science projects

The interesting thing is that both stories involve crowd-source funding platforms.

I wanted to share these two stories with you in hopes that they inspire YOU to feel confident about your ideas and find ways to speak up about them!

Kina McAllister and Stem Box

Photo source: http://lifeisbeautiful.com/speakers/kina-mcallister/

Kina McAllister created Stem Box – kits you can order that are filled with cool and gross science experiments. She used the crowd-source funding platform Kickstarter to raise $22,943 and funded her campaign to disseminate kits around the country with the hope that they will attract more girls into science. Kina is in her twenties and is a research technician at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle Washington.

Read the full story about how she started her idea.

Cindy Wu and Experiment


Photo source: NY Times – Women in the World

Cindy Wu, in her early twenties, created a crowd-source funding platform called Experiment specifically designed for funding scientific research. A recent college graduate from University of Washington, Cindy wanted to take her research further. She was frustrated this wasn’t a possibility because of the restrictions from government agencies: she was young, didn’t have a PhD and she wanted less than $25,000. She  wondered why a crowd-funding platform like Kickstarter or Kiva didn’t exist specifically for scientific research, so she dropped out of graduate school to create it herself. With a quick pitch of her idea she raised $1.2 million dollars.

You Have Good Ideas Too

These ladies had some fantastic ideas they executed and made into realities.

We all have good ideas (even if you think you don’t)!  Truth moment: For whatever psychological reasons, I am the type of person who constantly feels inspired to have ideas, but then gets frustrated that they never seem to arrive; Alternatively, I feel like everything has already been thought of so what genius ideas could possibly be left for me to think.

I’m not telling you this to get you to join my pity party, I’m telling you this because 1) I know I’m probably not alone in these thoughts and 2) I want you to feel supported and confident with your ideas, because we can additionally think, “Holy cow! These women had ideas that they might have thought weren’t worth pursuing, and yet, they created resources they wanted simply because they needed them and wouldn’t accept that they just didn’t exist.”

What do I wish existed and can I do something today that might make the slightest change in what I think is important for the world?

They didn’t give up on their ideas or put them aside. They played with them until they created their reality.

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No Shame in Self-Promotion

Self-promoting scientists?  Usually, strategic marketing and promotion skills are reserved for the business world, for businesses and entrepreneurs.  Not for scientists. They don’t have a brand, they aren’t selling anything for consumers to buy, so they have no reason to self-promote.

… Or do they?

Many people are doing amazing research. I personally love hearing about it, I’m sure the public would love to know about it as well as other aspiring scientists, and government and philanthropic funding agencies should know about it.  Government funding is becoming more scarce nowadays and scientists are forced to think more creatively about getting noticed. We can no longer hide behind our beakers and stick to our solitary interests expecting fame and wealth to come from only NSF or NIH. We have to embrace the attitude and spirit of promotion and marketing and we can learn a lot from those in the business world.

As an example, Bill Nye The Science Guy, recently put out a Kickstarter Campaign asking for $200,000 from the public to create a solar sailing space craft. What’s a scientist doing asking the general public for money?! If you watch his videos you realize he is embracing his inner nerd, putting out a message he thinks is important to research and he is asking citizens to help fund it because government funding isn’t enough.  I admire that he did this! He understands that ultimately to further research possibilities, exposing yourself on social media, blogs, and other news sources may help those goals by tapping into additional funding sources from philanthropic agencies and even the general public.

But Self-Promotion Seems so Slimy and is Not My Style. 

There are many reasons a scientist may not be interested or even good at self-promotion: These could include wanting to avoid harsh scrutiny, having insecurities about being exposed, not knowing how to make a presence outside of the lab, being too busy writing grants to do so, being too lazy to care about this aspect of outreach, or feeling silly exposing your passion and nerdiness.

If you are of the latter, then I want you to watch this video by Marie Forleo, a self-made multi-million dollar business woman who I take advice from:  

The question is:  How do you speak well of your brand (or your science) and let the passion shine through? How do you unabashedly blow your own trumpet? How do you do this without feeling like you’re bragging?

Shameless self-promotion implies there should be shame in self-promotion. [… ] Where did we learn that self-promotion is bad? And why do we accept that as the truth? […] If we speak about something we do or have done, why is that a bad thing? Is joy and confidence and pride something to be shameful about?

Marie Forleo brings in a great perspective on this issue. She is speaking to entrepreneurs in the business world and I think it can translate to us scientists in our world.

I summarize her points below, but don’t short-change yourself: Go watch the video!

  1. If you do something great focus on what you can give, not what you can get. The world needs that special gift that only you have and if you hold back from self-promoting you hold back from those who need you most. You never know if someone needs to hear about what you do.
  2. Stop caring about what other people think. We are afraid people wont like us, they’ll judge us, we’ll be scrutinized as being poor scientists. People already judge you, so just ask yourself who are you living your life for? Who are you doing your science for?
  3. Do not be a broken record when you promote yourself. Have other things to talk about. Have variety in different topics. And make sure you celebrate other people!

The world needs more scientists to get out there. Do you think Bill Nye felt shameful about promoting his idea and asking citizens for their help in funding it? No! His ultimate goal goes beyond his ego. He’s doing it for the science!

If you’re in science, and you love what you do, then share it with the world!


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How to Choose a Good Scientific Problem

How does a scientist choose a project or a scientific problem?

In E O Wilson’s auto-biography Naturalist he reveals his motivation in becoming a myrmecologist (specialist in ants): As a young boy he blinded himself with the spine of a poisonous fish and after surgery and treatment he was left with 20/10. He lost his stereoscopic vision but was able to see fine print and small hairs on the bodies of insects.

“I noticed butterflies and ants more than other kids did, and took an interest in them automatically.”

His reduced ability to observe mammals and birds led him to concentrate on insects ultimately leading him down the path to becoming the world’s leading expert on ants (among many other topics including biodiversity and sociobiology).

If he had not blinded himself, would he had chosen these same scientific problems to research? Perhaps not.

“The projects that a particular researcher finds interesting are an expression of a personal filter, a way of perceiving the world. This filter is associated with a set of values: the beliefs of what is good, beautiful, and true versus what is bad, ugly, and false. Our unique filter is what we bring to the table as scientists.” -Uri Alon

Uri Alon, a Professor and Systems Biologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science, gives us his perspective on the matter in this excellent article which you can read here:

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Things That Glow In The Dark

Remember that glowing night scene in Avatar when the two blue aliens bonded under Pandora’s magical forest? I was hypnotized.  I wanted it to exist on Earth. I wanted to be there. It reminds me of my childhood: sitting under the glowing blue Christmas tree lights,  chasing after fireflies with my grandparents in New York, carrying around my Glo Worm doll (please tell me you had one too.). I’ve started to compile a list of places and things that exist on Earth which glow in the same magical Pandora-esque way. To please the child within.



Newest discovery, by  David Gruber, a National Geographic Emerging Explorer, shows that hawksbill sea turtles bio-fluoresce! Read more.


ARX3PR Scorpion (Hadruus arizonensis) under a black light. Image shot 2004. Exact date unknown.

ARX3PR Scorpion (Hadruus arizonensis) under a black light. Image shot 2004.

During an entomology class in college I discovered scorpions glow in the dark under UV light. Overturn any number of rocks and see what you find! Why would scorpions glow? Apparently David Gaffin has figured out some answers. “Gaffin and co-workers have tested scorpion activity under different light wavelengths (including UV-light) with eyes covered or not. The results suggest that scorpion cuticular fluorescence actually may be involved in their perception of light and contributes to orientation and light-avoidance behavior (e.g. helps the decision to stay in their burrow until outside light conditions are optimal for avoiding predators etc.).” Take a look at the article in Discover Magazine.



Owl Banding on Vancouver Island BC, Canada.

Photo snagged from Glenn Bartley

When I was a field biologist studying birds, I was told owl wing feathers glow under UV light. I didn’t believe it, so  I looked it up and sure enough it is a novel technique scientists use to age juvenile owls. You an also read about it in this scientific publication.

You can imagine that trying to assess the quality of feathers under dim light from headlamps, incandescent or fluorescent bulbs is something of a challenge, but until the mid 1990’s, this was simply how it was done. In 1982, researcher, Bruce A. Colvin discovered that porphyrin in the newly molted feathers of Barn Owls fluoresced under UV light. This organic compound fades over time and with exposure to light, making different generations of feathers easily identified using a UV light.” -Ann Nightingale



I recently watched a PBS documentary showing coral reefs fluorescing under UV light! “There are several theories provided by scientists, and perhaps the most likely reason is that it acts as a kind of “sun block” for the coral protecting the zooxanthallae inside the coral from the harmful rays of the sun . Marine Biologists say that this property could perhaps protect shallow coral from bleaching or provide deeper coral the ability to absorb the UV light from the sun and reflect it back to the zooxanthallae allowing them to photosynthesize in the absence of sufficient sunlight.” Being a diver, this makes me want to go night diving immediately. Who is with me?




From R-L: The same flower with human vision, only UV vision (bright = UV), simulated bee vision (UV+G+B), simulated bird vision (tetrachromatcic: UV+R+G+B). (Photos: (c) Dr Klaus Schmitt, Weinheim, Germany, uvir.eu ) See more photos here.

Bees see flowers in a much different cloak than our human eye can detect.  The guide patterns are caused by UV-absorbing substances and provide visual pollinating clues directing the bees to the center where they can find the flower’s pollen.




To see more beautiful photos, click the squid above.

National Geographic did an awesome article about bioluminescence, called Luminous Life in their March 2015 issue. “Evolving to make light seems to be relatively easy—it has happened independently in at least 40 different lineages.” -Olivia Judson

If you ever get a chance to go out on the water during a new moon and look at the bioluminescence, you will be blown away. It truly is a magical experience.

There are way more fluorescing treasures I did not highlight here, so be sure to take a look. With all this glowing talk I feel inspired to throw a black light party for the humans!

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