Code Red (for Ruby)

For anybody who knows me, it should come as no surprise that I was a very nerdy kid. But I didn’t love science back then; I loved computers. When I was in elementary school, I built my first, very primitive website using a WYSIWYG editor. This site had a black background and fluorescent green text, and was an atrocious mess of animated GIFs and obnoxious MIDIs. My second site, created a few years later, was only slightly more sophisticated – I remember being proud of how I had figured out how to layer a frame over an image map by poking at the HTML. Totally awesome. Of course, this site was as cringeworthy as the first, and thankfully neither of them exist on the web anymore.

I continued to dabble with website design as I grew older. I was commissioned by a teacher in middle school to redesign the school’s webpage with Dreamweaver. Then, in high school, I finally took a stab at actually learning some HTML, and made a decent-looking website for a band I was in.

After high school, my computer geekery was overtaken by my studies (and interest) in neuroscience. Web design became a forgotten hobby of mine… until I joined a tech startup, Altmetric. Now, for work, I sometimes need to edit and design pages for our website. Additionally, being in a technology environment has exposed me to computer geekery in a big way. But I am not a developer. And I don’t actually know how to code.

A few weeks ago, my friend Jutta (who works in the same office) told me about an interesting (and free) two-day coding workshop for women called Rails Girls London. As part of the workshop, students would receive training from skilled coaches in Ruby on Rails. Students would even leave the workshop having designed their first Ruby on Rails web app. It sounded amazing, so I applied to the workshop and secured a spot.

And so, two weekends ago, I attended Rails Girls London (see their Twitter feed), which was hosted at the extremely cool Skype headquarters in Holborn. The first part of the workshop (on the Friday night) was an “installation party”, during which we set up our laptops with the necessary software packages and hung out with coaches and fellow students.

On the next morning, the serious stuff began. We worked through the basics of Ruby using an online tutorial before jumping right into setting up a generic web app with the help of the coaches, who tirelessly guided 2 students at a time.

Later on, after we had gotten a handle on the structure of the generic app, we had the opportunity to work on an app of our own design. By the end of the workshop, I had put together an app that could automatically place London locations on a Google Map. I had a simple interface that could be used to recreate my London Science Map more efficiently. (I aim to link to it from the London Science Map page once I get the chance to prettify the app a bit…)

I learned a lot in just one day. I learned the basics of Ruby (neat). And importantly, I learned about some of the terms and concepts that my developer co-workers use every day (awesome), and which had previously been mysterious to me. What’s more, the workshop was really fun, and I was able to meet many cool, smart, and like-minded women from different backgrounds, including computer science, finance, science, and more. Like the other students, I resolved to continue to practice and develop my still-rudimentary coding skills.

A hug from the students and coaches at the Rails Girls London workshop on 5 October 2013. Photo courtesy of John Beynon (@johnbeynon).

A hug from the students and coaches at the Rails Girls London workshop on 5 October 2013. Photo courtesy of John Beynon (@johnbeynon).

The thing is, we’re pretty lucky in London, if not only because women have the opportunity to attend a workshop like Rails Girls. (I highly recommend the Rails Girls London workshop and any associated events, in case that wasn’t obvious from the rest of this post!) Also, there appears to be quite an active community of Ruby enthusiasts (even beyond Rails Girls). Along with the numerous free resources online, there seems to be no shortage of opportunities to learn more about Ruby.

Having trained as a bench scientist in auditory neuroscience and then in pain pharmacology, I’m naturally more comfortable with light microscopes and oscilloscopes than I am with command lines and Ruby gems. But computers are incredibly important tools for science, society, and everything in between. It seems to me that it would be massively useful for scientists to be able to put computers to work in user-personalised ways; ways that may be more meaningful than what can currently be accomplished with the usual software packages. In the life sciences, coding is not a skill that is often developed in undergraduate or graduate studies, unless one happens to be working in bioinformatics. So I wonder what kinds of things I would have thought to build if I had had some programming know-how as a grad student.

Even though I’ve now left the lab, there are plenty of reasons to learn to code. I think I’ll try to embrace computer geekery again. Let’s see what happens.

Sci Foo Entry #2: A Spectacular Weekend

Jean at GoogleplexTwo words sum up Sci Foo: absolutely incredible. It’s already been a couple of weeks since I returned from my trip to California, but it’s only now that I’ve had some time to write down my highlights of the “unconference” (part 1 of Sci Foo blogging is here).

On each day of Sci Foo, I met astoundingly accomplished and smart people (sometimes just while we were queuing for food at the Google canteen). I learned some truly amazing things from the fascinating sessions and one-on-one conversations. I had some really interesting discussions with various people about topics I’m particularly interested in, including altmetrics, new signals for research impact, animal research ethics, and neuroscience. Moreover, since I was at the Googleplex, I got the chance to see a part of the tech world that I’d only ever read about.

 

A few things that I’ll never forget

  • Giving a 5-minute lightning talk about the point of pain research to a packed room, on the last day of Sci Foo.
  • Having a great conversation with Dr. Alcino Silva about an amazing project of his which aims to create digital and dynamic maps of neuroscience research.
  • Getting a demo of Google Glass (and having conversations with Google employees about Glass habits and “culture”).
  • Wandering into the area with Google’s Android lawn statues, and gasping in amazement when I saw the giant donut (reminiscent of Altmetric donuts).
  • Belting out “Hey Jude” with 9 other Sci Foo attendees (including a Nobel Prizewinner) at a karaoke bar in the wee hours of the morning.
  • Spending 2 days after Sci Foo in San Francisco with Amarjit and Alan, my good friends and colleagues from Digital Science. There was never a dull moment in our journey.

 

My Sci Foo experience in photos

Sci Foo

In the famed Googleplex

Meeting Alcino Silva

With Dr. Alcino Silva, neuroscientist from UCLA

Digital Science team

The team from Digital Science. From left to right: Timo Hannay, Alan Hyndman, Amarjit Myers, me (Altmetric), Mark Hahnel (figshare), and Marko Ivin (Symplectic)

Hanging with the Googlers

Posing with the great team of volunteers from Google

Alamarjean in San Francisco

The last leg of my trip in San Francisco: spent with Alan and Amarjit. Collectively: Alamarjean

 

Other Sci Foo blog posts I like

Honor Harger

Bora Zivkovic

Ziyad Marar

Sci Foo Entry #1: Onwards to California

I am an incredibly lucky science geek. About a month ago, I received an e-mail which said that I, along with several work colleagues, had been invited to Science Foo Camp (more commonly referred to as “SciFoo”). Sci Foo is an annual “unconference” event that is organized by Digital Science, Nature, Google, and O’Reilly Media. The unconference (which takes place this weekend from June 21-23 at the Google Headquarters in Mountain View, California) brings together a group of interesting people involved in science and in technology – movers and shakers, if you will. Of course, I was stunned and deeply honoured to receive an invitation to attend Sci Foo.

The impression that I’ve gotten from from previous Sci Foo campers is that the event is designed to let creative and intellectually-stimulating conversations flourish. In contrast to traditional academic conferences, which have rigid programme schedules (and occasionally structured networking sessions), Sci Foo appears to be very unrestrictive. In fact, campers are encouraged to speak about any topics that they are passionate about, and are given ample opportunities to connect with each other. Instead of adhering to a fixed schedule, campers have the freedom to choose how they want to spend their time and who they want to spend it with. It all sounds brilliant.

Things that I’m looking forward to
1. Seeing the Google Headquarters. Because, in addition to being a proper noun, “google” has become a verb. It’s truly remarkable how this company has become so ubiquitous in our everyday lives.

2. Meeting people who are passionate about science. These are my favourite kinds of people to speak with and learn from, because they always seem to have the ability to remind you of the beauty of science.

3. Being inspired. Although I don’t have a particular discussion topic in mind at the moment, I’m prepared to be a sponge and soak up as much knowledge as I can.

A brief reflection
If someone had told me last year that I would soon have an awesome job that I loved and also be invited to Sci Foo, my brain would likely have exploded. Back when I was packing my bags for a new life in London, I never would have been able to fathom what was waiting for me across the pond. Looking back on my decisions now, I strongly believe that my choice to leave academia and pursue different avenues in science was the right one. Although the initial adjustment to life in the UK wasn’t always easy, I’m now really happy, both in my work life and my personal life. For these reasons, I am an incredibly lucky science geek.

A Reading Diet for the Writer

Whenever people discuss “science communication”, they generally talk about it in terms of the main outputs: writing and speaking. Of course, this emphasis on outputs makes perfect sense. After all, a communicator uses words, pictures, and whatever else is appropriate (even interpretive dance) to convey ideas. But one thing that I think science communicators shouldn’t underestimate is the importance of reading broadly.

If you’re doing research, it’s far too easy to get sucked into the endless collection of literature within your particular field of study. In my graduate student days, I always had mounds of printed PDFs sitting on my desk in the lab, along with another pile of papers sitting on the floor of my apartment. I had such a constant flow of papers that were relevant to my research area that I barely had the time to read anything else.

Scholarly reading beyond a single field has its challenges. The choice is overwhelming nowadays, so how can you be more efficient and always read the most interesting, high-quality material? It takes some time and effort to pinpoint the types of material you’re interested in and how to get it. The tried and true methods (i.e., PubMed searches) are reliable, but if you’re not looking for something highly specific, it’s actually pretty easy to quickly add some diversity to what I’ll call the “reading diet”.

The main tool that I should mention is Twitter. I joined Twitter during the second year of my Master’s, and only then did I start to regularly read articles from other fields. I didn’t begin using Twitter with the intent to read broadly. Up until then, I’d been resistant to joining yet another social media network (which I assumed was only filled with inane status updates), but I ended up being convinced by a friend who had a wide interest in science and had had fruitful Twitter conversations with other academics.

The value of Twitter started to become more obvious to me after I followed my neuroscience heroes: Oliver Sacks, Adrien Owen, and the like. Then I followed the rest of the typical science crowd: journal publishers, news outlets, organizations, societies, bloggers, and journalists. And so I was hooked. Since then, the benefits have been quite remarkable: in addition to learning more about new research, I was able to learn an incredible amount about the culture of science, the world of scientific publishing, and much more.

As long as you’re following enough accounts with a lot of regular, high-quality content, Twitter is great for the passive discovery of research news, blog posts, and scholarly papers. The relative proportions of links to these that you see on your feed would be determined by the types of accounts you follow. After everything is set up, you literally have interesting links thrown at you whenever you care to tune in, so it becomes quite easy to supplement your reading with new stuff via Twitter.

However, there is always an element of randomness, and the transience of tweets means that if you’re not tuned in 24/7, you’ll inevitably miss something good (unless it goes viral and is re-tweeted by many people). For this reason, regularly following the RSS feeds of specific news sources and science communication blogs is probably a good idea, and this ensures that you always end up knowing something about new research in various areas.

I’m passionate about the field of science metrics (which deals with new ways to measure research impact) and also do a lot of writing as part of my job at Altmetric, so of course I should mention that there are also ways to balance your reading diet using “altmetrics”, also known as alternative metrics. (To learn about altmetrics, you can read the “Interactions” series that I write as the blog editor at Altmetric.) Ranking articles by they attention they receive and filtering by topic gives you lists of “crowdsourced” things to read, bypassing the issue of missing transient tweets. I’m obviously biased, but I genuinely feel that tools like the Altmetric Explorer and the site SciCombinator (which runs on the same data) are some of the most powerful altmetrics-based ways to discover articles that are worth reading.

Now, to get back to science communication. First of all, I haven’t done any formal training in writing since high school, so I can’t claim to be a professional of any sort. But from my point of view, it doesn’t matter if I’m writing a thesis, a journal article, or a blog post: reading a lot of different things (even if they’re not related to what I’m writing) helps me to write better. Reading almost seems to prime my mind for language, helping me to find the right words and phrasing. Most importantly, reading broadly helps me to put things into perspective and can sometimes even lead me to draw unexpected connections between seemingly disconnected threads.

I keep mentioning this idea of a balanced reading diet, but to be honest, I’m not really sure what the ideal balance is. It must depend on the person, as well as on other factors, including profession, stage of career, research field, personal interests, and schedule. When I was in graduate school, my balance might’ve been an 80%-20% split between pain research-related and other articles. Now I focus less on pain research articles (although I keep up as best I can, as I’m still collaborating on papers and interested in the field) and more on the other stuff.

Whatever your exact reading diet is as a writer, I think that a great way to be productive when not writing is just to keep reading. Some might call it procrastination, but at least occasionally I find that the best way to get past writer’s block is to hit refresh on my Twitter feed. I’ve certainly been surprised at how often unrelated ideas could point the way to the ones that were just waiting to be written down.

The Poet Laureate of Medicine

Last week, while following up on some blog feeds for a project at work, I randomly stumbled upon a short news release from the University of Warwick (Coventry, UK) announcing that the well-known author and neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks (of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Awakenings fame) would be giving a lecture at the university on the 11th of March. Since Dr. Sacks lives in New York and is rarely even in the same country as I am (Canada or the UK), I seized this opportunity to book a free ticket to the lecture.

I’ve been a fan of Dr. Sacks ever since I read the opening words of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat during my first year of undergraduate neuroscience. I love all of his books dearly (although sadly, my collection is now divided across continents), and have also enjoyed films based on them (see my review of the 2011 film The Music Never Stopped, based on Dr. Sacks’ case study “The Last Hippie”). Many readers of this blog who are already familiar with Dr. Sacks will know that his writing is incomparable, and the humanity of his medical perspectives is both moving and inspiring.

And so, last Monday afternoon, I traveled for about 3 hours from London to the Warwick Arts Centre in Coventry (located in the West Midlands of England) to get a glimpse of my neuroscience hero. About half an hour before the lecture was supposed to start, a huge crowd of people filled the hall outside the auditorium. The scene was similar to one that you might see before a rock concert – people were jostling about, clutching their printed tickets, and impatiently awaiting the opening of the doors. Ten minutes before the lecture, the floodgates opened and we were herded into the auditorium. In true rock concert style, I was violently shoved aside by one overeager fan who bolted through the crowd; however, he seemed to get his comeuppance after he was turned away for not actually having a ticket.

Photo by Jean Liu

Warwick Arts Centre (11 March 2013) – Photo by Jean Liu

Over 1000 people poured into the auditorium, scrambling for seats. But this was a lecture after all, and not a rock concert. Maybe it was the fear of accidentally falling asleep in front of the speaker or even the notion that “cool kids sit at the back”,  but it seemed that nobody really wanted to sit in the front row of this lecture. As a result, the seats closest to the stage were almost completely empty, so I was happy to take a place in the centre. (In doing so, I got some great photographs of Dr. Sacks up close, which you can see here and on my photo blog.)

Even though the Sacks fanatics seemed to disperse away towards the back of the auditorium, we all had the feeling that we were in the presence of a celebrity. I overheard the official university photographer (sitting next to me) remark that Dr. Sacks’ “entourage” had specifically requested that no flash photography be used at any point during the lecture.

 

Notes from Dr. Sacks’ talk, “Narrative and Medicine: The Importance of the Case History”

Seventy-nine-year-old Dr. Sacks is gentle, soft-spoken, and every bit as charming as he comes across in his books’ narratives. He seemed a bit nervous, pausing occasionally to shuffle through his notes. Seeing him in person for the first time, I realized that his mannerisms had been captured eerily well by Robin Williams, whose fictional character in the film version of Awakenings, “Dr. Sayer”, was partially based on Dr. Sacks. He definitely had a healthy sense of humour, as evidenced by part of his response to an audience member’s question “Why did you become interested in brains?”, which was as follows:

“I had kidneys for breakfast this morning. I love kidneys, I have nothing against them. I know several nephrologists. But I think that the brain is more interesting… even more than the kidneys.”

The talk centred around the importance of storytelling in medicine, and how learning about patients as human beings, not as diseases, was necessary to provide the best care. Recalling a colleague who would casually refer to “the delerium in room 6″, Dr. Sacks remarked that there was an unfortunate distance between some physicians and their patients’ humanity. In recounting the writing of his first book, Migraine, Dr. Sacks noted that he found migraine sufferers impossible to treat unless he knew something about who they were. Throughout his lecture, Dr. Sacks peppered his points with other case studies from The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a HatAwakeningsMusicophilia, and Hallucinations. He said the influences of Alexander Luria (a Soviet neuropsychologist) made him realize how science and storytelling are “complementary, not antithetical”, and he cited his deep admiration for Luria’s “non-fiction novel”, The Mind of a Mnemonist.

Photo by Jean Liu

Dr. Oliver Sacks at the Warwick Arts Centre (11 March 2013) – Photo by Jean Liu

Later on, Dr. Sacks also criticized the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) for leading a movement to “itemize” psychological and neurological disorders. (He referred to the DSM as “an abominable book”.) With fewer Luria-esque clinical histories being written nowadays, Dr. Sacks feared that the endeavour will disappear altogether. He suggested that physicians who think they lack the time to write a case history should make efforts to craft concise, descriptive case studies, sacrificing length for depth. The talk ended on the idea that science and storytelling should be completely integrated, and must always have a person at the centre.

 

Some thoughts

It was a great treat to be able to see one of my medical and artistic heroes in person, and even more wonderful to hear Dr. Sacks’ personal perspectives on his famous case histories. I thoroughly enjoyed the lecture, and agreed with most of Dr. Sacks’ points about the necessity of storytelling in preserving the humanity of medicine. Dr. Sacks (dubbed “the poet laureate of medicine” by The New York Times) has been responsible for some of the most beautifully-written medical case histories in recent memory, and his call for physicians to keep writing rich clinical descriptions is important. If medical authors were to lose this passionate and human approach to medicine, it would be a great loss both for patients and readers. Luckily, Dr. Sacks’ works are so memorable and well-loved that writers in the future aren’t likely to forget the poetic spirit of the case history anytime soon.

Critics of Dr. Sacks’ works have argued that much of the allure of his neurological tales comes from the strangeness of the cases. There is truth to this, as many of the case histories deal with extremely unique circumstances: for example, Dr. Sacks has written extraordinary stories about twins who only converse in prime numbers and a highly-skilled surgeon who suffers from Tourette’s syndrome. If these cases were less “remarkable”, would people still be interested in reading the clinical histories? That’s a tough question to answer, because the central subject matter of the story can be as important as the insights that are eventually drawn from it. But some personal stories are unique simply because of how they’re told. I would argue that everybody has an fascinating story – it’s just up to a skilled storyteller to discover it and share it with the world.

Exhibiting Pain

Pain is the one area of neuroscience that fascinates me endlessly. Back in 2009, I was finishing up my undergraduate degree and searching for a supervisor for my Master’s. I’d gained some great experience in an auditory neuroscience lab, and although I loved it, I wasn’t necessarily committed to that field. So as I scanned through hundreds of faculty member pages (at a few selected Canadian universities), I remained open to the possibility that a new topic might catch my fancy. When the word “pain” popped up for the first time, the proverbial light bulb turned on.

I wasn’t sure why I hadn’t heard much about pain research before. The truth is, asides from a few research hubs spread out across Canada, there aren’t that many investigators who study pain as compared to other neuroscience areas. Why is this? Maybe it’s because simplistically, pain is regarded as a symptom of various disease conditions – in many cases, treatment of the disease, rather than the pain, it believed to take precedence. Maybe it’s the lack of funding: as far as I’m aware, there are no Canadian charities that fund pain research (with the exception of arthritis charities). Contrast that with the UK, which has access to funding from a charity called the Pain Relief Foundation (based in Liverpool) and from a professional society, the British Pain Society (based in London).

Many aspects of this mysterious thing called pain are interesting: it’s subjective, (nearly) universal, and in normal situations, essential. But it can also change a life and simultaneously destroy it. So I chose to jump into pain research for my Master’s and moved to Halifax. I spent 2 hugely productive years in a pre-clinical pain research laboratory, where I learned more than I can possibly recount here. Ultimately, how I felt about my research was always centred on how I felt about the human aspects of pain, and I wrote about this in the Acknowledgements for my final thesis:

Just prior to my arrival at Dalhousie in the summer of 2010, the first thing that my supervisor, JS, suggested that I read was a book by Marni Jackson, entitled Pain: The Fifth Vital Sign. As JS put it, this book was an exploration of the question “what is this thing we know as pain?” That I was greatly moved and inspired by what I read is no understatement. This book opened my eyes to the profound impact that pain has on the lives of sufferers, and revealed many serious problems that affect the way that pain is treated (and recognized) in our society. Having these broad perspectives of pain kept me focused and motivated in my own research.

As crucial as pain research is, communicating the findings to the public is just as important. The book by Canadian journalist Marni Jackson was able to superbly capture the essence of pain and its issues, but admittedly, the audience for such non-fiction books is probably not huge. Sadly, then, the message is lost.

The situation is completely different when it comes to museums. Museum have the power to be interactive, engaging, vibrant, and therefore, memorable. A few weeks ago, I was delighted to learn that London’s amazing Science Museum was opening a new exhibit entitled “Pain Less”, primarily supported by the Wellcome Trust, along with The Royal College of Anaesthetists, and The Association of Anaesthetists of Great Britain and Ireland. I visited the exhibit last week, and was pleased with what I saw. Covering compelling topics like phantom pain and the genetics of pain, the small exhibit was richly-detailed and furnished with interactive displays, videos, and objects. The minimalistic design was gorgeous and striking, but never depressing.

The “Pain Less” exhibit at the Science Museum in London.

Without a doubt, the exhibit’s greatest strength was its ability to communicate highly complex scientific concepts in an interesting and clear manner. The videos showcased the deeply human stories of pain and its various facets, whereas an interactive screen provided a great, comprehensive explanation of major concepts, without shying away from scientific terminology. (A highlight for me was the great explanation of congenital insensitivity to pain; the text discussed voltage-gated sodium channels and the mutation in the SCN9A gene, which encodes the NaV1.7 channel.) By embracing and respecting the audience, rather than condescendingly “dumbing down” the content, the exhibit demonstrated that intelligent, well-explained, and sparse use of scientific jargon can be very effective.

One of the displays in the “Pain Less” exhibit at the Science Museum in London.

Of course, throwing around terms like “SCN9A” probably would cross more than a few pairs of eyes, and a science museum must consciously cater to a wide audience. Since there was some disturbing material, this exhibit was mainly geared towards adults. However, there was still one interactive activity that caught the attention of a few kids in the vicinity: a game called “Ouch”. Designed by students in a Year 9 science class (aged 13-14), the game is well-designed, cute (actually, is that appropriate for a serious subject like pain?), and Missile Command-esque, and players must protect the brain from incoming pain signals using various “weapons”: placebos, painkillers, general anaesthetics, and spider venom (a putative analgesic?). Since there was a queue of people waiting to play the game at the museum, I actually didn’t get my chance to try it out there. However, I was able to play the game online, which brings me to my final point…

The online material for “Pain Less” is a great adjunct to the exhibit. From the excellent “behind the scenes” blog to the availability of a large-print version of the display text, the Science Museum has given visitors a chance to learn more and read over what they might have missed, thereby enhancing the overall experience. The Science Museum deserves much respect for raising the profile of pain research, and for creating this marvelous piece of science communication.

“Pain Less” runs from 8 Nov 2012 to 8 Nov 2013 at the Science Museum (Exhibition Rd, South Kensington, London, SW7 2DD).

Welcome to London

During the big move from Halifax to London, I had been prepared to encounter every possible roadblock. Yet my journey was mostly uneventful, with the exception of a little clumsy accident that occurred during a stopover in Reykjavik, Iceland, resulting in a portion of my laptop’s plastic outer shell getting shattered. Asides from that unfortunate incident (which thankfully didn’t impair the functionality of my computer), how smooth my transition into London life ended up being came as a surprise to even my most optimistic friends. In less than 2 weeks after my arrival in London, I’d gotten everything that I needed – a mobile phone, a UK bank account, amazing accommodations, and a very cool job. Of course, I couldn’t have achieved such a seamless transition without some help from others, and I was incredibly fortunate to have the support and assistance from several good friends in London. Culture shock has been essentially non-existent for me, although I was teased a bit by new British acquaintances for not knowing what “plasters” were (I learned that they’re band-aids) and for thinking that Strongbow was a premium cider (apparently only in Canada). Also, I once absentmindedly tried to flag down a bus that was driving on the opposite side of the road, but other than that, I’ve been doing quite well.

After living in London for 24 days (and having just celebrated my 24th birthday this week), I must say that I’m hopelessly in love with this city. Although I’m still in the early days of my life as a Londoner, it’s pretty clear to me that moving here was one of the best decisions that I’ve ever made. The lively atmosphere, interesting neighbourhoods, beautiful architecture, efficient transportation system, and charming residents make every foray out of the house an exciting one. Having arrived right at the start of the London 2012 Paralympic Games, I even had the chance to watch 2 games of men’s wheelchair basketball at the impressive North Greenwich Arena. Although I wasn’t lucky enough to witness Canada’s gold medal win against Australia, watching teams from Poland, Turkey, Spain, and Germany compete in this graceful, exciting sport was a truly memorable experience.

The beautiful National Gallery in London’s Trafalgar Square proudly displayed the Paralympic Agitos logo for the London 2012 Paralympic Games. Photo was taken on 12 September 2012.

Science in London

In addition to all the wonders that London is typically known for, the city is also a veritable playground for science nerds and music geeks. Since I fit into both categories, I’ve been finding that the number of things to see and do is staggering. With respect to my interests in science and medicine, there are numerous interesting landmarks and museums that I’ve already been to, and many more that I plan to check out. Furthermore, lectures and science-related public outreach activities are constantly happening in universities and museums, and all of these events will be exciting to attend. Science communication is a particularly hot topic in this city, and since the field is the one in which I’m now employed, it will be a great experience to learn from the best.

How has London become such a hub for scientific activity? Perhaps by exploring the various fascinating science spots in this city, the answer to that question will become clear. To keep track of all the cool spots in London, I’ve started a little project to visit and map out landmarks, museums, and other sites related to science and medicine. Below is a customized Google Map of London onto which I have pinned various sites, including Charles Darwin’s house, Dr. James Parkinson’s house (which has been converted into a very classy bar), and notable museums. Future blog posts will explore specific spots in more depth, but for every location on the map, I’ve written a short description of interesting things to see. As I visit more places, I will keep updating the map. You can view the full map, entitled “Portable Brain’s London”, right here. Hopefully, by the time I’ve amassed a few more places, the map can serve as a useful guide for visitors to London who wish to do a bit of “science tourism”!

Farewell to Nova Scotia

The waiting area by Gate 28 in the Halifax International Airport is as quiet as a library tonight. The hush puts me at ease, and for the first time in weeks, I feel strangely relaxed. Months of dreaming, planning, questioning, and deliberating have propelled me towards this evening, when I will leave everything I’ve ever had in Canada for a new life in London.

And so, I say good-bye (for now) to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where I’ve just spent 2 of the most remarkable and fulfilling years of my life. I’ll miss everything about this enchanting city: the way the sun shimmers over the Northwest Arm at dusk, how the seagulls sound as they bicker and play by the Harbour, and the way the streets come alive on the first sunny day after weeks of rain. But most of all, I’ll miss my amazing friends and colleagues, who, in 2 short years, have taught me more about the world and myself than I ever imagined possible. These people (along with my family and friends in my hometown of Ottawa) have prepared me for the unpredictable future that will meet me tomorrow. Let’s see, then, where the adventure will take me!

Farewell to Nova Scotia!

Farewell to Nova Scotia, the sea-bound coast,
Let your mountains dark and dreary be.
For when I am far away on the briny ocean tossed,
Will you ever heave a sigh or a wish for me?

My Other Lab Coat Is a Business Suit

Two weeks before embarking on a life-altering overseas move from Canada to the UK, most people would probably spend their time packing, selling possessions, taking care of finances, finishing up work commitments, and saying good-bye to friends. But if you’re a die-hard neuroscience enthusiast like I am, then you would do the aforementioned things while also participating in an intense 12-day long Summer Institute about the business side of neurotechnology.

1. Business, Neuroscience, Law, and Everything In Between

The Summer Institute on Neurotechnology, Innovation, and Commercialization (NICE), was held for the first time ever at Dalhousie University (Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada) from August 12 to 24, 2012. Organized by Dr. Aaron Newman, along with other faculty members of Dalhousie’s RADIANT (Rehabilitative and Diagnostic Innovation in Applied NeuroTechnology) program, the Summer Institute was designed to complement the traditional education of neuroscience trainees by providing a series of in-depth, interactive workshops relating to entrepreneurship, innovation, business, career development, and communication. The overarching goal of this multifaceted Summer Institute was to allow neuroscience students of all backgrounds and levels to develop the skills, knowledge, and tools to bring innovative ideas out of the lab into the world. As the RADIANT website puts it:

“NICE is targeted at science trainees who are fuelled by passion and curiosity about neuroscience, but are frustrated by the apparent obstacles between work done in the lab, and things that can have a real impact on people’s lives.”

The first cohort to participate in the Summer Institute was composed of 18 people, including myself. All of us possessed different undergraduate and graduate backgrounds in various fields, including neuroscience, psychology, computer science, and business. While most participants were studying at Canadian institutions, including Dalhousie University and the University of Toronto, a few attendees were visiting from abroad. It was an amazing experience to get to befriend, interact with, and work alongside people with such diverse interests, ideas, and talents. The environment of the Summer Institute was extremely welcoming and friendly, and we all got to know each other better by relaxing over several great meals (including Dr. Newman’s epic lobster cookout last night) and social events. Hopefully we can all meet up again someday, and I invite all of my new friends to say hello if they ever find themselves in London.

Over 12 days, we soaked up the expertise of various visiting speakers, which included an impressive array of industry executives, lawyers, neuroscientists, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and journalists. We were exposed to the processes of thinking creatively, conducting market research, creating business models, abiding by research ethics guidelines, protecting intellectual property, as well as communicating science through journalism. All of this served to give us a sense of how to bring science into business.

While I won’t get into the details of exactly what I learned during the course, a few workshops stood out for me. My favourite session was the one led by entrepreneurship professor Dr. Mike Goldsby (Ball State University, Indiana, USA), a charismatic, engaging, and inspiring speaker who certainly sparked the imaginations of everyone in the room. Dr. Goldsby proclaimed that, beyond the traditional view of entrepreneurs as businesspeople, entrepreneurs are artists and facilitators of new ideas. Arguing that the iterative process of bringing a new idea to market requires not only intuition and passion, but also skills in three broad domains (research, creativity, and expression), Dr. Goldsby gave us a crash course in starting a business, breaking down the factors that are critical for success. Although I don’t necessarily plan to start my own business now, what I took away from Dr. Goldsby’s workshop was a sense of the entrepreneurial mindset, which will directly help to shape my career path and boost my employability. Thinking of new career or school opportunities as entrepreneurial ventures would certainly not be a foreign idea to any graduate student who has ever had to apply for a scholarship. For example, the concept of “salesmanship” in business is virtually identical to “grantsmanship” in the academic sphere. Essentially, graduate students (or entrepreneurs) are trying to prove to a funding agency (or venture capitalists and angel investors) that, as newcomers to the science world (or the business world), they are capable and innovative enough to complete a project that will benefit society. Along with all the other skills that we need to develop during our scientific training, salesmanship/grantsmanship and being able to think in terms of the “big picture” are hugely beneficial, whether the goal is to stay in science or take things beyond the lab.

Another highlight for me was the “More Than Money” careers workshop held by the cognitive neuroscientist-turned-career-coach Dr. Mrim Boutla. Dr. Boutla’s unique approach for mapping out key priorities in life to inform future career moves really resonated with me, especially since I’m in the midst of making my transition from graduate school in Canada to working life in the UK. I have always said that my goal is to find a career in which I won’t look forward to the weekend so much. I want every day to be fulfilling. I want to love what I do, and not be counting down the seconds until Friday evening. As such, the concept of finding a career that is about more than the money really clicked with my outlook.

The RADIANT Summer Institute was packed with lectures and workshops by a whirlwind stream of experts, but we were also expected to apply what we had learned through an ambitious group project. We formed teams of 3-5 people and developed a novel business idea that we had to pitch to local venture capitalists and business leaders during a final “Dragon’s Den”-style session. I, along with 4 others, decided to target the issue of chronic low back pain, and proposed the development of special type of pain tracking/monitoring app. Over 12 days, we did market research by interviewing clinicians, researchers, and pain sufferers (locally and online via surveys), analyzed the competitive landscape, fleshed out the features of our product, then came up with a business model and customer acquisition plan, before finally putting together a presentation for the Dragons. The project was an intense exercise in teamwork, but overall an enjoyable and useful way to apply the knowledge we’d gained from the workshops. In the future, it would be useful for the organizers of the Summer Institute to break down the project into more focused milestones. From my team’s experience, the hectic nature of the course schedule, the order of the course topics, and the lack of cohesion between some of the speakers made it difficult to plan out project parts in advance. This resulted in too much stalling in the “brainstorming stage”, an excessive amount of market research, and a lack of emphasis on the financial planning. In spite of all the challenges, every team produced stellar business pitches that definitely seemed to impress the Dragons.

A RADIANT Summer Institute 2012 group shot. Photo courtesy of Dr. Aaron Newman.

2. The Issue of Science Communication

While we were very fortunate to be able to listen to such a varied group of experts, not every session was well-received by the attendees. The general consensus among our group was that the weakest session was the “Journalism 101″ workshop given by several Canadian print and TV journalists, in conjunction with a Dalhousie biologist and the Science Media Centre of Canada. Given my interest in science communication, I was particularly looking forward to this workshop. The intent was to educate scientists on how to communicate their research findings to the public, but I feel that what ensued did not adequately achieve this goal. Only 1 of the journalists had any kind of formal training in the sciences, and so, instead of teaching scientists how to improve public outreach and education about science (e.g., how to tell the story effectively), the workshop ended up being more of a lecture on how scientists are inherently bad at communicating and need to make the deadline-driven lives of journalists easier by “being able to string a sentence together”.

I was disappointed in the brash and arrogant “band-aid” approach to scientific literacy that was conveyed during this workshop. Scientists and journalists may have completely different objectives, but they should both share the responsibility of ensuring that the public is well-educated and well-informed about science. It is certainly true that many scientists are bad at communicating their findings, but they need to be taught to do better. Since publicly-funded scientists owe it to the public to be able to articulate their findings clearly, they need to hone public speaking and writing skills, perhaps through mandatory communication courses during undergraduate- and graduate-level science training. On the journalism side, the effectiveness of scientific communication can be severely hampered by those “killer” deadlines, which lead to a dangerous reliance on minimal background research, inadequate fact-checking, and biased sources. From the workshop, it seemed like some of the journalists regarded members of the general public as simple consumers of scientific news information. In effect, there is a lot of science reporting in Canada that ends up treating the general public like children with short attention spans, who must be placated with sexy, punchy stories without giving a real sense of research impact or a broader context. From an educational standpoint, this approach is condescending. As scientists, we must do our part to stimulate interest in our work so that we can change the way the public thinks about and discusses science as a whole. We need to ensure that non-scientists can always access clear, good quality, accurate, and well-balanced information. Science touches the lives of everyone on the planet and affects every aspect of modern society. Communicating science poorly or superficially does everyone a great injustice.

In the future, the Summer Institute would benefit from also bringing in other science communicators, such as curators of museum exhibits, medical writers and copywriters, science bloggers, science policymakers and ethicists, and even science teachers.

3. Why Every Neuroscience Student Needs to Take a Course Like This

Being a part of the RADIANT Summer Institute has been a great experience, and it was a perfect way to finish off my MSc in Pharmacology/Neuroscience at Dalhousie University. (Now I can honestly say that the words “competitive advantage valuation” will no longer make my eyes glaze over!) Below, I’ve drawn a little concept map of different skills that are useful in science. Prior to attending the Summer Institute, I wouldn’t have intuitively considered salesmanship and creativity (innovation) to be essential skills for scientists to have. It turns out that these two skills are as important as lab or communication skills. In the constantly shifting career landscape, it will become increasingly important for scientists to understand the intersection of science with business, law, ethics, and communication. As a neuroscience student, even if you don’t create your own business, you still need to be able to understand a) how businesses grow and operate, and b) the “big picture” of how your scientific research could make an impact in the world. Hopefully, the RADIANT Summer Institute will be continue to be offered for many years to come. Congratulations to RADIANT, Dalhousie University, and Dr. Newman for developing a very useful adjunct to traditional neuroscience education in Canada.

Use Your Magnetic Resonance Imagination

In an earlier post, I explained that I was first attracted to the field of neuroscience because it attempts to answer the question “What is humanity?” This question isn’t always the most “practical” to ask in the short-term, especially when the search for disease cures takes up the bulk of research funding. Nevertheless, it’s always refreshing to come across neuroscience research that delves into a somewhat unconventional, yet deeply fascinating aspect of being human. Below, I discuss 3 of my favourite neuroimaging studies which probe at thought-provoking ideas in the domains of Consciousness, Pain, and Sexuality.

1. Consciousness: Reaching out to people in vegetative, “locked-in” states

The first topic relates not so much a single published article, but rather to a large, impressive body of work conducted by Dr. Adrian Owen (formerly of Cambridge University, and now at the University of Western Ontario), who studies disorders of consciousness resulting from brain injuries. When Dr. Owen came to Halifax last summer to give 2 lectures, I didn’t actually know anything about his research. After attending both of his engaging and impeccably-delivered talks at Dalhousie University, I became a bit of a fan of his. This reaction seems appropriate, given that Dr. Owen has become quite the celebrity in the science world because of his startling discovery that functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology can be used to communicate with brain-injured patients in vegetative states, who have otherwise been deemed to be “brain dead” and completely unresponsive. Arguing that the proof of a person’s state of awareness is shown by their ability to follow basic commands, Dr. Owen devised a response strategy for vegetative state patients, allowing them to answer “yes” or “no” to a given question. To respond “yes”, the patient was asked to imagine playing tennis. The act of imagining the distinctive swinging motion of a tennis racket reproducibly appeared in the fMRI brain scan as an increased signal originating from the supplementary motor area, which is involved in the control of movements. To respond “no”, the patient was asked to imagine walking through their home, resulting in an increased fMRI signal from the parahippocampal gyrus, which is involved in spatial recognition. This scheme allowed Dr. Owen and his team to ask vegetative state patient specific questions that only the patient and close family knew the answers to. After consulting with the patients’ families, confirmation of the accuracy of the responses cemented the reliability of this communication method. To date, numerous patients have been “found” using this technique.

The revelation that vegetative state patients are still conscious and able to respond to questions uncovered a horrifying truth: there are far more people are experiencing “locked-in” syndrome than had previously been assumed. The implications of this research are tragic in one sense – how many in the past have been grossly neglected after being presumed brain dead? Moral and ethical issues concerning a vegetative state patient’s decision to end his or her own life are also beginning to get caught up in this work – is the patient actually capable of and/or fully able to comprehend making this type of decision? Notwithstanding these concerns, this work offers hope for reaching out to such patients, and for perhaps making their lives more comfortable in some way. For instance, by asking if patients are in pain, small steps towards improving quality of life may be made.

However, there are practical constraints for how far fMRI can go in the clinic for vegetative state patients. Among various limitations, the expense and the size of MRI equipment renders it impractical for having such slow conversations. Consequently, Dr. Owen’s laboratory is currently engaged in efforts to improve the portability, speed, and cost-effectiveness of communicating with vegetative state patients through the use of electroencephalography (EEG) rather than MRI. Since EEG involves the attachment of electrodes directly to the scalp, it is less sensitive to the activity of deeper brain structures such as the parahippocampal  gyrus, when compared to MRI. As a result, new response paradigms that will be more amenable to EEG are being developed.

Two things that struck me about Dr. Owen himself is how passionate he is about his research, as well as how skilled he is as a science communicator. Below is a clip of one of his lectures, and is definitely worth taking a look at.

 

2. Pain: The enhancement of pain relief through religious belief

In 1946, concerning his observations as a U.S. Army doctor in World War II, the anaesthesiologist Henry Beecher wrote,

“There is a common belief that wounds are inevitably associated with pain, and further, that the more extensive the wound the worse the pain. Observations of freshly wounded men in the Combat Zone showed this generalization to be misleading.”

This quotation is a dramatic illustration of how variable pain perception can be between different individuals. The body’s pain pathway is usually depicted in textbooks as a loop: first, a painful stimulus activates pain-sensing receptors (“nociceptors”) in the skin, muscles, joints, or internal organs, and as a result, pain signals are produced and transmitted, first to the spinal cord and then to the brain. Pain is processed and perceived in the brain, which also sends signals back to the spinal cord via a “descending” pathway; this serves to suppress or amplify particular incoming pain signals from the periphery.

The brain is well-known to be the level of the pain pathway that produces the perception of pain. The pain experience is constructed from the widespread activation of various brain regions, including those involved in sensation, emotion, memory, and cognition. But strangely enough (at least from a research standpoint), the brain is arguably the most frequently overlooked player in the pain experience. It’s messy territory, and extremely complicated to examine systematically, especially in humans. Nevertheless, neuroimaging technology has allowed for the brain in pain to be visualized, and many interesting observations have been made as a result. One study that caught my attention in particular is entitled “An fMRI study measuring analgesia enhanced by religion as a belief system”, and was conducted by researchers at the University of Oxford. This study examined the ability of religious images to dampen a religious person’s perception of pain. While religious belief has been anecdotally described as being beneficial for coping with pain, this had previously never been demonstrated in the lab.

As part of the study, the researchers recruited two groups of participants. One group was comprised of 12 highly-devout Roman Catholics who attended mass at least once a week and frequently performed various devotional actions. The other group consisted of 12 people who, denoted as “non-religious”, identified themselves as being either atheists or agnostics. The purpose of the study was two-fold: the researchers wanted to know if one’s religious beliefs could alter the perception of pain intensity from a series of noxious electric shocks (delivered to the hand), and if so, which brain regions were involved mediating in this phenomenon. In an fMRI scanner, participants were asked to rate their perceived pain intensity from the shocks while viewing images of either the Virgin Mary or a similar painting of a woman (control condition). Intriguingly, the religious group reported that viewing the image of the Virgin Mary was more helpful for coping with the pain. Furthermore, during the experiment, these participants appeared to display more activation of a brain area called the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. In contrast, the non-religious group didn’t have a preference for either the Virgin Mary image or the control image, and did not experience any pain relief from either of the images. Additionally, non-religious participants did not show activation of the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, suggesting that that brain area could be involved in mediating the religious response and subsequent pain relief.

The authors proposed that religious belief, combined with the viewing of a religious symbol, is able to lead to a re-interpretation of the emotional response to pain. Moreover, they suggested that the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex is involved in this process of “re-appraisal”, during which the perception of pain is modified through an emotional bond with a religious symbol. For me, this study brings up many interesting questions. How would people who were formerly religious or non-religious respond to pain in this experiment? In other words, does changing your mind about religion later in life affect the way that your brain has been wired to respond to pain? And more practically, is this a form of placebo effect that could be used to accompany standard care for religious pain sufferers through the provision of religious objects or imagery? Can other emotionally-charged symbols or objects also modify the experience of pain through a similar mechanism? All of these considerations could certainly be explored in the future using brain imaging.

 

3. Sexuality: Visualizing the male orgasm

You know that when a paper politely describes a “protocol for ejaculation” and “manual penile stimulation” in the Methods section that it must have been quite an interesting experience for whoever was involved in the data collection process. The last article that I will briefly describe is entitled “Brain activation during human male ejaculation”, and seems frivolous at first glance. However, this research is important because it aids in the understanding and improvement of male sexual health by providing insights into sex-related neural circuits in male brains (heterosexual ones, in this case). Although it was published about 9 years ago, this article has consistently held a spot on the list (updated monthly) of the most-read articles in the Journal of Neuroscience.

In this study, the researchers used positron emission tomography (PET) and MRI scanning to identify regions of the male brain that become activated during ejaculation. They found that a region of the brain called the mesodiencephalic transition zone became highly activated during orgasm, and proposed that areas within this zone that mediate reward, the control of pelvic floor muscles, and sensation, could all potentially be involved in the process of ejaculation. Other areas of the brain involved in emotion and attention were activated, while the amygdala (a center involved in the processing of fear) was actually less active. Overall, this study, which examined healthy male subjects, provided the first framework upon which sexual dysfunctions could subsequently be examined through a neuroscientific lens. Plus, it was also just plain satisfying (pun intended) for everyone’s curiosity.

In summary, the vast improvements in neuroimaging technology have paved the way for numerous fascinating questions in neuroscience to be explored. Whether it’s in consciousness, pain, or even the male orgasm, brain scanning has already begun to revolutionize the ways that we are able to explore our humanity.

 

Recommended reading:

Cyranoski, D. (2012). Neuroscience: The mind reader. Nature, 486. Retrieved from http://www.nature.com/news/neuroscience-the-mind-reader-1.10816

Holstege, G., Georgiadis, J. R., Paans, A. M. J., Meiners, L. C., van der Graaf, F. H. C. E., & Reinders, A. A. T. S. (2003). Brain Activation during Human Male Ejaculation. The Journal of Neuroscience, 23, 9185-93.

Wiech, K., Farias, M., Kahane, G., Shackel, N., Tiede, W., & Tracey, I. (2008). An fMRI study measuring analgesia enhanced by religion as a belief system. Pain, 139, 467-76

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