Category Archives: Writing
OK OK, so perhaps that title is a bit over the top given that I haven’t published many blog posts at all as yet but here is the reason for that.
In this new uncertain world outside of the protective womb of academia, I am now left to fend for myself – gone is the umbilical vessel feeding my brain nutrition in the form of seminars and stimulating coffee break conversations with colleagues (when we weren’t talking about hummus or cheese). Gone is that warm and protective environment – so familiar by the time of completing my PhD and two research posts in the same institution, surrounded by friends and being shielded from the big bad “real world”. After spending so long studying and in the academic environment, I enjoyed the work and the nurturing and stimulating atmosphere but I also think that my skills can probably be better applied to science outside of research. It is hard to make the break and leave that familiarity behind – the real world demands a lot more. I have had a lot of positive feedback but am lacking in experience outside of academia and unfortunately, public engagement doesn’t count enough at the moment with the employment situation so terrible for all. Great – overqualified and under experienced!
Well, I am now putting that to rights and is the reason why it has taken so long to blog again – I have been trying to sort out moving to London from Manchester, my home for the last 10 years. It has taken a little while to sort out the kerfuffles and logistics of moving and there have been many things to arrange. But now, kind and generous friends have taken me in and are helping me settle in whilst I try to overcome the hurdle of being under experienced. Next week, I will start a month-long internship at Breakthrough Breast Cancer to work with their Senior Information Officer – this will get the ball rolling for making contacts, getting some experience and seeing the difference in research in an office-based context.
Now that I am settled down a bit more, I can finally get back to blogging! This was greatly helped by the entertaining talks and inspiration last night at the first ever UK Science Blog Prize arranged by the lovely people of Good Thinking and Soho Skeptics. My first weekend in London and I get to go to something so fun that soothed and cradled my inner geek – like coming home and being embraced. The ten shortlisted bloggers gave very entertaining talks that I hope they write up on their blogs as they were varied and contained a mixture of humour (in one case complete hilarity – thank you very much Dean Burnett of Brain Flapping), advice and tons of inspiration. We were entertained halfway through by the amazingly talented Helen Arney who regaled us with ukelele music and also had us all in fits of giggles – I think I have developed science crushes for both, Helen and Dean! And really, Ben Goldacre was spot on saying that all the entrants were remarkable in doing such excellent work in sharing their passion so effectively with others all for the love of science and for wanting to break down the “us and them” barriers between scientists and the public. This last point in particular was emphasised in the talk by one of the shortlisted candidates – the anonymous Neuroskeptic – that it is vital to explain science to all, not just science geeks, because it is a way for understanding the world around us which is increasingly vital as the influence of scientific progress impacts us all in our day to day lives. How can we debate the big issues discussed in politics without having some knowledge of their influence and impact? It is a sentiment that I wholeheartedly share and is the reason I got into public engagement in the first place and why I am now doing this blog and why I imagine a lot of other scientists pursue public engagement or science blogging.
Now, normally, this would be written up as, ‘but there can only be one winner!’ However, the judges were so torn between two of the shortlisted candidates that they decided to have joint winners as well as the three runners up! Many congratulations to the runners up:
* Oliver Childs, Henry Scowcroft and Kat Arney that together run the Cancer Research UK Science Update blog to help people deal with all that conflicting information out there about the causes, prevention or cause and simultaneous prevention of cancer that seems to change from week to week in the mainstream media (Kat Arney also has her own personal blog).
* Ed Yong of Not Exactly Rocket Science explains expertly and with humour anything from birds that use passwords to spiky beetle penises.
* Dorothy Bishop of BishopBlog discusses many different academic-related matters and more and is a champion of the ‘oldies’ (her words, not mine).
The two winners then that are now even more highly recommended given that they are prize winners and all:
* David Colquhoun of DC’s Improbable Science battles ‘quackery’ – pseudoscience and alternative medicine – without rest whilst being a Professor of Pharmacology at UCL.
* Suzi Gage of Sifting the Evidence where she has fast amassed a massive following as she explains statistics and epidemiology. All the more remarkable given that she is still completing her PhD and as David Colquhoun quipped – he and Suzi were likely the oldest and youngest entrants for the competition.
For a very brief moment whilst I was there, I did feel intimidated in the presence of such eloquent, prolific and popular writers, feeling that I have entered the blogging world too late. But then I came to realise that I can learn so much and only move on up from here. As Suzi said in her talk, one of her tips – there will be at least one person out there that will enjoy what you have written and that is important. That was always how I felt doing schools events, some days there would be classes that consisted mostly of kids that had a fun trip to learn science at the museum forced on them but there would always be at least one that was dazzled by it and had wonder in their eyes, and that really does make it worth all the hard work you put into doing such things. So, I have a lot to learn and a lot to do from here on in. I have a few exciting projects that I may keep under wraps for now (until I learn whether the proposals are successful or not) even though they are making me quite giddy with excitement! Now that I am settled, one of them is to get writing and I have a few topics lined up. However, if there is anything to do with brains, developmental biology, fruit fly research or other biology topics that you want to know, feel free to suggest and I shall try to tackle them, or point you in the direction of someone that has already done it very well. Looking forward to some exciting times ahead! 🙂
As I did not receive any feedback for my entry to the science writing competition run by the Wellcome Trust in association with The Guardian and The Observer, I thought I would post it up here and see what people think of it. It was submitted for the 2011 competition and the subject matter is not from within my own field of expertise.
The topic was prompted by a close friend, who happens to be a very talented jeweller. Around the time of the competition, we were marvelling over a new ring she had bought that had been produced by 3D printing technology and I thought it was the perfect topic for the competition. Obviously, I did not win or even make runner up 😦 but that means I need to focus on how to improve. However, that requires some help – constructive feedback on what can be improved. Although, people are different and what excites one person, does not necessarily excite another. Well, here is my entry….make of it what you will and leave some (constructive) feedback if you wish.
Printing the Future
A close friend of mine happens to be a talented jeweller. Heather is often adorned with interesting pieces of jewellery and I was recently admiring a piece of hers – a metal ring with cavities resembling a cellular structure – and wondered if it was part of a new range she was designing. I listened in disbelief as she explained that the entire ring had been printed in its completed form, that is, no other work required after the printing was complete! Intrigued, I searched for more information on this technological marvel.
3D printing, it turns out, is not as recent a development as I initially thought – it has been in use since 1986 and is part of the new field of ‘additive fabrication’, which simply means construction by building up a structure rather than by chipping away. The term refers specifically to automated layering to create entire pieces, not additive in terms of using techniques such as welding, screwing, forging, etc in the assembly of the product.
Charles Hull developed the first of these technologies that he named stereolithography. This technique uses 3D modelling software that slices a 3D model of the object to be produced into several 2D sections. A UV laser ‘draws’ the first 2D section on a bed of resin to solidify and fuse that region. The building platform is lowered by 0.05-‐0.15mm (depending on the precision of the instrument) and a fresh layer of resin is applied by a blade that sweeps across the platform. The next 2D section is etched that bonds to the previous layer and so on until the object is completed. The un-‐solidified resin is cleared away and ta-‐da! the completed product is ready.
This concept is now applied in a few different ways in terms of the raw materials and the layering technology – these include other types of lasers that fuse particles of a variety of materials into a uniform structure (plastic, glass, ceramic or metal) known as selective laser sintering. Another commonly used apparatus uses a heated nozzle that melts the raw material to extrude it that then promptly solidifies where it has been layered. An obvious limitation of these examples is that the product is made of a single material. The key to this method of manufacturing, however, is speed, precision and adaptability. The machines are currently used by a wide variety manufacturers that use it to rapidly create prototypes of new designs. In aerospace engineering, for example, where precision is key but one-‐off parts for prototypes are costly. Using additive fabrication, the new part can be produced from powder of aerospace-‐grade titanium with high precision, quickly and with little to no waste as unused powder can be reused.
Being a biologist who actually studies cell culture myself, I was particularly astounded when I stumbled across a TED talk by Anthony Atala in which he described using an inkjet printer that used different cell types as the ‘ink’. Still it its infancy, this novel tissue engineering technique aims to develop the technology for organ transplantation or wound healing by printing whole organs or skin grafts. Atala envisions a day (likely very far away) when a patient can lie on the hospital bed and the printer hovers over the wound sweeping across and depositing different cells where they are required. Seems quite ‘out there’ but such innovative vision is important for making these leaps forward.
Inevitably, debates about the implications arise and it is important to think of consequences within a given field that adopts this method of production. Take for example the jewellery industry – a jeweller may not know that someone is infringing their copyright halfway across the world or in the house next door. Seedier situations are also possible: a black-‐market weapons dealer modifying semi-‐automatic guns into automatics with the greatest of ease merely by clicking print. All the gadgetry required for building an organ in highly sterile conditions will cost a lot of money – one would hope that this did not render it a service available to the privileged alone.
What I find most interesting about this is how versatile these additive fabrication technologies will be. Any item that requires a design – from jewellery to a lamp in your house – the customer can have design control via applets on the web so that the artist or manufacturer can produce and deliver a unique and personalised item. In addition, software for the printers may be sold or made available for others to use under a creative commons license. When I first heard of 3d printing, ‘replicators’ – voice operated machines from ‘Star Trek’ that reproduced food or clothing – were brought to mind and, similarly, the idea of the sweeping cellular printer makes me think of the hand-‐held ‘dermal regenerator’. The possibilities are limited only by our imagination.