ASTech Awards

Hello Alberta Science and Technology Community. Did you know that the deadline to nominate a fellow Albertan for an ASTech Award is quickly approaching? You have until May 31st. Go here to learn more.

For those of you who are not familiar with the ASTech Foundation, let me give you a quick introduction: Alberta Science and Technology Leadership (ASTech) Foundation is a not-for-profit organisation that is committed to showcasing substantial achievements in science and technology in Alberta. Every fall, finalists in the nomination process are honoured at an awards ceremony. I have had the pleasure of attending the awards ceremony for the last 3 years and I can say that it is a great event for anyone interested in innovation. It is tremendously fun to be in a room with so many like-minded individuals.

With all of these great things going for ASTech, I have to say that the awards remain plagued by one key problem: a lack of diversity in their award winners. In 2015, only one of the 15 award winners was female. Further, not a single award presenter was a woman. In a discussion about diversity, I brought this point to the ASTech Foundation. Let’s just say their response wasn’t quite as convicted as “because it’s 2015”:

(I’ve done sales/customer service. “Thanks for your feedback” is right up there with “I’ll take that under advisement” for the polite, if not passive aggressive, dismal.)

I began digging into ASTech’s history a bit: in the last 5 years only 9 women have been named winners of awards, with another 3 women being the representative (CEO/Founder) for companies that have been award winners. This means that less than 20% of the award winners are women.

At the 2015 awards, I discussed it with a couple of individuals on the Board of the ASTech Foundation and they expressed that they get a notable lack of female nominees, making it difficult to ensure that there is equality in award winners. This may explain, at least superficially, why there are so few female award winners, but this hardly does anything to explain why award presenters and evening MCs are all still male.

Sausage

Here’s the thing, I am not in anyway suggesting that the men who have won an ASTech award are not deserving. In fact, in 2015, TWO members of my PhD committee, Drs. Jonathan Curtis and Todd Lowary, accepted awards. These are two individuals who had a profound effect on my career and I count them among a list of wonderful mentors I have worked with over the last fourteen years.

That being said, I have also worked with an innumerable number of women who have also changed the landscape of science and technology in Alberta. I am currently involved in two Alberta-based start-ups where the Founder/CEO is a woman: Stephanie Hoeppner of Life Science Forensics and Donna Mandau of Graphene Leaders Canada. The scientific leads, operational leads, and other senior management roles in these companies are also dominated by women (myself included). I work with female vice presidents, female lead researchers, and female project managers every day. I DO NOT accept that there are not enough women contributing to science and technology innovation in Alberta as an explanation for the lack of female nominees. I call on my fellow scientists and innovators to no longer accept this either. When you make your nomination for the 2016 ASTech, do not forget about all of the brilliant women you know who are also changing the Alberta science and technology landscape.

The mission of the ASTech Foundation is “To identify and celebrate outstanding achievements in science and technology in Alberta and to inspire the next generation of innovation and leadership.” It is difficult to inspire the next generation of innovation and leadership to embrace diversity and new ideas, if we aren’t demonstrating, and celebrating, diversity today.

 

An Africat Honeymoon

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This was where I took my morning coffee – often times there would be animals there too.

I have found my happy place! It is at the Okonjima Nature Reserve in Namibia. This is where I spent six nights of my honeymoon. Now you might be wondering who opts for a honeymoon in Namibia and what this has to do with a science blog. Well, the Okonjima Nature Reserve happens to be home to the Africat Foundation, a not for profit organisation committed to the conservation of Namibia’s large carnivores.

Science lovers, animal lovers, and travellers of all kinds NEED to travel here at some point in their lives. First off, the accommodations are top-notch (just check out the Tripadvisor reviews). The staff have to be some of the most helpful and friendly people I have ever met (and I am Canadian; we are proud of our long-standing, widely accepted stereotype as a friendly and helpful culture.) Now, Husband and I were there for 6 nights during our entire time in Namibia. Apparently this is super rare. Most visitors only stay a couple of nights, which is NOT what I would advise. Yes, all of Namibia is beautiful and there is plenty to see, but you are doing yourself a disservice not to spend several days at Okonjima. You have the opportunity to go out tracking the large predators on the reserve, and while the guides (who are just tremendous) will do their absolute best to ensure that you see a leopard (or cheetah, hyaena, or wild dog) there is no guarantee.

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But when you see one, they will take your breath away.

Anyone who has ever owned a cat will understand how uncooperative they can be. The more time you spend there, the more chances you have to see a leopard. It was a pleasure to accompany our designated guide,  Richard Zaayman. He worked tirelessly with the rest of the staff to give us the most unforgettable honeymoon. But what his work really did was create two lifelong supporters of Africat.

Conservation: we, as a species, should perhaps see ourselves more as guardians and stewards of the Earth, rather than those exalted and meant to take from the Earth to serve our own needs. As an Albertan working in the environmental field (an environmental chemist specifically), much of my focus is on pollution and the impact that oil mining has on our environment and our health. But we are part of an ecosystem. Other creatures are depending on the environment. We have heard that wolves change rivers, and no doubt so do the cheetahs, leopards, and lions of Namibia. What I love about Africat, and how I know that I found a group of kindred spirits, is that their motto is “conservation through education”. By focusing on educating the next generation on the importance of conservation and why Namibia’s large carnivores play an important role in the ecosystem it is hoped that a sustainable solution for the future can be made. The concept of education and curiosity is why I write this blog. By giving everyone the opportunity to explore science, making it accessible to all, hopefully we can give the next generation the opportunity to explore the mysteries and wonders of nature, whether they are exploring the spaces between atoms, the spaces between continents, or the spaces between planets.

“Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” -Nelson Mandela

Thank you Richard, everyone at Okonjima and Africat for making our honeymoon so perfect!IMG_1353

 

An Ode to Math

I think we need to talk about an important component in the sciences, one that gets a terrible reputation, is often scorned, and legions of people claim hatred of or ineptitude at: it is math. Poor math. But you know what? Math is actually pretty cool and there are so many different aspects of it. There is something for everyone.

Let’s start with this article where it seems that Canadian students are no longer leading the way in math. Alberta, where I live, used to be the country’s leader and is now struggling to perform. This breaks my heart. Math is so critical. I don’t really understand this “discovery based learning” of math. Don’t get me wrong, I am a big fan of making sure that people understand there is more than one way to skin some sort of animal and that there are limits to what rote memorisation can get you. However, there are certain things that do need to be committed to memory because they will form the basics tools for more complex learning later on: notes on a scale — you cannot memorise every possible combination, but you do need to know what is in an octive to play music; words in a language — again, you cannot memorise every sentence you will ever need, but you will need to memorise the various words that make up your vocabulary; the alphabet and the sounds the letter make — imagine trying to learn to read if you can’t remember what sound the letter “t” makes? I equate that memorising multiplication tables is the same. By knowing that 3×9=27 it is much easier to solve 99 x 3. (99×3=297)

I know that math is difficult

Here’s the thing: math is critical to life. Okay, so you may never have to solve the Schrödinger equation for the hydrogen atom, but I bet you will have to figure out a budget. Whether it is a household budget or the billion dollar budget of a province, it is kind of important to make sure that your math is correct.

How about this: my mother is one of the greatest math whizzes I have ever met. Does she use her prodigious skill in putting together new designs for military jets at an engineering firm? Not so much — instead she uses those skills to further a hobby that keeps us all warm: she makes quilts. (She even made me one with a double helix on it in celebration of my PhD.) If you ever want to meet someone who can add quickly in only fractions, talk to a quilter. Each seam has to be 1/4 of an inch. You are making four squares made two 4″ right angle triangles. How much fabric to you need? My mother probably wouldn’t ever consider herself to be on the level of John Nash, but I have watched her add up everything she needs for these patterns in such a quick fashion that even Euclid would have to take notice. I am happen to be a pretty deft hand at math, and I found it hard to follow her calculations, she’s that good.

Just an example of one quilt she made.

Just an example of one quilt she made.

Quilt making is just one example of how you can use math in a very not boring way. Look at how pretty the geometric patterns of a quilt are. Here’s another way you might need to be good with math: baking or cooking. Ever need to double a recipe? Ever need to cut it in half? Ya, that is all math. Delicious math, but still math.

I will admit, despite being good with math, I did find math class a little dull. Probably because it lacks context. But put me in a chemistry class where I need to figure out the quantity of an analyte in a solution through a series of back calculations, I am hooked. It is so neat that knowing this concentration and that volume, this molecular mass and that dilution factor, I can tell you how much calcium was present in a water sample. That math never “feels” like math. It is seems so straightforward and easy; after all, it is just multiplication and division, set up using the same principles that I learned when memorising my multiplication tables in fourth grade.

That’s the thing about math: it is everywhere. It is hiding in your budgets, lurking in your kitchen, sneaking in your job, but it is always there, giving you a helping hand when you need it, making sure that life makes sense. Imagine getting on a plane without math. How safe would you feel if some of those calculations about lift and drag weren’t quite right? Or imagine getting surgery. The calculations that the anesthesiologist uses are very precise-ensuring that you remain unconscious but not dead. (That would be why they are paid A LOT of money.)

Math is your friend. You don’t need to be Stephen Hawking to enjoy the benefits of math. And I bet that most of you, in your own way, are pretty good at math. Let’s change the reputation math has and start giving it the credit it is do. From music to planetary movements, math is pretty cool.

Girls with Toys

I want you all to engage in a little thought experiment with me:

Imagine yourself at dinner with some family friends. Their 17 year old is going to be heading off to university next year and so you ask “Jamie, what is it that you are planning to do?” Jamie replies, “I’m going to be a physicist! But, like, not just any physicist, I want to get a PhD and work for, like, NASA or something. I want to be Canada’s Neil Degrasse Tyson!”

You’re not surprised; this kid has always loved science. Heck, when Jamie turned 7 your gift was a model of the solar system. Which was followed by a lecture on its inaccuracies: Pluto is NOT a planet.

What advice are you thinking about offering Jamie, knowing that these specific career goals mean at least a decade in university?

-How about the fact that this may interfere with plans to have a baby? No one wants to start having kids in their 30s.

-A technical diploma will allow for way more family focused jobs

-What about *future* husband’s career goals?

How many of you actually imagined that Jamie was a boy?

On Friday, Shrinivas Kulkarni of Caltech said in an interview on NPR “many scientists, I think, secretly are what I call ‘boys with toys'” and it has since sparked a backlash on Twitter with the hashtag #GirlswithToys. It has some people wondering, “what are people so outraged”?

Well here’s the reason: that statement automatically excluded 50% of the population from being identified as scientists, a group that already is discourage from science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. In one statement, Dr. Kulkarni managed to highlight the tacit institutional sexism present in the sciences (like so many other fields).

You would be hard pressed to find anyone, with the exception of cretins who identify as “Men’s Rights Activists”, who would openly say “women cannot be scientists” and yet, women earn as few as 20% of the the bachelor of science degrees awarded to men in physics, engineering, and computer science.

On April 29th, (that’s April 29th, 2015) female researchers were told that their paper would be improved if it had a male co-author. I can assure you that none of my male colleagues have ever been told their paper would fair better with a female co-author.

My male colleagues haven’t been asked about “when they are planning to have children” in job interviews, despite being married (some already committed fathers). My male colleagues haven’t had TAs who didn’t want to to female students. (Sadly this was a situation that arose, in 2009, in Canada.) When my male colleagues mention that their PhD is in chemistry, I have yet to see the kind of shocked faces followed by the condescending, “oh you have a real PhD,” as though somehow getting a PhD in a physical science is harder or more legitimate than one in a social science. I have never heard anyone refer to my male colleagues as a “bitch” because the same kind of tough questions that the male professors do. And they certainly haven’t had to deal with the rampant sexual harassment. Let me tell you, when you are at a conference poster session and one of your professors begins to tell, in graphic detail, of how attractive he thinks a well-known undergraduate student is and what he is planning to do alone in his hotel with her image, it makes your skin crawl to know that even if you said something about this, the guy has tenure and so nothing will happen. Hell, let’s not even discuss some of the things the more senior fellows in the department have said.

Did Dr. Kulkarni mean that women can’t be scientists by his off-hand remark? Probably not. I like to think that he was commenting on the child-like curiosity that many scientists have, and that the general enthusiasm with which curiosity-driven research is carried out feels a little like “getting to play with some pretty cool toys”. However, when you take that sentiment in context with the stories of institutional sexism that I, and every female scientist, has experienced in some way, it becomes easy to see why we are reacting with outrage.

I happen to work for a company called Life Science Forensics, where I am the Director of Science and Research, and right now we are made up of four women only. I would very much refer to this wonderful group of women that I work with as “girls with toys” because we are driven to innovative research projects that often start with a curious question and the knowledge that we have plenty of high end instrumentation to test out ideas. We are committed to innovating our field-and if you had the kind of instruments we have, you’d want to be testing for all kinds of things like we do.

Does it matter that we are women? Not at all. Science is for everyone with a curious mind. Dorothy Parker wrote: “The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.” And that has NOTHING to do with gender.

Dates, Jobs, and Balance in Science

I think it has been pretty clear that I have not been writing as much for Curiosity Science as I would like, even though there is so much to share in the world of science. That has to do with my new adventure: an actual paying job! I am working for Paracel Laboratories as the new business development person for the lab starting in Calgary. What is particularly awesome is that this is also a joint venture with Life Science Forensics. This has given me the opportunity to learn in a new field and also I will be writing for Life Science Forensics blog. It is a great opportunity, but all of this has me spread pretty thin and lacking the inspiration to move forward.

Me and the boy, getting ready for date night.

Me and the boy, getting ready for date night.

Luckily I have a great partner. He’s that handsome one on the right. He knew it was time for us to go out and have a date night. It was a Thursday. Where does he plan to take a scientist who is getting burned out, lacking balance, and getting low in inspiration? He takes her to the Telus Spark Adults Only Night!

Adults Only Night! I am so excited.

Adults Only Night! I am so excited.

 

This has to be one of the best dates that we had, and we have had some pretty great dates. (And yes, I am wearing molecule earrings. I try to dress on point.) I have always loved going to Telus Spark (or in Edmonton, the Telus World of Science) during regular hours, with all of the kids. My nephew has great fun there, and of course, Auntie will always take him, because, science. But this was BETTER! And not just because they were now selling booze (though, it is a charming perk) but you get to play in all of the exhibits without worry that some kid is going to cut in front of you and grub up what you are looking at. Sure, some rowdy adult might do that, but while people really give you the side-eye if you get annoyed with a six year who is wrecking your wind tunnel experiment with their mindless block stacking, they applaud you for pointing out the line to hold the snake. (I don’t really get mad at 6 year olds; I do point out lines. I like order.)

A fossil on display; a loan from the Royal Tyrrell Museum.

A fossil on display; a loan from the Royal Tyrrell Museum.

This time they had the Dinosaurs in Motion exhibit. Art + Science = Amazing! These are sculptures of dinosaurs that are also like big metal puppets. So you learn about the dinosaurs, you learn about how the sculpture was built, and also how to make them move.

Making a T-Rex move requires some decent force!

Making a T-Rex move requires some decent force!

Ever paid homage to a pulley? The pulley is one of the basic, simple machines, reducing the force required to lift an object. It reminded me of first year physics, where we actually had to calculate the amount of force that pulley would reduce the movement of a load by. Why did none of those problems involve us moving a T-rex? Seriously, it might have actually been an interesting exercise if I had to do that calculation.

Me trying to make this guy move with the playstation controller. It isn't going well.

Me trying to make this guy move with the playstation controller. It isn’t going well.

I can tell you that I was not very good at moving the sculptures attached to playstation controller. Apparently moving passed the simple machine of the pulley was too challenging for me. This exhibit was so neat. I loved the art work. The artist that created these sculptures did a wonderful job. What really struck me with this though was that it was an artistic impression of physics, paleontology, and metallurgy. Science isn’t some esoteric field of study that can only be found in the recesses of dusty books; science is in every part of life, allowing us to create beautiful innovations. Whether it is moving dinosaurs or a new app for our smart phones, science can inspire. And the sheer number of adults queued up behind me just to try their hand at making this guy move, is a testament to just how fun expressions of art and science can be.

After playing with dinosaurs we explored the rest of the exhibits and found that there was a display of reptiles. Now, my partner LOVES snakes! (He may have been the adult that I had to point out the line up to.)

The boy and Steve.

The boy and Steve.

Me and Steve.

Me and Steve.

So that is how we met this guy: his name is Steve and he is a rat snake. And if you can’t tell, the look on my partner’s face is his “quick, stick him your purse and make a run for it” look. Of course, we didn’t. It wouldn’t be right. But we did enjoy snuggling with Steve for a few minutes. Snakes are pretty cool.

This date  was so fun. It was different and amazing. It reminded me of why I love science, why I love talking about science, and why it was important for me to start this project in the first place. I love what I am doing with Paracel and Life Science Forensics. I am just having a little trouble in finding that thing called balance. But luckily for me, Telus Spark had a whole display demonstrating balance in the Dinosaurs in Motion exhibit. Hopefully now I can find some.

Thanks Telus Spark: we had a great date!

Heading home after a great date!

Heading home after a great date!

Big Science News in Calgary: BPS Impacts Zebrafish Brains

Big science news out of the University of Calgary: researchers have found that BPS impacts brain behaviour in zebrafish! You may have seen it in the new this week: it made it on CBC, the Toronto Star, the National Post and many other news sites. Some contained alarming headlines like “Attention pregnant shoppers: study says those cash register receipts could harm your unborn child. (National Post)” But really, is that what the study said? The title, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reads “Low-dose exposure to bisphenol A and replacement bisphenol S induces precocious hypothalamic neurogenesis in embryonic zebrafish” Seems a bit of a reach to say that you may be harming your unborn child, doesn’t it? And here lies some of the challenges in science communication: making the study accessible to the public, without oversimplifying or over reaching the conclusions. It is a tough balance. This study helps highlight those challenges and it also gives an opportunity to explain how these studies are really important to communicate; how they impact our understanding of our human health and development; and the impact that we have on the world around us.

This study, led by Dr. Deborah Kurrasch at the University of Calgary, is pretty interesting science. What’s more, is that her and her team said they were surprised by the results. So let’s have a look at what Dr. Kurrasch’s team discovered.

bisphenola

Figure 1: chemical structure of bisphenol A

The story begins with the compound bisphenol A, abbreviated as BPA. It wasn’t long ago that BPA was making the headlines: it was dangerous and has since been banned from baby bottles. Many of us are now purchasing BPA-free water bottles, baby bottles, plastic packing etc. So what is BPA anyway? It is the compound here on the right. It is used in making plastics, most commonly polycarbonate plastics, but also used in epoxy resins. These are just various types of plastics that have all kinds of uses. Soon it became apparent that we were finding BPA EVERYWHERE. In all kinds of places it shouldn’t be. As someone who studied polymers, I can say what surprised me about this compound is that, unlike some other additives to plastics, it is chemically bonded right into the polymer. The fact that it was leaching out was a bit of a surprise. But what is worse is that BPA behaves as an endocrine disruptor. Endocrine disruptors are a group of compounds that behave similarly to hormones in your body. In this case, BPA behaves similarly to thyroid hormones.

The endocrine system is one of the systems in your body that is responsible for communication and regulation of body functions such as growth, reproduction, metabolism, and behaviour. Hormones are the chemicals produced by your endocrine cells and secreted and transported throughout the body as the chemical communicators. Chemicals that are structurally similar to hormones can bond to hormone receptors in your body and therefore disrupt the communications, which can cause problems with your body’s development.

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Figure 2: chemical structure of bisphenol S

Now knowing that BPA is an endrocrine disruptor, it became apparent that it should be removed from materials. The trick is to find something else that can function in place of BPA, but won’t pose the same problem. Manufacturers started using bisphenol S, or BPS, in place of BPA. (BPS is shown here on the right.) This compound is used in place of BPA, meaning that BPA-free products may contain BPS in its place.

So we know that both of these compounds are present in the environment, we know that there are found in organisms, that they bioaccumulate, and that they are endrocrine disruptors. Great, so how does this actually impact you? Well…we don’t exactly know. Enter: Dr. Kurrasch and her team.

The study uses zebrafish (Figure 3) as a model organism (Model organisms are other living things that are used in experiments because it would be unethical to test on human subjects.) Zebrafish actually have a spinal cord and a brain, but also reproduce rapidly, making them good models for neural development. (The rapid reproduction allows you to get enough subjects so your results actually mean something without waiting a hundred years.)

Figure 3: zebrafish

Figure 3: zebrafish

Using VERY low doses of bisphenol a and bisphenol s (1000 times less than typical human daily exposure), the team treated the zebrafish embryos and found that they were producing more neurons (brain cells) during development, which resulted in hyperactivity in the zebrafish babies.

The studies on human development are still emerging, meaning that we don’t yet know the long term impacts on human health, or the exact mechanism of how these chemicals work. These studies from the University of Calgary help give in sight into those mechanism and also suggest that it isn’t just BPA that is a problem, but chemicals that are the same class. It also suggests that very minute amounts of these compounds can have an impact on brain development.

Take home messages of this study:

-BPA and its relative BPS both impact the brain development of zebrafish embryos

-Only minute quantities are required to see an observable difference in brain development of zebrafish

-It may be important consider removing all bisphenol compounds from consumer materials

-The impact on human health is still unknown

-These results do give in sight on potential mechanisms on human brain development

Science vs Marketing

Happy New Year Everyone! fruit-detox And with the New Year comes all of the weight loss related fad diets to help you with your resolutions. Anyway, the thing that makes me annoyed with these is that marketers use “science-y” words to make you think that this one particular diet is going to work, even though all of the other ones you have tried are total crap. And then people think that there is actual science involved. If you want to try these, or sell these, that doesn’t bother me, just don’t pretend what you doing involves actual science.

The big question becomes: “What is science and what is marketing?” Here are a few terms to help you navigate the difference:

“Scientifically proven”: Odd as it may sound, actual scientists and science articles NEVER use the phrase “scientifically proven”. It sounds super pedantic, but scientists actually don’t set out to prove anything. They generally try to disprove things. What you will generally hear from scientists are things like “the scientific evidence” or “supporting evidence”. This is usually followed by a long list of peer-reviewed publications.

“Detox”: Ok this one is obvious, and yet we still hear endlessly about “detoxing” and “cleansing”. I have no clue what these terms mean. All I can think is that they mean that they “detoxing you from money” and “cleansing your wallet of funds”. Anyway, there is absolutely no science in this term-it is all marketing.

“Toxin”: Somehow marketers are making it seem like your body is filled with all of these mystery toxins that you should not have in your body and that drinking a bunch of juice is somehow going to change that. Actually your body is pretty good at removing things that could be harmful to you. Have you ever had food poisoning? Do you recall spending hours in the bathroom re-enacting scenes from The Exorcist? THAT is your body getting rid of toxins. Also, you have a liver. That is its function and why it is such a crucial organ. It removes the by products of metabolism and anything else you may have in your blood that would be bad. Side note: there is an actual biological definition of “toxin”: toxins are secreted from cells into the extra cellular space. They may act on other cells or tissues from afar and may be taken up by them, but they are first secreted. See this is how scientists come with a definition of something.

“Revolutionary”: I would love for any of my publications to have been revolutionary to the field of organic chemistry. At best, I can say that the 5 people who read them found it probably thought “huh, I might try this.” This term is all marketing. Just trying to sell a product.

“Magic”: Do I have to explain why this isn’t a science term?

“Holy grail” “bust your fat” “miraculous”: and pretty much everything else that Dr. Oz says. What can I say about Dr. Oz better than what John Oliver has covered:

It should be noted the green coffee bean extract that Dr. Oz claims to be the “miracle fat burner” was based on a paper that was recently retracted for unsupported results.

My point here is that all of these diets are based on marketing not science. Yes these things sell. The people who come up with them are trying to make money. They are a business, and that is what businesses do.