Category Archives: science communication

Call for AAAS Kavli science journalism award submission goes international, for the first time

From a June 22, 2015 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) news release in my mailbox,

The contest year for the 2015 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards will close on 15 July. Be sure to enter your best work that appeared in print, online or on air between 1 July 2014 and 15 July 2015. The entry deadline is August 1, 2015. [emphasis mine]

Thanks to an expanded endowment from The Kavli Foundation, the competition is open for the first time to professional journalists from around the world in each of the eight reporting categories. There is no entry fee. Please read the Contest Rules and Frequently Asked Questions before submitting.

Note: If the submitted work was published or broadcast in a language other than English, you must provide an English translation.

The awards recognize outstanding reporting for a general audience and honor individuals for coverage of the sciences, engineering, and mathematics. Stories on the environment, energy, science policy, and health qualify if they deal in a substantive way with underlying science. Independent committees of journalists select the winning entries.

The categories:
·  Large Newspaper (circulation of 150,000 or more, daily or weekly)
·  Small Newspaper (circulation of less than 150,000, daily or weekly)
·  Magazine
·  TV – Spot News/Feature Reporting (20 minutes or less)
·  TV – In-Depth Reporting (more than 20 minutes)
·  Radio
·  Online
·  Children’s Science News (reporting on science for children, including young teens up to age 14)

You can find Contest Rules here and you can find Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) here,

Q: I work for a state-funded news organization. Am I eligible?

A. The news outlet must be editorially independent. Questions about eligibility are decided by the awards administrator in consultation with the Managing Committee (an advisory panel of science journalists.)

Q. Are commentaries or articles in advocacy publications eligible for the award?

A. No.

Q. Are books eligible?

No, books, book chapters and e-books are not eligible.

Q. Are stories written by public information officers or freelancers for university-funded research magazines or Web sites eligible for the awards?

A. No. The Managing Committee has determined that such publications are not eligible for the awards.

Q. Are podcasts eligible for the award?

A. Some podcasts are eligible for consideration within the Online category. They must be science-news-only podcasts aimed at a general audience and prepared by reporters. Institutional podcasts from university news or research offices, or podcasts featuring news as well as other types of segments are not eligible.

Q. Are blogs eligible?

A. Yes, in the “Online” category. The judges will determine whether a blog entry meets the standards of professional journalism and is accessible to a general audience.

Finally, you can make your submission by clicking the link on this page which includes a summary of the rules and FAQs.

Good luck!

Animation: art and science

Being in the process of developing an art/science piece involving poetry and visual metaphors as realized through video, I was quite fascinated to read about someone else’s process and issues in Stephen Curry’s and Drew Berry’s June 9, 2015 joint post on the Guardian science blogs (Note: Links have been removed),

Yesterday [June 8, 2015] I [Stephen Curry] was trying to figure out why it seems to be so difficult to connect to the biological molecules that we are made of – proteins, DNA and such like. My piece might have ended on a frustrated note but I have no wish to be negative, especially since the problem has only arisen because animators like Drew Berry are now able to use the results of structural biology to make quite exquisite movies of the molecules of life at work inside the cells of our bodies. As I was working though my difficulties, I wrote to ask Berry how he approached the task of representing molecular complexity in ways that would make sense to people. This is his considered and insightful reply:

“The goal of my [Drew Berry] work is to show non-experts – the general public aged 4 to 99, students of biology, journalists and politicians, and so on – what is being discovered in biology, in a format that is accessible, meaningful, and engaging. I hope that my work provides some sense of what biologists and medical researchers are discovering and thinking about, to provide the public with a framework of understanding to discuss these important new discoveries and the impact it will have on us as a society as we head into the future.

These passages, in particular, caught my attention as they are descriptive of the art and the science inherent in Berry’s work,

… I should avoid overstating how accurately I have depicted the reality of the molecular world. It is vastly messier, random and crowded, and it’s physical nature is unimaginably alien to our normal perception of the world around us. That said, my work is not intended to be a lab-bench-calculated model for research use, it is an impressionistic, artist-generated crude sketch of phenomena and structures science is measuring and discovering at the molecular scale.

… I would then assert that the animations are firmly founded on real data and are as accurate as I can possibly make them, while making them watchable and interpretable to a human audience. By far the largest portion of my time is spent conducting broad ranging literature reviews of the topic I am working on, gathering the fragments of data scattered throughout the journals, and holistically reconstructing what currently we know and do not know. Wherever data and models are available, I incorporate them directly into the construction of the animation, including molecular structures, dynamics simulations, speed measurements, and so on. My work is most akin to a ‘review’ paper in the literature, presented in visual form.

Here is one of the problems Berry and other animators struggle with,

… I am friends with the dozen or so people who are at the top of the game at creating biomedical animations (most have a PhD scientific background) and we all struggle with the problem of having a molecule arrive at a particular location from the thick molecular soup of the cytoplasm and not look directed. I can make the molecule wander around in a Brownian type manner, but for story telling and visual explanations, I need it to get to a certain point and do it’s thing at a certain time to move the story along. This can make it look determined and directed.

Berry also discusses the unexpected,

An unexpected outcome I stumbled across more than a decade ago is that the public loves it when ‘real time’ speeds are displayed and the structures and reactions are derived from research data. This takes a lot of time to build, but then the animations have a remarkable longevity of use and strongly resonate with the audience.

For the last excerpt from this essay, I include Berry’s description of one of his most challenging projects and the video he produced,

The most heavily researched and technically challenging animation I have ever built is the kinetochore which can be seen in the video below . The kinetochore is a gigantic structure that assembles on chromosomes just after they have been duplicated and helps them to be pulled apart during cell division (mitosis). It has about 200 proteins of which I depicted about 50. I gathered data from more than 180 scientific papers with everything built as accurately as possible with hundreds of little scientific details built into the structure and dynamics.”

There are more illustrations and one more video embedded along with more from Berry in the essay, which includes these biographical details (Note: Links have been removed),

Drew Berry is the Biomedical Animations Manager at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, Australia. @Stephen_Curry is a professor of structural biology at Imperial College [London, UK].

Portraying the unglamorous side of scientific research

Daniel Stier has produced an eye-opening book of photographs depicting scientific research as it is performed by the multitude of scientists who don’t have access to the beautiful, gleaming laboratories depicted in magazines and film.

Courtesy: Daniel Stier

Courtesy: Daniel Stier

You can find this image along with more from volume one of Stier’s book, Ways of Knowing. According to Stier’s website (images from volume one), it is available for pre-orders.

Unfortunately, Stier doesn’t offer much information about the images he’s chosen to share from volume one but there is a June 12, 2015 article by Meg Miller for Fast Company that fills in a few blanks about the project and the image she’s chosen to highlight,

… “We think of lab coats, high-tech equipment—the realities couldn’t be more different.” In the Ergonomics department of the Technische Universitaet Munich, for example, Stier photographed a professor hanging horizontally from an aluminum structure, suspended by wires attached to velcro straps. He looks like he’s trapped in some sort of ’50s-era torture device. Science: glamorous, it ain’t.

It’s nice to be reminded from time to time that science is still practiced in homely and makeshift circumstances.

We have a national science and technology museum in Canada, don’t we? A national public consultation

Before dashing off to participate in the consultation, here’s a little background information. At this moment in time, Canada’s national museum for science and technology is a truck, ‘Museum on the go‘. There was a museum building but that was closed in Sept. 2014 due to health and safety issues. (Btw, the ‘Museum on the go’ truck is a regular summer programme which staff are presenting in difficult circumstances.)

For those unfamiliar with the setup, Canada has three interlinked science and technology museum institutions (a) Canada Aviation and Space Museum (b) Canada Agriculture and Food Museum and (c) Canada Science and Technology Museum. The other two institutions are still open.

If memory serves, 2008 was when I first heard there was a problem with the Canada Science and Technology Museum. The details escape me but it had something to do with an unsuccessful attempt to get a new building or move to a new building. Presumably they were having health and safety problems dating from 2008 at least. That’s a long to time to wait for a solution but after closing in Sept. 2014, the federal government announced funds to repair and upgrade the current museum building. From a Nov. 17, 2014 announcement on the Canada Science and Technology Museum (CSTM) website,

The Government of Canada announced today an $80.5 million investment to repair and upgrade the Canada Science and Technology Museum. The work will be completed during the next two years and the Museum will re-open in 2017.

This funding is essential to address the health and safety issues that are of immediate concern, and to support the Museum’s work promoting Canada’s long history of scientific and technological achievement.

Specifically, the funds announced today will go toward:

  • Removing the mould and replacing the Museum’s roof, which will stop leaks. A new roof will ensure that artifacts and exhibitions are no longer in danger of damage;
  • Retrofitting and upgrading the Museum’s exhibition spaces and floor space;
  • Upgrading the building’s fire-suppression systems and its seismic structural strength; and,
  • Bringing the Museum’s exterior façade up to date to match the new, modern interior. …

$80M is not a lot of money for the repairs and there is no mention of any upgrades for technology used to display exhibits e.g., VR (or virtual reality is becoming popular) or ICT (information and communications technology such as mobile applications and perhaps even webcasting facilities so people living outside the Ottawa region might have chance to attend virtually).

It seems ironic that while the Canadian federal government wants to promote science culture and innovation, it refuses to adequately fund our national showcase. Where culture is concerned, the federal government can commission a report on science culture (my Dec. 31, 2014 post: Science Culture: Where Canada Stands; an expert assessment, Part 1 of 3: Canadians are doing pretty well) but it’s not inclined to support culture as can be seen in an April 17, 2015 article by Jeff Lee for the Vancouver Sun concerning the funding for arts museums,

There is also no indication that the Stephen Harper government would be willing to contribute such a large amount for cultural projects, given that it hasn’t done so elsewhere in Canada, with only two exceptions.

Both of those fulfilled commitments made by the previous federal Liberal government. One is the now federally owned Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg, to which Ottawa contributed $100 million and then took over as the cost soared to $351 million. The other is the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton, first envisioned in 2003 at a cost of $200 million and now under construction at a new estimate of $340 million.

The feds, under Paul Martin, pledged $122 million — and the Harper government tried to back out of the deal. Last year [2014] it agreed to pay the remaining $92 million.

If the federal government is contributing to museum and art gallery projects, it is doing so in smaller amounts, such as $13 million for Saskatoon’s Remai Modern, once estimated to cost $55 million and now approaching $100 million. Or the $13 million for the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ $33-million conversion of the Erskine and American Church into the Claire and Marc Bourgie Pavilion of Quebec and Canadian Art, incorporating a concert hall.

The interest in culture seems grudging. Even for an aspect of culture, science and technology, for which the federal government has expressed some enthusiasm. They are very interested in promoting innovation (code for commercializing science research) but, although they want science culture so all those young’uns will study science, engineering, technology, and mathematics, they aren’t willing to dedicate enough money so the museum has some chance of delivering on its mandate.

So please, do participate in the public consultation. Yes, it’s very Ottawa-centric and also Ontario- and Québec-centric, which is understandable. They are dependent on the people who are most likely to visit multiple time but it’s still irritating to those of us (me) who live outside those regions to be lumped into a category of ‘everybody else’.

As to why the consultation has such a depressive quality, the drawings are gray and faded and the written descriptions are somewhat flat, I can’t tell if that’s a problem with time, depressed staff, something I have failed to imagine, or some combination.

I know that sounds uninviting but let them know you care and you want to see a dynamic Science and Technology Museum that reaches out nationally.

Finally, here’s a June 4, 2015 CSTM announcement (with a link to the consultation),

Want to learn more about plans for a renewed
Canada Science and Technology Museum? 

As a friend of the Museum, this is your chance to get a sneak peek and provide feedback on the proposed concept plan.

Renewal of the Museum is underway, with many new exhibits, programs, and a striking redesigned façade on tap for its reopening in 2017. Staff, architects, and consultants have been hard at work on a new master plan for the interior — which, we are happy to confirm, will include the Museum’s ever-popular locomotives and Crazy Kitchen.

Here’s how you can participate:

Fill out the online survey below to see early sketches and concepts, and offer your thoughts on these potential new offerings. You can participate in this national survey until June 20.

Survey link:  

Visit the Museum team at a series of Open House events
  • St. Laurent Shopping Centre in Ottawa, June 6 from 9:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. and June 7 from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
  •  Canada Agriculture and Food Museum on June 13, and Canada Aviation and Space Museum on June 14 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

As the renewal project unfolds, additional opportunities for feedback on exhibitions will be shared via the Museum’s website. Stay tuned for updates!

I have filled it out and, as far as I can tell, you have to complete the survey in one session and the questions require open-ended answers (no multiple choice) .

I sing the body cyber: two projects funded by the US National Science Foundation

Points to anyone who recognized the reference to Walt Whitman’s poem, “I sing the body electric,” from his classic collection, Leaves of Grass (1867 edition; h/t Wikipedia entry). I wonder if the cyber physical systems (CPS) work being funded by the US National Science Foundation (NSF) in the US will occasion poetry too.

More practically, a May 15, 2015 news item on Nanowerk, describes two cyber physical systems (CPS) research projects newly funded by the NSF,

Today [May 12, 2015] the National Science Foundation (NSF) announced two, five-year, center-scale awards totaling $8.75 million to advance the state-of-the-art in medical and cyber-physical systems (CPS).

One project will develop “Cyberheart”–a platform for virtual, patient-specific human heart models and associated device therapies that can be used to improve and accelerate medical-device development and testing. The other project will combine teams of microrobots with synthetic cells to perform functions that may one day lead to tissue and organ re-generation.

CPS are engineered systems that are built from, and depend upon, the seamless integration of computation and physical components. Often called the “Internet of Things,” CPS enable capabilities that go beyond the embedded systems of today.

“NSF has been a leader in supporting research in cyber-physical systems, which has provided a foundation for putting the ‘smart’ in health, transportation, energy and infrastructure systems,” said Jim Kurose, head of Computer & Information Science & Engineering at NSF. “We look forward to the results of these two new awards, which paint a new and compelling vision for what’s possible for smart health.”

Cyber-physical systems have the potential to benefit many sectors of our society, including healthcare. While advances in sensors and wearable devices have the capacity to improve aspects of medical care, from disease prevention to emergency response, and synthetic biology and robotics hold the promise of regenerating and maintaining the body in radical new ways, little is known about how advances in CPS can integrate these technologies to improve health outcomes.

These new NSF-funded projects will investigate two very different ways that CPS can be used in the biological and medical realms.

A May 12, 2015 NSF news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the two CPS projects,

Bio-CPS for engineering living cells

A team of leading computer scientists, roboticists and biologists from Boston University, the University of Pennsylvania and MIT have come together to develop a system that combines the capabilities of nano-scale robots with specially designed synthetic organisms. Together, they believe this hybrid “bio-CPS” will be capable of performing heretofore impossible functions, from microscopic assembly to cell sensing within the body.

“We bring together synthetic biology and micron-scale robotics to engineer the emergence of desired behaviors in populations of bacterial and mammalian cells,” said Calin Belta, a professor of mechanical engineering, systems engineering and bioinformatics at Boston University and principal investigator on the project. “This project will impact several application areas ranging from tissue engineering to drug development.”

The project builds on previous research by each team member in diverse disciplines and early proof-of-concept designs of bio-CPS. According to the team, the research is also driven by recent advances in the emerging field of synthetic biology, in particular the ability to rapidly incorporate new capabilities into simple cells. Researchers so far have not been able to control and coordinate the behavior of synthetic cells in isolation, but the introduction of microrobots that can be externally controlled may be transformative.

In this new project, the team will focus on bio-CPS with the ability to sense, transport and work together. As a demonstration of their idea, they will develop teams of synthetic cell/microrobot hybrids capable of constructing a complex, fabric-like surface.

Vijay Kumar (University of Pennsylvania), Ron Weiss (MIT), and Douglas Densmore (BU) are co-investigators of the project.

Medical-CPS and the ‘Cyberheart’

CPS such as wearable sensors and implantable devices are already being used to assess health, improve quality of life, provide cost-effective care and potentially speed up disease diagnosis and prevention. [emphasis mine]

Extending these efforts, researchers from seven leading universities and centers are working together to develop far more realistic cardiac and device models than currently exist. This so-called “Cyberheart” platform can be used to test and validate medical devices faster and at a far lower cost than existing methods. CyberHeart also can be used to design safe, patient-specific device therapies, thereby lowering the risk to the patient.

“Innovative ‘virtual’ design methodologies for implantable cardiac medical devices will speed device development and yield safer, more effective devices and device-based therapies, than is currently possible,” said Scott Smolka, a professor of computer science at Stony Brook University and one of the principal investigators on the award.

The group’s approach combines patient-specific computational models of heart dynamics with advanced mathematical techniques for analyzing how these models interact with medical devices. The analytical techniques can be used to detect potential flaws in device behavior early on during the device-design phase, before animal and human trials begin. They also can be used in a clinical setting to optimize device settings on a patient-by-patient basis before devices are implanted.

“We believe that our coordinated, multi-disciplinary approach, which balances theoretical, experimental and practical concerns, will yield transformational results in medical-device design and foundations of cyber-physical system verification,” Smolka said.

The team will develop virtual device models which can be coupled together with virtual heart models to realize a full virtual development platform that can be subjected to computational analysis and simulation techniques. Moreover, they are working with experimentalists who will study the behavior of virtual and actual devices on animals’ hearts.

Co-investigators on the project include Edmund Clarke (Carnegie Mellon University), Elizabeth Cherry (Rochester Institute of Technology), W. Rance Cleaveland (University of Maryland), Flavio Fenton (Georgia Tech), Rahul Mangharam (University of Pennsylvania), Arnab Ray (Fraunhofer Center for Experimental Software Engineering [Germany]) and James Glimm and Radu Grosu (Stony Brook University). Richard A. Gray of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is another key contributor.

It is fascinating to observe how terminology is shifting from pacemakers and deep brain stimulators as implants to “CPS such as wearable sensors and implantable devices … .” A new category has been created, CPS, which conjoins medical devices with other sensing devices such as wearable fitness monitors found in the consumer market. I imagine it’s an attempt to quell fears about injecting strange things into or adding strange things to your body—microrobots and nanorobots partially derived from synthetic biology research which are “… capable of performing heretofore impossible functions, from microscopic assembly to cell sensing within the body.” They’ve also sneaked in a reference to synthetic biology, an area of research where some concerns have been expressed, from my March 19, 2013 post about a poll and synthetic biology concerns,

In our latest survey, conducted in January 2013, three-fourths of respondents say they have heard little or nothing about synthetic biology, a level consistent with that measured in 2010. While initial impressions about the science are largely undefined, these feelings do not necessarily become more positive as respondents learn more. The public has mixed reactions to specific synthetic biology applications, and almost one-third of respondents favor a ban “on synthetic biology research until we better understand its implications and risks,” while 61 percent think the science should move forward.

I imagine that for scientists, 61% in favour of more research is not particularly comforting given how easily and quickly public opinion can shift.

A May 27, 2015 presentation on Bruno Pontecorvo in Vancouver (Canada)

A movie about Bruno Pontecorvo (a mover and shaker in the world of neutrino physics) is being hosted by ARPICO (Society of Italian Researchers and Professionals in Western Canada) on Wednesday, May 27, 2015. From a May 12, 2015 ARPICO announcement,

Maksimovic – The story of Bruno Pontecorvo

Prof. Samoil Bilenky will introduce a short movie on the life of Bruno Pontecorvo.

The movie will trace the main points of Bruno Pontecorvo’s life, a nuclear physicist, born in 1913 in Pisa (Italy) and dead in 1993 in Dubna (Russia).
Samoil Bilenky worked with Pontecorvo from 1975 until 1989 in Dubna where they developed the theory of neutrino masses and oscillations and proposed experiments on the search for neutrino oscillations.

The impact of Bruno Pontecorvo on neutrino physics is well recognized in the Scientific Community.

Prof. Samoil Bilenky obtained his doctoral degree at JINR (Joint Institute for Nuclear Research) in Dubna and collaborated with Bruno Pontecorvo for over a decade. He was also professor at the Moscow State University and later at SISSA (Scuola Internazionale Superiore di Studi Avanzati) in Italy. He has been a visiting scientist at TRIUMF (Canada’s National Laboratory for Particle and Nuclear Physics) in Canada, at DESY (Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron) in Germany, at the University of Valencia (Spain), the University of Turin (Italy) and at the TU Munich (Germany).
In 2002 prof. Samoil Bilenky received the Bruno Pontecorvo Prize and in 1999 he received the Humboldt Research Award.

Here are location and other event details,

The story of Bruno Pontecorvo
  • May 27, 2015 – 7:15pm
  • Activity Room, Main Level – 480 Broughton St, Vancouver, BC
  • Underground pay parking is available – EasyPark – Lot 64
    Everyone is invited to a no-host dinner with the Board of Directors afterwards.