Tag Archives: science outreach

Why don’t you CRISPR yourself?

It must have been quite the conference. Josiah Zayner plunged a needle into himself and claimed to have changed his DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) while giving his talk. (*Segue: There is some Canadian content if you keep reading.*) From an Oct. 10, 2017 article by Adele Peters for Fast Company (Note: A link has been removed),

“What we’ve got here is some DNA, and this is a syringe,” Josiah Zayner tells a room full of synthetic biologists and other researchers. He fills the needle and plunges it into his skin. “This will modify my muscle genes and give me bigger muscles.”

Zayner, a biohacker–basically meaning he experiments with biology in a DIY lab rather than a traditional one–was giving a talk called “A Step-by-Step Guide to Genetically Modifying Yourself With CRISPR” at the SynBioBeta conference in San Francisco, where other presentations featured academics in suits and the young CEOs of typical biotech startups. Unlike the others, he started his workshop by handing out shots of scotch and a booklet explaining the basics of DIY [do-it-yourwelf] genome engineering.

If you want to genetically modify yourself, it turns out, it’s not necessarily complicated. As he offered samples in small baggies to the crowd, Zayner explained that it took him about five minutes to make the DNA that he brought to the presentation. The vial held Cas9, an enzyme that snips DNA at a particular location targeted by guide RNA, in the gene-editing system known as CRISPR. In this case, it was designed to knock out the myostatin gene, which produces a hormone that limits muscle growth and lets muscles atrophy. In a study in China, dogs with the edited gene had double the muscle mass of normal dogs. If anyone in the audience wanted to try it, they could take a vial home and inject it later. Even rubbing it on skin, Zayner said, would have some effect on cells, albeit limited.

Peters goes on to note that Zayner has a PhD in molecular biology and biophysics and worked for NASA (US National Aeronautics and Space Administration). Zayner’s Wikipedia entry fills in a few more details (Note: Links have been removed),

Zayner graduated from the University of Chicago with a Ph.D. in biophysics in 2013. He then spent two years as a researcher at NASA’s Ames Research Center,[2] where he worked on Martian colony habitat design. While at the agency, Zayner also analyzed speech patterns in online chat, Twitter, and books, and found that language on Twitter and online chat is closer to how people talk than to how they write.[3] Zayner found NASA’s scientific work less innovative than he expected, and upon leaving in January 2016, he launched a crowdfunding campaign to provide CRISPR kits to let the general public experiment with editing bacterial DNA. He also continued his grad school business, The ODIN, which sells kits to let the general public experiment at home. As of May 2016, The ODIN had four employees and operates out of Zayner’s garage.[2]

He refers to himself as a biohacker and believes in the importance in letting the general public participate in scientific experimentation, rather than leaving it segregated to labs.[2][4][1] Zayner found the biohacking community exclusive and hierarchical, particularly in the types of people who decide what is “safe”. He hopes that his projects can let even more people experiment in their homes. Other scientists responded that biohacking is inherently privileged, as it requires leisure time and money, and that deviance from the safety rules of concern would lead to even harsher regulations for all.[5] Zayner’s public CRISPR kit campaign coincided with wider scrutiny over genetic modification. Zayner maintained that these fears were based on misunderstandings of the product, as genetic experiments on yeast and bacteria cannot produce a viral epidemic.[6][7] In April 2015, Zayner ran a hoax on Craigslist to raise awareness about the future potential of forgery in forensics genetics testing.[8]

In February 2016, Zayner performed a full body microbiome transplant on himself, including a fecal transplant, to experiment with microbiome engineering and see if he could cure himself from gastrointestinal and other health issues. The microbiome from the donors feces successfully transplanted in Zayner’s gut according to DNA sequencing done on samples.[2] This experiment was documented by filmmakers Kate McLean and Mario Furloni and turned into the short documentary film Gut Hack.[9]

In December 2016, Zayner created a fluorescent beer by engineering yeast to contain the green fluorescent protein from jellyfish. Zayner’s company, The ODIN, released kits to allow people to create their own engineered fluorescent yeast and this was met with some controversy as the FDA declared the green fluorescent protein can be seen as a color additive.[10] Zayner, views the kit as a way that individual can use genetic engineering to create things in their everyday life.[11]

I found the video for Zayner’s now completed crowdfunding campaign,

I also found The ODIN website (mentioned in the Wikipedia essay) where they claim to be selling various gene editing and gene engineering kits including the CRISPR editing kits mentioned in Peters’ article,

In 2016, he [Zayner] sold $200,000 worth of products, including a kit for yeast that can be used to brew glowing bioluminescent beer, a kit to discover antibiotics at home, and a full home lab that’s roughly the cost of a MacBook Pro. In 2017, he expects to double sales. Many kits are simple, and most buyers probably aren’t using the supplies to attempt to engineer themselves (many kits go to classrooms). But Zayner also hopes that as people using the kits gain genetic literacy, they experiment in wilder ways.

Zayner sells a full home biohacking lab that’s roughly the cost of a MacBook Pro. [Photo: The ODIN]

He questions whether traditional research methods, like randomized controlled trials, are the only way to make discoveries, pointing out that in newer personalized medicine (such as immunotherapy for cancer, which is personalized for each patient), a sample size of one person makes sense. At his workshop, he argued that people should have the choice to self-experiment if they want to; we also change our DNA when we drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes or breathe in dirty city air. Other society-sanctioned activities are more dangerous. “We sacrifice maybe a million people a year to the car gods,” he said. “If you ask someone, ‘Would you get rid of cars?’–no.” …

US researchers both conventional and DIY types such as Zayner are not the only ones who are editing genes. The Chinese study mentioned in Peters’ article was written up in an Oct. 19, 2015 article by Antonio Regalado for the MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] Technology Review (Note: Links have been removed),

Scientists in China say they are the first to use gene editing to produce customized dogs. They created a beagle with double the amount of muscle mass by deleting a gene called myostatin.

The dogs have “more muscles and are expected to have stronger running ability, which is good for hunting, police (military) applications,” Liangxue Lai, a researcher with the Key Laboratory of Regenerative Biology at the Guangzhou Institutes of Biomedicine and Health, said in an e-mail.

Lai and 28 colleagues reported their results last week in the Journal of Molecular Cell Biology, saying they intend to create dogs with other DNA mutations, including ones that mimic human diseases such as Parkinson’s and muscular dystrophy. “The goal of the research is to explore an approach to the generation of new disease dog models for biomedical research,” says Lai. “Dogs are very close to humans in terms of metabolic, physiological, and anatomical characteristics.”

Lai said his group had no plans breed to breed the extra-muscular beagles as pets. Other teams, however, could move quickly to commercialize gene-altered dogs, potentially editing their DNA to change their size, enhance their intelligence, or correct genetic illnesses. A different Chinese Institute, BGI, said in September it had begun selling miniature pigs, created via gene editing, for $1,600 each as novelty pets.

People have been influencing the genetics of dogs for millennia. By at least 36,000 years ago, early humans had already started to tame wolves and shape the companions we have today. Charles Darwin frequently cited dog breeding in The Origin of Species to demonstrate how evolution gradually occurs by a process of selection. With CRISPR, however, evolution is no longer gradual or subject to chance. It is immediate and under human control.

It is precisely that power that is stirring wide debate and concern over CRISPR. Yet at least some researchers think that gene-edited dogs could put a furry, friendly face on the technology. In an interview this month, George Church, a professor at Harvard University who leads a large effort to employ CRISPR editing, said he thinks it will be possible to augment dogs by using DNA edits to make them live longer or simply make them smarter.

Church said he also believed the alteration of dogs and other large animals could open a path to eventual gene editing of people. “Germline editing of pigs or dogs offers a line into it,” he said. “People might say, ‘Hey, it works.’ ”

In the meantime, Zayner’s ideas are certainly thought provoking. I’m not endorsing either his products or his ideas but it should be noted that early science pioneers such as Humphrey Davy and others experimented on themselves. For anyone unfamiliar with Davy, (from the Humphrey Davy Wikipedia entry; Note: Links have been removed),

Sir Humphry Davy, 1st Baronet PRS MRIA FGS (17 December 1778 – 29 May 1829) was a Cornish chemist and inventor,[1] who is best remembered today for isolating a series of substances for the first time: potassium and sodium in 1807 and calcium, strontium, barium, magnesium and boron the following year, as well as discovering the elemental nature of chlorine and iodine. He also studied the forces involved in these separations, inventing the new field of electrochemistry. Berzelius called Davy’s 1806 Bakerian Lecture On Some Chemical Agencies of Electricity[2] “one of the best memoirs which has ever enriched the theory of chemistry.”[3] He was a Baronet, President of the Royal Society (PRS), Member of the Royal Irish Academy (MRIA), and Fellow of the Geological Society (FGS). He also invented the Davy lamp and a very early form of incandescent light bulb.

Canadian content*

A Nov. 11, 2017 posting on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) Quirks and Quarks blog notes that self-experimentation has a long history and goes on to describe Zayner’s and others biohacking exploits before describing the legality of biohacking in Canada,

With biohackers entering into the space traditionally held by scientists and clinicians, it begs questions. Professor Timothy Caulfield, a Canada research chair in health, law and policy at the University of Alberta, says when he hears of somebody giving themselves biohacked gene therapy, he wonders: “Is this legal? Is this safe? And if it’s not safe, is there anything that we can do about regulating it? And to be honest with you that’s a tough question and I think it’s an open question.”

In Canada, Caulfield says, Health Canada focuses on products. “You have to have something that you are going to regulate or you have to have something that’s making health claims. So if there is a product that is saying I can cure X, Y, or Z, Health Canada can say, ‘Well let’s make sure the science really backs up that claim.’ The problem with these do-it-yourself approaches is there isn’t really a product. You know these people are experimenting on themselves with something that may or may not be designed for health purposes.”

According to Caufield, if you could buy a gene therapy kit that was being marketed to you to biohack yourself, that would be different. “Health Canada could jump in. But right here that’s not the case,” he says.

There are places in the world that do regulate biohacking, says Caulfield. “Germany, for example, they have specific laws for it. And here in Canada we do have a regulatory framework that says that you cannot do gene therapy that will alter the germ line. In other words, you can’t do gene therapy or any kind of genetic editing that will create a change that you will pass on to your offspring. So that would be illegal, but that’s not what’s happening here. And I don’t think there’s a regulatory framework that adequately captures it.”

Infectious disease and policy experts aren’t that concerned yet about the possibility of a biohacker unleashing a genetically modified super germ into the population.

“I think in the future that could be a problem,”says Caulfield, “but this isn’t something that would be easy to do in your garage. I think it’s complicated science. But having said that, the science is moving quickly. We need to think about how we are going to control the potential harms.”

You can find out more about the ‘wild’ people (mostly men) of early science in Richard Holmes’ 2008 book, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science.

Finally, should you be interested in connecting with synthetic biology enthusiasts, entrepreneurs, and others, SynBioBeta is more than a conference; it’s also an activity hub.

ETA January 25, 2018 (five minutes later): There are some CRISPR/CAS9 events taking place in Toronto, Canada on January 24 and 25, 2018. One is a workshop with Portuguese artist, Marta de Menezes, and the other is a panel discussion. See my January 10, 2018 posting for more details.

*’Segue: There is some Canadian content if you keep reading.’ and ‘Canadian content’ added January 25, 2018 six minutes after first publication.

ETA February 20, 2018: Sarah Zhang’s Feb. 20, 2018 article for The Atlantic revisits Josiah Zayner’s decision to inject himself with CRISPR,

When Josiah Zayner watched a biotech CEO drop his pants at a biohacking conference and inject himself with an untested herpes treatment, he realized things had gone off the rails.

Zayner is no stranger to stunts in biohacking—loosely defined as experiments, often on the self, that take place outside of traditional lab spaces. You might say he invented their latest incarnation: He’s sterilized his body to “transplant” his entire microbiome in front of a reporter. He’s squabbled with the FDA about selling a kit to make glow-in-the-dark beer. He’s extensively documented attempts to genetically engineer the color of his skin. And most notoriously, he injected his arm with DNA encoding for CRISPR that could theoretically enhance his muscles—in between taking swigs of Scotch at a live-streamed event during an October conference. (Experts say—and even Zayner himself in the live-stream conceded—it’s unlikely to work.)

So when Zayner saw Ascendance Biomedical’s CEO injecting himself on a live-stream earlier this month, you might say there was an uneasy flicker of recognition.

“Honestly, I kind of blame myself,” Zayner told me recently. He’s been in a soul-searching mood; he recently had a kid and the backlash to the CRISPR stunt in October [2017] had been getting to him. “There’s no doubt in my mind that somebody is going to end up hurt eventually,” he said.

Yup, it’s one of the reasons for rules; people take things too far. The trick is figuring out how to achieve balance between risk taking and recklessness.

Science Alive! is everywhere; #AskACurator is Sept. 13, 2017; and more

Researching a piece sometimes leads you to unexpected corners on the internet. This started with an announcement about #AskACurator on Twitter and Instagram in the August 30, 2017 issue (received via email) of What’s Up @ The Museums (from Ingenium or what was known as the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation).

Science Alive!

In trying to pad out the one announcement that might be of interest to people who don’t live near one of Canada’s science and technology museums, i.e., anyone who lives outside of Ottawa, Ontario, I checked out their fairly new (the first video in the series was posted in February 2016) science podcast series, Science Alive!

Despite reservations (I have very little interest in space exploration and even less in the Canadarm), I found the first video in the series quite engaging,

Of course, I had more questions but that’s the point o what is intended to be both an information and promotional video designed to attract visitors.

But, this is not the only Science Alive. Simon Fraser University (SFU) has a student-run, not-for-profit organization known as Science AL!VE, which runs summer camps and weekend clubs in British Columbia. (This SFU organization is part of Actua, “Canada’s largest STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] outreach organization. They have annual reports stretching back to 2010/11.)

There’s also a Science Alive with Living Things in Michigan, US and a science alive! in New Zealand, which “is a not-for-profit trust promoting science and technology worldwide.”

I had to stop there but there are more ‘science alive’ programmes out there.


Here’s the announcement that started my Science Alive! adventure, from the August 30, 2017 issue (received via email) of What’s Up @ The Museums,

September 13, 2017
September is more than back to school time – it’s Ask a Curator Time! Our Museums are excited to once again be among more than 1200 museums from 52 countries participating in #AskACurator Day on Wednesday September 13, 2017! Have a question for our curators?

Send your questions to @SciTechMuseum, @avspacemuseum or @AgMuseum!

#AskACurator is being organized by someone called Mar Dixon. Her website‘s About Me page (from the homepage, click on About Me)  lists current and past projects only. I can certainly appreciate why she might have done that. (IMO) Describing your education, past employers, achievements, etc., i.e., standard biographical information can get boring but the projects you’re working on or have worked on and are passionate about? Well, for some us it’s all about the work.

Here’s more about the Sept. 13, 2017 #AskACurator day on Twitter and Instagram,

This is the list of all museums who signed up so far. It is in alphabetical order by country. I’m updating this page every few days. If your museum isn’t on listed, use the sign up form.  If you are listed and can NOT take part in 2017 please contact me at mar@mardixon.com or @MarDixon on Twitter.

Please note:  @AskACurator is also on Instagram AND Twitter so feel free to use the tag on there!

How to take Part: Participants  Want to know how to Take Part? There’s an article for that! (Please note the date has changed!)

How to take Part: Museums  You might want to tell your followers the time your curator will be available.  Some museums write it on their events page, others leave it open to see what questions they receive.  However, to get your name out there – it helps to jump in to general questions and not just wait to be asked a specific question.  Some people will use the hashtag to ask questions such as how to know what to collect, what skills are needed, what are the unknowns of being a curator etc.  We also have a few #Askacurator people who have questions like ‘do you have a teddy bear in your collection’ or ‘what’s the funniest thing you heard in your museum’ etc.

Last updated August 29 2017
Museums taking part: 1421

Countries: 54

For anyone who’s never dealt with a curator, you might find this video where curator David Pantalony discusses a giant globe and what they did and didn’t include on the globe from Ingenium’s Science Alive! series informative,

Beakerhead Sept. 13 – 17, 2017 in Calgary

Here’s more about this year’s iteration of the event (from the Beakerhead attend page),

Mark your calendars for September 13 – 17, 2017 when Beakerhead takes over Calgary with a smash up of art, science and engineering both indoors and out! From citywide, pop-up engineered art galleries and flame-spitting, larger-than-life public art encounters to the entertaining science of … everything, there’s something for everyone!

With over 60 events and programs to choose from, Beakerhead has something for everyone – whether you define yourself as “creative” or “technical” in nature. In 2016 over 130,000 people took part, including a few actual astronauts!

In 2017, Beakerhead celebrates the ups and downs of experimentation and invention!
A special Canada 150 version of Beakerhead will see Calgary’s downtown core become a canvas for a larger-than-life interactive experience where participants will navigate to and from Beakerhead encounters å la Snakes and Ladders while we celebrate the ups and downs that mark the wild and bumpy ride of invention and creativity.

Events, experiments and programs that make up the five day spectacle include:

  • Snakes and Ladders: An interactive experience that encourages exploration of the city (and human ingenuity) through delightfully engineered public art installations.
  • Workshops and talks: explore the science of scent, play with your food, immerse yourself in the laboratory of life!
  • Four to Six: A street party on Stephen Avenue where science gets social.
  • Ticketed events: Command to be entertained by world famous (and soon-to-be-famous) inventors, scientists, performers (and maybe even an animal or two!)
  • Ingenuity challenges: In that past, Beakerhead has pit catapult teams against each other – this year expect a new high-reaching competition!
  • Community programs: Beakerhead becomes a stage for over 100 collaborating organizations, both large and small, to show off their discoveries and creativity through events and programs of their own. Learn how you can take part, too!
  • School tours, talks, and challenges: Beakerhead engages 25,000 students each year.

The Beakerhead events page is overwhelming and I suggest the unitiated scrol down to the Highlights section where you can find out more about the organization, find a programme announcement which allows you to orient yourself (somewhat), and more.

European Science Open Forum (ESOF) 2018

This science shindig comes along every two years. The last one was in Manchester, UK in 2016 and now it’s time to gear up for Toulouse, France in 2018 (from the ESOF July 2017 newsletter received via email),

ESOF 2018 in Toulouse.
Save the date! One year to go.

The next EuroScience Open Forum, ESOF 2018 will be held in Toulouse, France, 9-14 July 2018 in just one year from now!
Save the dates and plan your visit to the European City of Science 2018, with the ESOF 2018 motto: « Sharing Science: towards new horizons! »

With more than 300 sessions proposed in the first call for scientific sessions on 10 themes and 4 cross-cutting domains covering all sciences, the programme promises to be attractive and a major crossroad of debates on the future of science and how to share it.

Keep an eye on ongoing and future calls: www.esof.eu

Key dates:
Call for Scientific sessions: February -June 2017
Call for Science in the City Festival initiatives: June – September 2017
Call for Careers & Science to Business sessions: July – October 2017
Call for posters and interactive presentations: October 2017 – January 2018

Consider that
– ESOF is the largest interdisciplinary science event in Europe.
– ESOF is a cross-road for exchange between scientists, students, policy makers, innovators, industry managers and science media.
– 2018 is a key year for the preparation of the next framework programme [major seven-year European Union science funding programme; the current such programme is Horizon 2020, which stated in 2013] for research and innovation of the European Union and key discussions will occur at ESOF 2018.

And that
– Toulouse, the Capital of Occitania, in Southern France and the Capital of aeronautics and space research will surprise you with the many facets of its culture and scientific domains.
– And is both a historical and modern lively City, home of 120 000 students!

We are eager to share this event with you and are sure you will make it a wonderful success!

Dr Anne Cambon-Thomsen
ESOF 2018 Champion

You can find out more about ESOF on the website’s About page,

ESOF (EuroScience Open Forum) is the largest interdisciplinary science meeting in Europe. It is dedicated to scientific research and innovation and offers a unique framework for interaction and debate for scientists, innovators, policy makers, business people and the general public.

Created in 2004 by EuroScience, this biennial European forum brings together over 4 000 researchers, educators, business actors, policy makers and journalists from all over the world to discuss breakthroughs in science. More than 40% of the participants are students and young researchers.

The 8th edition of ESOF will take place in Toulouse, France, from 9 till 14 July 2018.

ESOF figures

4000+ delegates from 80+ countries
400+ journalists and science communicators
150+ conferences, workshops and scientific sessions
200+ events open to the general public, attended by more than 35 000 participants

What to expect at ESOF?

Taking part in ESOF is a unique opportunity to:

  • further knowledge on the challenges and breakthroughs in research, innovation and their relation to society;
  • create links, exchange and debate with leaders of the scientific community worldwide in an interdisciplinary context;
  • communicate the latest news on scientific research and innovation to an international audience;
  • develop a network in view of building a research career.

Find out more about ESOF and EuroScience: www.euroscience.org

I can’t find an overarching theme for the event or any promotional videos but there is this: Robots and humans : How do they cooperate ? 5Th preparatory meeting ESOF 2018 video (running time: 1 hour and 41 mins.) The title is if nothing else an intriguing hint of what ESOF 2018 may hold.

I also checked out the Science in the City Festival (formerly City of Science) and found information for this previously mentioned call,

Parallel to the EuroScience Open Forum, the Science in the City Festival will invest the city and its surroundings.

As a free event, Science in the City Festival is aimed at people of all ages who are curious about science and innovation.

If you wish to be part of the Science in the City programme, please send your proposals for our call for initiatives by filling this online form.

Deadline: 30th September 2017

Call for initiatives for the Science in the City Festival(PDF)

The online form lists a set of ESOF 2018 themes or stems or topics,

If it helps, Toulouse is known as ‘la Ville Rose’ or Pink City.

That’s it for this roundup of ‘sciencish’ bits.

Science for the global citizen course at McMaster University in Winter 2018

It’s never too early to start planning for your course load if a June 20, 2017 McMaster University (Ontario, Canada) news release is to be believed,

In the Winter 2018 term, the School of Interdisciplinary Science is offering Science 2M03: Science for the Global Citizen, a new course designed to explore those questions and more. In this blended-learning course, students from all Faculties will examine the links between science and the larger society through live guest lecturers and evidence-based online discussions.This course is open to students enrolled in Level II or above in any program. No scientific background is needed, only an interest in becoming a more engaged and informed citizen.

The new course will cover a broad range of contemporary scientific issues with significant political, economic, social, and health implications. Topics range from artificial intelligence (AI) to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to space exploration.

Course instructors, Dr. Kim Dej, Dr. Chad Harvey, Dr. Rosa da Silva, and Dr. Sarah Symons, all from the School of Interdisciplinary Science, will examine the basic scientific theories and concepts behind these topical issues, and highlight the application and interpretation of science in popular media and public policy.

After taking this course, students from all academic backgrounds will have a better understanding of how science is conducted, how knowledge changes, and how we can become better consumers of scientific information and more informed citizens.

 68 How can science help address the key challenges in our society? How does society affect the way that science is conducted? Do citizens have a strong enough understanding of science and its methods to answer these and other similar questions? In the Winter 2018 term, the School of Interdisciplinary Science is offering Science 2M03: Science for the Global Citizen, a new course designed to explore those questions and more. In this blended-learning course, students from all Faculties will examine the links between science and the larger society through live guest lecturers and evidence-based online discussions. This course is open to students enrolled in Level II or above in any program. No scientific background is needed, only an interest in becoming a more engaged and informed citizen. The new course will cover a broad range of contemporary scientific issues with significant political, economic, social, and health implications. Topics range from artificial intelligence (AI) to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to space exploration. Course instructors, Dr. Kim Dej, Dr. Chad Harvey, Dr. Rosa da Silva, and Dr. Sarah Symons, all from the School of Interdisciplinary Science, will examine the basic scientific theories and concepts behind these topical issues, and highlight the application and interpretation of science in popular media and public policy. After taking this course, students from all academic backgrounds will have a better understanding of how science is conducted, how knowledge changes, and how we can become better consumers of scientific information and more informed citizens.

I’m glad to see this kind of course being offered. It does seem a bit odd that none of the instructors involved with this course appear to be from the social sciences or humanities. Drs. Dej, Harvey, and da Silva all have a background in biological sciences and Dr. Symons is a physicist. Taking another look at this line from the course description, “The new course will cover a broad range of contemporary scientific issues with significant political, economic, social, and health implications,” has me wondering how these scientists are going to cover the material, especially as I couldn’t find any papers on these topics written by any of these instructors. This section puzzles me even more, “… highlight the application and interpretation of science in popular media and public policy.” Again none of these instructors seem to have published on the topic of science in popular media or science public policy.

Guest speakers can help to fill in the blanks but with four instructors (and I would imagine a tight budget) it’s hard to believe there are going to be that many guests.

I appreciate that this is more of what they used to call a ‘survey course’ meant to introduce a number of ideas rather than conveying any in depth information but I do find the instructors’ apparent lack of theoretical knowledge about anything other than their respective fields of science somewhat disconcerting.

Regardless, I wish both the instructors and the students all the best.

The insanity of Canadian science outreach (Science Odyssey, May 12 – 21, 2017 and Science RendezVous on May 13, 2017)

When was the last time you saw a six-year old or a twelve-year old attend a political candidates’ meeting or vote in an election? Sadly, most creative science outreach in Canada is aimed at children and teenagers in the misbegotten belief that adults don’t matter and ‘youth are the future’. There are three adult science outreach scenarios although they didn’t tend to be particularly creative. (1) Should scientists feel hard done by elected representatives, they reach out to other adults for support. (2) Should those other adults become disturbed by any scientific or technological ‘advance’ then scientific experts will arrive to explain why that’s wrong. (3) Should the science enterprise want money, then a call goes out (see my May 12, 2017 posting about the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation gala and, yes, they were a bit creative about it).

I am oversimplifying the situation but not by much especially if one considers two upcoming national Canadian science events: Science Rendezvous which is a day-long (May 13, 2017) cross country science event taking place during while the Science Odyssey holds a 10-day (May 12 – 2017) cross country science event. The two groups arranged their events separately and then decided to coordinate their efforts. Science Odyssey is a rebranding of the Canada Science and Technology Week organized by the federal government for at least two decades and which was held (until 2016) in the fall of each year. Science Rendezvous (About page) was launched in Toronto in 2008 (University of Toronto, Ryerson University, York University and the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT)).

Regardless, both events are clearly aimed at children (and families).

I’m not suggesting that exciting science outreach for children should be curtailed. Let’s expand the efforts to9 include the adult and senior populations too.

In all the talk about Canada’s adult and ageing populations, perhaps we could approach it all more creatively. For example, there’s this (from an April 18, 2017 University of California at San Diego University news release (also on EurekAlert) by Inga Kiderra,

Philip Guo caught the coding bug in high school, at a fairly typical age for a Millennial. Less typical is that the UC San Diego cognitive scientist is now eager to share his passion for programming with a different demographic. And it’s not one you’re thinking of – it’s not elementary or middle school-aged kids. Guo wants to get adults age 60 and up.

In the first known study of older adults learning computer programming, Guo outlines his reasons: People are living and working longer. This is a growing segment of the population, and it’s severely underserved by learn-to-code intiatives, which usually target college students and younger. Guo wants to change that. He would like this in-demand skill to become more broadly accessible.

“Computers are everywhere, and digital literacy is becoming more and more important,” said Guo, assistant professor in the Department of Cognitive Science, who is also affiliated with UC San Diego’s Design Lab and its Department of Computer Science and Engineering. “At one time, 1,000 years ago, most people didn’t read or write – just some monks and select professionals could do it. I think in the future people will need to read and write in computer language as well. In the meantime, more could benefit from learning how to code.”

Guo’s study was recently awarded honorable mention by the world’s leading organization in human-computer interaction, ACM SIGCHI. Guo will present his findings at the group’s premier international conference, CHI, in May [2017].

When prior human-computer interaction studies have focused on older adults at all, Guo said, it has been mostly as consumers of new technology, of social networking sites like Facebook, say, or ride-sharing services. While a few have investigated the creation of content, like blogging or making digital music, these have involved the use of existing apps. None, to his knowledge, have looked at older adults as makers of entirely new software applications, so he set out to learn about their motivations, their frustrations and if these provided clues to design opportunities.

The Study

For his study, Guo surveyed users of pythontutor.com. A web-based education tool that Guo started in 2010, Python Tutor helps those learning to program visualize their work. Step by step, it displays what a computer is doing with each line of code that it runs. More than 3.5 million people in more than 180 countries have now used Python Tutor, including those around the world taking MOOCs (massive open online courses). Despite its legacy name, the tool helps people supplement their studies not only of the Python programming language but also Java, JavaScript, Ruby, C and C++, all of which are commonly used to teach programing. The users of Python Tutor represent a wide range of demographic groups.

Guo’s survey included 504 people between the ages of 60 and 85, from 52 different countries. Some were retired and semi-retired while others were still working.

What Guo discovered: Older adults are motivated to learn programming for a number of reasons. Some are age-related. They want to make up for missed opportunities during youth (22 percent) and keep their brains “challenged, fresh and sharp” as they age (19 percent). A few (5 percent) want to connect with younger family members.

Reasons not related to age include seeking continuing education for a current job (14 percent) and wanting to improve future job prospects (9 percent). A substantial group is in it just for personal enrichment: 19 percent to implement a specific hobby project idea, 15 percent for fun and entertainment, and 10 percent out of general interest.

Interestingly, 8 percent said they wanted to learn to teach others.

Topping the list of frustrations for older students of coding was bad pedagogy. It was mentioned by 21 percent of the respondents and ranged from the use of jargon to sudden spikes in difficulty levels. Lack of real-world relevance came up 6 percent of the time. A 74-year-old retired physician wrote: “Most [tutorials] are offered by people who must know how to program but don’t seem to have much training in teaching.”

Other frustrations included a perceived decline in cognitive abilities (12 percent) and no human contact with tutors and peers (10 percent).

The study’s limitations are tied in part to the instrument – self-reporting on an online survey – and in part to the survey respondents themselves. Most hailed from North America and other English-speaking nations. Most, 84 percent, identified themselves as male; this stat is consistent with other surveys of online learning, especially in math and science topics. There was a diverse array of occupations reported, but the majority of those surveyed were STEM professionals, managers and technicians. These learners, Guo said, likely represent “early adopters” and “the more technology-literate and self-motivated end of the general population.” He suggests future studies look both at in-person learning and at a broader swath of the public. But he expects the lessons learned from this group will generalize.

The Implications

Based on this first set of findings and using a learner-centered design approach, Guo proposes tailoring computer-programming tools and curricula specifically for older learners. He notes, for example, that many of his respondents seemed to take pride in their years and in their tech-savvy, so while it may be good to advertise products as targeting this age group, they should not appear patronizing. It might make sense to reframe lessons as brain-training games, like Lumosity, now popular among the older set.

Just as it’s key to understand who the learners are so is understanding where they have trouble. Repetition and frequent examples might be good to implement, as well as more in-person courses or video-chat-based workshops, Guo said, which may lead to improvements in the teaching of programming not just for older adults but across the board.

Context matters, too. Lessons are more compelling when they are put into domains that people personally care about. And Guo recommends coding curricula that enable older adults to tell their life stories or family histories, for example, or write software that organizes health information or assists care-givers.

Guo, who is currently working on studies to extend coding education to other underrepresented groups, advocates a computing future that is fully inclusive of all ages.

“There are a number of social implications when older adults have access to computer programming – not merely computer literacy,” he said. “These range from providing engaging mental stimulation to greater gainful employment from the comfort of one’s home.”

By moving the tech industry away from its current focus on youth, Guo argues, we all stand to gain. [emphasis mine]

Guo joined the UC San Diego cognitive science faculty in 2016 after two years as an assistant professor at the University of Rochester. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science from MIT in 2006 and his Ph.D. from Stanford in 2012. Before becoming a professor, he built online learning tools as a software engineer at Google and a research scientist at edX. He also blogs, vlogs and podcasts at http://pgbovine.net/

When was the last time you heard about a ‘coding’ camp for adults and seniors in Canada? Also,, ask yourself if after you’d reached a certain age (40? 50? more? less?) you’d feel welcome at the Science Rendezvous events (without a child in tow), Science Odyssey events (without a child in tow), or the May 17, 2017 National Science and Innovation Gala in Ottawa (from my May 12, 2017 posting “It would seem the only person over the age of 30 who’s expected to attend is the CBC host, Heather Hiscox.”)?

Let’s open the door a bit wider, eh?

eXXpedition Great Lakes 2016: hunting for plastic debris

An all woman expedition set sail on Aug. 20, 2016 for a journey across the five Great Lakes in search of plastic debris according to an Aug. 16, 2016 news item on phys.org,

Female scientists from the U.S. and Canada will set sail Aug. 20 [2016] on all five Great Lakes and connecting waterways to sample plastic debris pollution and to raise public awareness about the issue.

Event organizers say eXXpedition Great Lakes 2016 will include the largest number of simultaneous samplings for aquatic plastic debris in history. [emphasis mine] The all-female crew members on the seven lead research vessels also aim to inspire young women to pursue careers in science and engineering.

An Aug. 15, 2016 University of Michigan news release, which originated the news item, provides more details,

Teams of researchers will collect plastic debris on the five Great Lakes, as well Lake St. Clair-Detroit River and the Saint Lawrence River. Data collected will contribute to growing open-source databases documenting plastic and toxic pollution and their impacts on biodiversity and waterway health, according to event organizers.

Two University of Michigan faculty members, biologist Melissa Duhaime and Laura Alford of the Department of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering, will lead the Lake St. Clair-Detroit River team, aboard a 30-foot sailboat.

The crew of up to eight people will include an Ann Arbor middle school teacher, an artist and student at the Great Lakes Boat Building School, and girls from Detroit-area schools. Onboard activities will include water sampling and trawling for plastic debris using protocols developed by the 5 Gyres Institute.

“There is a place for scientists in this type of public outreach, and it is a complement to the research that we do,” said Duhaime, an assistant research scientist in the U-M Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

“In a single day through an event like this, we can potentially reach orders of magnitude more people than we do when we publish our scientific papers, which are read mainly by other scientists. And greater public awareness about this topic, rooted in rigorously collected and interpreted data, can certainly lead to changed behavior in our relationships with plastics.”

Duhaime’s lab studies the sources of Great Lakes plastics, as well as how they are transported within the lakes and where they end up. The work has involved a summer on three of the Great Lakes, trips to Detroit-area wastewater treatment plants, and the sampling of fish and mussels.

The group’s first Great Lakes project included multiple U-M labs, one of which analyzed the stomach contents of fish and mussels, looking for tiny plastic beads, fibers and fragments. They found no plastic “microbeads”—spheres typically less than 1 millimeter in diameter—but plastic fibers were present in a third of the zebra and quagga mussels and at various levels in all the fish species they checked: 15 percent of emerald shiners and bloaters, 20 percent of round gobies, and 26 percent of rainbow smelt, according to Duhaime.

The stomach-content study, which will be submitted for publication in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, was based on work done in lakes Erie and Huron and was led by Larissa Sano, who is now at U-M’s Sweetland Center for Writing.

For years, plastic microbeads were added as abrasives to beauty and health products like exfoliating facial scrubs and toothpaste. But the federal Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, signed into law by President Obama on Dec. 28, bans the manufacture of microbeads beginning next year.

Sources of tiny plastic fibers that make it into the Great Lakes include fleece jackets and other types of synthetic clothing. These microfibers are released during laundering, then slip through wastewater treatment plants and into waterways. Fibers found in common household textiles such as carpets, upholstered furniture and curtains also make their way into the environment and can end up in the lakes.

“Microbeads were just the tip of the iceberg,” Duhaime said. “I think fibers are the future of this research and a much more important issue than microbeads, because of the prevalence and the pervasiveness of these plastic textiles in our lives.”

Researchers like Duhaime are also investigating the possibility that tiny bits of Great Lakes plastics can transfer toxic pollutants from the water into fish and other aquatic organisms. It is unclear what level of human health risk, if any, these microplastics pose to people who eat Great Lakes fish; it is a topic of active research.

On Aug. 20 [2016], the team led by Duhaime and Alford will sail up the Detroit River to Lake St. Clair, sampling water and trawling for plastics along the way. Throughout the day at Detroit’s Belle Isle, members of their team will host a beach cleanup and data collection. In addition, a free public-awareness event will be held throughout the day outside Belle Isle Aquarium, followed by a plastic-free community picnic with live music.

Members of the general public are also encouraged to collect Great Lakes water samples and to participate in shoreline cleanup events on the 20th [Aug. 20, 2016].

The mission leaders for eXXpedition Great Lakes 2016 event are two women who met during an all-female voyage across the Atlantic Ocean in 2014. Jennifer Pate is a filmmaker, and Elaine McKinnon is a clinical neuropsychologist. Pate plans to use video footage and photographs gathered during the Aug. 20 [2016] event to create a film called “Love Your Greats.”

“In parts of the Great Lakes, we have a higher density of microplastics than in any of the ocean gyres,” Pate said. “So the problem isn’t just out there in the oceans. It’s right here in our backyard, in our lakes and on our dinner plates.

“We are all a part of the problem, but that means we are also all part of the solution. That’s why we are holding this event, to give people an opportunity to change the story and create a healthier future.”

Partners in the eXXpedition Great Lakes 2016 event include Adventurers & Scientists for Conservation, the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup in Canada and the Alliance for the Great Lakes’ Adopt-a-Beach program in the United States.

What a great idea! I wonder if this might inspire an annual event.

Strengthening science outreach initiatives

It’s a great idea but there are some puzzling aspects to the Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society’s newly announced research outreach initiative. From a July 28, 2016 Sigma XI, The Scientific Research Society’snews release on EurekAlert,

With 130 years of history and hundreds of thousands of inductees, Sigma Xi is the oldest and largest multidisciplinary honor society for scientists and engineers in the world. Its new program, the Research Communications Initiative (RCI), builds on the Society’s mission to enhance the health of the research enterprise, foster integrity in science and engineering, and promote the public’s understanding of science.

Through RCI, Sigma Xi will team up with researchers and partner institutions who wish to effectively tell general audiences, research administrators, and other investigators about their work. Sigma Xi will help its RCI partners develop a strategy for sharing their research and connect them with leading communication professionals who will develop content, including feature-length articles, videos, infographics, animations, podcasts, social media campaigns, and more. Sigma Xi will provide both digital and print publishing platforms so that partners may reach new audiences by the thousands. Finally, partners will receive a data-driven evaluation of the success of their communications.

“The Research Communications Initiative is an innovative program that calls on the expertise we’ve developed and perfected over our 100-year history of communicating science,” said Jamie Vernon, Sigma Xi’s director of science communications and publications. “We know that institutions can strengthen their reputation by sharing their research and that public and private funding agencies are asking for more outreach from their grant recipients. Sigma Xi is uniquely qualified to provide this service because of our emphasis on ethical research, our worldwide chapter and member network who can be an audience for our RCI partner communications, and our experience in publishing American Scientist.”

Sigma Xi’s award-winning magazine, American Scientist, contains articles for science enthusiasts that are written by researchers–scientists, engineers, and investigators of myriad disciplines–including Nobel laureates and other prominent investigators. The magazine is routinely recognized by researchers, educators, and the public for its trustworthy and engaging content. This editorial insight and expertise will help shape the future of science communication through RCI.

RCI partners will have the option to have their communications included in special sections or inserts in American Scientist or to have content on American Scientist‘s website as well as RCI digital platforms or partner’s sites. All RCI content will be fully disclosed as a product of the partnership program and will be published under a Creative Commons license, making it free to be republished. Sigma Xi has called upon its relationships with other like-minded organizations, such as the National Alliance for Broader Impacts, Council of Graduate Schools, and the U.S. Council on Competitiveness, to distribute the work created with RCI partners to leaders in the research community. The Society plans to have a variety of other organizations involved.

There is a lot to like about this initiative but it’s not immediately clear what they mean by the ‘partners’ who will be accessing this service. Is that a member or does that require a sponsorship fee or some sort of fee structure for institutions and individuals that wish to participate in the RCI? Is the effort confined to US science and/or English language science?  In any event, you can check out the Sigma Xi site here and the RCI webpage here.


NASA (US National Aeronautics and Space Administration), one of the world’s largest hackathons, and women

Elizabeth Segran’s April 19, 2016 article for Fast Company profiles some work being done at NASA (US National Aeronautics and Space Administration) to encourage more women to participate in their hackathons (Note: A link has been removed),

For the past four years, NASA has hosted the Space Apps Challenge, one of the biggest hackathons on the planet. Last year, 14,264 people gathered in 133 locations for 48 to 72 hours to create apps using NASA’s data. A team in Lome, Togo, built a clean water mapping app; one in Bangalore, India, created a desktop planetarium; another in Pasadena, California, created a pocket assistant for astronauts. This year’s hackathon happens this upcoming weekend [April 22 – 24, 2016].

While NASA has been able to attract participants from all corners of the globe, it has consistently struggled to get women involved. NASA is working very hard to change this. “The attendance is generally 80% male,” says Beth Beck, NASA’s open innovation project manager, who runs the Space Apps Hackathon. “It’s more everyman than everywoman.”

There is a mention of a 2015 Canadian hackathon and an observation Beth Beck made at the time (from the Segran article),

Beck noticed that female participation in hackathons seemed to drop after the middle school years. At last year’s hackathon in Toronto, for instance, there were two sections: one for students and one for adults. Girls made up at least half of the student participants. “The middle school girls looked like honey bees, running around in little packs to learn about the technology,” she says. “But in the main hacking area, it was all guys. I wanted to know what happens that makes them lose their curiosity and enthusiasm.”

Beck’s further observations led to these conclusions,

It turns out that women are not significantly more interested in certain subjects than others. What they cared about most was being able to explore these topics in a space that felt friendly and supportive. “They are looking for signals that they will be in a safe space where they feel like they belong,” Beck says. Often, these signals are very straightforward: they seek out pictures of women on the event’s webpage and look for women’s names on the speaker panels and planning committees. …

Another interesting thing that Beck discovered is that women who are brave enough to attend these events want to go a day early to get the lay of the land and perhaps form a team in advance. They want to become more comfortable with the physical space where the hackathon will take place and learn as much as possible about the topics. “When the hackathon then becomes flooded with men, they feel ready for it,” she says.

While men described hacking as something that they did in their spare time, the research showed that many women often had many other family responsibilities and couldn’t just attend a hackathon for fun. And this wasn’t just true in developing countries, where girls were often tasked with childcare and chores, while boys could focus on science. In the U.S., events where there was childcare provided were much more highly attended by women than those that did not have that option. …

NASA’s hackathons are open to people with diverse skill sets—not just people who know code. Beck has found that men are more likely to participate because they are interested in space; they simply show up with ideas. Women, on the other hand, need to feel like they have the appropriate battery of skills to contribute. With this knowledge, Beck has found it helpful to make it clear that each team needs strong storytellers who can explain the value of the app. …

The folks at NASA are still working at implementing these ideas and Segran’s article describes the initiatives and includes this story (Note: A link has been removed),

Last year [2015], for instance, two female students in Cairo noticed that the hackathon has specifically called out to women and they wanted to host a local chapter of the hackathon. Their professor, however, told them that women could not host the event. The women reached out to NASA themselves and Beck wrote to them personally, saying that she highly encouraged them to create their own event. That Cairo event ended up being the largest Space Apps hackathon in the world, with 700 participants and a wait list of 300. …

Kudos to Beth Beck, NASA, and those two women in Cairo.

For anyone (male/female) interested in the 2016 hackathon, it’s being held this weekend (April 22 – 24, 2016), from the NASA Space Apps Challenge homepage,

For 48-72 hours across the world, problem solvers like you join us for NASA’s International Space Apps Challenge, one of the largest hackathons in the universe. Empowered by open data, you collaborate with strangers, colleagues, friends, and family to solve perplexing challenges in new and unexpected ways — from designing an interactive space glove to natural language processing to clean water mapping. Join us on our open data mission, and show us how you innovate.

Not Just For Coders

Beginners, students, experts, engineers, makers, artists, storytellers — Space Apps is for you! We welcome all passionate problem solvers to join our community of innovators. Citizens like you have already created thousands of open-source solutions together through code, data visualizations, hardware and design. How will you make your global impact?

It’s too late to become a host for the hackathon but you may be able to find a location for one somewhere near you on the hackathon website’s Locations page. There are three locations in Canada for the 2016 edition: Toronto (waitlist), Winnipeg (still open), and Waterloo (waitlist).

100 free daypasses for European Science Open Forum in July 2016

This contest is open to students and early career researchers for the European Science Open Forum (ESOF) 2016, which is going to be held in Manchester, UK from July 23 – 27, 2016. Here are more details from an April 15, 2016 ESOF announcement (received via email),


Today we have reached an important milestone – with 100 days to go until ESOF rolls into Manchester. To celebrate this we will be giving away 100 free conference (day) passes via Twitter to those who follow us @ESOF2016 and tweet us an interesting science fact using the hashtag #ESOF100days.  The best tweet each day, as judged by the Delivery Team, will be announced in our week tweet round-up.

The competition is open to all early career researchers and higher education students and will run from today (15 April) to Friday 1 July, or until we have given away all 100 passes!

Winners of the #ESOF100days competition will be able to choose which day they would like to attend the conference.

For more information on the competition and how to enter, please see our latest news item. For the up-to-date conference programme see here.

If you are unlucky this time round and don’t manage to get your hands on a ticket through our competition, there are still ways to attend the conference for free. We have just launched our call to recruit 100 local volunteers to assist with delivery of ESOF. Those interested in offering their services in welcoming ESOF delegates to the city in July should visit our volunteer page for information on how to apply.

Good luck!

Science outreach and Nova’s Making Stuff series on PBS

The February 2011 NISE (Nanoscale Informal Science Education) Net newsletter pointed me towards a video interview with Amy Moll, a materials scientist (Boise State University) being interviewed by Joe McEntee, group editor IOP Publishing, for the physicsworld.com video series,

Interesting discussion, yes? The Making Stuff series on PBS is just part of their (materials scientists’ working through their professional association, the Materials Research Society) science outreach effort. The series itself has been several years in the planning but is just one piece of a much larger effort.

All of which puts another news item into perspective. From the Feb. 7, 2011 news item on Nanowerk,

The Arizona Science Center is enlisting the expertise of professors in Arizona State University’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering in showcasing the latest advances in materials science and engineering.

The engineering schools are among organizations collaborating with the science center to present the Making Stuff Festival Feb. 18-20. [emphasis mine]

The event will explore how new kinds of materials are shaping the future of technology – in medicine, computers, energy, space travel, transportation and an array of personal electronic devices.

No one is making a secret of the connection,

The festival is being presented in conjunction with the broadcast of “Making Stuff”, a multi-part television series of the Public Broadcasting Service program NOVA that focuses on advances in materials technologies. It’s airing locally on KAET-Channel 8.

Channel 8 is another collaborator on the Making Stuff Festival, along with ASU’s Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes, the Arizona Technology Council, Medtronic, Intel and Science Foundation Arizona.

I highlight these items to point out how much thought, planning, and effort can go into science outreach.

Nano haikus (from the Feb. 2011 issue of the NISE Net Newsletter,

We received two Haikus from Michael Flynn expressing his hopes and fears for nanotechnology:

Miracle fibers
Weave a new reality
Built from the ground up

Too Small to be seen
This toxin is nanoscale
Can’t tell if it spilled