Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Genetic kinship

As I run through the fields I feel a profound connection with the earth. I concentrate on my form: lengthening forward and up, striking with my midfoot so my bent knee transmits the force of each stride. My feet drum the hardened mud, kicking up puffs of dust.

I settle into the rhythm of the run and sense my ancestors treading the same paths. They ran to communicate messages and, in distant savannas, to hunt down prey, while I run for pleasure and fitness. Their lives were very different from mine but their bodies, minds and thoughts felt the same.

I am tied to my ancestors by our genetic past. The differences between us are a sniff in the sweeping plains of evolutionary history. While running, they too would have been calmed by the green brown blush of grass and trees. They would have heard the lark, smelt the mud and been shocked by the sudden white of spring blossom.

The connections run deeper still. My muscles are powered by the breakdown of sugars, a primeval metabolic pathway shared by many life forms. A key step is the reaction catalysed by GAPDH in which a sugar derivative is loaded with a high energy phosphate group.

Plants, fungi and yeast contain GAPDH, not to drive their legs but to fuel their growth. The GAPDH in the wheat of the fields I run through is around 80% similar to my own, the malarial parasite that has so plagued my ancestors shares 59% identity, the mosquito 71%.

Genomes weave a story through all life; pointing to shared origins, the inconsequence of our own brief identities and the continuity of DNA. Running is a celebration of biology, my cells are alive and my mind freewheels. I feel a connection with the twists of evolutionary past that define my present and with the living things I pass on my way.

The pictures are the Cambridgeshire fields where I run.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Introducing Wilma (Women science bloggers database)

Go to database

In life BC (before children) I managed a scientific database group, so when I saw Martin Robbins’ list of women science bloggers I had an urge to organise it.

The database format allows the list to be kept up to date and enables searching.  I’ve taken the opportunity to add two new fields – geographical location and scientific subject area. Please enter this information if you are already on the list. Add yourself if you were missed off the first time.

The new fields include a broad subject area category (e.g. biological sciences, physical sciences) and a free text box for more specialist subject area (e.g. genomics, geology). I plan to turn the free text box into a drop down menu by using the entries to build a controlled vocabulary, this should make searching easier.

I hope having a current and comprehensive list of women science bloggers will be useful:

1.      For science bloggers – to find others in your subject area/location, particularly if  you blog about an unusual topic or are from a poorly represented country
2.      For readers to find new bloggers
3.      For the media to contact specialists
4.      Finally, as Martin said, as a celebration of women science writers

I welcome feedback – please use the comment box below.

Why is the database called “Wilma”? Because “women science bloggers database” is a Twitter mouthful and "FemSciBlogDB" is too geeky. Wilma is from Wilma Flintstone, one of the names I used to test the database. I’m sure it could be used to make an acronym....

An idea for a future project – include all science bloggers in the database and a field for gender. The search function could then be used to recreate the women’s science bloggers database.

A special thank you to Martin for entering the data in standard format that made it easy to parse.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Diversity in science blogging: a call for action

Getting to last night's science blogging talkfest was a struggle (kids to a neighbour at 5pm, passed to a childminder at 6pm), but it was worth it. I wrote this post on the train back to Cambridge.

The topic was diversity in science blogging and this is my take on the evening.

The problem: the science blogging community is not representative of society. There is a disporportionately high number of bloggers who are male, young, well educated, middle classed, London centered, white, atheist, left wing....

Why this is a problem: all types of people need to be part of science conversations - tax payers fund research and the results effect everyone.

The discussion revolved around gender, so this is my focus, but that is not to say that other types of inequality do not need to be addressed.

The problem can be split into two areas:

1. There are not enough women science bloggers
2. Women that do blog are not as celebrated as their male counterparts

Many reasons for these imbalances were discussed:
  • Aggressive blogging environment
  • Unconscious biases against promoting women
  • Women less likely to promote themselves
  • Women tending to blog less frequently than men, maybe because of lack of time - high profile blog networks require frequent posting
  • Less women in science careers

I certainly associate with low frequency posting. I currently blog every one to two weeks, which is the right balance for me and my family. There was a brief discussion of how women tend to spend less time socialising online, which was countered by the mention of huge communities such as mumsnet and British Mummy Bloggers. I'd just like to add, as someone with a toe in the mummy bloggers pond, that writing a science blog post is much more time consuming that writing a mummy one, mainly in terms of the research and fact checking.

What can we do about it?

Some things, such as increasing the number of women in science careers, equal sharing of childcare and domestic tasks and the bias against promoting women, will involve long-term shifts in society. They need discussion, but I want to think here about more immediate solutions.

Improving the profile of existing bloggers
  • Existing high profile bloggers and blog networks could offer a platform to less well known bloggers
  • Creation of new blog networks to gather together up and coming bloggers
  • Job sharing - if blogging frequency is a problem then recruit two bloggers rather than one. I like the way blog posts are scheduled on the Last Word on Nothing network.

Encouraging more scientists to blog
  • Give space on existing blogs for scientists that don't normally blog. For example, Body in Mind feature one off posts from a range of academics (often recently graduated PhDs)
  • Introduce new bloggers on twitter (there was a nice comment from someone at the Science Online 2011 women bloggers session where a higher profile blogger was thanked for a valuable introduction)

What I plan to do
  • I'm currently in the process of building a database to store Martin Robbins' women science bloggers list - this will make it easier to search, update and add new entries (update - it is here)
  • I will invite people from the database who blog on the same topic as me, and scientists who don't normally blog to guest post on my blog.
  • As database administrator I will send out a tweet to welcome any new bloggers. Please pass it on.

Any other ideas?

Update - other blog posts on the evening:
Confessions of a (former) Lab Rat  Richard P Grant
Contagions - Michelle Ziegler
I Science Andrew Purcell
ABSW Andrew Purcell
The Guardian Martin Robbins
Wilma - Womens science bloggers database

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Flash fiction - overturning stereotypes


This week my blogging mojo has been directed towards entering a flash fiction competition in a local magazine, the Cambridgeshire Agenda. Each day there's been a different picture to write about in under 100 words. My entries are follow the picture below, but first, a little on what made me cross about the images chosen. Read the stories first if you don't want them spoilt.

I'm tired of seeing women portrayed as beautiful objects, sadly the competition perpetuated this view. Two pictures of women, two pictures of floaty young things in pretty dresses.

I didn't want to write about passive victims, so my women are powerful – an unrepentant murderess and an inspirational scientist. I hope the story about the experiment on the grass will confront automatic assumptions that professors are male.

My other stories reflect somewhat my current interests. The little boy story comes from my recent enjoyment of the books of Dorothy Rowe, who talks about “finding the person you know yourself to be”, which is often hidden by voices from the past.

And I’ve also been intrigued by mindfulness. My dolly story took inspiration from the practise of really being present with an object – thinking about who made it and where it has come from.

Exhausted, ecstatic, fulfilled, she lay back against the bank. Her lips were still warm and moist, she savoured the release that flooded her body. 

In her mouth was the lingering taste of blood, from where a flash of tension had seeped into her otherwise cool demeanour.  Her jaw had clenched as she squeezed the trigger, catching the edge of her tongue and piercing the flesh. 

Behind her the hot butt of the discarded gun rested in the small of her back. 

He had gone. She was free.

Professor Walden set the observation equipment out on the grass.

An audience of local children gathered at a distance, drawn by the stranger.

The professor smiled, offering stickers and football cards, encouraging the children closer, trying to explain the experiment. The crowd became bolder reaching out to take whatever could be spared.

She returned to the jeep with the empty equipment case, the children swarming around noisily, comparing their gifts. One had her pen, another her shoes.

As dust from the jeep’s tyres settled a girl lingered longer than the others. That night she would dream of changing the world.

“There’s a good boy” said Granny.

“Enjoy yourself while you are young” said Barbara next door.

“You can do anything if you work hard enough” said Mr Hugo.

“Go away” said little Jake.

“Listen to me” said Mrs Montgomery.

“No” said Mum.

“This is our little secret” said Mr Masters.

He blocked out the voices and looked.

Inside was the person he knew himself to be.

“Here, drink it”, she pushed the vial into her brother’s hand.

He glanced up, “At least tell me what I can expect”.

“10 million years” she replied. “Plus or minus the odd decade”.


“Wherever you are at the time that the compound is activated. That spot, 10 million years into the past”.

Looking into her eyes he knocked it back, not flinching at the taste.

“Just no more embarrassing disappearances, alright. How long until activation?”

“You have a good few hours yet”.

He pushed past her, grabbing his bag for orchestra practise, slamming the door as he went.

It was 23 years since Carol found out where all the money had gone.

Every day she sat in line, the roughness of her hands scratching against soft new plastic. Sometimes she was on heads – pushing glass eyes into sockets, other days it was bodies – limbs clicking into torsos.

Their chubby faces had changed over the years. When she started they were all pink and pretty, now there were more boys and coloured ones.

Some days she would laugh with the others, other days he would occupy her thoughts. She knew she would never forgive.