We Need to Talk About SciComm

Life as a Scientist, Women In Science

Last week was certainly A Week for science communication, in more ways than one. On the one, positive, exciting hand last week was Brain Awareness Week, and – if you’re in the UK – national Science Week (and we also managed to squeeze in Pi Day on the 14th of March, and National Sleep Day). On the other, less positive hand, the week also saw feathers ruffled in the online science community by an op-ed article published in high-profile journal Science, which slated women who use Instagram to communicate their research. But more on that later.

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For me, Brain Awareness Week was a non-stop fest of getting out of the lab and taking my work out and about to the public. First stop was a trip to a girls’ school in Slough, having been invited to speak at a science careers fair they were holding. This was a great experience: I was thoroughly grilled and put through my paces with a series of quick-fire, speed dating-esque question sessions, to give the pupils a chance to find out what it’s like to be a scientist and what it takes to get there.

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Right after this, it was straight back to London to head to the Francis Crick Institute, who were hosting their second evening ‘Late’ event: Deconstructing Patterns. Like other museum ‘Late’ events, such as those at the Natural History Museum and Science Museum, this gave members of the public a chance to come and have fun with science after-hours for free. As one of their Science Buskers, I was wandering around the event, roping (literally!) attendees into all kinds of hands-on science games: from a rope escape puzzle simulating how chromosomes line up and are divided between replicating cells; to ‘Mystery Object’ – where participants are invited to pull a mystery lab object out of a bag (including tubes of live fruit flies!) and guess what it’s for.

Finally, on Friday I headed to a village primary school in Buckinghamshire to give an assembly to round off their science week activities. In this I introduced the kids to the tiny-but-mighty fruitfly: Drosophila melanogaster, which we work with in our lab. After getting them to guess from a photo of me what my job was (brief false start where one kid thought I ‘baked cakes’, because of my white coat!) we chatted about where fruitflies come from and their lifecycle. This of course required that we enact the stages of this (complete with paper-maché fruit fly head and wings for one lucky volunteer). I also discovered that there is little that 7-year-old kids find more hilarious than gleefully wrapping their head teacher in bubble wrap to turn her into a fly pupa!

So, now that I’ve finally had a chance to take a breather, let’s talk about why Science’s article has been such a slap in the face for many involved in science communication, and especially women. In a nutshell, the article was one woman’s opinion as to why she doesn’t use Instagram to communicate her research. She argued that women who use Instagram to reach out to a wider audience with their work and research do so because they are forced to by gender inequality in science as a male-dominated profession. This is unfair because ‘time spent on Instagram is time away from research and this affects women more than men’.

Firstly, the writer is completely entitled to their opinion, and the article could have been a very interesting critique on gender inequality in science. However, instead it was a poorly written rant which focused on holding up one particular member of the SciComm community, Science Sam (Samantha Yammine) as a critical example that bordered on a personal attack. It’s main argument relied on unnecessarily shaming her for portraying her femininity alongside her science in her Instagram posts. The writer criticized that the majority of science communication on social media consists of ‘pretty selfies, fun videos, and microscope images captioned with accessible language and cute emojis’, which, they claim, portrays a narrow subset of femininity.

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This article was disappointing to read because it supports the stereotype that women in science have been battling since we were first allowed into labs: any femininity you display makes you less likely to be taken seriously. That you’re somehow painting a distracting layer over a lack of scientific ability and brains with lipstick and a pretty dress. Or that you were only graciously hired by a man because you’re deemed conventionally ‘attractive’, not because you’re intelligent and a good scientist. Essentially, Legally Blonde but with lab coats. More than that, it’s saddening that instead of offering solutions to the problems they criticized or stepping up to fill the gap in the Instagram science community they cited (what about the women in science who didn’t like make-up and ‘pretty selfies’?) the female writer instead decided to tear down another woman working hard to be a visible female role model in science. If the writer of the Science article had taken a moment to do some research, instead of picking one woman as an example, she would have seen that female scientists sharing their experiences on social media are a diverse bunch. There are plenty of us demonstrating that every kind of woman can be successful in the lab – not just advocating the message that (shockingly!) yes you can like makeup and still be a badass scientist.

Yes, there is an underlying motivation to increase the visibility of women in science for future generations and demystify science as a career. To spread the message to young girls that a scientist does not look like an old, white-haired man in a lab coat, but in fact looks just like them. I wish I had had the opportunity to discuss the nitty-gritty of what being a scientist involves with an actual scientist when I was in school. From my experience, careers information generally leaves you with the impression that scientists work in labs, wear lab-coats and generally spend their time looking thoughtfully at coloured liquids in test tubes far too complicated for you to possibly understand. ‘I didn’t even know brain science was something you could do as a job!’ was a comment I heard repeatedly from the girls I spoke to last week. And this is one of the reasons why I make time to take my research out of the lab and beyond the research community.

Besides this, given the response of the online science communication community (check out #scientistswhoselfie, #whyiscicomm on any social media) it’s painfully obvious that this article has missed the simple point of why so many of us – who happen to be women – use online platforms to share our research with the world. It’s not because we are ‘forced’ to by gender inequality (although we are all extremely tired and fed up of it, yes). First and foremost: we love doing it!

Using my own personal experiences, the reason why I love sharing my science – especially with all you  non-scientists out there, and especially with children – is because it’s fun. We want to share the exciting work we do, and not only that but it’s incredibly motivating to talk to others and see them get interested and excited about what you do! Plus like many, I do it as well as my research – and, honestly, rather than jeopardising it, it makes me better at my job. As I told many of the girls at their careers fair: there is no point in doing incredible research unless you can communicate and tell the world about it!

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Nothing to see here, just a wee fruit fly talking about science.

Ultimately, our emojis and pretty microscope images make our work accessible and relatable to the many outside of science who are actually curious about what we do. And they represent the passion and excitement that drives why so many scientists share their work through social media, and beyond. If having a late-night craft session after a day crammed with research, and goofing around in a paper-maché fruit fly head – for absolutely no payment other than ‘because it’s fun’ – isn’t a prime example of this I don’t know what is. It’s certainly not a look that’s going to make me look pretty on Instagram.

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Brainspotting: That’s not my brain!

Neuroscience Explained

‘Neuroscience? Cool! So, can you read minds yet?’
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that a neuroscientist at a party will inevitably be asked this question. Along with several others – the answers to which should really be printed on a t-shirt, or at least a conveniently distributable business card (as you can tell, I’m a riot at parties):

  • No, it’s not (usually) brain surgery, actually.
  • For the last time no, that left brain/right brain thing is a myth.
  • No, no one knows what consciousness is.
  • You only use 10% of your brain at one time? That’s impressive efficiency. And here me and everyone else are using all our brains, all the time.

And, of course, no we can’t read your mind (at least not in the way you’re thinking). But we can read your brain.

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Or so it would seem, according to a study published this month, which used a brain scanning method called diffusion MRI to generate individual brain ‘fingerprints’. Diffusion MRI is a technique which visualises white brain matter (the bits of the brain which act as connecting ‘wires’ throughout it – they literally look white compared to the ‘grey matter’ that makes up the rest of the brain) according how much water is travelling through it. Brain imaging isn’t exactly news, but this study was different because rather than looking at a person’s white matter connecting different brain regions, they focused on how connected tiny adjacent 3D sections within the white matter were. In a nutshell: instead of looking at how a wire connects your computer to a plug, they were looking at how the fibres within the wire itself were connected. They were looking at something called the ‘local connectome’.

By narrowing down the focus to the local connectome it appears that we may be able to accurately spot unique differences between brains. Using computer-based methods to calculate how different any two ‘fingerprints’ they generated in this study from 699 brains were, the researchers were able to correctly tell if two ‘fingerprint’ snapshots of the local connectome were from the same brain or not with 100% accuracy, across 17398 fingerprint comparisons.

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Source: Yeh et al. (2015)

Not only this, but looking at brain connections in this focussed way might be able to tell us how a single healthy brain changes over time. Brains are nothing if not complicated: they constantly make tweaks and changes to how their different areas are connected in response to your experiences and how the world around you changes. So, not only is my brain different to yours – my brain will also be different to itself minutes, weeks, years from now. By comparing multiple local connectome fingerprints from the same brain – snapshots taken over time – the study found that connections were changing, and losing similarity from their first fingerprint at a rate where fingerprints were 13% less similar every 100 days  (see blue arrows in the image above for examples of changes). So, next time someone tells you ‘you’ve changed, man’ – yes. Yes, you probably have.

And sadly, before anyone gets carried away, although ‘brain fingerprinting’ sounds like something taken from a futuristic court room drama – there’s an obvious flaw to this being used as a means of criminal identification, ever. (‘Well, we’ve been doing a lot of thinking and…those are not the defendant’s fingerprints!)

At first, this might all seem a bit obvious. At any present moment, our thoughts, the way we behave, view and experience the world – and so, our brains – have been shaped by our own highly individual past experiences. We are unique. To illustrate this, identical twins are more similar than any 2 humans you might grab (with their permission) at random. But imagine if being an identical twin meant you not only looked identical to your twin, but you also had literally the same identical thoughts and brain processes constantly running in synch.

Yet, conflictingly, if you look at any 2 healthy brains they largely just appear to be squiggly lumps of jelly: indistinguishable. Even if you know what the different lumps and folds and bits are, your average brain has all of them so still looks largely similar to any other.

It’s a similar question to the one genetics has posed in past decades: how come I can share as much as 98.8% of my DNA with a chimp and yet quite obviously not be a chimp? We can spot differences between healthy and non-healthy brains (though this doesn’t mean we know what the difference means) but what about those tiny differences that make my brain mine and your brain yours? It seems that focusing on the local connectome, as these researchers did, might be one promising way of looking at this accurately in future, as well as for identifying differences in diseased brains.

Now all we need is a litmus test for spotting a neuroscientist at a party.

I Ain’t Afraid of No Shrub

Neuroscience Explained

On Friday night I saw a woman on the Tube dressed as what I can only describe as a shrub (bright green body stocking, and a lot of leaves. Everywhere.) No one batted an eyelid. Welcome to Halloween as we know it in London.

As much as we might pretend it is, Halloween these days isn’t about being scared. Not really. We dress up, go to parties and consume lots of sugar and alcohol – all things your average brain actually quite enjoys. Over the last month people have been ghosting the streets and silently terrorising McDonalds dressed as sinister-looking clowns. This craze allegedly began in the US, which escalated and made its way here to the UK, where it was initially underwhelmingly received but has since been linked to serious criminal incidents. Conversely, it’s safe to say Shrub-Woman’s admirable effort did not inspire blood-curdling screams and fleeing en masse. (Possibly this could just be a London thing, in which all outward expression of emotion on public transport is frowned upon so hard, if you were to attempt said frown (not in public, of course!) your face would become one permanent crease.) But, rogue clowns, edgy costume choices and British awkwardness aside, what would life be like if you didn’t have the ability to feel fear?

For patient ‘SM’ – a woman who is possibly the most famous patient in the field of fear and emotional neuroscience – this is a reality. As a result of the very rare genetic disorder Urbach-Wiethe disease, SM has extensive damage on both sides of the brain to a small, almond-shaped area called the amygdala. Although there are multiple brain areas involved in generating the overall, complex experience we know as ‘fear’, the amygdala is known to be a key player in this. Amongst other things, its role is to essentially get activity and communication going between several other brain regions. This all eventually results in the production of the chemical adrenaline, whose most notable work includes ‘racing heart’, ‘sweaty palms’, ‘jelly legs’ and ‘stomach butterflies’.

In what is now a famous case-study, scientists took SM to several locations that might normally be expected to provoke fear in an average human: a local exotic pet shop and a Halloween haunted house tour of Waverly Hills Sanatorium, reportedly one of the ‘most haunted’ locations in the US. At the first location, despite previously saying she ‘hated’ them, SM held a snake without hesitation and was noticeably drawn to the larger and more dangerous species in the shop – asking a total of 15 times to hold one! She even had to be stopped from touching a tarantula that was very likely to bite her. Throughout this experience, SM didn’t report feeling fear, instead explaining that she felt intense ‘curiosity’. I only wish I could be as cool when faced with an enthusiastic wasp at a picnic.

On the haunted house visit, SM walked ahead of the research group, encouraging them to follow her (as anyone who’s ever watched a horror movie knows, this character doesn’t usually last long). Ironically, she even managed to scare some of the actors hired to jump out at visitors with her unexpected behaviour, approaching them to poke at and speak to them (so on second thoughts maybe this is a good tactic – update your zombie apocalypse contingency plans accordingly). Throughout the experience SM reported feeling only an intense excitement, but not fear. It’s important to note that other than her irregular behaviour in fear scenarios, SM is otherwise able to experience all other emotions normally, and is aware of what fear is as a concept for those of us who experience it.

At first impression, this fearless existence might sound pretty great – like having some sort of super-power. But like pain, although it’s unpleasant, fear is actually pretty useful. Or at least, it used to be, back when life was simpler and all we had to be scared about was whether we might get eaten by a lion on the way to the prehistoric supermarket.

Although we often tend to condense it down to the simplified chemical cocktail of the ‘fight-or-flight’ response – fear in the modern day is a complex thing. In terms of the actual danger present and the adrenaline-fuelled response it causes us to feel, it’s reasonable to say that the experience of another person approaching you in a dark alleyway is probably the one of closest equivalents to that of being stalked by a lion, which our ancestors would have experienced back in the day. But for many of us, the things that we encounter on a more regular basis that actually cause this kind of response are much more abstract, and don’t contain a threat that might cause you any bodily harm. Take public speaking for example, or job interviews, or exams, or turning up at a party and realising that you know absolutely no one – these are much subtler than the relatively straightforward experience of a lion ripping your arm off. In these contexts, running away or fighting doesn’t equal ‘survival’ (and they probably won’t get you the job), so an interesting question is: why do our brains bother generating this unnecessary fear? This is something we still don’t know the answer to, but studying conditions such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder may lead us to better understand ‘excessive’ or ‘inappropriate’ fear in the future.

And that’s all without even getting onto the more existential fears that we humans are pretty terrified of: of being alone, of failure, of getting old and dying, of the uncertain future, of never making your mark on the world, and other such rays of sunshine. For most of us, if we’re healthy, we don’t have a constant flight-or-fight response going for these things – there’s obviously something very different going on in these kinds of fears which ‘lurk’ in the background of day-to-day life.

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The classic fight-or-flight response is a very integral part of fear, and is relatively easy to study and measure in an experimental context compared to other aspects, but it’s not all there is to it. It would appear that fear is a complicated and uncertain business. But from what we do know, if you’re stuck for a last-minute Halloween costume this evening why not opt for something that’s witty, bizarre and which everyone will absolutely ‘get’ – no questions asked: why not go as a brain (‘I’m an amygdala…duh?’ – as the classic Mean Girls quote we all know and love goes, right?)
Or, I guess, a shrub.