The Harm of Technology-Driven Brain Research

To what extent can we break things down and still expect to see the big picture?


By Padideh Kamali-Zare, PhD


What Freeman Dyson said in Imagined Worlds is certainly true for brain research as well which is that: “New directions in science are launched by new tools much more often than by new concepts. The effect of a concept-driven revolution is to explain old things in new ways. The effect of a tool-driven revolution is to discover new things that have to be explained.’’

But can we really pay enough attention to concepts and forms in the scientific world entirely structured by tools and technologies? Or can we expect the new concepts to emerge automatically in the world ruled by tools? If the answer to both questions is no, what is the problem and what should we do?

It is of course valuable to have a wide range of sophisticated tools and techniques in research. They help us test different hypotheses and address questions that would not be answered otherwise, no matter how elaborate our thinking and fundamental theories are. Especially in fields related to complex systems such as neuroscience and in particular brain research. It is only with the help of those tools that we can access different aspects of the brain and address questions that are raised at different levels of abstraction.

However, there is also a harm associated with tools that is unfortunately entangled with their benefits: They break things down to very small pieces and sometimes destroy the connection between those pieces so it becomes almost impossible to see the big picture. And we, humans, cannot possibly understand a system unless we can see it as a whole and carry a story about it in our mind. Tools give us not only useful but useless information, which can make a mess in our overall understanding of a system, simply because they shed light not only on key but also non-key elements. For an overall understanding to take place, we need to have a story where the key players are known and their actions and interactions with each other form main scenarios. For that story to take place we need to have a hypothesis and for that hypothesis to be proven right or wrong we then need to employ techniques. There is no point in using techniques just to answer questions that we can answer using those techniques, if we do not have a story and not a hypothesis.

As correctly said by Thomas Insel: “We know much less about the brain than any other organ, and yet brain disorders, from autism to Alzheimer’s, are increasing in prevalence, creating a national public health crisis. Recognizing both the urgency and the complexity, the BRAIN report calls for a broad approach, involving a $4.5 billion investment over 10 years beginning in fiscal year 2016, to decode the language of the brain by understanding its circuits.”

Reading this I would have a concern though: what are the original hypotheses that we are testing about the brain given all these resources? What are the stories we are so eager to falsify? What are the scenarios? What if we spend all our resources answering “questions that we can” instead of “questions that we should”? What if we completely get lost in the huge amount of data that is going to be generated by such technology-driven brain research? What if even by gathering all that data we never get to embrace the complexity of the human brain?

Maybe before taking any step forward, we need to take a few steps back, re-think the problem of the brain from the beginning and re-evaluate the path we are taking and why we are taking it. Maybe it is time to free our concepts from the control of tools and technologies and instead employ tools and technologies to falsify our fresh hypotheses and novel concepts?

Fasting Can Make You Healthier


By Jesica Levingston Mac leod, PhD

Believe it or not, breakthrough new research has shown that fasting could be good for you. The article was indeed featured in the Nature journal and the impact of this study relies on the conclusion that fasting promotes haematopoietic stem cell (HSC) function. Stem cells are good for you because they can differentiate into specialized cells and can divide to produce more stem cells.

I personally challenged myself by fasting during Ramadan. .Ramadan is one of the pillars of the Muslim religion. It consists of fasting during a month from sunrise to sunset in order to reflect the essence of piety and to be aware of the plight of the underprivileged. Other cultures include fasting in their practices. In the Jewish religion the fasting day is named Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It is described as a Jewish festival without food, but full of praying, introspection and self-judgment.

During my fasting period, my friends noticed an off character onset of passive aggressiveness in me, and indeed I was pretty cranky… and super hungry. One of my favorite comedians, Luis CK, once said that we incorrectly overuse the “I am starving” phrase, while people in Africa are really dying for starvation… so I won’t say I was starving, but certainly I was in a glucose deprived state of mind, which was affecting my behavior.

The most challenging part for me was being dehydrated, as you should also fast liquids during Ramadan. Contrary to the great health guru; the actress Cameron Diaz, who taught in her book that drinking plenty of water is the basis for a healthy body, fasting liquids seemed counterproductive in my experience.

Fasting is often indicated in general medical practice particularly prior to surgery or other procedures that require general anesthetics, because of the risk of pulmonary aspiration of gastric contents after induction of anesthesia (i.e., vomiting and inhaling the vomit, causing life-threatening aspiration pneumonia). One should also fast if undergoing a cholesterol or glucose test, as these measurements require a 12 hour fasting period so that a baseline can be established. These acute/short fasting periods are generally safe.

What more, a study in mice published in 2008 showed that short-term fasting (less than 48 hours) is effective in protecting normal cells but not cancer cells against high dose chemotherapy. The following year another study published in Science proved that caloric restriction delays disease onset and mortality in rhesus monkeys. In a human study, including 10 cancer patients under chemotherapy, Sadfie and collaborators  did not report significant side effects caused by fasting alone other than hunger and lightheadedness. In this study all patients voluntarily fasted for a total of 48 to 140 hours prior to and/or 5 to 56 hours following chemotherapy administered by their treating oncologists. In those patients whose cancer progression could be assessed, fasting did not prevent the chemotherapy-induced reduction of tumor volume or tumor markers. Fasting was well-tolerated and was associated with a self-reported reduction in multiple chemotherapy-induced side effects, suggesting that fasting in combination with chemotherapy is feasible, safe, and has the potential to ameliorate side effects caused by chemotherapies.


In the significant article that I mentioned before, Chen and collaborators showed that prolonged fasting (PF), exceeding 48 hours, activates a metabolic switch to lipid- and ketone-based catabolism and decreases circulating insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1), which has been shown to reduce chemotoxicity (1) How? They couldn’t find an answer yet. However they clearly demonstrated that the decrease of circulating IGF-1 in the blood was accompanied by a reduction in protein kinase A (PKA) pathway activity in a variety of cell types. PKA has several functions in the cell, I.e. regulation of glycogen, sugar, and lipid metabolism and it regulates other proteins with a valuable role in stem cell stress resistance, self-renewal and pluripotency maintenance.

Interestingly, when Chen and collaborators exposed mice to cycles of prolonged fasting followed by challenges with cyclophosphamide (a drug used in chemotherapy), they noticed the reduction in the mortality and apoptosis (programmed cell death) of long- and short-term HSCs as well as multipotent progenitors in the bone marrow. In addition, multi-lineage differentiation was improved in these animals compared with fed mice, in vitro and in transplantation experiments. These positive effects of prolonged fasting were independent of the chemotherapy treatment, as they were also present in aged animals, which naturally exhibit a reduction in HSC function and multi-lineage potential. The effects of prolonged fasting could be reproduced in mice lacking the growth hormone receptor, which also have low levels of IGF-1. Transplantation experiments showed that low levels of IFG-1 in animals led to a reduction in IGF-1-mediated PKA signaling, both in haematopoietic cells and in associated stromal cells. Strikingly, the researchers could restore haematopoietic function by reducing the levels of either IGF-R1 or the PKA catalytic subunit. Conversely, the benefits were abolished if exogenous IGF-1 was added.

The scientific community is excited about these findings, and we hope understanding the positive effects of fasting can have implications in improving the quality of life of cancer patients… and all the humanity in general. On the other hand, I must cite one of the best Americans: “He that lives upon hope will die fasting”, Benjamin Franklin.

Critical Thinking Makes the World a Better Place


By Knicole Colon, PhD

As scientists, our primary job is to conduct research and present our results to both the general public and scientific communities. What should go without saying is that the results we present should be accurate to the best of our knowledge and should not be falsified in any way. However, there are cases where we run every test we can think of, and we get one result that we truly believe to be correct… but then, someone else comes along and runs some test we did not think of, and disproves our result. Ultimately, that person is another scientist just doing his or her job. That is, they use critical thinking to think of things that we did not. That does not mean we were wrong, or did “bad” science. It just means that scientists are not omniscient beings!

There have been a few recent examples in the astronomy world of (supposedly) critical findings that have been debunked by critical thinking from other scientists not involved in the original studies. For instance, a few years ago it was announced that a relatively nearby star known as GJ 581 had at least two planets in or near the so-called habitable zone. That suggested that these planets could have liquid water. Numerous studies of these planets followed this announcement, which together suggested that one of these planets was one of the most Earth-like planets found to date outside of our solar system. This is obviously a big deal, because we only know of one place in the universe where life exists (Earth, of course). By finding another planet that has an extremely similar temperature and size as Earth, it stands to reason that it may very well host life. Note that it may not be humanoid, but still, life could exist. If scientists have a reason to believe such a planet exists, then they will (and did) focus their efforts and resources on studying that planet. Well, as it so happens, some scientists have been using their critical thinking skills to question the existence of these planets since their discovery. Last month a paper was published by a group at Penn State  that definitively identified the signals from these planets as being artifacts of stellar activity (i.e. changes in the star’s spectrum are correlated with the rotation of the star, which resulted in a false periodic signal identified as a planet). Thus, these are not real planets after all.

Similarly, I recently reported results  from a project called BICEP2, which involved measurements that supported the theory of the inflation of the universe (shortly after its creation in the Big Bang). Since then, many scientists have critiqued those results, with some concluding that dust in our galaxy may have been the source of the so-called detection of gravitational waves. After the peer-review process, the scientists who worked on BICEP2 updated their paper to acknowledge that this is a possible explanation.

The point of this post is not to make people skeptical of scientific results. Instead, it should serve to inspire people to think critically about results, to understand how they were achieved, what methods were applied, what data was used, and so forth. If questions are raised during this process, then it could be worth following up with the authors of the paper, to see if they had considered x, y, and z. If they have not, then perhaps a new study should be done. In an ideal world, this x, y, and z should be addressed during the peer-review process (as with the BICEP2 paper). However, since scientists do not know everything, a reviewer may also miss some other explanation of a signal. Either way, it is important for all results to be confirmed, especially if they are particularly groundbreaking. And, during this process, new questions and new findings may come about and end up being even more interesting than the original results. The conclusion is that there is absolutely always something new to learn in the field of science!

6 Top Tips For Choosing the Right Lab for You – Part 2


By Susan Sheng

Couple of days ago we shared with you the first top 3 tips for choosing the right lab for you, here are the other 3 tips.


4. Lab culture

The composition of a lab is always in flux, so it’s hard to say that your relationship with specific people in the lab should influence your decision whether to join or not. For instance, in the year since I officially joined my lab, about half of the members have left and moved on to other positions, and a new group of post-docs are scheduled to join by the end of the year.


One thing I did find very important, however, is the culture of the lab and the dynamics between members. I think this is something that stays relatively constant within a lab even as people cycle in and out, since prospective members would evaluate and be evaluated on their fit in the existing culture. By “lab culture” I’m referring to how people interact with each other in the lab. Do people discuss the latest papers (either related to the lab’s research, or just cool science in general) and work together to troubleshoot experiments, or do people tend to work on their projects in isolation? Is the lab generally collaborative or are multiple people working on closely related projects and competing to get data? This can be, although is not necessarily, related to the size of the lab.


In all three labs I rotated in, I knew I would have to learn new techniques (i.e. animal behavioral work, primary cell isolation, etc.) for my potential thesis project, so I wanted to be sure that I would be in an environment where I would feel comfortable asking my labmates for help and advice. I also wanted to be somewhere where I would have my own distinct project, but where there would be enough commonalities (either in topic or in approach/technique) where I could get ideas and suggestions from my colleagues.


5. Life after graduation…

Although it seems too early to be thinking about post-graduate school life right at the beginning, another thing I considered was the types of positions the lab alumni went to after their tenure in the lab, and the publications they had upon leaving. What I was looking for was whether the lab alumni were going into positions that I may want to follow and how, if at all, the PI helped the students and post-docs prepare for those positions. Initially I wanted to follow the academic track and try to become a professor with my own research lab, so I was mainly looking for PIs who were well-established and well-respected in their fields, in the hopes that their network would help me when I go out on the job market. Additionally I wanted to join a lab where the students graduated with first-author papers in bigger name journals. For those thinking about going into pharmaceuticals or biotech, or into non-traditional PhD paths, it can be helpful if other people in the lab have gone down that route, as they can provide helpful contacts in networking and learning more about those career options.


6. The project

Before I started my PhD, I thought the thesis project was going to be the most important factor in choosing a lab. It certainly is important, as graduate school often involves a lot of repetitive and tedious work so you need to find a question or topic that excites you and motivates you to get through those annoying pipetting/wash steps, and through all that troubleshooting you will inevitably have to do. However, I would argue it is less important than the above-mentioned “fit” criteria. Projects are malleable, and often there is a lot that can be explored within a given question, so you’re bound to find something that interests you. If you don’t get along with your mentor though, or are unhappy with the lab environment, even the most interesting topic may become impossible to tackle.


Lastly, try new things. Rotations are the best time to explore a new field of study, work on a new model organisms, or learn new techniques and approaches. It’s about the only time in your scientific career you can try something totally new with relatively little risk. My previous lab experience was primarily in the field of learning and memory, but I rotated in a developmental neurobiology lab as well as molecular signaling/transcriptional regulation lab and learned a lot of new techniques and approaches that I am now applying to my thesis work.

6 Top Tips For Choosing the Right Lab for You – Part 1


By Susan Sheng

I’m still somewhat in disbelief that I’ve been in my thesis lab for nearly a year now, we’re halfway through summer, and my qualifying exam is fast approaching (eek!). A good friend of mine is getting ready to move across the country to start a PhD program of her own, and recently she has been asking me lots of questions about how to choose a rotation (and eventually, a thesis) lab. Looking back to my first year, I remember being overwhelmed with the number of rotation options, and worrying about “choosing the right one.” (one may recall the PhD Comic comparing PhD programs to marriage). After much discussion with more senior students and a few post docs, and meeting with potential PI mentors, I finally settled on three labs to rotate through. I was fortunate to have generally good experiences with all three labs, and it came down to weighing the pros and cons of each lab to decide which one I would ultimately be happiest in and do my best work. Below are some of the major factors that swayed my decision, and hopefully this will help incoming students narrow down their rotation/thesis lab options.


1. Don’t commit too early

First thing’s first though, don’t feel pressured into committing to three rotation labs right as soon as you arrive in the program. I remember talking to a few classmates on the first day of orientation, and they already had all three rotations lined up! When I started at NYU, I had a list of maybe 10 labs that sounded interesting. During the first month of grad school, I made appointments to meet with the PIs and discuss the possibility of rotating in their labs. From there, I narrowed down that list to about 4-5 labs. I decided my first rotation would be in a learning and memory lab, since it was an area I had worked in previously and thus it would be easier for me to hit the ground running while I adjusted to graduate school life. I told the other PIs that I was interested in possibly doing a second or third rotation with them, but that I would get back in touch with them at a later date to confirm. Luckily those PIs were amenable to this arrangement, and I realize this may not work in labs where there are a lot of other students interested in rotating/joining. However the advantage of not committing early meant that I had the flexibility to see how my interests developed through my work in the first rotation and through classes and seminars I attended in the first semester. I actually ended up doing my third rotation in a lab I had not even heard of prior to arriving at NYU, and in a totally different department (microbiology, instead of neuroscience), and that was based on chatting with a graduate student at a poster session I attended. Keep your options open!


2. Funding

As an international student, one major concern I had was funding. Because I’m not a US citizen or permanent resident, I don’t qualify for the vast majority of grants/fellowships in the US (i.e. institutional training grants, NRSA/F31, NSF, etc.). Additionally, I also found myself ineligible for funding from my home country (Canada), so I needed to find a lab that was well-established and well-funded enough that I wouldn’t be expected to bring in my own funding sources. Troubleshooting experiments and collecting good data is hard enough as it is without wondering whether you will have the funding to buy reagents or supplies!


When meeting with potential PIs, it’s good to be upfront and ask whether the lab can support a student, and be clear about what grants you are (and are not) eligible for. It seems a bit awkward at first but is a common question that comes up so don’t be afraid to ask! Another resource is NIH RePORTER  which lists active NIH grants held by a PI. Depending on the field, this database will be more or less useful, as it does not give any indication of other funding sources, such as NSF or private foundations, but it can be a good starting point to get a sense of a lab’s financial situation.


3. Mentoring style

In terms of mentoring style, PIs can range from micro-managers who want constant updates to very laissez-faire with only occasional check-ins, to everything in between. It’s important to consider your own working style and be honest about what kind of mentor would help you achieve your greatest potential and succeed in your program. For myself, I wanted a mentor who would check-in with me regularly to make sure I was making good progress (and give suggestions if I get really stuck), but would also allow me the freedom to explore my ideas. Too much leeway and I was worried I would either procrastinate horribly, or waste time wandering down paths that are less important or novel. On the other hand, one of my classmates remarked that if she was in my lab she would be too stressed and frustrated with weekly meetings, and instead prefers the greater freedom her PI allows her with monthly check-ins.


There is no right answer of course, but it’s important to be honest with yourself, and find the best fit. This is something you should be able to gauge from a lab rotation and from talking to current students in the lab. Generally I found that newer PIs tend to be much more involved with their students’ work (I have friends who are regularly in the lab until the wee hours of the morning, working alongside their PI!) and older PIs tend to be less involved and give more mentoring responsibility to the post-docs in the lab, but this is not always the case.


Want to know more? You can find the  other 3 top tips for choosing the right lab for you here!


Notes from a PhD survivor: Baby Steps, Important Stupidity and More…


By Lori Bystrom, PhD


Lately, my news-feeds have consisted of opinions about various commencement speeches and images of recent graduates throwing tasseled caps in the air. Such scholarly celebration reminds me of how I arrived at my current position as a postdoctoral scientist and what I learned from these experiences.


My graduate school career began more than several years ago with a phone call from a very enthusiastic professor. My future graduate advisor informed me that I was accepted into my top graduate school of choice. I was shocked by this news because I had applied to this particular graduate program on a whim and it was the fastest application I ever submitted. I was so excited and remember saying yes to everything the professor said to me, including yes to joining the doctoral program instead of the master’s program as I had originally planned.


I had never considered a PhD until that point. Although I was passionate enough about science, I was not sure I wanted to commit to something that seemed like a lifetime to complete (or maybe I just didn’t think I had what it took to get a PhD).

Before I left for graduate school, I decided I could always leave with a master’s degree if I didn’t want to finish the program. In retrospect, this made the whole PhD thing a little less impossible. In fact, I did finish my PhD and it did take a long time —I am just glad I didn’t think too far ahead when I started.


I feel that society often pushes us to ‘think big’ and ‘chase impossible dreams’. I think that this can work for some people, but I find that most people get discouraged when they don’t reach that big dream quickly enough and quit too early. For myself, I found that ‘thinking little’ or taking baby steps towards small goals helped me finish big projects and ultimately, my PhD.


The realization — it is OK to aim small — was one of the many insights I acquired in graduate school. Here is a list of a few others that may be helpful to other graduates students who were doubtful like me:


Let failure be your friend

It is inevitable that as a graduate student you will fail, fail again, and then fail many more times. It is important to realize this going into your PhD, especially for researchers in the experimental sciences that have to worry about contamination of various organisms, malfunctioning machines, and bad growing seasons. Many experiments will not work. You will fail at things, but it is by failing that you will learn which doors you should open and which you should close to reach your research goal or to explore an even better research idea. Ultimately, failure is part of the process and accepting it can lead to better results down the road (such a point is demonstrated in this podcast).


Stupidity is important

Obtaining a PhD involves exploring uncharted territories. You aim to find things never found before. You are supposed to feel stupid because you don’t know the answers at the start of your project. It is not an exam and you do not have to memorize information to pass or ace the test — you need to go beyond what is already known. So don’t let your stupidity scare you away — embrace it. This enlightening article discusses the importance of stupidity in science.


Your advisor is not always right — trust your instincts

Yes, your advisor is there to advise you, but he or she might not know everything you know about your research project. You should listen to their advice, but know that sometimes it is good to follow your gut and try that one idea you had even if they do not think much of it. You have nothing to lose (unless, of course, this idea costs lots of money). In fact, you might find your idea may lead you down a better path or to new interesting questions. For my PhD project, I mostly followed my own path and in the end my final dissertation product was the story I created and envisioned. Having the power to create my own story gave me a sense of ownership, and made me more passionate and motivated to complete my research narrative.


Distractions can be good

Working hard is important for being productive in your research, but sometimes it can become too much. When you reach that point when you can’t think clearly — when the words on the research paper you are writing have become a blur or the experiment you repeated 10 times is hopelessly leading you nowhere — then it is time to stop and do something totally different. At this point, you should go for a run/walk, play some music, cook a nice dinner, start a hobby or anything that keeps you from thinking about work. In fact, there are successful companies (check out this article on 3M) that encourage their employees to take breaks in the hopes that their wandering minds will solve problems and come up with new ideas. Essentially, daydreaming or relaxing after a period of hard work may help you be more productive.


Distractions can also be bad

Although distractions from work can help clear your head and help you solve problems, if there are too many and occur too frequently, this will not be productive. Moreover, if you decide to work on too many side projects for your research this may prevent you from ever finishing any one project successfully. You may have even heard the expression, “Jack of all trades — master of none.” It is best to try control your distractions so they don’t consume you. If you have a lot going on and nothing is getting done then perhaps this is sign you are overloaded with too many distractions. Eliminate some of these distractions so you will be able to accomplish something.


Try your best to finish, but know when to quit

There will be times when you think everything is failing and you should consider quitting. However, patience and perseverance are necessary for surviving in academia and you should try not to quit at the first sign that your project is failing. It is important to give the project many chances. That being said, however, it is also important to know when an experiment is going nowhere and when you should move onto another experiment or new project altogether. Carefully evaluate the costs and benefits of quitting at various stages of your project. Moreover, if you are questioning your academic career in general here is an article describing the pros and cons of quitting at various stages in graduate school or in academia.

How to Choose a Postdoctoral Position (with no regrets)


By Knicole Colon, PhD

First of all, I understand that situations are different in different disciplines and that different people have different priorities, so it is possible that not everyone will be able to relate to my specific experiences.  That being said, I hope that some people will be able to learn from my mistakes!


My story begins in the Fall of 2011, when I began the process of applying to postdoctoral research positions in astronomy.  I knew I had pretty solid research experience and could count on good letters of recommendation, so I was feeling decently confident that I would be offered at least one postdoc research position.  I also figured I would try to apply for some tenure-track teaching positions at small liberal arts colleges, although I knew my teaching experience was not that strong.  So, over the course of about seven months I routinely checked a few websites where a majority of astronomy-related jobs are posted, and I ended up applying to 14 different positions.  These positions included 9 research positions, 4 teaching positions, and 1 research fellowship (that could be used anywhere in the United States).  This is where I made mistakes #1 and #2 – I only looked at a few websites for jobs, and as a result I only applied to 14 jobs.  I did not comprehensively search for jobs that would interest me, because I was not thinking outside the box.  It did not occur to me that it would be okay to stray from the “traditional path” of going from graduate school to a first postdoc position to a second postdoc position then (eventually) to a tenure-track faculty position.  Now, I have learned my lesson, and I will be sure to do a more extensive search for future positions (and I know there are lots of interesting non-academic jobs out there).  I should say that in my job search, I also limited myself to looking at jobs within the US.  I do not think of this as a mistake though, because I am very close to my family and friends and I know without a doubt I would not be happy living far from them.  In fact, in future job searches I plan to limit my search radius even further (to one specific region of the US), because I know specifically where I am happiest living.  And being happy is very important (more on that later).


Despite those mistakes, I ended up getting interviews for 4 research positions.  Not bad, right?  While that boosted my self-esteem, by February 2012 I ultimately ended up being offered just 1 of those positions.  I should have been happy, because one job was all I needed.  The problem was, I had applied to that specific job only because I was qualified, but it did not exactly fit my criteria of wanting to live somewhat close to my family.  Let me put it this way: I was going to be in a time zone that differed by six hours from where my family lived.  Still, since I am not opposed to adventures, I ended up accepting the job.  That was mistake #3.  In my gut I knew it was a big deal for me to move so far away from family and friends.  I also had some obligations during the span of that postdoc position that would require my physical presence (like being maid of honor in my best friend’s wedding), and I knew living so far away would make things very tricky.  But, it was the only job offer I had, so I took it.  Now I know I did not have to accept it.  I could have stayed in graduate school another semester and/or I could have asked my research adviser to hire me as a postdoc until I found a job better-suited for me.  Again, a lesson was learned.  Know that everything is negotiable, and if you are not entirely comfortable accepting a job (even if it is the only one you are offered), then do not feel you have to accept it.


Hidden within the previous mistakes I made was another big one.  Mistake #4 involved the two-body problem.  When I was applying for jobs in 2011, I was in what I thought was a serious relationship with someone.  When I learned what my job options were (i.e. that I had just one option), I chose to take the job also because I thought I would be able to force my relationship to progress.  I essentially believed that my significant other would move with me, and we would live happily ever after.  Reality set in when less than one month after I moved and started my new job (in September 2012), the relationship ended.  So, not only was I living far from family and friends (which I already knew would be difficult), but I was truly by myself since my significant other was not going to move with me as expected.  Needless to say, I was not in the best state of mind during the first few months of my first postdoc.  Lesson learned: actions speak louder than words.  Instead of trying to force our relationship to progress, I should have seen the signs that things were not going to happen the way I wanted them to.  When I look back on things, I can easily see that now.  If I did not have the expectation that my significant other would be moving with me, it’s probable that I would not have accepted a job so isolated from any family or friends.


Fast forward to February 2013, six months into my first postdoc: I was miserable.  Now, the job itself was fine, but I knew I would not be happy living where I was even for two more years (it was a three year position).  I just felt too isolated from everything.  Therefore, I started searching around for a new job.  I was hesitant to do this, because in my field it is nearly unheard of for someone to leave their first postdoc after just one year.  However, a job popped up that was perfect for me in terms of both my research interests and the location.  I decided I did not want to miss a good opportunity and I applied for the job, but I still felt really guilty for wanting to leave my first job so soon.  This was mistake #5.  I should not have felt so guilty that it almost deterred me from applying to another job.  We have to realize this is what happens in all kinds of jobs in the entire world – people come and go into different positions all the time.  Plus, I was unhappy enough in my position that I knew I was not working to my full ability, and that was not fair to my supervisor.


As it happened, I ended up being offered the job I felt guilty applying for. I also felt guilty accepting it, but in the end it was the best decision I ever made.  I began this second postdoc position in October 2013, and I can honestly say I am happier than I have been in years.  I feel like I am now able to work to my full potential because I am in a better state of mind.  I could go on and on about the benefits of this for everyone involved, from my current supervisor to my previous supervisor to even my family and friends, but the main point I want to make is that happiness should be considered when applying for jobs.  How happy will you be in a specific location, working at a specific university, working with a specific PI, working on a specific project?  If possible, do not think about what you should do, but rather what you want to do.  And with that, hopefully you will be able to make some choices that are good for you, with no regrets.

Creating a rewarding summer student experience


By Sally Burn, PhD

It’s officially summer and, in the world of lab science, that can mean only one thing: summer students! These youthful creatures run the gamut of abilities, from skilled extra pair of hands to health & safety nightmare. Additional variables governing the success of a placement are the project and the mentor. Scizzle can’t help you get a “good” student but we can help you out with these last two items. So sit back, get your student to fetch you a summer drink, and absorb our top five tips for creating a rewarding summer student experience.


1) Plan ahead and prepare for their arrival

Summer students are the babies of the lab family. At the start of their lab life they will need constant supervision and for you to be aware that they weren’t born with a working knowledge of pipettes. When a real baby is on the way, wise parents-to-be pre-emptively organize the next few months of their life: stockpiling essentials, freezing future meals, and realizing that they’ll need to adapt their routines. Likewise, preparing for a summer student involves carefully planning out what they will be doing each week, gathering the samples they will need in advance, and working out how to fit your own lab work in around them. By just spending a little time planning ahead, you can ensure a productive time for both mentor and mentee. Provide them with papers to read in advance, talk to your admin and Health & Safety departments about any necessary paperwork or training, and make a rough outline of each week’s work. You should, however, be prepared to deviate from this plan to accommodate your student’s abilities and/or changes in the project’s direction.


2) Use your own summer work experiences to improve theirs

My first summer internship involved filling pipette tip boxes with new tips. That was it. I literally put 96 tips into 96 holes in a plastic box. Ad nauseum all day long, for eight weeks. Bizarrely, this high school experience did not put me off a research career, mainly because on my last day I was rewarded by getting to look at slices of actual human brains. However, most students will need a level of excitement above tip box filling. Think back to when you were their age and try to remember what aspects of your projects you did and did not enjoy. Recall what you found confusing and what helped you to pick up concepts or learn techniques.


3) Hit the books… failing that learn the fine art of bullsh*tting

The biggest issue I have with summer students is they make me realize I know an awful lot about one tiny nook of developmental biology… and increasingly little about anything outside of that. A lady never reveals her age, but let’s just say that the last time I could recall anything about organic chemistry was at the turn of the century. Once I specialized in human genetics my brain kicked out unnecessary information about benzene rings; then, as I progressed through a PhD in mammalian developmental genetics it also evicted anything to do with plant genetics. And now, as an experienced postdoc, I have no shame in saying that I do not give one stuff about the Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium. A million thoughts go through my brain every day, but not one involves Hardy, Weinberg, or their evolutionary principle. Even worse? I regularly use online calculators to work out how many grams of a chemical to add to my solution. If I took undergraduate exams now I would fail miserably. But you know what? I know a lot about what I need to know. This fab cartoon illustrates where PhD knowledge exists in the realm of all knowledge; I basically now occupy just that outer PhD nubbin and it has long since blasted off from the larger knowledge orb.

A new, more worrying trend is emerging as I age though. Now I can’t even recall quite why we add 10µM of chemical X into regularly-used solution Y. During my PhD I absolutely knew the kinetics of what X did to make Y so effective but now… I just know that it does. My explanatory mantra is that if you drive a car you don’t need to know the precise mechanics of the engine, just how to drive it. Having said this, it is a good idea to brush up on any rusty knowledge before your student arrives – they are, after all, hoping to learn something from you. If they are going to be using a certain technique every week, make sure you know why each of the steps are important. My current student is a wise fox and I have been caught out multiple times already when suddenly unable to recall why we might do something the way we do…

… Which brings me to one of the most important skills needed to successfully mentor a summer student: bullsh*tting. You have (or are on your way to having) a PhD, so they already expect you to know the answer. Harness this assumption and bullsh*t away. Bullsh*tting is performed most optimally with an authoritative voice, and is preferably prefaced with a phrase such as “well, that is a very complex issue” or “it’s exceptionally complicated, but…”. Try to say something that you think could potentially be the truth (explanations such as “it catalyzes the reaction” or “it alters the pH” trump vaguer comments like “it just does” or “it adds fairymagic to it”). The ultimate approach though is to buy yourself some time and get away from the interrogation, then hit up Google and/or Wikipedia. I have no shame about this. Just don’t tell my student.


4) Remember that this is their summer vacation and they are usually unpaid

Don’t treat them like slave labor. Hopefully you will both get what you need out of the experience – you some extra data and them a stimulating career choice-affirming experience – but keep in mind that this is their vacation. If they’ve finished their work for the day, set them free to gambol in the sunshine. Or whatever it is that students do nowadays.


5) Fall back in love with science because of them

Being a postdoc or grad student is often a tiring, repetitive, unrewarding job. It becomes very easy to forget why you first got excited about science and instead get stuck in everyday mundanity. My favorite things about hosting summer students are their enthusiasm and seeing their eyes light up at something I see every day. Summer placements can recharge an old postdoc’s batteries and make them think “you know what? My job IS pretty cool”. And that’s worth giving a bit of your time up for.

P.S. If at any point you need some light relief from your summer mentoring experience, take some time out to enjoy these gems, from the #whatshouldwecallgradschool Tumblr:

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When Women Reach for the Stars

By Elizabeth Ohneck, PhD


In the second grade, I wrote a report for class about Jane Goodall. Bright, bold, independent, and inquisitive, she became my instant personal hero. I looked up to her, wanted to be just like her. (Who doesn’t want to run away to the jungle and befriend wild animals? Some days this still sounds like a good idea.) And so, a scientist was born. But throughout the rest of my education, there was a distinct lack of female heroes and role models. Of course we touched upon the greats: Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, Jane Austen, Maya Angelou. But where were the great female scientists? The history of the natural sciences, like the natural sciences themselves until recently, was heavily male dominated. Whom could budding young female scientists look to for inspiration?


Encouraging girls and young women to pursue their interests in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) is currently a topic at the forefront of our collective societal mind. The invention of toys like GoldieBlox and Lego’s release of a line of female scientist characters exemplify responses to the demand to find ways to teach gender equality in education and careers at an early age. Aside from toys, how else can we encourage girls to delve into STEM fields? Can we find role models whose stories inspire their dreams?


In June, we can celebrate two very important women: Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to journey to space, and Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. Their inaugural trips took place almost exactly 20 years apart, Valentina’s in June of 1963, and Sally’s in June of 1983. Their enthusiasm, bravery, and willingness to take risks provide inspiration for women of all ages (and men too!).


Valentina Tereshkova was born in 1937 in Maslennikovo, Russia. Although she had to drop out of school at the age of 16 to begin working in a factory, she continued her education through correspondence courses. Around the age of 22, she became an enthusiastic skydiver and an accomplished parachutist. In the early 1960s, in the midst of the “space race” between the United States and the Soviet Union, the Soviet space program was looking to collect data on the effects of space flight on the female body. When Valentina volunteered to serve as the female astronaut, the Soviet space program took notice of her parachuting skills. She had no pilot experience, but as the flight was to be run by automatic navigation, such experience largely unnecessary. Of more importance was the ability to handle the ejection at 20,000 feet required upon re-entry into earth’s atmosphere, for which Valentina was well-prepared, thanks to her skydiving activities. Thus, Valentina was accepted into training in 1962.


On June 16, 1963, the Vostok 6 launched with Valentina aboard, making her the first woman to enter space. She completed 48 orbits of the earth in 71 hours, more time than all of the U.S. astronauts combined had spent in space at that point, and returned to earth on June 19, landing near Karaganda, Kazakhstan. In recognition of her bravery and accomplishment, she was awarded both the Order of Lenin and the Hero of the Soviet Union awards. While she would never return to space, Valentina went on to become a member of the USSR’s national parliament, and served as the Soviet representative to numerous international women’s organizations.


It would take the U.S. 20 years to catch up in regard to sending a woman into space, but when they were ready, Sally Ride was up for the job. Sally was born on May 26, 1951 in Los Angeles California. She studied both English and Physics at Stanford University, and went on to earn her Master’s and Ph.D. in physics. In 1978, Sally responded to an advertisement in the Stanford student newspaper, seeking applicants for the NASA astronaut program. Out of thousands of applicants, 35 were selected, with only 6 being women, but among them was Sally Ride. Prior to her space flight, she completed rigorous training, served as part of the ground crew for two space shuttle flights, and contributed to the development of a robotic arm used by the space shuttle.


On June 18, 1983 Sally became the first American woman in space as part of a 5 person crew aboard the Challenger. She would return as part of another Challenger mission the following year, for a total of 343 hours in space. Although she was scheduled to take a third trip, the flight was cancelled following the explosion of the Challenger on January 28, 1986. Sally was appointed as part of the commission to investigate the accident.


Following her time at NASA, Sally became the director of the California Space Institute and a professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego. She received numerous awards for her contributions in the field of space exploration, including the NASA Space Flight Medal and induction into both the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the Astronaut Hall of Fame. In addition, Sally was passionate about encouraging girls and young women to pursue careers in science, math, and technology. She founded Sally Ride Science, a company that creates educational science programs and publications for elementary and middle school students, and wrote several books for children about space exploration and the solar system.


Valentina Tereshkova and Sally Ride challenged the status quo and bravely pursued their passion, unafraid to face skepticism and step into a male-dominated field. They both went on to use their experiences and the status they gained to help other women follow their own dreams. Both Valentina and Sally literally reached for the stars. Their stories serve as examples to show our daughters, nieces, sisters – all women – that they can do the same.

Giving Sight to the Blind and Insight into Body Representations


By Katherine Peng


I remember my astonishment upon the discovery of the blind “human batman” Daniel Kish, world famous expert in human echolocation. Kish “sees” with tongue-click echoes that allow him to ride bikes and even hike mountains. I was amazed that the human brain, which had not evolved the bat-like need for nocturnal navigation, could efficiently form a complete image with a fleeting echo. But it’s old news that the brain can compensate the lack of one sense by rewiring it with others. On his echolocation, Kish believes that “the brain is already at least partly wired to do this. All that needs to happen is the hardware needs to be awakened.”

One inspired scientist has been quick to take advantage of this quality to engineer a program called “The vOICe” that may give the gift of sight back to the blind. His product consists of headgear wired with a camera and headphones that takes live video which is continuously coded into soundscapes. With enough practice in decoding these sound patterns into 2D mental images, a blind person can begin to “see” whole landscapes. Certainly, enough rewiring of neural circuits would eventually provide a synthetic vision that could even parallel normal vision.

For scientists, this augmented reality system serves an additional purpose – to foster a paradigm shift in our belief of how the brain is organized. Scientists are just beginning to realize that brain areas classically considered unimodal such as the “visual cortex” may actually be influenced by multiple senses at once. In a study released in March from Current Biology, researchers mapped the brains of trained blind and sighted participants as they were identifying objects and people using The vOICe.

This group wanted to know whether visual experience during development is necessary for the creation of the body-perception network. Theoretically, underdevelopment of this network would leave the blind lacking in the ability to perceive postures and body language. What became apparent was that the blind were able to perceive exact postures just as well and even mimic them using soundscapes. What’s interesting though is that they showed strong brain activation during this task in the same dedicated network in the visual cortex (the extrastriate body area) that was activated by sighted individuals. Rather than underdeveloped, areas of the blind visual cortex may very well be a precise counterpart to the configuration of these areas in sighted individuals. A new model now emerges that there are sensory areas of the brain that are task-oriented rather than specific input interpreters. Rather than a result of brain reorganization, the extrastriate body area seems to be one of these structures that remain stable but is able to interpret a variety of different inputs to accomplish its task.

Sensory substitution has become quite popular for aiding the handicapped, but most of these have relied on touch (electrical and vibrational), to give information on sounds, vision, balance, and even finding directional North. Where the tactile-visual setup allowed crude interpretations of lines and common objects, this auditory-visual substitution is looking to be a very promising upgrade and advancements that will allow the additional perception of color is already in the works. Only time will tell.