Archive for the 'research' category

March for Science

Apr 27 2017 Published by under March for Science, research, Resistance


More umbrellas than signs by the end of the Philly Science March. Impressive how many people stuck around despite the bad weather!

Many of us here at Portrait of a Scientist marched in the March for Science this past weekend. Judging from the numbers across the country, many of you did too. Here are some of our thoughts.


I marched because I support science. Not just because that is what I do for a job, but because I know how important it is for the world and humanity. I believe that to be true for all of the scientists who march. You do not have to be a scientist to appreciate the power of science, but being up-close and personal with it does make that easier.

I spent some time  before and after the march tabling for my local women in science group. I was really impressed by the number of people who were excited to sign up to get the newsletter and to attend happy hours. I was also impressed by the number of parents and kids who came by interested in our outreach program. I’m so excited that our group can have an impact on the next generation, not just by making more scientists, but hopefully also making more people who are not scientists as their job, but who are science-literate and appreciate science.

I hope that the march opened some people’s eyes and piqued their interest. I hope that this is not an isolated event but the beginning of a movement, where scientists are more active outside of the lab, both in sharing their science and in getting involved in shaping the future of our country. My sign said: “Resist! Science is Power!”

Danielle Robinson:

I was so impressed with the way my local march organizers handled the organization and run of show. True, I couldn’t really hear the speakers. But that’s because I was running around with a couple of little kids looking at real brains and learning to titrate. I didn’t even get to march with my group (see previous sentence about little kids). Instead I ran into OHSU friends, Science Hack Day friends, OpenCon friends, and made new science friends. Oh, and I saw a lot of great signs!! Like this little guy, these badass witches, these very sick salmon, and – I didn’t catch her – but someone got a great shot an OHSU researcher who is really too busy for this.

While all this was going on, I was in touch with my fellow-fellow* Teon Brooks, who has been tirelessly dealing with organizational challenges and holding calls for 600+ people as the Co-Chair of Partnerships for the Science March DC. He hung with Bill Nye – think he had a pretty good time.

I had a great experience and feel invigorated to continue advocating for science and science education on the local and national level. I met fantastic people at local organizations that I’d like to partner with and had a great time!

*Call for Mozilla Science Fellowship applications is OPEN. Yes, they really reimbursed 6k worth of childcare expenses. It’s been a truly transformational professional experience, I blogged some advice, and I am happy to talk if you’re considering applying, @daniellecrobins.


I marched for science in my new city, Philadelphia (though I wish I could have marched with these guys!). Despite the heavy rain, a really diverse group turned out, many carrying signs, wearing lab coats, or dressed in costumes. A man dressed as Ben Franklin served as a reminder that scientific thinkers played a key role in the foundation of this city and country. Kids marched with their parents, and I had my baby in a stroller. 314 Action was represented, urging scientists to run for office, and letting us know about upcoming local political races. However, the overall tone of the march and speakers seemed more pep rally than political. There were even ‘science cheerleaders’, wearing tracksuits and waving pom-poms.

The most memorable moment of the day for me was when one of the speakers at the rally asked the crowd if all the scientists could raise their hands. I raised mine, and was surprised to see that only about 10% of the people there had their hands up. A young boy in front of me said in awe to his dad, “Look at ALL the scientists!” Meanwhile, I was thinking, “Look at ALL this support!”

Like a lot of scientists right now, I’m struggling to stay funded, to even maintain my job, stuck in a seemingly never-ending application process for a more permanent position. It’s hard not to get discouraged, and easy to think that what I do doesn’t matter to people– especially because of the current political sentiment in America and the blithe acceptance of ‘alternate facts’ by the governing administration and the public who elected them. But standing there, shivering in Saturday’s rain, were thousands of people who came out in support of what we do, who want to fund research, who believe that science can create a path to a better future, and who are willing to fight for it. It was incredibly affirming.

My own sign read, “Science doesn’t care if you believe. It just is.” I wanted to convey the message that there are objective truths that simply aren’t subject to negotiation. When the oceans rise because of global warming, are politicians going to stand in waders in the rising tide, legislating against it? Will they argue belief systems about evolution with antibiotic resistant microbes?

In Carl Sagan’s words, “For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.” On Saturday, it was wonderful to be surrounded by people who felt the same way.

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Could aiming for a glam pub make me a better scientist?

May 26 2016 Published by under academia, early career scientist, publishing, research

I’m usually not very judgmental but I’ll admit that I have disdain for scientists or labs who almost exclusively aim for glamor publications in journals like Nature, Science, or Cell, and sometimes even say they don’t value research from low-impact factor journals. Debates about glam pubs usually focus on the fact that such journals don’t correspond with quality of science, or the apparent need to publish in high-impact factor journals to advance one’s career (get a tenure-track position or get tenure) and  and the idea of boycotting or subverting such journals and going open-access.

This is a little different at smaller institutions like I’ve been at in the past, but even at major research institutions I’ve never been in a lab that really aimed for glam pubs. Between my four past and present mentors, they may have had two such publications, and the fact that I don’t even know the number shows you how little I notice/care about that. I never thought it was important to me to publish in a glam journal, and was perfectly happy to publish in what I considered the most appropriate journals for my work and subfield*. I like to do whatever are the best experiments for my line of research and then publish when I have a complete story**, and figure out where that story fits best.

Lately I’ve been exposed more to labs that primarily publish in high impact journals and I found myself thinking about it a little more. I wondered what it would be like if I was aiming for a manuscript I could submit to a high-impact journal. What would I need to add to my story? What would it take to get there? If I couldn’t do the experiments myself due to resources or expertise, who could?

This made me think about a lot of advantages. Of course the obvious advantage is that by getting that publication I may get a better chance at that tenure track position, etc. But perhaps more importantly, it really would push my work somewhere I wouldn’t otherwise take it. Maybe it would be good for me to think beyond my comfort zone, to actually consider those experiments that I would have written off in the past as ‘beyond the scope of this study’. In addition, it would push me to develop collaborations with others and/or expand my own expertise. This would be good for my current work, for my later independent work (i.e. fundability), and probably for increasing my job opportunities as well.

I find that I can be the most productive and even creative if I’m given a little framework for a goal. Maybe aiming for a glam pub is just the kind of structure I need to motivate me, and push me outside of my comfort zone to become a better scientist.

*Which is not to say I haven’t submitted manuscripts to the glam journals, because I have.

**My use of this term is quite different from what might be considered a complete story for a glam pub.

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Resolution Fail!

We’re not even at the end of January and I’ve already failed at one of my goals for the year. Okay, not failed, but postponed.

I’ve been working on applying for a career transition award through NIH. This means proposing research I will perform as a trainee in my postdoc, as well as in my independent laboratory after I get a faculty position (don’t laugh). This all must fit together in a way that works with my past experience, transitions nicely between postdoc and independence, and distinguishes me from my mentors, all while being a compelling (fundable) research plan. It’s pretty challenging and I’ve been working for months on my aims and getting advice from many different people. It was a pleasant surprise to find how many people, some of whom didn’t even know me at all, were willing to put time and significant effort into carefully reading my aims and giving advice.

The biggest challenge for me was getting the preliminary data I needed to show that my proposed approach was feasible and that there was some basis for my specific hypotheses. There were some logistical issues in getting things up and running that kept me from really getting started on the most important pilot experiments until December. I worked every single day over the holidays to get these things done and didn’t really mind – the planning had been the hard part and now I was going to get the payoff, in the form of beautiful pilot data, just in time to polish my application!

But then my first experiment didn’t give me the results I expected – not only did the drug I was testing not lead to the hypothesized effect, but I didn’t have the expected baseline differences between groups I needed to even show an effect if there was one, so basically the experiment was worthless for preliminary data purposes. And then my second experiment failed due to an unforeseeable procedural issue. So frustrating!

After each of these failures I still held hope for my third, and most important experiment. This was the one I needed to show that my methodological approach was sound, that I could actually do it, and that it supported my main hypothesis. But to my surprise, my results showed that this was not true at all – this approach was not going to work for my goals, and there was no support for my hypothesis. This was the final nail in the coffin, which I had already seen coming after the first two experiments – there was no way I could submit this grant as planned.

Now I need to do a few more exploratory experiments before I can even settle on an approach. Then I need to rewrite my aims – at least altering the approach, but maybe my actual hypothesis and entire research plan! So I hope I can do this before the next submission deadline, just postponing my application by one cycle, but it’s now clear to me that I have a lot of work to do be confident that my proposal is sound, not just a nice plan.

One of the disappointments for me on the personal side is that this inevitably delays my career progress. If I do get the award, whether it’s on the first or re-submission, it’s at least one cycle later than I’d hoped, and longer for me to remain in this training phase of my career, which I’ve mentioned I’m really ready to move on from! If I don’t get the award, I’ve spent a LOT of time doing things for this application that arguably take away time from other progress I could be making in my research and/or career plans.

And honestly, one of the biggest reasons I feel like not meeting this deadline is a failure is because of all of the people who worked to support me in reaching this goal. I have mentors, people writing me recommendation letters, collaborators, advisers, and administrative staff who’ve all been helping me try to make this deadline, and I feel embarrassed to tell them I’m postponing my submission. I know these people all have been a part of the game and know very well what it’s like, and it’s not like I was lazy or inattentive to deadlines – the science side just didn’t work, and that happens. But I still feel like a failure going to each of these people to tell them I have to postpone my plans.

I can only hope that I have continued support from both colleagues and data by the time I reach my next deadline. Here’s to flexible goals and a happy and productive mid-2016 – wish me luck!

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Topics of Interest

Currently a former neuroscientist turned stay-at-home mom, I get to stay home, and watch and play with my two girls.  Old habits do not die too quickly; I often find myself observing my kids as if they are my former experimental subjects, rats.  As they grow up and acquire new and more advanced skills, many questions have come up regarding what is going on in their brain and brain in general.  Here are some questions I might ask if I were choosing a topic of research right now:

  1. Lifetime taste memory?

As I watch my 2-year old put everything and anything in her mouth, I can imagine what each object tastes like: metal, plastic, fabric, paper, wood…  Although I have not actually tasted them recently, I am fairly certain that my ideas about how those objects taste are pretty accurate.  But how do I know?  When was the last time I actually put those items in my mouth?  Do I remember from the time I was an infant/toddler when I did the extensive savoring?  And would I remember those tastes forever?

 Though I could not find exact answers to my questions, I did find an interesting study that suggested that memory for taste forms as early as in utero.  According to the authors in this article, many flavors, e.g. garlic, carrots, vanilla and mint, are diffused into amniotic fluid and breastmilk.  In this particular study, three groups of mothers drank carrot juice either during pregnancy, lactation, or never.  When the babies started eating solid food several months after they were born, they were fed cereal prepared with carrot juice.  Their facial expressions during the first feeding were recorded. The babies born to mothers who drank carrot juice during pregnancy or lactation exhibited much less negative facial expressions than those born to mothers who never did.   

The authors suggested that less negative facial expressions are due to being already familiar with the taste via amniotic fluid or breast milk.  This is one way that food culture and preferences are passed on.  The ideas of how food taste are reinforced throughout the years after birth, but exposures to non-food stops at some point (hopefully).  Are memories of metallic and plastic taste actually retained for lifetime?

2. Bilingual brain

My husband and I speak English to each other in an English-speaking country, but we each have a second language.  Before our first daughter was born I declared to everyone around us that our daughter was going to be a trilingual.  After our daughters have been born, my husband has been very diligent in speaking his second language to them. I on the other hand have been slacking off (it is more difficult and takes more discipline than I thought!).  As a result (and attending an immersion preschool in my husband’s language), my almost 5-year old is a true bilingual.  She switches between two languages beautifully.  As I listen to my daughter and husband converse and have no idea what is being said, I wonder how language is processed by and represented in brain (not just a second language, but a first language as well).  

My 2-year old is at the point where she repeats everything she hears.  Her pronunciation of some words that I teach her of my second language is sometimes better than my 5-year old’s.  Experts discuss a “critical period” for learning a second language. When you learn a second language prior to the age of 12, you speak the second language with vastly few or no accent. From my small study with a sample size of two, there seems to be age-related smaller windows and/or stages for language reproducibility and acquisition.  I am certain there are actual studies on this, but it is still fun to observe in my kids.

[I want to expand more on this topic in a later post — there are many fascinating studies out there!]

3. Educational Neuroscience

While being a working neuroscientist, I had many conversations with my sister who was a high school English teacher.  She often expressed wishes to have taken courses in neuroscience during her teacher training so that she could understand how the brain works and have come up with more effective ways of teaching.  The discipline of Educational Neuroscience is emerging to bridge the gap between neuroscience research and classrooms.  As a mom with kids approaching school-age and with learning and memory research background it is of a particular interest.  Some neuroscience findings have already been applied and implemented in schools: delaying school start time and keeping recess and physical education.  Skepticism of bringing neuroscience to classroom is there and perhaps sometimes warranted, but if done correctly and carefully, I believe there is much Neuroscience can offer to devise a method/environment for efficient and effective learning.

As my daughters exhibit any behavior, I keep asking why and how. I just hope that there are no negative repercussions for observing (or parenting?) my daughters with this type of ulterior motives…

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OUT and About in Science: Being a Lesbian in Research and Academia

Today’s guest contribution is by a postdoctoral fellow in Portland, OR.  She holds a Ph.D. in Immunology and her research focuses on the contribution of the immune response to neurodegeneration and brain inflammation after stroke.  Oh, and she’s gay!

I knew that I wanted to be a scientist from the age of twelve.  What I didn’t know, and wouldn’t be open about until graduate school, was that I was gay.  What does one have to do with the other?  Everything, when you’re a lesbian in the sciences.

I grew up in the conservative center of the Bible Belt.  Although my family was relatively liberal, I will always attribute my late “coming out” to the environment in which I was raised.  For me it was simple; I had no LGBT role models as a child.  It wasn’t something that was known or accepted.  Being gay wasn’t an option.  Similarly, there is a noticeable lack of out and open LGBT individuals in the sciences.  Why does sexual orientation matter in the research setting when one’s science can speak for itself?  Without visibility of LGBT science role models we will fail as a community to encourage young science minded individuals from all backgrounds to enter the field. In my case, when I knew I wanted to be a scientist but was questioning my sexual orientation, I could have benefited from a strong, lesbian scientist role model. Maybe I would have had the confidence to come out earlier.

As many women in the sciences know, being a postdoc can be a pretty isolating experience. That isolation is compounded as a gay female postdoc. The lack of LGBT community in science professions is staggering. As a graduate student in the Midwest, I didn’t know of another gay grad student or postdoc in my department. Currently, I’m doing my postdoc in a larger, more liberal city but still am only aware of a handful of LGBT grad students, postdocs and faculty.  If isolation is one of the primary factors leading to women leaving the pipeline to tenure faculty, then the path is even less conducive for lesbian scientists.

Now I’m getting ready to face the major decision that every scientist has to make in their career: whether to pursue a position in academia, industry or leave the sciences all together.  Being gay will play a huge role in that decision.  If I’m so concerned about visibility of LGBT individuals in the sciences, why would I consider leaving academia?  Shouldn’t I stay and be that strong, lesbian scientist role model for other youth that I always wished I had?  I struggle with this daily.  But looking for positions in academia often means major compromises in location. I’m not sure that I’m willing to risk the possibility of living in a conservative city or state to stay in academia.  Even though I have experienced very little homophobia in my field, both my wife and I have dealt with our share of homophobic incidents outside of the workplace.  Additionally, we plan on having a family soon and it is a priority that our children grow up in a safe space where they won’t be bullied or feel different for having two moms. Since we both grew up in the conservative Midwest, we want a different upbringing for our children. Our location restrictions will severely limit my academic options.  Therefore, I’ve been preparing myself and my resume for non-science positions in order to stay in the very LGBT friendly city that we currently live in. I have absolutely no issue with my career taking second place to our comfort, safety and happiness.

When I look at my decisions and mindset on the future of my career in science, I completely understand the lack of out LGBT individuals in the sciences, specifically, in academia.  Being women in science, we also understand the importance of diversity in academia.  As the visibility of women in faculty positions increases, I am excited for LGBT to follow.  Although I may not end up being the lesbian role model that is so necessary in academia right now, I will always volunteer with girls and LGBT youth interested in STEM fields.  We still have a lot of work to do to pave the path for new LGBT scientists and the issues that I’ve discussed are only a small part of what LGBT scientists face every day,  but I can see things getting better over time and that gives me so much hope for young LGBT investigators.

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