Things I learned at a funding agency’s “community engagement” session this week

  • “Your stupid new metrics are irrelevant to my field of research”
  • “It’s not fair that chemists get bigger awards, even though I acknowledge that their research is much more expensive than that of the other fields that fall under your agency’s mandate”
  • “You can’t make me change the way I format my CV! I’ve done it this way for years!”
  • “It’s not fair that you’re no longer asking people to attach their CV as an .xml file generated by the Common CV system. I spent days figuring out how to hack that code to include more publications than the format allows!”
  • “Postdocs waiting to submit fellowship applications until the final year they’re eligible, rather than diving in at the first opportunity when they have fewer publications, is ‘gaming the system'”

(all quotes paraphrased, but only a little bit. I don’t know any of the PIs involved – this was an event held at the campus of one of the universities with which my institution is affiliated. I went as my institution’s representative, and didn’t recognize anyone else there. The funding agency rep handled everything way better than I would have in her position. From my position in the audience, it was a very entertaining afternoon).



Posted in career, grant wrangling, science | 8 Comments

Ectopic scribblings

It occurred to me this week that I’ve written various things in other venues that I’ve never linked to from this blog, and that it might be a good idea to compile some sort of list to try and mitigate the increasing entropy of my online presence, such as it is.

I wrote a book!

It’s on Amazon and everything!

Well, I co-wrote a book, way back in 2007-2008. Some people who’d recently left the biotech company where I was employed at the time to start their own company were approached by a publisher to write a textbook about stem cells for the US home-school market, and asked me to help them. I’d just got married and was already interviewing for the job I ended up doing from 2007-2012 (I actually signed the book writing contract on the same day I resigned from the biotech company), so it was a bit of a crazy year…

I ended up writing about 30% of the content of the first version, and also edited the other three authors’ chapters for grammar and consistent language. The entire process took about three months, and I was basically a total hermit for the entire time; I wrote all weekend every weekend, and edited every weekday morning before work and most evenings. All this while learning the ropes at a new job! I even wrote all day on Boxing Day 2007, even though we had a house full of in-laws who’d unexpectedly stayed overnight after it snowed during the Christmas dinner we were hosting, and who seemed strangely reluctant to go home. My then-teenage niece berated me with the words “you’re supposed to be Auntie Cath, not anti-social!”, which was highly amusing but not persuasive enough to make me leave my lonely desk in the spare room and come out to play Trivial Pursuit.

Once we’d finished the text we handed it off to the publisher, who edited and compiled everything into their usual format. We updated the text in 2010, at which time it was also converted into a non-textbook version by the Genetics Policy Institute, whose website seems to have closed down (but the book was always hidden behind a log-in system for some reason anyway). We found out earlier this year that yet another version had been released and was available on Amazon; this is the version I linked to above.

Overall, the experience was great, and I learned a lot. The financial gains have been much more modest (as in, my share is just barely into four figures – I wasn’t expecting a lot, but was nevertheless disappointed!) We’ve also all found the lack of communication with the publishing companies involved to be a bit of a problem – for instance, we’ve asked many times to be sent a few free copies of various versions, but in the end I had to buy my own from Amazon. It’s all been a little bit unsatisfying to be honest, but as I said I gained a lot of valuable experience and, most importantly, I can say “I wrote a book!”

I wrote a short story!

I know, I’m as surprised as you are!

I hadn’t written a single word of fiction since high school English homework, and never for fun, but then the idea for “Crisis Management” got into my head and, like Boxing Day in-laws, just wouldn’t leave*. (The idea was born, as so many great ideas are, during an after-work pub session; specifically, a conversation with a colleague who is the real life “Dr. Hutch” from the story. I would like to point out that the real Dr. Hutch’s research methods are 100% traditional and ethical). I was trying to write a serious science piece for the Guardian, but would find myself thinking about my story idea instead, and eventually I realized I was just going to have to write it so I could concentrate on other things. It turned out to be tons of fun, and I’m really glad I finished it!

I’d like to once again thank official fiction writing consultant Vanessa and official subject-matter expert Beth for their comments on an earlier version, which helped to improve the story immensely, and of course Jenny for publishing the story on the LabLit site. You rock, ladies!

I wrote two more pieces for Occam’s Corner!

Unbreakable: do superheroes, impervious to cancer, walk among us? explores genetic resistance to cancer, and made it (briefly) onto the front page of Digg;

Epigenetics 101: a beginner’s guide to explaining everything does what it says on the tin, and features what I think is my best analogy to date.

Many thanks to my new writing group – Jane, Catherine, and Anne – for their suggestions on improving both pieces, and to Jenny (again) and Richard for further suggestions and Grauniad-wrangling, respectively.

OK, I’m done! For now, anyway.


*I love my in-laws! I always say I have the second-best in-laws in the world (Mr E Man has the best). I was just grumpy that Boxing Day 😀

Posted in blog buddies, career, communication, personal, publishing, writing | 13 Comments


A group of geeky colleagues assembled in the lobby after work last night and headed down to Vancouver’s Railway Club for Café Scientifique. This monthly science outreach event encompasses talks about everything from biodiversity to genomics to chemistry to particle physics; the speaker this time was Dr. Elizabeth Simpson, talking about her work on the basic genetics of and gene therapy approaches to mental health disorders.

The talk was very interesting, but what really stood out was Dr. Simpson’s approach to questions from the audience. She said at the beginning of the talk that she’d like to take questions after each slide, rather than all at the end – and then actively solicited questions about literally every slide, from her academic background to funding acknowledgements and everything in between.

I have to admit that I wasn’t sure about this approach at first – it seemed a little forced and awkward, and I was grateful that one of the other regulars asked the first question so I didn’t have to. But three or four slides in, as we got more into the meat of the talk and I started to think of questions of my own, I decided that it actually worked really well.

I chatted to the event’s organizer, Susan Vickers, after the talk, and she said that Dr. Simpson had told her that this approach sometimes works really well, and sometimes completely bombs. The informal setting of last night’s talk (in the back room of the bar, with a pint of beer in almost every hand) probably helped to ensure that people got into the idea and were happy to speak up, but I can see a bigger or younger crowd being too shy to participate. I don’t think I’d ever have the intestinal fortitude to try this myself, though, even with beer in the mix!

I do have one unanswered question of my own: what on earth is an old pub sign from my home town doing in a bar in Vancouver?!


The Hole in the Wall is a pub that I’ve visited many times, just inside the city walls and within sight of York Minster, which graces its sign. I’ve asked a couple of different Railway Club bartenders if they know anything about it, but no luck so far.

I guess some questions must remain unanswered…

Posted in communication, drunkenness, photos, science, Vancouver | 6 Comments

MOOCs: my other online compulsion

I’ve heard a lot about massive open online courses (MOOCs) over the last couple of years, but hadn’t quite got around to trying one until Eva mentioned on Facebook recently that she’d signed up for a communication science course, and would anyone else like to play? Having joined both my department’s new communications team and the communications working group of the International Human Epigenomics Consortium (IHEC) during the last year, Eva’s invitation seemed like the perfect opportunity to find out whether my love of learning new things translates to this new online medium.

The Introduction to Communication Science course is offered by the University of Amsterdam, on the Coursera site. After I signed up I sent the link to the other members of my department’s communications team; my boss and one other member promptly joined, and my boss also found a course called Content Strategy for Professionals: Engaging Audiences for Your Organization from Northwestern University that looked relevant to our work revamping our rather outdated website. I therefore found myself signed up for two courses at once, which turned out to be quite a lot of work (my boss dropped Communication Science after a couple of weeks – he has three young kids at home and found it was just too much).

The two courses turned out to be very different, but complemented each other well.

The lectures for Content Strategy were all videos of one, two, or occasionally three professors sitting in an office talking to the camera; some of them seemed a little stilted and awkward, but the content was interesting and, of the two courses, the more relevant to my professional interests. I thought the best part was the IBM case study at the end, which included interviews about what Watson is up to these days (some of which is related to one of the projects I manage). The videos were all posted at the very beginning of the course, which I really liked because it allowed me to push ahead in weeks when I had more time (Mr E Man was working weekends for the first couple of weeks of the two courses, and I pretty much finished all the Content Strategy videos on those days).

I wasn’t very enthusiastic about the class assignment, though. Ironically enough, I read the description immediately after watching the lecture that stressed how important it is that your content is something the audience truly cares abut, only to find that the assignment was to create a piece of content and an overall strategy for an entity in which I had little to no interest – a men’s clothing company. It would have been better, I think, to have a choice of assignments – maybe one company for students from the private sector, and one non-profit for the rest of us. But, as promised in the assignment description, I was able to pull some more general lessons from the exercise. The course was peer-reviewed, so after posting my own assignment I was given access to other students’ pieces to assess. The course was pass/fail, so I didn’t give a grade other than “yes, they submitted something that matched the requirements”, but I gave some detailed feedback as well. It was interesting seeing what other fellow students around the world (USA, India x 2, Zimbabwe) came up with!

Communication Science turned out to be the more academic, less applied of the two courses – but I found the content more interesting (although less relevant to work). The format was a mix of the professor talking to the camera and some rather charming animations describing the main points, which I found more interesting and engaging than the Content Strategy format. The pace was very fast – being an old-school person who likes to take notes on paper, even when there’s a transcript available, I had to pause the video a few times so I could get everything down – but I feel like I learned a lot, especially about the history of the waxing and waning influences of different media throughout history. There were 16-question multiple choice homework questions at the end of each week’s videos, and a 100-question multiple choice exam at the end. I found the exam quite easy, no doubt because of all that diligent note taking (and I thought I was just finally finding a way to justify some of the lovely fancy notebooks that I buy compulsively but rarely actually write in!). The one thing I didn’t like about this course was that the videos were released each week, rather than all at the beginning, making it a little harder to fit in around other commitments – for example, I got behind due to a weekend away in February, and had a hard time catching up.

I really liked having people to talk to about both courses, both at work and on Twitter with Eva and Lou Woodley. There were also Coursera forums and LinkedIn / Facebook groups to join, but I quickly unsubscribed from the latter due to an overwhelming amount of email from them, and didn’t spend much time on the former. I’ve signed up for a couple more courses, just for fun – Maps and the Geospatial Revolution in April, and Introduction to Logic in September – so it’ll be interesting to see how the experience differs when I’m doing the course solo and without any potential professional benefits. Overall, though, I have confirmed that my love of learning does translate to the world of MOOCs, and I think I’ve found a new favourite hobby for those cold, dark, damp BC winters!

Posted in blog buddies, career, communication, education, personal, technology, why I love the internet | 7 Comments

Hating Skyler White: reflection on gender roles in pop culture (guest post by Jane O’Hara)

There are some TV characters that people love to hate. What’s the harm, you might say, when you know that they aren’t real people? But can these attitudes provide us with a mirror for some of the ugly ideas still pervasive in society about how women should act?


Anna Gunn as Skyler and Bryan Cranston as Walter White, season five. Photograph: Frank Ockenfels/AMC

Being a bit behind the times, I have finally got around to watching the very last episode of the extremely popular series Breaking Bad! (**Spoiler alert, maybe don’t read unless you have at least reached Season 5 – though I don’t give away too many major plotlines).

Not being a huge TV fan, I almost never get sucked into watching these multi-season epic shows (24 was an exception, back when I was studying for my Masters. Jack Bauer rocks). Consequently, I often find myself out of the loop when conversations turn to the latest “in” show, whether it’s Game of Thrones or Mad Men. But, armed with the wondrous invention of TV streaming, when sick at home for a few days recently I had the ideal time and means to dip into popular culture, and chose Breaking Bad for my ‘fix’. I quickly got stuck into the compelling storylines and characters.

I didn’t have a strong opinion on Walter White’s wife, Skyler, in the beginning, as she was sort of a background character; Walt was at the centre of the action. Although Skyler’s innocent ignorance of the situation made me feel sorry for her, it was enjoyable to watch the building of suspense toward that moment when she would eventually find out what her husband was mixed up in, and how he had changed from the person she thought she knew. It made for excellent drama!

There were times when I cringed, or shook my metaphorical fist at the screen when she was being manipulated by Walt – which was often. But, as soon as even a fraction of what Walt was doing clicked into place for her, from the point when he let it slip that he had a second cellphone as he was drifting off under anaesthesia, we really got to see what Skyler was made of – and she was not going to be a submissive doormat. I found her to be a strong, believable character, so I delved into some commentary online, to get a sense of other takes on the dynamic between Skyler and Walt. In my searching I came across this recent (2013) editorial piece in NYT, written by the actress who portrayed Skyler, Anna Gunn, describing her utter bewilderment at the amount of hatred directed toward her character. I was shocked to learn that Skyler was on the receiving end of such dedicated vitriol and poison-spitting, notably on two Facebook pages entitled “I Hate Skyler White” and the other, less gentle “F*** Skyler White”. The type of posts on these pages were in line with plenty of other spew that you’d encounter on online forums, where people seem to forget (or don’t care) that what they write can be publicly viewed. Most of the posts and comments are really not worth reprinting, but typically called Skyler a bitch, on the basis that she had an extra-marital affair, and for being opposed to Walt’s new criminal career choices. (Even more ridiculously, some comments indicated blurred lines between Skyler the character, and Anna Gunn herself, at least one even threatening to kill the actress – which understandably caused Gunn to fear for her safety.)

Side note: I tweeted Anna Gunn’s editorial, along with the question, “Why do #strongwomen characters receive so much hatred?”, and a random person replied “She’s not a strong woman. She’s a bitch”. Ohhh, a bitch, I see. Why didn’t I think of that?

Typical “meme” posted on such Facebook pages as mentioned above.

So my question, then, is this: was there a reason behind all this Skyler-hating? The negative comments and judgement of Skyler intensified after airing of the episodes where she found out that Walt was a meth cook and dealer, and were focused on her reaction to this knowledge and the way she subsequently related to him.

Was it simply that she was not fulfilling her traditional role as a wife and mother – should she have just shut up and supported Walt no matter what? I find this position hard to understand, as it seemed that Skyler’s first priority was to protect herself and her children, instincts that I feel are more fundamentally human than abiding by your marriage vows despite facing a threatening situation. She didn’t sign up to be the wife of a drug peddler, with all the accompanying risks! She also received criticism for later adjusting her antagonistic position and accepting Walt’s behaviour by agreeing to launder the money and hide the truth from her sister. But, come on – this also seemed like something a real live person might do. Maybe she was burying her head in the sand, but it never looked to me like greed, rather reluctant complicity in the absence of a better situation.

It also made me wonder if it was just too easy, too obvious, to hate Walt, and therefore this feeling was transferred to his wife. Conversely, did viewers feel that Walt deserved our loyalty from day one, as the protagonist? Walt started as a man who did bad things with honourable intentions, but ended up as a psychopath who did horrendous things for his own selfish gain. The genius of the writing was that because this progression was so gradual, it was easy to forget. As Anna Gunn alluded in her editorial, we were primed to empathise with Walt’s original predicament, and Skyler was set up as his opposing foil all the way through. For me though, Walt’s actions provoked my increasing fear and disgust. I then found myself empathising with Skyler and even cheering her on when she uttered zinger lines like “I f***ed Ted” in Season 3, or in Season 5 where she tells Walt she’s biding her time, waiting. Walt: “What are you waiting for?” Skyler: “For the cancer to come back.” Attacking her (as some online commenters did, quite savagely) because of these behaviours toward her husband doesn’t make sense, when you take into account all the pressure she was under and how her situation had become a nightmare. Cheating on Walt seemed to be the only way she could take back some power. Waiting for him to die from his illness was the only way out that she could foresee, for herself and the kids; it would also allow her to keep the truth from Walt Junior (aka Flynn), and let him continue believing that his father was a good man.

Despite what I see as this misplaced hatred, I appreciate that this character and the way she has been perceived has prompted a discussion about how society expects women to behave. We need to remain aware that as long there are double standards of judgement for men and women, we won’t reach equality among the sexes. Skyler was a strong, compelling character with many facets to her personality. This is contrary to the one-dimensional female characters we’re regularly exposed to on TV and in movies, who typically play one of the following roles: the Femme Fatale who relies on her looks and sex appeal to get through life, the ball-breaking career woman, or the nagging wife/mother. Some of these elements can also be seen in Skyler, but her character is more complex than any one stereotype. She evolved from ordinary, slightly bored housewife, to being frantically worried about her dying husband, to a woman who is angry about being betrayed and deceived, to a sharp-minded co-conspirator in survival mode. Most importantly, she became a nuanced character in her own right, and more than just an accessory to Walt’s plotlines. In my opinion we need to see more such multi-layered female characters appearing on screen from now on, to go beyond the stereotypes of women we’ve been stuck with in the past. This responsibility largely rests with the writers and producers of TV shows and movies – who are predominantly male. Let’s hope they will listen to our pleas and create more active, autonomous roles for women.

What do you think – did you love Skyler or hate her – or have mixed feelings? Does this type of reaction toward a female character betray a misogynistic undercurrent in our society? I’d love to hear any comments.


Jane O’Hara has a PhD in Molecular Biology, and works as a postdoc at the University of British Columbia. She occasionally writes as a guest blogger about scientific topics, and has recently added themes of feminism and pop culture into the mix. Follow her on Twitter @Curious_JaneO

Posted in feminism, guest post, television | 7 Comments

Excellent juxtapositions make me feel good


The placebo effect is truly fascinating – the top article of this pair describes how it can trigger the release of dopamine in people with Parkinson’s, or opioids in people expecting a painkiller. I hope we can find a way to exploit it that doesn’t involve ripping people off…

Posted in medicine, science, screenshots, silliness | Comments Off on Excellent juxtapositions make me feel good

Note to self: keep notes to self private

Two recent conversations sparked by cryptic notes I scribbled on post-its:

At home

Mr E Man: “Cath, what’s an e-Pig?”

Me: “What?”

Mr E Man: “On this post-it, look. ‘e-Pig meeting'”

Me: “OH! That’s my short-hand for epigenetics”

Mr E Man: “Well, that’s disappointing.”

(I now write it as epiG instead of just epig).

At work

Colleague: “Tuesday looks like it’s gonna be interesting”

Me: “Huh?”

Colleague: “Your post-it says ‘Replacement brain – Tuesday'”

Me: “…Replacement brain sample. Arriving on Tuesday. I have to complete the work request details”

Colleague: “That makes more sense.”

In other brain-related slip-ups, I was working on a spreadsheet at the end of the day yesterday and kept mistyping “frontal lobe” as “frontal love”. In my defence, my day had started with a 6am teleconference, and it was 5pm at the time; deciding to go to the pub and finish the spreadsheet on Monday seems to have been a good call.

Posted in communication, fun with language, science, silliness | 3 Comments

Quora: productive procrastination

I’ve recently started to spend some time on the question and answer site Quora, and I’m finding it be quite an effective science communication medium as well as excellent writing practice.

I can’t quite remember how I first came to join the site, a couple of years ago; I have a vague memory of all Twitter users being given automatic membership when Quora first started up, or something like that. I do remember poking around for a few minutes, not finding anything terribly interesting, and not returning for a long time.

However, I did somehow* end up subscribed to a weekly “best-of” email. I clicked through a couple of times, and the content I found there seemed to get more interesting over time. These emails survived the recent purge of my bac’n subscriptions (thank you Beth for introducing me to that term!), and I eventually added an answer to the featured question “What’s something that is common knowledge at your workplace, but would be mind-blowing to the rest of us?“. Before I knew it, I was getting votes, comments, and new followers galore – in other words, internet crack.

Having experimented a bit more over the last few months, I’ve found a pretty good balance of topics and people to follow that keeps my home page interesting and entertaining. I’ve had to tweak things a bit – I unfollowed some questions and some of the associated topics that came with them – but it seems to be a site with a good return on investment for this kind of tinkering.

For me, the primary value of the site is that it gives me experience in answering technical questions from non-experts. Writing for non-experts (in the form of lay abstracts for grants and content for our departmental website) is part of my job, but the little feedback I ever get from the target audience takes months to arrive. While serious Quora questions about the biology of cancer and other scientific subjects get much less traffic than threads about Game of Thrones theories and requests for everyone’s favourite puns, the feedback in the form of votes and comments is pretty much immediate, and I think I’ve already improved my non-technical writing as a result. Importantly for my continued participation, I’ve only encountered one user with a truly negative attitude (funnily enough, on a question I’d accidentally answered anonymously, which is an option for all questions and answers) – all my other interactions on the site have been great so far, including the “suggested edits” and other critiques I’ve received.

The primary advantage of practising for the unsolicited lay-language explanations I write at work by answering people’s specific questions is that I start to see some of the disconnects between my understanding of my field and the general public’s. I’ve seen some questions that twist my perception of a topic on its head, and make me look at it in a very different way – the best examples off the top of my head were the questions Why do all living things have DNA (but rocks don’t?) and “What prevents Herceptin from binding to HER2 receptors in regular, non-cancerous cells?“, but there have been others too. And even when the question is more straightforward, seeing the kinds of questions that people have about topics in my field still helps me write better lay abstracts and website content.

I’ve also asked questions about work-related but non-scientific issues on Quora, and received some very helpful answers (most notably on my question “What’s a good way to add a new page to Wikipedia when you have a Conflict of Interest?”)I’ve answered questions about grant writing, non-traditional academic careers, and all kinds of other topics in and around the scientific career path.

I’ve found that answering very specific Quora questions on any topic also helps me break through writer’s block. This is my excuse for all my answers on the topics of Game of Thrones, Friends, X-Files, puns, jokes, and other silly stuff. Yes, it’s still procrastination – even the sciency bits – but it feels like much more productive procrastination than Facebook.


*realised as I was writing this that it was starting to sound a bit like a cult! I swear it’s not. I don’t get to reach a new level of enlightenment if this post encourages other people to check it out, I promise!

Posted in cancer research, career, communication, evolution, fun with language, grant wrangling, science, television, the media | 6 Comments


I looked at one of my progress tracking graphs for one of my projects right after telling my colleague that Mr E Man had worked on the new Godzilla movie, and what I saw can not be unseen.





Posted in silliness | 8 Comments

Destroying the last shreds of Mr E Man’s anonymity for the sake of a good pun

Me: “Have you seen my bookmark?”

Him: “It’s in your hand”

Me: “…”

Me: “No, not ‘have you seen my book, Mark?’. I meant ‘have you seen my bookmark, Mark?'”

(Mark will continue to be referred to as Mr E Man on this blog, because a) I think it’s funny and b) I like it when he comes with me to meet bloggers and they call him Mr E Man to his face and he gets confused)

Posted in fun with language, silliness | 9 Comments