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

Where in the world was Cath in November?

Photo quiz time! Can you name the cities in the photos below?

Some of these are easier than others (I’ve tried to put the hardest ones first), so extra points if you can also name the building(s) in the photos!

I’ll send all comments to moderation for a few days, to give everyone a chance to play.

1 – from a train window


2 – ditto, but on a different day


3 – not King’s Landing


4 – if you know the name of this building, you’re one step ahead of me!


5 – featuring Mr E Man and my Dad


6 – taken the day before we started suffering from Golden Dome Fatigue


7 – there were dozens of teenagers dressed as vampires running around, for added atmosphere on this moonlit night


8 – still not King’s Landing, believe it or not. You can tell because a) there are modern vehicles in the shot, and b) King’s Landing is fictional


9 – this was part of the official sight-seeing tour on the first day of the conference that was the reason for this trip


10 – the view from right outside the door of my favourite hotel on the whole trip


11 – one of the most important and influential people in modern history, and some dude on a pedestal


12 – a different part of one of the buildings already pictured


13 – and the view from inside it


14 – two famous sights in one shot


Have fun!

Posted in photos, travel | 14 Comments

Rearranging the desk chairs

Once a fortnight, we have a team meeting in the boardroom of our main research building. It’s a room that’s much in demand, so we often have to wait a few minutes past the hour before we can get in – and this week we then had to tidy up the crackers and crumbs thereof that the group before us had left scattered all over the desks. Fun!

The arrangement of desks and chairs in the room varies quite widely, from a solid block to separate rows to a skinny horseshoe to a chunky horseshoe. However, yesterday was the first time I’d seen this set-up:

New Image

We’re wondering if a PI somewhere in the building just got a grant to study whether you can accurately gauge an academic’s reaction to a presentation by having a team of people study the back of their head… something to do with giving early-career researchers tools to judge whether they should ask a question at a conference or let the bigwigs up front deal with it… any other suggestions?

(I’ll be away for the next three weeks, but there’ll be a “where in the world was Cath this month?” photo challenge when I get back. Our tenant is looking after our house and kitties while we’re away, so I suggest you don’t break in – he’s a big dude. Kthxbai!).

Posted in photos, science, silliness | 1 Comment

Happy Hallowe’en!

From a Teenage Mutant Incompetent Ninja Turtle, and dead-Goose-from-Top-Gun


Yes, that’s a saw blade through my belly – like I said, incompetent ninja. I also had a backpack on under the t-shirt to make a shell, but it didn’t come out in any of the photos


What’s your costume this year?

Posted in photos, silliness | 2 Comments

Untangling the wrangling angle

HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! :D

I’ll wait for the 5.5 year retrospective post to see just how much grant writing you *didn’t* get involved in… ;)

Thus spake the prophet Wintle in the year 2012, upon learning that I was starting a new job that would, in my words, “be somewhat similar to my current one, but with much more emphasis on project management and much less on writing grants”.

Well, he was WRONG! Wrong wrongity wrong.

It took 10 months, not 5.5 years.

Due to some changes in my team, I was asked in April to add “PI support” (grant wrangling, plus management of small- and medium-scale projects) for one of our bioinformatics PIs to my existing duties. I’d just literally that very week thought “I feel like I’m finally on top of things in my new role”, so of course I said yes (actually, I’d also thought “and now that I’m finally on top of things, I feel less busy than I think I should be”, so the change was genuinely welcome).

I’ve said before that I feel like a bit like a freak for actually enjoying grant writing (even some members of my current team think this is weird). However, I hadn’t realised how much I’d missed it until I was back in the middle of wrangling my first full application. My supervisor helped me identify part of the reason I like it so much: everyone’s pulling in the same direction, and focusing on the same thing. It can sometimes be hard to get a PI’s or other contributors’ attention on a long-term project, but when there’s a deadline, everyone’s priorities suddenly align. Grant writing also plays to my strengths; I’m better at writing, editing, and proofing than I am at some other aspects of long-term project management (how many errors will you spot in this blog post now that I’ve written that? In my defense, it’s been a long day that started with a 6:30 am teleconference). It helps that I’m working with a PI who’s doing some very cool (and diverse) research, a good writer, appreciative of my contributions, and not averse to having a bit of fun with his science.

Related to the latter point, I am now also the OAG (official acronym generator) for the bioinformatics research group. I seem to have a knack for it, and will share some of my favourites as soon as they’re published or otherwise released into the public domain… hopefully on the CIHR or NIH “funded grants” description page…

Granted (heh), after submitting five full applications between September 15th and (hopefully) tomorrow, the thrill of being back in the grant wrangling saddle has faded a leeetle, but I have a vacation coming up soon to recharge my batteries.

Oh, and the science tamagotchi husbandry effect is once more in play but hey, I’m used to that. And did I mention vacation? Soon?

I have a guest post up on the Research Whisperer site today about grant writing as a career, if you’d like to know more

Posted in blog buddies, career, grant wrangling, science | 3 Comments

Science and society – Vancouver Change Camp 2013

I have a new post up at Occam’s Corner on the Guardian website today, about how non-scientists can (try to) influence the course of scientific research.

As I mentioned over there, the ideas in the post originated and evolved from a session I chaired at this year’s Vancouver Change Camp. I thoroughly enjoyed participating in my first Camp in 2011, and went back this year (with a friend who’d been to the first ever Camp, but missed the 2011 event) expecting the day to unfold in similar style. However, before I knew it, I was pitching and then leading a session…

It’s all a bit of a blur, but from what I remember the idea came to me while the other pitches – many of which had obviously involved a great deal of preparation – were already underway. I whispered to my friend that I thought it might be a good idea if we co-pitched a session about what people in science outreach (her) and scientific research (me) can do to help science fulfill its responsibilities to society, and vice versa. She thought it was a good idea – for next year. But the idea had taken root, and (after making my friend promise that she’d at least attend my session, even if she didn’t want to co-pitch it) I decided it was now or never, and joined the very end of the queue to go on stage. I introduced myself, my career path, and the idea for the session, then scurried back to my seat, heart pounding and face red.

My session was scheduled right after lunch, which gave me some time to jot down a few more ideas. I quickly learned that it’s much easier to meet people when you’ve pitched a session – people approach you to say hi, even when you’re sitting in a corner frantically scribbling in a notebook!

I was worried that I might not get (m)any participants, and indeed I was assigned one of the smallest break-out spaces. But lo and behold, we had about ten to twelve people, including my friend and me! I didn’t really have a detailed plan, so I (oh-so originally) started by getting everyone to introduce themselves. There was one mathematician and one high school student with an interest in science, but no-one else was from a scientific background – there were a couple of people interested in environmental issues, a couple interested in medical research, and the rest just thought the session sounded interesting in general. I then went over some basics – grant funding, low success rates, publish or perish, all that – and introduced some of the ideas in the Guardian post. I then just let the conversation evolve organically.

The key theme that emerged was of the importance of good science education – not just for people interested in science careers, but for the whole population; not just in schools, but in science museums, urban community gardens, and other venues. We talked about connecting young people to working scientists, and harnessing all the activism energy present in schools and universities. Someone raised the idea of having a “scientist in residence” in schools, parks, museums, and other less traditional venues. More ideas were bandied around than I could possibly manage to jot down, and the small group size meant that everyone participated.

I would call the session a success, overall, despite a severe lack of planning and a slightly awkward beginning. I enjoyed the conversation, and have often found myself returning to the ideas people raised over the last few months (hence the post). It was a little stressful on the day, but worth it – although I think I’ll just sit back and enjoy the next event from my seat, rather than from the stage!

Posted in activism, communication, conferences, education, environment, personal, politics, science, Vancouver | 7 Comments