Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Top Ranked Gifts for Scientists

Scientists are probably the hardest people to buy gifts for.  To help, I've put together a list of the best things out there that your favorite science enthusiast will appreciate or will find interesting. While many of them are gag gifts, some are actually ones that I could see buying for myself (See #8!).

Come back and check for updates as I'll be adding to this list as I find more neat things to add.

1. A caffeine coffee mug

OK, so it's not the most original gift, but to be frank, in all my years of working alongside scientists I've only seen a caffeine mug two or three times.

You're probably not going to go wrong getting your favorite science guy or gal one of these

Price: Under $20

2. An organic molecule model kit

If you're buying for a chemist, chance are they already have one of these.

But for any others, they probably sold/lost their kit from Chemistry 101 that they took 20+ years ago. Let them relive their memories with one of these model building sets. No one said you have to build real molecules!

Price: $25.88

3. Any book that helps them improve their data visualization skills

True scientists will tell you that some of the best papers they've read have some of the most impressive illustrations of data. Unfortunately, many times those same figures in Nature and Science are the product of dedicated medical illustrators that have an eye for graphic design. Books like Visualize This (left), Show me The Numbers, or anything by Edward Tufte will help them think about their data in the most appealing way possible.

Price: $22.76 for Visualize This, other prices are similar.

4. The story of 17 molecules and how they changed the world

Scientists love to tell stories about how scientists change the world. Napoleon's Buttons will teach them how to tell the story of how 17 molecules - from cellulose, morphine, estrogen, nylon, and more - changed the world, for better or worse.

Price: $12.42

5. A water bottle filled with students' tears

What better motivation can a lowly adjunct professor give their students than having them know that their tears keep him or her stay hydrated?
At least grad students will know that their suffering at the keyboard or in the lab wasn't all in vain.

Price: $13.95

6. A book of serious scientific explanations to ridiculous questions

From Randall Munroe, creator of xkcd (yes, the one and only), comes this book filled with answers to questions like "What's the farthest one human being has ever been from every other living person?", "What happens if you hit a baseball going at 90% of the speed of light?", and "How much does a mole of moles weigh?"

Find out in What if?

Price: $14.40

7. A periodic table of elements shower curtain

This item would probably only be appreciated by the nerdiest of nerds, but I was amazed to find out that this thing actually exists.  Sadly, there was also a time that I thought stuff like this was cool.

Price: $23.99.

8. A picture book filled with photomicroscopy

Microcosmos, by Brandon Broll, is filled with over 200 pages that include images up to 22 million fold magnification. Eyelashes growing, spermatozoa, microscopic photos of computer chips, mosquito heads, and more will be appreciated by any inquisitive mind or for that matter anyone interested in the beauty of nature.

Price: $16.48

Monday, December 21, 2015

Evolution of an Infographic

Martin Krzywinski, arguably one of genomics' Edward Tuftes, walks though the all the work done to produce a single content-rich infographic for Scientific American. This is the summary of what guided the process:
Details unnecessary for understanding the key message of the page were selectively removed. (This should not be confused with the act of eliminating inconvenient information). If you have the space and the reader has the time, by all means, show data patterns in the context of supporting detail. But in this case, our goal was to clarify and illustrate the main point, and avoid diffusing the key message with tangential information. All the while, keeping in mind that it was also critical to engage and delight the reader.
It's an excellent walkthrough, complete with snapshots of the dozen-plus iterations Krzywinski and Barbara Jeannie Hunnicutt went through to produce the final graphic.

You'll be glad that you spent about 15 minutes seeing how to take this:

And turn it into this:

For more amazing work check out Martin's website.

Photo credits: Scientific American, Martin Krzywinski, and Barbara Jeannie Hunnicutt

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

We're losing too many postdocs: "Our" biomedical system needs reform

Hermann Hesse's The Glass Bead Game is one of my favorite allegories about the tensions between people in the academic and industrial fields. Interesting side-stories involve Plino Designiori, an outsider who sees Hesse's metaphorical academia as too "ivory tower" with little to no impact to the outside world.

So I was pleased to read Science's recent article on the case of disappearing postdocs, itself a comment on a recent article in FASEB titled "Biomedical science postdocs: an end to the era of expansion", and find a few nuggets of insight highlighting issues with the biomedical research system and perhaps the end of it's expansion.

Beryl Benderly quotes the FASEB paper, stating that "After >3 decades of steady growth, the number of biological and medical science postdoctorates at doctoral degree-granting institutions recently began to decline", with an annualized loss of 1.8% per year between 2010 and 2013.  That's a pretty significant drop, partly led by people either 1) eschewing the postdoctoral period altogether, or 2) deciding to develop other career directions while postdocing (myself included).

Aside: Interestingly, the FASEB paper (containing bad news about the biomed research system) is behind a paywall.  Hmmph.

So if you're in grad school, read the Science article, and if you can, the FASEB article as well. Get your head around the stats about how likely it is that you, with your abilities and with your future  degree from your supervisor and institution, will get that academic position you're striving for.  Understand fully what other career directions are open to you with a PhD (hint: there are lots) and weight those against the alternative career of being an academic researcher (hint: it is slim).

Most importantly, keep this quote in mind, which it telling in the way that system reform is currently being urgently promoted by people doing research:
What’s more, “[a] continued loss of postdocs without an alternative source of talented research personnel” for university labs portends harm to the “quality and quantity of our [emphasis mine] biomedical research,” making the need for reform more urgent than ever.