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PLoS – Sci Ed

Book Review: An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth

Commander Chris Hadfield captured the world’s imagination last year, when, from 13 March to 13 May 2013, he was the first Canadian Commander of the International Space Station. While aboard the ISS, Commander Hadfield did a series of “experiments,” both for scientists, but, perhaps most importantly, for youth. This included genuinely interesting questions like “How do you cry in space? (video above)” and “How do you cut your nails?” and the always important “How do you go to the bathroom?” His amicable nature and genuinely infectious enthusiasm brought science to the masses, and helped inspire thousands of youth.

Commander Hadfield performed at the 2013 Canada Day celebrations in Ottawa, ON | Picture courtesy David Johnson, click for more info
Commander Hadfield performed at the 2013 Canada Day celebrations in Ottawa, ON | Picture courtesy David Johnson, click for more info

Recently, Chris Hadfield released his book – “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth.” My sister waited in line for 3 hours at our local Costco to get me a signed copy for my birthday, and I finally got around to reading it for this review. The book follows the life of Chris Hadfield as he becomes the commander of Expedition 35, detailing his attitude and the path he took to become the first Canadian Commander of the ISS. The book is split into three broad sections leading up to Expedition 35 titled “Pre-Launch,” “Liftoff” and “Coming Down to Earth,” with several chapters within each section.

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Judging science fairs: 10/10 Privilege, 0/10 Ability

Every year, I make a point of rounding up students in my department and encouraging them to volunteer one evening judging our local science fair. This year, the fair was held at the start of April, and featured over 200 judges and hundreds of projects from young scientists in grades 5 through to 12, with the winners going on to the National Championships.

President Obama welcomes some young scientists to the White House | Photo via USDAGov President Obama welcomes some young scientists to the White House | Photo via USDAGov

Perhaps the most rewarding part of volunteering your time, and the reason why I encourage colleagues to participate is when you see just how excited the youth are for their projects. It doesn’t matter what the project is, most of the students are thrilled to be there. Add to that how A Real Life Scientist (TM) wants to talk to them about their project? It’s a highlight for many of the students. As a graduate student, the desire to do science for science’s sake is something that gets drilled out of you quickly as you follow the Williams Sonoma/Jamie Oliver Chemistry 101 Cookbook, where you add 50 g Chemical A to 50 of Chemical B and record what colour the mixture turns. Being around  excitement based purely on the pursuit of science is refreshing.

However, the aspect of judging science fairs that I struggle most with is how to deal with the wide range of projects. How do you judge two projects on the same criteria where one used university resources (labs, mass spectrometers, centrifuges etc) and the other looked at how high balls bounce when you drop them. It becomes incredibly difficult as a judge to remain objective when one project is closer in scope to an undergraduate research project and the other is more your typical kitchen cabinet/garage equipment project. Even within two students who do the same project, there is variability depending on whether or not they have someone who can help them at home, or access to facilities through their school or parents social network.

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Childhood obesity drops 40% in the last decade. Or not really, but who’s checking?

“A lie that is half-truth is the darkest of all lies.”
― Alfred Tennyson

Last week, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association looked at the prevalence of childhood obesity over the last 10 years. The study, performed by Cynthia Ogden and colleagues at the CDC, aimed to describe the prevalence of obesity in the US and look at changes between 2003 and 2012. The study itself had several interesting findings, not least among them that the prevalence of obesity seems to have stabilized in many segments of the US population. However, they made one observation that caught the media’s attention:

“There was a significant decrease in obesity among 2- to 5-year-old children (from 13.9% to 8.4%; P = .03)”

This is where things get interesting, as the focus was not on the 5.5 percentage points difference. Instead of reporting the absolute difference, i.e. how much something changed, news outlets focused on the relative difference, i.e. how much they changed compared to each other. In that case, it would be (5.5/13.9 =) 40%. Which is much more impressive than the 5.5% change reported in the study. So you can guess what the headlines loudly proclaimed.

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Creation vs Evolution: Why science communication is doomed

Last Tuesday night, Bill Nye the Science Guy had a debate with Ken Ham over creationism vs evolution. I watched part of the debate, and have conflicted feelings on it. I’m going to start by saying I think it was a brilliant marketing move. For one, it suddenly brought the Creation Museum into the forefront of society for next to nothing. While before only a handful had heard of it, now it has risen to national prominence, and I’m sure the number of visits they have will reflect that in the near future.

As for the substance itself, I don’t think this is a very good topic for a debate. Any time you bring religion into a discussion, it turns into an “us vs them” argument where neither party is willing to change their view. Even the advertising and marketing billed it as a debate of “creationism vs evolution” – effectively presupposing the view that one can believe in both (which I’ll come back to). At best, it’s snarky and offhanded, and at worst, antagonistic and ad hominem. I should point out though that this is on both sides – neither side is willing to reconcile.

And why should they? Both view their side as being right, and weigh the information they have differently. So all that this accomplishes is that both sides become further polarized and further entrenched, and any chance of meaningful dialogue between both sides becomes less and less likely with every angry jab back and forth. It turns into a 21st century war of angry op-eds, vindictive tweets and increasingly hostile and belligerent Facebook posts shared back and forth. This isn’t just limited to religion though – many discussions end this way with people being forced to take sides in an issue that is more complicated than simply being black/white. Rather than discuss the details and come to an understanding of what we agree and disagree on, we’re immediately placed into teams that are at loggerheads with each other.

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Using Math to make Guinness

William Sealy Gosset, statistician and rebel | Picture from Wikimedia Commons

Let me tell you a story about William Sealy Gosset. William was a Chemistry and Math grad from Oxford University in the class of 1899 (they were partying like it was 1899 back then). After graduating, he took a job with the brewery of Arthur Guinness and Son, where he worked as a mathematician, trying to find the best yields of barley.

But this is where he ran into problems.

One of the most important assumptions in (most) statistical tests is that you have a large enough sample size to create inferences about your data. You can’t make many comments if you only have 1 data point. 3? Maybe. 5? Possibly. Ideally, we want at least 20-30 observations, if not more. It’s why when a goalie in hockey, or a batter in baseball, has a great game, you chalk it up to being a fluke, rather than indicative of their skill. Small sample sizes are much more likely to be affected by chance and thus may not be accurate of the underlying phenomena you’re trying to measure. Gosset, on the other hand, couldn’t create 30+ batches of Guinness in order to do the statistics on them. He had a much smaller sample size, and thus “normal” statistical methods wouldn’t work.

Gosset wouldn’t take this for an answer. He started writing up his thoughts, and examining the error associated with his estimates. However, he ran into problems. His mentor, Karl Pearson, of Pearson Product Moment Correlation Coefficient fame, while supportive, didn’t really appreciate how important the findings were. In addition, Guiness had very strict policies on what their employees could publish, as they were worried about their competitors discovering their trade secrets. So Gosset did what any normal mathematician would.

He published under a pseudonym. In a startlingly rebellious gesture, Gosset published his work in Biometrika titled “The Probable Error of a Mean.” (See, statisticians can be badasses too). The name he used? Student. His paper for the Guinness company became one of the most important statistical discoveries of the day, and the Student’s T-distribution is now an essential part of any introductory statistics course.

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Sabremetrics and Math: How sports can teach statistics



Mental arithmatic.

Do those words scare you? If they do, you’re in good company. Mathematical anxiety is a well studied phenomenon that manifests for a number of different reasons. It’s an issue I’ve talked about before at length, and something that frustrates me no end. In my opinion though, one of the biggest culprits behind this is how math alienates people. Lets try an example:

If the average of three distinct positive integers is 22, what is the largest possible value of these three integers?
A: 64
B: 63
C: 33
D: 42
E: 48

Too easy? How about this one:

The average of the integers 24, 6, 12, x and y is 11. What is the value of the sum x + y?

A: 11
B: 17
C: 13
D: 15

I do statistics regularly, and I find these tricky. Not because the underlying math is hard, or that they’re fundamentally “difficult,” but because you have to read the question 3 or 4 times just to figure out what they’re asking. This is exacerbated at higher levels, where you need to first understand the problem, and then understand the math.*

Last week, my colleague Cristina Russo discussed how sports can be used to teach biology. Today I’m going to discuss a personal example, and how I use sports to explain statistics.

One of my main objectives as a statistics instructor is to take “fear” out of the equation (math joke!), and make my students comfortable with the underlying mathematical concepts. I’m not looking for everyone to become a statistician, but I do want them to be able to understand statistics in everyday life. Once they have mastered the underlying concepts, we can then apply them to new and novel situations. Given most of my students are athletically minded or have a basic understanding of sports, this is a logical and reasonable place to start.

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Star Wars: Identities, or “Learn psychology, you will. Hrmmmm.”

The exhibit features concept art, costumes, props and many other pieces from the movies. Pictured here is Anakin Skywalker's Podracer from The Phantom Menace | Photo credit: Atif Kukaswadia
The exhibit features concept art, costumes, props and many other pieces from the movies. Pictured here is Anakin Skywalker’s Podracer from The Phantom Menace | Photo credit: Atif Kukaswadia

Anyone who has been following my posts knows that I have a huge weakness for sci-fi and science, and if someone was to marry the two of those together, I’d be there immediately. Especially if it involved Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars or Middle Earth.

Well, it happened.

The Canada Aviation and Space Museum is currently hosting Star Wars: Identities. Star Wars: Identities is a travelling exhibit that highlights human development using the mythos of the Star Wars universe. I had been keeping an eye on this exhibit as a few years ago I had been to the Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archaeology exhibit in Montreal, which was excellent, and the same organization (X3 Productions) was responsible for this one. And when I found out they were using Star Wars to teach people about psychology, I knew I had to go.

You see, we all have questions about how and why people turn out the way they do. Even people raised under the same roof can have wildly disparate personalities, and can view the world through very different lenses. The exhibit highlights the difference between Anakin and Luke Skywalker, and how, despite coming from the same planet and having (similar) genetic makeup, their lives take two very different trajectories based on their experiences and the environments they are exposed to.

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Science and Storytelling: The use of stories in science education

Last year, I had a chance to speak at TEDxQueensu (embedded above). My basic premise is this: Science is awesome, but science needs to do a better job of communicating that awesomeness to non-scientists. We’re sitting on the frontiers of human knowledge, and yet we cannot get others as excited about this issue that we’re very, very passionate about. It’s something I’ve touched upon within the world of science fiction, by having celebrity spokepeople for science and even by using humour to engage non-scientists. After reading up on inspirational leadership, I realized that the way we can communicate science more effectively is to cast off the typical way we view science for academic purposes (ie the peer reviewed manuscript/IMRaD) and consider it as part of a whole.

We need to tell the story of science – the background, ie. why your research happened, and then the consequences, ie. why your research matters. An academic presentation works very well when your audience knows the background to the area, but when talking to non-scientists, or even those outside of your immediate area of study, you have to take a step back and tell them why the research even matters before delving into your specific study.

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ASAP Awards: Rewarding and acknowledging novel uses of Open Access resources

The Accelerating Science Award Program | Image from the ASAP Website (click to go to ASAP website)
The Accelerating Science Award Program | Image from the ASAP Website (click to go to ASAP website)

Those of you who know PLOS know that PLOS is a big advocate of Open Access – making research and findings available to everyone. To support Open Access work, and to highlight innovative and creative uses of OA, PLOS recently announced the new Accelerating Science Award Program (ASAP), three $30,000 award aimed at highlighting three exceptional ways that individuals have used OA research in fields as diverse as science and medicine, technology or even at the societal level.

Nominees can be individuals, teams or cross-disciplinary groups – as long as the Program Rules are met, it’s all fair game! I wanted to highlight this award for our readers, as I’m sure there are some of you using OA research in innovative ways, and I strongly encourage all of you to consider nominating yourself (or others) for this award.

I also ask that you spread the word through your institutions, organizations and other connections – this is a great initiative and can help promote excellent Open Access work that is occurring worldwide.

The deadline for ASAP nominations is June 15, 2013, using an online form located on the ASAP website.

Some specific details about the award: The project/idea must be based on research articles or content published through Open Access before May 1st, 2013 in a peer-reviewed journal or in a repository recognized in the Open Access community. If the use results in a publication, the publication must be Open Access. For those interested, there are details available on the Program Rules.

From the ASAP FAQ, here are some examples. These are for illustrative purposes only and don’t refer to anyone in particular, and there are other projects that would fit the ASAP requirements. If you are unsure, you can contact ASAP[at] to check.

The health minister of a low income country was able to confidently and quickly change cancer treatment protocols based on an oncology research article detailing successful uses of a repurposed cancer drug published by a peer reviewed, Open Access journal, which had been translated into multiple languages by a group of retired language teachers.

A climate policy expert took original figures and examples from a recent Open Access climate change research paper — correlating temperature increases with rises in ocean depth — and repurposed these findings in a policy-focused presentation at a conference of experts from 25 Asian and Oceanic countries – leading to the adoption of stricter emissions standards by several participating countries.

A technologist used the APIs provided by Open Access publishers and aggregators to chart trending topics in environmental science research. He then mapped these research priorities against NSF and RCUK grants to show how grant monies impact what areas researchers pursue.

A team of bioinformatics researchers utilized tissue samples from an Open Access repository to obtain tumor DNA sequence abnormality data, which they repurposed to create a new web-based app for oncologists to analyze a new patient’s tumor cells – thus facilitating personalized cancer treatment.

I’m excited to see the nominees for this award, and I can’t wait to see how people have used OA research in new and creative ways. Good luck to all the nominees!

Ed note: This post was posted simultaneously on PLOS Blogs Sci-Ed

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