What do a corkscrew and a bacteria have in common?

Ben at the Life Science Centre asked me: “Can you talk about your work on the Evolution of Bacterial Cell Shape to Children in about 5 minutes?”

I don’t know… CAN I?

The Life Science Centre at Newcastle would not give me this job without any help. Before the lockdown they had an amazing workshop in the museum about engaging (and entertaining) and audience while talking about science. One of the tips I liked most is to use props. Normally when I talk science I either have a powerpoint or nothing at all. But both in a museum and in this setting at home there is room to use props to give your story a visual element and to make it more understandable – especially for a younger audience.

I am very grateful to the Life Science Centre for another chance to work with them! Find the happy result below:

Meet the Scientist! Lizah talks about the Evolution of Bacterial Cell Shape

Wash your hands!

At the start of the coronacrisis, I hoped to contribute to science communication in a positive way. I made a set of posters to explain good practice in order to prevent spread of the virus. I tried to make these posters as accessible as possible, especially keeping children in mind. Children generally understand things well, as long as we try to explain it. Feel free to use these images wherever you want.

The process of making these posters is perhaps a bit weird. Most of all I am asked how long the illustrations take to make, but those are really simple and quickly drawn. Instead, I spend most of my time considering the message I want to convey. I try to keep the message as small as possible, something like ’10 facts about Covid-19′ does not fit this format. Then once I have the message, I try to make the text as concise as possible. By this time, I usually have the visuals in mind. (The cat that was picking his nose was swimming around in my brain for a while already though 😛 ) If you have suggestions for other posters or messages, please let me know!

After a request for translation, I uploaded the blank versions of the poster. They are free to use and translate to any language. Please let me know though, I would like to add them to the collection below.

When I saw the first translated poster, I cried (it’s ok Astri, it’s because I was so happy). It’s so beautiful to see how everyone wants to help each other during these times and I love to collaborate with all of you to share correct information in your own countries.

Translations:

Indonesian: Astri Kusumawardhani (@hadiastri_k) and Mikhael D. Manurung (@mikhaeldito313)

Italian: Francesca Arici @fraarici

French: Paul-Enguerrand Fady @FadyPEC

OMG, I did a Stand-Up!

Can you believe it, I did some Science Stand-Up!

Bright Club training is organised by the LIFE Science Centre and I would highly recommend it! Not only is it fun to look at science from a completely different perspective (our job is really weird and funny) but the things you learn for comedy are directly translatable to lectures and science communication. And of course, how cool is it to have performed at an actual comedy club?

Performing with Bright club was an amazing experience and I am looking forward to the next Science communication opportunity!

Solitude in Science

We see more and more articles stating that loneliness is more dangerous than smoking. Families are supposedly less strong than they used to be and we see our friends less and less. Some people blame it on social media (Ok Boomer), others on the lack of community structures like church and clubs. 

It’s been exactly a year since I moved abroad for a PostDoc position, and looking back at the last year my biggest struggle was, indeed, loneliness. Ironically: I am not alone in this. A lot of people in science have moved between countries, states or even continents – leaving behind all of the new friends and connections made and being forced to forge new ones wherever they go. It’s highly encouraged and often essential to move abroad for scientific positions, despite the high emotional investment. In fact, most funding resources for young PIs give high preference to scientists who have moved between countries and institutes – which has been detrimental for scientists who never had the opportunity to move because they did not want to inflict this on their family.

Because it is so normal in science to work in a big group of international, uprooted people, it tends to be a very friendly environment. Our biggest social network consists of other scientists – our friends from work. Which contributes to making work our entire life. I think this can partly contribute to habits of always being at the lab, simply because a lot of people feel like there’s nowhere else to go. What else will you do? Go home and wallow in loneliness? There has been a lot of discussion about ‘toxic lab culture’, where people are at the lab every day including weekends. But what if you actually have nowhere else to hang out?

The first month I lived in the United Kingdom I was struck with incredible homesickness. Up to a year, I felt lonely and homesick. This feeling struck me when I saw my friends making plans to hang out together in the shared WhatsApp-group, when I saw a completely empty diary where I used to have many social plans, when I had the sudden realisation that ‘this is my life now’ while sitting alone in my flat. Often, I have wondered if I had not made the biggest mistake of my life. Sure, I came here for an amazing job. But is the job really that amazing if the circumstances make you so sad? The most difficult part of it was that I felt that most people expected me to be happy. I had just moved to a new, cool place for my dream job. SO WHY WAS I NOT HAPPY?

Needless to say, everything turned out alright. I quickly joined a few dance groups to be both social and active, and have made amazing friends in the last year. Contrary to what I was afraid of, I did not lose touch with my friends back home. The relationships have simply changed. We now hang out a lot whenever I am in the country and rely more on WhatsApp and Facetime. Sometimes my mother Facetimes me in the weekend when I am hanging out in the lab, and we chat about things while I am doing minipreps. But don’t worry, I also spend enough time outside of the lab and am now enjoying the Northeast of England.

Virtual Epidemics

How do you kill that… which has NO LIFE? Apparently with an epidemic. 

I am absolutely HYPED for the release of Classic World of Warcraft. And with that, I would like to look back at one of the most interesting glitches this game has seen. A full-fledged pandemic threatened the World… of Warcraft.

Although the World of Warcraft is a digital fantasy environment, it mimics the real world in a lot of ways. This digital environment has both densely populated cities and scarce countrysides. There is a lot of travel back and forth in both fast (flying/teleporting) and slow (foot/mounted) manners. And its own marketplace with an economy that resembles our own stock market. You can wonder whether disease would spread in a similar manner in the World of Warcraft, as in our own world… 

One day in 2005, a new raiding dungeon opened: Zul’Gurub. This is a 20-man raiding dungeon in the lush Jungle of Stranglethorn vale. It demanded the players to battle a large number of Jungle Trolls worshipping their Old Troll Gods that -of course- wished to wreak havoc on the World… of Warcraft. The problem arose after defeating the fearsome God Hakkar: the God of Blood. On its death, Hakkar curses the Players with a disease: ‘Corrupted Blood’. The ‘Corrupted Blood’ disease could be passed on for only a few seconds and inflicted enough damage that weakened characters could die. This disease was supposed to stay confined within the raiding zone. However… a glitch allowed this disease to be transported to major cities. This is where the virtual shit hit the fan. 
Hakkar, wow
Hakkar, the god of blood, in Zul'Gurub. From World of Warcraft: Chronicle Volume 3. Artwork by Bayard Wu
Hakkar originally releases the 'Corrupted Blood Disease' which infects both humanoids and animals. Later, these pets act as an Animal Resevoir and transmit the disease to more humanoids.

Once the ‘Corrupted Blood disease’ arrived in bigger cities like Ogrimmar it was able to spread to different players, who then spread it as well. Here it became an epidemic. And most strikingly, players responded to the Corrupted Blood Epidemic in a similar way to how people would react to epidemics in real life. Players fled to low-inhabited areas to avoid the disease. Some tried to keep players from infected cities by warning others. Some players with healing abilities chose to stay in infected areas and attempted to heal diseased characters. Here we see that not even the World of Warcraft is safe from unexpected epidemic outbreaks…

The major reason for the spread of ‘Corrupted Blood’ were pets. In World of Warcraft, players can have small pets that follow them around. They are cute and disease-ridden, just like some real life pets. When cursed with the ‘Corrupted Blood’ in Zul’Gurub, players have left the combat zone after the few seconds during which the disease was infectious. This was supposed to ensure that the disease would not spread into the World… of Warcraft. However… the pets were also able of carrying and spreading the disease – but they did not die. Here, the pets became an asymptomatic-yet-infective animal reservoir. Meaning that they did not show symptoms of the disease but were able to spread the infection. This effect was not anticipated by the game creators, so the epidemic was a surprise for everyone. 

 

There are some unique problems to epidemics in online games. During the ‘Corrupted Blood epidemic’, some players went on a mission to spread the disease as far as possible, like an act of terrorism. Or perhaps curiosity. This is an example of meta-gaming, where you don’t play the game as it’s intended, but when you make a play on the game. Can you judge these players for ‘trolling’ or playing the game the way they enjoy it? Nope. It even slightly matches some real-life problems, as there have been cases where people knowingly spread HIV. I think these cases make an MMORPG a more interesting object of study for epidemics than a simulation in which every human would adhere to rules set in place by the programmer. Instances where people don’t follow rules – like not going into quarantine, not getting tested, or traveling despite a ban – cause major real-life problems. Here, I believe recalcitrant behavior makes a simulation more realistic and interesting. 

It would be absolutely immoral to spread a disease in the real world, just to see how it spreads and how people respond to it. But… a virtual world would give the opportunity to do just that. Should MMORPGs like World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy XIV become platforms to observe behavior and spread of epidemics? Players could be tagged with a visible or invisible ‘disease’, and the response could be monitored. Things like medication (for a price), vaccination or immunity could even be included. Besides being interesting for researchers, it would be a great way to generate awareness for how easily epidemics can spread. 

 

World of Warcraft is a product of Blizzard Entertainment

https://journals.lww.com/epidem/FullText/2007/03000/Modeling_Infectious_Diseases_Dissemination_Through.15.aspx

https://mh.bmj.com/content/39/2/115.short

https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5621/sciefictstud.43.1.0085

Science in the Summer!

In science, we often focus our attention on research. This makes sense and is completely obvious, but science involves more than pipetting and coding. In fact, most – if not all – of the communication of our work will be conveyed in writing for scientific journals. How often have we not been staring at a paper wondering what the author was actually trying to do, and why this is impactful?

This is exactly why I wanted to follow the science communication summer school.

The 5-day summer school gave us background knowledge on the history of science communication and different approaches which do (or don’t) work. We enjoyed a great set of lectures by people who communicate science in several different ways, be it citizen science, writing a book, making television shows, or working for the university as a communication officer. What does it take to write a book and what does it get you? How do you talk about science on television and which events should you definitely skip?

Summer school Science Communication, Leiden 2019

For me, the most valuable aspects of the summer school were the practical ones. We got some very solid insights on how to incorporate public engagement in grant applications, an amazing writing workshop by Lisette van Hulst (www.textandtraining.com/) and a hands-on presenting workshop by Julia Cramer. Writing sounds so easy, we do it all the time. Yet it was so useful to have a lecture on the proper construction of sentences and stories. Where is the verb? Last time I had a class like this was at least 15 years ago. It’s useful to revisit basic English, especially for non-native speakers. Lisette asked us to look at our own work and correct it, based on a few simple guidelines. Truly, I felt a bit embarrassed to see very typical mistakes. During the presenting workshop, Julia focused on all the things we normally don’t talk about. Most of our presenting workshops in science are about powerpoint slides and how to talk about our results and conclusions. But we rarely talk about when and where we walk during presentations, where to leave all those limbs (I never know what to do with my arms), or when to put vocal emphasis on a statement. 

These practical workshops were only the start, as Anne and Julia also asked us to spend a few hours to design a ‘product’ to communicate a specific scientific problem. Here again, we discussed issues that I had not properly considered before. Usually, when I wrote blogs, I wonder what I would like to write about. This is wrong. I should have wondered what people like to read about. For someone as highly educated as I am – I felt quite stupid.

I can only encourage scientists to follow the next science communication summer school, regardless of whether you have ambitions to spend a lot more time on science communication. It’s useful for every scientist to know how to engage an audience and to communicate our work. This is literally our job.

Thank you Anne Land and Julia Cramer for an amazing summer school!

Smelling trouble: plant hormones and cosmetics

“Women cannot do plant science.”

A plant scientist once told me about an urban legend at his old lab. Apparently, all results went haywire whenever a female scientist had worked with the plants or entered the greenhouse. The problem was not intelligence, work ethics or dedication. Only the sheer fact that women’s presence in the lab ruined the results. And no one knew why.


Surely, plants have no concept of gender so the fact that there were women in the room should not bother them. Then what was going on?

This specific lab was researching how plants respond to insects. Plants are often eaten by herbivores and they have developed a wide arrange of defense mechanisms. Plants have spikes; tough leaves which are difficult to digest; and can produce toxins to ward off insects. These insect-repelling toxins cost a lot of energy to produce so they are only made by the plant when they are being eaten. This process requires some regulation: plants ‘recognize’ leaf damage after which they can respond. This response occurs via hormones, among which Jasmonic Acid. After leaf damage, plants produce Jasmonic Acid, which can regulate the expression of genes to turn on a stress response. In the case of leaf damage, the stress response involves the production of insect-repelling chemicals. So the hormone Jasmonic Acid pushes the PANIC button – causing the plant to make insect-repelling chemicals. (Katsir, L., et al(2008). Current opinion in plant biology, 11(4), 428–435. doi:10.1016/j.pbi.2008.05.004)

Now, why is the hormone Jasmonic Acid relevant? This hormone was originally found in essential oils from the Jasmin plant (Jasminun grandiflorum) and is considered an important component of perfume. This plant hormone attributes to a flowery, complex scent and is popular in high-class cosmetics. (Dhandhukia PC, and Thakkar VR. (2007) J Appl Microbiol 105:636-643.)

Looking back at the urban legend at the beginning of this story: What happened here was that the Jasmonic Acid in perfume would trigger the plant’s stress pathway. Because of this, the results were constantly off and drove the (male) scientists crazy.


There are a few conclusions to be drawn from this story. The first one being the obvious question whether the men in the lab spent any time on personal grooming. Men, really now?


The second conclusion is that we honestly don’t know in which ways we influence our experiments without knowing it. Do my microbes recognize the soap I use? Are they sensitive to light? Is the radio channel interfering with secondary metabolite production? Do they smell my fear and respond by ruining my experiments? (I bet they do)

Let’s talk about Science

I made a mistake.

This summer I am allowed to join an amazing Science Communication workshop hosted by the Leiden University and in my motivational letter, I promised that I would start to regularly blog about science if I would be selected. Whelp, now I’ve got to do this. As a warm-up, I will share a part of my motivational letter below:

Without gravity, there would be no anus. Why? Read this motivational letter to find out.

At some point, I heard about an experiment where chicken eggs were taken along on a space mission to look at the effects of space travel on embryonic development. The experiment with chicken eggs showed that chicken eggs fertilised 7 and 10 days before a space mission grew to be healthy chicks, whereas eggs fertilized on the day of the mission died. (Suda T, et al (1994) FEBS letters 340;34-38) This means that –somehow- gravity is essential for fertilization or embryonic development.

This space fact has fascinated me for years because of the implications for evolution on Earth. Everything on this planet has evolved with gravity and it’s difficult to predict which processes are dependent on it – we cannot simply switch it off and experiment with it.

This is an interesting scientific fact, but it was excellent scientific communication which allowed it to reach me. This is exactly something I want to learn, to recognise interesting and impactful science and to help it reach people.

At the moment I am working as a Postdoctoral scientist in an excellent institute, this gives me the opportunity to publish papers and consider my future scientific career. And wherever my future scientific career goes, I will need to talk about science and convince both my scientific field and laymen of the impact of my work. More important, I greatly enjoy science communication and I would like to spend more time doing this.

As a dedication to you, if you allow me to follow the summer school then I will start my blog in June.

Now why wouldn’t there be an anus without gravity? The solution to this mystery found me years later at a scientific conference. My friend at the dinner table mentioned that chicken embryos spin around in the egg, placing the yolk on one side of the blastoderm, a disc of cells. This helps to decide on the front and the back of the embryo. So without gravity there would be no anus and no healthy chicken. (Kochav S M , Eyal-Giladi H(1971)Science;171:1027–1029)