Meet the Mighty Masked Masters of Measurement: #WorldMetrologyDay

Scientific investigation is an iterative process, for which reproducibility is key. Reproducibility, in turn, requires accuracy and precision—particularly in measurement. The unsung superheroes of accuracy and precision in the research lab are the members of your local Metrology Department. According to Promega Senior Metrologist, Keela Sniadach, it’s good when the metrology department remains unsung and behind the scenes because that means everything is working properly.

Holy Pipettes, Scientists! We have a metrology department?! Wait…what’s metrology again?

Callibration technician checks out a multipipettorMetrology (the scientific study of measurement) got its start in France, when it was proposed that an international length standard be based on a natural source. It was from this start that the International System of Units (SI), the modern metric system of measurement, was born.

Metrology even has its own day: May 20, which is the anniversary of day the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) was created by the Meter Convention in Paris in 1875. The job of BIPM is to ensure worldwide standards of measurement.

For life scientists, metrology centers around making sure the equipment used everyday—from pipettes to heating blocks to centrifuges—is calibrated and measuring correctly. Continue reading “Meet the Mighty Masked Masters of Measurement: #WorldMetrologyDay”

Oh, the Places You’ll Go, Thanks to Science!

Today’s guest blog is written by Aparna Shah, a Post-Doc at Johns Hopkins University. Aparna visited the Promega campus in Madison, Wisconsin on January 18, 2019 and offered to share her experiences.


Aparna poses with her artwork at the Promega Employee Art Showcase

I don’t recall ever having won a contest before, let alone the grand prize! In fact, I did a double take when I first read the email informing me that my SciArt submission had been selected as a winning entry for the Promega Art Contest for Creative Scientists. What did I win, you ask? A free trip to Madison, WI to meet with the team behind the contest and explore Promega’s headquarters!

I first heard about the contest on the HelloPhD podcast and considered participating primarily to support the SciArt movement. A couple of days later, I came across a perfectly-timed tweet about the contest that nudged me out of procrastination mode and reminded me to follow through with it. I’m going to take a second here to pitch both HelloPhD and Twitter to you. Regardless of whether you’re an undergraduate student interning in a science lab or a senior postdoc, the HelloPhD podcast is incredible at calming you down while you’re on the roller coaster ride called academia. As for Twitter, I can think of several pros for using it. But in the context of this post, it is one of the best resources for discovering opportunities that match your interests.

Continue reading “Oh, the Places You’ll Go, Thanks to Science!”

A Conscious Decision to Change Careers Should Not Be Mistaken for Failure

A recent PNAS article tracked the careers of scientists in three different fields based on research paper authorship. They found that, over a 50-year span, there was a dramatic reduction in how long scientists remained in each field, which they termed “survivability.” More than half of the scientists that started out in the 1960s published in their field for an average of 35 years, while about half of scientists starting in the 2010s published in their field for an average of 5 years1. Tracked academic researchers were classified into three categories: transients (authors who had only one publication during their career), dropouts (authors who stopped publishing at various career levels), and full-career scientists (authors who continue to publish in the field). Overall, the data showed that there are an increasing number of transients that contribute to scientific papers. Thus, the authors of the PNAS article concluded that the demographics in those academic fields are shifting toward scientists who leave the field quickly. The observed increase in the number of scientists who are temporarily in academia makes sense, given the number of PhDs relative to the limited number of faculty positions and permanent staff scientist roles. However, the terms “survivability,” “transients,” and “dropouts” give the impression that leaving academia means that these scientists have ended their career or failed.

Continue reading “A Conscious Decision to Change Careers Should Not Be Mistaken for Failure”

Building a Career in Science: Academia or Industry?

If you’re a student in a research lab, discussing career options with your PI can be a tricky topic to navigate. Whether real or perceived, many students feel they cannot bring up the subject of a career in industry with their PI because they will lose credibility as a serious researcher. In labs where thinking about careers outside of academia is taboo, students can’t get all the information they need to decide what career path is right for them.

This dilemma became very clear a few weeks ago when I served as a panelist for a career workshop about jobs in industry at the iGEM 2018 Giant Jamboree. The workshop participants were extremely engaged, and we fielded questions well after the official end time. Since I know there are other students who could benefit from information about science-related careers in industry, I’ve compiled some of the questions and answers from the workshop. Continue reading “Building a Career in Science: Academia or Industry?”

Overcoming 5 Bottlenecks in Communicating Life Sciences Research

As a first-year grad student, I was so excited to start my thesis work. I brainstormed to make a list of experiments to try and then discussed them with one of the senior grad students in the lab. As I enthusiastically explained the goals of my experiments and what I was planning, he gave me a strange look. Puzzled, I asked for some feedback. He told me that, while these were good ideas, almost all of them had been published. Hence, my first lesson learned from grad school: immerse yourself in the field by reading relevant papers and then plan some innovative experiments to move forward. It’s critical to have a deep knowledge of your field of study—not just to be a good grad student, but to see what is being done and then build on it, or take a totally different approach to innovate.

Reading papers is a big part of keeping up with the latest research. And attending conferences can give you a sense of current work before it’s published. However, I’m sure that, at least once, you’ve heard a cool talk at a conference and then quite a while later, haven’t seen the corresponding paper (so that you can read about all the ins and outs of what they did!). Why would this be?  They may have been discussing the data early on in their project. Or perhaps they submitted a manuscript and the review/publishing process is taking a long time. Maybe the data were so surprising that they felt they needed to do a lot of follow-up work to support their conclusions. Or maybe their PI takes forever to write/comment on manuscripts. Etc.

The sooner that you can find out what is going on in a field, the sooner you can design smart, relevant experiments. What can be done to get cutting edge work out there to facilitate the progression of a field as a whole?

Bottlenecks in communicating research can occur at 5 different points in the process. Here are some tips to try to alleviate these delays. Continue reading “Overcoming 5 Bottlenecks in Communicating Life Sciences Research”

Living in the Anthropocene: A Photojournalist’s Perspective

Dennis Dimick has focused his journalism career on the collision between human aspiration and the planet. The son of fisheries biologists, Dimick grew up on a farm in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and he holds degrees in agriculture and agricultural journalism from Oregon State University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In his 35 years at National Geographic, he served for over a decade as the magazine’s environment editor, and guided major projects on climate change, energy, freshwater, population, and food security. Dimick is co-founder of Eyes on Earth, a project meant to inspire a new generation of environmental photographers.

As a young man, Dimick witnessed firsthand the price of progress when his family’s farm was cut in half by the construction of an interstate beltway. This invasion of their farm, in addition to the clear-cut logging of nearby forests where Dimick had spent his youth, combined to sensitize him to the profound impacts of human progress on the Earth. Early photography experience and his personal connection to the effects of human progress led to a life and career spent combining these two dimensions.

Clearcut Forest in Oregon's Cascase Mountains in April, 2016
Clear-cut timber harvest in Oregon’s Cascade Mountains south of Eugene in 2016, one of a series of images for an ongoing project documenting the Anthropocene landscape across North America as seen from passenger airplanes. Photo: Dennis Dimick

In anticipation of his participation in the 2018 Wisconsin Science Festival, I asked Mr. Dimick some questions about photojournalism, and what it’s like documenting the human impact on the environment. Some of his answers have been slightly edited for clarity.

What does it take to be a good environmental photographer? Continue reading “Living in the Anthropocene: A Photojournalist’s Perspective”

Collaboration Brings Researchers to a New Level of Discovery

2018 Steenbock Symposium program graphic. Source: University of Wisconsin-Madison Biochemistry Media Lab

I recently attended the 40th Steenbock Symposium at University of Wisconsin-Madison. This year’s theme was “Epiphanies in and beyond the RNA World”. Twenty-seven researchers from RNA and related fields convened at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery to share “eureka” moments in their careers. It was so inspiring to hear from founding members of the RNA community, including Joan Steitz, Christine Guthrie, John Abelson, and Harry Noller. I noticed a recurring theme throughout the talks: many of these epiphanies resulted from informal meetings (quite often at a bar or social event) between colleagues in different groups, sometimes from different universities. They discussed tough problems and brainstormed about how to solve them, pondered about what their peculiar results could mean biologically, or dreamed, “wouldn’t it be cool if we could  <insert awesome idea here>?” and then came up with a way to do it. It sounded like a wonderful time to be a scientist! Sitting together freely sharing ideas, motivated by curiosity and the joy of doing science.

As I thought back to my research career to look for instances of such encounters, I was happy to find a few. “Philosophy” Meetings during grad school and Tea Time during my postdoc—informal social events to bring people together from different labs and departments with drinks and snacks. RNA Cluster Meetings during grad school and RNA MaxiGroup during my postdoc—events where people interested in a certain research area (in this case RNA) would gather for dinner and to hear an informal research talk. These organized events were intended to provide a forum for conversations between scientists to spark new ideas. Sometimes, I would talk to someone in a totally different field and learn something new. But I really didn’t have an epiphany about my own research. I often found myself (and others) scurrying away after the event to get back to lab work. Was I missing out on the best part of the meeting: the after-discussion?

My reflection on the Steenbock Symposium talks led me to ask a somewhat troubling question:

In today’s competitive research environment, have we missed out on crucial discoveries and technological advances because they weren’t given the right environment in which to develop? Continue reading “Collaboration Brings Researchers to a New Level of Discovery”

Inspiring the Next Generation of Scientists

A Promega scientist works with a girl scout.
Local girls scouts worked with scientists at Promega to learn how a cell culture facility operates.

My twin daughters are finishing up their 10th-grade year next month, finding themselves smack in the middle of their high school experience, and discussions of classes, colleges and careers are increasing in frequency in my household. (It’s cliché, but I have to say it… Where does the time go?) As the girls begin to ponder their future, my husband and I are encouraging them to gain real-life insight from adults who work in fields they’re curious about. It’s never too early to get a first-hand perspective.

One of my girls has known from a pretty young age that she wants to pursue something in STEM, and likely the “S” in the acronym. Her schedule happened to be open the night a few months ago that one of my Promega colleagues, Senior R&D Scientist Danette Daniels, was speaking on a panel sponsored by the University of Wisconsin – Madison chapter of Graduate Women in Science. My daughter wasn’t sure about how she’d be received as the only high school student in the room, but she agreed to go with me anyway. Besides, I told her, they’re serving pie.

The six women on the panel represented a huge variety of avenues (academic to industry), specialties (biophysics to geology) and professional styles. During introductions, one panelist declared, “I had a job in a lab and was depressed. When I was stuck in a library all day, I was totally excited.” She now works with an organization to recruit more women into STEM fields. The woman sitting beside her runs a research lab and declared, “I love the bench quite a bit, and I don’t want to be in an office reading!” Continue reading “Inspiring the Next Generation of Scientists”

Why Hasn’t the “Alternative” Become Mainstream?

Pearl Jam, a popular alternative rock band in the 1990s (and still pretty awesome!). Photo credit: Rolling Stone Magazine.

This post could easily start out as an ode to ’90s alternative music (of which I’m a huge fan). That new and totally different sound (a la Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Soundgarden, Nirvana, etc.) in the 1990s eventually made its way into the mainstream as it gained popularity. (I have to say that I got a shock when I recently heard some Pearl Jam on “classic rock” radio stations. But I digress…)

Why isn’t the same true for science career paths? Science careers outside of academia are still referred to as “alternative.” Continue reading “Why Hasn’t the “Alternative” Become Mainstream?”