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

#scientistswhoselfie: building a community of trust in the digital age

Danette Daniels, Senior Research Scientist

Earlier this year, an opinion piece published in Science criticized scientists who use Instagram as a tool for science outreach.1 The author argued that “time spent on Instagram is time away from research” and specifically called out female scientists for snapping selfies instead of proposing policy changes to battle the systemic issues of marginalization in STEM fields.

The piece received a significant amount of backlash from social media-savvy scientists. The community commonly referred to as “Science Twitter” is active in using the social media platform as a novel way to humanize science and engage with science-curious followers. Likewise, Instagram provides snapshots into the diverse lives of scientists who feel free to offer their own personal perspectives rather than acting as a representative of their institutions. These growing communities also challenge the stereotypical image of scientists as white men wearing lab coats. Furthermore, the digital presence of scientists and science communicators continues to be fueled by trending hashtags like #actuallivingscientist, #stillascientist, and #scientistswhoselfie.

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“Aha! Moments” in Science Education

Significant resources are required to deliver high-quality science experiences for students and their teachers. In addition to generous amounts of staff time, for both preparation and program delivery, often there are costly lab supplies. Access to a well-equipped laboratory designed to facilitate educational experiences is also important.

Of course, hands-on experiences are related to learning: for example, becoming scientifically literate, meeting science standards, preparing for AP tests. That said, many of us involved in science outreach activities will tell you that perhaps the most significant justification for these investments is that you never know when one of the students will experience that ‘Aha!’ moment which proves to be life-changing for them.

Over the years, we have heard many testimonials from students, teachers, school-to-career coordinators and other school district personnel, mentors and parents that speak to this experience. There just seems to be something about getting into the lab and engaging directly in “doing science” that stays with some participants as they head back to school, continue with their studies and on to their careers. Continue reading

Hello PhD + Promega: Partnering to Support Young Scientists

Hello PhD LogoThink back to your grad school days. Think about a time when you were struggling with challenges either inside or outside the lab. Maybe you dealt with failed experiments, a toxic lab culture or mental health problems. For graduate students, these have been real, everyday experiences for as long as anyone can remember. The Hello PhD podcast, hosted by Joshua Hall and Daniel Arneman, aims to address those problems. We’re excited to announce that beginning with Episode 94 (released June 11, 2018), we are now partnering with Hello PhD to promote their mission to support young scientists in training.

Hello PhD will be celebrating its third anniversary in July 2018, and in the past three years they’ve covered topics from grad school admissions to choosing a career path, and everything in between. They’ve interviewed post-docs, science communicators and students with interesting experiences to share. Their most popular episode ever, “When Research Sucks,” discusses what to do when research starts to drag you down. After 94 episodes, they still haven’t lost sight of their mission to make the grad school experience better for both current and future students. Continue reading

When School is just a Memory: Science after Graduation

Happy graduation! Whether you graduated last week or twenty years ago, the experience is roughly the same. As soon as you arrive on the far side of the stage, empty diploma folder under your arm, hand still sticky from the Dean’s sweaty handshake, the reality of post-academic life sets in. Perhaps grad school is on the horizon for some and others might be busy prepping for med school. For some of us, though, our years of formal education end after four and we run off to rejoice in our newfound freedom. No more exams, group projects, late nights writing papers, disapproving professors, supervisors and mentors – done with that life forever! We didn’t even bother with the GRE, MCAT, LSAT or a single “Why [insert school]” essay. Now it’s off to enjoy the Real World, which will definitely be better than college.

I’ve found, in my one year of post-college life, that sometimes you can miss academic life. You’ll occasionally look back and think, “I didn’t know how good I had it.” In particular, those of us with a pure love of learning can find ourselves unsatisfied with our prospective learning opportunities or lack thereof. We spent college soaking up mountains of knowledge–and not just from textbooks. University life gives you access to free talks from eminent thought leaders, unrestricted access to myriad scientific journals, and plenty of people around who are eager to argue about that day’s lecture in Cell Biology or Neuroscience. After college, it’s tough to fill that void.

I work at Promega (obviously), a biotech company, so I still have access to journals and there are plenty of brilliant scientists around me. However, I’m still looking for more opportunities to learn and grow. I may be out of school, but the love of science never goes away. Here are a few of my tips for everyone receiving their hard-earned science degree this spring.

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Catalyzing Solutions with Synthetic Biology

Computer-generated model of a virus.

The keynote speaker for this year’s International Symposium on Human Identification (ISHI), Andrew Hessle, describes himself as a catalyst for big projects and ideas (1). In biology, catalysts are enzymes that alter the microenvironment and lower the energy of activation so that a chemical reaction that would proceed anyway happens at a much faster rate—making a reaction actually useful to the biological system in which it occurs.

In practical terms, Andrew Hessel is the person who helps us over our inertia. Instead of waiting for someone else, he sees a problem, gathers an interested group of people with diverse skills and perspectives, creates a microenvironment for these people to interact, and runs with them straight toward the problem. Boom. Reaction started.

One of the problems he has set his mind toward is that of cancer drug development. Continue reading

Reflections of a Thankful Former Teacher

Today is the start of Teacher Appreciation Week in the United States, punctuated tomorrow by National Thank a Teacher Day. I used to be on the receiving end of the various expressions of gratitude bestowed upon our educators: platters of brownies or cookies from the Board of Education, free meals from restaurants, discounts at retail stores and, if you were really lucky, maybe a student or two (likely initiated by their parents) would bring a gift card or note.

I would also reflect on the teachers that I was personally thankful for: my elementary teachers through graduate school professors (I still remember most of them by name and, with few exceptions, I received what I needed from all of them to learn and grow), my colleagues (who provided mentorship, support and comradery to me and so much more to their students) and my parents (who taught my earliest and most important lessons).

But now I find myself looking at this annual celebration of teachers from the other side—it has been two years since I became a science writer after nearly a decade of teaching high school science. The transition has completely changed my life in ways I could not have imagined and has also impacted the way I think about educators.

The main impetus for this career change was burnout. I had spent countless early mornings, late nights and weekends grading, planning lessons, completing professional development requirements and simply worrying about what challenges I would face the next morning, week or class period. The pressures of each school year would crescendo to a near breaking point every May, and then be swiftly wiped away by the arrival of summer break.

This cycle seemed inevitable, but I had been conditioned by the cultural narrative about teachers to consider it a tolerable tradeoff to the enviable benefits of teaching: holidays and summers “off”, ending the workday before 4 (even I groaned while typing that), great (read: better than average American, worse than someone with similar level of education and experience) benefits & retirement.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t sustainable for me. Moreover, legislative changes and budget cuts exacerbated the ever-present stress to new levels during my last few years as an educator. The strain was taking a toll on my mental health and my ability to be present with family and friends, especially my children.

In my new position, I have been met with intellectual challenges equal to those I encountered as a teacher but face a manageable amount of stress and few threats to work-life balance. Ending my teaching career was probably one of the best decisions I have ever made for my personal well-being. But despite this newfound joie de vivre, I am left with a feeling of guilt that resurfaces whenever issues I used to be so connected with make their way to the national spotlight.

Two of these have been in the news a lot this year—repercussions from budget cuts to education and gun violence in schools. I shouldered the burden of helping my students’ process school shootings and personally dealing with the reality that I could be in the middle of such a tragedy. Similar to the recent wave of teacher walkouts, budget measures that targeted educators brought me to the state capitol in protest.

Yet, I don’t have to face these issues with the sense of urgency I used to. My guilt is rooted in the fact that being a good teacher required selflessness and I chose to be selfish and leave because I couldn’t meet that expectation. It is perhaps because of this nagging feeling that I now feel a gratitude toward teachers that I didn’t before. I am still thankful to all the teachers in my past, but now my appreciation also extends to those that are and will become the future of education.

This year for Teacher Appreciation Week I want to express special gratitude for all of the teachers who feel the same pressures I did and are able to persist. I admire those of you already in the classroom and know you are putting your students’ needs ahead of your own. I’m grateful for all of you who are studying to become teachers, looking past all of the reasons you shouldn’t go into education and focusing instead on the impact you’ll have on future generations.

At a time when it is increasingly difficult to be optimistic about the future, knowing that there are still teachers willing to fight for themselves and their students gives me all the hope I need. Thank you teachers, this week and every week, for all you do!

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

Orchestrating the Genome: Final Thoughts for #HumanGenomeMonth

Recently I wrote about the completion of the human genome sequencing project and the promise, problems and questions that the project has generated in the last decade and a half. One of the biggest realizations that I had from researching and writing that post is that our human genome makes us more alike than different at the molecular level, yet there is incredible variability in the human species around the globe.

I started to think about other things where the basic building blocks were the same, yet the final products were so very different—and I landed in the middle of a symphony orchestra.

Orchestras, if we look at the instruments that they have at their disposal, are very similar: dare I say 99% identical? For instance the instruments listed in the February 2017 roster for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra on Wikipedia (1) are very similar to the lists of instruments listed for the musicians of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra on its web site (2). Numbers and groupings might vary, but the instruments are the same.

However no one would argue that the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus are interchangeable. Experiencing one is not the same as experiencing the other, and two separate experiences of either are often completely different.

The orchestral “DNA” is the same: highly trained musicians playing essentially the same set of instruments, and quite often the same piece of music. What makes each experience of these organizations unique is the when, the where and the how of the expression of that DNA. Continue reading

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