Category: Grad School

Alex the Parrot’s Last Addition Experiments

Last year while taking a class on human and animal relationships I learned about Alex the African grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus). At the time, Alex had already passed away (he died in 2007) but he was still renowned for his performance in cognition experiments conducted by psychologist Irene Pepperburg of Harvard University. I was thinking a lot about animal cognition back then, and I was impressed by what Alex did so I wrote a short post about his skills. We humans like to think of ourselves as elite, but too often we underestimate the abilities of other species.

alex-the-african-grey-parrot1The reason I bring up Alex is because I recently read this Nature News article about a new paper published by Pepperburg in the journal Animal Cognition (behind a pay wall, sorry) describing her last experiments with Alex on addition. The newly published paper describes Alex’s ability to successfully add together arabic numerals (the ones we use) up to eight. He was also able to come up with the total number of objects separated under three different cups. The experiments were still being conducted when Alex died, however Pepperburg says there was enough statistically significant evidence to suggest that Alex was really doing addition.
According to Ewen Callaway’s Nature News article, when asked “how many total?” in response to questions like 3+4 or 4+2 Alex chose the right answer nine out of 12 times. When presented sequentially with three sets of objects underneath three cups, Alex was able to total the objects correctly eight out of 10 times. It used to be believed that the ability to understand the numerical value of a set was dependent on language, and thus a specifically human characteristic.
To date, Alex and a chimpanzee named Sheba are the only non-human primates that have been able to successfully perform addition. While two examples isn’t exactly a lot, the research is exciting because it demonstrates that a higher level of thinking is possible in other species. So are we headed for a planet of the parrots? I’m going to go with no, but it is still very cool to see what Alex was capable of doing.

Book Review: Blood Work

I recently made a trip home, and decided to grab a book from the UW Bookstore to keep me company on my flight. I felt like it was time to read another piece of narrative non-fiction, so I picked up Blood Work by Holly Tucker. The book is about the first human experiments conducted on blood transfusion. I have no background of any kind in studying blood transfusion or in studying European and medical history in the time period of the 1660’s. However, I was drawn to the book because I was intrigued by the way it was marketed on the jacket as, “a tale of medicine and murder in the scientific revolution.” It seemed like something that would keep me awake on my nighttime flight.

BloodWorkBookCoverAs it turned out, Blood Work was a perfect compliment to the material we are covering in my History of the Scientific Book and Journal class this semester. Of all the classes that I’ve ever taken, this is one of my favorites. It is in the special collections of the UW Library and we get to handle the real texts, but I digress. We were just looking at early copies of the Philosophical Transactions, the publication of London’s Royal Society and the Memoirs of France’s Academy of Sciences. These two publications, and their respective societies are an important part of Tucker’s book. Publication is the means of spreading information, and getting into the journal of a national science organization was the premier means of getting attention for your work – critical for the early blood experiments.

Blood Work tells the story of Jean-Baptiste Denis one of the first medical doctors to experiment with animal to human blood transfusions. At the time, blood transfusion was extremely controversial because medical knowledge was conflicted about what exactly blood did in the body, what it was made of, and how it connected to the essence or soul of a person. There were fears that transfusing animal blood into humans would create horrible hybrid human animals. This resulted in two strong camps, those in favor of blood transfusion who believed it had the power to cure a variety of problems including mental illness, and those of the traditional way of thinking who wanted nothing to do with blood transfusions. Despite the controversy there were researchers engaging in these experiments anyway, and Denis was one of Paris’ most famous (or infamous depending on how you see it.)

What I liked most about this book was that while well researched and factual about science and the time period, the narrative was extremely strong. This is a vivid story with great characters struggling not just to further medical research but also to make a name for themselves, with their reputations and all that goes along with them at stake. You will learn a lot of history, not just medically, but of the time period. You certainly won’t be bored by details. The narrative is well crafted and engaging.

I loved seeing the work that went into researching this story. You can tell Tucker really did her homework to try to unravel the mystery of what happened to the patient in Denis’ most famous animal to human blood transfusion. Without giving too much away, I’ll say that the patient dies and it calls into question the safety of blood transfusions. The incident serves as proof for those medical doctors opposed to blood transfusion research to have the experiments, and thus Denis, shut down. However, there is a question about whether the transfusion killed the patient, or more sinister means were employed in a conspiracy to tank the research. The incident resulted in blood transfusion itself going on trial.

This book was enthralling. I was reading in a busy environment, and had to put it down several times out of the necessity of moving around and traveling. I was able to keep coming back to it though, because my interest was peaked enough to want to find out what happened in the end. This story has mystery, a conspiracy, and science. I was certainly hooked. This isn’t really a fun read, not the kind of thing you’d want to take to the gym or the beach, but it is definitely interesting and worth the time if you’d like to learn something new about research in the 17th century, and be entertained while doing it.

One of the things that left me thinking after I’d put the book down was Tucker’s epilogue where she compares the blood transfusion experiments with modern day stem cell research. Blood transfusion is now a standard medical procedure (though not interspecies, we’ve learned that human to human blood transfusions are the way to go because the body can reject the blood of another species). However, it was greatly feared when it was first proposed, and that fear set the research back years. I thought the corollary to how stem cell research has been perceived by certain groups was a strong one, and it certainly got me thinking about how research that might seem “extreme” these days may be viewed in the future. Overall, I’m glad I read it.

The Final Countdown (Part II) The Speakers

This semester I decided to run a segment called The Final Countdown (I mean, really) to force me to take the time every month to reflect on my graduate experience and think about my time here in Madison. This month I want to talk about the different people I’ve gotten to meet through my grad program here. There are a lot of awesome people that I got to either hear lecture, grab coffee with, or ask questions about how avoid being awful at what I do. I’m very grateful for these experiences. Honestly, exposure to people of this caliber is one of the things I think I got the most out of in my time here.

My first semester at UW the science writer in residence was Jennifer Oulette, whose blog Cocktail Party Physics is a part of the Scientific American blog network. I got to hear her speak about becoming known as a physics writer, without any formal educational background in physics. I’ve always steered away from physics and math as a writer, but she was encouraging that if you put in the time to educate yourself you can write about complex topics in a meaningful way.

Washington Post features writer Manuel Roig-Franzia spoke in several of my classes when he visited UW about what makes a good feature, and how he goes about getting the story. What I took away from listening to him, was that you have to put in the time. If you want to write a good feature, you have to invest yourself in it, otherwise you won’t get everything out of the story that you could have.

Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (which I highly recommend) came to UW to speak because her book was chosen as the Go Big Read selection for the campus for the 2010-2011 school year. She gave a special talk in the Journalism school, and I found her process for staying organized and keeping all her information straight as she was working on a book of this magnitude really interesting.

While I try hard not to delve into politics, I found a lot of encouragement to keep doing what I’m doing in a talk by Jim VandeHei, co-founder of Politico. I went to this talk at a time when I was feeling totally inept as a writer and having serious doubts if I could cut it in this program. VandeHei gave me a big boost when he spoke about the future of journalism, and all the opportunities that lay ahead.

I got the opportunity to have lunch with Sheri Fink, Pulitzer Prize winner for her coverage of misconduct in hospitals in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. I was inspired by the strength journalists must have to chase a story no one wants to be real, to be committed to the facts, to the truth.

One of my favorite experiences in the program thus far was having coffee with Bill Blakemore of ABC News. I didn’t blog about talking to Bill, but I was so impressed not just by his long, prestigious career but also by how open and honest he was in talking with us. He was taking notes during the conversation, and writing down little tidbits of what we were saying for future reference, he made me feel like even me with all my stumbles along the way had a valuable opinion.

Last semester the science writer in residence was John Rennie, former editor and chief of Scientific American, a blogger for the PLoS Network, and a professor at NYU. Like Bill he also took the time to sit and get coffee with a group of students. It feels as though every time I start to get discouraged about the program and my abilities, a great writer appears to convince me that journalism isn’t dead and I’m not out here chasing a dead end future.

This semester I got to talk to Mark Schaefer, author of the Tao of Twitter and pick his brain about how to market yourself online. So far my life sciences communication class on social media has exposed me to some seriously skilled people when it comes to making the most of social media. Last week we also got to talk with John Morgan, author of Brand Against the Machine, and get his opinions on branding and marketing online. I was again amazed that people who are so busy, would take the time to talk to a class of students. Did I mention that Mark and John both spoke to us for free? Classy. Seriously.

Let’s not forget that I also got to hear (though not see, unfortunately) the President of the United States Barack Obama give a speech on the library mall here at UW. The President. Even with no view, it was still a great experience.

There have also been great people here in Madison who have taken time to work with students, and I’ve greatly enjoyed meeting them. This includes Brennan Nardi, Editor of Madison Magazine (and alum from my program), and Bill Lueders, formerly of the Isthmus and now with the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

Hopefully I didn’t forget anyone. Members of my cohort, please remind me if I did! It is quite a diverse, and amazing list of individuals. I’ve gotten so much out of getting to meet each of them, and I feel very lucky that UW-Madison afforded me the opportunity to do so. One of my biggest regrets in my undergrad was not taking advantage of all the opportunities to be exposed to different types of thinkers. I vowed not to do the same in my graduate experience. With this bunch, I think I succeeded.

On Being A Social Media Ninja: Tips From Mark Schaefer

We live in the future. While I’m still waiting for my hover car, there are many other examples I could give you about the amazing technical advances that make me feel like we have tremendous opportunities at our finger tips, if we just know how to harness their power. One of the ways I think we are already living in the future is with the power of social media, particularly Twitter and blogging. While I’m relatively active on Twitter and try to keep this blog up to date and interesting, my skills in this arena are far from the super stealth ninja moves of many of the people who have seized the opportunities to network and build an audience through social media.

taotwitterThis semester I am taking a life sciences communication class on social media. I recently had an opportunity to learn from one such social media ninja, when my class interviewed Mark Schaefer (@markwshaefer) over Skype. Schaefer, who was recently named by Forbes to a list of the top 50 social media influencers and named by Tweetsmarter as Twitter user of the year for 2011, is a successful marketing consultant, professor and author. For my class we read his book, the Tao of Twitter, and then got to ask him questions about how to make the most of the Internet, and get our foot in the door in social media.

The main thing I took away from talking with Schaefer is the importance of having substantial content that supports the online persona you build for yourself. It is one thing to just be active on Twitter and networking, but if you don’t have content to support what you claim to stand for, you aren’t going to reach a significant level of interaction. He said people that really have the power on the Internet are the ones that have content that they are creating and moving through the system, which I feel like I’ve definitely witnessed in the science writing community on Twitter. The core of my Twitter experience thus far has been reading blogs, and sharing links to interesting blog posts written by others.

Another thing Schaefer shared that I found interesting was that there is value in blogging even if you don’t have a high number of followers (that you know about at least, because as I’ve said over and over again I don’t know where the hits on this blog come from). I am winding down my time here at UW, and am starting to look for a job. I thought he really made a great point when he said that a good blog can be a great selling point in an interview, and can make an interview last much longer so a potential employer gets a better sense of your skills and ability. He said that even if you don’t have many people reading your blog, you can still show a potential employer or colleagues what you can do, what you can write, how you think, and what you are passionate about. I knew that employers would see my blog, but I hadn’t really considered what a great opportunity (or shortcoming, depending on how you see it) the blog could be.

A few other tips I took away from Shaefer include:

  • You have to figure out what you offer, then you can figure out how best to try to communicate and network online.
  • Show your whole social media footprint in one place, link to Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn so employers can easily see what you do.
  • Twitter is a global experience so you should be culturally sensitive, and remember that even on an individual level customers may consume social media in different ways.
  • Find your own originality and your own voice, don’t try to just mimic what you see other people doing online.
  • Show critical interest in things that are important to you, be a part of something you actually care about.
  • Commenting on other people’s blogs is one of the best ways to get involved in a community online.
  • The best Twitter profiles will tell what a person wants to gain. You have to put up what you are after so that people can offer genuine helpfulness (I already made this change!)
  • Personal connections turn into business connections, so including some personal tweets can be seriously useful.

I started this post by talking about how we are already living in the future. I can’t think of a better example of that then the fact that I got to discuss how to improve my involvement in social media by Skyping with one of the most effective Twitter users out there right now. This is the way of the future, and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to talk to someone like Schaefer. My goal for this semester (aside from being a ninja) is to comment on other blogs which is something I never do, and really know that I should in an attempt to improve commenting and interaction here on Science Decoded and on Twitter. I need to start talking to people, rather than just talking AT the Internet. It would also be nice to, you know, find a job. Think I can do it?

Something About Squirrels aka Why ALL Questions Matter

Science, bastion of intellectual inquiry, is turned to for answers to many of the questions that plague the finest minds in the world. Defined as the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world, science is essentially the pursuit of answers, and really with no cure for diseases like cancer or AIDS, what more pressing question could be facing society right now than how different are black and grey squirrels?

Black squirrel in Santa Clara, CA. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Black squirrel in Santa Clara, CA. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Sarcasm aside, this post is dedicated to the pursuit of information regarding the differences between black squirrels and grey squirrels. Yes, squirrels. Not exactly a charismatic animal, unless you are the kind of person that thinks everything small and furry is cute, and despite this post I’m not. But then why bother to write a post about the little critters? When I saw this story in the BBC about the squirrel research going on, I wanted to do a post because I think it is a good example of one of the best things about science – that all questions are important, because there is inherent value in learning more about the world around us.

I was purposely sarcastic about the squirrels in the beginning of this post to make a point. I feel like a lot of people look at science research being done, and are unimpressed with their return on investment. Granted, the squirrel research is in the UK, and I’m coming at this from a US perspective, but I can see a lot of people that I know reacting with the same level of sarcasm and disdain that I opened with in this post. Why squirrels? What is so interesting or important about squirrels? Do we really need to know if there are other differences between them besides color? Couldn’t the resources and intellect of the researchers be better used elsewhere? Maybe. But, understanding the creatures that share this world with us, even the squirrels, IS important.

The squirrel research that caught my attention, according to the BBC, is an effort by researchers from Angila Ruskin University in the UK to try to figure out the rate of spread through the UK for black squirrels compared to grey squirrels, if the black squirrels also carry the “grey squirrel pox” disease, and also to build genetic profiles of the two mammals which though different in coloration due to a genetic mutation, are the same species and do interbreed. The project is being crowd sourced to the public (which I guess is the reason this was coverage worthy?) to help report sightings of the black squirrels to help track their locations. The public is also being called on to provide access to any black squirrel remains for genetic testing. That is the polite way of saying reporting roadkill so the researchers can take samples.

I’m not trying to say that this is groundbreaking, shocking, or even all that note worthy. I’m not sure why the BBC ran the story, aside from the public interaction angle. It isn’t exactly flashy or eye catching. I’m still glad it is happening though. Questions matter. To me, it isn’t even about the squirrels, really. If someone honestly wants an answer to a question about squirrels, why not inquire about them? Especially in this way, where public interaction will keep costs down? I support chasing the answer to a question, even if it isn’t going to be Earth shattering. Curiosity is the basis of all the important breakthroughs, and who is to say what will be important in the future? We should be attacking all the questions. Ask, why? It can make all the difference. Even if you are just talking about squirrels.