Category: Research Funding

On Admiring Moustaches and Hating Children

I don’t actually hate children, there is a story attached to this title. Please don’t send me angry emails. Also, since I’m about to rant about charitable giving for full disclosure you should know I work for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. There will also be sarcasm, so read accordingly.

A few weeks ago I was checking out at a national grocery store chain that shall remain nameless. I had stopped in after work and was rooting through my giant bag for my wallet when I got asked the standard “would you like to donated $1 to fill in the blank” in this case it was “healthy school lunches.” My answer, as I was swiping my card, was “no thank you.” Not because I don’t think children should have access to healthy meals through their schools, but because I had no idea what this charity was. Sure, I could have peppered the woman at the check out with questions about which organization the money was going to benefit, what schools did it work in, what kind of food were we talking about, but if I demanded calorie counts would she have known? On top of that I, and I’m sure everyone behind me in line, had somewhere to be. I was in a rush. I donate to other things. If I gave my obligatory $1 every time I got asked, I’d be giving away money every day. I had reasons for saying no so I expected that to be the end of the exchange.

It was of course not the end of the exchange. As I was swiping my card, the woman at the register responded to my “no thank you” with “why, you hate kids?” Yes. Obviously. That’s it. Little bastards needing all that nurturing and attention. It’s not like they’re the future of America or anything, they definitely don’t deserve healthy lunches. Let’s just give everyone the physical and emotional burdens of obesity! Nothing like a little diabetes to set the kids straight. Come, on! Just because I don’t want to fork over my $1 for an unknown charity doesn’t make me a child hating monster. I don’t work with kids regularly, but I’ve made it my mission this year to write a blog post every month introducing first graders in my hometown to different scientists that I’ve met on Twitter. I care about education, and yes I care about issues like obesity and access to healthy food.

Breast Cancer Awareness SeminarIn retrospect, I should have done more than just fix the woman working the register with my best dirty look, but I didn’t. Upon seeing my reaction she quickly covered with “just kidding” which for me just amounted to, “please don’t ask to speak to my manager.”As I said, I was in a rush so while still pretty ticked I just grabbed my bag and walked out of the store but this whole incident bugged me. I’m blogging about it weeks later, so clearly it has lingered.

It wasn’t just that I thought the women was rude. Or the insinuation that because I won’t give to that specific cause, I hate children.  It has much more to do with how we give to charities as a whole. The give $1 to support fill in the blank model works. It works very well. Just look at places like St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital who raise millions every year doing just that. But St. Jude’s is recognizable, I’m more inclined to say yes to them because I at least have some idea that they are legitimate. But a completely unknown charity, no thank you. So why was the response to my “no” public shaming? When did we become a culture where taking the extra 30 seconds to think through the request to give was cause to embarrass me at the register?

Coming through the months of October and November, marked for breast cancer and prostate cancer awareness respectively, I think we can all identify with feeling a little bombarded by pleas to donate. But donate to what exactly? Buy a cookie, buy a bracelet, buy a pair of windshield wipers. Particularly with breast cancer awareness month, everything turns pink, and we are supposed to believe that our consumption of these products is helping cancer patients. But is it? I saw many examples of the ways that all of this product consumption doesn’t help the people you intend it to chronicled on twitter – especially with the hashtag #pinknausea started by Xeni Jardin of Boing Boing. Why aren’t we more careful with our money when it comes to supporting causes? There are any number of cancer charities or research organizations you could donate to when October or November roll around. But we keep buying the cookies and the bracelets, despite warnings to “Think Before You Pink.”

Is the worst that we are doing just spreading apathy toward doing our duty to ensure that our money goes to a responsible place where it will have an impact? Is “slacktivism” relatively harmless? I’ll answer my own question here with no, it’s not. When you support an awareness campaign, don’t you wonder what their action is going to be? What is the increased awareness actually going to do?

MOUSTACHE.svgThis brings me to the moustaches. You may have spotted many of your male friends or relatives sporting a little excess facial hair this month, I certainly have. It is November, also known at Movember a month dedicated to moustaches…and prostate cancer. Although what moustaches and prostates have to do with one another I’m not sure exactly, I suppose it is the association with manliness. Regardless, the Movember campaign encourages men to grow a moustache for a month to help raise awareness, and funds, for prostate cancer. Now I admire moustaches as much as the next gal, although sometimes things just go too far (oh, the things that can’t be unseen!) but really are the men out there growing and grooming their facial hair doing anything for prostate cancer?

The issues associated with Movember and prostate cancer screening are summarized really well in this post by Gary Schwitzer on (and reading it is what really motivated me to write this!) Essentially, when it comes to prostate cancer sometimes routine screening can lead to unnecessary treatments and procedures that can do some harm. There are also benefits to screening. In general when it comes to screening the answer is to talk it through with your doctor and figure out what is right for you. Still, these are not clear cut issues and even doctors have different opinions. The New England Journal of Medicine featured prostate cancer screening in their Clinical Decisions column which pits opposing medical views against each other and asked readers to vote on them (see here and here, though I’m not sure about your access situation.) The results came back in favor of screening with the prostate cancer specific antigen (PSA) test. But, it wasn’t a landslide.

I’ve known that my friends grew moustaches in November for at least two years. I’ve known that this had something to do with prostate cancer for about three weeks. Shame on me I guess, but clearly this is a problem for an awareness campaign, and it isn’t the only one. While some people are out there growing moustaches just for the awesomeness, for people who do take Movember seriously when we say we want to raise awareness of prostate cancer, what are we advocating for? More screening? Prostate cancer screening, like most screening, is a giant kettle of worms.

So does that mean we shouldn’t give to Movember when our moustached brethren ask us? No, if you want to support the Prostate Cancer Foundation or LiveStrong, then you should. But you should at least know that those are the organizations that Movember supports. We need to think more critically about these awareness campaigns, and what we are doing when we agree to give $1 to any charity that asks. All of this – my grocery store I don’t hate children episode, the pinking of America, and all the moustache growing – all come together with one main point. It isn’t enough to just participate or toss in your $1. You need to know and understand what you are giving to and why. Supporting cancer research is so important, especially in these days when funding from the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute is so hard to come by. All the more reason why if you are going to give, you should give intelligently. Make sure it matters.

I said at the beginning of this post that I work for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. This little fact makes me undoubtedly biased when it comes to charitable giving, so I’m not going to give you any recommendations about where to give. Your money is yours, and you should make those decisions yourself. That’s what I do. But, since I’ve spent this whole post ranting about giving smarter I am going to recommend that should you find yourself interested in giving to cancer research or healthy lunches or veterans or anything else you check out where your money is going. Charity Navigator is one tool that I really like to help sort through which organizations handle their money well and might help you figure out where you can do some real good.

In the meantime I’ll just be over here ranting, admiring moustaches, and hating children.

Finding Amelia Earhart’s Plane: New TIGHAR Expedition

The Internet doesn’t think very highly of Amelia Earhart. As a girl I was fortunate enough to do school projects on some great female role models. One that stands out in my memory was Amelia Earhart. Learning about great women helped form my conviction at an early age that women have as much to offer the world as men. I loved Amelia Earhart for what she represented to me: defiance, adventure and mystery. Reading this article in the Telegraph, and checking out the comments where she is called a “dumb woman” and “foolish” made me pause. The commenters also slam the effort to find out what happened to her based on the Telegraph’s claim that the expedition is “backed” by the U.S. Navy.

The article is about The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery’s (TIGHAR) planned trip this July to try to located the remains of Earhart’s Lockheed Electra aircraft. I’ve written before about TIGHAR and their efforts to find enough evidence to conclude that Earhart landed, and later died on the island of Nikumaroro in the Republic of Kiribati. According to some of the commenters finding out what happened to Earhart isn’t worth the effort. Some say because she was an idiot flying when she did and some say it isn’t worth it because of the money. Many of the commenters are up in arms that the Navy is “backing” the project on the grounds that the economy is still down and this is a stupid thing to spend money on.
I was surprised to see the Telegraph headline, “US Navy prepares mission to solve riddle of Amelia Earhart’s death” knowing that the TIGHAR expedition to find the plane was planned for this summer. When you read the Telegraph’s article, you can see that the expedition they are talking about is the one by TIGHAR. Now, TIGHAR is funded by contributions not federal money. It is not getting your tax payer dollars. I know this, because I googled. Having written about them before I went back to the TIGHAR website to see what they had to say about their alleged joint mission with the Navy.
This is what I found (pulled directly from their website) bolding is mine:

“As with previous TIGHAR expeditions, funding for this search is being raise entirely through contributions from private citizens, foundations and corporations. Lockheed Marting is leaidng a growing family of corporate sponsors. TIGHAR’s long-time sponsor FedEx is aboard with a major contribution in shipping services, and we are proud to announce that in addition to helping sponsor our expedition, Discovery Channel is producing a television special to air later this year documenting the search.

Underwater operations will be conducted for TIGHAR by Phoenix International, the U.S. Navy’s primary contractor for deep ocean search and recovery. We’ll sail from Honolulu July 2nd – the 75th anniversary of the Earhart disappearance. TIGHAR is deeply appreciative of the expressions of support voiced by Secretary Clinton, Secretary LaHood, Secretary Lambourne, Assistant Secretary Campbell, and Dr. Ballard.”

The U.S. Navy is not paying for TIGHAR’s expedition to try to locate Earhart’s plane. They say it themselves on their website, they are funded by private and corporate donations. The announcement by the State Department that they support and are backing the expedition is just that – a statement. The terms “support” and “backing” automatically make one think money. I thought money when I read the Telegraph’s headline and article. But in this case “support” and “backing” comes in the form of verbal acknowledgement and a few nice press pictures, not oodles of taxpayer dollars. It also probably helped get Phoenix International onboard to do the actual mapping/search, but they are going to be paid out of TIGHAR’s coffers.

Still, Earhart is just a stupid woman got herself killed by taking off on a poorly planned trip right? Even if all those commenters up in arms about their money going to something they think is silly have been mislead by the article there are still those that think Earhart doesn’t matter. I like the idea of going out there to try to figure out what really happened to Earhart because there is historic and social value to knowing how her story ended. She is an important figure in aviation history, women’s history, and United States history. She mattered. She mattered in her time, and for girls like me who read about her in books and start to believe that they can truly do anything with their life she still matters.
It isn’t a secret that I find Earhart inspiring. I’ve posted about her twice before this. Seeing her called dumb and foolish for trying to fly around the world annoys me. She took a risk, and she paid for it with her life. You mean to tell me no man has ever done that? She knew she could fail in her journey. She took off anyway. Was it a good choice? No. She made a bad choice, but the key word there is choice. She was a female aviator in the 1930’s who took her own life in her hands, she made choices. I admire Earhart because she lived her life in a way that gave her the ability to choose for herself. So I do support TIGHAR’s effort to find the plane and some conclusive evidence about what happened to her. I’m glad the State Department supports it too. I’m also glad that the funding is private, I think that is how it should be. Shame on the Telegraph for printing something so misleading.
If all I had to do was go to the TIGHAR website to find out how the State Department and Navy were involved in the expedition, there is no reason the Telegraph shouldn’t have done the same. Rather than making this a story about Earhart, the Telegraph article made this a story about government spending and waste. That isn’t the story at all. I would much rather have seen some real coverage of Earhart – the good and the bad – leading up to the 75th anniversary of her disappearance.

Lessons From Neil deGrasse Tyson

On the day I attended the last college class of my higher education experience, I also attended a talk given by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. For me, it was my commencement. I’ve made the decision not to walk at graduation for a number of reasons chief among them that none of my colleagues are walking and it didn’t make sense to me to do it alone. So I won’t be getting the cap, gown, prominent speaker send off typical for most people who complete a Master’s degree. Still, the University of Wisconsin-Madison gave me a great parting gift. The opportunity to sit at my favorite place on campus surrounded by other students on a gorgeous day and listen to a person whom I have admired for years talk about the future is the best goodbye I could have asked for.

Photo by Erin Podolak

Photo by Erin Podolak

Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist (please don’t ask me to explain astrophysics further than saying it is physics in space) at the American Museum of Natural History but he is also an author, speaker, host, and even a meme. You might have seen him on the Colbert Report or the Daily Show throwing down some truth and clarity. He is eloquent, funny and honestly one of the people I admire most in the field of science communication. He pulls no punches, while still being extremely passionate about space and all the other STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields.

The talk, which took place 5/10/12 on the Terrace here at UW-Madison, started with Tyson talking about the role science plays (or lack thereof) in our culture. He used the example of money, by asking us which scientists appear on U.S. currency. The answer is none. You can make the argument that Benjamin Franklin was a scientist, but his experiments are not what is highlighted on the $100 bill. He is there for his political achievements. This is just an example of the way as a culture we have not placed a strong emphasis on science.

Tyson then went into talking about the history of the U.S. interest in space exploration. He said that historically there are three reasons why people invest a lot of money in a risky exploration: fear of death, promise of economic return, and praise for royalty and deities. If you look at the U.S. push to get to the moon we were acting under #1 fear of death. Our investment in NASA and the space program had everything to do with the Russians and the Cold War. When the communist threat was gone, the space program started to decline. I think Tyson really drove home this point when he said that if the Chinese decided to declare that they were building military bases on Mars the U.S. would get ourselves on Mars within 10 months. We could if we wanted to, we just don’t invest in the necessary programs. We need to feel threatened before we actually do anything, how very American of us.

Photo by Erin Podolak

Photo by Erin Podolak

After going through the history of the space program, Tyson started talking about the economy and why investment in space and science overall can help. People in general seem to have this impression that NASA gets a big chunk of the federal budget, but Tyson pointed out that if NASA actually got what people think it gets NASA would be rolling in it. The perception of the budget is pretty skewed. What I love most about Tyson is that he says things that just make sense. When talking about innovation he said that the way you keep jobs in the U.S. is by making things that no one else can. Well, duh. But then where is the big push to invest in innovation? We aren’t doing ourselves any favors by not trying to invent. Perhaps my favorite line from his talk (which was full of quotable one-liners) was “If the dinosaurs had had a space program, you can bet they would have used it” basically about how to save us from ourselves.

Seeing a speaker like Neil deGrasse Tyson meant a lot to me. He lived up to the hype. I was impressed with the caliber of his ideas in addition to his stage presence and the great dynamic he developed with the audience. All of us sitting there, the sea of students strewn on the concrete in front of the stage, get to walk away from this year at UW-Madison having heard from a man who is without a doubt one of the biggest bad asses in science communication. I mean he paused at one point to tweet his own talk (@neiltyson) that takes some cojones and an awesome sense of humor. It was a great experience, and I can’t wait to read Tyson’s new book!

Am I Science?

Scientists don’t really wear white lab coats. They usually don’t stand in front of old cabinets full of glass jars and beakers containing a rainbow of colored liquids. Unless someone has had an unfortunate bunsen burner accident it is unlikely that there is smoke wafting through the lab, or beakers bubbling over with a frothy white foam. If these images are what come to mind when you think of scientist, you need an update. It isn’t your fault, either.

Taking pictures or video to accompany my stories, I’ve had to ask myself how can I make a shot look more…sciencey? In the media we do a great disservice to scientists every time we stick them in the white coat peering into a microscope. Not that scientists don’t peer into microscopes, they do. But the stereotype has been allowed to run roughshod over every scientific discipline to the point where people barely recognize scientists who don’t fit the stereotype. Most scientists don’t fit the stereotype. But I’ve still dragged interviewees around a building until I find a suitable science looking backdrop. We all do it, and we need to stop.

Could you name a scientist? Seriously, do you know one? Heard of one? A single one? Can you name anyone actively engaged in research in the United States or around the globe? Do you realize that billions of your tax dollars pay for research, and you may very well not be able to name a single scientist other than your local meteorologist, or if you’re lucky (and a child of my generation) Bill Nye the Science Guy? I’m not trying to scold anyone here. I’m also not playing high and mighty. I can’t really name any importance finance and economic people, and they are important. So please don’t take this as me preaching. All of us could stand to be a little more aware of the fields we don’t work in directly. I’m plugging science and scientists here because, well, thats what I do. If someone wants to school me in finance, please do. I could use the lessons.

Anyway, I realize that not everyone loves science, but a huge chunk of money is devoted to research each year, don’t you want to know who gets it? The name Francis Collins should mean something to you. It may or may not, but for those who don’t know he is the Director of the National Institutes of Health. The NIH is the largest research funding organization in the United States. It has a fiscal year 2012 budget of more than $31 billion. But the people that are actually getting this money are largely out of the public eye. Why is that? I don’t have an answer exactly, but I can promise you it isn’t because scientists are boring.

We need to change the way we think about scientists. This is already happening in the science community itself where there are a lot of scientists who don’t want to be seen as lame. Even Collins has participated in some stereotype busting by posing for a magazine spread with Joe Perry from the band Aerosmith a few years back (Collins does play guitar himself) for a project called Rock Stars of Science. But even the best intentioned stereotype busting isn’t going to go anywhere if the only people paying attention to it are other scientists, science writers, and members of the public who already like science. We need to get the message to the people who still picture Doc Brown from Back to the Future when they think of a scientist. That being said, there are a lot of people involved with and working on correcting the stereotype. I wanted to take a moment to bring your attention to just one example, called I Am Science.

I Am Science started as a hashtag on Twitter (#iamscience). First suggested by marine biologist and science writer Kevin Zelnio, the hashtag was used to mark stories shared by scientists about the path they took to attaining their careers. It became obvious immediately that scientists are a wonderfully diverse group, finding their passion by any number of different paths. Scientists are people too. People with different backgrounds, and different interests. Sometimes wildly different interests, doing very different things but all of it is still science. They are all science.

I like I Am Science because it started with a Tweet, because it reflects the desire for scientists to try to share who they are failures and struggles included, and because it shatters the crazy mad scientist stereotype. To learn more about I Am Science read this wonderful post by Zelnio on Deep Sea News, check out the Tumblr he created to store all the tweets, if you are so inclined support I Am Science on Kickstarter (they’ve reached their goal, but can still use donations!) and watch this video.

The video was created by Mindy Weisberger and uses the song “Wicked Twisted Road” by Reckless Kelly. I hope all of this has inspired you to learn more about scientists. Look up people researching in the areas you find most interesting. Read their books. Attend their speeches or talks. Bust some stereotypes.

Synchrotron: The End of an Era?

I’ve said before that being back on a college campus offers so many unique opportunities. This week was no exception with the visit of Bill Blakemore, ABC News climate change correspondent, AND a trip to UW’s Synchrotron Radiation Center. I got several opportunities to talk to Blakemore, and I highly suggest checking out his show Nature’s Edge – but rather than delve into climate communication (a topic on which I could spew my opinions for hours) I want to focus on the SRC.

Today, my internal dialogue was triggered by the trip I took with my colleagues from the School of Journalism and Mass Communications, through the cows and the nothing, to tour the SRC. Located about 30 minutes from campus, the SRC is a particle accelerator that is used by hundreds of researchers each year. Now, I make no bones about the fact that I am scared of physics – but even I was able to understand and enjoy learning about what the SRC does.Whenever I leave downtown Madison, I go through the same internal dialogue: “There are cows. Where am I? I don’t belong here. There are cows. And nothing. As far as I can see. Cows and nothing. What am I doing in Wisconsin?” I hate to admit it, but I do still suffer from re-locaters remorse. I don’t dislike Madison, but seeing prairie or open fields for miles so close to town still shocks me every time.

The “radiation’ part of the name Synchrotron Radiation Center has nothing to do with nuclear radiation, what we have all been worrying about with the Japanese earthquake. Rather, radiation refers simply to the center’s main purpose – to create light for scientific experiments. If you think back to what you know about the electromagnetic spectrum, you’ll remember that there are different forms of light – visible light, microwaves, radiowaves, uv rays, x-rays, etc.

The SRC conducts a variety of experiments using the different forms of light (infrared to x-ray range) that are generated by accelerating electrons around the Aladdin storage ring. I am not going to do a better job of explaining how the ring works than the SRC does on their website, but I will say that the wave of light created by winging the electrons around needs to be contained/controlled and that is essentially what Aladdin does. It is the mechanism that harnesses the light so it can be used in experiments.

The center was opened in 1981, and has a special role as far as SRC’s go because the UW center gives visiting researchers 2-3 weeks to work on their projects, unlike the 3-4 days they might get to conduct research at another facility. Because the SRC is funded by the National Science Foundation, researchers don’t have to pay to use it – it is free. Free resources, that invest significant time in research projects, are rare these days.

They are about to become even rarer. The SRC at UW has not made it into the NSF’s new budget, which means that funding (the approximately $5 million it takes to run the center) will be cut off in August 2011. I appreciate that the SRC isn’t cutting edge. It isn’t shiny and flashy, but it still has scientific merit. The idea of the resource going dark seems like such an utter waste.

My colleague Eric, who works in outreach at the SRC and organized the JSchool’s visit, has a terrific post on his blog about the closing of the SRC and the closing of Chicago’s Fermilab – which will leave a hole in the scientific research community in the Midwest. I encourage those of you in Madison to take the time to check out the SRC before the last electron goes shooting through the Aladdin ring, and for those of you not in Madison take a look at the federal science foundation budgets – is there a resource near you that will be lost in 2011?

The reason I chose to focus this post on the SRC rather than Blakemore’s visit, is because the SRC is such a uniquely Madison, WI experience. It reminds me of why, in spite of the cows and the nothing, I came to Madison. This is the site of some extraordinary scientific research – discoveries that I find fascinating, that ignite the sense of awe and wonder about the world that I have tried so hard to cling to as I have transitioned into adulthood. Seeing the SRC’s inquiries end, while sad, makes me appreciate that I was in Madison in time to experience it for myself.