Tuesday, May 10, 2011

If Tony Soprano was the Boss of a Lab (instead of a mafia family)

So of late I’ve been watching the Sopranos, season to season, back to back. I know I’m a few years behind, but at least I can watch it without ads and in my own time. The series is amazing and epic and well I can see why it has such a cult following.

But it got me thinking, what if a research lab was run by Tony? Here for a bit of fun are some things I think would apply if Tony got out of the ‘waste management’ business and moved into the lab:

· If your PCR or any equipment didn’t work you could just shoot it

· Sales reps who sold dodgy products could be dealt with swiftly using a metal pipe to the knee caps.

· Trade in black market and unused reagents would be encouraged. And I bet it would be still cheaper than buying from Applied Biosystems

· Lab meetings and journal club would be accompanied by gravy (the tomato version) and pasta and deli rolls

· Post Docs could be called Captain. Postgraduate students could take on term I think is much more suited to their position and workload – soldiers

· Lab staff who didn’t pull their weight and replace stock could be dealt with by a quick centrifuge lid to the knuckles

· When other staff tried make life difficult or give you more work it would be perfectly acceptable to shout “MUTHAF#$A” and tip over chairs, throw phones at the wall and stomp out

· If you have a difficult or awkward situation, the mood can immediately lifted by saying “I’m just breaking your balls”

· Lab coats would be replaced by leather jackets or white terry towel bathrobes

· Everyone would have nicknames such as Paulie, Vito, and Junior

· Big overworked hair, excess makeup, long nails, gum chewing and platform shoes would be required PPE for the women in the lab.

· The lab stereo would permanently set to play a mixture of The Doors, AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and other rock classics, with the occasional Dean Martin song thrown in

· Pipettes would be referred to as “pieces”

· Acceptable adjectives in research articles would include “a$#hole” and “f*$#kin” and “oooh”

· Rather than being in the waste management industry, Tony’s kids would tell their friends their Dad is in the ‘Biotech Industry’

· Long meetings would be accompanied by a quality scotch on the rocks

· The air in the meeting room and offices must be thick with cigar smoke at all times

· A singing fish would be mandatory on the boss’s desk

· Food would be the answer to all problems

· Ethics approvals would be a thing of the past

· Gambling and other ‘business’ would be legitimate methods to funding research

So there you have it. If Tony Soprano ran a lab, I think it would be a very interesting place to work, not that labs aren't interesting now! Well now it's back to "The Sopranos", only three episodes left before the marathon ends.....

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Faith in Evolution....

When I talk to new people, and tell them I’m a scientist-in-training (aka. PhD student), one of the first things I often am asked is where I stand on belief and spirituality. Am I religious? Have I heard about the latest zen method?

Well, I’m an atheist. Sure I’ve had times where I’ve questioned the possible presence of an omnipotent God, where I’ve thought the only way to enlightenment is through suffering and even toyed with the idea of new age wish-wash. But at the end of the day, it didn’t add up. Now this was before I had started a PhD, even before I had formed what will most likely a life-long passion for all things science. I don’t make a secret of the fact I’m an atheist and admire people like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Chris Hitchens and PZ Myers. The problem is that the moment you tell a believer you are an atheist and a scientist the words are uttered “So you must believe in evolution then”.

And that is where I have the beef. This issue is aside from those associated with often not understanding that atheism is not the same as scepticism (though they do go hand in hand, and I’m also a skeptic), that atheists are Nazis/immoralist/nishilists, that an atheist life is void of any meaning, and that low and behold, atheists are not scared of the believer’s hell, nor interested in being saved. Anyway I do digress – my problem with the conclusion that one believes in evolution is just that – the belief in evolution. It’s a non-sequitar, and any individual even mildly knowledgeable about science knows this statement is as incorrect as it is absurd.

Evolution isn’t an alternative dogma or a belief system. Furthermore, atheists don’t have to ascribe to evolution as the alternative to God/s. There are atheists who couldn’t less for science, for Darwin or the latest theories about the origins of human kind. What evolution is, is a scientific theory. A body of work, a culmination of research which shows, that the evidence points to gradual adaptation and mutation. Mind you that is a very simplified version. Evolution is an umbrella term, and whilst it’s generally accepted it exists, the mechanisms, motions and details are up for debate. That’s the beauty of science – a theory might stand, but the nuances are ever being understood, the knowledge ever being increased and the conclusions ever-evolving. Evolution therefore cannot be considered dogma, for it fails on that first count – the underpinning conclusions change. Evolution furthermore isn’t based on faith, it’s based on observation. And whilst philosophical debates exist about the role of observation, rationality and the frameworks of interpretation in science, a theory in science has many, many observations usually from many, many scientists to be called a theory.

Faith on the other hand doesn’t require anything – it can be gut instinct, a simple belief in something with no proof. Whilst I don’t have anything against faith per se, to attempt to denigrate scientific theory from what it is to being a belief system in order to argue it is not valid, especially to people who generally don’t understand the tenets of science, is downright deceitful. I admit that the most hardcore of fundamentalists will never be swayed, but to deny the next generation the opportunity to learn about science, to promote ignorance and to blatantly lie to push the wonders of ‘faith’ is dangerous, and for me, highlights just one of the many reasons why it is so important to share science and promote critical thinking. As the saying goes knowledge is power, truth will set you free and at the end of the day, I think that is what those promoting scientific misinformation in the name of faith are the most terrified of.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Howlin' at the moon

One of my hobbies is photography and one is astronomy, and here I managed to combine the two for a shot. This was taken last December, on a rarely clearish evening when I was visiting Brisbane. The rest of the time I was there, it was overcast and generally with the rain pouring down which made star-gazing a no-go. But for one night, the moon was big and round....

In the domain of the nerds and the geeks....(or why communicating science is important)

So it's the inaugural post of my blog. A blog which I have been meaning to get established for quite some time now. See I love science - yes that puts me in the domain of the geek or nerd in today's society, but as you'll see hopefully by reading this blog, it's pretty hard not to think science is pretty awesome.

So on the back of the fact that science is cool is my desire to get it out there. I know many scientists feel the same way, as countless other blogs exist written by scientists from all walks of life. But, as popular media would have it science is generally shown to be confined to those that hole themselves up in labs, who only manage to use words which have a minimum of 25 letters and end up angry old people who smell like mothballs.

Well, as many people in the field know, this isn't the case. Science is amazing and so are the people within the field. Science isn't and shouldn't be put in the too hard basket by the media, and people shouldn't feel like it's out of their daily life. I mean, just look around your house. Everything which makes life modern is a by product of science and then some - and it's sad that there is a popular notion that the foundations of inventions and knowledge are too difficult and that a lack of love of knowledge underpins society. You don't need degrees, you don't need to be able to spell complex words, all that is needed is a passion for knowledge and an appreciation that the universe is a complex and wondrous place.

On the flip side, there is an onus on those who have made science their profession to share it - to pass on their enthusiasm and passion and get their work out there. Afterall, science is steeped in tradition, none more than the reporting of scientific work. Journals rely on a strict methodology, based on complex scientific documentation - the result often being a bit dry for sharing interesting findings to the wider population.

So this is my little way of sharing what goes on in my little niche in the scientific community - my area is molecular biology, but I love all things science and I hope to share some of the ups and downs of the world according to my eyes.