Let’s play a game…

 Science communication  Comments Off on Let’s play a game…
Aug 302016
Saw Puppet - Lets' play a game!

Hello academics, I want to play a game.

Where you are doesn’t matter. What you know does.

You have spent your life collecting badges of honour – peer-reviewed papers. You’ve worked long and hard to ensure that your name appears on as many as possible. Perhaps your name shouldn’t have appeared on some of those papers. Do you think this is right?

This is your punishment.

While you’ve been reading to this, I have collected your publication list and academic credentials from Scopus and your institution’s website.

I have written a virus which will be released through the internet when this timer gets to zero:

The virus will remove any trace of every paper you have ever produced – erasing you and your life’s work from science’s history.

Below, there are three chemical inventions, two true and one completely fabricated. To stop the virus you have to click on the fabricated invention. If you identify the fake, the virus will not be released. However, should you get it wrong, the virus will be sent on it’s way and a media release will be sent from your institution stating that you sold drugs to your students and your favourite musical group is The Vengaboys. Don’t use Google – you will be punished.

The clock is ticking.


Organinc Chemistry Arsoles

Copper Nanotubes

Polonium Oxide Core Shell Particles



This game has been re-purposed from a presentation I gave at an excellent event organised by The Science Nation: “Spot the Bull S…cience

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Aug 232016
Willy Nelson Waiving

I’d love to say that success in the scientific realm is always preceded by application of considerable intellect over many years of self-doubting research. In a media hungry world, scientific success is increasingly following those willing to blow their own trumpet. In other words, science is starting to reward the people who believe their own bullshit the most. I make the same face when I hear someone talk about how great they are at science that I do when I hear someone describe which parts of the body are prone to ripping during childbirth.

Disgusted face of Clint Eastwood

Unfortunately, neither is likely to be stopped anytime soon. How do you respond? Well, I’d suggest looking deep into their eyes, tilting your head and leaning in for a kiss – they’ll shut up very quickly and the worst case scenario is you”ll get a moment to reflect on the consequences of bad choices.

Scientists should be allowed to be proud of what they have achieved. After all, it’s not easy. And when it all goes well there needs to be some public recognition and dissemination of the findings. So, unzip those metaphorical pants and set those science genitals free. Flap ’em all up in peoples faces, they will be very happy for you for about 10 minutes. Savor those sweet free genital moments because, very quickly, the novelty will wear off, the room will start to smell, and it’ll be time to stop. The same is true for any science brag. The media department at any given university will very happily support a science willy waiver, quickly becoming their genitalia cheerleaders. Much like the career and life expectancy of a Hollywood child actor: let that shit decay away over a short period time.

With the perpetual grant cycle and continuous requirements for academics to create high profile science, I’m sure that bragging is around to stay. After all, who else is going to sing your praises from the hill tops if it is not you? Let’s just make sure that the bragging is targeted to the right audience and not to people trying to enjoy their lunch or attempting to end conversations with you. Finally, if you can’t beat them, join them. Perhaps we all have something to learn from the not-so-humble scientist.

Lets make science stanky!

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Aug 162016
Grumpy cat face

Science has a PR problem. You only have to look at the recent interaction between heartthrob scientist Professor Brian Cox and climate change denier MP Malcolm Roberts to see that, obviously, something has been lost in translation. Ol’ Malco’ doesn’t trust scientists and is very happy not to listen to them. There will always be people who believe in things regardless of how much evidence you show them to the contrary. We are all susceptible to it. I used to have a goatee and was convinced I didn’t look like a sex offender accidentally allowed out on day release. The question is – why don’t people listen to scientists?

I know why. The majority of scientists are boring science twats. In the past, that actually was OK. There was a certain charm about boring science twats with their big shiny foreheads avoiding eye contact as if their life depended on it. As times have moved on, we can’t pretend that the skills associated with being a successful scientist are the same as those required to talk to people on a human level about science.

So don’t worry, read on. I have some advice for you.

If you find yourself talking to an actual, real life person don’t be fooled into thinking that they care about your research in the same way you do.  When Bob from next door invites you over for a drink he’ll ask you about your research. This is not the time to actually tell Bob how much funding you expect to receive, or how many papers you have got this year – these facts are to Bob as Bob’s new tarot cards are to you – pointless. What Bob wants is a one sentence summary of your entire life’s work that’s also a euphemism for sex (preferably one that isn’t funny or clever). For example, Prof Brian Cox could respond like this:

I just released a television series where I used a telescope to explore a black hole” – Brian Cox

Next, If you are talking about science to anyone and you see something similar to this expression:

Oprah looking unimpressed

STOP! You are officially being a boring science twat. The thing is, as a scientist you get used to seeing this face. You see it in lectures, meetings, conferences and on the faces of post-docs when they are told to publish more. But in the real world this is a very bad sign. At this point, ask a question about the other person and pretend to listen as you think about all the papers you have got this year and how they make you feel warm in the pant area.

Finally, when people first meet you and discover that you work in a University some may feel intimidated. Little do they know it’s essentially a hideaway for the unfortunate who were bullied in high school. I like to demystify the ivory towers by talking about my favorite toilets in each building. Everyone has their favorite toilet, you know, the ones that are warm, not busy with good WiFi signal.

Actual humans don’t care about citations, papers and impact factors. They care about stories. Sad ones, happy ones and ones that don’t include boring long words and self-promoting bullshit. Tell them a story about what you get up to. There’s lots of articles and advice available about the storytelling of science. A clever man said:

“Science stories differ from stories in the humanities in at least two critical aspects, namely, the purpose of the story and the role of the reader or listener. The central purpose of the science story is, after all, to improve the teaching and learning of science, not to just entertain or to communicate a message as is the case for a story in the humanities.” (Klassen, 2009)

After a scientist – non-scientist interaction, your aim is to make the person think “That scientist wasn’t a boring twat at all. Maybe there’s something to this anthropogenic climate change”.

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Aug 092016
Grid of animals representing academic personalities

When young(ish) scientists are lucky enough to score a 1-2 year contract to participate in a research project, they may ask themselves this question: “I wonder if I will enjoy the research?”. Arguably, the more important question they will need to ask themselves is: “How much of an insufferable bastard will my supervisor be?”.

Sure, it’s possible to throw countless hours at a scientific problem to get the results you require to tame the academic beast. But it is not possible to change the nature of a being that has been molded by the academic environment. Just like the variety of species that have evolved on earth, supervisors are the result of natural selection; survival of the fittest, or perhaps more commonly, the most ruthless. Different environmental factors will reward different personality characteristics and only the most well-adapted academics will survive.

During my time in academia I have seen my fair share of supervisors. I have been lucky with the ones I have had and any of my misbehaving supervisors I have been able to quickly tame with a quick, metaphorical tap on the nose. If academics had spirit animals, I am certain that they would consist of these:

The Queen Bee

This type of supervisor is the head of a very, very large research group. They tuck themselves away busily giving birth to new PhD students who they’ll set to work as post-docs in their labs. They are the academic parent of most, if not all, in the lab. Should the queen bee academic move to a new university, the worker bees will travel with them.

The Dog

Just like dogs, this supervisor will try their absolute best to be your friend, forever. That doesn’t mean, of course, that they are not good supervisors, it’s just that the dog academic will often invite themselves to afternoon/evening drinks that they overhear their students/postdoc organising. Don’t feel bad for them, all this supervisor is doing is trying to claim back the youth they lost while they were fighting their way to the top of the pile – They’ll even buy you a fuckload of drinks. Kindhearted and loyal, this supervisor will do anything they can to help you in exchange for a belly rub and scratch behind their ear.

The Black Mamba

Fuck this person. The black mamba is the most aggressive snake on the planet. Also, in agreement with the euphemistic naming convention, this person is also a big dick. This supervisor lives for passive aggressive emails and intimidation. They leave behind them a contrail of destroyed careers. There’s no confusion about how this person made it to the top of the academic ladder – they fucked people over the entire way. Often this person will feel guilty and attempt to make themselves feel better by organising a group lunch. Don’t be fooled, they are listening to your conversation to create a catalogue of psychological pressure points to hit when they haven’t made someone cry that day.

The Arctic Tern

The Arctic Tern travels 44,000 miles (70,811 kilometers) in its migration pattern. This, my friends, is the academic international traveler. Chasing their favorite seasons around the globe in the name of ‘collaboration’. This academic has collaborations all over the world – so many in fact, that it starts to look suspicious. Why do they always collaborate with people in tropical places and near good golf courses? The air miles these supervisors accumulate could pay off the US national debt. If you end up with the Artic Tern as a supervisor get used to completing your project via email at any time of the day or night.

The Prairie Dog

This pesky little shit is always in everyone’s business – we have ladies and gents, the micromanager. Get used to everyday meetings, continuous feedback and for them to have your mobile number on speed dial. You think that is your research project? Nope. You are their extra pair of hands which wipe someone else’s bum hole.

The Whale

At the end of our list is the supervisor we all wish we had. This supervisor doesn’t need to show off. They are successful and gracious winners of the academic arms race. They don’t need to prey on other people’s careers to get ahead. They’ll put in the effort and are happy to drag others along in their success slip stream. This type of supervisor is also quite a bit older than their competition and it appears like they will never die. In fact, they haven’t changed in appearance for 30 years, as evidenced from the departmental photographs hanging in the hallway.

Remember to let me know what your supervisor’s spirit animal is!

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Aug 022016
Scientists in lab looking busy while the supervisor gets all the credit

Scientists are precious beings and nowhere is that more evident than when it comes to deciding author order on a paper. For those who have made good life choices and are not currently fighting their way up the academic pyramid, I shall explain why this is such a big deal for the people in the ivory tower – you know, the people who pride themselves on knowing a lot about very little. Peer-reviewed papers are the scout badges of the academic world. Academics must acquire as many as possible, at any cost, to prove productivity and worth. The more papers an academic has, the more they can feel like an important person.

Here’s the catch. When a paper is written, everyone who has contributed intellectually to the ideas and results in the paper is listed as an author. Only two positions really matter: first and last place. First place is typically reserved for the poor bastard who has done the majority of the experimental work and they’ve typically written a large portion of the paper.

Last place is reserved for the principal supervisor. Sometimes it can be hard to actually quantify what this person has done and in some cases their sole contribution is as the gate keeper to the project’s money. Most of the time, the last author has contributed large amounts of time/tears/whiskey/caffeine/arse-kissing in order to get the project up and running.

The names in the middle of the paper can be the hardest to position. They consist of people who have done something, not a lot, but enough to have their names on a paper. Sometimes these central authors have actually done nothing other than be in the right place at the right time. It’s easier to name people on a paper than have a fight with them about why they are not on the paper. Much like a bukkake session, no-one wants to be in the middle, but someone has to, otherwise it doesn’t work.

If you find yourself in a situation where people’s egos are getting in the way of publication and you can’t work out the order of names try one, or a combination, of these approaches:

1. Pop Quiz 

People love meetings. It is the perfect way to feel like you are doing work when you’re actually thinking about all of the things that aren’t work, such as sex, holidays, sex on holidays and why the person across the table always has chocolate in the corners of his mouth. It’s only 9 am. Who eats chocolate for breakfast?

Organize a meeting that quickly turns into a pop quiz about the paper. To encourage full attendance, tell prospective authors there will be cake. Questions such as “what’s the main conclusion of the paper?” and “what’s my name?” will quickly weed out the hangers on. You’ll need to supply your own buzzers. Any bonus round must include slime.

2. Dirtiest lab coat

Line up all of the lab coats from the authors and place them in order from dirtiest to cleanest – this is your author order. If someone doesn’t have a lab coat they are clearly not a real scientists and cannot be included on the paper.

3. Do a beep test

The person to get the furthest in the test gets positioned as first author. The academic career path doesn’t lend itself to a fit and healthy lifestyle. If you were to line up academics in order of seniority, from least to most, on average I’d hazard a guess that you’d find the sweatiest people towards the senior end on the line – even standing in line may be too much effort. Subjecting everyone to a beep test will ensure that the person who has ruined their health the most, in the name of science, is compensated by being last author.

4. Haiku

Ask each author to write a haiku on their contributions to the paper. Points awarded for creativity and reference to the paper that you are submitting. Here’s an example for a recent paper of mine:

Thanks for completing

my PhD ideas

I didn’t want to

I guess this is why I didn’t get first author.

What would be your research Haiku to get first author placement?


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