Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Investing in Postdocs and Giving Thanks


I received an email yesterday from someone I had not spoken two in probably six months.

Back in April I gave a presentation to the postdocs at the University of Florida.  It was advice about communicating their science, sharing their science, and thoughts on job interviews.

Such things are sorely needed.  We produce way more Ph.D.s than the number of jobs to support them, so we end up with a large number of postdocs in circulation. These folks are professional scientists, as good as they get.

We just don't have enough jobs for all of them, so it is not unusual for a Ph.D. scientist to be making $35,000 a year, six years after the degree is over, with no hard promise of a job.  Interviews are ultra competitive and skilled scientists often fail at that last critical moment-- impress the committee on paper and get the interview, but fall short in person and don't land the job.

After the seminar I was approached by a 5th year postdoc.  We can call him Dr. S, since he has a very distinct name and I don't want to embarrass him.  He said that he has a great record on paper, that he gets interviewed for every job he applies to, but never gets selected for the position.

Clearly, Dr. S has some academic firepower but was lacking tools and coaching on how to communicate his science.

We spent three sessions going through his job talk.  The first one revealed why he was never chosen.  He talked over my head, lost me in the first slide, and his entire presentation was good, but didn't connect.  I didn't fall in love with his science and didn't imagine him as a good colleague.

Over two more sessions we adjusted the talk.  We changed his approach to the talk, developed a sense of audience, helped him connect as a person, built a new philosophy toward the interview, and talked about how to answer questions.

I received this yesterday:


One of the many days lately where I need a science kleenex.



This is just a reminder that science needs to flow in order to work.  How many talented scientists are trapped in jobs they don't want because they simply lack the courage and training to tell others about their passions and ideas in a human way?   How many could land the job if they realized that a job seminar is not about beating scientists to death with data-- they want a clever colleague, a friend, a solution maker, someone to complement their department's expertise. 

It is a classic case of forgetting why you are doing a job talk and who the audience is.  They want you to succeed, they want a new colleague, they asked you to try out for that part!  Rather than blinding them with brilliance and science-- simply share the work you care about.  

Don't be the unreachable scientist on a stage. Be the clever friend down the hall. 

It worked for Dr. S, and maybe it was just his time and had nothing to do with my help.  However, I was grateful for the letter.  It turns out to be probably the best three hours I invested in 2014. 




Tuesday, November 25, 2014

De-Nye-Al.

A few weeks ago I wrote a note to Bill Nye about his incorrect opinions on transgenic technology.  No response.  Sort of.

I got an email and was told I could share the content, but not the name, and no screen shots or direct quotes.  Apparently this is someone that knows about Bill Nye, his production group and his handlers.  The feeling is that it is from someone close to him, or someone on his team. It could be completely false too.  I'm about 50/50 on authenticity.

I would just post the whole thing. But, he said I could use only paraphrased information in a blog, and asked me to not use his name, so I won't.  The note says that if I play by these rules maybe I'll get more info, and that as a science fan he's hoping for the debate.  Weird.

The note said that Nye's associates seek to use him as a political wedge, and that Nye himself is right on board. It is apparently a transition of Nye from a media science communicator to a political figure to work against right-leaning causes like creationism and climate change denial.  Those are his new political issues.

This note also told me that his group is a cluster of Hollywood advisors that have strong feelings about GMOs and actually have encouraged him to speak out for labeling and against the technology.

According to the short note, Nye does what his people tell him to do, and that is defusing climate and creationism.  They want the GMO issue to go away fast. Apparently he will not make public comments on this going forward, even though a complete ban is what his handlers want.

So there you go.  It may be complete crap, but let's see what the next communication looks like.  No news from Nye's camp, so the thoughts in the email are consistent with what is unfolding.

Stay tuned.



Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Deadly Aviation Pretzel Gas: Foodbabeliness in Action

Today while flying home from a scientific conference I could not help but remember the Food Babe’s warnings about commercial aviation.  Her recent post warns of recirculated filth and high amounts of nitrogen, somewhere like 50%.  Of course, that’s about 30% less than ambient air.   Her claims were widely, and appropriately criticized.

Today I took a good look at the inside of that cylinder in the sky and noticed hazards that Vani didn’t catch. She failed to account for other airborne dangers on the plane, problems that likely contribute to the deadly quality of cabin air more than anything she may ever fear.

But before I start, we all know that commercial aviation is plagued with funny odors.  While we sit in a chair in the sky the nose is treated to a parade of organic funk, wafting through the cabin.  Whether it is the chronically unshowered and unsleeved, the woman that insists on taking off her shoes and putting her feet all over everything, or the folks that secrete gaseous effluvia, the plane's atmosphere is a sea of tasty gases.

To combat plane stink I get into my seat and build the “Odor Free Cone”.  I direct the air jet directly on me at full blast, constructing an impenetrable current of air that no random air biscuit can cross.


My air travel strategy- careful positioning of the overhead air nozzle provides an
 invisible cone free of olfactory insults. 


It occurred to me that I need to alert Vani to a threat she had not anticipated.  Pretzel Gas.

From here I’m going to really exercise Food Babe Logic here so bear with me.

Every bag of pretzels contains about eleven pretzels in a slightly puffed, airtight package.  There is no reason for a company to actively inject some pretzel preservative gas into the package, so it must be composed of gases emitted from the pretzels themselves.  A quick read of the package say that they have been fortified with Folic Acid, so it could be a gas containing acid.

The tiny pillow's puffiness should remind you that there is a colorless, odorless substance inside that bag-- and it has not been proven safe in long term studies.  


When released into the cabin atmosphere, the salty air may be linked to many health problems.
Since the advent of commercial aviation pretzel service we have seen a rise in autism, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's Disease. 


When the package is opened and the gas escapes, the air of the cabin is skewed toward higher pretzel gas concentrations, concentrations that have never been proven safe!

And lest we forget, if you actually eat the pretzels your insulin levels will rise, showing clear evidence of hormone disruption. 

The vast airline-snack food conspiracy knows this.  It is why you are not given pretzels while boarding (or pre-boarding) the plane. Everyone would sit and open them at the same time.  Instead a flight attendant, moving at the speed of a tree sloth, pushes her Cart of Death down the aisle, handing out packets of doom to the unsuspecting passengers.

To make this worse, the carbonation in soda raises the CO2 levels in the cabin, and carbon dioxide is almost the same thing as carbon monoxide, and we all know how dangerous that is.


The tiny bubbles in your soda raise cabin carbon dioxide levels potentially leading to exogenous semiotic entropy.  If you are getting sleepy, it is because carbon dioxide in your beverages is displacing air in the cabin and causing a micro-greenhouse effect.


So when Vani flies she must be a wreck, and hopefully she’ll read this and start to think of more things to complain about.  Maybe she’ll get the Food Babe Army to boycott Big Pretzel.


The most frightening part is, I can almost be a better Food Babe than the Food Babe. 

Friday, November 14, 2014

Science Center : Opinion and Activism are the New Science?

I am not happy. 

Opinion is the new science. 

Activism is the new science.

Undocumented claims are the new science.

Arguments from ignorance are the new science. 

That is, if you are a speaker at an event held by the South Florida Science Center and Aquarium.  You can watch the video here.  I'll wait. 

Or I can save you 1:21 of your life you'll never get back. 

First of all I can say that I totally predicted this.  I predicted exactly what this would be, that it would start out with some neutral and credible (well, undeniable) science and then degenerate into a scientific abortion ending in a rallying cry for food labeling and a "right to know". 

I'm like a damn psychic. It is pretty amazing.  Not really.  These things are incredibly predictable, and while I warned them, they suggested that 'teaching all sides' is a good move.  Ugh. 


Hey dude, science is whatever you think it is, your opinion is as good as evidence! 
After all, science is about hearing all viewpoints. 


The part that just makes me so mad is that a "Science Center" supported this.  It is an appeal to fear, ignorance and the typical trash.  Some of the quotes are priceless, and make me wonder what kind of half-cocked science you have to poop out on a test to be an RD in Florida.  

Really?  ""If some of the bigger chunks of protein are still left over chances are they could be an allergen."

Really?  

REEEEEALLY? 

Science Center, don't we turn off a microphone at this point?



Read Anna's comments... You guys are doing great work.  Keep fueling misinformation!



From 29 min to 39 min of her 25 min allotted time she goes off on labeling.  No evidence, no science, just her political, activist rant.  

When she finally provides references, not one is peer reviewed, and GMO Myths and Truths is her major source, and activist rag that has been completely discredited by mainstream science. 

Another major reference for evidence was, well, JURASSIC PARK!  The movie.  Yes, everything we know about science can be discounted by a campy horror flick. 

Then if you watch the question and answer section you'll see an activist grab the microphone and spew on without moderation about Monsanto, Monsanto, Monsanto.  Nobody stops her. She goes on about the well discounted claims about Indian suicides and other myths. 

I'm blown away.  Can we please remove "Science" from your name?  

There is a fine line between a Science Center and Junk Science Center.  You just crossed it.

If it seems like I'm being too harsh it is only because I see how these solutions have helped farmers and the environment, and see what we can do going forward.  When a Science Center promotes an event where a non-scientist is allowed to make false statements and force a political agenda (as predicted), it destroys their credibility.  We need Science Centers.  Unfortunately this one has a lax idea about what science actually is. 





Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Science Schmience. A Science Center Update

Today was interesting in that the angry emails and a few phone calls have come in to me and the hire-ups where I work.  Seems some folks are not happy that I've recommended, as a scientist, that a Science Center might best serve its reputation and credibility by endorsing events that have a basis in science-based evidence.

They still are moving forward with the Science on Tap event, where a local dietitian with apparent intentions will grace the audience with her interpretations of transgenic crop science.

To review, last week I was alerted by a South Florida farmer that the South Florida Science Center and Aquarium  (SFSC) was hosting a “Science on Tap” talk, held at a local bar.  The topic was entitled, “GMO’s (sic) Exposed” and was to be delivered by Michelle Parenti Lewis, a local dietitian.  I wondered what she might be exposing.

The original story was posted on my blog, Illumination.  After I was notified of this event, a little google search revealed that the event was being billed to show  “potentially harmful effects”, and likely would be an anti-GMO fear fest.  Which is fine.  Anyone that wants to make crazy claims is welcome to do so, and do it with a bullhorn and on a high mountaintop. 

The problem here is that what appears to be a veiled political endorsement of food labeling is being billed as a scientific event.   Worse, it is being endorsed by SFSC.   Hitching their wagon to a presentation not backed by science is a dangerous place for a scientific venue to go.   My blog detailed the problem with a science center sponsoring a political event masquerading as a scientific talk.

Within hours social media carried the story and several folks from the SFSC reached out.  They noted how important it was to “hear all sides”, in essence, let someone provide a non-scientific viewpoint because it is important to the debate (that those of us in science know does not exist).   You know, “Teach the Controversy”. Creationists must be salivating.

I recommended it be cancelled until they were sure it was a scientific event.  After a few polite exchanges and some good dialog they did not cancel the event, but agreed to change the name.  Yes, the SFSC will still allow what likely will be a biased talk that uses fear and uncertainty to promote an agenda to label foods.  That’s just my guess from her previous talks and posts.

The science center did reach out and asked me to join, but I’m busy with a visiting speaker in Gainesville and “Science on Tap is four hours away.

Luckily others have been identified to step in.  Chris Miller, an outstanding extension agent from Palm Beach County will be in attendance.  Chris has seen my recent presentations and he knows farming.  While molecular biology and transgenic crops are not his specialty, he’ll keep it real.   A number of faculty from the Biotechnology Program at Palm Beach State University will be in attendance also, and they have been excellent communicators of the technology.

The presentation will be posted online, and I’m going to make a prediction here.  Her talk will mirror those from Michael Hanson of the Consumer’s Union.  She’ll talk about the technology with some accuracy and then key on the vague language that can be twisted to satisfy agenda. 
Watch for :

"Monsanto owns all the scientists and regulates all the research"-- which is complete garbage, but the refuge of those that like to make statements without seeking evidence. 

“voluntary consultation”  -  Opponents of biotech key off of this statement, suggesting that approval is a rubber stamp, not noting that this is a lengthy and expensive process.

Arguments from Ignorance, like “we just don’t know…” = We see these every time. Of course, they don’t acknowledge safe use for almost 20 years and no evidence of harm.

“There have been no long-term tests on humans.” – Not noting that we don’t do any tests on humans unless there is substantial reason suggesting potential for harm.

“Don’t you want to know what your children are eating?” – The appeal to the Middle Moms that are manipulated with fear and uncertainty. 

“These foods have not been proven safe”  -- Of course, nothing in the history of the world has been proven safe.  We can only demonstrate evidence of harm.

The whole thing will conclude with a call for labels and this will somehow be called science.

My interaction with SFSC has been pleasant and I’m grateful that they’ve attempted some corrective action.  Maybe Ms. Parenti-Lewis will nail the science and give an evidence-based presentation on transgenic plant technology, why farmers use it, and a complete coverage of benefits and limitations.   That would be great.

On the other hand, if she uses the credibility of SFSC to make sweeping generalizations to build fear of sound science, it will be a major fail for SFSC.  My prediction- they've been duped, and are now attached to an Earth and Water Watch surrogate using this opportunity to misrepresent agriculture, twist science, and trivialize a rigorous approval process.  She’ll promote a position of denigrating transgenic science and push for food labeling that is not supported by science and reason.

I would love to be proven wrong.


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Protecting Bill Nye from De-nye-al

Yesterday's letter on Keith Kloor's Collide-a-Scape Blog was intended to illuminate inconsistency in Bill Nye's application of science.   While many critics hammered at his credentials and trashed him as a kid's entertainer, I defended him.  I respect Bill Nye and his ability to connect science to people.  It is something I wish I did better and something I am learning by watching experts like Nye.

This is why I challenged him.  I need him to survive.  I need the Bill Nye brand to be successful.  We need him to be the friendly and approachable stuff in the interface between the public and the science.


My letter to Nye was out of respect -- to help sharpen
his impacts and protect his brand. 

Right now there are many not happy with Nye, and they come from positions in climate denial and creationism.  They need Bill Nye to fail.  They seek to erode his credibility.

What better way to harm his reputation as an objective science steward than to show that he has taken a position that is not backed by data or the scientific consensus?  What better way to harm his brand than to show that it is not consistent with the world's leading scientific organizations?


Nye's Next Steps

In a perfect world Bill Nye might seek some experts out in LA to sit down and help him understand why his comments were incorrect, and maybe how they have damaging effects. Maybe he'll come out and clarify his remarks and change his position, or else succumb to exogenous semiotic entropy.

That would be the best move.  He could show the world that scientists are humans that make mistakes, stand up when challenged, and accept evidence to adjust their views.

Let's hope it goes that way.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Women in Science, Revisited

This post is here because earlier today someone asked me to think of a reason to build a scholarship. I thought of Jessie.

Jessica Justice was a dishwasher that became a scientist.  This is what I wrote about her, and it was published on April 7, 2010 on Skepchick.  Make sure you read the next post tomorrow.  If this moves you at all, tomorrow will bring tears.

The topic is important today as it was then, and your note is still priceless Jessie.


Science Needs Women
Kevin M. Folta
In three weeks I will put on the cap-and-gown professor outfit I bought on Ebay and witness something that probably never should have happened: the graduation of a self-described dumb blonde. Jessie came to my laboratory looking to make some extra cash as a dishwasher. Little did she know that she would be remolded, repackaged and refocused by a cadre of women that identified a change that needed to happen, then took the initiative to make it so.
In my laboratory the ratio of X to Y chromosomes is traditionally skewed to about twelve to one. The reason is not clear, but the majority of the technicians, postdocs, grad students and undergraduates in my program are female, and it has always been that way. One residue of the phenomenon has been that I get to observe the powerful influence that strong women have in shaping the career, and sometimes personal, choices of young women entering science.
It happens every semester, but Jessie was the most stunning example. She would take on simple tasks like dishwashing and lab maintenance with a certain care and precision not seen in most twenty year olds. But when I asked her if she’d like to take on a laboratory project all she would say is, “I probably can’t do it, I’m not smart enough.”
That sentiment was echoed every time she was assigned a task. She had self esteem that was so low it defied accurate analogy. Yet every time I would show her a technique, computer program or protocol she would execute it flawlessly after a flurry of “I probably can’t do it” and “I’m not smart enough.” I don’t know why she was so eternally self-deprecating, but it was sad to see her downplay, if not completely discount, her inherent talents and abilities.
The women in my lab took special notice of this situation. At the time there was a technician and three graduate students, all balanced, opinionated and strong. Most of all they were complete, with good relationships overlaid with conspicuous hint of glamour. They were maybe four years older than Jess, making their influence especially strong. They dug one layer deeper into Jessie than I would want to; discovering her dysfunctional relationships with males, her horrendous daily decisions and the penetrance of her miserable self perception that negatively impacted many facets of her life.
Leading by example, they showed her that women could drive science and lead a high-powered research team. They cultured her talents, supported her good decisions and taught her flawless execution of advanced scientific tests. Their influence would escape the walls of the lab, as they’d reprimand her when she’d talk about the dopes she’d date and the poor decisions she’d make at home. Soon, the growth was visible and rapid. The self-described ugly duckling was changing.
After a year in my lab with Dawn, Stef, Denise and Thelma, Jessie left to pursue advanced training within her major. She wrote up her work, turning in a graduate-level synopsis of the literature and her results. She had a visible sense of confidence, a new maturity and poise that contrasted so starkly against that of the “dumb blonde” that started in my lab only a year before.
Last week, years after she left my lab, I received a tiny card in my university mailbox buried amongst the junk mail. Inside was an invitation to a graduation. From Jessie. Adjacent to the time, date and event details was a handwritten note. “Thank you for teaching me how to think critically.”

One of the most important messages I ever received.

Sure, maybe I had a hand in it, but the best thing I did was mentor four stellar women scientists that took the initiative to guide her.
The rare success of a grant funded, a scholarly paper accepted, or putting the hood on a new Ph.D. are all wonderful, memorable moments in the life of an academic scientist. However, this victory was especially sweet. I folded that card inside-out, permanently wedged it into the frame of my office bulletin board, and then sent congratulatory emails to the four women that changed Jess’s thinking, influenced her decisions, and maybe even saved her life.
****  This post was first online in April of 2010.  In January 2012 we would suffer a tremendous loss. The next post details that tragedy ***