Picture This – When Image Isn’t Everything

A few days ago whilst browsing on the Guardian’s Science blogs, I was fascinated by the video below, one of the winning entries for the Wellcome Image Awards 2011.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Truely amazing stuff! For those of you scratching your heads wondering what the hell you’re looking at, it’s a mouse embryo, 12 days after conception, imaged using a technique called Optical Projection Topography (OPT). Long story short, to gain 3D projections of objects such as mouse embryos, one could either slice up the object and take an image of each slice, and then reassemble it (like one of those grey 3D puzzles you may have been bought for Christmas), or you’d essentially do the same thing without literally slicing it up, but instead use light focused at different planes through an object; a technique called confocal microscopy. Both methods are a bit time consuming even for objects smaller than a whole mouse embryo, which is roughly the size of a M&M. I don’t know much about OPT (have a read through >this< if you’re interested), but it’s certainly a powerful technique to enable the microscope imaging of a relatively large object such as a 12-day old mouse embryo with such detail.

Clearly the images obtained of this embryo are scientifically fascinating, and I’m sure many discoveries are being made using these images and others gained using similar methods. Even removing it from it’s scientific context, this is visually stunning – though your Gran might not have it on her mantlepiece, and it might make a bit of a dull screensaver. Seeing this image got me thinking about how much of science, in papers, posters and presentations, is related in images and movies. But is it ever the case that ‘pretty pictures’ sometimes distract attention away from ‘real data’? Where is the line between a great scientific image for a ‘purpose’ and a great image just for it’s own sake? And is the latter appropriate in a scientific report/presentation, beyond Image Awards and Photography Competitions?

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Filed under musings, procrastination

Top Time-Killers – the ultimate, ever-expanding, all-consuming, but hopefully-not-PhD-ruining list

We’ve all been there – you’ve got some time to kill.

Maybe you’ve got a centrifuge spinning for half an hour, or you’ve got an analysis running on some huge data set, or you’re FACSing and you’ve no idea why you’ve got to hang around, or you’re waiting for some epic tiled Z-stack on the confocal, or you’re waiting for you undergraduate to fail at what ever they’re doing, or you’ve come back from lunch and you’ve got a coffee break with a friend in 15 mins. Whatever. You’ve got some time that you can’t really do anything useful in, but you need to fill it with something.

Sure, you could clean your desk. You could read a paper. You could start writing your thesis. You could go on Facebook again.

But work isn’t everything, as CCPB should know. So when you’ve got some time you need to fill whilst you’re doing some menial task, do something enjoyable. Here’s a few suggestions, some from my own experience, some recommended by friends, and some just plucked from the top of my head.

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Filed under procrastination, resources

Stupid Science News Story (#4732) – Junk food makes your stupid child stupid

BBC Breakfast – specialists in moaning and scaremongering pre-8am, and plugging new books and albums post-8am (but that’s ok, it’s still ‘public service broadcasting’, right?) – spewed this delicious news story in my face this morning. I was also delighted to hear it was the leading news story on the front page of Daily Mail.

The premise of the story is this – if your child eats junk food from an early age, they’ll be less intelligent later on in life. Following what must be standard “science news article in mainstream media” protocol, neither article links the original paper from which this story originates. I’ll save you the hassle – it’s >here< (doi:10.1136/jech.2010.111955)

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Filed under procrastination, science vs media

The Sound Of Science – The Best Science Music Video Parodies

Scientists are not boring. We have fun too. Whether it’s relating your PhD with interpretive dance, knowing when you’re a biologist or a chemist, or playing seminar bingo, science fun is science at its best and fun at its geekiest.

In recent years, there has been a flurry of science parody music videos, combining pop culture, lyrics requiring citation references, and dance moves that were probably invented and rehearsed on a dark cold friday night in the lab. People everywhere (oh, alright, scientists) are lapping them up – one of the most recent ones, a parody of Lady Gaga’s ‘Bad Romance’ called “Bad Project” (see below), has already hit over 1.8 million views since 20th Jan this year. And quite rightly so, because it’s great. So I’d thought I’d compile a list of some of the best ones, and I will probably over time add to this list. Enjoy!

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Filed under procrastination

A-Huntin’ We Will Go – Tips For Finding a PhD

I’ve a few friends who are currently trying to find a PhD, and hearing about their efforts to find a good project for themselves, it reminded me of my own search. I’m in the final year of my project, and whilst I’m enjoying it, there are a few things that I wish I had thought about or known to make a good decision about finding a PhD, and even a few things that I would’ve done differently had I the chance. So, if for no other reason than to get me to write something on this blog, here’s a few tips I divulge to you, dear readers, about how to decide if you want to do a PhD, and how to find one that you’re going to love doing (or at least tolerate).

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Filed under advice, career


Hello, and welcome to the science blog “Coffee & Cake, Pizza & Beer”. To best answer what this is all about, it might be a good idea for me to introduce myself.

I’m Richard, and I’m a final year Biology PhD Student at the University of York. PhD’s are funny beasts – when asked by friends what a PhD is, I’m often a bit stuck as to how best to define it – I’ve often said something fairly dull, like “it’s a three year research project”, or something wide-eyed like “it’s like an apprenticeship to become an actual scientist!”, like it means something to real people.¬† Truth is, as much of a massive clich√© it is to say, you don’t know what a PhD’s like until you’re in one. And even now, it’s hard to put into words what you do as PhD student.

It’s not a real job (though you are underpaid and overworked). It’s not a university degree course (though you are still the bane of most university lecturers’ working days, after undergraduates). It’s neither a training programme (you’re not formally taught anything) nor work experience (though you will be making a lot of tea and coffee). It’s certainly not the be-all-and-end-all, but it certainly is all-consuming.

It is a lot of hard work, but it is a lot of fun. It is tedious, but also possibly the most stimulating thing you might do for a few years. You’ll be working with some of the most foolish people in the world, and some of its best minds. It’s frustrating, and rewarding. It’s probably a little bit better than working in a bank. Maybe it is a big waste of time, though you do get to write a big ol’ book at the end of it (—nah, that’s still a waste of time). All I know is that I love what I do, and I genuinely can’t imagine myself doing anything else that I’d enjoy more.

But we’ve all got to have our outlets – we can’t be in the lab the whole time, can we? – so I thought I’d put a little bit of my spare time into writing this here blog, and why not? As to what this blog will cover, it’ll probably be a whole range of things – I’ve been advised to just write, so here I am. I don’t intend on making this my space to whine and moan about my project – I did plenty of that as a moaning and whiney teenager over on livejournal, thanks very much, though I guess that was less science-related and more i-don’t-know-who-I-am-anymore-and-why-won’t-that-girl-like-me-my-comfortable-life-is-so-unfair-waaaaah-related. I guess it’ll be whatever comes into my head. Maybe it’ll be a little insight into what it’s like to be a young scientist. Maybe it’ll be my slant on current affairs in science. Maybe I’ll get other people to write something occasionally. Maybe it’ll be a bagful of nuggets of advice for anyone thinking of doing a PhD. Maybe it’ll be a page full of rubbish my friends and colleagues and I chat about. Maybe it’ll be all things… much like a Ph— nah it’ll probably be a waste of time.

As for the name? Coffee & Cake, Pizza & Beer? It’ll mean something to science PhD students worldwide. It’s our fuel. Science-fuel.


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