For the love of Science – Intel’s 2013 International Science & Engineering Fair

A few weeks ago I had the chance and pleasure to serve as a special award judge for the Sigma Xi Scientific Society at the Intel’s International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) held in Phoenix from May 12th-17th 2013. Volunteering at the event was a fantastic and uplifting experience, were I got back much more than I gave.

Although I was initially doubtful, the science fair was truly as international as it gets, with participants from 70 different countries. Some finalists had even brought translators to converse with the judges and the public. The gender composition of the finalists at the fair was also a pleasant surprise; women were well represented at the ISEF, something that I cannot say of many other science events I have attended.

The most striking aspect of my experience is the level of energy at the event. Excitement for Science soared high and the enthusiasm was contagious. This is understandable, since the teenagers had invested countless hours in their projects: they worked on their projects for a year or more, competed locally and regionally to make it as a finalist at the ISEF, flown across the country or further for this special week and carefully prepared every last detail of their kiosk and well-rehearsed presentations. Both boys and girls were dressed to the nines, a number of teams even wearing identical suits. Their level of preparation was truly impressive. Some finalists had primary literature available or memorized, photo books and data books to display, powerpoint presentations, computer simulations, and even miniatures of their field site, experiments or engineering design. Wow! It was truly heartening to see a high-spirited youth passionate about their research projects and Science. Having taught college level introductory science classes where I saw too many examples of students that could not care less about Science – or sometimes about reasoning or writing correctly, for that matter – it was deeply comforting to see hundreds of hard working, eager youth. While there was variation in the quality of the projects presented, the enthusiasm and eagerness was uniformly high.

Further, having to think about a diversity of subjects that I rarely or ever think about was refreshing. I am an Ecologist and I have been thinking about Ecology and Biology days in and days out for about a decade. As much as I love my field, I am fundamentally a curious person and learning about meteorology, psychology, earthquakes, immunology and other fields was revitalizing. Moreover, learning it from 13-17 year olds was endearing. There is definitely something charming about a 13-yr old in a formal suit lecturing you in earnest about weather patterns.

My experience volunteering for the ISEF as a judge was truly enriching and energizing. The love of Science and the excitement emanating from the 1500 young finalists was inspiriting and contagious. I am already looking forward to the 2014 ISEF and I cross my fingers that I will be able to attend. To all the other Science geeks out there that could use a change of pace, I say: Volunteer to the event! It will likely give back much more than what you are giving it.

Crash course – When biology meets programming

The University of Arizona hosted last Thursday and Friday (April 4th and 5th) a two-day programming workshop focused on introducing Biologists to programming. The course was taught by the Software Carpentry Group, organized by myself (Julie Messier) and co-sponsored by iPlant. Our instructors were Titus Brown, Karen Cranston and Rich Enbody. Katie Cunningham, Darren Boss and Chas Leichner gave a lending hand to the instructors.

While (almost) every graduate students in organismal biology and related fields need some basic programming skills to perform their data analysis and make the graphs, for the most part we have no formal training on the matter. Learning “on the fly” has some advantages over structured courses – such as not spending time learning something you will never use – but it can also be excruciatingly inefficient and painstakingly slow.

My personal search to find an accessible intro courses that would meet my needs as an ecologist was not successful. Most resources appear to be geared towards the needs of geneticists and use scary words such as “next generation sequencing” and “automated pipelining”, things that I doubt I’ll ever have a use for.

Ethan White who teaches a course perfectly tailored to my needs (a semester-long introduction to programming for biologists at Utah State University) referred me to the Software Carpentry Group. They offer 2-day intro-to-programming workshops. All they need is for somebody (me) to organize it and find some money (iPlant) to cover their lodging and airfare. What a great deal! Since many of my fellow graduate students have similar frustrations with figuring out programming on their own, I went ahead and organized the workshop.

Despite a lot of installation and logistic issues, the workshop was mostly a success. We had 35 people signed up and, somehow (!?), even more showing up. Ninety of the participants that came the first day also made it to the second day of the workshop. On the first day, Rich and Karen taught us some python basics and Titus showed us how to use IPython Notebook and the some basics of code testing.  On the second day, we ran short python scripts from the shell and were introduced to Github. The content we covered during the workshop is accessible here. The page contains a very a very useful link to some UA on-campus resources for programming, put together by Katie.

The main issue came about because different participants needed to install and run different programs on their machine.  We needed to install many softwares and the specific combination of softwares that we each ended up using depended on exactly what machines we had. With the endless patience of our instructors and helpers, it took about an hour to get everybody setup each morning and each afternoon….

Ergh!

At the end of the first day, when the instructors and helpers got together at 1702, those installation issues and their potential solutions was the subject of a lively discussion that took up most of the diner. Titus even wrote a blog post to further explore and resolve the issues. We did have dedicated instructors, indeed.

The feedback on the workshop that I have been collecting reflects the participants’ wide range of skills and needs. Although it was too much to absorb over two days (which is what crash courses are, by definition), we have a better sense of how programming works and what kind of software are available. Most importantly, we also have a sense of some of the online resources available.

To make use a cliché: while it is the end of the workshop, it is just the beginning of our programming ventures.

Gender Bias in Science

A study published in PNAS found that Science faculty members (women included) show a gender bias in favor of males… in a nutshell, they sent the exact same resume to a number of faculty members and asked them to ranked the resumé based on a number of criterion. The resumé with a male name at the top ranked higher on average than the resumé with a female name at the top. Sad.

Paper abstract here: http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2012/09/14/1211286109.full.pdf)
Full paper here: http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2012/09/14/1211286109.full.pdf

Thanks Malcolm Hunter for posting this on the Ecolog listserve and bringing this to our attention.