Saturday, August 27, 2011

Intern Introspection

The summer is rapidly coming to a close, and I'm already prepping to go back to Madison for the start of classes. Hurricane Irene has put a damper on my flight plans so I'm stuck in New Jersey for two extra days but it isn't going to be much of a summer addition considering we might very well blow, or float, away. Before the summer is officially packed away, I wanted to do some reflecting on my summer internship experience writing for Geekosystem.

One of the best and worst things about writing for Geekosystem was that I worked as a real writer. I knew ahead of time that the internship was unpaid, but still when you are doing the work of a regular employee it gets a little frustrating to just watch your bank account drain despite how hard you work. Doing all the work and not getting paid was a pretty big bummer. For the summer it ended up costing me $819 for train tickets on NJ Transit, plus about $20 a week in Metrocards. I kept my job freelancing as a medical copywriter, so I worked nights doing that to keep up with the cost of New York City. I also had a lot of help from my parents, I was living at home and eating their food and getting other financial help which is really what made the internship possible.

Still, the experience also had value because I was working as a real writer. Working as a writer was rewarding and frustrating. I struggled a lot with pitching posts and getting them accepted. Geekosystem does science, tech, video games, and internet culture. Science is only a fraction of the content, so it makes it really difficult to get a science post accepted. It has to be a science post that is going to get a lot of traffic, and it can be hard to tell what is going to be big. I was surprised a lot by posts that didn't get the traffic I thought they would (both too much and too little). There was a lot of reward from seeing a post get picked up by GoogleNews so when I did come up with a post that made it big (I had a few) it was a great feeling.

I can't say my writing is all that much better for having done the internship, but I'd like to think I didn't start off that bad. I think the internship helped me polish my style with things like comma usage, punctuation, and occasionally sentence structure. More than writing I think I learned some important lessons in working with an editor and the business side of being a writer. Internships in general have a lot of value if you go after the experience you really need. I wish I had been more adamant about learning the tech beat and doing more multimedia. You need to know what you are getting yourself into with an internship and really weigh the costs and benefits before deciding if it is right for you.

I'm happy to have had the experience of working for Geekosystem because it helped me narrow my focus as far as what I'd like to do professionally. I don't think I want to be a blogger for profit, but I still love having a blog and being able to give my point of view in a space that is my own. I'm even more excited now to head back to Madison to finish up my degree so I can get out there and find a job.

If you don't follow this blog regularly and you'd like to know more about my work with Geekosystem check out my science posts from Geek Roundups I, II, and III, and here are the posts from my last few days:

Researchers Create The First Living Nanowire From Bacteria
Researchers Announce Successful Clinical Trial Of Gene Therapy Treatment For Leukemia
Pregnant Fossil Is First Evidence That Plesiosaurs Gave Birth To Live Young
This Is What The Perseid Meteor Shower Sounds Like
Study: Benedict Arnold Bacteria Betray Their Brethren, Go On Killing Spree
Electronic Sensors Stick Like Temporary Tattoos, Present Endless Possibilities
Primitive Eel Species Described As "Living Fossil" Discovered
NASA Debunks Comet Elenin Rumors, No Armageddon Here
The Moon May Be Millions Of Years Younger Than Previously Thought
For The Love Of Bud, Marijuana Genome Sequenced

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Just A Little Casual, Conversational Cadaver Talk

I have a long list of "to read" books that I had hoped to get through this summer. I've read far fewer of them than I had hoped, but Mary Roach's books were on my list and I recently read her first one, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. She says that she got a lot of weird looks while she was working on the book when she told people she was researching cadavers. Since I read on the train, I received a few similarly questioning looks when people would glimpse the cover with its picture of toe-tagged cadaver feet.

The book is absolutely fascinating, and I probably shared far too many of the facts and interesting bits that I learned with my friends and family. Nothing says light beer drinking conversation like discussing how when someone is in a plane crash, they usually die from the organ damage. This is because the organs are moving faster than the body so when the body smacks into the surface of water and stops, the organs keep going and get damaged when they hit the inside wall of the body. I know my friends really appreciated that tidbit, and by appreciate I mean I was met with "can we stop talking about dead bodies now?" I know that I have good taste in books when my friends automatically cringe when I start a sentence with "So I was reading a book about..."

But anyway, for a book about cadavers Stiff is charmingly funny. It is written as if the reader is right there alongside the author as she does things like visit a face dissection, explore a body farm, test different ways to get rid of remains, and travel to China in search of a crematorium involved in a human dumpling scandal. Yes, human dumplings. Roach certainly found the most juicy tidbits in the business of dead bodies, but they make for an incredibly interesting book. What happens to cadavers is one of those things that no one wants to talk about, so almost everything in the book came as a new piece of information for me. I appreciated her candid, straightforward approach and the way it mixed with her own commentary and tangents. 

Roach is completely comfortable with her own feelings of how awkward and strange some of the things that happen to dead bodies are, and the fact that she is an out of place witness to them. Her inner dialogue about these things is entertaining and approachable and that is what makes being told a story about dead bodies so palatable. 

One of the best things about Roach's book is that there is a sense of balance between awkward/funny and total reverence for the dead and what science (and really all of society) have to gain from bodies donated to research. The dead are treated with respect, and I find that to be an equally important part of the book. It does make a plug for donating your body to science, which might bother some, but I didn't find it inappropriate. Roach makes it clear what she would want done with her own remains, and also makes a very good case for why people should donate their bodies to science (in spite of some of the experiments that seem undignified). I think suggesting that body donation might be a good way to go is coming from a good place.

Overall, if you can stomach television shows like Bones or CSI, you can stomach Stiff. The subject matter is gross, but the writing is divine and definitely worth your time. I can almost promise that you will learn some things you never knew about, and really might want to know considering we all eventually end up as cadavers.

(Thank you to Marianne over at PrimateProse for recommending Mary Roach!)

Sunday, August 14, 2011

A Geek Roundup: The Best Science Posts From My Internship (Part III)

My internship with Geekosystem is coming to its end, but its time for another link roundup of my favorite science posts. I've been writing a lot of folk art posts lately (somehow that is the beat I've gotten myself on) but there have been some really interesting science developments in the past few weeks, especially with regard to goings on in space. Also, for your viewing pleasure here is a video from one of my posts that a commenter called "pure win." I think so, because on a scale of one to adorable, this is off the charts, and it doesn't even have any puppies in it.

MIT Researchers Announce Broad Spectrum Treatment For Viral Infections - This research has the potential to make a profound impact on the treatment of viral infections (from colds to hemorrhagic fever) if it is able to be transfered from human cells in the lab, to real humans. It uses the way that viruses replicate by taking over a cell against it, to destroy cells infected with the virus.

Microbots Use Magnetic Forces To Swim And Do Some Heavy Lifting - The post was based on two videos of what really look like just a collection of particles swimming around and moving small objects. The particle bunches are actually microbots, that have some pretty impressive capabilities.

NASA Proves Building Blocks Of DNA Come From Space - I got myself in some trouble with a commenter on this one for the word "prove" in the title. It was a choice to use the word prove in a science post. I used it in the headline in a way that I think is fair, but I got told it sounded like a tabloid, what do you think?

More Dwarf Planets Found In Kuiper Belt, Pluto In Good Company But Still Not A Planet - When Pluto was demoted from planet to dwarf planet a lot of people started to question what makes something a planet in the first place. These newly discovered dwarf planets meet a few of the criteria, but like Pluto, fall short of planethood.

Study: Stem Cells Used To Make Sperm, Then Used To Make Mouse Babies For The First Time - Adding to the amazing list of what scientists have done with stem cells, for the first time they have created sperm cells that resulted in successful offspring that had the ability to reproduce. This could have big impacts for infertility treatments.

Small Shark Can Glow And Become Invisible, Is Not A Mutant - I love doing strange animal posts, this one highlighted a shark that can "cloak" itself and appear invisible based on the way it looks when you view it from below.

Researchers Discover Gene That Causes People To Have No Fingerprints -There are only a few people in the world who don't have fingerprints. It is a rare condition, and now researchers understand the genetic mutation that causes this disorder.

Scientists Suggest Earth May Once Have Had Two Moons - An interesting theory about how the moon formed suggests that Earth once had two moons, and that one crashed into the other to make our current moon. Its just a theory but there is some compelling evidence in its favor.

NASA To Launch LEGO Figurines Into Space - I totally loved this idea, basically NASA teamed up with LEGO to make three figurines: Juno, Jupiter, and Galileo to celebrate the launch of the Juno Space Probe on its trip to study the planet Jupiter. The figurines are really detailed (and really expensive) but its like every nerd's dream to have LEGOS in space, right?

Ancient Skulls Sheds Light On How Dogs Became Man's Best Friend - I didn't understand the commenter on this post. I only got one and it was about how scientists make sweeping assumptions. Making a hypothesis or suggesting a theory about something based on evidence isn't the same thing as making assumptions. The research may not be definitive but its not like the researchers were just making stuff up either.

Researchers Find Elusive Oxygen Molecules In Space - We've always been taught that there is no oxygen in space, which is why astronauts need those fancy helmets. But, researchers have found oxygen molecules in space. Now its not the same as having an atmosphere like ours with oxygen you can breathe, but its still pretty cool that the molecules were there at all.

Survey Method Shows That A Throw Of The Dice Makes People More Honest - I got a great email from the researcher on this study saying that I'd done a good job capturing it, it totally made my day. This was a really interesting study that showed if people have some kind of an out or a fail safe they are more likely to tell the truth, and it can be useful for gathering data about things people would rather not talk about, like illegal poaching.

Gene For Proteus Syndrome, Cause Of The "Elephant Man," Found - Proteus Syndrome is a poorly understood disorder that causes tissues to swell so that people appear completely disfigured. For the first time researchers have identified the rare genetic mutation that leads to this disorder.

New Treatment For Hereditary Blindness Is First Drug To Restore Vision - I loved the commenters on this post, it was probably the one post all summer that made me really happy when I read the comments. Both comments I got were from people who either have or know someone with the disease, thanking me for the post. That was really awesome.

Researchers Create Glowing Dog That Can Be Turned On And Off - Researchers genetically altered a dog so that it would glow in the dark. I didn't really understand the point, since it was an incredibly expensive process it isn't going to catch on for any kind of commercial purpose and its unlikely to have much of a role in research.

Federal Funding For Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research Ruled Legal - In what is seemingly the final nail in the coffin for this legal challenge to federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research, lawyers have exploited a hole in the law to allow funding to continue. A good thing for researchers, not so good for people with a religious opposition to this type of research.

First Earth Trojan Asteroid Discovered - A trojan is a certain type of asteroid, and for the first time it was found that there is one around Earth, and yes, it is named after the trojans from the Trojan War. A little bit of history in space.

Mountain Lion Makes Longest Journey Ever Recorded By A Land Mammal - Got myself in trouble with commenters for this title too. Someone had to point out that humans are land mammals as well. Well, indeed they are, but I think it is quite obvious that humans are exempted from setting a longest journey record against any other animals. I thought that went without saying. I guess not, because someone felt the need to say it.

Study: Interrupted Sleep Harms Memory Development  - This one is pretty self explanatory from the title. But basically researchers determined that people who have their sleep interrupted have a harder time forming memories, it shows a connection between these two brain functions that could be interesting for further study.

Next Mars Rover Will Climb Sediment Mountain - The space shuttle program might be over, but NASA still has plenty of other active projects that could help us learn more about space. One of these projects is the Mars Rover, which is still out there searching for life on the red planet. The next Mars Rover will explore a sediment mountain that has promising environments for evidence of life.

Atlantis Returns To Earth, Space Shuttle Program Now Over - This post marked the landing of the Space Shuttle Atlantis at the completion of its restocking mission to the International Space Station. This final mission was the last trip of the Space Shuttle program, because NASA wants to focus on other things in the future.

New Wave Shape Observed For The First Time - This was a weird (but interesting) little study about the conditions under which waves form, and the different shapes that they take. I was surprised that there was a wave shape that researchers hadn't yet observed, but it just goes to show you how many secrets the Earth still has to yield.

Potential Water Discovered On Mars, Still Not A Sign Of Alien Life - NASA researchers have announced that there is liquid water on the surface, or right below the surface of Mars. The water is most likely a brine (salty) and it is unknown how/if this water could impact the search for evidence of life on Mars.

Neil deGrasse Tyson Will Host Sequel To Carl Sagan's Cosmos Produced By Seth MacFarlane - The reboot of Sagan's famous TV series will be run on Fox in primetime. The opinion about this seems to be mostly positive, with everyone just hoping that the project does justice to the original series. The choice of MacFarlane makes some people nervous but here's to hoping it works out well.

Bonus Non-Science Post: 
Woman Buys Non-Visible Art For $10,000 - So this isn't a science post, but it needs a little commentary. The source that I used for my post had the woman in question's name spelled wrong, it was off by one letter. Now, I'm all for accuracy, if I make a spelling mistake please do tell me so I can fix it. But, I still found it pretty amusing that Ms. Davison felt the need not only to comment on the post about wanting her name fixed, but also followed me (then proceeded to unfollow) on twitter so that she and a friend could tweet at me about the error. I have no idea why someone would try so hard to make sure their name was spelled right in a post that openly mocks them and the absolutely ridiculous way they wasted ten grand, but it was pretty important to her. So, I made the change and now I and the commenters on the post can mock her openly with the correct spelling.
When I first started this internship I said that I was afraid of the commenters and they made me feel really bad about myself. They still do, if I'm in a bad mood/frame of mind when I start reading comments that rip on every aspect or even just the smallest aspects of a post it makes me sad. I'm still learning which comments to take to heart and which to just write off. I wish I had time to go into all of the detail some of these topics deserve but most of these write ups are under 500 words and some of the context is going to get lost.

It is not an excuse for mistakes, but some of the nitpickers need to keep in mind that Geekosystem is a blog, not a peer reviewed journal. I am not a peer reviewer, I don't have a science degree and I can't always call bullshit on a study I don't know a lot about or don't have access to the paper through the pay wall system. Sometimes I can call bullshit right off the bat, and when I can, I do. It is just frustrating sometimes to feel like I don't really get high traffic posts that are well received. We'll see what this last week at Geekosystem has in store.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Robot That Walks On Water

I don't talk about religion on Science Decoded (with one exception) the way that I don't talk about politics (with one exception). So all Jesus walking on water references will be excluded from this post. Sorry if that disappoints. But, I am going to talk about a robot that walks on water, and that alone is pretty cool.

Credit: The American Chemical Society.
Researchers from the State Key Laboratory of Robotics and System, and the Harbin Institute of Technology in China, writing in the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces, have developed a microbot that is able to walk across water's surface. The robot was designed to mimic the capabilities of water-striding insects like mosquitoes that can support themselves on water's delicate surface.

The Chinese microbot is approximately six inches long and has 10 wire legs and 2 moveable oar-like legs. It is propelled by two small motors that help it to maneuver like a water striding insect. What makes the robot so much more impressive than what the insects do is that at 3.88 grams it weighs about as much as 390 water strider bugs. Despite its weight it is still able to walk, stand and turn on water's surface without sinking.

So what is the trick to walking on water? My favorite: Math. (Sarcasm intended). While I still might be a bit intimidated by math, I definitely appreciate the amazing ways that nature is really just math and vice versa. The microbot's legs are able to support it the way a water strider's legs can support it based on the radius and contact angle of the legs with the water's surface.

But the real question here is: aside from the fact that a robot that walks on water is just cool, why does it matter? According to the researchers this type of technology could be useful for developing tools for monitoring water pollution or water quality surveillance. Personally, I'm envisioning little robot spies stealthily sneaking across bodies of water, but that is something the researchers didn't speculate on.

It amazes me everyday the kind of advances we've made in robotics, as we automate the world around us I can't help but borrow the tagline from my friend Cassi's blog: We Live In The Future.