My Writings. My Thoughts.

A shameless plug for the #asc14

Written by: Captain Skellett // February 2nd, 2014 // 1 Comment » // Science Communication

Australian Science Communicators are converging today for the ASC conference of 2014. I very much enjoyed the 2010 one in Canberra where I happened to be, and made a special trip to be at the 2011 conference in Melbourne, but unfortunately can’t make it to Brisbane this time around. Instead, I’ll be watching the action on Twitter – #asc14 – and I’m @CaptainSkellett if you want to chat.

Some events are being livestreamed and you can join in at the ASC Conference website. The conference is running from 2 – 5 Feb, plenty of time to catch something interesting!

As for me, I’m baking coffee scrolls and packing boxes for another move interstate, from Melbourne to Canberra. Hope to catch up with some friends at Questacon, the ANU and CSIRO while I’m there for the next few years.

I also feel like I need a new five year plan – perhaps I’ve spent too much time in the corporate world over the past year, and I’ve absorbed the desire for strategic direction through osmosis. Nonetheless, I think the big goal for the future is to focus more on writing and editing. I’ve been freelance writing (and doing a share of editing) for the past four years now, and despite the occasional stress of a creeping deadline, I still really, really enjoy it. I can certainly see myself making a lifelong career from it, which is something that’s been hard to picture in any of my other jobs.

So that’s a solid direction to be starting with. There’s a livestreamed ASC event on The Storytelling of Science beginning in an hour, and I’ll pop it on while I pack.

Cuddly robot seals assist in dementia care

Written by: Captain Skellett // December 17th, 2013 // Comments Off on Cuddly robot seals assist in dementia care // Recent Research

Professor Wendy Moyle with residents from Wesley Mission, Brisbane holding the Paro companion robots. Photo from Journal of Dementia Care.

When I was a child, I had a toy from Seaworld that was a baby seal, and man I loved that little guy. I also had a Furby, one of those fluffy toy robots that took the world by storm in 1999, and are having a major comeback now.

Little did I know that, had I smooshed them together in an elaborate Toy Storyesque toy reconstruction, I could have invented Paro, the robotic baby harp seal.

Paro, developed by Dr Takanori Shibata at Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, is used in dementia care. Its big, blinking eyes gaze at the person interacting with it, responding to sound and light. It can recognise words used by its owner and though it can’t talk back, it can make baby seal noises and nuzzle.

This engagement helps reduce anxiety in people with dementia, according to research led by Wendy Moyle at the Griffith Health Institute in Brisbane, Australia. The research split 18 dementia patients into two groups, one engaging with Paro and the other reading in a group. The results found that people in the PARO group had higher quality of life scores after five weeks compared to the reading group.

Why a fluffy baby seal? As well as being downright adorable it is just about the same size as a baby, so people can hold it on their laps. The researchers also note that some people have had bad experiences with a cats or dogs, and might react with fear. Who could be afraid of a baby seal?

On the downside, each Paro costs about $5,000, and need to be shipped back to Japan for repairs. At such a hefty price tag, it might limit use in care facilities. Then again, if it’s significantly effective at improving quality of life, reducing need for medication or allowing people to live at home longer, maybe it’s money well spent.

That’s the focus of Wendy Moyle’s next project, supported by a one million dollar boost by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). The new study will be a large, randomised trial involving 380 people with dementia, and will compare three different care options – Paro, a soft plush toy, and usual care. Large aged care facilities in SE Queensland interested in taking part in the research can click through for more details.

Happy International Talk Like a Pirate Day!

Written by: Captain Skellett // September 19th, 2013 // Comments Off on Happy International Talk Like a Pirate Day! // Just for Fun

Ahoy mateys! It be the best day of the year once again! Happy talk like a pirate day!

It’s too late to get your ergonomic pirate keyboard, but add plenty of R’s into your day anyway.

Corsair pirate keyboard

The image is from the Language Log, who weren’t sure who to credit it to. They had a little post about the linguistics of Arrr a few years back. O’course, I highly recommend the Official Talk Like a Pirate Day website for all your piratey needs!

May your timbers shiver and mainsails rise! Arrrr

New approach to gently insert DNA into cells with high-tech lasers

Written by: Captain Skellett // August 29th, 2013 // Comments Off on New approach to gently insert DNA into cells with high-tech lasers // Recent Research

Ethical concerns aside, gene therapy is a really exciting area of science. How cool to explore the functions of DNA and cellular machinery by inserting exactly what you want into a cell of your choice. How many options to treat disease, create better crops or fun novelties like glow in the dark cats.

As an undergrad, when we played with inserting genes into E-coli and yeast we would take a whole bunch of cells and mix them in a tube with the DNA we wanted them to absorb. Then we’d “shock” the cells by heating them up and cooling them, so that – hopefully – a small percentage would be so stunned they would just nom up all the bits of DNA and incorporate them into their own genome. Then would be the tedious bit of plating them out onto agar that contained antibiotics or whatever and checking that they really did take up your bit of DNA that gave them resistance to antibiotics.

Needless to say, it wasn’t easy and many bacteria died in the process – either when I shocked them or, most likely, when I plated them on poison (oh the blood on my hands! Out damn spot.) So I found this press release really exciting.

Scientists from South Korea poked holes in single cells using a high-powered femtosecond laser. Then, with the finesse of a golfer on the green, gently popped in a polystyrene-based microparticle coated in DNA using optical tweezers. The tweezers use laser beams like magnets to attract or repel polar chemicals.

The method of poking holes, or pores, into cells with lasers already existed, as did optical tweezer technology. This research combined the two to ensure that the DNA was specifically inserted into one cell- a big boost in precision.

One of the cool things about this is that it can be done without opening the petri dish, unlike microinjection. With microinjection, which I guess is like those videos where people poke DNA into an egg for cloning, there’s a chance of contamination.

Another benefit is that the microparticle they inserted could be modified to sense things in the cell, rather than just delivering a payload of DNA. So there are a whole bunch of useful functions that they could explore with this technique.

A third benefit – you can play GOLF AT A CELLULAR LEVEL! That is just geekery at its finest. The next question for researchers will be – can you get lab coats to match golf pants?

The paper is open access and available here.

Talking endangered words in Adelaide

Written by: Captain Skellett // July 23rd, 2013 // Comments Off on Talking endangered words in Adelaide // Science Communication

On Thursday I’m heading to Adelaide for the Australex 2013 linguistics conference at the University of Adelaide. The topic – Endangered words, and signs of revival.

I volunteer with a project to revive an endangered language called Barngarla, which was spoken by Aboriginal people in the Eyre Peninsula of South Australia. During the missionary days people weren’t allowed to speak their language or teach it to their children, and within a few generations it had all but disappeared.

Old documents written by missionaries recorded a Barngarla dictionary and grammar, and Professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann, who’s also organising the conference, and a team are using them to revive the language. It’s ironic (in a wonderful way) that the missions wiped out the language while also preserving it and ultimately became key to reintroducing it. Barngarla is now being taught to people once more.

The Australex conference is celebrating 175 years of Lutheran Missionaries’ Aboriginal Lexicography (writing dictionaries.)

I find it interesting that linguistics shares so many words with biology. Linguists talk about endangered languages and hybridisation, while biologists have DNA transcription and translation. My explanation is the oft-used by imperfect analogy of DNA as a “recipe book” or “instruction manual” – placing it more firmly in the realms of language.

It’s actually a bit strange that we still think of DNA this way, that we haven’t updated it to, say, a hacked Wiki – sometimes edited by viruses. Hey, that’s not a bad analogy actually. Both are built up over time and the contributions of many, and aren’t exactly perfect but they do the job. Except that there’s not so much junk on Wiki’s as there is in DNA, but in both cases humans are pretty good at sorting the junk from the useful stuff.

I’m looking forward to the conference and meeting more of the people involved in reviving the Barngarla language, and hearing about similar projects in Hong Kong and Tibet. It should be an interesting few days, and I’ll try to keep you posted on what I hear.

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