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.
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.
// February 19th, 2012 // Comments Off on Opening ceremony of the AAAS 2012 conference // Science Communication
Scale: Earth globe = size of my hotel room
The Vancouver Conference Center sure is an imposing place. High ceilings and wall-length windows gazing to cloudy mountains and cold waters. Up above, strung in wooden beams, are three golden eggs.
It’s a fitting spot for the first annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, pronounced not aaaass, but triple ay ess) to occur outside of the US. A huge number of people are in attendance, filling the seats and lining the corridors.
Jet lag still nibbles at the ragged edges of my mind, not quite satiated by coffee though I’ve certainly drunk my limit. I’ve been here since Saturday, and been busy with work and museums and squirrels – SQUIRRELS! – and identifying coins and notes (the five and ten are, in size and colour, opposite to in Australia.)
The program is as multidisciplinary as it is multinational. From culture to computing, from food to forest fires.
After a welcome from Chief Jacob – who sang a song with his niece, accompanied by drums, and it was totally awesome – the AAAS president Nina Fedoroff spoke for around 40 minutes on her life.
Giant golden eggs outside the ballroom
She had her first child when she was 17, then went back to school and her partner left her. Single, working mother she made her way through uni, and had another child and a husband a few years later. Then she started working in labs – and back then it was HARD for women in science. Hell, I think it still is.
Guess my age is showing, but I find it strange to think that obvious, even blatant discrimination was happening just a few decades ago. Perhaps it wasn’t so bad in Aus? (Anyone?) Despite that, she did a hell of a good job studying plant genetics, became an expert in the field and was awarded a prize for science in the White House.
It’s nice to hear stories like that – real stories, you know? Bumpy, unexpected journeys that grip success by not only skill, but determination. I’m sure many other stories like hers are out there, and people could really benefit from hearing them.
After that, there was food and drinks in the foyer, but I dashed out to the reporters gala (a GALA, oh my), and missed the lighting of the Olympic torch.
Well, that was day one, and I’ll leave it there for now.
On Friday I went to day three of the international barcode of life conference, which happened to be in my hometown of Adelaide, actually at the home of my undergrad – The University of Adelaide – how convenient!
DNA barcoding matches a region of DNA to a species, at the moment there’s still plenty of work on building up that barcode database (called BOLD, though GenBank is also used). There are about a million and a half barcodes recorded so far and it’s streaming along.
The database is open access, and people can use it to match a barcode region from an unknown sample to a species.
So far, people have used this to check out the slice of fish in sushi, illegally collected shark fins, and plenty of other stuff.
It’s a powerful technique now in it’s ninth year and with some serious momentum behind it. There were 450-ish delegates at the conference from around the world, and Australia is a fair trek for most of them.
There’s talk that one day DNA sequencing will be so fast and cheap, you could take a sample while walking through the woods and be linked to species information on a handheld device – you would know if it was poisonous, endangered, new to science or what. Still a while away, but sci-fi in its possibilities.
This cool video gives a neat overview. It’s about a project proposal for student/citizen science in barcoding which is unfortunately currently unfunded and basically on ice at the moment. Nonetheless it’s a cute cartoons and great summary.
The region used for barcoding is called CO1 (found in mitochondira) in animals. It’s x base pairs long, and is generally very different between species, but pretty similar within one species. It’s short enough that sequencing is cheap and quick. A different region is used for fungi (called ITS, which was announced as the official fungi barcode at the conference), and plants use two regions, rbcL and matK, (found in chloroplasts).
The session I went to was on education and engagement – how to get people involved in DNA barcoding.
I love open access, power to the people, breaking down barriers stuff, and they’ve got some sweet plans. Already some projects have been successful, like the urban barcode project that gets high school students involved, and one group, who found the ingredients of tea didn’t always match what’s on the label, were even published in a journal (No less than Nature Scientific Reports! Amazing!) One group found a new species of cockroach, which is like my least favourite insect, but still a good effort.
What's in your tea? Image by massdistraction, flickr
BOLD are in the process of adding education and engagement to their online database so students can add to the database and store their results in a quarantined area. So they have a safe space to experiment with barcoding. Plus then they don’t screw it all up, right? Karen James, who moderated the session, actually pointed out that students may be less likely to make mistakes, as they are only working with a small number of samples and there’s less chance of losing track and accidental mislabeling.
Still in development, the BOLD 3.0 interface will look less intimidating than the current version, making it clearer for n00bs like me, and with links for educators at the bottom. They’re beta version is online here. Neat. I played around with BOLD before, taking a look at the barcode regions out of curiousity, and with my amateur skillz found it a bit tricky to navigate. Can’t wait to see the new one up and running so I can play with it.
If you want to read more about DNA barcoding, I recommend the iBOL website. I’ve got some more bits and pieces, but will post them separately once I’ve had a chance to flesh them out properly.
// February 7th, 2011 // Comments Off on Inspiring Australia and the barcode of life, conferences // Science Communication
Couple of interesting conferences coming up this year. The first one is Inspiring Australia in Melbourne from March 28-29. ‘Tis a science communication conference, tackling topics like social media, politics, and a whole bunch of exciting sci-comm stuff. Registration opens today, and it will be good.
The second conference is the Consortium for the Barcode of Life which will be hosted in bonny old Adelaide in November this year. Adelaide Uni scored the gig after competition with 19 applicants from around the globe. Previously the event has been hosted in Mexico City, Taipai and London.
DNA code is a bit like a barcode to begin with: Information hidden in a mysterious pattern that only a computer can analyse. The barcode of life refers to specifically to a certain small section of DNA which can be used to compare species. The section changes between species, but stays the same within members of the same species, and is accurate for most mammals and bees.
The consortium is to discuss and co-ordinate how to take DNA samples from all the animals IN THE WORLD, and have them on a giant database. Then when future scientists find a weird animal, they can take a sample, scan it in and *beep*, one lemur for $9.99. It’s a neat idea, and totally exciting that Adelaide is hosting this International event.