Finding—more like, eking out!—time from within a back-breaking work schedule, I recently managed to review back-to-back four manuscripts for publication in diverse journals. The topics in these papers touched my work only marginally, in that they belonged to the broad areas of microbiology, antibodies and immunodiagnostics. A chance remark by a professional friend—”Your reviews are impressively long and detailed…“—got me thinking about my overall experience reviewing scientific manuscripts. “Long and detailed” is probably why it takes me a considerable time and effort to go through the paper, occasionally check the references, and note down my thoughts in the margin, either on paper (i.e. on a print-out), or electronically (annotating the manuscript PDF, my preferred mode). Not unknown to anyone who is familiar with the process of scientific publishing and the world of biomedical journals, Peer Review is a mechanism that attracts a significant amount of controversy. So why do I keep investing the time and effort towards it? More after the fold.
Having been born and growing up in India, the land of the sacred cow, I am no stranger to this domesticated, quadrupedal ungulate of the subfamily Bovinae, genus Bos. It’s difficult not to have respect for an animal whose scientific name already proclaims it to be the boss, and I am culturally well-conditioned (‘well-done’, one might say) to accord an immediate reverence to this multi-faceted (not to mention, delectable) animal. After all, Gau-mata, or Cow the Mother, is an enduring socio-religious meme in India, stemming from simpler, more agrarian times — possibly a testament to the species’ intimate association with human history ever since it was domesticated about 10,500 years ago (archaeological and genetic evidence suggests that cows in Southeast Asia, Bos indicus, a different lineage from cows in Europe, were domesticated about 7000 years ago in the Harappan civilization).
Beyond the white-coat, serious, severe image of scientists accentuated by popular media, underneath it all scientists are human beings, with human emotions, frailties, capacities for excellence, and occasional flashes of effulgent brilliance. Thanks to Twitter, I came across one such example today, and it made me recognize that fact again, with a great deal of pleasure.
I was alerted this morning – via Malcolm Campbell – to an excellent news feature on Nature News – titled: “Not Your Average Technician” – on four individuals who are engaged in behind-the-scenes jobs, which nevertheless support the scientific and technological research work of many in more visible fields.
Folks, folks! I have gotten myself involved in a grand and rather exciting project related to Science Communication, which followed my getting acquainted with Seattle-based scientist and science communicator Dr. Ivan Fernando Gonzalez (NOTE) quite accidentally, on Twitter. This project I referred to is borne out of Ivan’s desire to bridge multicultural communities in science. Christened Sciolang (its twitter avatar, of course, comes with its own hashtag, #Sciolang), this project aspires to initiate and sustain a conversation about sharing and extending science beyond English-speaking audiences. To the same end, Sciolang has been merged with a session taking place at a major science communication event, ScienceOnline Together 2014 (#scio14 on Twitter), scheduled for the end of February at Raleigh, North Carolina.
I have been editing Wikipedia articles on topics related to Microbiology and Immunology for a long time. I am fascinated by the concept of Wikipedia, and despite my initial misgivings about the authenticity of the contents, I have often found, at least for relatively non-contentious topics (read: not-religion, not-politics), the articles are of reasonably high quality, well-researched, well-referenced.
As the US government shutdown and the consequent budgetary stalemate rolls into its third week, I contemplate that I am, indeed, one of the fortunate ones – in that my work, in a private educational institution, does not depend directly upon the US Federal government, and therefore, has not been hampered to a significant extent, yet, although some collaborative work with an NIH division has been put on limbo. Many of my friends, some of whom work at the NIH, have not been so fortunate – just what I was so apprehensive about. Many of them have been put on furlough, which accounts for a whopping 73% of NIH employees. Some who were made provisionally ‘essential’, so that they could have time to wrap up their already-started work, have been under intense scrutiny, and are being rendered ‘non-essential’ (therefore, furloughed) as time passes. (Update: Read Sara Reardon‘s report in Nature News on how research work at the NIH is on the path of a slow decay, and how researchers are suffering in unexpected ways.)
The science-associated blogosphere and Twitterverse were abuzz today with the news of a Gotcha! story published in today’s Science, the premier science publication from the American Association for Advancement of Science. Reporter John Bohannon, working for Science, fabricated a completely fictitious research paper detailing the purported “anti-cancer properties of a substance extracted from a lichen”, and submitted it under an assumed name to no less than 304 Open Access journals all over the world, over a course of 10 months.
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.” — Albert Einstein, Living Philosophies (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1931).
“They (Science and Art) ask the same questions… really what it (Science) does at its best is force us to reassess our place in the cosmos. Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going? And those are the very same questions that you get in art, literature, music. Every time you read a wonderful book or see a wonderful film, you come out of it with a different perspective of yourself, and too often, it seems to me, we forget that cultural aspect of science…” — Lawrence Krauss, Interview on the National Public Radio, 2011.
As many accomplished scientists agree, there is a profound and enduring relationship between science and art. In a lecture, Robert Eskridge, Executive Director of Museum Education, at the Art Institute of Chicago, pointed out the nature of this relationship:
Science and art naturally overlap. Both are a means of investigation. Both involve ideas, theories, and hypotheses that are tested in places where mind and hand come together—the laboratory and studio. Artists, like scientists, study—materials, people, culture, history, religion, mythology— and learn to transform information into something else. In ancient Greece, the word for art was techne, from which technique and technology are derived—terms that are aptly applied to both scientific and artistic practices.
Today I learnt about a scientist, whose unusual art-form fascinated me and I wanted to share it with all. He is Professor Eshel Ben-Jacob, a theoretical and experimental physicist at the Raymond and Beverly Sackler School of Physics and Astronomy, and the Sagol School of Neuroscience, Tel Aviv University. He holds the Maguy-Glass Chair in Physics of Complex Systems, and is a Fellow of the National Science Foundation (NSF) Frontier Center for Theoretical Biological Physics (CTBP) at the University of California at San Diego (UCSD). He is an acclaimed expert in the field of self-organization and pattern formation in open and complex systems.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Professor Ben-Jacob began to study of bacterial self-organization and pattern formation, using two strains of soil bacteria, the Paenibacillus dendritiformis and the Paenibacillus vortex; he pioneered the study of the adaptive intelligence and social cooperation that these bacteria demonstrate in complex, hostile environments. Under laboratory-induced stress, these bacteria employ chemical mediators to communicate amongst themselves and cooperate in order to adapt to the stress, facilitating survival. Ben-Jacob, in collaboration with Professor Herbert Levine of the NSF Frontier CTBP, applied biophysical principles, advanced modeling, and molecular biology to unravel the mechanisms behind the bacterial cooperativity, task allocation, learning and decision-making that lead to the generation of complex patterns on artificial media – all of which have significance for both beneficial and harmful bacteria that living beings encounter.
Once these complexly patterned colonies are formed, Ben-Jacob uses simple stains, such as Coomassie Brilliant Blue, and digital color modification to produce absolutely stunning, artistic images of these bacteria. Some of these fascinating images can be seen on his gallery pages (1, 2 and 3), or as a slide show.
All Images from Wikimedia Commons, deposited by Prof. Eshel Ben-Jacob via his laboratory at the Tel Aviv university, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License. A. Colony organization of Paenibacillus vortex; B. Colony generated by the Chiral morphotype of P. dendritiformis; C. Morphotype transition between the branching and chiral morphotypes of P. dendritiformis; D. colony generated by the Branching (Tip splitting) morphotype bacteria of P. dendritiformis.
Let me finish with the video of a lecture that Professor Ben-Jacob presented at Google in 2011, in which he talks about how social networks can be informed by bacterial colony morphology patterns and the cooperative information processing undertaken by them.
It is well-said that a picture is worth a thousand words. I have always found that a good, illustrative graphic can make a great impact upon the understanding of complex cellular pathways. And when one is visualizing dynamic processes, such as the processes occurring within the physiological system, newer technologies such as animations can be of a tremendous help. Of course, in order to be useful, it must be well-researched (so as to be scientifically accurate) as well as well-executed. This is why I was so excited about an animation depicting an immune process in the mammalian intestines presented by Nature Immunology.