Non-traditional scientists

The label of “scientist” is usually assigned to a particular type of person. One who is highly educated and generally paid to do science as a profession. While this is not incorrect (these people are generally scientists)- it is not inclusive. Studies have highlighted that very young children use something very like the scientific method to discover things about their environment, the people they interact with, and how the world works.

A group of middle schoolers from New York were listed as co-authors on a PLoS One publication about elephant behavior last spring. This was featured in a New York Times article about it that mentions it as one of the first times that a teenagers have been listed as co-authors on a scientific study. This is really a big accomplishment for them- and it’s great to see them get recognition and respect from their coauthors, the established scientists. The paper itself doesn’t really highlight the role that the teenagers played in the experiment however. This is really written as more of a straight-on scientific paper.

However, this isn’t the first publication like this. In 2010 a paper on behavior in bees

Figure 2 from the paper: Conditions and responses to ‘test 2’. (a) The pattern of colours that the bees were tested on in their second test (see text for explanation). (b) A table showing the preferences of each bee during test 2 (see text for explanation).

was published in Biology Letters that includes as it’s first author “P.S. Blackawton”, where the “P.S.” stands for “Public School”. This paper is really cool because the entire process was guided by established scientists, but was thought of, executed by, and largely written by elementary school children, aged 8-10. The abstract for the paper gives a good overview of how, and why, the study was organized as such.

This is science: the process of playing with rules that enables one to reveal previously unseen patterns of relationships that extend our collective understanding of nature and human nature.

What a great thing not to forget as an “established scientist”.

Here’s an excerpt from the Discussion section that highlights what a refreshingly delightful read this paper is:

This experiment is important, because, as far as we know, no one in history (including adults) has done this experiment before. It tells us that bees can learn to solve puzzles (and if we are lucky we will be able to get them to do Sudoku in a couple of years’ time).

It is really important to remember that the label of “scientist” does not just apply to those with PhDs (or on their way), with white coats, doing experiments in laboratories. Scientists are those who follow the scientific method, intentionally or not, to discover things about the world around them. And non-traditional scientists can bring a whole new perspective to challenging problems.

Twenty years of scientific publication

I just realized that this year marks the 20 year anniversary of my first scientific publication. Wow! That makes me about <mumble mumble> years old. But it’s a good point to reflect on my scientific genesis. The paper (I was middle author) was on biochemical characterization of HIV-1 matrix (MA) protein function, and I contributed by doing some of the work MatrixPaperFig1including showing that MA could be deleted and HIV would still be infectious. We also showed that the deletion-MA HIV packaged the envelope protein differently than the wild-type (naturally occurring) virus. According to Google Scholar the paper has been cited 89 times (here’s a post on how my other papers have fared) and to commemorate its 20th anniversary Journal of Virology has made it available for free on their website. (OK- maybe they just make things available for free after they get really old)

Here’s a timeline for my scientific genesis (the organized, formal part of it- I’ve always been a scientist at heart):

  1. 1989: Took a job for extra money in the Reed biology building supply room. Good move- knowledge and connections.
  2. 1990: Took an upper level bio course at Reed as a sophomore that was over my head (Animal Physiology with Dr. Steve Arch). Way over my head.
  3. 1991: Initiated an independent research project in Animal Physiology to examine the effects of cAMP treatment of Xenopus (frog) embryo neurite outgrowth with microscopy and horse radish peroxidase staining. More successful than it should have been.
  4. 1991: Applied for a summer research internship at Oregon Health Sciences University with Dr. Eric Barklis (see below). Got it somehow.
  5. 1991-1992 (summers): Learned molecular biology techniques, virology, and dipped my toes in how to actually do science.
  6. 1993: Did my Reed senior thesis project (on function of matrix protein) with Dr. Barklis through the year. Graduated from Reed.
  7. 1994-1995: Took a job as a research technician with same Dr. Barklis. Did work, published more papers.
  8. 1995: Accepted to OHSU Department of Microbiology and Immunology for graduate school. Got a pay raise (really) with my grad school stipend. Awesome!
  9. 1996: Chose, surprise, Dr. Barklis as my graduate mentor. Best decision ever.
  10. 2000: Finished grad school, defended my thesis, got my PhD! (that was waaaaaay easier to write than it was to do).
  11. 2000-2001: Did a short post-doc with Dr. Barklis while waiting for my future wife to finish school.
  12. 2001: Accepted a post-doc position with Dr. Ram Samudrala at University of Washington Department of Microbiology doing all computational work. Excellent decision.
  13. 2006: Accepted position at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Computational Biology and Bioninformatics. Awesome decision.