Category: Biological Musings

Career Benefits of Blogging as a Faculty Member

I’ve been on Twitter and blogging since the fall of 2013. When I first started, I didn’t really have any goals other than that I wanted to help early career scientists navigate academia and I wanted to become part of some communities that I didn’t have access to in my daily life. Both of these activities have led to some unexpected positive outcomes.

I would say that the top benefit has been increased visibility of my research and my ideas to a broad community. This has involved interactions with other scientists, various academics, and members of the public. For example, a blog post from April 2015 called “The Advantages of Live Tweeting a Research Talk” led to an invitation to moderate a live Twitter chat comprised on Knowledge Mobilization officers across Canada and the U.S.

The second benefit is the honing of writing and communication skills. These skills are transferable to many other facets of my job and are valuable. I took a stab at writing an article for The Conversation Canada called “The Force of biology is strong in Star Wars” and my aim was to talk about mitochondria and cloning with a general audience. To date the article has received over 17,000 views; nothing else that I have written in my career has received so many reads.

The third benefit is that the blog allows me to share my opinions and to offer advice to early career biologists. The blog allows me to quantify some of my outreach activities and include them as part of my university service. My blog post on “Research Budgeting for Scientists” from March 2015 was re-published on the University Affairs website the next year. I’ve been interviewed for two articles for the journal Nature; one on networking in 2017 and one a few weeks ago called “Why science blogging still matters”. More recently I was invited to join the Science Borealis blog network that features Canadian bloggers who focus on various scientific fields.

I’ll point readers to this fantastic article written by several of my blogging heroes that explores this topic in more detail and talks about other impacts that science blogging can have for an individual and the broader community.



Mitochondria are hot!

There have been some very interesting developments in the field of mitochondrial biology in the past two months. This is very exciting for me as someone who works on bioenergetics in a variety of organisms.

The first paper made quite a splash in the community when it came out because the findings suggest that mitochondria operate at much higher temperatures than were previously believed. The paper by Chrétien et al. 2018 appears in PLOS and is entitled “Mitochondria are physiologically maintained at close to 50°C”. I will admit to being pretty open to this idea and it’s because of two reasons. The first is that I perform research on plants and have specifically worked on the enzyme alternative oxidase (AOX). Several plants are capable of shunting electrons through this enzyme and are able to heat inflorescences up to 42°C when ambient temperatures are much lower. Secondly, I’ve always been bothered by the fact that mitochondrial respiration assays using oxygen electrodes are often performed at 37°C regardless of what organism the mitochondria have been isolated from. It doesn’t made sense to me and I question the physiological relevance of assaying mitochondria using a temperature of 37°C when for example the study organism is a fish that has been acclimated to an external temperature of 5-12°C. Mitochondrial respiration is definitely more sluggish when you run these measurements at 5-12°C, but the mitochondria are still active. So for me, someone attempting to tackle the question of what temperature mitochondria actually run at is an important and highly relevant one.

The paper is an elegant one and what struck me in particular is that the authors have attempted to proactively counter the most obvious challenges that they would face from other researchers in the field. It hinges on the supposition that no energy transduction process in nature is 100% efficient and that some of the free energy of the electron transport system (ETS) must therefore be released as heat. They are obviously limited by the technologies currently available, but they have done an excellent job in using both positive and negative controls to validate their experiments and data. They have used the temperature-sensitive probe MitoThermoYellow to attempt to determine the temperature of mitochondria in a mammalian cell line background. As I read the paper, every few minutes I thought of another potential factor that could be responsible for their results, and in the very next sentence they addressed each of my particular concerns; it was a pretty surreal experience. The mitochondrial temperature is directly influenced by the level of operation of the ETS and what components are present (they do some very neat work with the alternative oxidase and uncoupling protein). They do some preliminary enzymology work on crude extracts to demonstrate that several ETS complexes exhibit temperature optima ~50°C, but that this is only true if the mitochondrial membranes are intact. A fascinating next step would be to examine the role of supercomplexes in these effects.

The authors themselves admit that one of the key questions that needs to be considered is whether mitochondria and cells can maintain temperature gradients, or whether any heat would immediately be lost to the rest of the organisms and/or the environment? Here we need to consider what is known about the physical shape, size, number, and localization of mitochondria in cells and what is known about the insulating capabilities of phospholipids, membrane components, and the contents and composition of various cellular compartments. Much of this information is lacking. These issues and other possible critiques of the paper are addressed by Nick Lane in his article “Hot mitochondria?”. Lots of new questions and concepts brought up by the Chrétien et al. paper which makes it a very valuable contribution to the field.

The second article is one by Cory Dunn entitled “Some Liked It Hot: A Hypothesis Regarding Establishment of the Proto-Mitochondrial Endosymbiont During Eukaryogenesis”. This paper was a lot of fun to read and presents a simple, but profound hypothesis: the initial usefulness of the proto-mitochondrion and the evolutionary driving force for its retention was due to its ability to generate heat and that it wasn’t until much later in evolutionary history that its ability to biosynthesize ATP could be harnessed. It’s a pretty neat idea and the figures in the article help the reader considerably. The premise of this article will be further supported if the conclusion of the Chrétien et al. holds up over time.


Doctor Al Digest #24

The #reviewforscience Twitter hashtag has been cracking me up this week. Highlights include gluing trackers on bees, using a body massager to attract spiders, nooses for lizard collection, and the winner: using nail polish for killing bot fly maggots prior to extracting them from your own body.

Looks like the #MeToo movement has caught up with Canadian politics and they’re clearing house (the House of Commons that is!)

Tooting my own horn a bit…myself and several other bloggers were interviewed by the Nature piece “Why science blogging still matters”

A very elegant and thorough study by Chrétien et al. that suggests that the mitochondria in human cell lines operate at ~50°C when at maximal capacity  and a thoughtful critique by Dr. Nick Lane . I suspect that some paradigms are about to be destroyed in the near future in mitochondrial and thermal biology.

Lady of the Flies: Attempting to ID the infestation in my office

A couple of weeks ago I started noticing a large number of flies in my campus office. They are a mild nuisance as they get trapped between my blinds and windows and the buzzing noise is distracting. The large number of fly corpses is also gross, but I’m a biologist, so I’m taking it in stride.

Due to the fact that I’m a nerd, I’ve been attempting to solve the mystery of where these flies are coming from and what type of fly is in my office. I was quickly able to rule out the blowfly, which means that my fear of a rotting animal in my ceiling is likely unfounded. So it’s a toss up between the common house fly and the cluster fly. Based on the fact that the flies are pretty sluggish and have golden hairs on the thorax my best guest is that they are cluster flies.

Cluster flies feed on earthworms as maggots and move into buildings when it comes time to hibernate. I’m guessing that because September was so warm, it’s only recently that the flies have started to move into my building and invade my office. I’m guessing I’ll see a second wave when they all wake up in the spring.


Doctor Al Digest #21

The Ig Nobel awards are always amusing, but they do make you think. You can go here for a list of the winners that were announced yesterday. I too have always wondered whether cats could be both a solid and a liquid.

A great post over at the blog Conditionally Accepted on Recognizing Emotional Labor in Academe

A powerful art exhibit reinforces the offensiveness and irrelevance of wondering what sexual assault survivors were wearing when they were assaulted. Trigger warning for sexual assault descriptions.


Impacts of Hurricane Irma on biology

The footage and news coverage of Irma has been amazing and serves to remind us that no matter how much we think that we have been able to engineer our environments we are no match for the power of Mother Nature. While much has been said about the impacts that the hurricane will have on human affairs, culture, and infrastructure, not much has been said about the long term effects that will be felt on the ecosystems in the path of the storm. This focus, when it does occur, will no doubt be on animals. My daughter was particularly disturbed by the Tweets that went out yesterday urging Floridians to not abandon their pets to fend for themselves during the hurricane. While this is certainly disturbing, it is worth taking a moment to think about the wildlife in these regions that will never be the same.

I find it amazing that birds are commonly found in the eyes of hurricanes and that they can be transplanted hundreds of kilometres by this process. Here’s a short article from the Miami Herald on the topic of wildlife and hurricanes. As a plant biologist, I’m really impressed by the ability of the palm trees to survive hurricane conditions. Here’s a quick article on the adaptations that allow them to do this.

I also found the emptying of the bays and the returning storm surge to be amazing. This phenomenon must kill a huge amount of aquatic life due to the changing water levels, salinity, temperature, and oxygen that results.


Good-bye to 2016

All in all, 2016 was a good year for me. During the first semester of the year I taught a course, mentored several students, and found out that my NSERC Discovery Grant was renewed. I also hit 100 followers on Twitter which I thought was pretty cool. In February I started Bullet Journaling as a system of time management and I really like it. The part that I think that I like most is that it’s a written record of everything that I was able to accomplish this past year and that the system can be modified to suit your individual needs.

The second semester during the summer saw me switch gears significantly as I was preparing for my first sabbatical in July. I attended two conferences in cities where I did my post-doc and Master’s degrees respectively, so it was a bit of a homecoming for me which was neat. At the end of June I left for Italy to attend a conference and then my family and I spent 3 weeks in Palma de Mallorca, Spain. That trip was a conscious effort to push myself out of my comfort zone, but I need not have worried as my hosts were wonderful! While I was working with a collaborator, my family explored the city and the island’s beaches. We then took a family vacation in August to Paris, England, Scotland, and Ireland which was fantastic!

The fall term found me getting a new groove and I was able to be much more proactive rather than reactive due to being on sabbatical. The biggest success that term was finally publishing a manuscript that was the result of 6 years of laboratory work. That was a huge win for me. I was happy to watch the Blue Jays in post-season baseball for the second year running; unfortunately they were eliminated by the team from Cleveland. The year rounded out with time spent with family and friends over the holidays.

I hope that your 2016 was productive and that you are looking forward to 2017!


The Sabbatical

I started my first sabbatical in July. It began with an international conference in Italy and then a three week research collaboration and visit to a colleague’s lab in Spain. It was a wonderful start to this academic year. I am discovering that a sabbatical allows one to be reflective rather than reactive. I am using the time to think, plan, discover, recharge, and appreciate aspects of this job that I have tended to take for granted.

My hiatus from the blog this summer was due to my travelling schedule in July and August and a September that saw me settling into a new routine afforded by my sabbatical. I hope to post more regularly in the upcoming weeks as I reintroduce blogging into my schedule.


Jedi Mind Tricks for Staying Physically Active as a Faculty Member in Science

I started this job in July 2010 and one thing that has surprised me is the amount of time that I spend sitting at my desk in front of my computer. This was a big change from my days as a graduate student and post-doc when my days were comprised of more time standing in the lab, attending courses and seminars, and walking around the campus and buildings for various reasons. Recent research has clearly demonstrated that living a sedentary lifestyle is bad for you , so I made the conscious decision to be more active on a daily basis. This has been challenging for me since I have never considered myself to be an active person and due to the fact that I’m an introvert, fitness classes and team sports are a special kind of Hell.

Jedi Mind Trick Number 1: Pair a reward with working out.

We have been members at our local YMCA for quite some time. Last fall we realized that we were not getting much value out of our membership since we weren’t regularly going to the gym. After brainstorming for a bit, my husband came up with the great idea to pair going to the gym with a financial incentive. We each have $75/month of fun money available based on our household budget. This is money that each person can spend on whatever they want without having to justify it or explain it to the other person. Starting in January, we linked the earning of that money to working out in 30 minute increments. We each have to work out at least 3 times per week (=~$15) or we leave that money on the table. The maximum per month that we can earn is $75, so this averages 4 x 30 minutes each week. So far this has been working great and has forced me to use the gym or go on mid-day walks on a consistent basis. The reward doesn’t has to be huge; just something that will motivate you enough to get to the gym or be active. I also like to listen to podcasts, watch the Jays game, or TV shows on Netflix, and can sometimes use those as bonus rewards while I’m working out.

Jedi Mind Trick Number 2: Collect data and gamify your workout.

I’m a scientist and I like data. Recently my husband upgraded his Fitbit Flex to a Charge HR. This meant that I got the older Flex. After using it consistently for several months I upgraded to a Charge HR this weekend. Being able to track my steps has been very motivating for me. I’m in a group with several friends and we compete each week (on a rolling time scale) to see who has the most steps which is extra incentive to be active. I used to wear a watch all of the time anyways (never got used to using my phone to look at the time), so this device serves as a watch with added benefits.

Jedi Mind Trick Number 3: Gamify your workout.

There are lots of apps out there that help to make workouts more interesting. I’ve always liked games where you start from nothing and build an empire (e.g. Age of Empires , Civilization and I’ve used a few apps that track your workout progress. The first one that I tried was Zombies, Run! This game is structured around missions and as you run you collect items that help you fortify your settlement in order to survive the Zombie apocalypse. Sometimes the zombies find you while you are out on a mission and if you don’t run fast enough they eat your brains! The second app that I’ve really enjoyed is Couch to 5K. This one builds up your running endurance over the course of several weeks. By March I was able to run for 20 minutes straight without getting runner’s cramp or a stitch in my side, so I consider that a success!

Feel free to share any tips or tricks in the comments below that have worked for you to keep active as a faculty member.


Using Games in the Classroom

At the beginning of April I went to an excellent workshop facilitated by Dr. Scott Nicholson called “Games Beyond Screens in the Classroom”. Scott is the director of the Brantford Games Network game lab and teaches and chairs the program in the Bachelor of Fine and Applied Arts in Game Design and Development. The program has been wildly successful and they are looking to hire another faculty member who focuses on digital game design and project management.

Scott took us through several games during the course of the workshop and each had elements that I could easily see incorporating into my classrooms. He made the important point that after you run a game you always have to debrief. There is no point in running an activity without exploring how it made you feel, what was experienced, how it relates to your world, how you could see incorporating it into your space, and learning from the experiences of other people. Failing to debrief after a game is a very common error.

The other take-home from the workshop is that games do not have to be fun and they do not have to be fair. You are perfectly within your rights to manipulate the game in order to achieve the learning outcomes that you’d like for your students. This was a bit of a surprise for me, but having seen it in action at the workshop, I can see how it would work.

This past Monday I shared what I had learned at the workshop with some colleagues who are members of our SCAFFOLD (Student-Centred Active Flexible Face-to-Face Online Learning Discussions) community of practice. At our next meeting in May we’ll be discussing how to bring fun into our classrooms.

Do you run any games in your classrooms in order to facilitate learning? What has worked and what has been a disaster?