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The definitive host: January 2012

The definitive host

de·fin·i·tive host (duh-fin'eh-tiv) n. 1) An organism where a parasite undergoes the adult and sexual stages of its reproductive cycle 2) Someone you go to for interesting stories and/or facts, and puts on one hell of a dinner party 3) This blog, devoted to science and other geeky subjects

Monday, January 30, 2012

My name is David, and I Am Science (AKA my origin story)

In the week since Science Online 2012 ended, there has been a lot of discussion over different social media platforms about the experience, what could be done differently, the highs and lows and most importantly, what could be discussed next year.

I’ve made a lot of new friends since the conference, and have already started discussing topics for next year.

But, this post isn’t going to be about that. This will be about something that came up after the conference by Kevin Zelnio.

Kevin wrote a post on his blog here about how he ended up in science and called it #IAmScience. In the post, he outlined how he ended up where he is today, and that not everyone takes the standard A – B path to end up involved in science. This one post spawned a whole host of other people online to share their stories, and this is mine.

I’ve talked on my blog before about how, as a child, I was obsessed with dinosaurs. That was my first real exposure to science and that there were cool jobs involved in the study of living (or extinct) things.

I was always a smart kid, and this gave me an outlet to channel my love of information and learning. I would consume books about dinosaurs by the bucket-load, and would beg my parents to take me to the museum again and again, just on the off-chance I’d see something new or learn a cool tidbit.

My parents obliged more often than not, and bought me books, videos, wooden fossil duplicates and more.

This passion for paleontology sustained me for many years, but it eventually gave way to something else: acting.

All the world’s a stage

My family, especially my dad and older sister, are movie buffs. We have seen just as many classics as current movies, and I grew up with this love of film and theatre. So, it really came as no surprise that I eventually stumbled into acting.

And boy, did I love it, especially acting in musicals.

My first role ever was in a summer camp production of Beauty and the Beast, where I played Belle’s horse, Phillipe. Those of you who know your Disney movies know that it was not a major role, but it was enough.

The following few years, I acted in a bunch of musicals in school, camp and beyond, even landing the main roles in a few of them. For more on my acting, you can see my post on LabSpaces here.

But science was always there.

Throughout middle school and high school, I continued to be fascinated by science. I’d do experiments, learn whatever I could, absorb knowledge like a sponge and tell everyone I met about all the cool things I learned. My aptitude was in biology, specifically, animal biology.

I loved learning everything I could about animals, from weird facts to behaviors to ecology and diet.

However, like all things, my love for biology was almost extinguished.

In grade 10 Biology, my teacher was horrible and sucked all the fun out of science. He gave the class so many problems that parents complained, but nothing ever changed.

Once, during a group lab, one of my friend’s aunts passed away, so he went to Vancouver for the funeral. Unbeknownst to us, he took all the lab material with him, so we could not hand it in.

We all got a zero.

After much hubbub and calls by all of our parents, the teacher eventually relented and gave us all what we deserved. But, the whole experience with that class made me realize that science just wasn’t fun anymore.

My parents, however, convinced me to take grade 11, just to “keep my options open,” and I am glad they did.

The teacher, Mr. T, was fantastic. He was funny, energetic, passionate and not afraid to answer complex questions. And my marks skyrocketed along with my interest.

I still remember, after getting 100% on our genetic test, I asked him about variation in sex chromosomes from sex-linked disorders. And, after class, using nothing but a pencil and paper, he explained to me about “crossing over” (where chromosomes occasionally touch and exchange whole portions of their genomes with each other).

That one explanation opened my eyes to a world of science that I never even thought about.

It was then my future was decided: I was going to be a vet, combining my love of animals and passion for science.

The times, they are a changin'

Veterinary school was never really an option, though, after a visit to the allergist.

My sister was allergic to fish, so we never had any in the house. But, when she went backpacking through Europe, my parents thought it was the ideal time.
And, let’s just say it didn’t go well.

The allergist said I was allergic to fish and needed to carry an Epi-Pen, as well as dropped the bomb that I had a mild allergy to dogs and cats. It was nothing serious, but enough that could warrant medication and potentially wear off.

“And I don’t know about you,” he said in a somber tone, “but I wouldn’t want someone operating on my dog or cat who had watery eyes and was sniffling.”

So, as quickly as the dream popped into my head, it was gone.
But then, my dad mentioned pursing a PhD, becoming an expert in a field and working in that area.

“And what do you love?” he said.
“Animals!” I responded enthusiastically.
“Well, that would be zoology then, wouldn’t it?”

Animal obsessed

So, that was my goal.

I went to university for biology and zoology, and loved it (even when I said I didn’t, which was often).

In my second year, I took the “Animals” course, and met a new professor called Dr. K. He was bright, engaging and really funny, so he was perfect for such a dense subject.

As the semester went on we got talking about our likes, dislikes, the course, my future, etc… and he became a mentor of sorts. He introduced me to different professors, encouraged me to take a variety of courses and helped steer my education in the way I wanted.

I even took his fish biology class in fourth year (luckily, there was no lab component).

To boost my resume, also in second year, I also started writing for the school newspaper. Nothing permanent, but I would write on occasion about cool research at the university, interesting things that were happening in biology around the world, and more. My favourite piece I ever wrote was an In Memorium piece to a hero of mine, Steve “Crocodile Hunter” Irwin, who perished in an accident with a stingray.

But the writing was always secondary to biology.

Then, during my fourth year, Dr. K approached me about doing research work in his lab.
But how, I asked, since he worked in a fish lab and I was deathly allergic?
As it turned out, he was looking to branch out to other animals, and would start up a whole area of the lab, just for me, using frogs as test animals.

How could I say no?

So, for a year, I worked there, adapting fish procedures for frogs, under the guise of an amazing grad student named H, and I loved it.

THIS was what I was meant to do, I said.

But once the experiment was over and the analysis began, I became listless. I didn’t like the sedentary being I was slowly becoming, by being attached to the lab bench every day performing the same chemical tests on tissues again and again. I loved the science and what I was doing, but I felt that what I was doing was not what I wanted.

A subtle shift

I realized this, as fate would have it, around Christmas of that year, when my grandfather passed away.

There was a moment, sitting in a chair at the retirement home where he had been living, where I asked myself “if I don’t want this, what else can I do?”

And then my sister did something.

She pulled out the latest article I had written for the school paper, and said that I’ve greatly improved as a writer.

“Huh, a writer,” I said to myself. “No one ever called me a writer before.”

Sure, English teachers and professors had complimented me on my writing, and my lab reports were always well done, but I figured that was because I read a lot.

So I thought about it while I continued to work at the lab.

Writing was something I never considered before, so I spoke to some professors, relatives and parents about it, and “journalism” kept popping up.

I could still learn about science, which I loved with a passion, and share it with others, which I had been doing ever since I was a little kid in the museum – science journalism seemed like a good fit.

So, crossing my fingers, I applied to some journalism schools in Canada for the Masters program, and got accepted by the most reputable one in the country.

It was a struggle going from science writing to writing about science, but I learned a lot and never strayed from my love of science.

Even though I am no longer attached to a lab bench, I am still tethered to science. I read copious amount of material, I blog and I share my love of science with an enthusiasm that knows no bounds.

I Am Science.

I Am Science from Mindy Weisberger on Vimeo.

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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Science Online 2012: A Post-Mortem

For those of you unaware, last Wednesday I travelled to the mystical land of Raleigh, North Carolina and attended a really unique conference entitled Science Online 2012. It is what is known as an “unconference,” where there are no lectures or presentations, but sessions that encourage and are built on discussion.

I could talk about all the fun that was had over there, the people I met for the first time in person (but have been talking to for years online) or the exciting times that were had. But, people have already written marvelous posts on that already (such as Ed Yong, Sarah Chow and more). Therefore, I will focus on a few things at the conference that really surprised me.

On the first day of the conference, after meeting countless people I’ve been talking to on Twitter for years, I decided to attend a variety of sessions. Most surprisingly, practically right out of the gate, one immediately blew me away.

The session, entitled “Sex, gender and controversy: writing to educate, writing to titillate” was moderated by the amazing @KateClancy and the incredible @scicurious about a blogger’s identity, comment moderation and the difficulty of being outspoken and passionate about science.

Prior to the conference, both Kate and Sci had posted blogs that received a lot of flack. And not constructive criticism, mind you, but a variety of hateful and mean-spirited comments that insulted their intelligence, status and even gender.

Now, I’ve been lucky, the readers of my blog have been quite kind. And some have criticized me about mistakes or called me out on a few things, but it was always done with tact. But never like those two ladies described, and while others recounted their experiences with similar situations, I was struck by the courage writers have.

Yes, we get criticized a lot, that is just a fact of nature.

It is one thing to get in a discussion about a fact or opinion, but another to discredit a the thoroughly researched and hard-worked piece simply because of gender. That is not right, that is not appropriate and that is not the age I thought we lived in.

But then Kate said something.

“You just need to keep going. Wipe yourself off, make your next one better and show them you are better than they are.”

Now that takes balls for anyone for anyone to do.

Even after attending numerous different sessions throughout the conference that one sticks in my mind as a clear standout.

Another surprising element from the conference was that notable bloggers/writers were happy to talk to everyone. While some people knew who I was (and that was fantastic), I was really surprised just how nice everyone was, whether they were “famous” or not.

But the greatest thing about the conference was how easily the friendships cultivated online, through Twitter, Facebook or whatever other social media platforms, seamlessly moved into meeting in person.

There are a few shout outs I must make, to those who made my time at the conference just that much more memorable. I have already thanked some of them via Twitter, but it is still an incomplete list. However, I am pasting those I have done here for all to see.

Favourite #scio12 moments:
My session with @DrRubidium, where we made people laugh (and think) using Mel Brooks movie clips
Talking at great length with @sciencecomedian and actually making him laugh more than once!
Holding court with the almost too amazing for words @jeannegarb in the #DSN suite (and later during the endnote)
Helping out @DrBondar and @sciencegoddess with the film festival (technical glitches and all)
Spending time with the fascinating @astvintagespace and bonding over space, university and telling stories
Getting my armpits swabbed for microbes by @DrHolly ... FOR SCIENCE
Meeting @experrinment and watching her draw & sketch fabulous works of art
@arikia and @hannahjwaters using very different "methods" to open my locked from the inside hotel room door

There are more wonderful people who I met that I’ve forgotten and others who aren’t on the list but deserve to be.

See you all next year!

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Thursday, January 12, 2012

Childhood joy

When I was a child, I started reading later than most kids (or so my parents tell me).

From what they say, it wasn’t that I found it difficult, just that I did not feel like I needed to. They tried to engage me with a variety of books, and I’d do it for a while, but quickly get bored.

Then, they found some books that interested me: dinosaurs.

I took to reading about dinosaurs like nothing else. I read everything I could get my hands on, from children’s books with more pictures than words, to big anthologies with printing I had to squint to read.

I was so ravenous for information, that my twin brother and I would beg our parents to take us to our local museum (the Royal Ontario Museum or ROM) to see the dinosaur skeletons. But, there was a catch – to see the dinosaurs, you had to go through an area known as “the bat cave” … which had nothing to do with Batman.

The cave was a S-shaped dark tunnel that featured real and fake bats on display, and I was terrified, because what young child is not afraid of the dark? I would cover my eyes and ears and walk through as fast as I could to reach the terrible lizards.

Seeing the Tyrannosaurus Rex was always a highlight of the trip, as it was considered the “bad boy” of the dinosaur world. Who would mess with something that had teeth the size of steak knives?

But, as much as meat eaters were fun to look at and imagine having as a pet, I was always drawn to the herbivores more. I am not quite sure why, but maybe it was because that in the evolutionary arms race, they had to protect, as opposed to destroy.

Everyone has his or her list of favourite dinosaurs, and I was no exception. I would tell everyone I knew about Stegosaurus with the golf ball–sized brain, the intimidating-looking Ankylosaurus and Dimetrodon, with its trademark sail.

I was so obsessed with dinosaurs that my brother and I would check books out from our school library over and over again, as we just couldn’t get enough of the information and pictures! We checked them out so much, that when our librarian retired, she donated those two most checked-out books to us.

The obsession went even beyond that.

During our countless trips to the ROM, my brother and I would correct the tour guides on pronunciation of nomenclature, locations where the bones were found, the time frame and more. I almost feel bad for the tour guides, but they should have known that stuff, right?

Not surprisingly, my first “dream” job was to be a paleontologist and travel all over the world discovering new dinosaur species.
Honestly, how good would a dinosaur that was named “Manly” be?

Over the years, though, as I got older, that dream slowly faded. But the enthusiasm and passion still remains.

And yet, whenever I visit a museum, I always make a point to visit the dinosaurs and just marvel at them. I enjoy watching the kids staring at them in wonder, listening to the tour guides explain who is who, but most of all, I love remembering a long-forgotten fact and sharing it with a child. Because you know the first thing they will do is go back to their parent/guardian and ask if they knew that … and if they didn’t, that’s a great joy for a child to experience.

I still love learning about dinosaurs and staring at them with wonder and a huge smile on my face. I still get excited if I see a Stegosaur, Dimetrodon or T. Rex.

I still love them to this day, as that kind of fervent passion never dies – it always stays with you.

So, don’t be ashamed of a passion you still carry with you from when you were younger. Whether it is comic books, video games, magic tricks or a love of prehistoric animals, they are amazing and help make up the beautiful mosaic that is you.

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