Category: Andrew Maynard

After nearly two years and four hundred posts, the science communication course at the University of Michigan that feeds the Mind The Science Gap blog is coming to and end.  In between running a department, directing a research center, teaching, and actually doing research, something had to go.  And sadly, Mind The Science Gap was it.  The existing posts will remain, but there won’t be any new ones.  Sorry!  And thank you so much to everyone who has written for, promoted and commented on the blog – you have always been deeply appreciated.

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This is a piece I had hoped not to post – at least so soon – and still feel uneasy about, as it refers to events that will probably cause hurt to some people.  But as I have been called out on Twitter and discussion around the events is gaining some momentum, a little clarification is probably in order.

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From Risk Sense: Six months ago, Risk Bites launched as a somewhat quirky YouTube experiment in science communication. Twenty-seven videos on, how are things going?

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On Monday, the National Institute for Occupational Safety released new data on the potential role multi-walled carbon nanotubes play as a cancer-promoter – a substance that promotes the development of cancer in the presence of a carcinogen.  In the study, mice were injected with methylcholanthrene – a cancer initiating agent – and subsequently exposed to airborne multi-walled carbon nanotubes. Compared to a control group, the methylcholanthrene and carbon nanotube-exposed mice were significantly more likely to develop tumors than a control group, developed more tumors, and developed larger tumors.  The study provides a strong indication that this particular form of carbon nanotube material can synergistically increase the likelihood and severity of cancer in the presence of a carcinogen.

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The World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Emerging Technologies has just published its annual list of the top ten emerging technology trends.  Based on expert assessment from council members and others, the list provides insight into technologies that have the potential to have a significant economic and social impact in the near to mid term. This year’s list includes:

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Cross-posted from Risk Sense This week’s Risk Bites video takes a roller-coaster ride through some of the hottest topics in risk science. Admittedly this is a somewhat personal list, and rather constrained by being compressed into a two and a half minute video for a broad audience. But it does touch on some of the more exciting frontier areas in reducing health risk and improving well-being through research and its application. Here are the five topics that ended up being highlighted: BIG DATA   Despite pockets of cynicism over the hype surrounding “big data”, the generation and innovative use of massive amounts of data are transforming how health risks are identified and addressed. With new approaches to data curation, correlation, manipulation and visualization, seemingly disconnected and impenetrable datasets are becoming increasingly valuable tools for shedding new insights into what might cause harm, and how to avoid or reduce it. This is a trend that has been growing for some years, but is now rapidly gaining momentum. Just four examples of how “big data” is already pushing the boundaries of risk science include: High throughput toxicity screening, where rapid, multiple toxicity assays are changing how the potential hazards of new and existing substances are evaluated; “Omics”, where genomics, proteomics, metabolomics, exposomics and similar fields are shedding new light on the complex biology at the human-environment interface and how this impacts on health and well-being; Risk prediction through the integrated analysis of related datasets; and Designing new chemicals, materials and products to be as safe as possible, by using sophisticated risk data analysis to push risk management up the innovation pipeline. CLOUD HEALTH, or C-HEALTH   Hot on the tails of mobile-health, the convergence of small inexpensive sensors, widespread use of smart phones and cloud computing, is poised to revolutionize how risk-relevant

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Risk Bites – my new foray into the world of YouTube informal education – was officially launched a few weeks ago (although the transition from “unofficial” to “official” simply meant posting new videos more regularly!).  The channel is an experiment in overcoming the tedium and seeming irrelevance of much academic online content by unbundling the things that I research and teach and talking about the interesting stuff in an engaging and accessible way. Is it working?  It’s too early to say yet.  I’m getting good feedback from my peers.  But I have yet to crack how to get a much wider pool of eyeballs onto the videos (any offers of publicity here gratefully received – the url is http://youtube.com/riskbites – just in case you need it!).  What I’m really looking for is a growing number of subscribers and viewers who are entertained and informed by the videos. That said, I’m learning a lot from the experience.  The workflow is admittedly crude (idea, script, voice-over, storyboard, film, edit, post – all fit into an already packed schedule).  But that in turn means that the videos can be nearly as responsive as writing a blog post – as last week’s response to the Sandy Hook shootings showed.  In fact, the whole feel of the exercise is very much like the early days of writing posts for 2020 Science. Filming Risk Bites (click the image to see the video) The big difference though is the challenge of taking my work on risk and evidence-informed decision-making and dividing it into very short pieces that create a coherent narrative.  A 1 – 2 minute video allows for between 200 – 400 words, which isn’t a whole lot to handle the intricacies of the science of human health risk.  Even seemingly basic concepts like dose-response need

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YouTube intrigues me.  Having been dragged into the YouTube culture by my teenagers over the past two years, I’ve been fascinated by the shift from seemingly banal content to a sophisticated social medium. But what has really grabbed my attention is the growth of YouTube as a unique and powerful platform for informal education which is being driven not by the educational establishment, but by an emerging educational counterculture.

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Cross-posted from Risk Sense “Why should I wash my hands if I only pee?” It’s the sort of question most parents have had to handle at some time – especially if you have pretentious kids who delight in telling you how pure pee is! It’s also the subject of the first post in this semester’s Mind The Science Gap – a student science-writing blog I have great fun in overseeing. Mind The Science Gap takes ten public health graduate students and helps them hone their science communication skills in one of the toughest but most effective ways I know – by requiring them to post articles and respond to comments every week (without fail) for ten weeks. The rules are pretty simple –

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Tomorrow, my 16 year old daughter is leaving her home in the US for the UK. She’ll be there for the next two years while she studies for her A levels.  It was a heart-rending decision for my wife and I to agree to her living apart from us in a different country.  But the stark reality is that my daughter’s high school education here is just not good enough to prepare her for a British University – and in two years’ time, that’s where she wants to be.

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Sometimes you read a science article and it sends a shiver tingle down your spine.  That was my reaction this afternoon reading Ed Yong’s piece on a paper just published in Nature Biotechnology by Janna Nawroth, Kevin Kit Parker and colleagues. The gist of the work is that Parker’s team have created a hybrid biological machine that “swims” like a jellyfish by growing rat heart muscle cells on a patterned sheet of polydimethylsiloxane.  The researchers are using the technique to explore muscular pumps, but the result opens the door to new technologies built around biological-non biological hybrids. To get a sense of what Parker et al. have achieved, it’s worth watching this video of the “medusoid” in action – the movement comes about by a single layer of heart muscles grown on the substrate contracting synchronously as an electric field is applied to the liquid. For a more detailed account of the research, I would also recommend reading Ed Young’s excellent piece, and the original paper. What particularly intrigues me here is the fusion between the biological and the non-biological.  While synthetic biology has typically focused on manipulating organisms through designer-DNA, this more practical approach to engineering biology could go a long way very fast – even before genetically engineered components are added. In the case of the machine above, the result is a relatively functionless entity that moves when an external voltage is applied.  But it wouldn’t take much to engineer in a self-contained voltage source and pulse regulator, and maybe some control elements – fueled by further hybrid biological components.  What you end up with is an engineering construction kits for biological machines that could be as attractive to the DIY bio community as mainstream technologists.  With the addition of genetically designed components, this is likely to be

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It had to happen – despite deluding myself that I could squeeze everything into a 140 hour work week, something’s going to have to give.  And that something is going to be regular posts on 2020 Science.  I’ll still be posting here, just not as frequently.  Chairing a department, directing a center, teaching, research, doing cool stuff with cool people, writing killer blog posts – it should be possible to do it all.  But apparently I have a family who would like to see me occasionally.  And I’ve heard that other people have this thing called “a life” – I’m intrigued to find out what that is! I’ll still be doing plenty of stuff on line, so please do carry on engaging with me and my work in these places: On Twitter at @2020science – 140 characters is so much easier than a 500 word blog post.  What do department chairs tweet about?  I guess I’ll find out! On the Risk Sense blog – I’ll be putting more energy into building up the Risk Science Center blog – please spread the word, as this has the potential to be a great resource and forum on the science of human health risk.  Also, please follow the Risk Science Center on Twitter at @umrsc On the Risk Bites YouTube channel (and also on Twitter at @microriskbites).  This is a tremendously exciting project we’re launching that provides bite-sized and highly accessible nuggets on cool stuff about science, risk and health.  We officially launch in November, but there will be a number of teasers posted before then.  Please spread the word and subscribe! At Mind The Science Gap.  I’m running this science communication course twice a year now for our students – please subscribe to get notifications of blog posts, and support the students

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Hot on the heels of yesterday’s announcement on the Higgs Boson, some of YouTube’s most viewed science communicators have been burning the midnight oil to explain why this is so exciting.  Wrapping up this series of posts on YouTube, I thought I would call out three prominent YouTubers who were at VidCon this last week, yet still found the time to pull together a video following the news. First out of the blocks was Brady Haran with this video on the SixtySymbols channel, following the CERN seminar surrounding the announcement: Next came Vi Hart’s “Sonnet on a Higgs-Like Particle” And at 9:00 AM promptly this morning, Henry Reich of MinutePhysics posted his much-anticipated piece on the Higgs Boson: What interests me especially with all three videos is how fast they were pulled together and posted, how effectively they connect with a broad audience, and how many views they have already had (not to mention the comments).  Vi Hart’s and Brady Haran’s are well over 30,000 views at the time of writing (around 24 hours after posting), while Henry Reich’s video had over 1600 likes and 450 comments within the first couple of hours of going up.  Compare this with the more mainstream (but still excellent) video from Cara Santa Maria at Huffington Post: At the time of writing (2 days after being posted), it had 2,580 views and 19 comments.  Not shabby by any means.  But it’s clear who had the further reach here! Update: Henry Reich pointed out that Cara gets most of her views on the Huffington Post video channel, not YouTube.  You can check out her HuffPo Higgs Boson video here [link] And while I’m at it, here’s a late-breaking entry from Derek Muller (Veritasium on YouTube)

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YouTube is gearing up to transform the way we learn.  At least that’s the message that came across loud and clear at this morning’s VidCon breakout panel on education. In an overflowing room of well over two hundred conference goers, head of YouTube Education Angela Lin led a panel of five leading video makers in a lively discussion, that gave a compelling glimpse of the future of online education.  And it was a future that didn’t feature too many conventional lessons or institutionalized videos! As the panel included John and Hank Green (SciShow, CrashCourse and a gazillion other things) I was expecting a room packed to the brim with their incredibly engaged teen fans – which it was.  An odd audience you might think for a panel on education.  But this was a serious, intelligent and engaged crowd, eager to listen to the panel, ask questions and provide their own insight on online learning.  Joining the Green brothers were physics blogger Henry Reich (minutephysics), science YouTuber Brady Haran (The Periodic Table of Videos), Mike Rugnetta, host of the PBS Idea Channel and Vi Hart of Mathemusician and the Khan Academy. What was notable was that these panelists are all a) successful online educators (extremely so in some cases), b) not formally trained in teaching (to my knowledge) and c) not representing mainstream educational institutions (not counting PBS).  This is important, because there was no doubt here that the excitement and impact surrounding online education is occurring outside conventional educational circles – and in many cases leaving them standing.  John Green talked about this emerging online education community as being “disruptive,” while brother Hank talked about a “new kind of learning.” And everyone the panel agreed that education content on YouTube is where online music was five or six years ago,

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I‘m over half way through the first day at VidCon 2012, and thought I would jot a few notes down on the science scene here.  OK, so maybe 7,000 people haven’t come to the Anaheim Convention Center to hear the latest on the Higgs boson and other interesting science stuff (although you’d be surprised by how many of them are interested), but after last year, I’ve become increasingly interested in how YouTube is developing as a platform for science communication, education and engagement. After last year’s experience of a distinctly counter-culture nature, I wrote this: Next year, VidCon will be held at the Anaheim Convention Center in LA, and I suspect will attract a much larger crowd than this year.  As planning gets underway for the event, it would be really good to see participation from some of the big names in science communication on YouTube, and a greater integration of science and technology YouTube communities into the program. I doubt very much that Hank Green – the driving force behind VidCon – is a sufficiently avid reader of 2020 Science that he read this and acted on it.  But nevertheless science has clearly moved up the agenda this year.  This in part reflects a massive increase in science content and viewership on YouTube over the past year – including the launch of Hank’s own channel SciShow.  It also reflects the fact that grass roots and alternative science communicators on YouTube are – not to put too fine a point on it – smokin’ it when it comes to connecting with today’s youth. In this morning’s opening main stage session, Henry Reich (MinutePhysics) gave a packed audience in the Anaheim Convention Center Arena a quick lesson in quantum mechanics and the paradox of Schrödindgers cat.  And it went down a

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Having been initiated into the alternative world of teen YouTube culture last year, I am once again being dragged along to VidCon – the Comic-Con of the online video community.  This year – the third year for VidCon – promises to be bigger than better than ever with around 6,000 signed up for a two day extravaganza next week at the Anaheim Convention Center.  And it looks like science communicators and video-makers are going to have a greater presence than in the past.  Given the size, median age and enthusiasm of the participants, this is rather exciting. I’ll be there with my daughter and a fellow vlogger from their YouTube channel Fellowshipofthening (highly recommended btw), one of a gaggle of bemused parents.  But I’ll also be on the lookout once again for how the YouTube community is intersecting with science engagement and communication. Particularly exciting this year is the increased presence of science types at the jamboree.  Derek Muller (creator of the video blog Veritasium) is a speaker at the event, and Brady Haran of the phenomenally popular Periodic Table of Videos will be there.  Also attending (hopefully) will be Joanne Manaster, who writes for the PsiVid blog at Scientific American as well as her own video-rich blog Joanne Loves Science. Actually, a  bit of a plug here – as Joanne is self-financing the trip, she’s looking for donations to help make it happen.  If you care about kids and science, please throw a few dollars her way – here’s where you can do that. Then of course there is the mastermind behind the whole VidCon shebang Hank Green, who launched the SciShow YouTube channel earlier this year.  It already has nearly 200,000 subscribers and close on ten million video views – not bad! I’m sure there will be many

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A good colleague sent these to me the other day – I think I’m #1, but I wouldn’t rule out #7! Top Ten Reasons Professors Become Chairs* 10.  Because you don’t want someone else to do it, even though you don’t. 9.  Because you’re burned out teaching the same thing over and over again for 20 years and writing articles two people in the whole country read. 8.  For the money. 7.  For the petty power, having, in middle age, experienced a precipitous decline… and needing an alternative thrill. 6.  Because you lack imagination and can’t think of anything better and more original to do. 5.  Because you have imagination and fantasize about all the things you will do back to your peers that they did to you while they were chair. 4.  Because some dean made you an offer you can’t refuse. 3.  Because your peers elect you to slow down your rate-busting activity by loading you up with administrative trivia. 2.  Because your peers elect you, thinking you are useless at research and teaching and this way you can at least fill out administrative reports. 1.  because you temporarily became insane, forgetting why you came into academics in the first place, momentarily in a state of confusion, mistaking your college or university for General Motors or Microsoft, thinking you will climb the ladder. *From Chairing an Academic Department by Walter Gmelch and Val. D. Miskin, Atwood Publishing, Madison, Wisconsin 2004

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Fool!  At least that was what came out of my wife’s mouth as we were discussing my latest failure to say “no!”  In this case, it was a request to take over as Interim Chair of the University of Michigan School of Public Health Environmental Health Sciences Department. You know that feeling where volunteers are asked for and before you know it everyone else has taken a step back?  It wasn’t really like that, but with the current Chair Howard Hu moving onto bigger and better things at the University of Toronto, I did find myself unexpectedly in the firing line. All joking aside, this is a tremendous opportunity to work with a great department and build on the solid foundation laid by my predecessors.  The appointment is just for a year while plans are laid for a more permanent incumbent (on my insistence – one day I hope to get a life!), but over the next twelve months there are exciting plans to further strengthen the department’s research, education and translation programs.  I’m also taking over leadership of the department at a time when we are looking to re-frame environmental health science within the broad context of human-environment interactions and their consequences.  This is a tremendously exciting point in the department’s history as we develop powerful synergies within a highly interdisciplinary department to address complex health challenges from a science perspective. In the meantime, I will still be directing the University of Michigan Risk Science Center, and trying my best to write here and elsewhere about interesting stuff.  But this in particular was the source of my wife’s derision.  When I asked her whether I should refer to my self as “Interim Chair or simply “Chair”, she replied “fool”! Well, I guess it’s just fool for a year.

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I‘ve just spent the last two days at the National Academies of Science listening to a long strong of folks talk about the Science of Science Communication.  It was a bit of a guilty pleasure for me as I wasn’t a speaker and so could just kick back and listen – but I did get a couple of questions in. The meeting was in the series of Arthur M. Sackler Colloquia that the National Academies organize each year – meetings designed to cut across traditional disciplinary boundaries.  And in this respect the colloquium was certainly a success, bringing together over 400 participants from a wide range of disciplines to discuss empirical research on the nature, practice and effectiveness of science communication. Although there was plenty of room for improvement in the scope and execution of the colloquium (as was amply commented on in the Twitter stream accompanying the event*), I must confess that I did find the meeting both useful and enjoyable – mainly because it prompted me to start thinking again about several aspects of science communication that I’ve pushed to one side as a myriad other things have slid onto my plate.  Summarizing the meeting as I type this (and wait for a delayed flight back to Michigan) is largely beyond my tired brain at this point – I still need to take time to digest much of the stuff that was presented.  But I would encourage you to check out the videos of the talks, which have been posted here.  That said, it’s worth noting three things that struck me as I listened to the presenters: It’s important that the National Academies of Science are taking the study of science communication (and its practice) seriously.  Inviting a bunch of social scientists into the National Academies – and

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A few weeks ago I was asked to give a “TED style talk” on nanotechnology for the University of Michigan Environmental Health Sciences department 125th anniversary.  What they got was a short talk on “thinking small”: The other talks in the series are also worth checking out – covering topics as diverse as epigenetics, cancer, exposure science, obesity, endocrine disruptors, global health and mercury in the environment.  Watch them here: http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLF87730C0E0C26FEA

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2020 SCIENCE
 
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Andrew Maynard is a Professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Michigan, and directs the U-M Risk Science Center.  His interests focus on effective science communication; the responsible development and use of emerging technologies – most notably nanotechnology and synthetic biology; and how understanding risk can help inform smart decisions.  

As well as writing a regular column for the journal Nature Nanotechnology, Andrew posts regularly on his personal blog "2020 Science", and on Twitter as @2020science.  He also produces short (and hopefully entertaining) educational videos on understanding health risks on the YouTube channel Risk Bites

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