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April 2015 Archives

Today's Life/Style section in the Herald on Sunday brings us the latest 'beauty trend' to hit our shores: the snail facial.

Yes, you read that correctly. Apparently one can (if one has a sufficiency of funds) already purchase Snail Soap, which contains "snail slime, virgin olive oil, honey and extracts from medicinal plants". The slime component supposedly helps 'beat' wrinkles (what's wrong with a bit of character?) & reduces scarring. We're told that "No one has come back and said it is rubbish or doesn't work," but then, it might be a tad embarassing to have to 'fess up to spending $25/bar on soap that didn't meet one's expectations.

Apparently the next contribution gastropods have to make to our outer beauty is the snail facial: snails crawl about over your face, leaving their silvery mucus trails behind them. This probably does leave your face feeling a bit tighter, when the trails dry. But saying that "snail facials are believed to be very good" may well be an example of wishful thinking, especially in the absence of supporting data.

Snail slime does contain lectins, which are a class of glycoprotein; the amount & type of this substance vary with the species of snail. (Many years ago now, my Significant Other used to go out collecting them on dewy mornings, so that the lectin could be extracted and analysed.) It also contains other proteins such as collagen & elastin, which probably comes in helpful for the slug species that indulge in balletic aerial s*x at the end of a mucous bungee cord. But as far as I can see the claims that smearing one's face with this slimy mix will encourage skin cells to make more of these proteins lack support. And indeed, quite why putting protein molecules (which are highly unlikely to be absorbed through your skin) on the dead outer surface of your skin would encourage the cells beneath to spring into activity, is not immediately clear.

Lectins are 'sticky' molecules produced by plants (& algae), animals, fungi & prokaryotes, and are involved in communication between cells, defence against pathogens, fertiliation, metastasis of tumours, and appear to generate an inflammatory response (something that's picked up on by various '' sites such as Those from snail slime may have anti-microbial activity, but in absence of actual infection that would not be a burning reason to use it on one's face. And indeed, I think there's need for caution in their use, as it seems that bacteria such as E.coli can survive for quite some time in snail faeces: I'd certainly want to be sure that the snails had been kept long enough to evacuate their bowels prior to crawling over my skin!

NB It was good to see a skeptical comment from a dermatologist, at the end of the Herald article - but more as an afterthought than an an attempt at investigative journalism :(

PS And 'thank you!' to my friends in the Skeptics for riffing on this in the first place :)

EDIT: one Smut Clyde has since expanded on this very subject. He notes that one can search in vain for the chemical known as "Helix Asperia Muller" - and this is not surprising, as the phrase is actually a typo (?) for the old taxonomic name of the actual garden snail, Helix aspersa (Muller), Muller being the chap who first described it. The species has now apparently been reclassified as Cornu aspersum. I didn't know that.

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This is a post originally writing for Talking Teaching. It's a difficult question for universities, but an important one at a time when they are increasingly under scrutiny for the quality of their educational outcomes (read: student completion & retention). It's a difficult question for individuals too!

Way back when I was a secondary teacher, & there were signs that the government of the day was looking at a possible move to performance pay, there were fairly frequent staffroom discussions discussions around how to assess the quality of one's teaching. (There's a much more recent report on this subject here.) One metric proposed was how many of your students passed School Cert. (I told you it was a long time ago!) That was all very well for those whose classes - we had streamed classes at my school - contained students who could mostly be expected to achieve rather well. I had one of those, but I also had the 'problem' 4th-form (year 10) class: kids who for a variety of reasons weren't viewed by many as likely to pass.

I had no real problems with that class. I had to teach them science, and so we 'did' science in contexts that they found engaging & relevant: the science of cooking, the science of cosmetics, & so on. We had a ball, & in the process they seemed to absorb some knowledge of science: what it was, & how it worked. But mostly they still didn't attempt School C (the equivalent of today's NCEA Level 1), & so by that rubric I'd have been judged a poor teacher. Perhaps, if we'd looked systematically at the level of prior knowledge those students entered my class with, and assessed the gains they made on that, both they and I would have been judged differently.

I was reminded of this during a discussion today about assessing the quality of teachers in a university setting. Now sure, we have a system of paper appraisals and teaching appraisals. But they aren't shared with line managers as a matter of course, and so that can make things difficult during goal-setting and promotion rounds. For in the absence of that information, just how do line managers (& others) come to any evidence-based assessmentof a teacher's abilities and performance in the classroom? I suspect the short answer is that they can't, not really.

But even where the appraisal data are available, they shouldn't be the only tool individuals (& managers) use to assess performance. I'm often told the appraisals are easy to 'game', although I'm not sure how correct that is; it does tend to assume that students aren't able to assess papers and teacher performance reasonably well. I mean, statements like "this teacher made it clear what was expected of me", "this teacher made the subject interesting", and "this teacher was approachable when advice or help was required" are fairly objective, after all. But ideally they'd be just one element in an educator's portfolio.

That portfolio could also include notes and commentary from an option that teachers in the compulsory sector will be used to: having a colleague sit in on a class and provide constructive feedback afterwards. In my experience this is rare in universities, which is a real pity, because both parties can learn a good deal from the experience. (We are accustomed, and encouraged, to have others cast a critical eye on our research outcomes, so why not our teaching?)

It could also include notes & reflections from the education literature. I firmly believe that while my teaching has to be informed by current research in my discipline (& I simply can't imagine teaching the same thing, year after year!), it must also be informed by findings from research into pedagogy.  Things change, after all. Teaching & learning methods that might have seemed to work for those who taught me at uni are almost certainly out of date in today's classrooms. As regular readers will know, I put much of my own reflection into writing these blog posts: the blog makes up a largish part of my own portfolio.

And of course, if you're dipping into the literature, and attending seminars or workshops from your equivalent of our Teaching Development Unit, then you'll pick up all sorts of other, informal, tips for gaining feedback on how things are going in the classroom. It's worth linking back to a guest post from a my friend & colleague Brydget, as she summarises all this very well.

The trick, of course, is to work out how to present that information to one's line manager :)

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As you'll have gathered, I'm finding Facebook - and now Twitter - great sources of information, whether it's for teaching, sharing with my students (& others!), or blogging about. And today, this paper popped up on my Twitter feed: Ten Simple Rules for Effective On-line Outreach. Because it's published on a PLoS journal (in this case, Computational Biology), it's open-access, and so you can read the full paper here. For that reason I'll just list their 10 rules here, with the occasional aside from me.

Having noted that it can be quite a challenge to develop and keep an audience for what you have to say, here's how the authors introduce what their paper's about: 

Here, we describe ten rules for conducting effective online outreach, so that other scientists can also enjoy the advantages of disseminating their knowledge and expertise through social media.

  1. Stop treating outreach and research as separate entities. This point dovetails with the comments in an article that I have in my 'must blog about real soon' list: that much published work doesn't get read & is never cited. Blogging or tweeting about research is a way of making it accessible to a wider audience, one that may never read a scientific journal but still wants to hear about what scientists do.  There's also this: 

    It should also be acknowledged that the requirement of translating research to a public audience increases both awareness and intimacy with the published literature—one that can feed directly back into your research program.
    Not to mention that both blogging and tweeting can increase your range of contacts and, from my so-far limited observation, lead to new collaborations.
  2. Be strategic. Be deliberate. In other words, plan before you act. I know that when I began blogging (seven years ago, now!), I gave a lot of thought to why I was doing it & to the nature of my target audience. 
  3. Find your niche & story. I've always seen this blog as outreach. Originally it was set up to reach year 13 biology students & their teachers, and although that range has expanded over time, I still have that group in mind. To that extent, I guess this descriptor from the paper applies: "a sustained effort to disseminate science beyond the ivory tower." I like to mix & match topics, depending on what catches my attention in my reading & on-line activity; it would be really really boring to stick to just a single area or focus! 
  4. Branding... branding... branding... Not one I've really thought about, beyond the fact that the blog carries the University's branding, given that it's hosted by the uni :)
  5. Recruit a top-notch team. I wish! Group blogging would certainly share the workload and, as the authors note, allow for more diversity of voice & viewpoint. Certainly this is something afforded by Sciblogs
  6. Focus on the story. I agree with the authors that good communication skills include story-telling and the ability to develop a narrative. These things allow you to show the human side of science & so build links with the audience. 
  7. Leverage multiple tools to disseminate content and build up your network. Yes indeedy. Facebook, Twitter, blogging, and all the other things I have a peripheral knowledge of: they're all ways of getting your ideas and stories out to a much wider network. My friend Kimberley Collins did her MSciComm thesis on this.
  8. Collect & assess data. This is not something I do in a formalised way, and I suppose that I should. (My Head of School would certainly agree!) But I do keep an eye on my blog stats, the number of 'likes' posts get on FB (I've taken to sharing each post there), and whether tweets are 'favourited'. (Social media are doing strange things to grammar...) The blog platform Wordpress also shows you what search terms people used in coming to your site, giving an indication of what things are currently interesting to your potential audience.
  9. Iteratively assess what works and what doesn't. This follows on from #8. The authors also suggest going for shorter, rather than longer, posts; I have to admit that I'm torn on this one. Orac, for example, writes some monumental posts, but his topics are usually fascinating and he carries a large audience along with him. Carl Zimmer & Ed Yong, two other bloggers whom I really admire, go more for brevity. So both can work, but I agree that for many readers shorter is better.
  10. Create prestige for public scholarship. Let's finish with the authors' words:

The most important overarching benefit is visibility—to one’s colleagues, to the media, and to the public. By being accessible, researchers participating in online conversations have the opportunity to have a much more influential voice for their science. In these days of dwindling governmental investment and increased public distrust of science, scientists need to speak out on the value of their profession and training.


Because we have witnessed such direct and beneficial gains as a result of our online outreach activities, we feel strongly that such activities should be given more weight when determining scientific productivity, e.g., during hiring/promotion decisions. The impact of online activities is increasingly recognized, and they should be formally encouraged.

Bik HM, Dove ADM, Goldstein MC, Helm RR, MacPherson R, et al. (2015) Ten Simple Rules for Effective Online Outreach. PLoS Comput Biol 11(4): e1003906. doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1003906

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... and serendipity! I've just participated in a great AdobeConnect session, run by the university's Centre for e-Learning, on the interfaces between academic publications and social media. It was fun, educational, & thought-provoking & has provided something of a spur to my own thinking about the value** of social media in this particular sphere. (For example, while academics are pressured to publish, & the number & position (journal) of those publications is seen as a measure of their worth, you could well ask what the actual value of the work is if few or no people actually read it. I've got another post lined up about this.)

Anyway, one of the things that I brought into the conversation was the value of Twitter (& Facebook) in terms of finding new information in fields that interest me. (I know that a lot of my recent blog posts have developed from ideas sparked by FB sources.) I'm a fairly recent convert to Twitter but have enjoyed several tweeted conversations about science communication & science education, and I do keep an eye on posts from those I'm 'following' in case something new crops up.

And so it was that when I started following our AdobeConnect host, this popped up:


Stephen's link takes you to this article: net positive valuation of online education. The executive summary makes very interesting reading at a time when 'we' (ie my Faculty) are examining ways to offer our programs to a changing student demographic. It finds that on-line learning as a means of delivering undergraduate programs opens up access for people who don't fit the 'typical traditional undergraduate' profile, such that those people may end up with greater life-time earnings & tax contributions, and reduced use of social services. And using on-line learning pedagogies & technologies seem to result in a reduced environmental footprint for the degrees: the authors estimate that on-line learning delivery of papers saves somewhere between 30 & 70 tonnes of CO2 per degree, because of the reduction in spending both on travel to & from campus, and on bricks & mortar.

There's an excellent infographic here, and I can see why the report would indicate that the institution they surveyed (Arizona State University, ASU) would say that

[i]n the near term, nearly 100 percent of an institution’s courses, both immersive and virtual, will be delivered on the same technology platforms.

However, there are caveats.  ASU has obviously got a fairly long history of using e-learning platforms. This is not simply a matter of taking an existing paper (or degree program), making its resources available on-line, & saying 'there! we're doing e-learning'. Because unless the whole thing is properly thought through, the students' learning experiences may not be what their educators would like to think.

In other words, this sort of initiative involves learning for both students and educators - and the educators' learning needs to come first.  


** As an aside, here's an example of what could be called 'crowd-sourcing' for an educational resource, via twitter. But the same could easily be done for research.

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I recently started following Kevin Folta's blog, Illumination. (I'm sorry I didn't come across it earlier; it's very good.) His latest post quotes a comment from a Kansas farmer, made on a site opposed to Monsanto & its production of GM crops, noting that the commenter is showing some excellent communication skills. Sometimes I think those of us who spend time in science communication forget about some of these attributes; I'd certainly hope that we come across as credible & honest, and that we always keep the 'undecideds' in mind, but the other two... I know I've fallen short of the mark at times.

  • Credibility and honesty are ever-important.
  • Kindness is good. Not least, because it shows it's not just about the science; there are other values that we share with our audience.
  • While criticism can be justified, there are other ways of getting a message out there. At times, simply discussing facts non-judgementally can be enough.
  • An honest, friendly, empathetic message may never win over those who are strongly opposed to a particular issue - but it does offer an alternative to those who are unsure or who may not yet have formed an opinion.

EDIT: also this (the difference between measured science communication, & activism).

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Will Grant & Rod Lambert, from the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, listed these 10 common mistakes in an article published in The Conversation. And as they say, if we're honest we've probably made at least one of them at some point. This article would probably be a really useful resource for teachers working with their students on how to assess the validity of a particular piece of information, and I've already passed it on to my first-year students.

NB I see that Ken's also posted on this over at Open Parachute, but these are points that deserve to be shared widely, so let's continue anyway :)

Judging a topic based on just one study. A recent example of this would be the media coverage given to claims about a bacterium being able to use arsenic instead of phosphorus in its DNA. But for an example which did real harm, consider the widespread acceptance and promotion of a claimed link between the MMR vaccine and autism - a claim that went against the existing evidence when it was first published and has now been thoroughly discredited. Using single studies, which are often 'outliers', is a very common habit among promoters of woo, for whom this comment by Grant & Lambert is particularly apt: 

If you do it deliberately, it's cherry-picking. If you do it by accident, it's an example of the exception fallacy.

The second miskake on the list is forgetting that while an effect might be statistically signficant, it may also be so small as to be meaningless in the real world.

And the related error: failing to look closely at what an 'effect size' actually translates into

We might have a treatment that lowers our risk of a condition by 50%. But if the risk of having that condition was already vanishingly low (say a lifetime risk of 0.002%), then reducing that might be a little pointless.

Judging the extremes by the majority. Exposure to fluoride is a good example here; too much, and there's significant risk of fractures. But too little also increases the risk of damage - the response relationship here is not linear.

Being more likely to accept information that agrees with what we already know. This is one we have to guard against, all the time, because everyone's prone to it. As Steven Novella has said:

Questioning our own motives, and our own process, is critical to a skeptical and scientific outlook. We must realise that the default mode of human psychology is to grab onto comforting beliefs for purely emotional reasons, and then justify those beliefs to ourselves with post-hoc rationalisations. It takes effort to rise above this tendency, to step back from our beliefs and our emotional connection to conclusions and focus on the process. The process (i.e. science, logic, and intellectual rigor) has to be more important than the belief.

Falling for the snake oil - it's easy to be seduced by glib presentations, especially when they sound science-y at times. How else to explain the rise in popularity of the Food Babe (and the commodities she offers), for instance? Or Natural News and its ilk?

Forgetting that qualities aren't quantities and quantities aren't qualities. A new drug may hold the promise of extending life, but as I get older I find I also think about quality of life. 

And forgetting that a model is never going to be a perfect representation of reality. If they were, we probably wouldn't call them models. 

Context matters, of course. Grant and Lambert use the complexities around cycle helmet laws as their example (something that's also been discussed on Sciblogs in the past).

And finally, just because it's peer reviewed, that doesn't make it right. Back in 2005, John Ioannidis wrote, "[p]ublished research findings are sometimes refuted by subsequent evidence, with ensuing confusion and disappointment." This simply reflects how science operates. As Grant and Lambert point out:

even if we assume that the reviewers made no mistakes or that there were no biases in the publication policies (or that there wasn’t any straight out deceit), an article appearing in a peer reviewed publication just means that the research is ready to be put out to the community of relevant experts for challenging, testing, and refining.

If that subsequent challenging, testing, and refining support the original paper, then it's on stronger ground. Which is why (coming back to the beginning again) it's not a wise idea to rely on just a single paper to support a case.


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