“Science is Awesome.” Dr. Rabiah Mayas is our Scientist of the Month.

Panoramic view of Mars from NASA's Pathfinder rover.

Dr. Rabiah Mayas was honored as April’s Scientist of the Month by the Chicago chapter of the Association for Women in Science. I had the pleasure of interviewing her. We met in her office at the Museum of Science and Industry, high above the exhibits of tornadoes, chick hatcheries, and a German U-boat, to discuss her career and her love of science.

Multicolored 3D renderings of participants heads.
The Fab Lab can scan and produce 3D models of participants heads. Courtesy of the Museum of Science and Industry.

I couldn’t fit everything into the profile article; here are some more interesting nuggets that I learned along the way:

  • A Post-It-filled “Crazy Idea List” hangs on the wall outside her office, the result of a brainstorming session with her team at MSI.
  • The Fab Lab has a laser cutter where participants can make their own jewelry and holiday ornaments.
  • Rabiah manages an NSF-funded project, “The Art of Science Learning,” in which participants attend workshops on sculpture, jazz improvisation, and juggling. The goal of the project is to see if arts-based training increases scientific creativity.
  • MSI doesn’t house an active science research program on site, unlike other Chicago museums such as the Adler Planetarium and the Field Museum.
  • The European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft recently awoke after a 31 month hibernation on its way out to analyze a comet.

Is there somebody who you think deserves to be nominated for a Scientist of the Month award by AWIS-Chicago? Please let me know about a deserving individual who “promotes the advancement of women in the fields of science, technology and engineering (STEM).”

Science is coming to Chicago

In a few weeks, the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) will be held here in Chicago. Where else can you learn about Business Models for Biomedical Innovation AND Editing your own Papers at the same conference?

Chicago's skyscrapers reflected on the surface of Cloud Gate (more commonly known as the Bean), an art installation in Millennium Park.
Chicago’s skyscrapers reflected on the surface of Cloud Gate (more commonly known as the Bean), an art installation in Millennium Park. Image courtesy of Phaedra Wilkinson at morgueFile.

I’m thrilled at the breadth of the sessions, perfect for somebody like me who has an interest in many STEM fields. Here are a few of the topics that have me excited:

Science Sessions

Artificial Tissues Engineered to Improve Patient Well-being
Both ends of the age spectrum: Building Babies: Development, Evolution, and Human Health and The Science of Resilient Aging
Inventing New Ways to Understand the Human Brain
Your Genome: To Share or Not to Share?
Optics and Photonics: An International Perspective

Career Development Sessions

AuthorAID session – a project that helps researchers in developing countries write about and publish their work
Scholarly Publishing Innovations and Evolution
Women Poised for Discovery and Innovation

If you’re headed to the conference and would like to meet up, drop me a line. I’d love to hear from you.

Need a science writer to report on AAAS 2014? I’ve got you covered.

Beer and Science: a great pairing

Glasses of beer waiting to be tasted.

Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mary Pellettieri, a renowned sensory analyst for the brewing industry.  She was honored as November’s “Scientist of the Month”  by the Chicago chapter of Association for Women in Science.  You can find the profile article here.

In essence, Mary incorporates science into the beer brewing process.  The resulting beer can be significantly enhanced when brewing is viewed through a scientific lens.

Mary adds a scientific perspective in two major areas: quality control and sensory analysis.  A quality control program sets specifications for the brewing process and determines how well the instruments can measure those specifications.  A sensory analysis program aims to quantify the flavor components in beer.

In doing research for the profile article, I found some really interesting items that didn’t make the published version:

  • There is a Beer Flavor Wheel that sensory analysts and beer judges use to evaluate beers.
  • What is considered a defect flavor in most beers can be an accepted flavor in certain beer styles.
  • Most brewers test monthly (but as frequently as every batch) for contamination with bacteria and wild yeast strains.
  • Beer yeasts are characterized by their flocculation time, the point during fermentation at which the yeast clumps together and sinks to the bottom of the tank.
  • Servers can become a certified Cicerone (pronounced “sis-uh-rohn”) to prove their expertise in selecting and serving beers.
  • Some folks pursue a PhD in hop chemistry.

This list just scratches the surface of the ways science influences beer and brewing.  I was amazed and learned so much while I was talking to Mary and researching her article.

Want to learn more?  MoreBeer, White Labs, and How to Brew provide excellent scientific information for the novice and experienced brewer alike.  Happy brewing, learning, and drinking!

Help increase science funding

It is no surprise to any STEM researcher that grant funding from the US government has changed and, in some fields, has become increasingly difficult to obtain*.  Many researchers feel that the only solution in the current environment is to write more grants.  But that doesn’t change the finite amount of money allocated to spend on research.  One perspective, which was presented during a recent webinar, is that “the best way to increase the grant success rate is to increase the NIH and NSF budgets.”

The webinar, titled “How Federal Funding Affects your Science”, was presented by the Society of Neuroscience.  The speakers presented some enlightening information on the current and historical state of federal funding for STEM research (webinar slides).  There were several key messages that were emphasized.  First, members of the STEM community should interact with their legislators and convey the importance of funding STEM research at higher levels.

  • Write a letter or email
  • Participate in a visit to Capitol Hill
  • Host a laboratory visit by a lawmaker

Another key message was to educate STEM colleagues (faculty, students, industry partners) about advocating for increased STEM funding from the US government.  Insert a slide into your talks or organize a discussion around STEM funding.  Become involved in an organization that supports STEM advocacy.  The Society for Neuroscience has an advocacy arm and there are organizations that exist solely for STEM advocacy, such as Research!America.  Any small action is a positive one to raise awareness and keep the conversation going.

*Here are recent articles by NBC and The Huffington Post that discuss STEM funding.  NIH has posted its own analysis of how the recent federal budget sequestration has impacted research funding.  Many state and local governments, as well as individual institutions, have released public information about the impact of funding cuts to research.

Computer Science: Processing Natural Language, Women’s Involvement

Tenth graders studying computer modeling.

Last week, the Chicago chapter of Association for Women in Science (AWIS) hosted its annual Innovator and Motivator Awards dinner.  Dr. Barbara Di Eugenio and Dr. Lily Rin-Laures were awarded for their leading roles in research and mentoring.

Dr. Di Eugenio was honored for her research on natural language processing.  She is working to improve the way a computer “understands” the spoken and written language.  She gave a great example to illustrate the concept.  Let’s say we are sitting at a dinner table together and I ask “Can you pass the salt?” and, hopefully, you hand me the salt shaker.  What if I ask “Can you run a marathon?”  You (hopefully) wouldn’t get up from the table and go for a jog.  More than likely, you would tell me that you ran a marathon last year.  But, how do you get a computer to understand the difference that we all intuitively grasp?  That’s what Dr. Di Eugenio concentrates her research efforts towards.  She was also the focus of a recent news piece from her institution, the University of Illinois – Chicago.

A thought-provoking comment was made by Dr. Robert Sloan, who nominated Dr. Di Eugenio.  Dr. Sloan, who is the head of the computer science department at UIC, said that women are majoring in computer science at lower rates now than they were 20 years ago.  This comes as a big surprise, considering all of the national attention that has been given to enrolling and retaining women in STEM fields within the last 5-10 years.  Dr. Sloan noted that he hears from companies all over the US looking for computer science graduates.  Good job prospects for that career!  Spread the word.