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Twitter and Science Publications

A couple of days ago a friend of mine, Joshua Drew, posted a link to a preprint of an article of his on PeerJ. It was about the benefit of Twitter to scientists in terms of the lifecycle of a journal article (something I’ve been trying to communicate to academic colleagues for years). While reading, I noted that it would make for a great infographic, and said as much on Facebook. Josh gave me permission to use the data, and off I went! Here’s the finished piece (click to enlarge):


Feel free to share it as you see fit, or contact me to get a larger version, just please don’t remove the information that assigns credit to the authors of the paper and to myself.

#Scio13: The good, the drunk, and the sketchnotes

It’s been almost two weeks since Science Online 2013 kicked off in Raleigh, NC….

You know, I’ve tried ending that sentence a number of different ways, and I hated all of them. There have been several blog posts written over the last ten days that all did great jobs of summarizing the conference. Some were personal, others professional. For me, Scio13 was a perfect mix of the personal and the professional. I hung out with old friends, made new ones, and had insightful conversations (although at times insightfulness transmogrified into contagious joke-telling) with all of them.

As always, Science Online is what you make of it, and this year I turned my attention to the “how” of communication. How do we tell good stories? How can we learn from the narrative styles common in genre writing? And, perhaps most importantly, how do we get people excited about (instead of frightened of) science, and then turn that excitement into social and political change?

I had some epiphanies of my own over the three short days I was in Raleigh, and made my own resolutions regarding how I try to communicate science from now on. But I figure from the same information you will likely reach other conclusions and make different promises to yourself. So, here are the notes I took at Scio13. Feel free to share them with your friends, include them in your own conference roundups, or print them out and frame them (kidding 😉 ):

How do you feel about GMOs?

After a recent surge of interest in a post I wrote a while back concerning the construction of a genetically modified plant, I’m working on a follow up post to address some of the issues surrounding human consumption of these organisms. In order to do a good job, and flex my data analysis muscles, I’d really appreciate it if you could spare 2 minutes of your time to fill answer 9 questions on the topic:

Click here to take survey

I intend to leave the survey open until MIDNIGHT (EDT) on FRIDAY OCTOBER 5th, but will collect data for longer if need be. I will update you here if that is the case.

RoboLobsters to the rescue!

A few weeks ago I was invited to participate in a panel discussing social media for scientists at the University of Rhode Island. It was a fab day, led by the always-engaging Bora Zivkovich, and while the discussion was lively and interesting, my real jaw-hitting-the-floor moment came when my fellow panelist Dan Blustein introduced himself. I shall paraphrase:

“Hi I’m Dan Blustein, a grad student at Northeastern University, and I make robot lobsters.”

And it’s not just for fun. The robotic lobsters and lampreys that Dan and his colleagues work on are an incredible feat of bioengineering. Since I didn’t have much chance to talk to Dan after the panel, I got in touch with him after the fact and asked him a few questions about his work.

Dan working on a RoboLobster
Dan working on a RoboLobster

KP: The lobster and lamprey robots you’re making rely on biomimetic control. As I understand it, these systems rely on analogue rather than digital signals to transmit information much as an animal neuron would. Is that correct?

DB: The neurons that make up the electronic nervous systems that control our robots are not real neurons, they’re just simulated neurons. We’ve made nervous systems with two different types of neurons, one is analogue, the other is digital. The analogue neurons are made up of a series of circuits that calculate equations (we use the Hindmarsh-Rose model). The equations basically describe the dynamics of the ions that flow in and out of a neuron to produce action potentials and other neural signals. These are quite faithful to the biological neuron and they operate in real-time but for large networks of neurons, they take up a lot of space and can produce a lot of heat. We’re working on a VLSI (very-large-scale-integration) implementation to shrink these circuits down to fit large networks in small robot hulls. We also use another neuron simulation called the discrete-time map-based neuron model. The simulation doesn’t mimic everything that happens inside a neuron but it does mimic the types of action potential outputs that biological neurons produce. This is coded digitally and allows us to run large networks that we can quickly modify. We could run the first type of neuron simulation in code but computing the equations is a fairly intensive process so we run into delays on the robots.

One thing that is unique about our robots is how they move. Rather than motors or pneumatics, we use a muscle analog called nitinol that comes in wire form. This material is called a shape memory alloy and when you heat it up it contracts as muscle does. We use this contraction to move joints in our robots. To heat it up we drive pulses of current through the wire, which are driven by the neurons in our electronic nervous systems. The resistance of the wire causes it to heat up which makes it contract. When the pulses stop, the wire relaxes and stops moving the joint. This is how we biomimetically move our robots!

RoboLobsters (Photo credit U.S. Navy/John F. Williams)
RoboLobsters (Photo credit U.S. Navy/John F. Williams)
KP: The technology allows the robot to be autonomous. What has been the biggest challenge in the lab in terms of coordinating environmental sensing and behavioral output?

DB: The robot autonomy we have developed is based on neural networks that describe how an animal reacts to known sensory information in the environment. We run into challenges when the animal/robot is faced with novel environmental conditions. But we try to use this challenge to our advantage as we develop the electronic nervous systems. Let me try to explain. You can get a lobster to walk forward by moving it’s visual world from front to back across its eye (think lobster on a treadmill with moving walls). The bending of a lobster’s antennae will also stimulate forward walking and the lobster will walk upstream into water current. Normally if the lobster’s antennae bend one way, the visual world will move in a specific way and these stimuli are paired under normal conditions. However, in the lab we can subject lobsters and lobster robots to confusing sensory information so these two sensory cues are mismatched. For example, we can move the visual world as if the lobster is walking backwards but keep the water flow coming head on at the lobster as if it were walking forward. We can look at how the lobster reacts to get a sense of how these two sensory systems interact. By comparing that response to our robot we can see if our electronic nervous system is on track or if it needs to be adjusted.

KP: The major application of these robots appears to underwater exploration, both close to shore (RoboLobster) and in the open ocean (RoboLamprey). Are there other applications that you see in their future?

DB: The RoboLobster and RoboLamprey were originally funded for underwater mine detection and were designed to operate in tandem looking for mines on the ocean floor and floating in the water column. We could also see these robots being used for a range of other underwater tasks, including underwater search and surveys, environmental tracking, and the inspection of bridge pylons and dams.

KP: The circuits that you use to build biomimetic robots are modular in nature. Does this mean you can tailor the robots to fulfill specific missions or objectives?

DB: The idea is to build cheap, expendable robots that are easily customizable for a range of missions. If you need an infrared camera for checking leaks in a pipe, we can attach one. If you want your underwater robot to throw an ocean dance party, we’ll attach some flashing lights and a disco ball.

KP: The primary focuses at the Marine Science Center are naturally underwater exploits, but are there terrestrial (or even extraterrestrial) applications for biomimetic robots?

How to make a RoboBee (
How to make a RoboBee (
DB: Technically speaking one can make biomimetic robots for any type of environment in which life is found. Although we don’t have any extraterrestrials yet to mimic for outer space environments, that could change someday. We’re part of a team working on a project to build a robotic bee, a task that presents a range of challenges we don’t deal with underwater.

KP: On a more personal note, what would you like to see these robots accomplish in the near future?

DB: Scientifically I’d like to get to the point where the behavior of our robots is indistinguishable from their animal counterparts. That would mean we’re really getting at how nervous systems work. But really, I’d just like to see a robot animal zoo. It would be a great educational tool and besides, who hasn’t wanted to ride a robot camel at some point?

KP: Riding a RoboCamel would indeed be a dream come true…

If you would like to learn more about the RoboLobster and RoboLamprey project, head over to the lab website, and if you’d like to read more about what Dan does on a day-to-day basis check out his blog and follow him on Twitter @bloostein.

URI Sci Comms Day with Bora Zivkovic

Yesterday AmasianV and I took a little jaunt down to the University of Rhode Island Bay Campus in Narragansett. It was a beautiful day, and after missing the turn off for the building we ended up at a little beach. For a brief second we considered a swim, but decided showing up bedraggled to Bora Zivkovic‘s science communication talk would be a little uncouth.

The purpose of the day was to give science grad students a crash course in online communications. And what a day it was! Sunshine Menezes from the Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting at the URI Graduate School of Oceanography had put together a wonderful program, starting with a public lecture by the Blogfather himself and ending with a panel discussion that included myself, Biochem Belle, and Dan Blustein.

As always, I went armed with a pad of paper and a box of markers and recorded the day sketchnote-style. So rather that recap the day in words, I shall do so in pictures!

@Biochembelle and @AmasianV were also live-tweeting all day using the hashtag #riscweet, and I think there are plans to Storify all the tweets. I will keep you posted! Crowdfunding science gets personal

The last few weeks have seen a lot of discussion about how science and academia have become increasingly disconnected from the lay public. Nature’s Soapbox Science blog started the ball rolling with a series of posts highlighting the problems scientists face when communicating their work through the mainstream media, and showcasing a couple of great examples of effective science outreach.