Category: Projects

Who wants to design a genetics themed card game? Summer positions for UBC students available at my lab.


So, first things first – you have to be a UBC student (undergrad or grad) to be eligible for these (two) positions. As well, I’d be keen to extend the positions beyond the 20 hours per week to a more full time scenario if that works for the successful candidates.

Anyway, the link you need (and you’ll also need to enter via UBC’s CWL system) is:


Full details are as follows:

Title: WL (Work Learn) S14 Science Literacy Lab Assistant

Salary/Wage: $16.10 per hour. Minimum 20 hours per week. Approximately 15 weeks during summer months.

Anticipated Start Date: May 5th, 2014

Contact Details/Employer: Dr. David Ng, Michael Smith Labs – more details about his lab at http://bioteach.ubc.ca

Apply by: Appointment paperwork needs to go in by April 19th, and I’ll definitely want to be interviewing the best candidates – so maybe by around April 11th is best.

Description: The AMBL science education facility within the Michael Smith Laboratories is looking to hire a senior undergraduate student or junior graduate student who is both passionate about biodiversity research and science education. In short, this student will be part of a team tasked to design an educational card game that focuses on a variety of learning objectives aimed to explore the science and genetics of model organisms (i.e. e. coli, yeast, drosophila, xenopus, zebrafish ,mouse).

This will be built around existing trading card culture mechanics from the PHYLO project (http://phylogame.org), and slated to be offered as both a freely accessible online resource, as well as stand alone product for physical printing and distribution within educational contexts.

For this stage of the project, the student hired will have a significant role in both the design, and the play testing of the final card game, which is slated for a late 2015/early 2016 launch.

Qualifications: Life science background (particularly in molecular genetics) is a plus, though not necessary. Interest in societal and historical issues that encompass science and technology topics is beneficial. Given that the project uses a variety of digital avenues for card design and production, comfort around various blogging platforms and graphic design software is also beneficial. Interest in game development, and general engagement with “games” is also a plus.

Learning Outcomes: Students will receive a variety of training on science literacy advocacy, game development, science pedagogy, as well as skills related to use of online tools, and some graphic design.

Students will be asked to work in both collaborative and independent contexts, with frequent meetings to assess needs and progress. Mentorship would likely involve contact with relevant experts in both the science education sector, as well as those in model organism research (many of which can be found at the Michael Smith Laboratories). One of the learning objectives examined in the project, will be to see if these cards can be used in both public school setting (high school in particular), but also whether this resource can play a role in undergraduate teaching as well.

In terms of expanding networks, the Phylo card game project has a number of collaborations in the mix (including those with major natural history museums, such as the American Museum of Natural History, and London’s Natural History Museum). This particular model organism deck will be aligned with the Genetics Society of America.

For further details, please feel free to email me at db at mail dot ubc dot ca. You can also apply via this route (I’ll need your CV and a cover letter).

Game on!


Heading to #scio14: a short to-do list.

Things have been pretty busy of late, but I’m looking forward to heading out to my third Science Online (or Science Online Together) conference.  Like last year, there are a few things on my “to do” list.

If you aren’t already aware, this conference represents one of the best places to network and mingle with like minded science communication, education folks – more so if you have a mind on exploring new projects and new collaborations.  As a personal example, my discussions with folks last year, led to a variety of new projects, most notably this one (on gaming) and this big one (on impressions around science and creativity).  Furthermore, it has led to a number of great new contacts, many of which I now consider colleagues and friends.

Anyway, without further ado.  Here’s my “to do” list below, and do say hello even if the below doesn’t strike your fancy.  I’m always game to geek it up!


 Most pressing of my duties is prepping for my “What is Science Literacy?” session.  This will be held on Thursday at 12pm in room 2B.  (sched link | forum link | #scioscilit).

In brief, the description reads:

This session aims to explore “scientific literacy,” and how this concept can inform science communication efforts. It atempts to address the challenges that come with a term that inherently sounds vague. Part of this is due to the concept itself being always in a state of relentless change – which has a lot to do with differing opinions from academics and on-the-ground experts; as well as the current information ecosystem, with its media challenges, a shifting science culture, and also (unfortunately) because of the subversive activities from the likes of L.P.W.L.T.B.L.’s (loud people who like to be loud), P.W.S.P.O.M.I.’s (people with strong political or monetary interests), and of course, the D.C.D.s (dangerously clueless douchebags). In all, I’m hoping the session will provide a guided outlet for folks to share their opinions and expertise on this topic, and whether such techniques are useful (or not) in a variety of settings (i.e. journalism, education, PR, advocacy, policy).

General plan goes as follows…

12:05 – 12:10 
Short introduction by way of Petcha Kutcha (Yes! this forces me to only spend about 6 minutes on the intro) format. This will essentially be a rapid fire overview of some of the most commonly discussed themes when considering what it means to be scientifically literate (with reference to the secret keyword: “unicorn”).

Note that generally speaking, this usually defers to three areas: (1) knowledge of the scientific process, (2) context driven knowledge of a subset of scientific/technical facts (see session 3D); and (3) appreciation of science culture and how it interacts with other cultural perspectives (see session 2D3A5D).

12:10 – 12:55
Which begs a number of interesting questions that hopefully the audience will engage in (I’ve also tried to link to other sessions that would broach similar themes):

1. As a science communicator, journalist, educator – do you see merit in framing your translation of a science story by way of “increasing scientific literacy?” (Yes – go to 2) (No – go to 3)

2. If you do see merit in this mode of thinking (and even practice it), is there a sweet spot of content delivery that you find works well? (see session 7D9F) In the same vein, what are the inherent challenges associated with finding or being able to deliver this sweet spot (see session 4D). For instance, as it pertains to general media constraints. (Go to 2A)

2A. Is there a particular area of scientific literacy that is missing in general science public discourse? Why is this? How problematic (from, say a civics point of view) is this? Is there a way to circumvent this? (see session 2A3G4G)

3. If you don’t communicate science with a strategic view to “increase scientific literacy”, why not? What might be the detrimental effects of overanalyzing this facet of science content delivery? When is it a useful framework, and when is it unnecessary?

4. How does the literature in PUS (public understanding of science – hands down worse acronym EVER by the way) help you become a better communicator? Or does it even (i.e. PUS* thinking shouldn’t always win)? How does it compare to other tactical devices (for instance psychology of motivation. See session 4E). Are there defined metrics (possibly adapted from PUS* work) that allow analysis of the utility in different scientific communication methods? (see sessions 6A7A)

5. At what point does considering scientific literacy become a stepping stone towards science advocacy? Is this a bad thing? Or, in other words, is it for everyone? Should it be for everyone?

12:55 – 1:00
Wrapping up…

(* told you it is the worst academic acronym ever).

I’ve also prepared a questionnaire form for folks to fill out (if they so desire).  This is to see if we can capture additional, and possibly more thought out responses to the questions brought up in the session.  As a bit of a bait, I’m offering some geeky science game cards as prizes for those who participate (and note, you can fill this out before, after, and even in lieu of attending the session).   Click here for more details and to go to the questionnaire!


 Have any of you heard of the AWESOME FOUNDATION?  This is essentially an ad hoc funding agency, that usually exists city by city.  The basic premise is to find 10 folks who can each contribute $1000 towards a central pot of funding.  This money (a total of $10000), in turn, is then used to provide small grants to fund small projects (where a project application generally needs $1000) – this, of course, is all deliberated by the 10 individuals involved.

I always thought it would be cool to set up a SCIENCE IS AWESOME FOUNDATION where we can do the same thing but with an emphasis on funding science outreach projects.  Anyway, my lab is game to be one of the 10 involved – I might see if there’s general interest in this fun idea within the larger #scio14 community.


  And last but not least… I’m always on the hunt for artistic types to get involved with the Phylo project, as well as natural history museums types that think their institution may want a go at a Phylo deck!  Give me a shout if you want to learn more. (see http://phylogame.org)


So what is this science literacy thing anyway? #scio14

O.K. Just in the preliminary stages of thinking a bit more about how I might want to moderate my session at the upcoming Science Online Together 2014 conference #scio14. For now, I just wanted to make sure I reprint my pitch (from here), so that I have it on popperfont.


“Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about “science literacy. A small part of this is because I’m trying to write a book on this very topic: a bigger part is because I’ve discovered that thinking about such things turns out to be far easier than writing about such things.

Anyway, what I (and many others) have surmised is that the concept of science literacy is very much a moving target. What you think it is, what the general public assumes it to be, and what academics make of it, tends to vary significantly. Benchmarks will differ enormously if you query a scientist, a farmer, an artist, a teacher, or even that family member of yours that can’t help but tune out whenever we science types open our mouths.

Part of the problem is that science literacy always sounds uncomfortably vague, like something you’re pretty sure you’re familiar with, but then on closer examination, realize that maybe you’re not. It’s a bit like asking someone whether they know what a computer is: they’ll always say yes, but ask yourself – do they really? It also doesn’t help that the concept itself is always in a state of relentless change – which has a lot to do with information ecosystems, with media challenges, with shifting science culture, and also (unfortunately) because of the subversive activities from the likes of L.P.W.L.T.B.L.’s (loud people who like to be loud), P.W.S.P.O.M.I.’s (people with strong political or monetary interests), and of course, the D.C.D.s (dangerously clueless douchebags).

And as if this doesn’t already sound a little hopeless, it turns out that plenty of research is suggesting that our biology is not very good at thinking scientifically anyway! So how about a session that digs a little deeper into all of this science literacy stuff? And also what our community tends to think about it? It seems to me something that could be quite interesting, possibly a bit eye opening for some, therapeutic for others, obviously interactive and in the best case scenario, useful overall. Useful, because ultimately, it’s not a bad way to piece together a big picture, and illustrate the nuances involved (it is a moving target afterall), all with a mind to help us understand why and how we might want to communicate science.”

More on this later, but for now – game on!

Keep Calm and Carry A Pipetteman: The T-shirt. #molecularbiology #geekwear


T-shirt now available in honour of my lab’s Molecular Biology 5 day professional workshop (next one held in Vancouver from Feb 17th to 21st, 2014 – more details here). Note that all revenues go towards my lab’s outreach programming, which can be surveyed here.

Anyway, if you’re a scientist in need of a quick refresher in these techniques, or someone in a parallel field and want to learn more about the various methodologies that keep infiltrating your research discipline, then take a peek and consider signing up (or pass along to a colleague).

Also, if you’ve got a friendly neighbourhood bulletin board nearby, it would be AWESOME if you could put this poster (pdf) up somewhere.

T-shirt available for purchase here.

Registration open for next molecular biology workshop. February 17th to 21st, 2014

Via my lab’s website (bioteach.ubc.ca)



Registration is open

To inquire about registration, please contact Dr. David Ng at db@mail.ubc.ca

Dates: February 17th to 21st, 2014 (5 days: Monday to Friday)
Price: CAN$1400 (does not include room or board)

Reviews and testimonies from our last workshop (June 2013)

“Excellent workshop! Very good review of the molecular biology techniques. Dave makes the theory very clear and interesting. Also takes time to answer specific questions/issues regarding personal ongoing projects. The workshop will definitely help for future troubleshooting. Thanks!”
Chantale André, Environment Canada

“Fabulous teacher, well organized, gives a good introduction into the field. I enjoyed it! Thanks!”
Michael Fischer, Department of Chemistry, University of British Columbia.

“I found it to be a nice combination of review and new material. It was well paced, with each day balanced with lecture and hands-on work. Dave does a great job with getting the information across in an easy to understand manner, and was energetic and entertaining to boot.”
Jeremy Johnson, Okanagan Specialty Fruits

“Excellent workshop. Got lots of information. Activities were great. After this workshop, I got a direction for my acquisition of knowledge to proceed in my area of specialization. This workshop has benefited me extremely.”
Poonam Singh, School of Horticulture, Kwantlen Polytechnic University

More testimonials can be found here.


DESCRIPTION: This intense 5 day workshop will focus on a myriad of different techniques used in the molecular manipulation of DNA (general cloning, transformation, silica kits, pI kits, PCR, qPCR), RNA (isolation, reverse transcription) and protein (SDS-PAGE, 2D gels), as well as lectures that will describe some high throughput technologies such as SNP analysis, and next generation sequencing. Primarily aimed at researchers who are new to the area, familiar but require a quick updating, or would like more practical bench training.

PHILOSOPHY: Whilst molecular techniques have evolved at a blindingly fast rate over the last few decades, the underlying biochemical principles behind the vast majority of them have actually changed little. This workshop therefore combines opportunities to perform the latest, as well as commonly used older techniques, with particular attention to the chemical nuts and bolts behind them. In all, this allows the researcher to not only gain needed familiarity with the techniques, but also achieve a comfortable theoretical level to allow for both (1) that all important skill of troubleshooting, and (2) the often undervalued skill of judging the utility of “tricks” that aim to speed up, or lower costs of a given methodology.

NOTE: You can also see our June 2013 editions of our lecture notes, and lab manuallab manual for a frame of reference.

Located in the heart of the UBC campus, the Michael Smith Laboratories is a testament to the vision of its founding Director, Dr. Michael Smith. Under his leadership, a gifted team of young scientists were recruited. These scientists have gone on to develop internationally renowned programs of research and training. The second and third floors of the new building are dedicated to the research facilities of the former Biotechnology Laboratory. The Stewart and Marilyn Blusson Education Forum is located on the ground floor and is open to the public. The molecular techniques workshops are held in the teaching lab, room 105 of this forum.
(click here for detailed directions)

Registration is essentially through first: an email inquiry for space (contact Dr. David Ng at db@mail.ubc.ca), second: a verbal commitment and then third via payment. Your place is essentially secured with payment, which more or less equates to a first come first serve mechanism. This payment would be a CAN$1400 cheque (or equivalent) payable to “The University of British Columbia” and sent to

Dr. David Ng
Michael Smith Laboratories
301-2185 East Mall,
University of British Columbia
Vancouver, BC, CANADA V6T 1Z3

If you prefer us to send an invoice, please let us know and we can arrange that accordingly. Note that we can accommodate a maximum of 16 clients, but on occasion up to half of these spaces are already reserved for predetermined group clients. Therefore, it’s best to put your name down as soon as possible if you are interested in the workshop.

Your spot in the workshop is secured when we receive your payment. The deadline for receipt of payments is 2 weeks prior to the workshop start date. Unfortunately, we are unable to issue any refunds after this deadline has passed.

Workshop will begin each day at 9am sharp and usually end between 4pm and 5:30pm. A detailed final schedule and syllabus will be released to clients as the date draws nearer.

All paper materials will be provided on the first day of the workshop. Downloadable versions will be available about 3 weeks before the workshop begins. Whilst we do not require the clients to “study” these documents, we do ask that clients take a moment to peruse the first day practical materials. All safety gear (including lab coats) is provided at the workshop.

Here are some accommodation options that are basically on campus. Costs involved would vary (I think the most budget option would be the Vancouver Youth Hostel which is about a 15minute bus ride away). The closest would be those of Gage through UBC conferences. The others (except for point grey house) are all a relatively short walk away.

International Youth Hostel at Jericho Beach
UBC accomodations (on campus – note there are only 47 available)
St. John’s College (on campus)
Green College (on campus)
St. Andrew’s Hall (summer only)
Point Grey House (off campus, but only 10 minute bus ride away)

Alternatively, Downtown Vancouver offers a variety of accommodation options, but would entail about a 30-40minute bus ride each way. Depends on your preference since the Campus is pretty quiet at night time, whereas other areas would be more interesting. Go to www.expedia.ca, and select:

hotel > near an attraction/vancouver > type in “University of British Columbia”

Usually the out of town clients make use of a little extra time after or before the workshop in visiting some of the sights Vancouver has to offer. I often strongly recommend this since the city and surrounding locale are really quite spectacular. In particular Whistler-Blackcomb is a world famous ski/outdoor resort, and is only a 2 hour drive away. Ski season usually opens in mid November (click here for more info)

You know it’s all good, when you have to read Wookiee research papers. Wookienomics: it’s a thing… #starwars


Note: eventually, some of these (I suspect) will be published in full at the Science Creative Quarterly.

Announcing the “Voyage of the Beagle” trading card game. Plus a call for some crowdsourced goodness!

The Phylo project is hard at work on preparing the next high quality Phylomon* deck, and this one will revolve around Charles Darwin and his wonderful 5 year voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle.  

At this point in time, we’ve enlisted the help of noted Darwinian aficionado, Karen James, who has nicely narrowed down the list of cards that are needed for this endeavour (see original google doc here). In turn, I have a group of folks in the backend of the phylo website, who have produced a number of nice looking “beta” cards that can be used to test things out (they used images from vintage natural history prints, many of which were actually produced by folks on the voyage itself – i.e. John Gould for example).

These “beta” cards can be found on the phylogame website, but we’ve also produced a handy dandy 10 page pdf of the putative deck for easy printing and cutting (click on the image below to download – 11.5Mb pdf). Note, the rules for the game can be downloaded here.


Click on the cards to download the beta deck pdf (11.5Mb)

That being said, because this is a crowdsourced project, we would love to hear comments from anyone interested, and with that community incentive in mind, here is a list of things to consider:

1. The next two weeks, I’m hoping that some folks out there in the world wide web will print out this “beta” Darwin card set and give it a try: this way, we can finalize what the deck list needs to be. The reason why there is a time crunch on this, is that this finalized list will allow us to start the process of seeking out and commissioning artists for the production of lovely card art.


Click on the cards to download the beta deck pdf (11.5Mb)

2. The species used are all species observed and noted during that fateful voyage. For now, they’ve been grouped according to certain legs of the trip (kind of by geography if you will). This was mainly because the actual sea voyage had a lot of going back and forth, so Karen thought that going with a temporal theme would be too tricky. Here you’ll note that the geography categorization is mentioned in the card text (i.e. “Galapagos to Auckland), but we’ve also coordinated the background colours of the cards themselves, to make this easier to see (some cards have a reddish background, some brownish, etc).


Click on the cards to download the beta deck pdf (11.5Mb)

3. With the geographical mode of categorization, and because the H.M.S. Beagle itself traversed a significant part of the globe, it turns out that when one plays this game, there will often be cases where an organism can be played adjacent to another where the compatibility rules work, but that they would never actually be in the same part of the world (i.e. technically, some connections would not be grounded in reality, as usually decks are organized around locality unlike this one). Here, players will need to make a judgement call on how important this is. In other words, I’d like to hear people’s opinions on what they think about this. We think the cards can still be played in a scientifically literate manner (i.e. using the background card colour to help guide these more “real” connections), but that being overly strict will likely make the game much more finicky. Perhaps there are options out there where the scientifically literate connections (i.e. via background card colours) are worth more points, or are immune from event cards, etc. We’d love to hear your thoughts.

4. The current list of “Event Cards” were pretty hastily made and largely influenced by availability of cool vintage paintings. Since the final deck will involve art commissions, we’re actually a lot more free to come up with much more clever event cards. Would love to hear more ideas here.


Click on the cards to download the beta deck pdf (11.5Mb)

5. And since we’re asking for help generally, there is also a much bigger challenge at stake. Karen and I are very intrigued by the idea of tweaks to the current rules that allow folks to follow the voyage in a “temporal” manner. i.e. the possibility of “history cards.” Mostly, event cards change the food chain connections, or alter the game play where someone has a logistical advantage or disadvantage (i.e. The pdf you’ve been provided with is pretty much the usual ecosystem type building game, which we know works pretty well). With the possibility of “history cards” we want to see if there are elements to the game that can illustrate things in a time dependant (i.e. historical) manner. This is actually why the pdf has a number of blank cards. These have been included in case anyone out there has a cool idea they want to test out, since we currently have no idea what this might look like, or know how doable it is. Furthermore, we’re not even sure if it’s something we want to try to sort out now, or perhaps later with the release of Darwin themed expansion packs (i.e. no rush to do this, but super mega bonus points if someone does have a go).

Anyway, for folks who do help out, please leave commentary somewhere for us to find (if not in comments sections, then maybe at the forum, or via email – db at mail dot ubc dot ca). Anybody who comes up with some excellent suggestions/commentary will be eligible to receive the Darwin deck when all is said and done (and also the Beaty Deck as well). Note if the contribution is outstanding, we’ll also make sure you’ll be properly attributed in the final version of the deck itself.

Game on!

Digging into Phylo, a Science-Based, Crowd-sourced Trading Card Game: An Interview with some dude.

O.K. technically, that dude is me, and this is about the Phylo project.

Anyway, this was an interview that I did with Barry Joseph, the Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives, at the American Museum of Natural History. Essentially, we’ve been chatting with each other on a collaboration between the Phylo project and the museum, that will involve pterosaurs (yes, that’s right! These things!).

The interview also works well as a pretty thorough overview of some of the things the project aspires to achieve.  Read on…

- – -

David, How did you ever wind-up leading an on-line, crowd-sourced game development project to teach science?

I head a science literacy lab at the University of British Columbia where one of my principle interests is looking at science from interdisciplinary as well as creative perspectives. The Phylo project has a lot of that so it definitely makes sense for my lab to engage in this sort of stuff. Plus, it’s just kind of an awesome idea.  As for specifics? Well… it all started because of a bit of serendipity really.

I was aware of Andrew Balmford’s paper which compared children’s knowledge of Pokemon to their knowledge of wildlife, and even used this research every now and then as an interesting (and disturbing) factoid in class. At the same time, my lab was also hosting an online science publication called the Science Creative Quarterly, and as a result was enjoying a fair bit of online clout. With that web reach, I started wondering if the act of creating a biodiversity trading card culture would be best achieved by relying on online crowdsourcing, especially given the multidisciplinary nature of the task at hand. Anyway, this led to checking up with Andrew for permissions to “have a go” and the rest, as they say, is history.


1. Here was the initial design for what the cards could look like (January 2010)

Are you a gamer?

At the beginning, I didn’t necessarily consider myself a “gamer”, but the project has been interesting for so many different reasons that now I do. It turns out that many elements of gaming fit really nicely with my lab’s interests. One of these days, I’d like to look formally at being more involved in research around games.

So how is the game played?

Let’s see… Basically, it’s a trading card game (TCG) that also happens to be freely available. Just go to phylogame.org, and you can download a starter deck to print out and you and a friend can start playing. You can also build your own decks, because the website has been designed to allow you to choose other cards (about 500 are available to date). In many respects, this is similar to other TCG systems, except the collectability element is different (you print your own, as oppose to buying packs).

In terms of “how” it is played, maybe the best way to describe it, is to say that it is played a little like dominos. In other words, the game is played by placing species cards on the table and adjacent to each other based on whether a “match” occurs.  Unlike dominos, Phylo cards can be connected in four directions (the four sides of the cards) instead of the two ends of a domino piece; and the “match” is achieved by a card having at least one connection to another card with the right habitat (terrain and climate) as well as right energy source (i.e. what it needs to eat or get its energy from). By relying on this, you essentially create a sprawling network of cards that represent various food chains – kind of like an ecosystem.

This is how you get points – the larger your networks, a.k.a the more cards you can place on the table, the more points you get. The other element, however, is that there are cards that can modify your opponents’ food chains. The most common example is an “event card”. For example, a “wildfire” card might remove one of your opponents plant card; there’s obviously a loss of points due to the removal of the card, but depending on how strategic this is played, the opponent may now also have an herbivore card with nothing to eat, which in turn could be a problem for the carnivore that relied on that herbivore, and so on.  In effect, there could be downstream consequences to this one action which: (1) demonstrates the importance of keystone species, or the strength in redundancies; and (2) illustrates some of the strategic elements of the game itself.


2. This is, more or less, how the cards appear in their free online format (April 2010)

Since Phylo was launched, what are some of the activities around it that have interested you the most?

This is where things have been really cool, and also totally unexpected. I have to admit that I find this project a bit surreal at times! I would say that our initial goal has been more or less accomplished. In other words, we have figured out a way for sustainable production of freely accessible new cards that appear on the website, and that these cards can be used in enjoyable and educational ways. This seems to be working, although the rate of new cards is a bit sporadic, they’re still appearing so that there’s usually something new to see every week or so.

But now one of the most promising aspects of the project concerns the production of high quality cards or high quality decks.  In this case, we had a general sense that the “print your own” cards were pretty cool, and even potentially useful (from an educational point of view), but members of the community kept saying that whilst the cards are great, at the end of the day they’re only as good as the printer you use to print them. As a result of this kind of commentary, we had ideas sprout around the possibility of “hosts” sponsoring decks, which in turn could be sold, and therefore could push the production values of the project to a higher level.

The exciting thing here is that if this works, then we have a mechanism that further adds new phylo cards, and allows the purchase of high quality cards (where hosts can also control things like rarity).  Not only that, this system sets up a way for artists to be paid fairly, as well as provides a mechanism for fund raising for the host involved. Basically, it seemed like a win win situation!

The only issue, of course, is that there is an initial investment in making the deck (usually by way of the art commissions). This is why my lab has been active in providing these small grants – i.e. we’ll take that initial risk, at least until we have some data on how the cards perform (so as to make it more likely for groups to front that funding themselves). The ultimate goal here (and this would be so AWESOME) is to consider the question: what if every natural history museum decides to host a deck? What if environmental NGOs want to host a deck?  What if wildlife artists want to host a deck?  What if scientific groups or organizations want to host a deck? As you can see, it sets up an opportunity where the immensity of biodiversity can truly be reflected by thousands (if not more) cards!


3. How they can look when a host undertakes the production of a “high quality” deck. This one is from Vancouver’s Beaty Museum (July 2013)

And the diversity of the games to be played increases as well.

Right! This “hosted” deck idea has now resulted in the design of additional elements that can make the game part more interesting, or at least explore a different facet of biodiversity (not just the main ecosystem building idea). For example, we’re working on a Darwin themed deck right now, and the question there is: how do we incorporate historical elements? We’re also working on a deck that showcases chemicals derived from botanical species, and so that team is asking: how do we introduce that notion, and still make it work with the general game? A dinosaur deck could tackle the question of extinct creatures, or organisms that have a very specific temporal factor involved.

Then, there are deck ideas that are less about environmental literacy, but more about using biodiversity as a general source of inspiration, and these decks are different because of some logistic involved. For instance, how would a fancy deck look if the art was produced by children? What about a deck that tries to link species with a famous animal protagonist in works of literature? What if a deck was hosted by a publishing house known for having animals on its covers? How about a deck supported by a biotech firm whose products are predominantly derived from certain organisms? It’s kind of crazy, but my point here is that the fluid nature of the project is resulting in all sorts of different ideas surfacing. Not the least of which is an idea being pursued by the Amercian Museum of Natural History – i.e. what if a host decides to host a children’s workshop that is charged with designing a deck, so that the final deck is actually only a small bookend to a rich educational experience?

What does it cost for an institution to have to consider making their own Trading Card Game?

Essentially, the grants I’ve been offering are usually around the $5000 mark. This entails art commissions for 25 pieces at $200 each. It’s hard to say how long a deck will take to make, because it depends a lot on existing factors.

- Does the institution already have deep knowledge on what that deck makeup will be, or will it take a long time to research what that list of 25 cards will be?

- Will the deck be a conventional ecosystem game (we have some basic pointers on what the cards should be to make it work relatively well), or will it highlight something a bit novel (in which case, a new mechanic may need to be looked at)?

- Does the institution already have an existing collection of art, or an in house art department where the procurement of graphics is relatively straight forward?

- How does the institution plan on distributing the deck?

- Does this include a mechanism to generate revenue, in which case legality tends to be more complex and involve other departments in the museum?

And so on.

Regardless of the specifics, my lab is there to help in any way possible – usually this includes volunteering to playtest the species list to see how it works (we do this with undergrads, but also with kids coming through my lab for various events/activities). So far, we have two (almost three) fancy decks ready – one took over a year, whilst the other took about 3 months. The third took about 6 months, but involved an art competition element as well.  Also note, that another option is to work on “booster sets” instead of full starter deck – i.e. let’s make a small set of cards that can be added to the system for extra gaming flavour, primarily to tackle specific outreach or learning objectives.

It is hard enough to design a game that is fun, but you also want a game that can teach science. How do you know if the game is having an effect as an educational tool?

This is a key question. For a while, I’ve been aware (anecdotally) that folks (young and old) think that the project is pretty “cool.” However, I really have no idea how “useful” it is – are people actually learning stuff when they play, and maybe more importantly, are they learning it better than other means? This would be very interesting information to have.

Consequently, my lab is also keen to embed the project more fully into the educational spheres. This was actually why the DIY card section was added about a year ago – it opened up a possibility of decks being prepared by anyone with access (say a teacher or students in a class), which in turns provided the option of “classroom decks.” We’ve piloted a few of these, with much success, but I should add that this again is anecdotal success. I’m hoping in the next year or two to court a collaboration where we can have some proper research done on this matter. I even have a small pocket of funding to help this facet along if any readers are interested (say education graduate students looking for an interesting project).


A sampling of some of amazing DIY cards produced by children.

You are not a game designer, and most museums don’t have one on staff. So how are the games getting “balanced” so they are both engaging to play and educational?

I think the project is doing a pretty good job on making sure the game is fun to play. This is attributed to the passion of the gaming community who really picked apart the game mechanics, especially in the early stages of the project. As an example of how immersed they were with the project, a week after the first rules were posted someone then went on to post a ten page critique, saying how those rules were flawed. He did this by outlining an unbeatable deck!

From there, the rules have been playtested extensively at gaming conference, scifi conferences, etc., until we arrived at the version of rules that we currently ship with the fancy decks. I guess this is the beauty of crowdsourcing, especially when there is also the luxury of having a project that is not so business minded, but more idea driven – we didn’t need a perfect game right from the start, but we have managed to create a pretty awesome set of rules over the course of the project. In terms of balancing the educational piece, it would appear to have some educational value as teachers tend to like it, and the kids in class as well, but as mentioned above, the scientist in me is deferring this question by saying that technically we don’t have any strong evidence for this yet (although I would love to find out).

Are decks interchangeable?

Ideally, yes. This should work. The common factor is the existence of species cards, and they’re marked with some pretty basic information (size, habitat, what it eats, some phylogeny info, etc). This is what makes the project very flexible – it’s like you have this potential for all sorts of “expansion packs” or “booster decks” (if I can stick with trading card vernacular!)

When the real world is simulated within a game, decisions have to be made. How does Phylo balance game play versus the reality behind the scientific content?

This is another good question, and there are two issues that have come up with Phylo. First is at a very philosophical level: How important is it to be scientifically literate all the time? This question can take the form of “Can the art be cartoony?” “What about a game where someone has figured out how to combine Phylo cards with Pokemon cards?” For this angle, we’ve decided to be accepting of pretty much anything as long as it doesn’t overtly try to pass pseudoscience off as real science. I think we can do this, because as mentioned before, this isn’t a business proposition where we’re tied to focusing our efforts on one strategic possibility. Still this acceptance of breadth is challenging for different reasons: For instance, because the project is from crowdsourced activity, we need to have enough people to participate so that all levels of scientific literacy can be entertained. In other words, if we have a big enough community involved, then maybe we can have groups focused on a cartoony deck, but also have another group working on the photo (ultra realistic) deck too.

Then, there is scientific literacy issues simply due to trying to translate the whole of biodiversity into a game mechanic. In short, this isn’t easy because a game mechanic thrives on simple intuitive rules. Unfortunately, biodiversity is anything but simple, and often it’s actually very complex. As a result, the rules focus on very simple attributes of the organism (it’s name, what habitat it likes, where it gets its energy from, and whether it can move). Still, even with these simple parameters in place, there are occasions where things can happen “in the game” that would never happen “in real life.” For example, according to the rules of the game, a polar bear card might feed on a penguin card. Biologically, this is actually doable, but in the real world they are found in different parts of the planet.

Because of things like this, there exist small “hacks” in the rules: for instance, the “call your bluff” rule. Here, if the rules say it is okay (to play a card), but the reality would suggest that such a thing would never happen (like the Polar Bear example), then you can do a Scrabble-like “calling it” mechanic where the validity of the card placement can be tested. In our deck with the Beaty Museum, a handy dandy food chain connection chart is available for this very purpose.


What does that mean that you crowdsourced Phylo? What does that look like, and why did you take that route?

I’ve thought a lot about crowdsourcing over the last two years (I’ve even given the odd talk on the subject: Things I Learnt from my (Unscientific) Experiences with Crowdsourcing). Crowdsourcing, technically, is a term that describes a kind of outsourcing of tasks, where informal, undefined groups of people participate, and usually with incentives that are outside of traditional means (for instance, payment, accreditation). In other words, it’s a way to galvanize a community (or many communities) towards a project that they simply believe in, and in doing so, you hope the community is large enough that many small acts of contribution can lead to a greater whole.

For this project, crowdsourcing was utilized primarily for pragmatic reasons. To create an amazing biodiversity trading card culture under conventional conditions would simply be an intensive, all consuming, cost-prohibitive, and frankly unrealistic endeavour for a small lab. It would require expertise from many different areas, including biodiversity science, visual art, gaming, website design, computer programming, and education. As well, hindsight has told me that help also came from unexpected and unforeseen areas: folks knowledgeable in publishing, intellectual property, and museum culture have really stepped up and contributed significantly.

So crowdsourcing was a low stakes way of “having a go.”

That sounds great but there must be problems with crowdsourcing, no?

Yes, lots. A big one is uptake. By definition you need “groups” of people to participate. The larger the group the greater your reach and potential contact with the skill sets you need. But getting this reach isn’t a sure thing. We had help, in that we had the relatively good traffic of the Science Creative Quarterly on our side. Just as important, the SCQ afforded us strong connections with the rest of the science blogging community at large. In particular, we had a strong support from Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing, and he promoted the project during its early stages. It’s hard to second guess, but I think having this initial digital influence on our side was very important, at least for getting the ball rolling.

Another example is the exploration of cards in high quality form – in other words, the whole angle where art can be commissioned (as opposed to relying on donations) towards the production of a purchasable physical deck. The ideation for this was strategized by the community, but actually getting it to go required a champion (a host, say a museum or other group, that would be interested in creating their own special deck) to invest in the art commissions. In the end, my lab decided to step in, and see if we can offer grants to pilot this possibility. The intent here is to see how this might work with less risk to the participant given that my lab will front the funding. This works for the project, because this type of funding is realistic for my small lab, and also worth it because we hope to gain data on the relative merits or dangers of such an investment. The end effect is to assess whether future hosts might feel confident that their own investment is worth it afterall. If it is, then this is where the project might explode with many new independent decks appearing.

One final example I can offer about the disadvantages of crowdsourcing is that because your incentives are less formal, you don’t really have a lot of control over outcomes. For instance, there might be something that just needs to be done, and it isn’t necessarily onerous from a time or resource perspective, but for whatever reason it doesn’t strike a chord with anyone in the community. Editing the write up for the rules comes to mind with this issue – it’s been made clear that this is not easy to do well (the writing of the rules always sound way more complicated than when you play the game itself), and I still think the written rules continue to need more work done.

Finally, in terms of crowdsourcing nuances, I should point out that there was a lot of activity at the beginning, when things were being sorted out and developed. There’s definitely less action these days from a crowdsourcing perspective, if monitoring the forums are any indication. A lot of the newer directions tend to be host deck specific, but I think that makes a lot of sense – the main nuts and bolts of the project seem to have been worked out. Nowadays, efforts are primarily revolved around one high quality deck at a time.


DIY beta deck preparation for a Darwin themed “Voyage of the Beagle” set. More on this later, but you can take a gander by checking out the testing cards at phylogame.org/tag/voyageofthebeagle

The gist of some new research directions. On impressions around science and creativity, and the space between them.

This is just a heads up that my lab will be “having a go” at some new research queries. Specifically, one that examines the interspace between impressions of “science” and impressions of “creativity.” In fact, tonight I’m heading to Calgary to meet up with Marie-Claire Shanahan and take a crack at the first draft of the grant proposal. In the meantime, however, you can stay in the loop with our progress at our open research blog. Below is a quick (grant-speak-ish) write up of what we hope to do.

Science is a creative endeavor. This is obvious to many who actively participate in scientific research as they see their work as a continuum of creation, whether it leads to product or discovery. Similarly, the notion that science is creative is also obvious when viewed under the lens of those who study “creativity,” a term that is rich with diverse interpretations but often abridged as “the ability to create work that is both novel and appropriate” (Sternberg and Lubart, 1999). Despite this clear agreement, public perceptions around science, including those perpetuated in classroom settings, almost universally exclude the role of creativity (Braund, 1999). As a result, this detachment leads individuals away from an authentic view of science, which not only creates false impressions, but could also lead to a loss of scientific identity (where one considers “who we think we must be to engage in science”, Calabrese Barton, 1998, p. 379). This, in turn, could culminate in an unintended estrangement.

Under this context, this research will aim to explore notions and impressions of both authentic science and creativity, and the effect of science educational programming that actively promotes their connection. Here, the aim is to build research queries around the activities of a science education lab that: (a) operates within, and therefore has unparalleled access to, a highly regarded multidisciplinary scientific research unit – the Michael Smith Laboratories at the University of British Columbia; and (b) has already shown an inclination towards programming that relies on collaborations between scientific and artistic communities. Given that this programming also extends over a variety of school grade levels (elementary and secondary), takes place in a state of the art genetics research (authentic) space, involves participant numbers in the 1000s, and is malleable towards specific research interests; this collaboration and this research is viewed as an unprecedented opportunity to delineate the effect of the science and creativity disconnect in public perception.

Since, we’ve set this up as an open blog and all, we’d love to hear what people think. Check it out here.

Vancouver folk take note: The Beaty Biodiversity Museum @phylomon deck is available for purchase (and they look AWESOME!)

In case, you’re new to Phylo, it’s basically a crowdsourced art, science, education and gaming project that revolves around the unfortunate reality of children knowing WAY more about Pokemon than they do about the flora and fauna around them. This, of course, is problematic since one might suggest that it’s not a bad thing for children to want to know a little more about the real environment around them (a more detailed description of the project can be found here). Up to now, the Phylo project has been largely about collecting and playing with a continually pool of very cool and free print-your-own cards.

But now, I’m happy to announce, we finally have our first high quality deck, available for purchase!


So let me introduce the (DUM DUM DUM!) Beaty Biodiversity Deck, currently available at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum gift shop*. It’s on sale for limited time (10% off from $12.99, until September 1st), so if you live in the neighbourhood and want to pick up one of the first available sets, head on over to the museum!

This is the first purchasable deck, but stay tuned as we have a few more slated to be released in the near future. For now, here are some close ups of the Beaty cards!

Art Lindsay Chetek, Kyu HwangBrandy Masch, Kyle McQueen, Victoria Heryet , Derek Tan, and Alexandria Neonakis.

*The museum is also working on making the deck available for online purchasing, so check out this link for more information!

Happy Arbor Day! Here are some Phylo tree cards!

From Wikipedia:

“Arbor Day (from the Latin arbor, meaning tree) is a holiday in which individuals and groups are encouraged to plant and care for trees. It originated in Nebraska City, Nebraska, United States by J. Sterling Morton. The first Arbor Day was held on April 10, 1872 and an estimated one million trees were planted that day. Many countries now observe a similar holiday. Though usually observed in the spring, the date varies, depending on climate and suitable planting season.”


Download the cards here (scroll to bottom of post).

MOLECULAR BIOLOGY WORKSHOP! (June 10th to 14th, 2013 University of British Columbia, Vancouver)


Sharing this among your science minded set would be GREATLY appreciated. Every extra client means being able to deliver more (free) science outreach programming for kids.

Once again, my lab is pleased to offer our popular Molecular Biology Workshops for those who wish to get quick, professional, theoretical, practical (and enjoyable) training in the fine science of molecular techniques. Our next one is scheduled for June 10th to 14th at the University of British Columbia, in beautiful Vancouver. Although, this workshop is primarily designed for the professional life science researcher (graduate students, post-docs, faculty, industry, etc), we’ve also had great reviews from folks in fields as diverse as education, journalism, economics, politics, law, engineering, and computer science.

Cost is $1400 (discounts for group rates) for the 5 day workshop, where all funds go toward our various outreach activities. These include a menu of different field trip programs, our online projects (such as Phylomon), as well as our university undergraduate initiatives – more details about our outreach programs can be found at bioteach.ubc.ca. Note that we keep all of these initiatives free for the schools and general public!

Full details about the workshop can be found here.

This piece is called “Even the air and the water obey (the Laws of Thermodynamics). Part 1″ #hotartcard

Thinking of entering my own art at the upcoming #hotartcard event. Although to be honest, I’m more of a “I only draw/paint because my walls look a bit empty, and I’m actually a scientist, so feel a little funny calling myself an artist” kind of artist.


Even the air and the water obey (the Laws of Thermodynamics). Part 1
(pastels and charcoal)

On Inflatable Pools, #scio13, and the Messy Business of Preaching Science Outside the Choir.

Note that this essay is in regards to this.


The session began with a bit about inflatable pools: although here, a little context might help.

In the summer of 2009, my hometown of Vancouver experienced a small heat wave. It got very hot and humid, unbearable even, and not surprisingly my two young kids (Hannah and Ben) were quite miserable. Consequently, to led to the very popular idea of getting an inflatable pool for our backyard, which to all intents and purposes, appeared to be a genius move. And so before we knew it, we were suddenly on the hunt.

This naturally led us to a local toy store, where lo and behold, marketing geniuses that they are, the store had conveniently placed all of their pools front and centre. Here, we were confronted with the pool that you see in the picture above (on the left).

It looked, quite frankly, awesome, and, if you can believe it, it was also priced at only thirty dollars. Needless to say, we bought it immediately and full of excitement, took it home to set up. It was here that something odd happened. In essence, when the pool was inflated, it looked a little different from the box (see image on right).

Of course, being a scientist and all, my rational mind was racing and trying its hardest to come up with hypotheses that could explain what was going on. Why did the pool look so tiny?

Did I not blow hard enough and inflate it properly?

Was the photograph on the box taken in a land of small hobbit-like people?

Were my children, unbeknownst to me, massive?

It was all very bizarre, but at the end of the day, the explanation was quite simple. Apparently, in the world of advertising, it is permissible to use misleading images so long as there was some presence of text that exposed the reality of the product. For instance, the object’s dimensions are clearly printed on the box, or a statement such as “object in box may not be as appears” is included.

For our session at Science Online 2013, this silly anecdote served as a sort of meta-example of what we were hoping to talk about: That is, how do we talk science to folks who don’t necessarily care about science? How do we preach outside the proverbial choir, or go “beyond the choir,” or delve into things that are praeterchoral if you will. And perhaps more importantly, what are the tensions associated with trying to do this? Should there be important things to consider, say for the public good? And do such things even work (or how would we even know)? In effect, the two images represent the “truth,” and how the “truth” might come across when communicated. They are meant to represent a literate form of science communication, and a form that is not quite accurate but might be easier for the general public to engage in. In other words, we were wondering whether there is a cost to translating science in this way.

Looking at the two inflatable pool images, I can think of a number of potential problems. For instance, when using more creative methods, perhaps one will inadvertently dilute, distort, or even get the “truth” or the science wrong. Or maybe it’s not even a case of being scientifically sloppy, but rather one paints a slanted version of science culture by consistently focusing on the stuff that is deem interesting, strange, entertaining, or dramatic – we leave out the boring bits, which arguably present a more accurate portrait of science. As well, a lot of the science used to capture interest, might not be the sort of science that is quote-unquote “important,” or at least important in terms of civics and public good (yes, a narrative about an inflatable pool is charming, but shouldn’t we talk about climate change or gun control for instance?) Even worse, maybe in my zeal to be entertaining, funny, and/or quirky (never mind finding a way to show off my kids), I actually created a situation where clarity was lost in the discussion.

All to say that the act of preaching outside the choir has many nuances. Certainly enough to warrant an extensive list of things to think about: a list that Gertrude Stein might even approve of. Which was why Tom (@TomLevenson) provided a tour of such a list of considerations, prefaced by the dying words of Stein and made all the more pertinent because it was quite likely that the inflatable pool meta-example had failed (which you could say was sneakily deliberate – a meta-meta-example? – or a consequence of my not getting enough sleep and perhaps being too glib and overconfident in my ad-libbing speaking skills*)

In any event, this list (which can be seen in full here) was aimed at provoking the audience and included important questions such as: “Should we first ask: why do we want to engage such audiences (the uninterested)?”, “Where do notions of Civic Duty/Need (Proselytizing!) and/or Self-interest fit in?”, and “Does entertainment even work?” And in the end, this dialogue culminated in three simple queries: WHY, WHO and HOW?

Which worked well, because the audience took to the list and responded in wonderful and thoughtful ways. In particular, the discussion appeared to categorize itself into three particular trends.

Firstly, many of the comments showcased intriguing examples that took advantage of an unconventional pairing – for instance, the case presented by Chad Orzel (@orzelc) of connecting a narrative between the National Football League and the neuroscience of concussion effects. Along similar lines, there were also many examples where some facet of art was combined with the act of translating science. This included discussions around the use of aesthetics in artwork, comics, animation, video, or the importance of theatrical elements or story telling as a form of engaging narrative (@Indrevis, @BenLillie, @Beatricebiology). In particular, I remember Jennifer Ouellette (@JenLucPiquant) describing some of the mandates around her role as Director of The Science and Entertainment Exchange. This was great stuff, and really this should all be archived somewhere someday (maybe here even?).

As well, there was a category of stirring conversations which tended to be the ones that considered the motivations involved – as in, why do the people in the room do what they do. Here, we heard many comments around the simple idea of sharing one’s passion, and to hope that in doing this, one will engage someone to look a little deeper. Or better yet, a science communicator who wants to move outside the classroom mentality is doing this because they are, in effect, saying that “this is my view of science culture and I think that you might find it interesting too…” In other words, it’s not necessarily about being strategic or attempting to fix science literacy issues en mass but simply doing your part, in the context of whatever reach you can muster. I quite like this sentiment, especially when expressed with eloquence and passion by individuals like Danielle Lee (@DNLee5) and Annalee Newitz (@Annaleen). It feels right and, if I can be honest, it’s also downright inspiring.

Except that none of it feels very scientific, which presents a delicious sort of irony and also our third and final stream of commentary. More to the point, this discussion addressed whether any of our preaching outside the choir was actually working. Are our efforts for naught, or are we, as a roomful of passionate science communicators, actually changing societal impressions, views, and opinions around science? Anecdotally, yes, but can we call ourselves successful when applying a more rigorous scientific rubric.

This, to me, is an important question, but it’s also a question that might not have easy answers. In fact, Ben Lillie (@BenLillie) very nicely expressed this conundrum, so much so as to suggest that maybe it’s not something that can be measured – and I think there’s some merit to this train of thought. How do we evaluate such things, this talking science to the uninterested, and in any case, how confident would we be with this evaluation, knowing that it is likely a caveat laden process? It reminds me a little of a recent chat I had with a theatre academic – he told me his colleagues were constantly wrestling with the following question – “how exactly does one measure the value of art?

Still, that doesn’t make it a pointless question, and certainly not one that shouldn’t be explored. Indeed, Science Online was wonderful because others were interested in this challenge, and I’ve even managed to embark upon a research initiative with Marie-Claire Shannahan** (@mcshanahan) to hopefully capture a glimpse of what an answer might look like. It’s funny: This science communication business is all a little mysterious when you think about it, but upon reflection, I find it comforting to realize that this isn’t so different from the awesomeness of science itself.

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* It was the latter by the way. This is why theatre is always workshopped, and I should’ve known better!

** More on this later. For now, we have both agreed to present this research process in a completely open manner. Right now, we’re stuck on the name of the blog where we would real-time share our discussions, processes and results.

Graphic for our upcoming #scio13 session: “Opening doors: Science communication for those that don’t care/don’t like science.”


You can find out more at this link.

In which I share the stage with Han Solo and introduce a networking game.

Recorded from TEDxTerryTalks 2012. But basically any excuse to introduce a little Chewbacca into the proceedings and I’ll take it.

Making cloud chambers for elementary school kids (and anyone else who would appreciate epic DIY science).

In about a week from now, my lab’s Science Creative Literacy Symposia fieldtrip will begin a new season in earnest. Here, I’ve got a great mix of science grad students, and creative writing MFA’s coming together to design fieldtrips, all in an attempt to highlight the fact that mixing science with creative writing isn’t such a strange thing after all.

The first session will host a Grade 5/6 class, where kids will explore the basic theme of “invisible things.” To do this, the science experiment that has been lined up involves making a DIY cloud chamber – fully capable of picking up contrails from the activity of sub-atomic particles (I know… so awesome!).

I think this is just about the perfect sort of thing to broach the subject of things that are “invisible,” and as a nice touch, I believe the grad students may go about this fieldtrip without giving the kids a heads up on what they might see (i.e. they’re aiming for that wonderful feeling of surprise and elation with discovering something unexpected – “Whoa! What was that!”).

The methodology, itself, can be found in various places on the net, but this here below is a really nicely done YouTube video on the matter, which we’ve used as the basic template.

Still, like a lot of things on YouTube, there are often details that are missing which may actually be quite important. More so, if the intent is to get a class of 11 year olds to make 12 of these things that have to work in a somewhat reliable and safe fashion.

Anyway, apart from a dark room, here are the basic supplies needed:

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There’s a couple key things that I can point out here. Firstly, the tin foil pie plate is essentially the base that will be made cold (with the dry ice), so as to create a temperature gradient, which in turn is responsible for producing an isopropanol cloud. As such, there’s a few important things it needs:

1. You need isopropanol, which is actually quite easy to get (look for the 99% rubbing alcohol in your local pharmacy). Dry ice on the other hand is sometimes tricky to get (in Canada for instance, there are official rules for its transportation).

2. It needs to be of a colour that allows you to see an isopropanol droplet cloud easily. Most videos seem to suggest something with a black surface, but this isn’t always easy to find, and possibly expensive if you need 12 of them. We’ve tried pie plates that were silver/grey (usually the most common) and red in colour (red was really difficult to observe), but the tin foil variety actually worked really well. This seems partly because it’s able to reflect the incoming flashlight, so that you can control the angle of light (just so) and in a way to best see this cloud.

3. It needs to be deep enough to encase a sufficient enough amount of dry ice, so as to more effectively maintain that cold temperature gradient. Here, we tested plates that were about 1/2 inch deep versus 1 inch deep, and the 1 inch variety worked much better. Presumably, it would also work if you just sat a thin sheet of metal right on top of a dry ice block (we were using pellets).

4. It needs to be of a material that best transfers the coldness of the dry ice to the rest of the chamber. This is why metal is often suggested, but the tin foil was just about perfect here. It’s metal, but it’s also very thin. I noted that the chamber got cold very quickly and reliably.

A second piece of equipment that needs mentioning, is the plastic cup. You can use glass, but the plastic cup works just as beautifully. Don’t forget that it has to be small enough to create a supersaturation situation, and it’s true (as the video suggested), that the smaller it is, the quicker you can see results. If possible, try to get cups without ridges so that there’s no obstructions to the observations.

Anyway, when you put it together, it’ll look a little like this:

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There’s a few key points here as well:

1. Having enough isopropanol in the system seems to be important. In this set up (with a 250ml cup) there seemed to be a big different in what we saw when there was 10ml versus 15ml of isopropanol in the system: in a nutshell, the 15ml generated a lot more visible activity (might be worth trying 20ml on the day of).

2. Concurrently, this also means you need something capable of absorbing a decent about of the alcohol, so that it’s not drippy. The video mentioned using a piece of felt, but a clipping from a “super absorbent auto sponge” worked much better (it was also a lot easier to anchor to the roof of the cup).

3. This part is IMPORTANT. The seal between the cup (after the sponge and isopropanol steps are done) and the tin foil pie plate must be completely airtight. This is why plasticine is such a great idea! As well, you should do this before any of the cooling steps, since the cooling will simply condensate water onto anything and everything, making surfaces wet and difficult to work with. I suggest putting together the cloud chamber in the following order:

(i) Construct cup + sponge + plasticine + isopropanol + tin foil pie plate” contraption. NOTE: add the isopropanol into the cup (directly on the sponge) immediately before sealing the system with plasticine. This minimizes the amount of isopropanol fumes hitting the air. In the same vein, direct handling of isopropanol is best done by an adult, and in our case, we’ll get the kids to do the sealing but will supply them with gloves (partly as a precaution, and partly because kids just like wearing gloves in a science lab) – full safety details can be found here and here (MSDS) (Thanks Dave).

(ii) Move these contraptions to your dark room (if you’re not already in it – we’ll be using a windowless lecture hall for instance).

(iii) Flip the contraptions upside down, so that the empty pie plate is now on top, AND THEN load the dry ice. (Here, of course, you’ll need to flip the whole thing upright again, so that the sponge is back on top with the dry ice at the bottom encased in the upside down pie plate – we’re going to do this with the base of an ice bucket but some sort of cold resistant matt should also work well). NOTE that dry ice should also be handled by an adult as prolonged contact can cause frostbite – see here for MSDS.

(iv) Then turn the lights off, and use your flashlight to shine a beam of light in such a way as to see that droplet cloud (looks a little like a miniature snow storm), and then, well…, then you wait. You should see something within a few minutes, but it definitely helps to be patient here.

Anyway, I’ll report back after we’ve done this, and let you know how it went with the kids. As a heads up, the creative writing portion will involve writing and acting out mini screenplays – I can’t wait!

Getting organized for #scio13. Making “to do” lists and some networking (a.k.a. meeting wonderful people) homework.

(For #scio13 interview links, scroll down).

O.K. so if there is one conference, that I want to kind of spend a disproportionate amount of time to get ready for, it would have to be this one.


Yes, this would be the vaulted Science Online 2013 conference. Last year, I kind of winged it, and still ended up: (1) doing a little performance, (2) catching up with a lot of old friends,  (3) being introduced to a ton of amazing folks, and (4)  starting the odd discussion that laid groundwork for a collaboration or two.

So here it is: a blog post that serves as my “this is what I want to do, and who else is coming” info station.  This would also double as an introductory post for those who might be interested in some of the things I do, and maybe even want to chat with me.

Firstly, this is a picture of me (yes, I will be bringing the t-shirt along).  I was also recently interviewed by Bora, so you can take a peek at that to get a sense of the sort of stuff I do.  I run this lab, but in general, I’m interested in intersections between creativity and science; excellent ways to broach challenging science education logistics and/or topics (especially to audiences not that receptive to science); and (if you must know) I’m also always thinking of ways to weasel myself into one of those new Star Wars movies planned for the future (because I think I would be perfect as one of those Stormtroopers who fires his/her laser gun, a piece of technology that is presumably very advanced, and still miss the target that is only a room length away and not even moving terribly fast). And if you’d like to learn more about some of the web hijinks I’ve been involved in, or some of the “writing” I’ve done, then do feel free to peruse my pseudo (and oft neglected) portfolio site.

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But on to the matter at hand: the conference runs from January 30th to February 2nd and will likely involve the most intense 70 to 80 hours of epic science discussion you can imagine.  With those parameters in mind, here’s the gist of what I hope to accomplish.

oneFirstly, I’ll be co-moderating a session with Tom Levenson on “Opening doors: Science communication for those that don’t care/don’t like science.” (Fri, Feb 1, 2:30-3:30 pm, Room 7b) – Session specific website here.

This, I think, will be one of those discussions that will be both wonderful, challenging, surprising, and prone to tangential exploration (i.e. a back and forth about the variety of unconventional methods that can be used to talk science). The key question (and the prevailing tension of this topic), I suppose, is whether that tangential nature is a good thing or a bad thing – does it distract or dilute from the real translation of science, and/or if it does, is that sometimes alright.

I’m actually hoping to take in the collective wisdom of the session (as well as the conference in general) to think more seriously about this idea, primarily because it concerns the challenge of preaching outside the choir. In other words, how does one embed the notion of science culture into everyone’s self identity, whether it’s in large parts like in the case of Tom and I, or (perhaps more importantly) in smaller, nuanced but still critical ways for those who aren’t as passionate about such things, or those who blatantly resist it.  As well, I want to know if this collected wisdom is something that should be described, archived, even assessed somewhere – say as a journal, book, ebook, ap, workshop, or website or whatever. I know I think so – and I hope there are others who also think so (we can, for instance, brainstorm about what this might look like, if there is interest).

Cara and Melanie – might be worth having a chat beforehand since I think your session will be tackling some similar themes, albeit dealing with a much feistier (and impertinent) element?

twoIn terms of general science-y goodness and general networking, I want to chat with people who are really in awe of the quiet grandness and messy elegance of the scientific method, and who also want to think of interesting ways to explore it within an elementary school setting. And I’m not just talking about doing experiments (which will be done and will be awesome), but even in seeing if we can figure out the most effective, creative and engaging ways to talk to kids about weighty concepts like validity and evidence.

My end goal is to design a 1 day elementary school teacher workshop (which would possibly be later adapted to an elementary school fieldtrip program), and any insight into what ideas/exercises might be good to pursue or avoid would be very handy. In fact, hearing about examples of great programs that already exist would also be much appreciated.

threeNext up, I’d like to explore possible research opportunities where it would be great to gain some metrics on some of the programs my lab currently runs. This is one of the cases where funding already exists to perform the activities: but it just needs an interested party to design a research question around said activity. In particular, we have this really interesting field trip (called the Science Creative Literary Symposia) which essentially teams up a Science Graduate Student with a Creative Writing (and sometimes Visual Arts) MFA student.  Here, the two of them are guided to design a days worth of activities where a classroom of 9 to 11 year olds can do some relatively fancy science experimentation (in my lab in tune with the specialty of the scientist), as well as ask them to do some expository creative writing or creative art around the experience (also in tune with the preferred genre of the writer/artist).

The intent of this fieldtrip is primarily to show that mixing these two things isn’t so strange afterall.  In fact, another point to be made is that there are many similarities in these seemingly two divergent tasks, and that therefore one shouldn’t necessarily assume you can’t enjoy both.  We’ve done this fieldtrip for a few years now, and I think we now have it as a well oiled machine, consistently generating great reviews from both the kids and teachers who attend. It just seems like a remarkable opportunity to design a study with the aim to query the children’s impressions around concepts of science and creativity.

Anyway, if this sounds intriguing to you (especially if you’re the type that considers the creative arts when sharing science, or if you have a background in education research), then do let me know - I know Marie-Claire and I will have a good chat about this, and I know I’m itching to release my grant writing chops for this…

fourFinally, I’m looking for someone who would appreciate a $5000 art grant to help host a Phylo deck. Usually folks from a Natural History Museum makes the most sense here, but I’m open to all sorts of suggestions (environmental and science education NGOs, publications could also work). Essentially, I think it would be kind of cool to initiate discussions with the formal intent of having the deck ready for the next conference in 2014 (i.e. a recurring tradition).  I’m also at the beginning stages of initiating some education research around this project as well (essentially to assess its utility in terms of actually making children/players think more about biodiversity), but would love to have more involved.  The idea of a hosted deck is pretty cool – they can certainly look nice, as sample cards from this deck in progress can attest to.  I’ve started an exploratory tweet here, but curious if there might be others that are intrigued.

fiveOh, and actually, there is one more thing. I’ve sort of started on the process of writing a book, on science literacy no less: but given that my writing background tends to be a little unconventional to say the least (for example, my pieces tend to look like this, this, and this), I have to admit that the whole prospect is scaring the bejeezus out of me. Basically, it would be lovely to just chat with other science book writers, both those who are Yodas in the industry, as well as others who might also be new to the endeavour.

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Now onto my homework – which isn’t really as arduous as it sounds, because Bora, Karyn and Anton have made things easy for us. Here is a list of all the interesting folks who are coming out, and then here is this large archive of great interviews of past Science Online attendees (also just found this other archive of SA Incubator’s Q&A’s). For this post, I’ve gone and edited this list of links to focus on the folks who also happen to be attending this year. So my homework (and maybe yours too), is to slowly make your way through the below list (marked with year that the interview was conducted).  If you’re not here because you haven’t sent in a Q&A to Bora, then you’re also welcome to leave a comment introducing yourself at the bottom (perhaps with mention of your favorite beverage and, if you’re up to the challenge, done as a six word memoir?)

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David Ng, 2012 | Tom Levenson, 2008

Samuel Arbesman, 2012 | Stacy Baker, 2009 | Karl Leif Bates, 2008

DeLene Beeland, 2010 | Aatish Bhatia, 2012 | Holy Bik, 2011

Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato, 2012 | Carin Bonder, 2013 | Emily Buehler, 2012

Bug Girl, 2012 | Russ Campbell, 2009 | Katie Cottingham, 2012

Kiyomi Deards, 2011 | Lali Derosier, 2012 | Carmen Drahl, 2010

Nadia Drake, 2012 | Jonathan Eisen, 2010 | Sean Ekins, 2013

Rose Eveleth, 2012 | Marissa Fessenden, 2012 | Suzanne Franks, 2008

Simon Frantz, 2013 | Laura Geggel, 2012 | Miriam Goldstein, 2009

Mary Beth Griggs, 2012 | Rebecca Guenard, 2012 | William Gunn, 2012

 Chris Gunter, 2013  | Dirk Hanson, 2012 | Justine Hausheer, 2012

 Mark Henderson, 2012 | James Hrynyshyn, 2008 | Scott Huler, 2010

Karen James, 2008 | Anne Jefferson, 2010 | Djordje Jeremic, 2009

Miriam Kramer, 2012 | Pascale Lane, 2011 | Danielle Lee, 2009

Tom Linden, 2010 | Peter Lipson, 2009 | Robin Lloyd, 2011

Maryn McKenna, 2012 | Glendon Mellow, 2009 | Seth Mnookin, 2011

Joanne Monaster, 2010 | Jessica Morrison, 2012 | Dave Mosher, 2011

Dave Munger, 2008 | Andrea Novicki, 2010 | Kelly Oakes, 2012

Princess Ojiaku, 2010 | Ivan Oransky, 2010 | Jennifer Ouelette, 2008

Trevor Owens, 2012 | Catherine Owsik, 2012 | Erin Podolak, 2012

Kelly Poe, 2012 | Kate Prengaman, 2012 | Elizabeth Preston, 2012

Jason Priem, 2011 | Kathleen Raven, 2011, 2012 | Anthony Salvagno, 2013

Cara Santa Maria, 2012 | SciCurious, 2009 | Marie-Claire Shanahan, 2010

David Shiffman, 2012 | Matt Shipman, 2012 | Michelle Sipics, 2012

Dr.SkySkull, 2009 | Tara Smith, 2008 | Blake Stacey, 2009

Janet Stemwedel, 2008 | Brian Switek, 2008 | Amy Shira Teitel, 2012

Kaitlin Thaney, 2011 | John Timmer, 2010 | Holly Tucker, 2011

Kaitlin Vandemark, 2012 | Sarah Webb, 2013 | Mindy Weisberger, 2012

David Wescott, 2011 | Christie Wilcox, 2010 | Allie Wilkinson, 2013

Antony Williams, 2010 | Josh Witten, 2012 | Kate Yandell, 2012

Ed Yong, 2010 | Carl Zimmer, 2010 | Bora Zivkovic, 2008, 2013

Anton Zuiker, 2013

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Finally, just so that we can set the tone a little bit, do check out this great video by Carin Bondar. It’ll do wonders to get you in the mood:

A moment of your time: about Bill C-398 and how Canadians can contribute to global health

Dear Canadians:

On wednesday, a very important piece of policy will be discussed in parliament.   It’s called Bill C-398 and it deserves our attention.  It seems that it has been challenging for some to see its merits, and so, I’d like to take moment to clarify what it’s all about.  It turns out that it’s not just important – the narrative is compelling as well: it has a rich history of political intrigue; it is a story where viruses factor in prominently; it has a plot that involves armies of angry grandmothers; and above it all, learning about Bill C-398 can literally save lives.

Note, that the below piece is a re-edit of sorts, an update of a piece I wrote for Boing Boing that was an attempt to discuss that political intrigue.  And also note that there is some bias in my commentary – but I think this is natural.  There are obviously a variety of viewpoints involved and my own happens to disagree with those who choose to listen to corporate and political interests – more so when those interests rely on reasoning that is often spun a certain way to misrepresent useful facts. My bias happens to fall on the side of human dignity: something I think we should all spend a moment to contemplate, and something I think all Canadians would feel is a cause worth fighting for.

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“Access to life-saving medicines is not a luxury, but a human right.”

~Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network

To me, the above statement is one of those things that sound like a no-brainer. Put another way, if I were to ask you whether you thought a person’s income should determine whether they live or die from something like HIV/AIDS, then I think you would see that the answer is nothing but obvious. But here I am, in Canada, writing this post, because there is a very real danger that members of my government think that this isn’t such an easy decision after all – that maybe wealth and business interests do matter when dealing with such ethical choices, and that there is a hierarchy where certain lives are worth more than others.

Let me backtrack a bit, and provide a little context. I’d rather not write a rant, emotional and heart wrenching as this discussion can be – I’d prefer to rely on reason, and not on rhetoric. Yes, rhetoric helps, but reason and validity are much more powerful.  I want everybody to understand why this is an important issue, one that deserves coverage, and one that deserves our involvement. More importantly, I want everybody to understand why the right thing to do is obvious.

To start, let me mention the letters and numbers that make up the label, “Bill C-398.” Keep them in your head – at least for a moment. If you’re the sort that prefers hearing at least a quick definition, then this one might work:

“Bill C-398 aims to reform CAMR and make it easier for Canada to export affordable, life-saving, generic medicines to developing countries.”

~Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network

If you’re thinking that this is a Canadian thing, then think again. Other rich countries are watching how Canada will behave. There’s always a few in Europe, and apparently even China is curious. In the U.S., the topic appears to be quenched, but the behaviour of the Canadian government could catalyze dialogue. And if you’re not from a rich country? Well, you might actually have lives that will be affected by it, millions of lives even.

Here’s the problem in a nutshell: the developing world is heavily burdened with a variety of diseases, many of which are causing massive numbers of suffering and deaths.

This is understandably big. It’s a huge global challenge, and there are many reasons for why it exists and why it is difficult to both comprehend and fix. However, the presence of effective medicines is not one of the reasons. There is medicine out there that can help, and there is also a flow (sometimes slow) of discoveries that make these medicines better and more effective. In the case of HIV/AIDS, there are drugs that essentially turn the disease from a death sentence to something that is chronic and manageable. I can’t overstate how significant that piece of information is: it tells us that people do not have to die from HIV/AIDS.

So what’s the issue?

The issue is control without regard for doing the right thing: This is essentially about patents. It’s not that patents are bad, but rather that patents can be bad. As you probably already know, patents are a service provided by government to protect an inventor, such that the inventor has an element of control over how their innovation/product gets used. This is generally a good thing, because ultimately it provides order to a process that would get very chaotic very quickly should the patent not exist. However, sometimes the inventor isn’t the best person to make decisions about control. Sometimes, the inventor doesn’t have the best information to take stock of a situation, or sometimes there might be a moral argument where monetary performance should not take precedent. In other words, sometimes, there are special circumstances where you could say it is reasonable that this control is tweaked.

To illustrate this, here are some hypothetical (and not so hypothetical examples):

1. Your country has experienced a massive storm, perhaps one named after a character in Grease, and it has hit the East coast very very hard.  Many folks are still without power and water, but there is technology that would be incredibly useful to mitigate this. However, your resources are already stretched and this technology is too expensive at the scale that is required in such an emergency.

2. Someone has declared war on your country. To defend yourself, you would like to utilize a particular product. Unfortunately, it is under a cost prohibitive patent and therefore out of reach.

3. There are markets where your life saving drug is not being sold because no-one can afford them anyway. However, the drug (which could be a matter of life and death for millions) could be made at a cost (i.e. a generic) that makes it accessible in these markets, but if and only if, the patent over them is adjusted.

Here is my point. In all of the above cases, you would like to live in a civil society where the government can step in and forcibly change the patent, because in every case, there is an element of morality involved. And guess what – governments can do this and they do! It’s called a “compulsory license,” and they exist for this very purpose.

In fact, even the WTO is on board with this idea. They recognize that in some circumstances, such as those pertaining to global health, there needs to be an understanding that using such compulsory licenses is both necessary and an obligation. In fact, if you have a hankering for the legalese that outlines this for patents over essential medicines, you need only look up info on the Doha Declaration.

Canada actually took this to heart with a bill that came into force in 2005. Often referred to as “Canada’s Access to Medicine Regime” (or CAMR), it was an effort to put into action, the principles and details provided by the Doha Declaration. It was a way to try and enact compulsory licenses for the home production of generic drugs so that more accessible drugs could be produced. It was a good gesture.

Unfortunately, this initial attempt was flawed. The process was simply way too complicated, contingent on an army of legal expertise to navigate, which was all the more problematic because many of the actors involved did not have the means or access to do this. Indeed, the bill seems to contain a paradox in it, in that it can be interpreted as logically impossible to use. If you look closely, there’s a “you can’t do B until you do A” and a “you can’t do A until you do B” error in the details (see question 9 in this document for more details).

It was also very inefficient in that when a compulsory license was negotiated, it was always a one time affair, a one order affair, with specific amounts that could not be changed despite possible reassessment of needs, only good for one country, etc, etc, etc. Indeed, in the years that the law has been available, it has pretty much sat idle (I believe there has still only been one successful case where drugs were actually made and delivered, which provided ample evidence to demonstrate that this process was difficult at best). In fact, if someone were to asked me how difficult things are, the best description I could come up with, is that is it “catastrophically high maintenance.”

Which (finally) brings us to “Bill C-398.” This bill is basically “the edit.” Its sole purpose is to address the things that made the previous bill so ineffective, and at its heart it allows a more streamline and efficient way to issue these compulsory licenses so that production of these generics is more feasible.

No brainer right?

“Oh, but it’s not that simple,” they say. “There are many counter arguments,” they say. Only these counter arguments tend to sound like this:

Q: Shouldn’t we focus on other aspects of the problem. Like health infrastructure, or public education for HIV?

A: Hmmm… Let me get this straight. A government can only do one thing at a time? Nevermind the fact that passing this bill doesn’t actually cost the taxpayers anything. If anything, research has suggested that the foreign aid that we do provide will likely have greater bang for its buck.

Or maybe something like this:

Q: Wouldn’t these changes effect the pharmaceutical company’s bottom line, which in turn will effect R&D funding, and drive the home costs of medicine up?

A: The language is pretty clear in that these are generics that can only be sold in certain markets. These markets happen to constitute a very small percentage of pharmaceutical revenues (we’re talking single digits here). Oh yeah, plus you get royalties from doing this anyway. Also, there’s nothing stopping you from making your own generic version, so that you can enter the market yourself. Indeed, all research and current evidence would suggest a possible gain in bottom line. Plus, the R&D argument is totally a red herring. If that were so crucial, it might help if you spent less on PR and the like. Sneaky.

But what kills me, is that even if there is a reasonable and say unforeseen cause for concern, the Bill has a freaking “sunset clause” which is basically something that gives all parties a “we’ll see how it goes, in case it’s not working” escape route.

All to say, that because of this kind of political and big pharma semantics, there is a very real likelihood that the Bill will die (perhaps in the next few days when it is up for a second reading).  This would be an interesting commentary on the values of our government, although there is already a rich backdrop to this political story.

You should know that this is a Bill that had a previous incarnation two years ago.  It once lived in the country calling itself Bill C393, and it was one of those few Bills passed by the House of Commons where party lines were clearly broken.  Unfortunately,  during that time, the Conservative Senate stalled their vote to make it law, and they did this because they knew that there was an opportunity to “save face” with their industry interests by avoiding the issue altogether.

This was the frustrating part, and I have to admit, my trust in Canadian politics really took a hit.  Here, certain members of Senate, a place that traditionally falls in line with the vote of the House of Commons (because that is, after all, the democratic element of decision making), stalled discussion on this Bill 4 times over 4 days, and in doing so, Bill C-393 got killed by association when a new election was called.

To put this in perspective (and to use internet vernacular), let me just say that this horrific series of events represented a political facepalm of the highest possible order.  In fact, we invented a term for it: we called it a #megafacepalm.

And so here we are with another attempt. This is the essence of why you should care about BILL C-398. But what can you do?

Well, for starters, you can lend a hand by speaking out. Retweet this blog post, write about it yourself. You should definitely send an email to Prime Minister Harper and a few of his key Members of Parliament by using this ridiculously easy petition. If you’ve got something meatier to say, how about copy pasting this entire list of emails, and let the Canadian government know how you feel. If you’re not Canadian, do these things anyway, and then make this issue pertinent in your own country. This is an urgent matter, and for Canadians, there is only so much time to advocate. It’s really an amazing chance for Canada to lead the way.

You can also immerse yourself in this cause and get as much information as possible. You can check out organizations such as the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, which has all sorts of great documents including this informative myth versus fact sheet.

If you’re a university student, you can check out your local UAEM chapter. If you’re a Grandmother, you can hear what Grandmothers Advocacy Network have to say. Better yet, check them all out, or join these groups and volunteer your time.

There is also a twitter campaign in progress.  Flood the feed with hashtags like #C398, #fixCAMR, #medicinesforall, #cdnpoli and tweet out your support with phrases like:

“Please vote YES to Bill #C398 on Wed! We need to #fixCAMR and improve #accesstomedicines! #cdnpoli”

“Have you signed the petition in support of #accesstomedicines yet? Go to www.medicinesforall.ca! Let’s #fixCAMR & pass #C398!”

If you think the idea of Bil C-398 above seems reasonable and just, please do whatever you can. Because through it all, you should never ever forget: “Access to life-saving medicines is not a luxury, it is a human right.”

Check out some of the proofs for the Beaty Phylomon Deck!

Things over at the Phylomon site have been quiet of late, but that’s because folks have been working hard on the print version Beaty deck. They look gorgeous, and it won’t be too long before you can purchase your own set!

On a related note, if you’d like to get involved in the project, do come by this Facebook page – it’s about to ramp up a bit. The task? Design a game that looks at evolutionary biology concepts.

Game on!

Art Lindsay Chetek, Kyu HwangBrandy Masch, Kyle McQueen, Victoria Heryet , Derek Tan, and Alexandria Neonakis.

Online Beaty deck already available here.


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