Category: Projects

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.

– – –

* 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.

Raccoon versus Pikachu: Who would win?

(Procrastinating again)

Available here as a tshirt, and an obvious nod to phylogame.org

Comments below on who you think would win…


Sometimes also referred to as the “I’m procrastinating, so let’s design a t-shirt” t-shirt.

Available for purchase here.

Coral Reef Deck for Phylomon Project now available as a free pdf download.

Sponsored by the fine folks over at the World Science Festival, I must say that this deck looks awesome! Go here for details on the deck (with links to the printable deck pdf), and also keep an eye out for the print-version Beaty Museum Deck which should soon be coming out in the next few months.

(And, if you’re in Vancouver, come out to a Phylo art exhibit and “learn to play” event at the HIVEfacebook page).

For now, check out some of the art for the Coral Deck cards below:

Art above by Joe Kloc, Emilie Clark, and Nadir Balan. From the Phylo Project.

When the kids and I made a cardboard pinball machine (a.k.a. duct tape is AWESOME!)

Just noticed that our little duct tape project (done a year and a half ago) has recently hit 10,000 views on YouTube, so I thought it’ll be fun to rehash it again.

Basically, this ended up being a lot of fun, and (if I do say so myself) our pinball machine was FREAKING AWESOME! Note that all the spacey references were due to us just returning from a visit to the Science Museum in London.

Here are some pictures, and the video at the end is where Hannah and Ben demonstrate its awesomeness.

Bad ass Pokemon (I mean Phylomon) cards. Looking to hire some artists – leave your portfolio website if you’re interested.

Just saying that biodiversity isn’t all about beauty and things being cute and cuddly.

These cards at the Phylogame website rock! And in case, you’re new to the Phylomon idea, it’s basically a crowdsourced art, science and gaming project that revolves around the 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 also know a little more about the real environment around them (a more detailed description of the project can be found here).

This is also a post to say that I’m on the lookout for artists to contribute to special Phylomon “decks.” In particular, we’ve got funding to seek out art contributions at about $200 per image, with a preference of hiring each artist to contribute at least 5 or so images at a time. Image copyright would remain with the artist, but we ask that the phylo project is allowed to showcase them online in card format in a non-derivative, attribution, non-commercial manner; as well as allow non-profits, museums, educational institutions to use the image (but only in the form of phylo cards) in physical decks that may be sold only for agreed upon outreach project fund raising purposes.

Anyway, if you’re a freelance artist and the project (and the pay) sounds interesting to you, then please do leave your portfolio website in the comments below (we’re also going to contact a few artists who have already so nicely allowed us to use existing art). As well, just so you know, we’re actually looking for art that veers a bit away from the usual conservative realistic type of animal art (i.e. character design buffs are welcome!). Ultimately, we’re looking for art that might actually be considered a bit Pokemon-ish but with details that reflect the real-life organisms.

Oh… And if you want to see more of our existing catalog of cards, then just go to http://phylogame.org/cards. You can also print more, by just hitting “select” on any cards you like – there’s about 300 to choose from, as well as about 500 DIY cards that kids have drawn. When you do this, the card should appear in the “selected cards” shopping basket. When you’re finished, just click on the “Selected Cards” link and it’ll just show you just the ones you’ve picked (6 at a time).

The best part is that you can just print that webpage (i.e. what you see there), and it’ll automatically produce a printout of just the cards (6 at a time) and at print quality resolution.

Game on!
Dave Ng

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