Improving Science

Science is, and must change.

I mentioned in a previous post that we got a bottle of Whisky to a PI of my department who refuse to give trimestrial science “output” reports.

Well, this little thing actually gave birth to an initiative we started with a few colleagues called “Improving Science“. After a few meetings and dinners, we decide to do something at our own level at the university here to improve the way the system works.

I presented all these ideas today, in front of a committee composed of 3 institute heads, and representatives of PhD students. The short talk was followed by a discussion, in which  the institute heads actually agreed with most of our ideas, and said they were thinking about it and try to implement them.

The good thing is that, in fact, they are already conscious of the problem, and having meetings about it. Nevertheless, I cant help feeling slightly frustrated because these things just take forever to change.

We had 3 mains points that we thought needed improvement.

-The evaluation of the PhD training. Right now, we only have a very final evaluation, and poor follow-up during the training. Implementing a mid-term meeting is necessary.

-The paper requirements are off the roof. PI’s required from us to publish 2-3 to 6-7 papers in order to graduate. Which means we have to split projects, do low-risk research, privilege quantity over quality, and so on. This is the thing I hate the most about the dutch system. Not to mention that people are put on them because they “need them”, without contributing to them very much, or at all. We proposed to lower that requirement to 1 good paper. It should be enough to get a PhD. Which would allow us to have more time to “play” with science and go on riskier projects. It still feel like going against a wall of habits, traditions, and dutch academic culture.

-The last point was about offering more opportunities for non-academic careers training. As most of the PhD will leave academia, the university should feel responsible to offer training in teaching, journalism, industry, policy making, or collaborate with NGO’s.

Well. I’m happy we actually took initiative, and presented our ideas. I deeply hope they will be used, and implemented as soon as possible. The next generation of scientist should be able to grow in better conditions then what we have now, although it’s not all bad of course.

My PI told me today I should not feel responsible for this. This is very weird to me. It’s everyone’s responsibility. It’s only like this that the system can change. From the top and bottom. These elements, such a the sky high publication pressure, the high amounts of burn-outs and depression, the selfishness of people demotivate and drive me away from all of this. And I still love it. But I hate it so much as well. I thought it was possible to feel like this only when it comes to people. 

I apologize for writing such a long post. I needed to get that out of me, I think.

A paper. A day

a aper

I am now, very officially, in the last year of my PhD. In about a year, a big chunk of results will be published, and I’ll be defending my thesis in front of a committee. One of the things I don’t do enough, in preparation of this, is to read. It’s difficult to find time for it -especially during busy days-, but I decided I just have to take it, anyway.

I ambitiously decided to read 1 paper each day, until the day I defend. With a few exceptions authorized, I am not a robot. Hey.

I’m not very good at keeping resolutions, but that one, I’d really like to. I also see it as a bit of a challenge. So, to keep track,and also share it, I decided to create a Tumblr. account especially for this:

Basically, I’ll post each day the paper I’ve read. Not sure I will have time to incorporate notes. But I’ll tag is at open/closed access. Good way to estimate how many papers I would miss if my university didn’t have a suscription to all main journals.

I started already last monday, and have been quite diligent since, so let’s hope it continues like that. How much do you read ? How do you do it ? I’m interested to hear your experience, so please leave a comment !

Let’s not give up just yet. Change might be ahead.

After last month’s rough patch, things have -fortunately- improved a bit. Just at the time I was jaded about the wonderful world of academia, a few little things happened. And they have the merit to put me back  in a more combative and optimistic state of mind.


Everyone I’ve been talking about the worst sides of academia actually agreed with me on the system’s unsustainability. It’s bad, because it reflects how weary people are this days. It was also irritating, because most people would just say things like “It’s the system, it won’t change, you have to play the game …”. I deeply think my french education clashes with this. I simply can’t understand this attitude. Not doing anything against this consumes my energy bits by bits. Petitions, strikes, but more importantly, constructive changes and improvements are incredibly important to me.

A few events  -small or more consequent-, the past week proved me, once more, that I’m not the only one to think like that.  And it seems things could change for the best in the future.

First, let’s start with the smallest thing. Lego is starting to commercialize women scientist toys. It’s a very small step, but it deserves to be highlighted. And probably does a better promotion of women in science then that awful spot EU had managed to come up with a few years ago.

Second, I made a pact. With a friend of mine, a senior post-doc, and aspiring future PI. If we ever get in these positions, we will take action to improve the system. Not that we cannot start now. For example, I decided that my thesis committee will be approx. 50/50 men and woman. Because sometimes you have to force things before they seem normal. And I don’t want to defend in from of a committee with only 55+ men; even tough it’s almost a tradition at my university.

Third, the cherry on the cake. We received an email from our department’s administration, asking for a report on the research output from each PI. A report they want every 3 MONTHS. MONTHS. I will not even take the pain to explain how crazy that is. Anyway, one of the PI’s  send an email back (cc-ing everyone) saying that this was simply demotivating, un-inspired, and useless. I was so happy someone actually stood up and dared to say no. No to this non-sens. No to administrators who have no idea that a good research paper necessitates years of work. No to evaluating research on a simple count of papers. Whatever they contain. I, and a few more PhD’s were so happy about this that we decided to buy a bottle of excellent scotch as a sign of support to that PI.

So yes, I think it will be possible to change things, as long as enough people are willing to simply say no to non-sense. And I hope our generation will have that strength.

Flying to Brazil

Even drosophilists who spend most of their time in fly rooms are aware of this: The Football World Cup starts in less then a month. 

This means: live streaming games in the lab, going to pubs watch games after work, and … making bets and predictions!

I discovered a few weeks ago, via Twitter, this very cool tournament prediction contest—with a science twist, called SciTourney (created by Intergrated DNA technologies).


Each of the 32 countries had been attributed a Drosophila gene name. And fly people know how to be creative when it comes to gene names ! For example, France is “Burgundy“, Australia is “Crocodile” and Japan is “Sumo“. It all makes perfect sense, right ?  Click here to see the full list! 

The ultimate question is to know which Drosophila gene will be dominant in Brazil ! (My prediction ? Toucan)

Anyone can participate to the tournament. It’s free, fun, and sooo nerdy ! (And there are a few prizes) The more, the merrier, right ? Join by clicking here.

It’s not everyday that football and flies come together. 




Can you … Count flies with your iPhone ?

… The answer is YES !

I got this question from a reader of this blog a few month ago on a previous post. I thought I would share the answer I had given him over here as well. Just in case a poor student, somewhere, spends time counting manually and googles something like “isn’t there a better way to do this ?” …

If you recall, I wrote about this app called Fast Counter, developed by Shazino, and available on the App Store. It does a very decent job counting bacteria on petri dishes, as long as there are not too small and dense.

For a drosophilist, the connection from counting colonies on a plate to counting flies on a pad is not too difficult to make. So I tried it by myself (because, really this was a high priority ;)) and it worked very well.

Of course, flies should not be too dense, and not sticking to each other. By setting the detection threshold in the app, you will actually get an extremely decent accurate number.

Here is an example of the read-out you get:


Pretty good stuff, huh ?

Maximal number of flies you can count would be around 200-300, accuracy of course is better if you put less.

Have you eve tried it ? If so, what are your impressions ?




Science pick: Nature PastCast

podcastNot sure I already mentioned this earlier, but I am a podcast junkie. The one I listen to every week is This week in Virology, and it’s “spin-offs”, This week in microbiology, and This week in Parasitism. I also listen to the Nature/Science podcast here and there, and discovered recently a new podcast made by Nature Publishing Group, the Nature PastCast.

The idea is to talk, once a month, about these old legendary papers published in Nature. The presenter and producer of these episodes gives more details about it here. The first episode is a tribute to the discovery of the structure of DNA which was 60 years ago. They feature Raymond Gosling, a 86 year-old men now, who was a PhD student in the lab of King’s college at the time of the discovery.

I thought this was a super good idea, and to come back to This week in Virology, some epidoes also consist of interviews of these “legends” of biology. One of the most amazing was the one with Pr. Marcus, the first scientist to clone HeLa cells. He talks about the whole process, and has crazy anecdotes, like his mentor calling Princeton one day and saying “I’d like to talk to Einstein, please.” I would really really recommend this podcast to everybody !

Here are the links to :

The first PastCast about DNA structure.

TVIW with Pr. Marcus 

-Many other nowadays/legend scientists guests on TVIW

And you, do you have any good podcasts to recommend ?

The iLab – A new Drosophila app !

Hey guys,

At first, I want to apologize for the long absence. I’ve been busy and lazy, the worst combination of all. But I had to share this little discovery I made a few weeks ago, a new app for Drosophilists ! (drum rolls …..)


It is made by Genesee Sceintific, the division in particular. Weirdly, when it comes to the fly room, I’m a bit old-fashioned. I like scribbling crosses on pieces of papers, looking phenotypes up in these good old heavy fly books.

Nevertheless, this app has a undeniable advantage. I basically consist of pictures, description of the most current mutants and species. Comes in handy if you quickly need to check up what a Bar eye or a Curly wing looks like. (Ok, nobody would look up a curly wing) There are also quick links to FlyBase.










Now, the best at last … There is little nerdy addition: A virtual fly pad. You can train your fly sorting skills, and even enter the competition with other geeks drosophilists by sharing your scores online. Ok, past the few minutes of excitement, it gets a bit boring, and has nothing to do with the real-life fly pad experience.


An other excellent point is that the app is free, and soon available for the android users too. So guys, go to the App Store and download it, it’s definitely worth it !