Biophysics Week: An Opportunity for Public Outreach

Meenakshi Prabhune planned an affiliate event for Biophysics Week 2017; she reflects on that experience here.   

Biophysicists are encouraged to get involved an organize an event for Biophysics Week 2018, March 12-18.  Learn more on the Biophysics Week website.

Headshot_Meenakshi

You can take a biophysicist out of the lab, but you cannot take biophysics out of their mind. This realization dawned on me when I celebrated ‘Biophysics week’ on my blog last year. When I first came across the Biophysical Society (BPS) call for affiliate events, I wasn’t sure how I could help. It had been more than a year since I completed my PhD in biophysics from the University of Goettingen in Germany, and around 2 years since I last stepped in the lab. Yet, I felt compelled to contribute in some way to change the perception of this field among non-scientists.

The most common reaction of any non-scientist to “I work in biophysics” has been, “Wow, that sounds fancy”. More often than not, the conversation ended there. I don’t blame them. The vast amount of research that goes in laboratories all over the world involves a great investment of interdisciplinary topics. So, scientists have rightfully come up with legitimate interdisciplinary titles such as nanobiotechnologist, synthetic biologist, biophysicist, etc. The issue, however, is that the specifics of these fields remain confined within the lab or within a small inner circle of groups working on similar topics. Eventually, to the general public, they are all clubbed together under the ‘sounds fancy’ category.

Whenever I have these brief interactions with the general public, realizing that they were curious but intimidated by the field, I felt guilty for not informing more. Shouldn’t scientists be responsible for communicating their research to the public? After all, when we demand funding for science from the government, the taxpayers should know what exactly that ‘science’ is. Perhaps the right kind of explanation would help inform the utility of these fields beyond their fancy title.

Inspired by the mission of outreach, I chose to inform the public about biophysics via the medium of writing. I chose two representative topics for my blog. The first one was about nacre, which is the inner hard layer of mollusc shells, interesting in material sciences for its fracture resistance. This was the very project in my biophysics journey, wherein I investigated the role of one of the proteins involved in nacre biomineralization in its structural integrity. The second topic was unrelated to any of my own work topics, but more of general interest. Everyone has seen geckos defy gravity while running up a wall, but how do they achieve this feat? This topic beautifully captures the essence of biophysics; a perfect example of how a biological question can be answered using a quantitative physical approach.

In a way, participating in BPS ‘Biophysics Week’ was my way of giving back to the scientific community. I have learnt a lot from this field and loved its interdisciplinary aspect of balancing between diving into details as a biologist and generalizing to identify unified principles as a physicist. I believe that arousing public curiosity and interest regarding biophysics is the very least that I, or any of us, can do to increase its popularity beyond the lab.

Meenakshi is a researcher-turned-science writer, passionate about the dissemination of science. Check out her blog and portfolio for more articles.

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Biophysical Society Creates Roadmap into the Future

Tamm, Lukas--15Biophysics as a discipline has experienced incredible growth in the last 15 years, which is reflected in the growth of the Biophysical Society membership and Annual Meeting.  With that growth, an increasing number of disciplines now use biophysical approaches to conduct their research, and elements of biophysics can be found in nearly every aspect of contemporary life sciences.

But biophysics as a field is still not well understood by those who do not identify themselves as biophysicists.  It is at this juncture that the Society Council undertook a year-long strategic planning effort to ensure that the Society’s activities, programs, and direction continue to best promote the field as a cohesive, unique discipline, and that the Society continues to provide a home and support network for the breadth of current and future biophysicists to showcase their research and the advancement of the field.

The Process

Council hired an outside facilitator to guide the strategic planning process, Marsha Rhea of Signaturei.  Her organization conducted an internal scan through member surveys and interviews, as well as an environmental scan of factors affecting the field and the researchers conducting biophysical research.  Armed with this wealth of data and information, Council and other Society members participated in a two-day retreat to draft the Society’s first ever strategic plan, then spent considerable additional time revising the draft, ultimately approving it at their fall meeting on October 28, 2017.

In the end, the new vision positions the Society to take full advantage of the interdisciplinary edge biophysics has as a unifying discipline with powerful quantitative methods that others need and that lead to significant new biological discoveries. The goals included in the plan affirm that the Society will work globally to enhance knowledge exchange, advocate for the value of biophysics, and support an increasingly diverse next generation of scientists.

In its deliberations, Council identified biophysics as a dynamic and evolving discipline within an increasingly interdisciplinary science landscape and determined that the term biophysics does not necessarily need a clear and coherent definition. The Society can exploit the strengths of this ambiguity as an advantage with biophysics seen as open to emerging fields of science and a discipline that continues to evolve and define quantitative biology.

Strategically Councilors agreed that it may be better to answer what biophysics is by describing its purpose and scope rather than defining its boundaries. The Society may also find this identity question can be an energizing and exciting discussion to continue when members gather. Councilors talked about how biophysicists are heroes of their own stories of scientific endeavor. Leaders of the field agree that biophysics and its quantitative methods are key to unlocking fundamental answers in the life sciences. Continuing to focus this identity conversation on what biophysics is doing rather than what it is may generate more opportunities for the Society to grow and thrive in the future.

The Outcome  

Vision

Biophysics is identified and recognized as the interdisciplinary scientific discipline that develops the quantitative methods and techniques needed by scientists as they seek fundamental understanding of the biological, chemical, and physical mechanisms of life and work to unlock answers essential to curing disease, solving biological problems, and discovering basic scientific insights.

Mission

The Biophysical Society convenes and connects a global community of scientists working at the interface of the physical and life sciences and creates, shares, and advocates for biophysical knowledge and methods through programs and communities that support biophysicists.

Values

  • Scientific excellence
  • Integrity and transparency
  • Diversity and inclusion
  • Community building

Goals and Objectives

Sharing Knowledge in and about Biophysics.  The Biophysical Society is the organization where one can find the whole breadth of research that is biophysics, and not just one small part.  While researchers can attend other meetings that have a biophysics track, or join societies that have a biophysics component, nowhere other than the Biophysical Society can they experience the diversity of what biophysics is and what biophysicists do around the world. The Biophysical Society’s meetings, publications, programs, and website will all work together to strengthen the identity of biophysics as a distinct and integrative discipline that underpins a quantitative understanding of biological processes. Together they will provide forums, resources, and opportunities for researchers to access biophysics-related research and information.

Fostering a Global Community. Biophysics bridges multiple scientific disciplines and does so around the world. The Biophysical Society is an international organization. Although headquartered in the United States, more than one third of its membership is working outside the United States and this international fraction is growing.  The collaborative and interdisciplinary nature of biophysics has allowed this growth to happen organically, but as a Society we pledge to do more to ensure that all members and prospective members feel more connected and that those members, particularly student and early career members who may not be able to travel to attend the Annual Meeting, can access all available resources and feel a part of the Society. To cater to its international membership, the Society organizes meetings in international locations around the globe. The Society will work to support biophysicists throughout the world at all career levels and foster collaborative efforts with national biophysics societies to strengthen the identity of biophysics.

Supporting the Next Generation. The future strength of biophysics and of the Society depends on the next generation.  It’s that simple.  We know that we have strong programs and services for our young members, but we also know that technology, job markets, and economies change, and we are committed to change with them to ensure that the next generation thrives. The Society will continuously improve the mechanisms to engage, support, and retain the next generation of biophysicists.

Advocating for Biophysics. Who better to be ambassadors for biophysics than biophysicists?  How many people know and understand what you as a biophysicist do?  As biophysicists, we all need to step up and make our science more accessible, understandable, and relatable to everyone’s lives.  The Biophysical Society will develop programs to help members communicate the value and importance of biophysics to lawmakers, funding bodies, and the public at large. While scientific organizations have learned that working together to advocate for science funding works and is crucial, we are the only global organization that can speak specifically and comprehensively for biophysics.  We will work to engage more members to participate in that effort.

We Are a Member Organization

To all of you who participated in the survey and interviews that led to this plan, a heartfelt thank you.  As part of our effort to respond to member needs, we have sent a separate survey asking for input on specific programs, and we encourage all of you to participate and help make the Biophysical Society even better.

One of the reasons for the Society’s growth and success is that it has always been a democratic, bottoms-up organization. That feedback came through in the surveys and interviews. Nearly every successful program the Society currently sponsors originated from a member suggestion.

Please help us continue that culture by participating and making your voice heard. As we develop programs that you ask for, tell us if and how they are meeting your needs or how they can be improved.

We are excited to march together and promote biophysics as a unified, yet constantly evolving field far into the future. We are also thrilled to accompany and support all scientists who identify as biophysicists – young and old and around the globe – throughout their careers for decades to come.

–Lukas Tamm, BPS President

 

Rallying for Medical Research so that Young Scientists Can Have Research Careers

Rally med research 2017

The Rally for Medical Research is a truly inspiring event that was established in 2013. Held every September, this event organized on Capitol Hill continues to grow, bringing together national organizations and people in support of Medical Research. The purpose of the rally is to call on the nation’s policy makers to make research funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) a national priority and raise awareness about the importance of research funding.

This year, I had the opportunity to attend the Rally and share my own story with top IL policy makers on behalf of the Biophysical Society. The Rally brought together medical doctors, scientists, patients, and organizations to lobby for robust, sustained, and predictable funding for the NIH by increasing the current budget by 2 billion dollars for fiscal year 2018 and to ask Congress to increase the budget caps on non-defense discretionary spending that were imposed by the Budget Control Act of 2011.

I went to the rally as a former research scientist in order to speak out for the early career scientist that are and will be affected by sequestration. I, myself, was a scientist affected by this – having studied and worked in multiple labs that struggled to maintain their funding. As a result, I had to make a difficult decision for myself: to continue on in a field that does not seem to value me or to move on to something that will. I chose the latter. While meeting with the Senate and Congress Houses for my state, I was able to relay to key policy makers how sequestration and cutting the NIH budget affect scientists, like myself, and how many of us have already responded: scientists may leave, many of us already have; whether that be moving to the private sector moving to countries that have sustained funding.  This also dissuades students from ever entering the field.

Through this experience, myself, a former medical research scientist, I’ve learned a lot, not only about lobbying but also about how politics in general works, and how as a constituent we can instill change. So last week, with my own personal story of the struggles of being a scientists in today’s market, I was able to convey my story along with the story of others (many of us from IL met with policy makers at the offices of congressman to the Senate Offices) with the hopes of reframing how these politicians see current policies involving medical research and helping to convert that idea into the language of government policy.  I hope I was able to make a difference and hopefully give a face to the affected scientist.

 

–Vidhya Sivakumaran, BPS member

Reasons You Should Meet with Your Congressional Representatives this August

congressional district mapAccording to a Pew Research Center Poll, 76% percent of Americans think that scientists act in the best interest of the public, and 67% think science has had a mostly positive effect on society.  In addition, despite recent headlines, the study shows that confidence in the scientific community has remained steady for the past 40 years.

At the same time, 70% of Americans can’t name a living scientist based on a 2013 poll conducted by Research!America.

In Congress, there is currently only one PhD level scientist, Bill Foster, a physicist representing Illinois i the House. There is one mathematician, Jerry McNerney from California, a handful of medical doctors, and a few political scientists.

Congress has several science-related policy issues on its plate including funding for science agencies, regulations and policies related to climate change, and support for renewable energy programs to name a few.

So what does this mean for you,, a practicing scientist?  It means that Congress needs to hear from you!

In particular, the Senators from your state and the Representative from your district need to hear from you. They need to know that you, a constituent, cares about these issues, that you,  your students, and your colleagues are affected by the policy choices they make in Washington, and that these choices can also affect the local economy.

They need to know that someone is watching and that someone cares.

The Biophysical Society wants to make it easy for you to connect with your elected officials.  This August, society staff will walk you through the process of setting up a meeting and preparing for that meeting.

All you have to do is sign up for the BPS Congressional District Visits program by July 26 and a BPS staff member will be in touch. You won’t have to travel far, and you can make a big difference.

Get out of the lab and be an advocate for biophysics!

 

 

 

 

Advocating for Science on Capitol Hill: a Scientist’s Perspective

IMG_9972

Author Christy Gaines (R) with a staff member from the Office of Senator Richard Burr (NC)

On April 26th, I had the privilege to attend STEM on the Hill Day with BPS. I had attended the March for Science the previous weekend, and I was ready to continue to advocate for science funding by speaking directly to the offices of my representatives. I had concerns about my ability to appeal to some offices, as I had commiserated with others at the march about how some elected officials viewed evidence-based policymaking with skepticism. With this in mind, I tailored my message to the offices I visited.

I went to my first appointment, expecting resistance from the staffer of my senator. I had prepared reasons why basic science funding economically helped my state, as well as a few appeals to national security, but expected to leave the meeting demoralized. I got my first, and largest, surprise of the morning: the staffer agreed with me and promised to commit to funding basic science as part of the upcoming omnibus spending bill. In this age political divisiveness, I had not expected it to be as easy as asking for funding. While we talked about a few of my points, we spent most of our meeting sharing our stories, as the Biophysical Society group spoke more about their individual concerns and how science funding affects us personally.

I assumed this meeting was a fluke, as one data point is not an adequate sample size. However, when I went to the next appointment, I was met with similar enthusiasm and attentiveness. As my sample size grew, I learned that this was the norm rather than the exception. I had few interactions that left me disheartened, as almost everyone I spoke to had broad support for basic science. I think due to the politicization of some aspects of science, we tend to think that all areas will become the same. We believe that denying climate research will automatically lead to slashing the NIH budget. However, I think we can use the broad support of biomedical research to validate other areas of science. Everyone I met believed that cancer, Alzheimer’s, and other diseases are worth federal investment. That same belief that people deserve medical care could be used to protect them from Zika virus, pollution, and other climate-change related ailments. What I realized from meeting with the staffers of my congressmen and senators is that our representatives have to do the best they can with the resources they are given. They are constantly bombarded with requests from people with different priorities, and they must choose which ones are funded. It’s easier for elected officials to relate to the patients of cancer and other illnesses, as they have probably encountered similar issues in their own personal life. However, I got the impression that their interactions with scientists are less frequent. To the majority, what we do is an abstract concept, and the best way to advocate for science is to show them how their funding decisions directly affect our careers, and how our research affects others.

I am a young scientist, and my experience with funding only extends to the last decade. However, I remember when sequestration happened, and how it limited my cohort’s ability to choose labs when we started graduate school. I remember when budgets were slashed for universities, and my school opted to pass some of the costs to the undergrads because they couldn’t absorb all of it by changing the teaching labs. By going to my elected officials, I was able to share these stories and humanize the scientists doing this work. They got to meet someone whose graduate education has been fully funded by the NIH. They got to meet a young scientist that will rely on funding in order to get their next job. Importantly, I didn’t go alone, and others in my group could remind them of how mid- and late-career scientists rely on funding as well.

Overall I felt it was a great experience, and I hope to go again. At the very least, it opened up dialogue between my representatives’ offices and me, making it much easier for me to send an email in the future. It also allowed me to view my representatives as people, instead of political enemies or allies. When I write in the future, I am going to believe that they want to help me (and their other constituents) and that I need to give them a reason to prioritize my needs over other spending projects. While it’s easy to give in to skepticism and pessimism, I encourage others to communicate with their representatives. It might be easier than you think.

–Christy Gaines

UMBC Graduate Student

Meet a Biophysicist Marching for Science

As an official partner of the March for Science, the Biophysical Society encourages members to participate in the event, in person or virtually, and speak up for science. Prior to taking to the streets on Saturday, April 22, in over 525 cities worldwide, meet a BPS member planning to March:  Connie Jeffery.  Connie is an
associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  Her lab works on protein structure and function using biochemistry, biophysics, and bioinformatics methods.  The lab has projects in basic science and also focused on diseases – cancer, tuberculosis, and inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s and Ulcerative Colitis).  She will be marching in Chicago, Illinois on April 22.

 

Dr. Constance Jeffery poses in front of a ribosome sculpture at a Cold Spring Harbor meeting.

 

Why did you sign up to march?

I’m concerned about the huge cuts in the proposed federal budget for NIH, NSF, and other parts of the government that fund scientific research.  I am also concerned about potential cuts to agencies that protect the public like the EPA and the FDA.  I am also concerned about so much “pseudoscience” that is misinforming the public, especially things like incorrect information about what to eat or not to eat, quack cures, anti-GMO activists, and anti-vaccination drives that can harm people.  On the more positive side, I would like to share information about the importance of science and what scientists do.

What do you hope to get out of the day personally?

I’d like to share my love of science and encourage young people to consider a job in science, help inform the public about the importance of science and what scientists do, and also learn from others interested in science, including other scientists, but also environmentalists and people with family members who are suffering from diseases that can be potentially cured in the near future (as long as funding is not cut).

What do you hope it will accomplish?

I hope we can better inform the public and our representatives at the local, state and federal level about the importance of science and that there are many American voters who care about science.  There have been such amazing breakthroughs in the past 15 years that we have the potential to find better treatments and ease a lot of suffering soon, but the opportunity will be missed and many people will continue to suffer needlessly if funding is cut.

What will your sign say?

I’m planning to make multiple signs, and to have messages on both sides – things like “Prevent suffering in children:  Fund Research on Childhood Arthritis”, “Fund Cancer Research”, “Fund Autism Research” and from growing up in Cleveland “Before the EPA the Cuyahoga River was so polluted it BURNED {picture of one of the fires}.  Not just once – THE RIVER BURNED MULTIPLE TIMES. Today with the EPA: {and then a picture of how clean and beautiful it looks today}”, “Vaccinations Save Lives”, etc.

Thanks to Connie and everyone else planning to celebrate science at the March!

Pi helps us describe almost everything, not just circles.

Most people know of π, or ‘pi’, as the number they learned in high school that has to do with circles: it is the ratio of a circle’s diameter to its circumference (π=C/d), the area of the circle is πr2 (especially hilarious because pie are round, not squared), etc. Some of us even remember it as an irrational number, meaning you cannot write it down as a simple fraction, and maybe some people, certainly not me, still have it memorized as starting with 3.14159265. What is less appreciated, however, is that this number has utility far beyond allowing us to calculate the area of a circle.

In biophysics, and in science in general, we use statistics to compare our data with our hypotheses. Many of the phenomena we measure fall along (or can be manipulated to fall along) a normal distribution. A normal distribution is a common continuous probability distribution characterized by the familiar “bell curve” shape, or Gaussian, which corresponds to the Gaussian distribution shown in the image below. When the mean, μ, is zero and the variance, σ2, is one, this function (the blue curve) is e^(-x2) and the area under the curve is the square root of pi! When the mean and variance are other values, the curve can be described more fully with the equation:

Where a = 1 / (σ (2π)1/2) a , b = μ, and c = σ.

pi day graph

 

Normalized Gaussian curves with expected value μ and variance σ2. The corresponding parameters are a = 1 / (σ (2π)1/2) a , b = μ, and c = σ.

 

How was the Gaussian distribution first determined, you may ask? While pi itself is thought to be first measured by the ancient Babylonians between 1900-1680 B.C., the Gaussian distribution originated in the 18th century when Abraham de Moivre started calculating gambling odds extremely precisely. De Moivre studied a very simple system at first: flipping a coin. He would calculate the probability of getting a certain number of heads from a certain number of coin flips. He found that as the number of events (coin flips) increased, the more his probability distribution approached a smooth curve. Thus he went about finding a mathematical expression for this curve, which resulted in the “normal curve”.

Independently, two mathematicians Adrain and Gauss in 1808 and 1809, respectively, developed the formula for the normal distribution and showed that errors observed in astronomical data fell along this distribution. Small errors in measurements occurred more frequently than large ones. The distribution was also independently discovered by Laplace, who elegantly showed how pi enters into the Gaussian distribution (which is summarized nicely here: http://www.umich.edu/~chem461/Gaussian%20Integrals.pdf). Laplace also introduced the Central Limit Theorem, which proves that with a large enough number of samples the mean will be normally distributed, regardless of the underlying original distribution. This is why the normal distribution ends up popping up in so many places.

In biophysics, every time we think about mean and variance, calculate a p value (which assumes a normal distribution), do image processing, or try to understand the probabilities of a particular event, we owe a debt to pi. Not only do we use the Gaussian for statistics, but we also often use it in fields where we need to apply a potential or some external force either experimentally or in simulation. Basically, pi underlies all of the fundamental biological process we study on a daily basis. Thanks pi!

By Sonya Hanson, postdoc at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center

 

References:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaussian_function (Including public domain figure)
http://onlinestatbook.com/2/normal_distribution/history_normal.html
https://www.amazon.com/Cartoon-Guide-Statistics-Larry-Gonick/dp/0062731025