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Monday Micro Siouxsie Wiles Dec 03

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Welcome back to Monday Micro. Last week’s Monday was lacking in microbiology factoids as I was at the New Zealand Microbiology Society‘s annual meeting*. This year it was at the University of Otago in Dunedin. Highlights for me were keynotes by Rob Knight (microbiomes and Next Gen Sequencing), Eric Ruben (TB) and Steven Wilhelm (cyanobacterial blooms). Tweets of some of the talks are here.

Highlights for me:

Finding that lots of people flush public toilets with their feet, that cyanobacteria are a bad food source “like ordering pizza and only eating the box”** and that “we are all accidents of history”***.

Moving on, Round 3 of the SciFund Challenge is in full swing so if you fancy supporting some microbiology projects Amy Truitt wants so study butterflies and their sexually transmitted diseases, Will Helenbrook is studying the effects of infectious diseases on Mantled howler monkeys and Andy MacDonald is working on Lyme disease.

* The slides for my talk (Fireflies and superbugs: when science and nature collide) are up on slideshare. I started my talk with my Meet the Lampyridae animation….



** Steven Wilhelm
*** Unknown kilted MC of conference dinner :)

The funding ‘lottery’: how many grants should we be applying for? Siouxsie Wiles Nov 04

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I’ve just read a great post on the blog Serious Piffle about grant funding. The post is inspired by a paper just out in Science about the performance of “poor” and “rich” players in a set of tailored computer games. The authors suggest their results demonstrate that poor players concentrate too much on the short term, to their own long term detriment.

‘Serious Piffle’ applied this thinking to academics applying for grants. When times are hard and success rates low, people will put in more applications to try to succeed. The upshot?

” …this paper suggests that scientists who regularly compete to secure funding (because they lack it) might concentrate excessively on obtaining grants, to the exclusion of other pressing needs, beyond the net gain of actually obtaining the grant.”

I feel I’ve been massively guilty of this since arriving in New Zealand in mid 2009. I came with a four year fellowship from the NZ Health Research Council (HRC) that pays my salary and a modest consumables budget. But no money for a technician or any studentship stipend. As I’ve not had a teaching profile until recently I’ve not been able to attract students so instead I’ve been writing grants to try and re-establish myself (I had a fairly successful start to being a PI in my two years as a lecturer at Imperial College London but left my post-docs and student behind to follow my husband home to his homeland..).

In the last three years I have written 48 funding applications, 20 in 2010, 8 in 2011 and 20 so far this year. These include travel grants, grants-in-aid (for consumables), internal university grants, applications to charities and societies to support my animations, as well as what my employer refers to as the ‘prestigious’ funders, Marsden and the HRC. Both the Mardsen and HRC are now two-stage applications and this year, I got thrown out at the first hurdle for both. The success rate for the Marsden biomedical (BMS) panel was apparently about 5% this year and I think the HRC is less than 8%.*

Last year I got through to the second round of the Marsden, got great reviews but didn’t make the cut. Instead of not doing the research, I’m getting imaginative. I’ve managed to get some internal funding to start the project (thanks to the Auckland Uni’s Faculty of Medical & Health Sciences, and the Maurice Wilkins Centre for Molecular Biodiscovery), and am supplementing this through crowdfunding with the fantastic SciFund Challenge, a donation link on the University’s web page, and encouraging my students to apply for whatever money they are eligible for. Last month we got lucky and John Boikov, who will soon be joining my lab to do a summer studentship and his Honours project, was awarded NZ$10,000 an AMP ‘Do your thing’ scholarship from Advice First. Excitingly, this whole project, which we are calling Evolution in Action, will be our first open science project. I hope to have the students blogging our results in real time by the new year.

So of my 48 applications, how have I done? Breaking it down by funding type I’ve found that so far I’ve been good at getting everything but the ‘prestigious’ grants! Travel grants = 90%, science communication grants = 67%, internal grants = 75% and external grants (but not Marsden/HRC) = 20%.

I must say I’m exhausted and feel like I really need to concentrate now on writing papers and doing some research and, to paraphrase ‘Serious Piffle’, stop worrying myself to death about money. Saying that, with my fellowship coming to an end in 8 months and no permanent job yet, what’s the chances I’ll find myself back on the funding treadmill come January?!

Reference: Shah, Mullainathan & Shafir (2012). Some Consequences of Having Too Little. Science 338:682-685, DOI: 10.1126/science.1222426

*As an aside, it is interesting to see the HRC experimenting with a new funding mechanism through it’s Explorer grants, NZ$150,000 for up to 2 years allocated essentially by lottery:

“All proposals that meet the eligibility criteria will be assessed for compatibility with the scheme’s intent; proposals won’t be scored or ranked. All proposals that are considered eligible and compatible will be considered equally eligible to receive funding, and a random process will be used to select the proposals to be offered funding.”

Surprise, surprise, I’m working on my application, as is every other biomed researcher in NZ I imagine!

Crowdfunding update Siouxsie Wiles Jul 31

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It’s been a while since I last blogged as I’ve a few new projects I’ve been distracted with of late. More of those in the near future. But for now, I thought I’d do an update on my crowdfunding effort. In May I took part in the SciFund Challenge, the brain child of two ecologists from the US, Dr. Jai Ranganathan and Dr. Jarrett Byrnes. The concept of crowdfunding, where people use the power of their networks to get small contributions in return for ‘rewards’, has been successfully used by musicians and writers for a while now, so Jai and Jarrett thought why not science?

For the second round of the SciFund Challenge 75 projects were offered up to the public and raised over a staggering US$100,000. That’s 130,000 of our kiwi dollars. My own project, Evolution in Action, convinced 79 people to contribute a total of US$4,480 to my research into infectious diseases. That’s almost 6,000 kiwi dollars and 150% of my target. While I thought contributors would be mostly people I know, in reality over half of them are strangers to me. It took 115 tweets, 137 Facebook likes and 775 views of my video pitch to hook them all in. And because of the power of social media to reach beyond our shores, over half of my contributors are based overseas, split between North America and Europe.

It was hard work, but I’m glad I did it. My aims were to learn to better communicate my science and expand my networks. I learned how to use iMovie (which is fab) and met a load of great people. It has also been nice to see the glowing logo rewards popping up on people’s blogs (here and here). Mission accomplished!

Last few days of the #SciFund challenge Siouxsie Wiles May 28

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Just 4 days left to support some cool science!

Glowing #SciFund logo!

Glowing #SciFund logo!

Entering its final phase*, round 2 of the #SciFund challenge has surpassed the records made by round 1:

  • Over $79K contributed to date
  • 17 out of 75 projects have reached their target

My own project, Evolution in Action is just $102 short of $4K which is amazing. That’s almost 9 extra genomes to sequence! A big thanks to everyone who has supported me, either by contributing or helping spread the word. I couldn’t have done it without you guys.

Latest contributors:
Puck
Katja Kruschwitz
James Hotelling
Benedict Uy
Pete from Spellbound (who do the best Waitomo cave tours in my opinion…)
Michelle Hiscutt

*Thank goodness! I’m exhausted and can’t wait to get back to some proper blogging and writing the script for my next animation :)

SciFund Challenge – Target achieved! Siouxsie Wiles May 20

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Glowing bacteria attract over $3000 for science in 15 days!

For those who don’t know, this month I am taking part in the SciFund Challenge, raising money for my research using the RocketHub crowdfunding platform. My project, Evolution in Action, involves studying how infectious microbes evolve to cause disease and I am raising money to sequence the genomes of my evolved bacteria to unravel the genetic basis of their evolution. It costs about $100 per genome, so the more money I raise the more genomes I can sequence.

So it took just over 2 weeks to reach my $3000 target. I’m currently at $3,288 – that’s almost an extra 3 genomes. Whoohoo! And there is still more than a week to go! I’m really looking forward to doing a little analysis of all my contributors when the challenge is over to find out how many I actually know and how many are strangers, and how those strangers found me.

So a huge thanks to all who have contributed and everyone who helped spread the word. I couldn’t have done it without you guys. And for those who still want to contribute, there is still time, and we have no shortage of evolved bacteria whose genomes we would like to sequence so the more money we raise, the better!

Now we are getting on to preparing our rewards, which includes writing our contributors names/logo’s in glowing bacteria. Watch this space!

Ummm, it should say "science rocks" but the bugs in our 'e' didn't grow properly.... YouTube Preview Image

*In addition to those listed here and here, contributors to date are:

Jon Woods
Stippy
Marius Rowell
Richard Cornford
Dr Alan Koslow
K. Gilbert
Ian
Sefton Billington
Simon Clendon
Dan
Barbara Vanhoeke
Gingiber Theginge
Conor Reilly
Rob Heighway

SciFund Challenge Day 13! Siouxsie Wiles May 14

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So with 18 days still left to go, the 75 projects which make up round 2 of the SciFund Challenge have raised over 58,000 US dollars for scientific research using the RocketHub crowd funding platform.

My own project, Evolution in Action, is just 387 dollars away from reaching its target. So I just wanted to say a big thanks to all my contributors* and everyone who has helped to spread the word.

YouTube Preview Image

*In addition to those listed here, contributors to date are:

Alan Brown
Judy Morris
Ged Hayward
Robin Capper
Cassandra Baker Lee
Ian Hovander
Lorna Strachan
Karen Toast Conger
Kalani Hausman
Samantha Sampson
Sam Egli
Victoria Galbraith
Doug & Wendy
Martin Kennedy
Maria Connor
Celia
Simon Young
Don & Louise Galbraith
Graham & Hazel
Robert van Leeuwen
Bob Sellars
Garrett Butt
Alan Reader
Moira Statham
Ana Elisa Garcia
Cate Macinnis-Ng
Aleks Ksiazkiewicz
Mark Martin
Greg Crowther
Stephen Hawley
Heather Galbraith
Dave Guerin

Nature publishes first of the ‘weaponised’ flu papers Siouxsie Wiles May 04

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And it’s Open Access!

Late last year it was revealed that 2 papers submitted to the journals Science and Nature had been sent to the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), an American committee charged with providing guidance on the potential of research to be misused to pose a biological threat to public health or national security. The papers were said to describe the ‘weaponisation’ of H5N1 ‘bird flu’; just a small number of mutations were found to confer the ability of the virus to transmit easily between mammals (in this case ferrets), an ability ‘wild’ H5N1 lacks.

First the NSABB said the papers should be censored, then they retracted that decision. Well now the first of the papers is out. It’s by Yoshihiro Kawaoka’s group at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and colleagues in Japan.

Ed Yong has done a great job summarising the paper over at Not Exactly Rocket Science. But if you want to see what all the fuss is about, you can read it over at Nature because it’s been published Open Access (at least it is at the moment). So from censored to free for all. That’s quite a reversal!

H5N1 is pretty lethal in people, killing around 60% of those known to have been infected with the current Asian strain. However, transmission from birds to humans is pretty inefficient. What caused the media interest was that Ron Fouchier seemed to be implying that the mutant H5N1 his paper described had become easily transmitted between ferrets while retaining its virulence. Scary stuff and very reminiscent of the movie Contagion. It was interesting at the time that Kawaoka kept a very low profile in the media. This is what it says in the abstract of his paper:

“We identified a reassortant H5 HA/H1N1 virus….that was capable of droplet transmission in a ferret model. The transmissible H5 reassortant virus preferentially recognized human-type receptors, replicated efficiently in ferrets, caused lung lesions and weight loss, but was not highly pathogenic and did not cause mortality.”

This does beg the question why Kawaoka wasn’t more vocal about how his findings contrasted with the scenario being painted by Fouchier and the media. But we shouldn’t be complacent. The paper clearly shows how easily H5N1 evolves to transmit between mammals and that wild viruses are accumulating at least some of the mutations that put them on this path.

As Lawrence Fishburne’s character Ellis Cheever says in Contagion:”Someone doesn’t have to weaponize the bird flu.The birds are doing that”.

Reference:
Imai, Watanabe, Hatta, Das, Ozawa, Shinya, Zhong, Hanson, Katsura, Watanabe, Li, Kawakami, Yamada, Kisos, Suzuki, Maher, Neumann & Kawaoka. 2012. Experimental adaptation of an influenza H5 HA confers respiratory droplet transmission to a reassortant H5 HA/H1N1 virus in ferrets. Nature. doi:10.1038/nature10831

PS If you want to support some evolutionary infection work that doesn’t involve flu and ferrets then check out my SciFund Challenge Project, Evolution in Action, on RocketHub.

Just who are these SciFunders anyway? Siouxsie Wiles May 03

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Just over 48 hours in and the SciFunders have so far raised nearly 30,000 US dollars for their research. Want to know who these SciFunders are? Here they are!

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SciFund Challenge – Day 1! Siouxsie Wiles May 03

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What a start to round 2 of the SciFund Challenge. Over 18,000 dollars raised for science so far!

How about the stats for my project Evolution In Action? The last 24ish hours have seen 15 contributors donating $840 to support my research — that puts me at a third of the way to my target!

A special thanks go to the brilliant Daniel Hurley for being my first supporter.

Other contributors today were:

Susan and Craig Shearer
Ben and Olivia Albert
Jin Koo Niersbach
Steven Galbraith
Elf Eldridge
Alan Huett
Nathan Hayward
Riccardo Guidi
Jimmy Dalton
Tina Arora
Maire Litchfield
Diana & Michael
Episteme
Sarah Johnson

Thanks also to Ed Yong (@edyong209) writer of the excellent Not Exactly Rocket Science for tweeting and everyone who has posted my #SciFund link to Facebook or shared on Google+.

30 more days to go!

Round 2 of the SciFund Challenge is now live! Siouxsie Wiles May 01

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I’ll be spending the next 31 days trying to raise money for my research using the crowd funding model on the RocketHub platform, where contributors exchange small donations (in the 10-100 dollar ballpark) in return for ‘rewards’. As a microbiologist who makes glow-in-the-dark bacteria for a living, my rewards are things like sending donors a picture of their name written in glowing bacteria or naming one of my bacteria after them.

Your name in lights!

Your name in lights!

The challenge came about partly as a result of the lack of funding for basic science (success rates stand at about 20% in the USA, while for New Zealand’s only blue skies research pot, the Marsden Fund, they are about 8%). But perhaps more importantly, the SciFund Challenge is also about getting the public more interested and involved in science.

So why did I get involved? I want to tell the world how amazing bacteria are. They are masters at adapting to their environment, rearranging their genetic material or gaining new genes from their surroundings. This has allowed them to colonise pretty much every conceivable environment. From boiling hot geysers to human beings. While many are harmless or pretty beneficial, plenty have evolved to cause us serious harm. Bacterial adaptation is how we get antibiotic resistance and new diseases emerging.

So what I want to know is, how do bacteria evolve to cause disease? And that’s where my SciFund project comes in. I need your to help unravel how these amazing microbes keep outsmarting us. For more information, check out my project, Evolution in Action. Wish me luck!

YouTube Preview Image

For those unfamiliar with RocketHub:
• RocketHub is a legitimate site, used mainly by artists and musicians to launch their projects.
• RocketHub is not an investment or charity. It is a site that allows the project owner to exchange rewards for contributions.
• RocketHub is based in the USA so all the rewards are listed in US dollars. For those outside of the US, 10 US dollars are roughly equivalent to: 6.20 UK pounds/ 7.60 EUROs/ 10 AUS dollars/ 12 NZ dollars/ 10 Canadian dollars. For an up to date currency conversion check here.
• RocketHub is an ‘all and more’ funding mechanism. If I don’t reach my financial goal I get to keep what I raise. And if I raise more than my goal I get to do even more cool science.
• RocketHub take a 4% cut of whatever I raise if I make my target, and 8% if I don’t. In addition to this, there is a 4% credit card transaction fee.
• All contributions are handled by RocketHub, and the money raised (minus fees) will not be sent directly to me, but to the University of Auckland like a traditional science grant.

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