Interview with a Science Communicator – David Winter

By Peter Dearden 15/09/2010 4

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This week I hunted down David Winter to answer some questions (though when I say ‘hunted down’ it implies perhaps a little more work than is fact — email: the ‘hunting tool’ of modern champions.) He also gave me a ‘portrait’ photo that I could use to show you all his lovely face: IWASC DW1

Do you see him in there? Just in the reflection of the sculpture?! Yeah, I couldn’t either, so here you go — David’s lovely face to make your day:


David Winter is a PhD student at the University of Otago under the supervision of Professors Hamish Spencer and Graham Wallis in the Department of Zoology. He has a Postgraduate Diploma from Otago and was awarded an Alan Wilson Centre scholarship to begin his PhD studies using genetic tools to work out how many species of landsnail he had collected in Rarotonga (a perfect way to start a PhD), and how those species got to be there.

This particular snail is not one of David’s (he tells me he is saving those ones for his Nature paper’s journal cover) — though it is a Rarotongan endemic snail.

David has won a grant from the Society of Systematic Biologists, and recently the Ernst Mayr Award which is given to the presenter of an outstanding student paper in the field of systematics; a very impressive award (though sadly lacking in the trophy area). David writes a blog called The Atavism, which is syndicated to SciBlogs and he is one of my most favourite people (just had to slip that in there, seriously — the dude is amazing). I greatly admire both David’s writing and teaching styles — he is perhaps the only person who could convince me to switch my PhD to phylogenetics. You impressed? (You should be *shudder*).

PC or Mac?

PC, but that’s not quite geeky enough so I also have linux on my laptop and cygwin on my desktop.

What is your most favourite science fact? (I bet you have one)

I really quite like the fact that the atomic clock on GPS satellites has to be corrected for relativity. The satellites move constantly compared to our reference frame, so (from our terrestrial point of view) time kept on the satellite is dilated

I’ll admit to asking for some clarification on this point — interesting, but do I really understand?!

Special relativity shows that if you have two bodies, with one moving relative to the other then, from the point of few of the stationary observer, time will tick just a little slower for the moving object. The GPS satellite are moving pretty fast relative to us down here, so they would lose 7 microseconds a day if they weren’t corrected. On the other hand, General Relativity tells us that gravity can also dilate time: bodies closer to a strong gravitational force experiences time just a bit more slowly than one further away. In the case of the satellites, the difference in gravity makes their clocks tick about 45 microseconds quicker than ours. Those times seem tiny, but to triangulate your position the GPS needs to be very accurate, if the clocks weren’t corrected for the effects of relativity they’d lose about 10km per day! When I was in the field holding a hand held GPS up above my head trying to find a gap in the canopy and a satellite and generally cursing technology, it was good to remember how ridiculously amazing GPS actually is.

When did you first get interested in science?

Gastrulation I think.

Do you have a science idol? Whom and why?

Oh boy, we might be here for a while … I first got really excited about the grandeur of an evolutionary view of life from Richard Dawkins books. Then I read Stephen Jay Gould to find out why Dawkins disliked him so much and found someone who presented not just the facts and theories of science, but science as a human endeavour.

Add to those JBS Haldane (the only man to enjoy the First World War, or to write a poem to his rectal carcinoma), WD Hamilton who had crazy ideas that turned out to be true. I still can’t believe Darwin got so much right, and love the fact the Wallace got the idea for natural selection in a malarial fit (so much more élan that Darwin’s years of barnacle inspection) Feynman’s speech on Cargo Cult Science should be required reading for all undergrads and anyone teaching science.

Then there are the science writers, guys like Carl Zimmer and David Quammen that are great writers who happen to write about science.

When did you start writing to a blog?

Way back in my undergrad days. I’ve always been interested in science communication (actually, all the scientists I listed in the last question were also great communicators) and even toyed with the idea of trying to become a science journalist. I used to write a column in Critic (the student newspaper), and when I stopped that I thought I should keep writing something.

Do you think blogging is an effective science communication medium?

Yup. I do sometimes despair that it’s a self selecting audience. It’s great that people that are interested in science can go to Sciblogs and read about cool new things. But the internet means people that are climate change deniers, creationists and homeopathy fans can go read those blogs and never be exposed to contrary evidence or, more importantly, the scientific way of dealing with those claims.

Do you really like insects that much? Why?

I do. And not just insects, I love all 36 animal phyla. Even the chordates. I’m an invertebrate evangelist because biology should be about diversity. Ask the man on the street to list some animals you’d probably get ’lions and tigers and bears and giraffes and hippos and whales and cats and dogs and monkeys and elephants and rhinos and horses and moles and mice and ferrets and pandas’. That’s a few of the 5000 or so mammalian species on earth. I just think it’s worth pointing out that there are 50 times as many species of fly as there are mammals. And, for that matter, there are 36 different ways of being an animal, each as distinct as the difference between your body and that of a sea urchin.

What is your favourite insect?

If we are limiting ourselves to insects, I think I’ll have to go for the giant bush dragonfly (Uropetala carovei in latin, kapokapowai in māori). I like dragonflies and damselflies in general, but these ones are glorious.

Ok then, what is your favourite *living creature*?

I really don’t think that I am capable of choosing. I love peripatus, and giant springtails and jellyfish and sponges and bellbrids and squirrels (they’re just *so* cute).

(Squirrels are pure evil. One day the world will end and squirrels will be responsible and no one would have been any wiser. I blame people like David for this sad fact.)

What do you think of the current state of science communication to the public in NZ?

I think it’s getting better. The SMC has made a noticeable difference to the way science news is dealt with. But you still see some appalling pieces, especially in the magazine-style shows. They just seem to be addicted to the ’person on the street knows better than the scientific community’ trope. I even remember one where they conducted an ’experiment’ on food colours and said ’this is not scientific but…’ and then went on to draw all sorts of meaningful conclusions. They very seldom actually ask a scientist why the mainstream scientific position is what it is. Or get them to explain why the plural of anecdote really isn’t data.

Do you think scientists should talk about their research more with the public?

Hells yeah! I don’t think every scientist is going to be a media star. But we need to make it clear that science is a human endeavour; outcomes that matter for New Zealanders (including science’s most important outcome: knowing more stuff). We also need to have scientists speaking when society is debating scientific issues. We’ve seen with contentious issues like climate change or the fortification of bread with folate that the ‘debate’ very quickly becomes two duelling PR teams and the science hits the sidelines. That’s when you need scientists to come out and clearly state what we know, and how certain (or not) we are about it.

Why did you start a PhD?

I started a PhD because that’s how you become a scientist. I started this PhD because I had some exciting preliminary results and I couldn’t let anyone else finish the project!

What’s next?

A postdoc. I have a couple of irons in fires, but at the moment it’s very hard to see past writing this thesis and getting our results out in some journals.

Do you think you will stay in research science?

I hope so. There are a lot more PhD graduates than there are earlier career positions but the goal is definitely to keep working on understanding species and speciation.

Do you think research science is valued as a career in NZ?

It’s definitely respected, but I don’t think anyone would do it for the money.

What about science teaching?

I really don’t know

Do you think our primary and secondary school curriculum have enough of an emphasis on science?

It’s been a while since I was there! I have read the new primary and secondary curricula. I was really impressed by how theory-based they were. Science is about building models that help us understand the world, not just collecting facts, and the curricula seemed to get that right. As to how it gets expressed in the actual teaching of science I couldn’t tell you.

If you could change one thing about how we teach our undergraduates, what would you change?

I’d make them all read Feynman’s Cargo Cult Science lecture! I probably haven’t been involved in teaching enough to have an idea of what to fix.

Where do you see yourself in 20 years?

Oh dear lord. A university somewhere in the world, telling my students that I never sequenced more than 1,000 base pairs of DNA at a time in my PhD and that I worked on snail genetics when there was no mollusc genome sequences!

What is your opinion of Otago Uni and Dunedin?

Dunedin could do with a little less winter. I do love living in a city with penguins and sea lions on the beaches and robins and GIANT springtails in the forests. I think the Uni, or at least Genetics/GO and Zoology, are very good – lots of support and development for postgrads and really good researchers doing really good work.

If you were writing this interview, what would you ask you?

What’s the perfect Dunedin weekend? (I understand that some scientists have a life outside of the lab)

My answer would include sleeping in, riding my bike around the peninsula (and not getting held up by a campervan on the road down to Portobello), walking on a nice beach or some bush and a dram of whatever the malt of the month is at Albar in the evening. (I don’t think I’ve ever done all those things in the same day, lest I sound just a little bit cool or like someone with a work-life balance…)

I have a friend who is convinced that David is the current incarnation of Darwin — he certainly has that extra spark that makes you feel like science losing him would be the biggest tragedy since people began thinking cupcakes were muffins.

David has been teaching forever (I might even show my own age and admit to his having demonstrated some of the labs in my years as an undergraduate…) and is a constant favourite — though I doubt he would admit to it; and manages to give talks and presentations in such a manner that there is no chance even a narcoleptic could think about falling asleep. I hope to one day be able to emulate his teaching skills.

I look forward to following his career, and continuing to learn something new about insects every week. It is certain: any university that snaps him up for a lectureship position will be very lucky. (Can I get a cut for quality future predictions?!). How do we spark this enthusiasm and brilliance in young emerging scientists?! Actually – in the old ones as well?

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