Author Archives: Jessamyn Fairfield

Threading a Nano-needle

One of the most exciting things about working in nanoscience is the incredible level of precision with which we can probe the world around us. This includes not just the physical world but also the biological world, which is a lot messier than most physicists are comfortable with!

There is currently intense interest in sequencing DNA via translocation through a nanopore, like threading a needle with the molecule that contains instructions for building life. Protein nanopores are the basis of new technology for DNA sequencing that made the news recently, costing only $1000 for full DNA sequencing with a palm-sized device from Oxford Nanopore. The protein nanopore is pictured in the image below, with DNA unspooling to pass through the pore.

But these nanopores can also be created in silicon, graphene or other thin materials. These solid state nanopores emulate the very small biological pores which can be found in the lipid bilayer around cells and their nuclei. Macroelectrodes in solution on either side of a solid state nanopore drive an ionic current in the carrier solution through the nanopore. As the DNA passes through the nanopore, it physically blocks the ionic current through the nanopore, allowing detection of translocation events. Additional electrodes can be added across the nanopore to enhance sensitivity to DNA. While research in this area is ongoing, it is thought that noise in the electrical signal through the nanopore can eventually be lowered—by applying coatings, slowing translocation speeds and improving fabrication techniques—to enable base pair sensitivity for DNA sequencing. Using solid state nanopores for sequencing could lead to more reliability and lower costs than protein sequencing, and is a major research area of the Drndić group at UPenn, the group I worked in for my PhD!

To me, nanopore sequencing is an amazing example of how direct electrical interaction with nanostructures can yield important information about not just the world around us, but our own place in it.

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Why Use Comedy to Communicate Science?

Comedy is a tool for change. It changes how people think about the world we live in, about complex ideas, and about each other. In this talk from TEDxTUM this winter, I explain why comedy is a great way to communicate science, to foster new ways of thinking, and even to show our humanity during the toughest times.

I’m very proud of this talk and I hope you enjoy it. It’s dedicated to my father.

Science Communication: Just Do Everything

Practice makes perfect, with science communication as with most other things. The more you hone your skills, especially in front of an audience, the more you learn what works and what doesn’t. And this is the best time of year if you are looking for science communication opportunities in Ireland.

The author at Bright Club Galway, photo courtesy Steve Cross.

Right now all of the following opportunities are open for submissions:

  • Bright Club: The one and only research/comedy variety night, get in touch for upcoming dates across Ireland.
  • Soapbox Science: Science takes to the streets, highlighting women working in STEM fields. Apply online by 23rd February.
  • Pint of Science: Informal science talks in the pub, apply here by 26th February.
  • Flame Challenge: Written/video competition, this year to explain climate to an 11 year old. Apply by 2nd March here.
  • Famelab: 3 minute talks on any scientific topic, apply to regional heats or online by 4th March.

Some of these events are recurring and some are once a year, and there’s also more competitions like I’m A Scientist, Get Me Out of Here which occurs in the fall. You may feel more drawn to some of these formats than others, but in my view any practice is valuable. The first couple years I started to do scicomm talks in earnest, I did ALL the events listed above. Except since Bright Club didn’t yet exist in Ireland, I had to start it myself.

It turned out pretty well, and I’ve gotten lots more opportunities and even career advancement since. So take a risk, register for one of the events above. Or all of them. You never know.

The Far Northland

Over the summer I spent some time on a ship at the end of the world, as part of a science/art residency in the Arctic Circle. It was such a unique experience, and a visceral reminder of the many ways we are changing the world we live in. But I also took some videos while I was there, the first time I have marked an experience this way. While I love to take photos and find them very evocative, I was surprised how videos can bring back the immediacy of an experience like this, a reminder of the power of video for scientific communication too.

Now that I’ve finished processing them, here are all of my video missives from the Arctic, so that you can share the experience with me. And, if you are an artist or scientist and think this trip sounded amazing, you can apply for the same program here to go next year!

Where Do Scientists Come From?

Some people want to be scientists from the time they are children. Some people are influenced by scientists in movies and TV, or hear about famous scientists and want to be like them. Some people grow up with scientific role models, and some only come to science later in life, with lots of other experience under their belt.

But when I ask this question in talks, where do scientists come from, this is the photo I always show:

That’s me and my dad, somewhere between Oregon and Tennessee. He was a biochemist, but more importantly he was one of those rare people who does not lose their childlike curiosity about everything as they become an adult. My dad wanted to know how everything worked. How does a cell know to build part of a liver instead of a blood vessel? How do neurons build something whose topology leads to learning and memory? How did the building blocks of life first come together? How did the universe begin?

I lost my dad this week. I still have an unread email from him, a link to an article about the inflationary universe and the new things we are learning about it.

One of the things we used to talk about too was the importance of knowing your audience. My dad loved science but he didn’t only want to talk to other scientists, or to only discuss biology with biologists. He thought long and hard about how to explain things, talking and writing all the time about science. But he also knew that discussing an interesting topic with someone who has a different perspective than you so often leads to new insights and ideas. Talking about science shouldn’t be one way, it really has to be a dialogue to mean anything to either side.

I learned a lot more from my dad than just science and how to communicate better. But I can say unequivocally that he shaped me into the scientist that I am, and even our jokes back and forth to each other were a huge part of what led me to do science comedy.

Soon I will be going to London to receive the Institute of Physics Mary Somerville Prize, an early career public engagement award. It is dedicated to my dad, whose love of science and the world around us I am proud to carry forward. I will miss him fiercely.

Cassini’s Grand Finale

After nearly 20 years in space and a final series of dives through Saturn’s ring, the spacecraft Cassini is on its last descent. It will crash into the planet later today, ending an incredible scientific mission to an amazing place.

Cassini and its instruments helped investigate Saturn’s atmosphere, its rocky rings, its strange polar hexagon. It also expanded our knowledge of Saturn’s moons, from the geysers and hidden oceans of Enceladus to the rocks and lakes on the surface of Titan. Cassini’s Huygens probe, which landed on Titan, was the furthest space landing of anything humanity has built.

Originally launched in 1997, Cassini’s mission was supposed to end in 2008. But it received two major mission extensions, nearly doubling its lifetime. It has sent 635 gigabytes of data back, which mightn’t sound like a lot except that all of it was on 1997 era technology, through a billion kilometers of space.

The spacecraft is being crashed into Saturn because it’s running out of fuel for orbital maneuvers, and scientists don’t want to risk accidentally crashing it into one of Saturn’s moons which might contain life, and contaminating them. I feel personally invested in Cassini’s mission and final resting place, because my signature is on board! When I was growing up, one of my Girl Scout troop leaders was an astrophysicist working on the Cassini Plasma Spectrometer before the spacecraft was launched. She arranged for us to all come in and get to see some of the instruments, and in the end our signatures were all added to the 600,000 signatures on the disc of human culture that was included with the spacecraft. This disc, modeled on the Golden Record aboard Voyager, is a time capsule of human culture for other spacefaring civilizations to find. But while the Voyager discs are traveling beyond our solar system, Cassini will be meeting its end here, to become part of the planet it studied.

Cassini’s voyage has been such an inspiration, a feat of technical and scientific exploration which I, along with millions of others, have loved watching from here on Earth.

You can read much more about Cassini’s scientific discoveries here, and watch Cassini’s final descent today starting at 7AM EDT here, on the NASA livestream. Godspeed, Cassini.

Science Shouldn’t Stop at the Border

I’m a physicist and a science communicator, and I’ve had a lot of unique experiences in my life as a result of those passions. But I never expected to be detained at UK border control for three hours, and eventually denied entry and sent back to Ireland, just for doing science communication.

You see, although I have lived and worked in Ireland for the last 6 years, I have an American passport and no special privileges in any other part of Europe. And I have been all over Europe as part of my job in Ireland: to attend research conferences, be hosted as a visiting researcher in another lab, speak on panels, and give public lectures and science comedy performances as to engage the public with science. I came to Europe as a postdoctoral researcher and am now a lecturer at NUI Galway, running my own research lab and a plethora of public engagement events like Bright Club and Soapbox Science in Ireland.

But when I showed up in Cardiff to do a science comedy show as part of a festival, I was stopped at the border. I was not going to be paid for my performance, and had paid for my own travel out of pocket. However the border agents considered the festival ticket and parking pass that I had received (for an event I was to speak at) as a form of ‘payment in kind’. This is equivalent to saying that invited speakers at a conference are paid if their conference registration is covered, and nothing I (or the festival organisers who were phoned) could say convinced them otherwise. Throughout this process I was left alone for long stretches, told not to use my phone, and all my travel documents (from both the US and Ireland) were taken off me. It’s a process that is designed to make you feel powerless, and it works. Finally I was fingerprinted and photographed, served with refusal paperwork, and sent back to Ireland. There is now a black mark in my passport indicating I was refused entry to the UK.

This is especially ironic given my next planned trip to the UK will be to collect the Mary Somerville Prize from the Institute of Physics, a significant public engagement award which I am honoured to receive for my efforts to communicate science to the public. And yet apparently I am not allowed to do public engagement activities, not just for free but at my own expense, in the UK.

Jessamyn at the March for Science Ireland, holding a sign that says Science Is For Everyone.

Me at the March for Science Ireland in April 2017.

Mobility is a critical issue for physicists. We may need to travel for a conference, to visit collaborators, or even to move abroad to start a new career stage. Recent political developments such as Brexit and the Muslim travel ban in the US have been rightly criticized by researchers around the world for failing to account for how necessary the free movement of people is to science today. Early career researchers who can’t obtain travel visas easily are at a heavy career disadvantage. This is why mobility was a core issue of the recent March for Science.

To me, this is also indicative of how toxic our conversations about immigration in general have become. The border patrol officers I dealt with were as kind as they could be to me, but they were tasked with enforcing a system where all immigration is considered negative. Never mind that immigrants are often young, hard-working, and full of ambition. Never mind that immigrants drive social change, spark innovation, bring new perspectives, and in fact draw less on social safety nets than citizens do (both because of their demographics and often because they aren’t allowed to). Never mind that in science, many researchers move internationally, often multiple times, and in fact a huge number of Nobel Laureates are immigrants themselves. The narrative we hear about immigration often seems to have a Schrödinger’s Cat quality to it: immigrants as lazy welfare cheats, who are also stealing our jobs.

We should respect just how much immigrants contribute, scientifically and otherwise, to the countries they have chosen to call home. I hate that this disrespect starts at a very early stage: the recent story of the Afghan girls’ robotics team who were initially denied entry to the US for a robotics competition is heartbreaking. I was glad to see the decision reversed, as setbacks to girls in science and engineering are plentiful enough already.

I’m an immigrant, a physicist, and a science communicator, and I’m working hard to make the world a better place. Ireland has been welcoming, for me at least, so I’m doing a lot of that work here. But if other countries want talented young people to come enrich their societies, they should actually make that possible. Otherwise we’ll go somewhere else.

Crossposted at the Institute of Physics blog here.