10 Selected Talks from 2015 – Part 2: Communication

In my previous post, I listed five discoveries and inventions from research presentations I encountered in 2015. For the remaining five presentations I cover in this post, I focus on the speakers who provided me with inspiration for communicating and writing about science topics. These speakers include a museum curator, public speaking professional, book author on engineering materials, researcher on atmospheric aerosols, and a game writer.


Ceiling-high black cabinet doors line the aisles of the Beaty Biodiversity Museum. Visitors are peering in through glass windows to see beautifully mounted specimens.

The next aisle down, one of the the black cabinet doors are open with a museum staff standing by it halfway up a ladder. He shuffles through furry animal specimens where squirrels and chipmunks are lined up belly down in perfect rows, showing off their stripes and long tails. Many visitors are surprised to see that what they see in the displays are only part of the two million specimens housed at this museum and the Biodiversity Research Centre.
Each specimen is a piece frozen in time and thus also a gateway to stories that make the animals come alive. Someone who seems to have no end to such stories is Chris Stinson, Assistant Curator of the Beaty Museum’s tetrapod collection. He is a walking encyclopedia of head-turning facts. Follow him through the rodents collection to see a Giant Flying Squirrel with a body as long as your forearm, smaller flying squirrels with the softest fur you can imagine, and pocket gophers with cheeks twice as wide as their face — Chris would be offering fun tidbits and commentary to give character to each type of animal, leaving you curious to delve into more.

Link to original image on flickr
Public speaking. Photo by Pete


You’re standing in front of a microphone and a huge audience. You have a great project idea and you know your research, but you’re unsure whether you’re going to tell that funny joke right, and whether you’d manage to convince people to like you and your idea.

It takes skill and practice to make a convincing and memorable talk. In a recent full day public speaking workshop, Ivan Waniz Ruiz took a group of 15 graduate students through ways to rethink the structure, language, and visuals used in presentations. Many students who were told to explain their research topic started sounding as if they were reciting their thesis title, and this rarely resonated with those outside their field. By the end of the workshop, however, the student speakers were engaging the entire class full of students who had no background in the presentation topic.

Ivan trained students to analyze people’s body language the way police interrogators would analyze a criminal’s lie or lack of confidence. By applying brain hacking tips to public speaking and practicing over and over again, presenters began to notice their own body language and use that to achieve a confident look to grab their audience’s attention and leave a lasting impression.

Ivan does what he preaches–in many past talks, I relied on notes I scribbled to remember what was said, but with Ivan, the take home messages for the students in this workshop have stayed in my head even months afterwards.


It was like going in to read a book for fun and coming out feeling incredibly smart and educated.

In the book Stuff Matters, a single, seemingly serene and plain photo of author Mark Miodownik sitting on the rooftop garden is the basis of his book on the great material inventions in our world. Each chapter picks up an item captured in the picture – steel, paper, concrete, chocolate, foam, plastic, glass, graphite, porcelain, and an implant.

In the very first chapter of the book, a knife stabbing incident throws you into a story of Mark’s fascination with steel, and in another chapter, his creativity flows in explaining plastic through a five-act play script. A dictionary or manual could tell you what each material is and maybe what it is made from, and an encyclopedia may tell you the history. But authors with creative writing like Mark Miodownik shows that truly everything around you has a story to tell.


Link to original image on wikipedia
A U.S. Air Force KC-135E Stratotanker aircraft trailing black smoke from its exhaust, by USAF pilot


Mechanical engineering professor Dr. Steve Rogak faced a mixed audience as he began his seminar talk.

The talk entitled “The Structure of Aerosol Nanoparticles” was of interest not only to his fellow mechanical engineers but also to students and faculty in chemistry, medicine, geography, and resource management. We are surrounded by tiny particles floating in the air which we call atmospheric aerosols, and researchers from various fields study how those aerosols – in the form of smog, engine exhaust, pollen, SO2, and others – affect our climate and health.

A talk full of jargon could have easily lost all the non-engineers, but Steve’s careful language, pace through tables and figures, and strong transitions walked the audience through the stories of his research on the structure of soot particles, which are typically emitted as a product of incomplete engine combustion. By the end of the talk, a non-expert audience like myself was able to appreciate the novel insight on proposing a new model for soot formation and structure.

As demonstrated in this seminar, when a topic like climate change has to be tackled with an understanding of chemical and physical reactions, geographical transport of air and clouds around the globe, health effects, and engineering that help mitigate emissions, many researchers in this field will have to learn how to speak to an interdisciplinary audience.

Link to original image on flickr
Assassin’s Creed IV by Rob Obsidian


Each video game has its own world, set of characters, and narrative that takes you through a story. In the game making industry, all these elements start from a concept developed by a writer.

Take characters: someone telling you to draw “a male character wearing a hooded coat and weapons” likely won’t inspire much creativity, whereas a writer elaborating a concept of “an 18th century pirate in the Caribbean islands who disguises himself as a rogue assassin, using his pistol and dual blades to navigate the islands and fight his way through to an assassin’s guild,” may inspire a character with a hooded coat and weapons, but with a much richer backstory.

Writers develop the backstory, the colors of the world and characters, the features, the clothes, the behaviors, the voice and attitude–everything required to paint a picture in the minds of collaborating concept artists, modelers, animators, sound techs, and directors. Game writer Sean Smillie, in a recent talk at the launch of the Game Academy at UBC, showed how to approach writing from this creative perspective, from a writer’s role to how writers can use the power of their words to communicate ideas that materialize into a visual game.

February 18, 2016Permalink Leave a comment

10 Selected Talks from 2015 – Part 1: Discovery and Inventions

Reflecting back on the researchers and science communicators I encountered in 2015, I selected a highlight of 10 topics that I have not yet elaborated on this blog. Part 1 focuses on discoveries and inventions.



Nature created berries with an amazingly vivid metallic blue color that doesn’t fade for decades, as I covered in this previous post. The following two studies also led to discoveries that help us learn something new about ourselves and our world.

  • Nobel prize winner Dr. Richard Schrock‘s discovery in double bond chemistry has a surprising application that prevents insects from mating. Using “olefin metathesis” (as a more efficient and greener way to synthesize new compounds, explained in detail here), chemists can artificially produce pheromones that would confuse male peach-tree borer flies such that they can’t find a female mate, allowing to get rid of fruit-tree eating larvae without strong pesticides.


In a previous post, I covered an invention of super gels that tackled the challenges of creating tough gel polymer materials. Here are a few more examples of discovery leading to creative new technology in our daily lives.

  • Like the organs created by 3D-printersDr. Kelly BéruBé has “built” a lung from live cells, but they are virtually fully functional – the surface structures beat rhythmically and chemical reactions occur just as in a lung in a human body. Dr. BéruBé’s man-made “living” lungs may allow scientists to test the efficacy of drugs and impact of pollutants on human health without human or animal subjects.
  • Biofuels – alternative energy sourced from plants – is a growing field. (More about biofuels on Inside Science news). While our current biofuel industry struggles to fully utilize a compound called lignin from plants, Dr. Gregg Beckham looks to soil microbes that naturally use lignin to fuel their metabolism. These microbes can help us invent “biological funnels” where ideally we can feed lignin to soil microbes and extract compounds that are more maneageable for us to turn into valuable biofuels. Red more in the paper published in PNAS.
  • Paper and tape – sounds simple, cheap, and light to carry around. With paper, tape, and some teflon ink printing, Dr. Frédérique Deiss crafted petri dishes to grow cells and conduct diagnostic lab tests. It may offer low cost options to reproduce diagnostic tests at remote sites and in developing countries where state of the art equipment is not available or too costly to transport. Read more in University of Alberta’s news coverage here.


Referenced talks:

Brumer, H. (2015 Mar). Sweet and Savory: Understanding biological systems through structure-activity relationships between carbohydrates and enzymes. Public lecture, Vancouver, BC.

Schrock, R. (2015 May). My role in elucidating the catalytic reaction that led to a Nobel Prize in 2005. Public lecture, Vancouver, BC.

Beckham, G. (2015 Oct). Lignin valorization via biological funneling and chemical catalysis. Seminar presentation, Vancouver, BC.

BéruBé, K. (2015 Mar). Alternative for Particle Research: Stuck Between a Rat and a Hard Place. Webcast, Vancouver, BC.

Deiss, F. (2015 Jan). Bioanalytical platforms from paper and imaging fiber. Seminar presentation, Vancouver, BC.

The summaries in this post is a personal selection of highlights from each of the talks and they do not necessarily reflect the overall idea delivered in each respective talk. 

Dragons and eagles: a close look at claws

The word “dragons” bring to mind images of beastly creatures looming out of a dark cavern, spreading their tough and bulky wings and breathing fire in the air. However, shift your attention from European folklore to Asian historical art, and you’ll have dragons with a more serpentine body gracefully rising into the clouds.

Link to original image on deviantart.
Dragons by Junowski.

Speaking to an artist recently opened my eyes to how using a dragon as a motif may not be that easy when dragons have many regional differences in how they are depicted, and each can speak to a long history of symbolic meaning in a culture. To give an example, Japanese dragons are often depicted with 3 claws, while a Chinese dragon has 4 claws, except the imperial Chinese dragon which has 5 claws (a 5-clawed dragon was long forbidden for use by any other than the imperial family). Among east Asian countries, drawing a dragon accurately requires great attention to detail, even in the dragon’s feet.

Link to original image on wikimedia commons, uploaded by Louis le Grand
Chinese dragons by Chen Rong

Though dragons are a mythical creature, ancient Chinese imperial dragons are said to have claws inspired by an eagle’s talons. Just as the feet can suggest the culture where a dragon originated, an eagle’s feet also tells us a lot about the bird’s evolutionary origin and ecological niche.

Feet of eagles and other birds of prey are given a category of its own in bird feet morphology. These raptors have strong feet with heavy padding and sharp, curved talons on each toe. Eagles use the sharp talons to pierce captured prey or grip tight to carry the prey over long distances. A falcon’s talons would knock a prey out of the air, or clasp down on the prey while the falcon delivers a killing blow with its beak. 

The majority of birds have four toes, though known exceptions are two toes for ostriches, three toes for emus and some aquatic birds, and the slightly less obvious remnant of a fifth toe in the defensive spur of chickens. In eagles and most raptors, the four toes are arranged with three toes in the front and a fourth pointing backwards (anisodactyl toe arrangement). This arrangement is common in perching song birds and birds of prey requiring a firm grip on tree branches or their prey. This is unlike woodpeckers, parrots, and cuckoos that have two toes forwards and two toes backwards (zygodactyl toe arrangement). The origin of zygodactyly is debated, but the extra toe in the back seems to provide stability for perching laterally on a tree surface or allow birds to manipulate different types of prey.

Bird of Prey

Of the raptors, owls and ospreys are quite special. They can move one of their toes to switch from the anisodactyl (3 front, 1 back) to zygodactyl (2 front, 2 back) arrangement and back. This is similar to how we can either put our thumb flat along the other 4 fingers, or rotate it down to get a firm grip on something. Owls and ospreys can rotate one finger, but instead of an opposable thumb it is an opposable pinky finger.

As dragon claws show subtle regional differences, birds of prey show so much diversity in the shape and use of their feet. Next time I see a dragon or a bird, I might be looking at its feet, trying to guess its origin and lifestyle.

December 8, 2015Permalink Leave a comment

A chipmunk’s seed-scattering

Do you like food? What if you find out all your restaurants, cafes and grocery stores will close down for 6 months?

This is what many chipmunks must face when the winter months are approaching, and soon no new food would be available until the spring. Through the summer and fall, many chipmunks busily collect nuts, seeds and other food items and bury them in underground caches to later revisit during the winter.

Link to original image on wikimedia commons.
Chipmunk by Anders Link.

You might imagine a chipmunk stockpiling their favorite nuts in a single cache, which is basically “putting all their eggs in one basket” and viciously defending it (larder-hoarders). There is a second type of hoarder – those who spread out its collection in hundreds to thousands of small caches (scatter-hoarders).

I’ve chosen as our main character today the yellow-pine chipmunk, a scatter hoarder. How strategic are the yellow-pine chipmunks in how they store and recover their food stores? Let’s follow one through these hypothetical scenarios:


Scenario 1: I found a pine seed!

Into the cheek pouch and into the cache! Chipmunks are incredibly industrious – an individual yellow-pine chipmunk may collect up to 68,000 items for a single winter, and bury them in thousands of separate caches. Of course, they would look incredibly cute doing this (I saw a squirrel bury an acorn a few weeks ago, and it was one of the most adorable scenes of a squirrel).

Link to original image on Wikipedia.
Chipmunk stuffing an acorn into its cheek pouch, from Wikimedia Commons.


Scenario 2: I found another pine seed.

Again, time to cache! However, for scatter hoarders, it may be key where they cache each food item. Researchers have studied how far chipmunks will go from the source of the food before they bury the food item (for efficiency), and also how much distance there is between caches (to reduce risk of losing caches to competitors finding multiple caches in the same area).


Scenario 3: Another chipmunk is watching. It may steal my food.

Link to original image on flickr.
Chipmunk vs robot by Amber Case.

May have to adjust the caching. Knowing a competitor is in the vicinity can affect the caching behavior for many animals in terms of the frequency of caching, location of caching, or whether they cache at all. Gray squirrels and some crows will create “false” caches by burying stones or digging up and covering an empty cache as a means of deception for its competitors (though there are no studies showing whether yellow-pine chipmunks do this as well).

Scenario 4: I found a better spot to hide my seeds!

Is it worth moving? Chipmunks may revisit its caches to dig up and move the seeds to a new location farther away, so that it is even harder for other competitors to find it.

Scenario 5: I found a seed, but it’s small and looks like it’s going to sprout soon.

Eat it now. Not all food items are cached — sometimes a chipmunk would just eat the food on the spot. Researchers propose possible reasons for why a chipmunk may choose to eat or store the food item, such as the abundance of the food item, whether the food item stores well and maintains its nutritional value in the long term, or the time required to eat it. For example, a large acorn with a hard shell may take longer to eat than to carry it to a cache, so it may be more efficient to store until later.

Scenario 6: I’m hungry, but winter is here and there are no seeds on the ground.

Time to dig up the caches — this is what the hoarding was for! A yellow-pine chipmunk essentially “hibernates” during the winter but would wake up every 5-7 days to relocate their caches to eat and resupply their metabolism.

Link to original image on wikimedia commons.
Eastern chipmunk by Oleksii Voronin.


Scenario 7: I found some seeds, but I don’t think it’s the one I buried.

Score! Don’t care who buried it, more food is good. The yellow-pine chipmunks compete for food with other animals including fellow chipmunks and Steller’s jays. The same way the chipmunk’s cache may be stolen from by another animal, the chipmunk can use its smell or random searching to locate another animal’s cache.

Scenario 8: I forgot where I hid the rest of my seeds.

Link to original image on pixabay.
Chipmunk by lancealot21.

If hungry, sniff; if full, oh well. If memory fails, the chipmunk can sometimes sniff out food, or by chance locate its own or others’ buried food, especially when there is moisture. Also, any seeds left behind uneaten will be quite happy as they will germinate in the spring and help regenerate the forest in the spring.

The chipmunk won’t recover everything it buried (roughly 56-76%, based on a 2006 study). The remainder may be key to allowing the seed-bearing trees to survive and grow more food for the chipmunks next year.


For a larder-hoarding Eastern chipmunk, there is comfort in having all the food in once place, but “almost 50% of hard-earned hoards are stolen by other animals including other chipmunks,” according to BBC One (See a young Eastern chipmunk learn this very fast in BBC One’s Hidden Kingdom Series: Secret Forests. The full episode is now on Netflix).

Given that level of competition, scattering the food stores seems a smart alternative – it reduces the risk of one competitor being able to steal the entire cache, and reduces the effort required to defend the cache. The challenge, then, is to strategically spread out the caches and to relocate them again.

If you were a chipmunk preparing for winter, larder-hoarding or scatter-hoarding – which strategy would you choose?

Link to original image on Flickr.
Eastern chipmunk by Gilles Gonthier.



Thanks to the Beaty Biodiversity Museum for introducing me to the concepts of winter caching, larder hoarding, and scatter hoarding. This article applied those concepts to the yellow-pine chipmunk, but at the museum, you can learn about what winter caching is like for squirrels, foxes, and bears.

November 2, 2015Permalink Leave a comment

Cracking the code: color

“Marble berries” have fruits that are not only blue, but shiny, metallic blue. Close up, you can also see flickers of rainbow colors. As the berries’ leaves eventually wither from bright green to dull brown, you would expect these bright blue colors to disappear as well, but somehow the fruits keep the same polished blue color for months, years, and even decades.

Now, soap bubbles may be transparent, but the light somehow makes rainbow colors on the surface as the bubbles float into the sky. Marble berries and soap bubbles actually have colors made in similar ways –  and this is the secret to why marble berries have luminous and long-lasting colors.

Link to original image on flickr.com
Soap bubbles by Martin Fisch.

Surprisingly, it was was a physicist working in materials chemistry who taught me how this plant produces color. By modifying a basic plant material, cellulose, Dr. Silvia Vignolini is trying to recreate the marble berry (Pollia condensata)’s intense blue colors. Imagine if we could make long-lasting color to paint our houses or dye our clothes so they don’t fade, won’t turn white with bleach, and are much cheaper than dyes we currently use.

A key point is that the marble berry and soap bubbles’s colors are produced by structural color. The berry is smooth, but on a microscopic (or even smaller nano-) scale, the berry has stacks of tiny arc-shaped structures on the surface. These shapes help amplify reflected light to produce an intense blue. Different thicknesses of cellulose add red and green to the mix, helping to create a hologram effect. Usually, we see color because of a material’s inherent chemical properties (pigment/dye), but pigment would degrade after a while and the color fades. With structure creating color, the marble berries stay vivid metallic blue as long as the surface structures stay intact.

So far, blue is the most common structural color, but there are lots of other examples of structural color: the sparkly red on hummingbird necks, cat eyes glowing in the dark, or peacock feathers that change color depending on the angle you look at them…we’re making progress to crack the code for nature’s vivid colors.


Inspired by the presentation: Vignolini, Silvia. “Photonic Structures in Plants and Cellulose Biomimetic: From Nature to Materials.” University of British Columbia. Vancouver, BC. 27 Jun 2014. Related publication (

Christmas encounter with alpacas

“Come touch these!” I called over to my friends at the Christmas market booth. I thought I found the softest fur I ever touched.

“They’re from alpacas.” The shopkeeper walked over and I shyly drew back my hand, but he smiled and continued. “The special thing about alpaca, is that each strand of fur is a hollow tube. It’s not a twisted fiber like sheep’s wool, so there are no rough edges.”

Alpacas and scarves made from alpaca fiber. Photo by Maki Sumitani.

Alpacas are animals in the same family as llamas and camels. They have very long and full fur, so their annual haircut gives us alpaca fleece that can be used to make scarves, hats, socks, and incredibly soft stuffed animals like the ones I encountered at the market. Continue reading

December 31, 2014Permalink Leave a comment

Dragonflies a marvel for scientists and … samurai

I luckily caught a glimpse of this beautiful blue dragonfly on my last rock climbing trip in Squamish, BC. If you’ve seen a dragonfly in action, it speedily buzzes past, stops to hover a bit, and continues darting here and there. When it finds a place to land, it slowly and gracefully flaps its four wings up and down, but as soon as you get near it’s gone off into the air.

Dragonfly in arms reach. Photo by Maki Sumitani.
Dragonfly in arms reach. Photo by Maki Sumitani.

The way a dragonfly flies actually gave it a symbolic significance in Japanese culture. During my time training in Continue reading

3 incredible facts about leeches

The thought of leeches would gross some people out, as it is a type of worm that attaches itself to various animal prey and feed on its blood (I do not suggest a google image search of leeches!). However, some incredible characteristics of leeches attract biologists, mathematicians, and doctors.

  1. Link to original image on flickr
    Leopard in hiding. Photo from flickr by SafariTails.com

    DNA from blood in leeches are used to study shy or rare animals that are hard to encounter. Many animals in tropical forests are difficult to find due to their shy or cryptic nature, and this becomes a problem for endangered mammals that need to be closely monitored. Instead of going through the trouble of searching for the mammals or collecting traces of them, scientists turned to leeches. Since leeches feed on blood from other animals, scientists can extract DNA of whatever was prey to the leech within the last 4 months. With this information, scientists were able to better confirm the existence or distribution of threatened species, study genetic characteristics, and even discover new species.

  2. Link to original image on publicdomainpictures.net
    Reimaging of a heartbeat on Public Domain Pictures.

    Leeches have a weird pattern of heart beats! The human heart pumps blood around the body as its 4 chambers – 2 on the right, 2 on the left – contract in turns. In contrast, the leech heart has a row of 10-15 chambers on each side (right and left) of its body. As Ian Stewart describes eloquently in his book Mathematics of Life, all the right side chambers first beat in sync. At the same time, the left side chambers take turns, sending a wave of pulses from the back to the front of the leech. After 20-40 beats, the left and right side patterns switch, so now the left chambers beat together, while the right chambers beat in sequence. At any moment, one side of the heart is beating together, while the other side beats in a wave. Extensive studies model the neurological driving forces of this odd heart beat, but scientists still don’t know why they beat this way.

  3. Link to original image on wikimedia commons.
    Surgery room. Photo from wikimedia commons.

    The chemicals that leeches secrete are helpful in surgery. When a leech attaches itself to its prey, it secretes a natural anaesthetic and anticoagulant that keep blood from clotting and allow it to keep flowing until the leech is full. To surgeons, this makes leeches useful tools to allow a healthy blood flow while amputated parts of the body are reattached. Records from as early as 2500 years ago suggest that leeches were used for medicinal purposes to draw blood out of a patient to cure various illnesses. Though these older methods are no longer supported by scientific evidence, the legacy of the “medicinal leech”, Hirudo medicinalis, carries on to modern medicine.



Ask the moss about heavy metals

Surrounded by atmospheric scientists at work, I imagine this type of equipment for air quality monitoring:

Link to original image on wikimedia commons.
An air quality monitoring station. Photo from wikipedia.
Link to original image on Flickr
Air pollutant monitoring equipment by Barnaby Smith / Centre for Ecology & Hydrology on Flickr

but apparently, moss like these –

Link to original image on wikimedia commons
Sphagnum moss. Photo from wikipedia.

are inexpensive and efficient tools for monitoring heavy metals in the atmosphere.

People have known for a while that moss are able to absorb these pollutants. Norway has a cool map of heavy metal concentrations and the changes over the past 40 years, all using moss as a source of data. See the map of lead, for example.

Plants with roots take up nutrients from the soil, but moss lack roots and instead absorb their nutrients directly from the air moisture. Moss also lack a continuous protective cuticle layer that makes moss tissue more permeable to gas exchange. This makes them better indicators of air pollutants. Continue reading

“Filter cleaning” with mussels

Mussels may be familiar to us on our dinner plates, steamed in butter and white wine sauce. In New York, it has become a city project  to study a related type of mussel called the ribbed mussel (Geukensia demissa) in Long Island Sound. These mussels are the focus of a developing technology called “bioextraction” that might help clean up coastal waters.

Link to photo on wikipedia.
Filter-feeding blue mussels, familiar to us on our dinner plates. Photo from Wikipedia.

Ribbed mussels have some fascinating facts – they grow their shells in an annual cycle, so like counting tree rings, we can determine the age of a ribbed mussel by Continue reading

March 31, 2014Permalink 1 Comment