Monthly Archives: February 2016

Report HUB20 – Storytelling in Science

This is a short summary of what took place at HUB20 – Storytelling in Science.

HUB 20 was held on Tuesday, the 8th of December 2015. The theme of the meeting was storytelling in science, with the aim that participants work together to think about how they might use creative ways to talk about their work and aspects relating to their work. More than 30 people from institutes across Heidelberg and beyond attended the event. The evening began with a warm up exercise, where people were given pieces of a Christmas card and then asked to find the people with the other parts to complete the puzzle. Then participants sellotaped the cards together and wrote a message of good will to one of the other HUBs around the world that have been inspired by the Heidelberg Unseminars in Bioinformatics.

Next came a talk by Adam Gristwood, an Editor from EMBL who gave an overview of the potential for weaving narrative into how one speaks about science. One take home message was to think about the audience. One example to give some context to this was given by Adam who recalled a speaker from a performing arts school began what seemed initially to be a fairly mundane talk on this topic, before grabbing a guitar and strumming a tune telling people to *LOVE* their audience, whoever they are and singing a personal story about his experiences with different audiences and their very varied responses. The idea is that people generally like stories about people, so starting your story at a human level – such as why you became a scientist in the first place –, can be a good place to begin. Especially in communicating to the public, but also to peers in different fields of expertise, it can be useful to take a step back – think about why your research is important? What is the bigger picture? It is also important to remember storytelling and narrative is just one tool of many that one can use to communicate – so appropriateness is also important to consider.

Some examples of creative ways to do this can be found here:

With this in mind, participants were asked to get into groups of three and assign one interviewer, one interviewee, one reporter.

Interviewer asked questions to interviewee – with aim to extract unique facts about the person. Reporter to write briefly three “unique” facts they observe from the interview on card provided.

The aim was to encourage participants to think about 1) the way they tell stories about themselves; 2) the way they seek stories and information from others; 3) the kind of information that is interesting to take from

Next up was two talks:

Eva-Maria Gottman, head of marketing at the BioMed-X Innovation Centre, explored how Disney Pixar develops stories for their movies, and some of the simple principles behind it that can be translated to science communication. Eva-Maria also looked at story structure, and how considering this structure can help get your message across.

Lucas Czech, a PhD student at the Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies, gave an brilliantly-illustrated presentation to explain his work science-slam style. He told the Story of Small-land and Tinyton”, to shed light on his work analysing microbial communities via shotgun sequencing and evolutionary placements of the resulting reads on a reference tree.

Participants were then asked to come up with analogies for their research, in order to give a visual hook to the listener who can take their understanding of everyday things and use these to have a better idea about scientific work. But some caution was urged! – as science journalist Jacob Aron once said: “Analogies in science writing are like forklift trucks – when used correctly they do a lot of heavy lifting, but if you don’t know what you’re doing you’ll quickly drive them into a wall of laboured metaphors and cause some major damage.”

This was discussed in small groups, the groups then selected their favourite one and from these selections, people voted for their overall favourites. Ideas included:

  • Is being sick during childhood like being vaccinated against asthma?
  • Building open source software is like being in an open playground where parents gave you the tools and you can do whatever you want with those tools.
  • Bioinformatics is like a recycling machine – put in raw material and get a useful output.
  • 3d chromatin architecture is like a spaghetti with meatballs – it is a mess!
  • And the winner… Nanobodies can be used like a chewing gum in a keyhole so the key does not fit anymore.

For anyone interested in the concept of analogy itself, the following book is a good read: Surfaces and Essences, by Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander –

The authors write: “…the spotting of analogies pervades every moment of our thought, thus constituting thought’s core. To put it more explicitly, analogies do not happen in our minds just once a week, once a day, once an hour, or once a minute; they spring up inside our minds numerous times every second. We swim non-stop in an ocean of small, medium-sized and large analogies, ranging from mundane trivialities to brilliant insights… This incessant mental sparkling, lying somewhere below the conscious threshold gives rise to our most basic, humdrum low-level acts of categorisation, whose purpose is to allow us to understand the situations we encounter (or at least their most primordial elements) and to let us communicate with others about them.”

The evening concluded with a gluhwein (or two!) at the Christmas market.

(Report written by Adam Gristwood)

Report HUB 21 – Interactive notebooks

You can find more details of how the event was run here.

Interest in IPython/Jupyter notebooks was enormous so we actually had to close the doodle pool once we reached 50 participants due to space constraints at BioMed X. As expected from the doodle results around 50 people actually showed up. For the icebreaker people had to arrange themselves in the corridor based on their coding experience from the least experienced to the most experienced. Ice breaker was followed by short information about BioMed X presented by one of BioMed X’s group leaders Simone Fulle. Samo Turk then gave short introduction in Python programming and Jupyter notebooks showing some basic concepts in Python programming and explaining the benefits of interactive notebooks. Florian Huber followed with R in Jupyter demonstrating the power of excellent Bioconductor package. Finally Samo explained the basic idea behind pair programming which was also an introduction into the group activity – pair programming. Based on the icebreaker it was clear that roughly half people were inexperienced in programming so people formed pairs with one experienced and one inexperienced member. They were allowed to use any programming language to solve Rosalind problems ( People really enjoyed this exercise and some pairs were actively coding even after the official program ended at 9:30pm and the last pair stopped coding at 11pm!