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Four Tips on Applying for the NSF GRFP

As a past recipient of the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, I tend to get a lot of questions from students in my department about how to write a good application – particularly this time of year, as the fellowship application deadline approaches.

There are already a lot of good sources for advice on the internet (particularly here and here, and lots of good links here, to name a few), but I want to add my thoughts as well. In a nutshell, the four points I find myself repeating year after year are:

  1. Look at previous winners’ applications
  2. Ask someone to read (and critique) your proposal
  3. Pay attention to Broader Impacts
  4. Apply early and apply often

I’ve explained each of these points in more detail below. Advance warning, but this post is pretty long – feel free to jump ahead if there’s a section you’re particularly interested in.

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Some reflections on particle physics (and why it’s hard to write about the Higgs)

When I was in elementary school, I wanted to be a particle physicist. My fifth grade class took a field trip to the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, and I was fascinated by the fact that it took such giant machines to investigate phenomena occurring on such tiny scales.

Fast forward 15 years. Somewhere along the way, I got sidetracked by chemistry, but there’s still a part of me that is inexorably drawn to these beautiful experiments digging down into the fundamental science underlying our world.

So with that in mind, perhaps you’ll understand why I was excited – and a bit apprehensive – to be asked to write about the Higgs boson and the role played by UW-Madison researchers for yesterday’s issue of the Daily Cardinal.

I was excited, because it was a perfect excuse to email a particle physicist, ask for an interview, and go pick his brain. I spent about 40 minutes talking to UW physics professor Wesley Smith last Wednesday, and he gave me some useful (and interesting) insights into the parts of the Higgs story that I’ve found confusing.

But I was also apprehensive, because particle physics, and especially the Higgs boson, is an incredibly complicated topic – how can you possibly do it justice in just 600 or 700 words?

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Book Review: Physics of the Impossible, by Michio Kaku

When I was preparing my Nerdnite talk and Lasers in SF posts back in February, I did a lot of reading, ranging from a textbook on laser processing of materials to a novel about the Death Star.

All of these books were interesting and useful, but the one standout on the list was Michio Kaku’s Physics of the Impossible. This is by far one of the best books I’ve ever read on the science of science fiction, and I highly encourage you to give it a go.

Kaku structures the book around three different classes of “impossibilities.” He starts with what he calls “Class I impossibilities,” which are technologies that aren’t possible today, but which don’t violate any of the known laws of physics and might be possible with the right scientific advances. In this section, Kaku devotes each chapter to a different technology, and does a fantastic job of helping us think through how technologies we have today might someday develop into the stuff of science fiction.

For example, in his section on psychokinesis, he mentioned that we already have the technology to implant computer chips into the brain to pick up neural signals, and that these signals can be used to control computers (or computer-controlled objects). Then he reminded us of an earlier discussion about room temperature superconductors and levitation. So what if, he asks, we could link these two systems together and use magnets to levitate objects simply by thinking? Sure, it’s not quite psychokinesis in the sense of pure mental energy, but it’s a way we might someday use technology to achieve the same effect.

These sorts of discussions gave Kaku a great venue for discussing the potential uses – and the limits – of a wide variety of up-and-coming technologies. In most cases, he also discusses the underlying science in clear, accessible language.

After the long section on Class I impossibilities, Kaku moves on to things that are decidedly more impossible. Read more…

UW Conversation on the Controversial H5N1 Papers

Those of you who follow science news may be familiar with the controversy surrounding two recent papers on H5N1, or avian flu. Two research groups, one in the US (led by Yoshihiro Kawaoka) and one in the Netherlands (led by Ron Fouchier) showed that with a small number of mutations, the virus could become transmissible in mammals.

This research became controversial when scientists raised concerns that it might be too dangerous to publish, because it could potentially be misused to create bioweapons or accidentally trigger a global pandemic as other researchers try to mimic the work. After initially recommending that the papers be published only in redacted form, however, the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) reversed its decision and recommended publication in full.

This controversy has received a lot of coverage in the media, and I won’t rehash it here (though if you are interested, you can see how it progressed from this list of articles on ScienceInsider). The controversy over these papers is particularly close to home in Madison, however, because Kawaoka is a professor here at UW-Madison, and his research was conducted in a lab at the University Research Park.

Yesterday, the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery hosted a panel discussion about Kawaoka’s work. There were a couple of interesting points that came up during this discussion which have been largely absent from the media coverage, and I thought I might highlight a few of them here.

Yesterday’s panel included three speakers, each of whom gave a short presentation before the floor was opened to questions from the audience. The speakers were:

  • Yoshihiro Kawaoka, principal investigator for one of the two controversial papers, and professor at UW-Madison
  • William Mellon, an associate dean for research at UW-Madison and professor in the school of pharmacy
  • Pilar Ossorio, a professor of law and bioethics at the university’s law school

Kawaoka focused primarily on the motivation for doing these experiments and why the NSABB changed its stance on the publication of his work.(*) All in all, I thought his presentation was informative, but for the most part he only rehashed material that has been covered elsewhere. See, for example, his comment in Nature about why the flu work is urgent, Ed Yong’s explainer about the risks and benefits of publishing the mutant flu studies, Ed Yong’s post about why the NSABB changed its mind and recommended publication, and (again) Ed Yong’s storify of the H5N1 conference at the Royal Society in April, at which I think Kawaoka gave a pretty similar presentation.

Mellon gave a similarly informative talk, though he focused on the federal and university rules and guidelines about dual-use research, which is a subject that I know less about. He talked a lot about the NSABB’s new recommendations about how to assess and manage dual use research of concern (which you can read in the surprisingly short document found here).

He also gave an overview of the process for assessing this type of research at the university, starting from an initial evaluation by the researcher during the planning stage, through institutional review of the risks and risk management strategies, and up to the researcher’s responsibility to publish the research in a responsible manner.

I think his main point here was that the biosafety and biosecurity concerns are considered at EVERY step of the process. From some of the mass media coverage it might be easy to conclude that Kawaoka and Fouchier did this research without thinking through any of this stuff, but Mellon’s discussion made it clear that (for Kawaoka’s work, at least) that is not true.

To me, however, the most interesting of the three presentations was Pilar Ossorio’s discussion of the ethical aspects of conducting and regulating this type of research.

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Toxic Carnival: Fun with Fluoride

Note: this was written for Sciencegeist’s Toxic Carnival. Enjoy, and be sure to check out the other contributions! (Sciencegeist is providing a daily roundup of links, or you can find them via the #ToxicCarnival hashtag on Twitter.)


Hydrogen fluoride, or hydrofluoric acid, is nasty stuff. Because it is small and has no charge, it slips easily through fatty cell membranes and penetrates deep into the body. Once there, the fluoride ion it contains grabs onto vital calcium ions, interferes with proteins that help nerves transmit signals, and helps create other chemical species which damage cells.

Needless to say, hydrofluoric acid (HF for short) is very, very toxic. It’s considered a contact poison, meaning you can be poisoned just by getting enough of it on your skin.  It is also just about the only chemical I can think of for which the antidote is stored right next to where it’s used in the lab.

Hydrofluoric acid has a lot of industrial uses, ranging from making teflon to etching glass and the silicon wafers used in computer chips.  But several related chemicals, also containing fluoride ions, can be found much closer to home.

Look at your toothpaste. The active ingredient is probably either sodium fluoride, tin (stannous) fluoride, or sodium monofluorophosphate. Or better yet, go fill up a glass of water at your kitchen sink. Depending on where you live, and particularly if you’re in the US, there’s a good chance that your tap water contains some sort of added fluoride compound.

These fluoride compounds aren’t nearly as toxic as hydrofluoric acid.  But they can, in small quantities, convert into HF in your stomach, and from there, make their way to the rest of your body.  If this is the case, and if fluoride is so toxic once it gets to our cells, then why do we drink fluoride-containing water? Why do we put fluoride compounds in our mouths every time we brush our teeth?

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Book Review: Your Brain on Food, by Gary Wenk

One of the the reasons I started this blog is to force myself to practice writing, with the hope that writing about science regularly will help me become a better science writer and science communicator. However, I think it’s also useful to read a lot of science writing, and think critically about what works and what doesn’t in the approaches that other authors take.

With that in mind, I’m going to try to post book reviews when I read general-audience science books. This week, I’ll kick things off with a review of Your Brain on Food: How Chemicals Control Your Thoughts and Feelings by Gary Wenk.

Your Brain on Food focuses on the major neurotransmitter systems in the brain, and how the substances that we take into our bodies affect those systems. I say “substances,” because the book really focuses on what most of us would call drugs rather than food – though Wenk argues in the first chapter that the line between “food” and “drug” is very hard to draw.

After a brief introduction in chapter one, Wenk organizes each subsequent chapter around a different neurotransmitter system. He begins by explaining what the neurotransmitter does in the body, and then talks about substances that enhance or inhibit its function. I felt like this structure worked pretty well, and it allowed him to talk about a wide range of neurotransmitter systems (from acetylcholine and serotonin to amino acids and peptides) in bite-sized, easily-digestible pieces.

I learned a lot of interesting facts from this book. For example, did you know that unripe bananas cause diarrhea because they contain serotonin, which provokes a response from your gut? Or that tobacco companies add ammonia to tobacco to raise the pH and increase absorption of nicotine in the mouth? Fascinating stuff! The book is probably worth reading for these sorts of tidbits alone.

But this book isn’t just about factoids. Wenk also does a great job of driving home some “big picture” ideas in neuroscience and drug chemistry. One of the ideas he returns to over and over is the idea that how easily a chemical dissolves in lipids (fat) determines how quickly it gets taken up in the brain.

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Video and Research Highlight: Dissolving cellulose in ionic liquids for biofuels

If you’re following me on twitter or G+, you might have seen that I wrote another research highlight for the Daily Cardinal this week, this time focusing on a new biofuels start-up company here in Wisconsin.

The company, co-founded by UW-Madison biochemistry professor Ron Raines, is developing a process for dissolving cellulose in ionic liquids and converting it into useful sugars that can be used as feedstocks for other chemical processes (like conversion to ethanol, octane, or precursors for materials syntheses).

I’ve mostly described the chemistry in the article, but I wanted to post a cool video here that’s related to this research:

This is a video of a cotton ball being dissolved in an ionic liquid. Cotton is more than 90% celllulose, and it’s not something we usually think of as easy to dissolve. Yet this ionic liquid pulls it apart in a matter of seconds. How???

The key is that the strands of sugar that make up cellulose are held together by a ton of hydrogen bonds. The oxygen and hydrogen atoms in the sugars have slight negative and positive charges, which attract each other and cause neighboring strands to stick together.

This ionic liquid, on the other hand, contains a high concentration of chloride ions, which are free to roam around (unlike, say, the chloride ions in a solution of table salt in water – in that case, the chloride ions are more interested in interacting with the water than with anything else). These chloride ions are also very negatively charged, and they can disrupt the hydrogen bond interactions holding together the cellulose strands.

As a result, when you drop cellulose into this ionic liquid, poof – there it goes! Into solution, and ready for you to do chemistry on it.

I think that’s pretty cool, don’t you?

If you’re interested, the research described in this highlight comes from this PNAS paper. It’s even open access, so you can read the whole thing if you are so inclined!

Lasers in SF, Part VII: Wrap-up, and some final thoughts

I intended to write one more post for the lasers in science fiction series, about how lasers work, but I decided that I’ve lost momentum on this topic and it’s time to move on to something else. However, I don’t want to end without offering a few final thoughts.

As we’ve seen, sometimes movies get the physics right. Lasers can cut through thick pieces of metal, and you should be able to see a laser that’s fired in a planet’s atmosphere. Often, however, movies get the physics wrong. Lasers fired in outer space shouldn’t be visible, laser beams travel faster than you can capture on camera, and it would be really, really hard to pull together enough power to blow up a planet.

But does it matter? Do movies NEED to be perfectly faithful to science?

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Lasers in SF, Part VI: What about those pulsed weapons?

Well, I seem to have gotten a bit behind with this one. But I promise I haven’t forgotten. So in the interest of getting right to the good stuff, how about a clip from Austin Powers? I hope you like sharks with frickin’ laser beams attached to their frickin’ heads:

These are some pretty bad-ass sharks. The lasers on their heads are pretty small, but still unleash enough energy to create a nice fireball when they hit.(*)

Any time I see a laser weapon fired like this, though, I get a little tetchy because the physics doesn’t quite add up. Notice how there’s a fraction of a second delay between when the laser fires and when it hits its target? The pulse travels fast, but we still get to “watch” it travel from the weapon to the wall.

I don’t know about you, but when I walk into a room and flip the light switch, the lights look like they come on instantly.(+) I don’t see a noticeable lag as I wait for the light to mosey its way over from the bulb to my eyes. Light doesn’t mosey, it races.

So today’s question is, how far off are the movies? Do laser beams actually travel that slow?

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UW Research Highlight: Why we need to hear each other

The next lasers in science fiction post will be coming soon, but I’m pushing it back a bit – I’ve been focusing most of my science-writing energy elsewhere this week.

As some of you know, I’ve recently joined the science staff at the Daily Cardinal, one of UW-Madison’s two daily student newspapers. Last week, I interviewed Leslie Seltzer, a postdoctoral fellow at the Child Emotion Research Lab in the psychology department, for a short research highlight that was published in today’s paper.

Leslie does some fascinating research, and I really enjoyed getting to interview her. She studies the evolution of language, and has recently done some cool experiments showing that we react differently to speech than we do to written language.

In the experiment I wrote about in this research highlight, for example, she put a group of young (~10 years old) girls through a stressful situation, and then monitored the changes in their stress levels as they interacted with their mothers either in person, on the phone, or by instant message.

I’ll let you read the article for Leslie’s conclusions and the details on the study. However, I wanted to highlight a few things here that I thought were interesting but that didn’t make it into my final version of the story.

What cortisol and oxytocin do in your body

One of the things that I didn’t really get to go into in this story, for example, was the roles of oxytocin and cortisol in the body. In the story for the Daily Cardinal, I wrote that “cortisol is released in response to continuing stressful situations” and “oxytocin is involved in female reproductive processes but also plays a role in forming and maintaining social relationships.”

These short descriptions were fine for explaining Leslie’s research, because all you need to know is that she measures cortisol to monitor the girls’ stress levels, and she monitors oxytocin to look at attachment, trust, and comfort. However, these short explanations only scratch the surface of some really interesting stuff going on in our bodies.

Cortisol, for example, is a steroid hormone, which is produced in the adrenal gland in your brain as part of a system that helps you react and adapt to your environment Read more…