I had the pleasure of talking about our Juvenile Hormone Esterase study at Cold Spring Harbor in May. The paper is on bioRxiv and in review. Hopefully out soon. Here's a short talk I gave on the subject.
Check out my handsome new preprint on the evolution of a family of juvenile hormone esterase-like proteins. We see three features of neofunctionalization: duplications, positive selection and a change in localization. On top of that, when we use a pharmacological inhibitor in vivo in the food and thus trophallactic fluid of nurse-ants rearing larvae, more of those larva survive past adulthood, showing that by regulating these esterases' activity in rearing workers, we can regulate larval development.
We researchers build a lot of things that no one will ever use. Why do we do this? It's not because we like to suffer, but rather because often we need solutions for very particular problems. So imagine my joy when I discovered an excellent piece of software that was written for a different purpose but it works shockingly well for my purpose. At a meeting at the Weizmann with a bunch of folks from Konstanz I was chatting with Ian Etheredge and he pointed me to it.
Take home messages: Talk to people. Someone may have built exactly what you need!
I was invited to talk about the Catalyst at IST Austria's Science Education day in late may. There were a number of other inspiring speakers from Austria, Luxembourg, and Israel. Here's a video of my talk (starts at 1h20m):
Great visit to speak at the Biology and Genomics of Social Insects meeting at Cold Spring Harbor (5-8 May) – an excellent meeting. Afterwards I had a great time in my old stomping grounds of NYC. I visited friends and colleagues at Rockefeller (Kronauer group, Hudspeth group) + Princeton (had the pleasure to meet Naomi Leonard: so many common interests!). I even got to drop by caveat.nyc, the awesome science-entertainment venue in the LES. Stellar trip!
At the end of March I had a great visit hosting by Ally Harari to the Volcani Institute to talk about my work on social fluids. I learned a lot about date palm beetles. So many questions!
That week we also saw a particularly beautiful and lengthy trail by a local Messor colony. There were even sections with two-lane traffic!
In mid January I enjoyed an excellent science filled week visiting Jena and Konstanz. In Jena there is the MPI for Chemical Ecology where I gave a talk and relished in the company of others who enjoy insect physiology and communication. Lots of fun and valuable conversations. Then I made my way across Germany to Konstanz where there is an excellent collective behavior community at the MPI for Ornithology (they work on much more than birds) and a super social insect neuro community at the University of Konstanz. Extremely forward-thinking research and more inspiring conversations! It was a great week that left me high on ideas.
The year of 2017 brought a lot of change and there is more on the way. It has been a bat year: agile control through instability.
My personal life migrated from Lonay to Geneva and my scientific life migrated to the Weizmann in Israel. Consequently I’ve been oscillating throughout the year between these two locations with a handful of additional excursions. My exploration of Israel’s scientific community, landscape, history, warm weather and cats have all been fascinating and enriching. My project in Ofer Feinerman’s group on developmental control in ants is going smoothly and I look forward to getting the story out. Even sooner I hope I’ll be able to share with the world the fascinating tale of my favorite social esterases.
Scientifically, I’ve had the pleasure to be invited to speak (and consequently) travel to Japan, Germany, Austria and around Switzerland and Israel for more than ten conferences and seminars this year. I love speaking and I’m glad I can get others as excited as I am about social fluids. While it hasn’t yet manifested into a tenure-track position, I’ve managed to have a handful of interviews, boding well for the future.
The calm provided by my time in Israel has allowed me to better compartmentalise my scientific and science communication activities. It also necessitated that I arrange successors for The Catalyst before I left. This transition of power began in 2016 and has gone exceptionally well. The team has been expanding the Catalyst’s base and activities in fun directions. Three of my favorite recent projects through The Catalyst:
- Exposure Hackathon - 11 teams of artists and scientists made beautiful films about science
- The Parasite Escape Game at Musée de Zoologie in Lausanne - You are the parasite and the exhibition is the host. Can you escape?
- CatCave9 - our monthly science-improv show (I still manage to perform when I manage to be in town at the right time)
These and other science-entertainment activities managed to get me the opportunity to spend some time at the Djerassi Science-Art Residency in California this summer, a wonderful experience I’ll never forget. I met amazing people and began writing a play about machine learning and over- and under-confidence in science and art.
I’ve also continued teaching a course I developed on presentation skills in Lausanne at the HEC business school. This course has become more streamlined and gets better every time I teach it (twice this year!).
Socially, Sam and I are doing great and happy to be spending time together this winter. I write this from sunny Santa Cruz, sitting outside in the bright winter, looking out over redwoods and squawking guinea fowl.
I hope 2018 will bring more stability, happiness, better politics, and more critical thinking and creativity around world.
Such a pleasure coming to IST in Vienna! Sylvia Cremer and her group are doing wonderful, creative research. In addition to visiting them and giving a seminar myself, I got to sneak into a super interesting a seminar by Raul Andino (UCSF), missed my friend Tom Baden (Sussex) by a few hours - he was speaking the day before, had some productive conversations with the science education team. All in all, a very simulating visit!
This month I had a mini-tour giving seminars in these two Israeli universities.
First I was hosted at Tel Aviv University by Hefetz (an influential force in the social insect world). When I was there I also met Eran Levin, a new faculty member working on cool stuff in the realm of extreme metabolism. He introduced me to this beautiful creature, Cerastes cerastes, the Saharan horned viper. Tali Reiner Brodetzki also gave me a sneak peak at their new natural history museum!
Later in the month I made my way to Jerusalem, hosted by Yehu Moran and Guy Bloch. My friend, collaborator, and fellow force-of-nature, Miriam Rosenberg, had given me some good word-of mouth around the department before the seminar. Consequently, the seminar was not only well attended but was full of great discussion which carried on well-past the typical few questions. I then had a lovely time discussed with Guy and his lab and visiting the bumblebees. I'd never seen their nests before! Such fuzzy bundles of excellent model system.
For the 25th anniversary of the Theatre La Grange de Dorigny in Lausanne, I had the opportunity to create a short play about my research in collaboration with Director Benjamin Knobil of companie nonante-trois. We had some great discussions and decided to have a sort of sitcom-vibe to the ants as they discussed deep issues of freedom and social exchange. I wrote the piece in English and Benjamin and the actors managed to translate it into French. It first played in March in Lausanne, and a few months later had a reprise at the Musuem of Natural History in Geneva. Enjoy!
I was invited to take part in a round-table on scientific careers at the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences. This followed a few months after a fascinating conference/workshop I went to in January called We Scientists Shape Science. I went there with the idea of promoting science communication skills in PhD training, but ended up more focused on the larger problems of scientific careers.
After the conference, a few of us banded together to write out our thoughts and recommendations. You can find the piece here.
This week at the round-table, it was wonderful to hear that the Swiss Academies are listening and are trying to build a structure that will help give young scientists in Switzerland a collective voice. I imagine it will take a while but the gears are churning.
This amazing meeting was organized by Iain Couzin (MPI Konstanz) on the collaboration between University of Konstanz and Tel Aviv University. The Movement part of the meeting was focused on quantitative approaches to 'behavior' in a very broad sense: behavior of animals to behavior of cells. It was super inspiring to meet these people invited from all over the world doing creative out-of-the-box research on coordinated behavior. On top of that I was an invited speaker myself – I was thrilled to get to share my work on trophallaxis!
Computational biology will never cease to amaze me. I wanted to check how my protein of interest, an esterase that has evolved from a hemolymph-based hormone processing enzyme important in insect development, is managing to survive in the harsh environment of trophallactic fluid (ph 2!). There are some amazing tools out there! First I used I-TASSER to map my protein's sequence onto those of proteins whose structure is known, then evaluate which is the best match. Then I can take that information and feed it into PropKa to figure out the state of charge on each molecule of the protein in a given pH environment. Then! I can pop all of this into Chimera and visualize the charge all around the protein, and even head over to CASTp to look into the binding pocket! All of these magical science powers are available on the internet for free for non-profit/research use.
This experience has been amazing. The phenomenal fellow residents here (ranging from biochemistry professor to game designer with most people holding multiple titles/identities) have been constant inspiration, not only in their science and/or art, but in the way that each has built a way to have both in his or her life. This is a constant struggle in a world where we are constantly being told we need to focus exclusively on one or the other. It's wonderful to be here and to clearly and unabashedly be a person doing both.
One of my biggest lessons here has been that I should quit stressing about doing both and just do them. There have been a number of jokes about one positive of ageing: that you care less and less about pleasing others or fitting what the world wants from you. Working on it.
Another wonderful surprise has been the future-focused discussions/projects. A lot of the residents are working on projects about our shared future and how we are arriving in it, how the future is a participatory creation.
What have I been doing? I've been working on a new play tentatively called Unsupervised Learning about science, hubris and the wild confidence necessary for innovation. More info to come.