The Seattle Science Festival is here!

Inspired by one image on the video introduction for the Seattle Science Festival

On Thursday night I bailed out from a picnic and concert with  friends, but they are ok with it because they know I couldn’t help it. The Seattle Science Festival is happening this week and Thursday was the opening night. How could I not be at the Paramount theater for the event?

The main feature was the west coast premiere of  Icarus at the Edge of Time, “a stunning multimedia performance about a boy who challenges the formidable power of a black hole”. Music by Philip Glass performed live by the Garfield Orchestra under the direction of Marcus Tsutakawa. Live narration by Kal Penn. The speakers for the evening got me first excited about going to the theater, and the trailer of Icarus intrigued me, as I seldom see this kind of multimedia performances in Seattle:

The evening started with Jennifer Ouellette, from Cocktail Party Physics blog, introducing her husband Sean Carroll (From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time). He talked about the arrow of time, and how physicists understand entropy as the reason for time moving in one direction. He did a great job telling  it for a general audience, Next was Adam Frank  (About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang) talking about how cosmology and our idea of time are always following each other. Brian Greene (The Elegant Universe,  Icarus at the Edge of Time) came last to introduce Icarus at the Edge of Time. He set the stage by telling us about black holes, and then he let the visuals and music tell the story. I watched the performance invoking my 11-year-old self and I loved it, completely identified with Icarus. I also watched it invoking my slightly jaded adult self and I felt deeply moved by the music and visuals, identifying more with his father now.

After the performance I went home happy and looking forward to experience the rest of this Seattle Science Festival. I recomend you to check the excelent science options for all ages offered during the next week. For more information about the festival go to their webpage: do not miss the big Expo Day on Saturday 8th.

Keep your eyes open, because you never know what you can learn from other attendants

Alan Boyle and Michael Venables at the opening night for the Seattle Science Festival

I arrived early to the Paramount theater to get my ticket before they sold out. What a fun thing to wait for the doors to open in company of people excited about science and very knowledgeable!

Here is a picture of some folks I met at the Paramount’s corner, do you recognize them? Hint: one is NBC News Digital’s science editor  the other is a science contributor to Forbes magazine.  That is the magic of the science festivals, that you can learn a lot in the presentations, but also that you can learn even more from people you may find on the streets.

Want scientists that know how to tell their stuff in public? Vote Engage now!


A group of graduate students at university of Washington wanted to tell great science stories, and bring them to the public venues of Seattle. They built a student seminar called Engage Science that teaches storytelling and presentation techniques to a diverse group of graduate students. Those students give a public presentation on a theater or another public venue.  For three years Seattle’s public has benefited by an engaging window to the science done at University of Washington. The students benefit too by acquiring invaluable communication skills useful inside and outside the “Ivory Tower”. Now Engage Science is asking NSF to help other graduate students do the same all over the country. For that we ask you to please vote for Engage here.

Why are science stories important for you?

A good story can keep you glued to the chair, it makes you travel places with your imagination, and sometimes tells you something about you that you didn’t know before. A good science history can do that and more; it also gives you the facts that are currently know about of world. Well-crafted science stories bring entertainment, inspiration, and knowledge. The kind of knowledge necessary to take informed decisions about our future.

So, why not giving me just the scientific facts?

We are humans, and often we need a reason to really listen to other person, specially if they come with a lot of information about something we think we know enough or are not interested to hear. The story is a form of communication that brings together storyteller and listener, and opens the door for a real dialog. There is a personal connection needed for real knowledge contagion.

Scientists are smart, can they figure out how to tell a story themselves?

Sure, some scientists are extremely good storytellers, but they are a minority in an environment were the listeners are experts of your own field. Scientists in sub-disciplines benefit from a common language and shared previous knowledge, but that made their stories too obscure and uninteresting for non-scientist. This Engage proposal that you will support with your vote wants to help those scientists that want to tell their stories to a broader audience. It will provide seed money to establish a seminar like Engage Science in other schools, using the free Engage blueprint if desired. For more details and to read the proposal please visit this page:

Please vote for Engage Science! Last day to vote is May 29th.

Thank you

Science communication training: raising the bar inside and outside academia

The scientist that forgot how to tell a story.
The scientist that forgot how to tell a story.

This week two newspapers featured school seminars that help graduate students communicate their science to general audiences. The Seattle Times featured Engage Science from University of Washington and the Long Island Newsday featured the Center for Communicating Science of Stony Brook University*. Those programs recognize a need for “communication literacy” on scientific education and represent an awesome professional (and personal) development tool for the students that take the seminars. I firmly believe scientists that like to talk about their research should be able to find a similar seminar or class elsewhere. There is a need for it, and there is a growing group of students acquiring communication training to pursue “non-traditional” science careers (now the majority of job opportunities) where the ability to communicate concisely and in plain English is very valuable.

“The goal of the [Engage Science] course, founded by graduate students, is to teach young scientists how to share their passions for cosmology, chemistry or evolutionary biology without putting people to sleep. The program is one of several springing up across the country, fueled by a new generation of researchers who see public outreach as integral to their jobs.” — Seattle Times

Those scientists will fulfill a key role by showing a more human scientist to the public, somebody non-scientist can understand and relate to. The need is there for those scientists who can communicate science effectively; experts need to bring the scientific consensus in Global Warming to a broader audience and they need to expose the hidden dangers of widespread use of antibiotics. Scientific literacy is not a luxury when those subjects can have such a big impact on people’s lives.

The other role for this bunch of scientists trained on presentation design, jargon removal and storytelling will be inside their research institutions. They will raise the bar for scientific presentations for scientific audiences.

“Though we typically perceive scientists in white lab coats conducting experiments, a critical part of their work involves giving lectures and making presentations.” Long Island Newsday

I spent so many years attending boring scientific  talks that I forgot how to tell a story, and I forgot that the presentation is a lot more than the graphs or the slides. We need scientists trained in communication inside and outside academia. Luckily I got help from Engage Science at UW, and I think I am starting to get better at telling stories. I hope you agree. You can read my take on the lessons learned during the Engage seminar at “Bringing science back, one story at a time” and  the invited post “Scientists are human too”

(*) The article is behind a pay-wall but excerpts of the text are available at the Center for Communicating Science Facebook page.

Related post:

Engage Science Students Blog Post:

On the need of opportunities and rewards for science communication

The soap opera model of science communication, scientists as real people:

The revenge of the corals: a Tsunami story this Monday at Town Hall Seattle

English: Pago Pago, AS, October 1, 2009 -- Pag...
English: Pago Pago, AS, October 1, 2009 — Pago Pago, American Samoa, October 1, 2009 – A boat sits on its side as it was moved during the tsunami that hit American Samoa. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Imagine a fishermen in Tutuila island, American Samoa. An earthquake a few hundred kilometers away triggers a tsunami alert while he is  listening to the boat’s radio near harbor. His options are clear: either to take his fishing boat to deeper waters and save his means of subsistence, or to abandon boat and go home to make sure his family makes it to the hills. He has twenty minutes to decide, and the difference between his family being safe or in danger is how far inland the Tsunami will go. Can scientist help him decide what to do?

Derya Itir Dilmen is a PhD student at the University of Washington and part of this year’s Engage Science class. She studies computer tools to forecast tsunamis after earthquakes and to create tsunami hazard maps. Derya’s computer work on gigantic waves is surprisingly affected by including a microscopic very small organism –Coral. Coral reefs are destroyed by a passing tsunami but the giant wave does not leave unscratched, and that may be the difference between having a safe family inland or not. She studies coral tsunami destruction in Tutuila and estimates the strength of the tsunami in different areas, and she have some cool stories to tell you about her work.

Please come on Monday evening to Town Hall Seattle for a jargon-free talk by Derya. She will tell you how studying the coral-tsunami interaction may help scientist make more accurate tsunami predictions, providing the kind of timely information that saves lives.

“Revenge of the corals” UW Science Now. Monday, March 11, 2013, 9:00 – 9:30pm. Downstairs at Town Hall.

Dear blogger, your headline may need a superhero

Batman delivering a punchline
Batman delivering a punchline (Photo credit: renophaston)

A room full of science bloggers fell silent after Liz Neeley ( asked how much effort they invested in headlines for their blog posts.

Apparently most of the public in the room, including myself, doesn’t fuss a lot about headlines. Seasoned blogger Brendan DeMelle ( told us that this inattention may cost your post a lot of its potential audience. Most viewers/readers will only read your headline. You have a few seconds of their attention, then they are gone, adios, sayonara, arrivederci. What you wanted to communicate is lost in the past. Can you say what you need to say in those 3 seconds? Can you hook your readers so they want to read more? To write great headlines is a difficult art to master, even with the help of A/B testing.

But, how can a superhero help you with a great headline? That is part of a story that started the day before Liz asked such a good question to the science bloggers audience:

It begins with a very cool post at the New York Times Bits blog. I don’t want to give away too many details. There is a video with scientist explaining their software and image analysis technique, and showing diverse examples of uses for it. One example shows video of a sleeping newborn. With the software you can make visible the small movement in the surface of the baby’s face due to blood circulation, and measure his pulse — without touching him. Another example shows that no special camera is needed; they take a clip from a movie with a famous actor sleeping on bed, just as shown in theaters, then the software shows his blood circulating up and down.

What was the headline of author Erik Olsen’s blog?

“Scientists Uncover Invisible Motion in Video”

Not a bad headline, but I read about the  Bits blog from another blog first, and that blog had added more information to the headline. Aatish Bhatia (Empirical Zeal) added a little more explanation when sharing the link to Eric Olsen’s piece:

“A pretty amazing algorithm magnifies imperceptible motions, allowing you to see the invisible”

Empirical zeal

I was so excited about the link shared by Aatish that I decided to share it too. Not to be outdone, I wrote my headline with even more words (a bad initial decision that ended with a bad headline).

“Image processing at its best. Tiny movements are exaggerated: you may measure the pulse of a person using a camera”

Nevertheless, I believed the headlines where interesting enough and the research was so fascinating that people would feel really compelled to read more. Click for the awesome video and hopefully stay and learn a little about image processing. I did not find how wrong I was until later, when I opened my twitter feed and I saw this post from Ed Yong:


Ed Yong grabbed the amazing headline crafted by Robert Krulwich on his blog Krulwich wonders “MIT Invents A Machine That Can Look At Batman’s Face And See His Heart Beating” then added a WOWOWOW! at the beginning (meaning look guys this is awesome) and gave you the exact part of the video where you can look at Batman’s face and see his heart beating. The picture is already showing you batman… If you can resist to click on the link it can only be that you have no pulse.

Lesson learned. Next time I write a headline I will remember Liz Neely’s question, and the treatment that Robert Krulwich and Ed Yong gave to this piece. In my opinion Batman kicked other headline’s but, and I will try to write more Batman headlines in the future.

Bringing science back, one story at a time

UW Science Now at Town Hall. Science storytelling for the general audience.

There is a gap growing between the scientific community and the general public. The public can’t keep-up with what is happening in science daily, and often don’t even care. Overworked scientists rarely find extra time to communicate their science to audiences outside academia, and just publishing the science in journals doesn’t seem to bridge the gap fast enough.

Thankfully there is a growing army of science communicators determined to bring science back to the public, engaging in a useful dialog about science. The most powerful weapons of this small army are the scientists themselves. Contrary to public perception, scientists are a passionate, interesting bunch of people. They love what they do. That passion helps them overcome the difficulties, setbacks, and struggles that come with exploring the limits of human knowledge. Their ingenuity navigating the unknown is the raw material for captivating storytelling, but they rarely learn in school how to tell their story to the public. Engage is an organization of graduate students of the University of Washington that helps to reveal those stories.  Engage organizes a seminar to train student scientists on presenting their research to a general audience, stripping jargon and scientific formality. I had the privilege of attending the Engage seminar series for graduate students this quarter and I am really happy I did. The seminar provides a wonderful review of the craft of storytelling, teaching how to speak with your voice and body; presentation content and design; and the “what” and the “how” of effective communication. For me, the take home message is that the respect you owe to the audience means that you must relentlessly simplify the content without dumbing it down. Hopefully, if you use the right tools to tell a compelling, engaging story, the public understands your science better and relates to the person doing the science too. I believe that is a great way to bridge the gap.

The best part of Engage: there is a science treat for the Seattle public too. This seminar is a preparation for the Engage science speaker series, this year happening at Town Hall from March to June. Attending this class I had the chance to learn about the amazing research of twenty graduate students at UW (you can learn more about them here). After more than two decades in academia, I can say that what I have heard from the students is all-fresh, super-engaging science storytelling. To give you a small sample, I learned how coral reduces the destructive power of Tsunamis in a video game analogy, why we may be loving killer whales to dead, and I saw evolution happening in front of my eyes. There is much more coming to Town Hall, starting on March 5th, please check this calendar and make sure to go to the UW Science Now presentations. You will be glad you did.

PS: Special thanks to Jessica Rohde and Ty Robinson, co-instructors of the seminar for allowing me to attend this amazing class, and to the graduate students for tolerating my presence.

The truth about this salsa

Salsa is “sauce” in Spanish. It comes from the Latin “salsus” for savory food. Today, the word salsa means a lot more than a spicy dip for your chips. Salsa music took over the world and now salsa brings to mind the image of a gorgeous couple dancing in sensual embrace. I do not mind that you have this beautiful image in your mind when reading “Science Salsa”, but the truth must be said, I meant to call my blog that way because of the sauce.

Delicious, spicy, and flavorful, but common, home-made, family-recipe salsa. No fancy dancing here, even if we may dance salsa occasionally.

Why not “Science Sauce” or “Salsa de Ciencia”? Well, this is a bilingual blog, with a bilingual name, from a bilingual author. My personal recipe has a flavor that is unapologetic Latin-American, rooted in my childhood spent in Colombia and Perú. Sauce cannot describe it properly, it needs to be salsa! I did my PhD studies and postdoctoral work in the US and the science that I generate and consume is mostly in English language. It needs to be science!

I gave you some clues about my identity with the tittle of my blog. My information is public and you are more than welcome to visit the “about me” link to learn more about my background, or my page for more information. Please don’t expect pictures of my (living) family or other private stuff, but you can read Science Salsa with my commitment that you will get my sincere attempt to bring you some flavorful science. Just the way I can tell you about it, with no gimmicks or imposter voices.

Fun fact about spicy salsa: did you know that the “hot” chemical in peppers affect small proteins in your body called TRPV1 ion channels? TRPV1 are normally in nerve fibers that sense pain and extreme heat. That is why spicy hot food makes you sweat and it is sometimes painful to eat. The “science salsa” idea came when I was thinking about my research on TRPV1 channels and their influence in chronic pain. TRPV1 channels are all around our body, not only your tongue. Nobody realizes their eyes are covered by nerve endings that have TRPV1 channels… until they are cutting hot peppers for salsa and make the mistake of rubbing their eyes. Why we have those pain receptors in our corneas? How did pepper plants develop a chemical that affect our pain receptors (but not bird’s pain receptors)? Why humans like a little pain with their food? Those are some of the questions in science that I think would we fun to discuss with you in the future.

we are what we eat… and you are what your grandfather ate too

Just a quick entry related to my previous post: Diabetes and Hispanic health; we are what we eat

My grandfather with sister at their Dairy farm in Colombia. It was a large family to feed, but they never starved.

This week the Radiolab show on “Inheritance” mentioned a study by Lars Olov Bygren suggesting your health and life expectancy are determined not only by your diet, but also by your grandfather’s diet when he was a kid.

According to Radiolab, Olov Bygren “grew up in a remote village north of the Arctic Circle. It wasn’t an easy place to be a kid, and he has cold, hard data to back him up: book after book of facts and figures on the lives of generations of the town’s residents, from their health to their financial success, to detailed records on the boom and bust years for crops. The numbers tell a story of wild swings in fortune — feasts one year, harsh winters and famine the next.”

Olov Bygren studied the health and crops records from this isolated region to figure out if there was a relationship between how much food was available during a period of time and how long people lived afterwards.

Radiolab explains Bygren’s results beautifully, but John Cloud in an article of Time magazine summarizes them perfectly: “To put it simply, the data suggested that a single winter of overeating as a youngster could initiate a biological chain of events that would lead one’s grandchildren to die decades earlier than their peers did.”

Cloud continues explaining that this inheritance is possible due to “[…] changes in gene activity that do not involve alterations to the genetic code but still get passed down to at least one successive generation. These patterns of gene expression are governed by the cellular material — the epigenome — that sits on top of the genome […]. It is these epigenetic “marks” that tell your genes to switch on or off, to speak loudly or whisper. It is through epigenetic marks that environmental factors like diet, stress and prenatal nutrition can make an imprint on genes that is passed from one generation to the next.”

We are what we eat, but we are what our young grandfather ate too. This adds a new dimension to the epidemics of diabetes and heart decease among Latinos in the US today. Would starving conditions of the farmland in Latin-America, three or more generations ago, help sustain the “Latino epidemiological paradox”, and increasing the life-spam of Latinos compared to other populations in the US?, or would a time of plenty long time ago derail any efforts to improve the Hispanic health in the US?

I know that my paternal grandfather did not starve as a kid. His family had a dairy farm that provided food and an extra income to a very large family. No good news for my epigenome, except because it is difficult to overeat when you are burning so many calories at the farm. The situation changed drastically when my father was a kid, during “La Violencia” they left their farm in a rush, before armed men “confiscated” all their cattle. They became refugees at the great-grandfather house in the town nearby. But despite poverty, they did not starve.

My father has indelible memories of the weekly menu during his “barefoot childhood”. Saturday was market day, and they had liver with onions the same day, he loved Saturdays for that. The rest of the beef was salted and smoked in the patio to keep it from spoiling during the week. Friday was often a meat-less day, but they had some hens and they ate eggs that day. Soup was their staple food, either plantain, bean, arracacha, or the famous “sancocho” soup; a chicken stew with potato, yuca, plantain, and pork or beef. The corn for the arepas, powdered milk, soy oil, and yellow cheese came via the catholic parish and were “donated by the people of the United States of America”– the first English phrase my dad can remember. My family complemented its diet with panela, home-grown yucas and cabage, and they ate the fruit available on the fields: guamas, mango, pomas, and moras.

So far there is no clear sign of overeating in my recent ancestral past, good news for my life expectancy! Too bad I did not have this information when I was a kid. I hope by the time my grandchildren are born, there will be a method to revert all the damage I did to my family’s epigenome while watching TV and eating cookies.


I wrote this post inspired by my friend Elisa, from the blog larval metamorphosis. She is the host of this month’s Diversity in Science blog Carnival in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month. Contact her if you want to be involved. Thanks!