Posts tagged ‘research’

Robert Carmer, an HHMI Summer Undergrate Student, was featured in the press releases of the College of Science and Department of Biological Sciences.

Robert Carmer presenting the research work that he conducted with the other lab members, including Gaonan Zhang and Prahatha Venkatraman

Also see him describing his research experience in this video.

It is interesting that I come across this article about a robot that can conduct research and the article about the lack of jobs for scientists at the same time. A group of Japanese scientists have built a robot for conducting research experiments that may be too dangerous for human. From the by Tim Hornyak: “Two-armed robot takes on risky lab work

Unlike most assembly robots, its arms have seven joints, allowing it to use human tools and to perform humanlike motions easily. It automates lab work and can do tasks such as culturing more quickly and accurately than human lab techs.

From; Video screenshot by Tim Hornyak/CNET

As I am running a lab myself and always hope to get more data, the second I saw the setup with the pipettes, PCR and dry baths, I could not stop thinking “wouldn’t it be nice to have one of these robots to work in the lab for 24 hours…. “.

Having a good science education is essential for all of us, because that trains one’s critical thinking; while asking a lot more students to join the field is a whole different issue. A number of factors comes into play for one to decide whether he would want to pursue this career, including one’s personality, dedication, and perhaps most importantly, financial status and career aspiration. As a teacher for many students who has spent a few more years than them and has gone through some of these thinking exercises, I believe it is rather important to let students know about the reality of the career path in research rather than telling them a rosy story and blindly motivating them. To me that is just like an academic Ponzi scheme.

Here is a great article “U.S. pushes for more scientists, but the jobs aren’t there” about the situation (once again), by Brian Vastag from the Washington Post:

That reality runs counter to messages sent by President Obama and the National Science Foundation and other influential groups, who in recent years have called for U.S. universities to churn out more scientists.

What worries me the most during the counseling of younger students, is that many think they study well, can get good grades and hence going to graduate school is a natural choice. My typical response is that “you don’t want to go to graduate school”. Don’t get me wrong. I am very enthusiastic in training students and motivate them about the excitements of scientific discoveries and thinking. However, I often see students, friends and colleagues who have good heart and can study well but ended up getting frustrated about the situation when they are a bit older and have more family obligations. I often give students a few analogies to help their planning.  Here is of them, compare pursuing research as a career to pursuing performing arts (or artists or TV stars, you get the idea) as a career. Don’t just look at the successful ones for inspiration and commit yourself to the path. Also look at the ones that have to struggle for survival. If you like that kind of sacrifice for you and your family and uncertainties for the career satisfaction, may be pursuing research as a career is good for you. In other words, pursuing research as a career requires not only the smartest minds, but also the strongest dedication and good financial flexibility. Unless there is a fundamental change in the system, research is not the career type that would give the stability that many may have perceived.


I am so envious of these people who can build a useful machine by LEGO which can save money. The building part itself must be a lot of fun!

From  LEGO robots in the laboratory

A warm Chinese-style welcoming at the entrance!
















I recently visited the Eye Hospital at Wenzhou Medical College, where they have very good research infrastructure that has integrated various aspects of basic and clinical ophthalmology research together. I gave two talks over there and had a great interaction with everyone. I did not get a chance to take many pictures but here are a few snapshots of some interesting things that I have seen. One particularly impressive setup in their group is a large meeting and relaxing area that is right next to the research laboratories. Conducting a successful research is about communication and conversation; merely having good equipment is not enough, it is crucial to have effective interaction between research members at all levels. With a wonderful atmosphere as such, I can totally imagine the colleagues from Wenzhou will have very fruitful and exciting interactions. Indeed, the teachers there are very sincere and down-to-earth, and the students are very enthusiastic in learning new ideas. Many of them were in fact courageous enough to ask questions and discussed their ideas during and after my lectures. This is really contradictory to the stereotype of many quiet and obedient Asian students. No wonder their group has a very rigorous research and education program.

A nicely decorated balcony for students to take a break or spend time thinking about research!

A well lit meeting area for research group members to interact. I had an enjoyable lunch and conversation with several students here.

It is really gratifying to see that there are many Chinese Institutes conducting good research. When the West is undermining their good research infrastructure in the midst of a poor economy, it is not surprising that the East is going to catch up and will lead the scientific research in the near term future.

A glimpse of the prosperous Wenzhou city from my hotel room.

This is a cross post from a discussion thread on my facebook, after the UC Davis pepper spray incidence. There are interesting ideas that are worthwhile to think further. It is also interesting to see that there are scientists joining the actual Occupy protests… um..  I still think the problem is not merely the lack of funding, but is a fundamental issue of the business model for the contemporary scientific research.


Fai: After seeing what is happening in the Occupy Wall Street movement, especially the very recent episodes at UC Davis, I cannot stop thinking about the resemblance between the current social issues and the problems that sincere research scientists at all levels are facing. In fact, part of the problems is caused by these social issues related to business and government policy; and many of us can easily tell a few personal stories. We have been trained to be critical of our work, why can we not be critical about the system as well? For example, if we were allowed to redesign our university and research system, what should we do to ensure that we will build a sustainable system for the society, students and scientists? I am intrigued in hearing from my friends who have been contributing in the field across the world.

Abel Chun: But the fact seems to be that politics rules the world. Like in HKU, there’re many good scientists for life science but they’re “workers” under the command of professors who come from Medicine, not PhD. After all, we have to apply for grants to survive but those who review the grants are bearing lot of power, managerial levels, and even some so-called scientists (eg. from ITF). If we write a grant proposal simply for “understanding the nature”, U will never get a penny. But if U say your research can lead to drug development, can make big $, ok, here U go.

Albert Hui:  Changes only ever happen top-down. See what George Soros did to advance his open society movement? First make big money.

Winnie Tong: We are too specialised. Research training nowadays is very concentrated in speacilised techniques for specific narrow subject area and often one is pretty much stuck within one research area. It just limits our choices for jobs and power for negotiation. I knew some people would not mind being ‘workers’ for life. What they hate is the job insecurity every 2-3 years for all their working life. Even the universities offer some help at the end of each contract, usually it’s just putting you on a list for other research groups. You will be lucky if they are looking for your specific skill set, otherwise it’s good bye and good luck after a few months. If I can redesign the university and research system, everyone should have at least a few weeks of sabbatical time to actually work in a completely different research area.

Fai: Abel: it’s the same (censored) everywhere.

Fai: Albert: I always want to be a philanthropist.

Fai: Winne: that is indeed the core problem! Many good-hearted, intelligent people did not realize that the business model is actually a contest. And that is often not taught explicitly at school. I don’t think merely providing time to learn new skills without a wholesale improvement if the business model can alleviate the frustration of most participants.

Fai: Abel: and you would agree much of the creativity of the whole community is wasted on irrelevant stuff because of the business model.

Winnie Tong:  True. But it’s something that can be done on our end now, at least if you have a good boss. Like what google does, allowing 10% time for blue-sky development. And say two weeks is like a long conference time, long enough to actually gain some hands on experience and network to other research groups. 1-3 days is just way too short. You tend to forget and less chance to touch any buttons. It would be much easier, say, instead of small little pots of funding within individual research groups, perhaps some of it can go to a centralised place. This pool of fund can be use to hire some more permenant research staffs, who can rotate between labs and groups. This is a bit like the industry where the same scientists may be put in several different projects instead of just one. This way you can utilise the avaliable man power better for more urgent projects. It will be great if the University and funding bodies can think of a way to adopt some of this industrial approach, but that probablywould mean PIs will have to let go of their control over their own funding and it is unlikely to happen.

Fai: Google’s approach is nice and is indeed the approach for many postdocs and graduate students. You always want to try something new. However that may not be for every one. The idea for centralizing and rotating staff is interesting, but I can imagine strong resistance at the administration level. The current model is project based and the school earns money from the government by getting support for new projects. Since staff who can perform a specific skill is related to a project, it is a budgeting nightmare to figure out how to rotate some core people around between different projects. It does require a whole new way of funding and administration. In addition, given the expensive staff and the financial situation, having centralized staff may not be a sustainable solution.

Winnie Tong: I think what’s demaging is that many people are only hired and involved in a single project. I think we can start small, say, two PIs share their research staffs between their projects. If each PI has one full-time staff, it means there will be two full-time people for two projects.

Fai: Without a concomitant change in the system, this bottom-up approach can be problematic. Project time will vary, who is going to pay for the staff when one project is terminated? Also the resolution on the staff time can also be problematic… this is the fundamental dilemma between the award-based system and the desire of many who would opt for a stable life.



These days with tight budget and poor economy, I am always intrigued in finding ways to conserve my research funding, which I think is a responsible approach to research rather than the big spending and throwing-away-old-but-good-equipment mentality. For example, all monitors in my office are old, unwanted CRT monitors. The oldest one is a Sony Trinitron that I picked up as a postdoc at Harvard in 2004, when they were throwing away many CRTs and replacing them with the sexy LCD monitors. It is still running great and I wish I could pick up more at that time.

Anyway, there is an interesting new consumer camera called Lytro that has just been launched recently. It is based on a revolutionized light field concept that can capture not just the color and intensity, but also the vector direction of the light. Thus, information with regards to the location of the object be extracted after image acquisition; in other words, one can “focus” after image acquisition in the computer. This concept is originated from the Ph.D. research of Ren Ng, Lytro’s CEO, at Stanford.

I think the concept can potentially be applicable to research imaging in life-science. For example, in fluorescent imaging, we always want to acquire information from a very specific focal plane of the specimen. One fancy way to exclude the out-of-focus information is by confocal microscopy,  a fancier way of imaging which is not a cheap at all. From my limited understanding, Lytro’s principle can potentially be applicable to generate an effect that is similar to confocal on a regular fluorescent microscope, perhaps with some essential modifications of the algorithms. If that is possible, then Lytro can be a very economical replacement (a few hundreds) of confocal (hundreds of thousands). I immediately emailed them about that and asked for the possibility of getting a unit to play with. Of course they said thank you for the great idea, but no, we won’t be able to send you one.

I do hope someone, including Lytro, who has time and interest, can figure this application out… then we can have a $400 confocal! Think about capturing all the confocal market in the field!