Keeping Data Personal: Big scopes, little people

Every now and again I wonder about whether big data can still be personal. This generally occurs after I get a pop-up on my computer or an up-date on my phone which asks if they can track and use my background data.

But it does get me thinking – I hear a lot about us being in the era of “big data”, with mass data collection all around. Some of this is used to categorise us according to our likes and shopping desires. Some is used to actually better the systems and interfaces we work with.

But I know from my own data collection experiences how easy it is (once everyone’s answers are turned into numbers and categories), to lose sight of what those answers really mean in context to each person, and in turn what this means for your research.

But there are people out there making huge efforts to keep our interfaces, data collection and communications not just individual but personal too. I only recently watched a TED Talk by Aaron Koblin from 2011 called, “Visualizing ourselves… with crowd-sourced data”.

Aaron spoke about a number of very cool projects which he’s been a part of over the years:

  • In one project he mapped the flight patterns of North America as a time-lapse revealing the patterns of day/night, altitudes and flight types. It looks like skeins of thread weaving the US together.
  • Another project called the “Bicycle built for 2,000” involved getting a couple of thousand people to each contribute a recording of themselves singing less than 1 second of a tune – without telling them why. It was then put together as the “Bicycle Built for 2” song online . Hearing all these people contribute to such a large project, singing high, low, really well, or terribly is incredible! Yes, in the end they do sound like a slightly out of tune pionola but it is so touching and funny and real.

Another project Aaron was involved in is The Johnny Cash Project, where a clip of his last studio song recording “Ain’t No Grave” was put online and transformed into global art. People were given a single image (from a series of old Johnny Cash footage) and a custom online drawing tool so they could draw their version of that image. All these thousands of drawings were then put together as the music video for Johnny Cash’s song. As each one of these drawings flicker by when you watch the clip, you get such a personal sense of what Johnny Cash and his songs meant for people.

Aaron Koblin ended his talk with saying how, “the interface can be a powerful narrative device” which he believes we can use to help us all, “maintain the humanity of data collected”.

I really appreciated his whole perspective about making the process of data collection, analysis and display be something that we craft and meld to work for us, rather then blindly persisting with our slightly-difficult-to-interact-with and not-always-intuitive-to-use programs, interfaces and visualisations.

He made me feel quite hopeful. And much more determined to spend the extra time and effort with my research to find clear and creative ways to communicate the findings and keep a better sense of the people behind the data.

A WISE Event: All the Career Possibilities

One brisk Monday night, a large roomful of women gathered in the silver mirrored SAHMRI building to hear from three amazing women / successful scientists who have trodden a wide range of career pathways and ended up in jobs very different to those they first imagined.

The first speaker was Dr Kate Gridley, now a Research Coordinator in the Division of Health Sciences at the University of South Australia. Check out Dr Gridley’s homepage at – http://people.unisa.edu.au/Kate.Gridley

Dr Gridley started with showing us the difference between her assumed career path once she had finished studying, to the path she actually took – winding in and out of different positions.

The jump from hands on PhD research, to a more administerial position required a serious effort in translation. Mostly, the translation of all the skills Dr Gridley had honed during her PhD to be shown as applicable and valuable skills for non-research work. She spoke of learning to, “sell myself as an asset…” and, “remaining open to any options”.

Dr Gridley finished with asking us, the audience, to think more about our future career and to practice selling ourselves and our skills as transferable to any position.

Next we heard from Dr Kristin Alford, currently the Director of the Science Creativity Education (Sci. C. Ed.) Studio and part of the University of South Australia. The Sci.C.Ed. Studio is set to open in 2018 and will have a mixture of permanent and seasonal exhibits. To learn more about Sci.C.Ed check out their information page –  http://www.unisa.edu.au/science-creativity-education/

Dr Alford started off by comparing her current descriptive title of “A Futurist” with her incredibly technical PhD in Engineering Processes in QLD. The story of her career described incredible leaps from one position and field to the next, assisted by favourable impressions made on past colleagues, bosses and mentors. Dr Alford leapt into the field of science communication by becoming an advocate, communicator and educator for new nano-technology. She has also, until recently, been the licensee for TEDX Adelaide.

Dr Alford’s parting words were to never underestimate the value of your peers and that we should try to take every opportunity that comes our way, because… “how hard could it be?”

The final speaker for the night was Dr Ixchel Brennan, now a partner of Corporate Engagement and Development for UniSA Ventures at the University of South Australia. Follow the link to read her home page – http://people.unisa.edu.au/Ixchel.Brennan

She too began her education and career under very different circumstances. Dr Brennan completed a PhD in appetite and gut function and finished with the full success of many papers published, many conferences presented at, and plenty of career options. But although there were strong expectations for her to continue into an academic career, she felt this wasn’t for her.

Dr Brennan emphasised the importance of learning how to package your skills for varying contexts and careers. She spoke of the need to be able to effectively communicate your differentiated skill set, and that a PhD is so much more than just your research focus. It is also an intense crash course in all project management, communication and creative problem solving skills, so don’t sell yourself short.

Her final advice was to, “Resist the option of knowing what your dream job is”, as she had seen others do – because you never know what jobs will come along, or even what jobs will exist in the future.

From her own experiences, Dr Brennan told us some of the lessons she had learnt along the way:

  • Seek a mentor not form an academic position (they will give you a different perspective).
  • You do not always need to say “Yes” and your job doesn’t define who you are.
  • Be willing to work with people and in roles that push you outside your comfort zone. This is where you learn the most about yourself – what you’re good at and what you could improve.
  • Have confidence in your skills and your contribution.
  • Say “Thank you” and say it often.
  • Emotion does not equal weakness.
  • and finally, that “Authenticity will always shine through”.

It was a wonderful WISE event and I was so glad I attended. It was a relief to hear that these undeniably successful women had been through so many changes, upsets, choices and career transitions. I can’t speak for the other women who attended, but I for one am feeling much more hopeful and less stressed about where I might end up career-wise, after my PhD experience.


Thanks to all the event organisers, SAHMRI, the University of Adelaide, the University of South Australia and Flinders University, and a particular thank you to the speakers – you were inspiring!

Book breakdown – “Don’t be such a scientist” Part 2

Here we cover the next part of Dr Randy Olson’s insightful book:

Part 2: Don’t be so literal minded

Olson builds on the first part of his book by describing some of the struggles scientists can have when trying to communicate to those outside of academia. Logical, literal and data based arguments (the head perspective) can be up against an unfair fight when emotional or instinctive arguments (the heart or gut perspectives) are used against them. And who else, besides the scientists themselves, pride themselves on using purely logical, literal and data-based arguments? No-one. Not governments or politicians. And not businesses or industries.

In this loud, information overloaded world – if you as a scientist are attempting to engage anyone outside of academia in the work you have done, it’s not always enough that your work is rigorous or has real-world implications. You will have to promote your work a little… or a lot, to be heard.

One place to start is by coming up with an interesting title for your paper / report / presentation / ‘call to action’/ project. It’s time to let go of being so literal. Olson states that the best titles are a mixture of, “elusive enough but familiar enough”. By this he means be elusive enough to be slightly mysterious, but familiar enough that people don’t instantly switch off because it’s too alien.

We are then introduced to the idea of “Arouse and Fulfil”, also known as “Motivate then Educate”.

This is about getting people intrigued and wanting to know more, before you give them the logic and data. Olson talks about how scientists can get stuck in “Fulfil and Fulfil” habits, or just educating without bothering to do any motivating. In contrast, Hollywood can get caught up doing too much motivating and then never moving on the educating. All style and no substance.But the movie industry does do one thing right – they don’t assume that their work (a movie) will just sell itself. They have huge advertising budgets and promote their work months ahead of release.

Now if scientists aren’t so great at the motivating side of things, what can they use to help them out? The answer according to Olson… is ART. Art is evocative. It stirs people, motivates people and gets them asking questions. And once people are asking questions, then we can cue the scientist to answer them.

Okay, so art can be a powerful visual medium. But what does this mean for scientists?

It means that you can complement your rigorous scientific work, with evocative visuals to help motivate and engage your audience. Any images in your presentations, or images that are part of promoting your work are incredibly important. Below is a small example of the same  powerpoint slide with and without any images. Which do you feel is more engaging?

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Even when teaching a lecture, visuals can be used to help “motivate” the students to want to know more. Olson describes having to teach students about the 35 major groups of vertebrates in biology – some of which are really cool… and some of which are just lots of worm types. You could spend an equal amount of time on each group, describing them. Or you could start with a short film which aims to entertain and not to educate. It would cover all the cool aspects of the different biological groups and get the students enthused to know more. Then you can hit them with all the necessary details and differences.

So for mass communication, keep in mind motivating and then educating. It can be used as a two part process, or as Olson’s next chapter expands… you can use it in a whole other way!


Once again, if you’re interested in reading, “Don’t be such a scientist” yourself, you can purchase the kindle edition from  Amazon.com.au for $13.03, or get the paper version for $26.50 from Booktopia.com.au, or from Angus&Roberston.com.au for $26.99. Enjoy!

Why online presence is important for all scientists: The League of Remarkable Women in Science, interview Dr Rachael Dunlop

What a brilliant interview with Dr Rachael Dunlop – I love the idea of starting by learning to communicate effectively and THEN getting into science. Possible a harder way of doing things but she has made it a success.

Recently I spoke with my father Jeremy Pollard about the growing need for scientists to have an online presence. Without being able to communicate your research effectively to people – how will they understand the value? And without examples of your ability to communicate effectively and present in a concise, clear and interesting way, how will anyone – a company, a workshop, or even a conference committee, know you’re any good?

So what can you do? Practice presenting all the time, in front or your mirror, your friends, your family. And when you do present professionally – ask someone to record it. Even with an iphone (just remember to keep it framed on you and keep it STILL). Or if your presentation is filmed by whoever is running the event, ask for a copy. Watch them. Learn from them and upload the good ones to your online profile e.g. LinkedIn.

Don’t have an online professional profile? Then this might be the time to start – LinkedIn is a great simple way to showcase your experience, your skills, even your best work. The best part is that when you connect with those you know on LinkedIn, you can get them to vouch for your skills AND even write recommendations of you. Keep it concise, honest and up-to-date.

It all had to start somewhere.

At the end of Year 12, I decided I wanted to go to university and do a double degree in Environmental Science, and Fine Arts. Except… that this didn’t exist.

I was told that it had never been done before, and that there were no processes in place to facilitate such a combination.

But I was convinced that there was such potential, and so many connections and similarities between science and art. Art is expression, emotion and all about telling a story (even if you don’t know what the story is). Science is observation, exploration and logically figuring things out.

Both are attempts to gain understanding.

But I was younger, and new to how universities worked and I let the idea go. I began the four years of environmental science it took to get me here at the beginning of a PhD. With what I now know – I wish I could go back and fight for that double degree. I would have said, “This is where the future is heading and I want in. I know we can figure it out somehow.” But I didn’t and that’s okay too. Because between my PhD, this new blog, and my artwork – I’m getting there anyway.