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ScienceOnline Interviews: Anthony Salvagno, open science biophysicist

Last year, I crowd-funded my attendance to ScienceOnline2012, an un-conference for people communicating about– and doing– science on the internet. In exchange, I offered to interview one attendee for every $100 I raised. In the lead-up to ScienceOnline2013, I’ll be sharing those interviews. Based on feedback from Twitter, I decided to interview student attendees in the sciences.

My second interviewee, Anthony Salvagno, is a PhD student in biophysics at the University of New Mexico. Anthony tweets as @thescienceofant and maintains an open notebook of his research here. Have questions about open science or unzipping DNA with optical tweezers? You can email Anthony at anthony[at]iheartanthony[.]com. You can also read about the adventures of his tiny TRex friend on his blog, or follow @therealtinytrex on Twitter or on Facebook.


Anthony Salvagno keeps an open notebook of his biophysics research. Check it out!

1) You’re working on a PhD in biophysics. Can you tell me a little about your path, and how you ended up here? Where do you see yourself in ten years?

Originally I went to undergrad (SUNY Albany) for pre-law and majored in physics. At the time I was highly interested in astronomy. After my sophmore year I decided I didn’t want to do law anymore and received an REU internship at the Arecibo Observatory (in Puerto Rico) to do radio astronomy. I hated it! Luckily my senior year I took a neurology and a genetics course and became interested in Biophysics. I graduated with a BS in physics and also a BS in mathematics and got accepted to attend UNM for my graduate program.

It was here that I met my current adviser Dr. Steve Koch. He gave a fascinating presentation on unzipping DNA with optical tweezers, which is essentially a high power laser focused by a microscope objective. I decided I wanted to work in his group. Shortly after that he introduced the lab to open science, and I got caught up in it all, discovered open notebook science and have been pursuing that ever since. I’m scheduled to graduate this semester and will be defending my dissertation toward the end of March.

I hope to continue my work with open notebook science as I progress in my career, no matter what that entails. I’m going to apply to some of the museums here in Albuquerque to gain some experience in science outreach and I hope to continue some of my (less expensive) experiments and continue to contribute my results openly.

In 10 years, I hope open science will have gained even more traction. And I hope to be a major influence in that. I would love to work with the NSF to develop policy that would require open data for publicly funded research.

2) What advice do you have for first-time attendees of ScienceOnline2013?

Last year was my first year at ScienceOnline and I didn’t know anyone. Actually that’s not true, I knew a handful of people only via their twitter handles. But I made an effort to talk to everybody I could. I sat next to someone new every bus ride and chatted them up.

If this is your first year at SciO, then I suggest you do the same. Everyone is super friendly and we all have the commonality in that we are all interested in communicating science. So everyone loves to talk about what they do and loves to hear about what you do. In fact, come find me and I’ll chat your ear off!

Also join as many sessions as you can, and share your thoughts. The sessions are for discussion, not for listening, and what you have to say is as important as anyone else, so feel free to speak your mind!

And if you are even slightly artistic I suggest you go to Perrin Ireland’s session Wednesday about sketchnoting, Science Scribe. She’ll teach you some cool techniques for taking notes via images and you can go to every session and doodle the conversation. I did it last year and had a blast and I’m going to participate this year as well!

3) As a scientist with a clear love of open science, what do you see as some of the biggest barriers to making science more accessible and open? Do you have a suggestion for how we can get around that?

The biggest barrier is fear. Many scientists who aren’t open thinks open science is great (especially younger scientists), but they won’t take the plunge. The biggest fear is from scrutiny, and another major fear is being scooped. To combat this I’ve embraced being fully open in an attempt to show that there is nothing to be afraid of. I’ve also tried to educate myself and have shared my knowledge with the world via my notebook.

Another major barrier is close minded scientists. Surprisingly there are some of us that are completely opposed to open science. I’ve met a few and have worked with a few more. I don’t know exactly why they are opposed, but I try not to let it discourage me. When dealing with this kind of person, I tend to share my thoughts and continue on my own path.

Ultimately, the answer to the opposition of open science is through education. If scientists can be educated about open science, then more would be likely to pursue it. I’ve given a few seminars on the topic and the response is overwhelming, especially from other graduate students and undergrads.

I hope to receive funding for an IGERT program (grant is pending and openly accessible) that focuses on teaching graduate students about avenues of open science and provides them with funding as an incentive to be open.

4) Your blog, IheartAnthony’s Research, doubles as an open notebook. How has that worked for you? Do you have advice for scientists considering “going open?”

Overall my path into open science has been amazing. I’ve met far more people who support me than those opposed. My willingness to share and collaborate has been a huge benefit to my career. I’m always meeting new people, and most of which I wouldn’t have met if I had a different mindset (closed science). Some are interested in knowledge, others are interested in collaborating, and I’m always willing to help in any regard.

If you are interested in being open I have a whole slew of posts about maintaining an open notebook and what tools are available for doing so. Also if you are concerned about being scooped, I wrote a really lengthy article about copyright protection for science which may be useful.

5) What is the most exciting new innovation or future direction in open science?

I’m deeply fascinated by the approach of citizen science. I’m always looking for ways to merge citizen science with the smaller scale of open notebook science. The idea of having any person work with a scientist on an individual experiment is very exciting and I think can be the final bridge between the public and research.

I’ve also been tinkering with the idea of merging business with open science practices. I think the public would be less opposed to big business if they followed some sort of open model.

6) What developing science story are you following with interest?

Not to be too obvious, but I’m following the open science story intently. I love hearing about open science success stories (and failure stories). I want to know what works and what doesn’t. I also want to know where support is needed so I can try to lend a hand.

In my own research, I’ve uncovered an old story that was never finished. Between 1930 and 1970 heavy water studies were all the rage, but for some reason the research in that field almost stopped completely. I’ve been reading literature that parallel my research and trying to answer questions that have been left unanswered for almost 80 years!

I’ve also rediscovered my inner child and have been reading up on dinosaurs. When I was in grade school it was only just hypothesized that dinosaurs may have had feathers, and I find it extremely fascinating that our entire world is being flipped upside down. Latest research shows that many dinosaurs did have feathers, including the fearful T-rex. Imagine seeing a massive, carnivorous, and terrifying creature like that covered in beautiful plumage!

7) Who are your mentors? What science writers or researchers do you look up to?

My mentor currently is my academic advisor, Dr. Steve Koch. He embraced full openness after experiencing extreme closed science for his graduate appointment. He introduced me to full openness and I’ve embraced it, and everything I’ve accomplished is because of him.

I also look up to Michael Nielsen, Jean Claude Bradley, Cameron Neylon, and Bill Hooker for their pursuit of open science and support of me in doing the same. I look up to Bora Zivkovic for his work in scientific communication. I also look up to Jai Ranganathan and Jarrett Byrnes for their work with the #SciFund Challenge and starting a nonprofit scientific endeavor. I hope to one day follow in their footsteps to pursue a similar endeavor (the Open Lab!).

8) You’ve got a plug for #SciFund on your blog. Is crowd-funding the way of the future? What’s your experience with crowd-funding been like? Any tips?

I hope crowdfunding is the way of the future. In my experience, it works well when asking for small sums of money (<$1000). When requesting more, you need to have a really strong network and you really need to promote your research. Promotion becomes a full-time job almost.

I would love to start a research lab that is solely crowdfunded. This would allow the world to actively engage with and participate in the lab and hopefully bring science more into the public eye. I think the public should be able to determine what research gets funded, and crowdfunding is essentially that mechanism.

I participated in the #SciFund Challenge for Round 2 (May 2012) and had a wonderful experience. The network of support that Jai and Jarrett created is amazing. As a way of giving back, I worked with the Round 3 participants and offered support to anyone who needed it. I hope to continue to support #SciFund and if there are some out there thinking of joining, then do it! The process is relatively simple but time consuming. It’s a lot of fun though.

9) One of the things that I’m interested in is helping members of the public to learn what academics themselves are like. What does a typical day look like for you, both in terms of work and play?

My day varies tremendously from week to week because of the diversity of my experiments, but this upcoming week I’ll be growing some new Arabidopsis seeds in varying amounts of heavy water. I love gardening and will be starting my garden plants soon, and my Arabidopsis studies give me the opportunity to play with plants in the lab. I’ll also be conducting some yeast growth experiments. I’ve been working to adapt yeast to heavy water and will be determining how fruitful that endeavor was.

I will also be making a new batch of DNA that I can unzip with our optical tweezers. It’s a multistep process that begins with a PCR reaction to make copies of a template strand of DNA. This DNA is important because it allows us to attach our DNA to our slides and also has a molecule on the other end that can stick to 1.0um polystyrene beads. And of course I’ll be documenting all this in my open notebook as I do it.

The final piece of my work week is to continue to write my dissertation, which is also openly accessible. This week I’ll be amending my section on open notebook science and adding pieces to the chapter about my D2O studies.

When I get home I work out, mostly body weight resistance type exercises (push ups, pull ups, etc). On Tuesday I have an indoor soccer game to participate in. I’m itching to get back on the field because we lost pretty miserably last week (10-0!).

I also help a friend of mine maintain his blog. His name is T-rex and he writes about the struggles of living in a human world as a dinosaur. It doesn’t help that he is about 18 inches tall too, so he has to cope with being a tiny dinosaur. Tonight the two of us will be checking out “The Battle of the Food Trucks,” and we’ll be enjoying a basketball game as we both are huge NY Knicks fans. Tonight they play the Brooklyn Nets (grrrr….).

On the weekends I spend a lot of time working on various graphic design projects (site in development). I’m currently (sparingly) working on a story-time style book for adults with a friend. I also do very basic website construction and am currently working on a website for my brother. He’s a chef and through him I’ve developed a love for food. I hope to open a food truck so I also spend some time learning about the food industry and am developing a business plan for the truck.

Holy smokes, I’ve got a lot to do!!! I better get on it!

10) What’s the twitter-version of your PhD research?

I do #ons and publish ALL my research in real-time. I study how heavy water affects organisms and I can unzip DNA with optical tweezers.

11) What’s one stereotype of scientists that you’d like to correct?

This isn’t really a stereotype about scientists, but I’d love to make all science readable by the general public. Every person I’ve ever met has some inherent interest in science. They would be even more interested if it was communicated in a way that most people could understand. Scientists typically do a terrible job communicating their research, and it makes me sad. Wikipedia isn’t even all that good in communicating basic science.

I’d love to change the perception that science is too difficult to understand, you have to be a genius to work in science, and that science is for nerds. Unfortunately most scientists are trained to be poor communicators and that needs to change. Like most things, education is the way to change these perceptions and scientists have an obligation to work on their communication. Ultimately scientific grants would be better received if scientists expressed their ideas properly.

12) Some study systems, like yeast and Arabidopsis, are so heavily studied– and for good reason– that they’re basically biological institutions. Do you ever find yourself wishing you could play with something else? Or do your organisms still surprise and delight, after all this time?

Honestly, my exposure to model organisms has been limited, so working with all the organisms I do is still deeply fascinating. I’ve spent a lot of time just staring at my Arabidopsis plants in their test tubes and yeast under the microscope.

Last year I went on a hike and collected some moss and lichen specimens in the hopes of finding tardigrades. While I didn’t find what I was looking for, I discovered a whole new world (cue singing) and spent hours just watching all the microscopic interactions. There are some videos somewhere showing what I saw, and I’m in the process of backing them up and publishing them (via Youtube or BenchFly).

Categories: Academia Good Causes

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Jacquelyn Gill

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