Of Science and Friends

We tend to find ourselves in different social groups at different times in our lives. Some groups are dull, others perpetually awkward, and yet some just put you at ease.

In the early days of the course it was already evident that we are a vibrant bunch. Lessons took place in the evenings after an exhausting day of work for several coursemates, but somehow the jokes and nonsensical comments prevailed, both online and off. The attitude was seeped in positivity and light-heartedness.

It is rare that I find myself in a group where people have little opportunity to feel awkward or embarrassed. There is simply no time for that, as others are either enthusiastically weighing in with their own (sometimes warped) opinions or digressing into other topics, or just simply having a big laugh about things. Really, any random comment has the potential to evoke uproarious laughter. We tease one another endlessly, but are also ever-ready to provide help and support.

 After working together on two large-scale science demonstration events for the public, a certain sense of camaraderie has developed.  Such collective experiences of teamwork for something so high-stakes (not in terms of grades but public opinion) are rare, and hence precious.

Thanks, all, for bringing out the fun side in everyone and anything. Our semester together at NUS is a brief one, and after the June module, our paths may not cross again. Nonetheless, it was good, while it lasted.

In the sweetness of friendship let there be laughter, and sharing of pleasures. For in the dew of little things the heart finds its morning and is refreshed.”
Khalil Gibran


The science of telling stories, a review

A review of the research paper, “The science of telling stories: Evaluating science communication via narratives (RIRC method)” by Aquiles Negrete and Cecilia Lartigue.

Why this topic:

One of the first things that attracted me towards science communication was a story. I do not remember who it was but the gist of the story was that he was intrigued into learning genetics by a story and a few questions that his Biology teacher posed to him.

The first question was ‘Hypothetically if I cut off your leg, would your future child be missing a leg?’ He answered no. The second question was ‘Hypothetically, if I cut off your leg, and I cut off your future child’s leg, would your future grandson be missing a leg?’ He answered yes.

And then, that was when his Biology teacher taught him about genes and how they were transmitted from parent to offspring. The utility of narratives and the how they helped in the retention of information, for me was a keystone in learning Science. This particular research paper mentioned a qualitative method to understanding how narrative and paradigmatic ways of communicating scientific information work. This is the RIRC method; Retell, Identify, Remember and Contextualise. The essence of this method is that different memory tasks are used to evaluate how much an individual retains scientific information using both implicit and explicit memory. Explicit memory refers to the conscious recall of facts (like recalling the date of your friend’s birthday) while implicit memory refers to unconscious learning (like learning to ride a bicycle).


Two science short stories, Nitrogen by Primo Levi and Crabs take Over the Island by Anatoly Dnieprov, were summarized to one tenth of their original length and given to one group of students. The facts in those stories were summarized into 10 fact sentences and given to another group of students. They were then assessessed using the RIRC method, with questions testing 1) Retelling, 2) Identifying, 3) Remembering and 4) Contexualizing skills. The same questions were repeated again after a week. The student’s T test was used to analyse the results. Although it showed that there was a better performance from the factual group as compared to the narrative group, there was significantly higher scores in the Identify and Recall questions, specifically for the Crabs story. It was also noted that narratives provided students to remember more as compared to a list of facts.


Firstly, the sample size of 40 was too small. Also, the method of testing could be refined further as the difference in length between the narrative (2792) and facts (332) might have a confounding effect on the results. In Figure 1, the marks for the four tasks were accumulated and compared for the two sessions. It might be noteworthy to include and compare the results from the breakdown of question type for both sessions rather than just looking at the second alone. Also, there was a similar weightage for both contextualising questions and simpler identifying questions. This, although easier, might not be completely accurate.

However, usage of the RIRC method could be researched further and a larger-scale research would be useful to understand the differences in learning between the narrative and paradigmatic learning.


Negrete, A., & Lartigue, C. (2010). The science of telling stories: Evaluating science communication via narratives (RIRC method). Journal Media and Communication Studies,2(4), 98-110.

A review of an article: “YouTube as a Source of Information on Immunization: A Content Analysis”




The authors recognize that there is a concern by health care professionals about the accuracy and the quality of scientific information that is transmitted from Internet-based sources. One example brought up by the authors is the use of internet sites (specifically looking at YouTube) to communicate information about immunization. As YouTube is a video-sharing website for users to freely share videos that discuss the risks and benefits of immunization, the authors decide to conduct a descriptive study to characterize the information about immunization on YouTube since there were no studies done to examine the contents of the videos shared on YouTube.


A content analysis was done on YouTube via using keywords such as vaccination and immunization. The authors included all unique videos with English language content that contain messages about human immunization and extracted information such as the type of video, length of the video and the claims made by the video. Classification of the videos was done by looking at the content of the video as well as the statistics that measures users’ interactions, such as view counts and reviews. Videos are considered negative if the videos convey negative messages about immunization. Examples of negative messages include emphasizing on the risks, arguing against immunization or making claims about a conspiracy between supporters of vaccination and manufacturers. Videos are considered positive if positive messages such as benefits and safety of immunization or encouraging immunization among people were conveyed. Ambiguous videos are videos that contain a debate or no definite stand was taken.

Results and Analysis 

A total of 153 videos were identified and analyzed. 73 videos (48%) were positive, 49 (32%) were negative and 31 (20%) were ambiguous. Looking at the users’ interactions, negative videos are more likely to receive a higher mean star rating and having more views. Public service announcements receive the lowest rating and fewest views. The most common discussed vaccine topic and specific vaccine were general childhood vaccines and HPV vaccine respectively.

Little reflection

It is interesting to find that despite having more positive videos, the videos that receive a higher rating were the negative videos. This could mean that there is a group of YouTube users who are skeptical towards the use of immunization.

Another interesting fact that was observed is the low number of views and rating for public service announcements with regards to immunization despite being official videos made by the government bodies. This makes me wonder what are the factors that determine the number of views of a social media video. A search for any keywords will result in numerous videos relating to the keywords and what is the determining factor whether this video is going to be clicked or skipped.

Facebook and YouTube, being in the top 3 social network sites in 2017 [1], plays an important role in the manoeuvring the perception among the public.  However, the influence of social media is not to be undermined. It was found by Anderson in 2013 that an exposure towards negative comments in the online media about this emerging new technology could sway the risk perception along the lines of social and ethical concerns [2]. In addition, Druckman also investigates the importance in the editorial slant (tone of the press media) in influencing the readers’ decision-making process [3].

Looking at how the internet users responded to the difference in views of immunization, it might be interesting to do a study on what are the factors affecting the viewership of the YouTube videos portraying new science and technology.


Review article: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18056901

[1] https://www.statista.com/statistics/272014/global-social-networks-ranked-by-number-of-users/

[2] http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jcc4.12009/full

[3] http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1468-2508.2005.00349.x/full

Magical Mirages

Optical illusions often deceive our eyes during magic shows. On the other hand, on very hot days, you may notice a glistening watery image on the road in the distance that disappears as you approach it. This natural optical illusion, the mirage, is a trick that nature plays on our eyes.

Photo credit: EPOD

A mirage if an image of an object that is different from the form and location of the actual object. They often appear as a pool of water in the desert or a hot road but the water is not really there. The answer to this phenomenon is with how light interacts with the atmosphere.

Photo credit: University of Wisconsin

Normally, light travels in a straight line but it can bend and change direction depending on what it is passing through. This is a principle of refraction. A mirage occurs whenever light passes through layers of air at different temperatures. For instance, on a very hot day, the ground is warmer than the air above it. As light travels down from the cool air to the warmer air, it gets refracted upwards.

When this light reaches out eyes, our brain doesn’t see it as bent light. Instead, it thinks that the light has traveled in a straight line. Hence, it ‘thinks’ that some must have come from something on the ground and not in the sky. What you see then is a refracted image of the sky on the ground that resembles a pool of water. The most commonly know mirages are the inferior and superior images.

 Photo credit: University of British Columbia


In an inferior image, the inverted image is seen just below the object. It is the commonly seen during a hot day when air near the ground is warmer compared to the air above it. When sunlight passes through the layers (cooler to warmer), it produces images of the objects on the ground. The images gives an illusion of a ‘pool’.

 Photo credit: University of British Columbia

On the other hand, a superior image is one that appears above the original object. On icy surfaces or over large bodies of water, the lower layer of air is cooler than the one above it. This causes light to bend downwards from the object towards your eye. Hence, the mirage appears elevated of floating in the air.

So, the next time you see a mirage … Try to make a guess what type of mirage it is…


Desired behaviours to encourage engagement in museum exhibits.

The authors of this article used various novel computer-based exhibits from the Energy Gallery at the London Science Museum to explore how the visitors (both alone and with others), interact with and around the exhibit installations. By focusing on the problems of educating visitors about complex scientific phenomena, the researchers asked: “What are the appropriate media to convey complex concepts in an engaging manner?” and “What are the desired behaviours to encourage involvement with the exhibits?” They conducted video-based field studies to capture visitors’ performance activity (verbal and bodily conduct) to examine the social organization of their ‘performances’.

Methodologically, they used ethnomethodology (a perspective that focuses on the way people make sense of their everyday world) and conversation analysis to gain insights of the various visitor interactions. Wall-mounted cameras or un-personned camera on tripods were used to capture, while minimizing the possible feeling of being observed of the participants, over a 20-hours . The authors’ recordings were scrutinized to uncover how action and interaction emerged during the context. Here, the context not only refers to the physical environment but to the unfolding nature, or moment-by-moment production of the activity that arises. The analysis involved the detailed transcription of short fragments of video – single instances of discrete phenomena and and the aforementioned ‘performances’ of visitors’ talk and and bodily actions.

The studies find that visitors may exploit certain design features such as multiple interfaces (i.e large screens and other various components) to configure their actions to elaborate and embellish in various ways to attract and hold attention. Hence, certain talking points may emerge which is necessary as it contains verbals forms of social interaction that inevitably shapes their experience of learning from the exhibit.

The authors reflect upon the extent to which the design of exhibits enables particular forms of co-participation or shared experiences and to develop sensitivities that exhibition designers may consider for computer-based exhibits. Additionally, the authors argue that by focusing on performances such as a particular kind of communication may improve the overall creation of shared experiences by a larger group of visitors of an exhibit. The study ends with with a conflict between wanting visitors to be deeply engaged with an exhibit versus actively conversing with one another. It might be that shared experiences, including and not limited to conversations, allow visitors to create a more memorable experience upon which to build both in the moments and also in the future.


Robin Meisner, Dirk com Lehn, Christian Heath, Alex Burch, Ben Gammon, & Molly Reisman (2007). Exhibiting performance: Co-participation in science centres and mueums, International Journal of Science Education

A critical review of “The Neighborhood Nestwatch Program: Participant Outcomes of a Citizen-Science Ecological Research Project”

A little background

This study invited members of the public to be involved in ecological research (focusing on avian biology) in their own backyards to improve their scientific knowledge and their sense of place.

My thoughts on this

Biodiversity today faces numerous human-induced threats such as habitat loss and degradation, the introduction of invasive alien species, over-exploitation of resources, pollution, and anthropogenic climate change. It appears that while the challenges themselves seem to be escalating, the wherewithal required to tackle them is still lacking. Given the assumption that a strong individual sense of connection with nature is what motivates conscientious environmental behaviour, it follows that the current ecological crisis stems from an increasing estrangement of people around the world from nature.

Moreover, the majority of people today live in cities where life-sustaining ecosystem services are hidden. Thus, unaware of their dependence on nature, people view it as expendable. Thus, this human-nature disconnect, which has significant implications for the support of conservation efforts, is a cause for concern.

In light of this, I find the intentions behind this study very admirable as it seeks to address some of the problems above, by getting citizens to be concerned about nature in their own backyard. After all, one of the biggest threats to biodiversity is people not knowing what is out there.

Some of my comments about this paper are as below:

  1. For face-to-face interviews, studies have shown that interviewees tend to answer according to the expectations of the interviewer. How did this study account for this “surveyor effect”? This may be significant given that many stated that they liked the association with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and thus, may have answered in a way that would have made them appear better, affecting the results of the study.
  2. Was this study preaching to a case of the converted? Based on the reasons why participants chose to be involved in the programme (Figure 1), it appears that many were predisposed towards conservation. This self-selection bias may also have somehow influenced the results. Ultimately, as it is the “unconverted” that conservation biologists need to reach out to, I wonder how the results have varied if such people had participated.
  3. It appears that there were no pre-surveys done prior to the start of the programme. Moreover, control groups (i.e., participants who completed all the surveys/interviews without taking part in the programme) were also not used in this research. The use of such surveys and control groups would have been important to determine if the trends in the knowledge set of those who participated in the programme were actually due to the programme itself.
  4. Another factor that may have to be taken into consideration are the skills of the scientists/interns in communicating the methodology of the study. It is likely that such skills would have improved over time in the same individual. This may in turn, have confounded the results too. Alternatively, were standard templates used in the provision of answers?
  5. I am also rather curious about the drop-out rate from the programme over time as this may also provide some information about aspects of the programme that can be improved on. Such information is not presented in the main text.

Despite this, based on the results, it appears that such citizen science programmes can be used as starting points from which to reconnect urban dwellers who either do not have the resources or inclination to travel to non-urban areas where education relating to wildlife has historically been based. Given the assumption that the ability of urban dwellers to maintain a connection with nature is the basis for their understanding of the need for conservation near and far, programmes like this, which aim to bridge the gap between scientists and laymen, are excellent as they could engender greater support for conservation efforts locally. If done right, they could also promote environmentally conscientious behaviour in the very areas that exert a great pressure on biodiversity through their material flow and consumption patterns. Such causal effects could go a long way in reversing the current patterns of environmental degradation and in paving the way for a sustainable environmental future.


Evans, Celia, Eleanor Abrams, Robert Reitsma, Karin Roux, Laura Salmonsen, and Peter P. Marra. “The Neighborhood Nestwatch Program: Participant Outcomes of a Citizen-Science Ecological Research Project.” Conservation Biology 19, no. 3 (2005): 589-94. doi:10.1111/j.1523-1739.2005.00s01.x.

Bark Bark

e8a783a6618634d16d07e831f65640dcRemember this image back from your high school Biology textbooks? It probably had lots more technical words like ‘dicot’, ‘cambium’. Essentially, the inner xylem tube transports water from the roots to the leaves while the outer phloem tube transports glucose from the leaves to all parts of the plant. But that’s not all to the science in trees.

What is not typically included is the bark, the outermost layer, scientifically known as cork. Cork is basically dead – it was not typically regarded as one of the need-to-know things. But as a kid, I was fascinated with bark. I could not see xylem nor phloem, what I saw was variations of thick crusty wood to sleek pillars of brown.






Some trees had paper-thin layers of gently peeling bark, like skin from fingernails that you roll around with your thumb.


Think bark is useless? Think again. In Portugal, the bark of oak trees has been stripped every ten years to make cork stoppers for bottles of champagne and wine. There is art in stripping the bark without harming the tree which can live up to two hundred years. Find out more at http://www.wineanorak.com/corks/howcorkismade.htm

Cinnamon is a common spice used in India where the inner bark is shaved off and dried. It is then used in many dishes to add flavour and smell. Find out how the bark is cut and dried at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kFbSDFhyfKw

The inner cambium of the bark in Pine trees are sources of nutrition and could be fried and eaten if there are no other sources of food available. Find out more at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nos7t-beKKE&t=125s


These are the layers that there are to bark. Each of the layers have a different characteristic giving rise to different uses. Dendrochronology is the science of studying tree rings and dating them to the year that they were formed to understand the atmospheric conditions of the period of growth. Each ring represents one year of growth, with the outermost layer being the youngest. You could find out more information about the University of Arizona, Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research from http://ltrr.arizona.edu/

So next time remember, there is more to trees than just green and brown decoration.


What are your thoughts?

A silly question a day keeps life interesting,