Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Board games - science style

Last week I was at Spiel, the largest board game convention of Europe in Essen, Germany. I played a shed load of board games with concepts ranging from collecting the most bananas to hanging up life sized washing. I also played a couple games with a scientific theme, which is a rare event in the board gaming world.

Can you save humanity?

Pandemic: ContagionOne game that I played at the convention is really going viral at the moment (pun intended). This was Pandemic: Contagion. The game is a spin off from the board game Pandemic and you play as a specific disease attempting to rid the world of that troublesome humanity.

Whilst diseases are of course not sentient beings, it is a pretty novel idea to take on the role an infection. The game itself was ok, it didn't grab me at the first play, but maybe it will grow on me (yes, another intended pun). What I did really like with the game was the artwork, as accurate as you ever get with cartoon viruses. The components were also really cool as you get to play with petri dishes and to hold a fist full of viruses.

PandemicThe original Pandemic is one of my favourite board games ever. A cooperative game where you fight the diseases together as a crack team of operatives and scientists, this time to save humanity! Again, the artwork is great and the four diseases are kinda realistic representations of microbes and viruses. The "Scientist"" character is also a fine example of promoting diversity in science, a white coated lady analysing her latest data. There are also a couple expansions to the base Pandemic game, one being called In the Lab. I've not played it myself but understand that here you can take a pause from racing around the world to enter the laboratory and develop new cures, cool!

Stereotypical spies

SpyfallAnother game I played at Spiel was the party game Spyfall. In this Russian produced game (just saying) there is of course a spy, who must uncover the location of the other players, whilst they each attempt to unmask the spy. The players are given cards with a location on them, one of which being a university. Now a university has many different departments as well as countless other student hangouts and from all these options Spyfall chooses to use a science lab. I say "science lab" as I'm actually not quite sure if it is a chemistry lab or more like a botanist's greenhouse. So let's just say it is something in the biological sciences area.

Unfortunately, the creators of Spyfall decided to go for the stereotypical depiction of an old crazy scientist for their game. The spy in the picture is disguised with a wig of white unkempt hair. One further point is that if this was a real situation then the spy would instantly be caught. Anyone that has worked in a university lab will know, old professors never set foot in the labs and would certainly not be seen getting their hands dirty doing some actual research.

Professor PlumAn old board game that surely everyone knows is Cluedo. One of the characters/suspects in this game is Professor Plum. This learned man was first depicted as an absent minded, aged scientist. Not really pushing the imagination of the players here or indeed the boundaries of science. The character has, however, gone through a number of transformations over the years in different editions. His job has varied from archaeologist to psychiatrist to video game designer. In the latest interpretation he has lost his academic title and with it has perhaps lost the chance to persuade generations more of impressionable young scientists to solve murders, perhaps.

The portrayal of scientists in board games has come a long way since Plum's days but maybe still has a way to go. I do really believe that chemistry and science is a massively under used theme for games. What could be more fun than beating your friends in the hunt to synthesise a new molecule or to write the best grant proposal, oh yeah I see it now. If anyone else knows of any other science themed board games then please let me know, I'd love to try them out.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Autumn leaves

Autumn is upon us. The rain is coming, the temperature is dropping and the trees are changing from their summery greens into their autumnal reds and golds.

I saw Compound Chem had made a wonderful infographic about the chemicals that produce the brilliant coloured leaves this time of the year and so I sent the link to my Dad, an avid gardener. He then replied to me with a poem, another of his hobbies, that he'd written a few years ago describing the changes to the leaves with a chemical insight.

The colours in the leaves

Once the green of chlorophyll,
Didst verdant scenes on yonder hill,
Fill with glowing hues its summer’s glory,
And leaves shine forth to tell a chemist’s story.
As leaves do turn to feed from moistened light,
And deadly gas from which these leafy leaves will soon take flight.
How silently, as autumn ushers in bright days yet frosty nights,
These many-hued greens give way to other sights.
Other forms usurp the molecular green-maker’s robe,
And from their secret lair these tribes with ear-harsh names do probe.
So chlorophyll succumbs to xanthophyll,
No more such verdant scenes on yonder hill,
And carotene and anthocyanins do hold the day,
And orange, yellow, red and gold do sway.
Yet does not summer green pass to autumn splendour,
And to us cold breezes crispness render. 

Peter Branson 2007

Monday, 6 October 2014

55 applications later...

After countless alterations to my CV and a shameless outpouring of enthusiasm into numerous cover letters, I am finally about to start the next step of my career.

In my search for the perfect career move I sent out 55 applications in total. Many of these were actually for industry positions that I thought, "well I can do that, it would be ok and is kind of my skill set", and so I was not too surprised when I didn't get the job. But I was always optimistic and therefore always disappointed. I really wanted that perfect research position of five years to really develop a new idea that I was totally specialised for. But yeah, that doesn't actually happen.

In the meantime I began volunteering at a University. They were more than happy to have me work for free, which was very kind of them. In this time I did manage to get a couple small grants to help with the work and also to send me to talk at a conference. I did gain some great experience and some very helpful contacts. However, I learnt during this time that not having a stable, secure job is not something I would particularly recommend.

Out of all my 55 applications, I was invited six times for interviews. Three of which, much like the proverbial buses, came along at the same time. In the end I was in the most fortunate position of having a choice of where to go next and actually went to my final interview with an offer already in my pocket. I had been offered a position in industry (still in R&D), which was with a very exciting company and perfect for my expertise. My final interview was at a University and for a one year postdoc position. The research ideas were fantastic, the facilities amazing but the prospects and possibilities for the future were just that, prospects and possibilities.

After moving country a year ago and previously moving nine times in my eight years at University, I was ready to stay put for a change. I would love to continue research in a University atmosphere but not in the way that the traditional career path dictates or how the funding situation obliges people to continually move on after short projects. Therefore I said thank you very much, but no thank you to the academic path and willingly moved into industry.

I had already thought for a while that the long term academic plan was not what I wanted. I love research, I love exploring new ideas, discovering new things. But there are other options than the academic track. I like writing (obviously) and so publishing, editing and science communication is still something for future Tom to consider. But right now I still want to be part the doing science community not just the reporting about it part. So industry it is.

My final thoughts on the matter are on the similar difficulties facing other freshly graduated PhDs. In Holland, where I'm based, the funding situation in universities is not in good shape and industries are not doing much better either. I do feel that if I was able (and willing) to travel anywhere in the world, then I would have been much more likely to land something close to my dream job much more quickly. But the restrictions that come with staying put make things more difficult.

If you (like me) are intent on not moving then you better keep writing those applications and in the meantime improvise with what you do have, volunteer and ask for help. This last point being the most important. I wouldn't have got this far without a lot of support from friends and old colleagues.