Scientists are humans too…
If you think that most scientists are boring old men with failed wardrobes and hair-challenged noggins.. and speak an alternative language that disengages most other humans… then you’re only partially correct… The world of scientists is now populated by an incredible array of fascinating people – many of whom are crazy-smart but also share humor and a variety of interests. I’ll introduce you to a few of them here – so the next time you hear of the latest ‘scientific discovery’ you might have a different mental picture of ‘scientist’.
Paleoanthropologist and chair and senior curator of Anthropology at the California Academy of Sciences
Zeresenay Alemseged is an Ethiopian paleoanthropologist who studies the origins of humanity in the Ethiopian desert, focusing on the emergence of childhood and tool use. His most exciting find was the 3.3-million-year-old bones of Selam, a 3-year-old girl from the species Australopithecus afarensis.
He speaks five languages.
Doctor and professor of surgery and director of the Facial Nerve Clinic at the University of California, San Diego.
Quyen Nguyen is developing ways to guide surgeons during tumor removal surgery by using fluorescent compounds to make tumor cells — and just tumor cells — glow during surgery, which helps surgeons perform successful operations and get more of the cancer out of the body. She’s using similar methods to label nerves during surgery to help doctors avoid accidentally injuring them.
She is fluent in French and Vietnamese.
Faculty member of the Department of Cognitive, Perceptual & Brain Sciences
Tali Sharot is an Israeli who studies the neuroscience of emotion, social interaction, decision making, and memory. Specifically her lab studies how our experience of emotion impacts how we think and behave on a daily basis, and when we suffer from mental illnesses like depression and anxiety.
She’s a descendant of Karl Marx.
Biomedical engineer, professor at UC Irvine, and co-Founder at Shrink Nanotechnologies
Michelle Khine uses Shrinky Dinks — a favorite childhood toy that shrinks when you bake it in the oven — to build microfluidic chips to create affordable tests for diseases in developing countries.
She set a world record speed of 38.4 mph for a human-powered vehicle as a mechanical engineering grad student at UC Berkeley in 2000.
Electrical and biomedical engineer at Columbia’s Laboratory for Stem Cells and Tissue Engineering; Adjunct professor of Electrical Engineering at the Cooper Union
Nina Tandon uses electrical signals and environmental manipulations to grow artificial tissues for transplants and other therapies. For example, she worked on an electronic nose used to “smell” lung cancer and now she’s working on growing artificial hearts and bones.
In her spare time, the Ted Fellow does yoga, runs, backpacks, and she likes to bake and do metalsmithing. Her nickname is “Dr. Frankenstein.”
Physicist and professor
Lisa Randall is considered to be one of the nation’s foremost theoretical physicists, with an expertise in particle physics and cosmology. The math whiz from Queens is best known for her models of particle physics and study of extra dimensions.
She wrote the lyrics to an opera that premiered in Paris and has an eclectic taste in movies.
Experimental particle physicist and professor of physics at Caltech
Maria Spiropulu develops experiments to search for dark matter and other theories that go beyond the Standard Model, which describes how the particles we know of interact. Her work is helping to fill in holes and deficiencies in that model. She works with data from the Large Hadron Collider.
She’s the great-grandchild of Enrico Fermi in Ph.D lineage — which means her graduate adviser’s adviser’s adviser was the great Enrico Fermi who played a key role in the development of basic physics.
Mathematician, engineer, and researcher
The French-Mauritian Jean-Baptiste Michel is a mathematician and engineer who’s interested in analyzing large volumes of quantitative data to better understand our world.
For example, he studied the evolution of human language and culture by analyzing millions of digitized books. He also used math to understand the evolution of disease-causing cells, violence during conflicts, and the way language and culture change with time.
He likes “Modern Family” and “Parks and Recreation,” he listens to the Black Keys and Feist, and his favorite restaurant in New York City is Kyo Ya.
Professor of aeronautics and bioengineering
John Dabiri studies biological fluid mechanics and wind energy — specifically how animals like jellyfish use water to move around. He also developed a mathematical model for placing wind turbines at an optimal distance from each other based on data from how fish schools move together in the water.
He won a MacArthur “genius grant” in 2010.
As a graduate student (M.D./Ph.D.) at Johns Hopkins, Isaac Kinde (Ethiopian/Eritrean) is working on improving the accuracy of genetic sequencing so that it can be used to diagnose cancer at an early stage in a simple, noninvasive manner.
In 2007 he worked with Bert Vogelstein, who just won the $3 million Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences.
He’s an avid biker, coffee drinker and occasional video game player.
Franziska Michor received her PhD from Harvard’s Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology in 2005, followed by work at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, then was assistant professor at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. In 2010, she moved to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard School of Public Health. Her lab investigates the evolutionary dynamics of cancer.
Both Franziska and her sister Johanna, who has a PhD in Mathematics, are licensed to drive 18-wheelers in Austria.
Heather Knight (Ph.D. student at Carnegie Mellon) loves robots — and she wants you to love them too. She founded Marilyn Monrobot, which creates socially intelligent robot performances and sensor-based electronic art. Her robotic installations have been featured at the Smithsonian-Cooper Hewitt Design Museum, LACMA, and PopTech.
In her graduate work she studies human-robot interaction, personal robots, theatrical robot performances, and designs behavior systems.
When she’s not building robots, she likes salsa dancing, karaoke, traveling, and film festivals.
The Australian author of “Mathematics and Sex,” Clio Cresswell uses math to understand how humans should find their partners. She came up with what she calls the “12 Bonk Rule,” which means that singles have a greater chance of finding their perfect partner after they date 12 people.
If she’s not at her desk brain working, you’ll find her at the gym either bench pressing her body weight or hanging upside down from the gym rings.
Cheska Burleson (PhD in Chemical Oceanography) focused her research on the production of toxins by algae blooms commonly known as “red tide.” She also evaluated the medicinal potential of these algal species, finding extracts that show promise as anti-malarial drugs and in combating various strains of staphylococcus, including MRSA—the most resistant and devastating form of the bacteria.
Cheska entered college at seventeen with enough credits to be classified as a junior. She also spent her formative years as a competitive figure skater.
Systems engineer and flight director for the Mars Curiosity rover
Bobak Ferdowsi (an Iranian-American) gained international fame when the Mars Curiosity rover landed on the surface of Mars last August. Since then, the space hunk has become an Internet sensation, gaining more than 50,000 followers on Twitter, multiple wedding proposals from women, and the unofficial title of NASA’s sexy “Mohawk Guy.”
He’s most known for this star-and-stripes mohawk (which he debuted for the Curiosity landing), but changes his hairstyle frequently.
He is a major Star Trek fan.
CEO and head of research at InteraXon
By tracking brain activity, the Canadian Ariel Garten creates products to improve people’s cognition and reduce stress. Her company just debuted Muse, a brain-sensing headband that shows your brain’s activity on a smartphone or tablet. The goal is to eventually let you control devices with your mind.
She runs her own fashion design business and has opened fashion week runways with shirts featuring brainwaves.
Astrophysicist and deputy project scientist at the wide-field infrared survey explorer, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab.
Amy Mainzer built the sensor for the Spitzer Space Telescope, a NASA infrared telescope that’s been going strong for the last 10 years in deep space. Now she’s the head scientist for a new-ish telescope, using it to search the sky for asteroids and comets.
Her job is to better understand potentially hazardous asteroids, including how many there are as well as their orbits, sizes, and compositions.
Her idea of a good time is to do roller disco in a Star Trek costume.
Pedriatric Neurologist, Boston Children’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School (her British pedigree includes B. Sc. in physiology from King’s College London; M.Sc. in neurological science from University College London; Ph.D in cognitive neuroscience from the University of Sheffield).
Aditi Shankardass is a renowned pediatric neurologist who uses real-time brain recordings to accurately diagnose children with developmental disorders and the underlying neurological causes of dyslexia.
Her father is a lawyer who represents celebrities. She enjoys dancing, acting, and painting.
Bio-engineer and senior scientist at Integrated Plasmonics Corporation
As a graduate student Albert Mach designed tiny chips that can separate out cells from fluids and perform tests using blood, pleural effusions, and urine to detect cancers and monitor them over time.
He loved playing with LEGOs as a kid.
Now that we’ve had a look at ‘modern scientists’ it is only appropriate to look at a bit of ‘modern science’…
STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) is not a job – it’s a way of life. You can’t turn it off… you don’t leave that understanding and outlook at the office when you leave (not that any of the above braniacs stop working on a problem just because it’s 5PM). One of the fundamental aspects of science is measurement: it is absolutely integral to every sector of scientific endeavor. In order to measure, and communicate those measurements to other scientists, a set of metrics is required, one that is shared and agreed upon by all. We are familiar with the meter, the litre, the hectare and the kilogram. But there are other, less well-known measurements – one of which I will share with you here.
What do humans, beer, sub-atomic collisions, the cosmos and the ‘broad side of a barn’ have in common? Let’s find out!
Units of measure are extremely important in any branch of science, but some of the most fundamental units are those of length (1 dimension), area (2 dimensions) and volume (3 dimensions). In human terms, we are familiar with the meter, the square meter and the litre. (For those lonely Americans – practically the only culture that is not metric – think of yards, square yards and quarts). I want to introduce you to a few different measurements.
There are three grand ‘scales’ of measurement in our observable universe: the very small (as in subatomic); the human scale; and the very large (as in cosmology). Even if you are not science-minded in detail, you will have heard of the angstrom [10−10 m (one ten-billionth of a meter)] – used to measure things like atoms; and the light-year [ 9 trillion kilometers (or about 6 trillion miles)] – used to measure galaxies.
The actual unit of measure I want to share is called “Hubble-barn” (a unit of volume), but a bit of background is needed. The barn is a serious unit of measure (area) used by nuclear physicists. One barn is equal to 1.0 x 10−28 m2. That’s about the size of the cross-sectional area of an atomic nucleus. The term was coined by these physicists that were running these incredibly large machines (atom smashers) that help us understand subatomic function and structure by basically creating head-on collisions with particles travelling in opposite directions at very high speeds. It is very, very difficult! And the colloquial expression “you can’t hit the broad side of a barn” led to the name for this unit of measure…
Now, since even scientists have a sense of humor, but understand rigor and analogy, they further derived two more units of measure based on the barn: the outhouse (smaller than a barn) [1.0 x 10−6 barns]; and the shed (smaller than an outhouse) [1.0 x 10−24 barns].
So now we have resolved part of the aforementioned “Hubble-barn” unit of measure. Remember that a unit of volume requires three dimensions, and now we have established two of those with a unit of area (the barn). A
third dimension (of length, which is one-dimensional quantity) is needed…
The predecessor to Hubble-barn is the Barn-megaparsec. A parsec is equal to about 3.26 light years (31 trillion kilometers / 19 trillion miles). Its name is derived from the distance at which one astronomical unit subtends an angle of one arcsecond. [Don’t stress if you don’t get those geeky details, the parsec basically makes it easy for astronomers to calculate distances directly from telescope observations].
A megaparsec is one million parsecs. As in a bit over 3 million light years. A really, really long way… this type of unit of measure is what astronomers and astrophysicists use to measure the size and distance of galaxies and entire chunks of the universe.
The bottom line is if you multiply a really small unit (a barn) by a really big unit (a megaparsec), you get something rather normal. In this case 112ml (about ½ cup). So here is where we get to the fun (ok a bit geeky) aspect of scientific measurements. The next time your cake recipe calls for ½ cup of sugar, just ask for a Barn-megaparsec of sugar…
Since for our final scientific observation, we need a unit of measure a bit more than a teaspoon, we turn to the Hubble length (the radius of the entire observable universe, derived by multiplying the Hubble constant by the speed of light). It’s about 4,228 million parsecs [13.8 billion light years]. As you can see, by using a larger unit than the megaparsec we now can get a larger unit of volumetric measure. Once the high mathematics is complete, we find that one unit of Hubble-barn is pretty much equivalent to… a pint.. of beer. (473ml). So two physicists go into a bar… and order a Hubble-barn of ale…
See… there IS a practical use for science!