Episode 8: STEM in society
Want to use STEM to build a better, brighter future? You better listen up! The world of STEM is rapidly changing, just like you will be.
In this episode, we speak to politicians, journalists, researchers, lecturers, event planners, and students about the big picture - that is, how STEM fits into society and the world beyond. So if you’re curious about where STEM research ends up once a paper is published, or how interactive experiments can help make the world smarter, our influential guests have all the answers.
Also in this episode, student Rebecca Vincent reverse engineers sunscreen - perhaps one of the most important STEM contributions to society yet.
Andi Horvath: Hey listeners, and Catriona, my co-host. I’ve got a quiz for you. It’s a “who am I?” - well, actually, it’s a “who are we?” quiz. Here’s the first clue: This group wants action on inequality, climate change, the future of food and water, the problem of plastic pollution and the health of our oceans.
Catriona Nguyen Robertson: Okay, I think I know, but I want to hear the rest of your clues, Andi.
Andi: Second clue…These young people are fed up with powerful decision makers’ lack of action.
Catriona: Okay…keep going…this is getting good.
Andi: Clue 3, sometimes one person’s action can make a huge impact.
Catriona: Okay, okay, I’m pressing the buzzer. Here’s my guess - is it the teen activists, the eco-entrepreneurs, members of Generation Z? Those who are looking after the future and ‘future us’ one project at a time? People like Greta Thunberg, Doha Khan, Billie Tristram, and Shalise Leesfield?
Andi: You win, and actually we all win.
Catriona: I really like Shalise. She is this awesome Australian girl, who harnessed ‘kid-power’ as she calls it, and collected and documented the extent of discarded fishing line that was killing marine animals and birds at her local beach. Shalise convinced her local council to take action and provide bins to help with the clean up. Now, the state government has come on board. Marine life is safer.
Andi: Hi, I’m Dr Andi Horvath, one the producers for the Secret life of STEM
Catriona: Hi, I’m Catriona Nguyen-Robertson, a PhD student studying the immune system. Today, Andi and I are going to take you through the big picture of science in society.
Andi: You know, Greta Thunberg said, “Only democracy, together with science and the goodwill between nations can save us, as they are the 3 cornerstones of society.” So, the solution to the world's problems are scientific AND social.
Catriona: If you want to help change the world. you need to be armed with good, and we stress good, science to be able to make any changes. Let’s define what good science and good scientists look like.
After your studies, you’ve learnt how to think about and do science. Then you are hired to be part of a team on an exploration. You experiment, observe, collect data, interpret results, and write a paper together. Other scientists read it and check the logic - that’s what us scientists call peer review - and this goes back and forth a little and then the paper gets published.
So if other scientists repeat the experiment and get the same result, then boom! We know a little more about the world. Then other people can build on your results to further science for society. That’s the ideal.
Andi: Yes, by design, good science aims to be self-correcting, peer-reviewed, evidence based ideas. But we need to be careful, because results can be open to interpretation. And look, there will be hits and misses, but overall it gets ironed out.
Oh and also, it’s important to know who is funding the science, so it doesn’t influence the outcomes. Back in the mid 20th century, tobacco company research didn’t tell us just how bad smoking is for you, so people kept buying cigarettes. The sharing of research with everyone is really important.
Catriona: Remember Ellen Sandell, the MP from episode 3? She is the scientist turned politician. The one trying to share ‘good’ science with society via politicians and governments. Really focusing on evidence-based or peer-reviewed research. Go Ellen!
Ellen Sandell: I want more women in politics , I want more women in science, I want more women in decision making, but I also want more scientists in public decision making spaces and just trying to spread my story and spread that word. Unless we get more real people and people with this scientific thinking in politics, I'm not sure that things are going to change, but we just have to keep chipping away at it.
Andi: Here’s Kate Ravillious who also popped up in episode 3. She’s the UK-based science journalist spreading the word of good science to society with informed science communication.
Kate Ravillious: I think good science journalism gives everyday people the tools to make good decisions about their own lives, about their environment around them so it ... As well as entertaining, it's informing people and giving them the evidence and the tools to make really good decisions and to understand how the world around them is working and operating.
Catriona: Now, let's chat with some scientists and learn what they are working on at the moment.
Dr Emma Burrows: Hi. I'm Dr. Emma Burrows, and I'm a neuroscientist at the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health. There at the Florey, I lead a small team, and we're doing some really exciting work in the field of dementia and autism.
We actually train mice to play computer games, which is incredibly quirky. We are very, very interested in trying to understand how memory changes in disorders like autism or how memory declines in diseases like dementia. We can develop mouse models of these brain disorders and diseases by manipulating the DNA of these mice. Then, we can test their memory in exactly the same way as you would in the clinic, so our psychologist friends are using tablets like iPads to ask people what images they remember in which location, for example, and we can do exactly the same test in our mice, and they work really hard. We reward them with strawberry milkshakes so they have a fun time.
We keep our mice very healthy, so we feed them pretty much the same way as you would feed your pet. They get fed at exactly the same time every day, so they're very motivated to work for treats like you would train your dog with little treats when they do the right thing like sit or come.
Catriona: Research science is about exploring unknowns and being on the edge of uncharted territory. Here’s Emma again:
Dr Emma Burrows: You're putting in so much effort, and you don't know if at the end of that experiment if it's going to work or not. You can get an answer, and that's fantastic. It might not be the answer you expected, but if it doesn't work, how do you go on? I mean, that failure actually is something that is around every day for a researcher, for a scientist, and knowing how to deal with failure is one of those big life lessons, isn't it?
I think that actually sums up what being a researcher is all about. It's that unknown... So failure is actually a really important thing to learn to deal with, and when you are a student it’s not as easy, I have had a lot more failures to prepare me for it. People are just perfect trouble-shooting machines. We can move on, and it's important to own that, but to not kick yourself about it. It's really ... It's not the end of the world.
Catriona: But dead ends are not always dead ends in the world of science.
Dominic Hare: We have a hypothesis. So in science a hypothesis is a question that we want to answer. That we want to ... And the answer has to essentially be yes or no. It's so exciting that it doesn't matter what the answer is, whether it's a yes or a no. Because yes will lead us in one direction of experiments, and no will lead us in another direction.
Catriona: That’s Associate Professor Dominic Hare, who describes himself as a chemist masquerading as a neuroscientist, or a pathologist working on the chemical reactions of brain diseases like Parkinson’s.
Dominic Hare: So if we know what that reaction is, we can look for markers and signs of it, and maybe we can even design drugs that can stop that reaction happening. The cool thing about this is it's not specific to Parkinson's Disease. Because I'm talking about the elements which make up everything. Every disease. Be it cancer, Alzheimer's Disease, motor neuron disease. Even, you know, certain mental health issues which is something I have a personal interest in. They all start with some sort of change. Because what makes this up is chemistry. We're made up of chemical reactions.
Catriona: He says some people in his team love their daily dose of lab work, but he’s a bit of self-confessed klutz in the lab. So he loves coming up with ideas, getting the lab’s data and interpreting it. What a team!
Andi: Now let's meet someone who loved studying both psychology and computer science. Which in his day, which wasn’t that long ago, was a weird combo but today it’s really hot and super cool.
Ryan Kelly: I'm a proud nerd. My name's Ryan Kelly, I am a research fellow in computing information systems. I'm associated with the Microsoft Research Centre for Social Natural User Interfaces, the longest name for a research centre in the world, I think
Andi: My fellow producer, Buffy Gorilla and I went to interview him.
Andi: Is there anything in your job that you didn't know but had to learn along the way?
Ryan Kelly: Everything, I think. Almost everything. Part of being a researcher is addressing new problems, so you sort of get some basic skills that are given to you through your degree, like how to do a literature review, or how to run an interview, say. But if we want to talk about some new problem, like how do people respond to artificial intelligence? We need to think of how to tackle that. You can plan your research, but inevitably, things will come up along the way that you didn't expect, so you always have to be prepared to adjust what you're doing, and you're always learning as well as you go along. That's one of the exciting things about being a researcher is you're always dealing with something that's new.
Andi: Now Buffy, you went to the Biometric Mirror on the campus of the University of Melbourne. You stand in front of it and it uses artificial intelligence to assess you on many different criteria.
What was your analysis? Let's get to that.
Buffy: So, female. That's correct. Age: 24. Very incorrect, but a lovely little surprise. Ethnicity: Asian. Emotion: neutral. I am not smiling. Kindness: low. Happiness: low. Commonness: low. Responsibility: low. Attractiveness: low. Social ability: low. Introversion: average. Aggressiveness: high. Weirdness: high. Emotional stability: average. The scary thing is, is that the score on the far right where I think it's the confidence of what the AI machine deems as the correctness of their assessment of me, those all range from 93 to 100. So it's very confident that I am what this is, and I respectfully disagree with the machine.
Ryan Kelly: Doesn’t that worry you? So the way it works is it takes a photograph of your face and basically does an analysis of your face, and the way that works is it compares your photograph to a database of other faces that have been rated by people, and they've been rated on these traits. So somebody will look at the photograph and say, "I think this person's high on aggressiveness.”
One problem is that the dataset that it draws on is based on human ratings, and human ratings contain bias, so your idea of aggressiveness or attractiveness is probably different to mine, and so this thing just draws on human judgments to try and make what appears to be an objective one delivered by a computer, but it's not fair, really.
Andi: You can't judge a book by its cover. You can’t judge a person by their cover.
Buffy: By AI.
Andi: By AI, surely. I mean, it will get it wrong because the dishevelled person may be just Bill Gates on a bad day - or the very smart person may be the only clothes they own on their way to a job interview they really wanna get.
Ryan Kelly: This type of thing is being done in the real world, not just with facial analysis but just with algorithms in general. So in the USA, there is an algorithm that helps judges to decide how long somebody's prison sentence should be, and it draws on a lot of questionable data and variables such as their age, their ethnicity, their previous record, and it basically gives a score of how likely they are to commit a crime again.
There's other algorithms that help people decide whether or not to give somebody a mortgage, and so if all these algorithms have got these underlying biases, that's really affecting people's lives in a really material way...bias that I can tell you about in the dataset is that it thinks that anybody with a beard is aggressive, and I don't think I'm aggressive, but I've got a little beard and it keeps telling me I am.
The whole idea is to get people talking about this now so that we can think about how to design these things to be more ethical-
Ryan Kelly: -And more appropriate.
Ryan Kelly: Ethics is a huge, huge issue in computer science and it's something that has not been historically taught all that well. But it's really important, because the things that we design and build and deploy really do affect people's lives. That's the thing, you can talk about impact, but you can also talk about consequences as a different word.
Catriona: We all need protection from unethical corporations and UV rays, so it’s the perfect time for some Reverse Engineering. Here’s Rebecca Vincent with one great example - sunscreen.
Rebecca Vincent: Something that my friends and I discuss a lot is skincare tips, and as we head into the summer months here in Australia and we start wearing high-waist shorts and our tank tops, more of our skin is being exposed and so you’ve got to make sure that the skin is protected. My number one tip when it comes to skincare is to religiously use sunscreen, which to my dismay, most of my friends neglect. Now, wearing sunscreen has heaps of benefits, like preventing burns, minimizing premature skin aging, and reducing your risk of developing skin cancers, but today I‘m here to discuss what SPF actually means and why you need to reapply it.
Every bottle of sunscreen has an SPF number on it like SPF 15, 30, and 50. SPF stands for sun protection factor. It’s a measure of how much less ultraviolet radiation hits your skin with sunscreen on than without it. Ultraviolet radiation, or UV, is just a type of energy produced by the sun. UV rays can damage our skin cells by altering the DNA to cause genetic mutations that can lead to skin cancers. Some chemicals in sunscreens work by reflecting the UV light away from the skin, other chemicals work by absorbing them so the skin doesn’t.
When you wear SPF 30, your skin absorbs 30 times less UV than it would without sunscreen. This roughly translates to 96.7% of UV being blocked. For SPF 40 sunscreen, the skin takes in 40 times less UV which also means it blocks about 97.5% of UV.
When it comes to sun protection, it’s not just about SPF. We’ve always known that there are two types of UV, UVA and UVB. Previously, we thought that only UVB was the bad skin cancer-causing one, and so we made some sunscreens that protect against UVB, but further studies have shown that UVA is also terrible, and it’s just been sneaky all this time. So to be safe, be sure to buy and use broad spectrum type of sunscreens which protect against both types of UV.
Arguably the most important thing to remember about all of this is how regularly you apply sunscreen. We humans sweat a lot, more than we realise, and all that sweat makes the sunscreen that we painstakingly put on just slide right off, so experts recommend reapplying every two hours in order to receive maximum sun protection.
In conclusion, dear listeners, when it comes to sunscreen, there is a lot more going on than just the SPF number. My hope is now that you know how to best protect yourselves, you’ll be inspired to take action, as I know for a fact that my friends will still pay no heed.
I’m Rebecca, good luck in all of your scientific adventures, and remember to keep wearing sunscreen.
Andi: Catriona, I’m keen for the listeners to meet some philosophers of science and technology, because these researchers specifically examine science in society. The gang you’ll hear from next reminds us to understand that scientists are humans like the rest of us. Science can get competitive and a bit cut throat, and even go a bit pear shaped.
Catriona: I call it a pressure-cooker.
Andi: There is a lot of high-pressure in science.
Kristian Camilleri: Yeah, so I’m Doctor Kristian Camilleri. I work in the history and philosophy of science program, which is in the school of philosophical and historical studies here at the University of Melbourne. Good philosophers will always say this, that the results of scientific work are not infallible. One of the beauties, one of the good things about science, is it revises its own findings. Some people argue that it has a sort of inbuilt self-correcting process. And that process is best nurtured by a community of scientific practitioners, all offering critique and constructive suggestions about how to improve that science.
The second point I think is really important to aspiring young science students is that if and when you do become a scientist, the messy rest of the world, like politics and economics and money and ethics, doesn't just melt away. You don't check out being a human being at the lab door, get about doing your science, and then re-enter the real world at the end of the day. Far from it.
Catriona: You know, one thing you need to know about science is that scientists are always applying for money from funding bodies. Here’s Kristian again:
Kristian Camilleri: There's not enough money or resources to fund all the science we would ideally like to. Let's take just medical research, strip away all the others. We can't put all our eggs in all the baskets. We have to make some pretty tough decisions.
The projects that we undertake as major scientific projects, are largely determined by the wider society in which we live. Choices about what kind of medical research to do, about what should get funded and what shouldn't get funded. Political, moral, ethical, and social decisions that every citizen has a say in, ultimately by virtue of their consumer practices and who they vote in and out of government
Andi: I met Associate Professor Fiona Fidler, she spends half of her time in the School of BioScience and the other half with the school of History and Philosophy of Science. She’s half-scientist, half-philosopher. She told me about how the old structures in science publishing are changing (spoiler alert, it’s for the better)!
Fiona Fidler: Traditionally, there are journals that are owned by publishers. The publishers make a lot of money out of these journals. Universities buy back licenses, subscriptions to those journals, so they're basically paying for it twice. This process has been exposed by lots of people over the last decade, but I think it's the younger people in science now that are finding solutions to this, that are starting free pre-print servers, or starting new open peer review processes that are really changing those old peer review mechanisms, and that's a really important part of the change that we need in science at the moment.
Andi Horvath: The publish or perish system of science where you write a paper, and then your reputation, and also your career advancement depends on that.
Fiona Fidler: I think it leads us astray in a few different ways, so one is: people will take much safer bets. They'll only do experiments and studies that they know are going to be publishable because that's the economy of the situation they're in. That's what all of the incentives, getting a job, getting a promotion, is all based on the number of papers that you have, so yes, it leads us towards less risky endeavors, perhaps, safer kind of projects.
The other problem is that traditional journals are usually only interested in publishing experiments that have worked, experiments that find positive results or significant results, so all of the research that we do, that doesn't find anything, won't get published. Now, on the one hand, you might think, "Why would you want to know about that?" And the reason you'd want to know about that is so that other people don't waste their time and money doing the same thing over and over again, that actually those negative results are a big part of the way that science makes progress. If we don't know what doesn't work, then it's much harder to find what does work.
Andi: I’ve lost my faith in STEM again.
Fiona Fidler: No, no, no, no. It's always important to remember that there are as many scientists working at the moment to fix these problems. It's the early career researchers, the young scientists who are really most aware of these problems and working the hardest to solve them, those less invested in the traditional structures.
Andi: So if I'm in year 10, by the time I become a scientist or I work in an allied scientific research field, something similar, it might be a better world?
Fiona Fidler: I think the world will be a really different place by then. I think scientific publishing in particular will be unrecognizable in 10 years time. What makes me hopeful are the changes that I see in that scientific publishing space, and what new technology has offered to scientists in terms of the ability to share the data and workings of their experiments. The ability to really share the nuts and bolts of what scientists do, and that I think is going to lead to much faster and greater progress than we have seen before.
Andi: The funny thing about science for all its methods and analysis and measurement, is that some discoveries are pure luck, serendipity, happenstance. Like Velcro, and I can name a truck load of others. Here’s Kristian again.
Kristian Camilleri: When I put my history hat on, and I do quite a bit of history of science, you'll see this is really, really common. This is just another reason why the scientific method, if you're just cooking along with a recipe, is not really going to capture all the excitement of a serendipitous discovery, for instance. Something might divert your attention from what you were originally doing and prove to be far more exciting and fruitful for subsequent developments in science.
Andi Horvath: I think that's a healthy way to think about science and technology in society, that there is a luck element. So not only may the force go with you, but may the luck go with you.
Kristian Camilleri: Yes, definitely there's an element of luck. But clearly, the researchers who work hard avail themselves of more opportunities to have good fortune in their research. I think that’s like most things in life.
Catriona: Andi asked Fiona Fidler whether she thought Science was able to tackle the world’s wicked problems.
Fiona Fidler: It can. It has to. I think just because there are problems that need to be corrected, just because it's done by humans doesn't mean that it isn't our best hope. It's still our best hope for solving those problems.
Andi: Scientists and science communicators also need to be fact checkers in this world of misinformation and fake news. The communicators superpower is translating the complex science to public audiences. They help with awareness, understanding and the value of science in society. They sometimes bust myths, and call out sensationalist science journalism.
Catriona: Science communicator, James Heathers, started a Twitter feed called ‘just says in mice’. He was reacting to science news reporting that was badly framed. Like when scientists do some cancer studies in mice, but the news reader reports it out of context, saying ‘Breakthrough to new cancer cure’. Just a reminder - media, JUST SAY “ONLY IN MICE”.
Andi: So, misinformation and mice information, pun intended, is a problem. Here is philosopher Dr Darrin Durant talking about how Finland is tackling it.
Darrin Durrant: There's a Finnish program run by a company called FactBar. What they do is they go into Finnish high schools and they run programs to try and get Finnish high school students to know the difference between misinformation, disinformation, and just raw straight lies. We know that democracy requires savvy citizens, but savvy citizens now is not just about you have information and that you can convey information, but that you can tell the difference between reliable and robust information and just straight not true or straight lie or straight deception. If we can't tell the difference between these things, we're not really doing the best for democracy.
Catriona: We need thoughtful news editors, reporters, journalists, science communicators, and scientists connecting science to society. Let’s meet a science communicator taking science to people of all ages.
Renee Beale: Hello. I'm Dr. Renee Beale, and I work at the Royal Society, Victoria. And my job there is to lead up Science Week for Victoria, but also to be the engagement manager at the Royal Society. At the society we are very interested in promoting science and the understanding of science to society. Science Week is a really fun festival. So things like learning how to code, racing robots, experiencing new generation wearables, learning about things like how physics works in our environment, chemistry shows. Who doesn’t love big explosions?
Andi: Being educated in science is not just for kids, and I’m sure young adults and parents alike probably have fun at Science Week, too.
Catriona: I know I’m going to a lot of Science Week events.
Renee Beale: So for us, and for me personally, I'm passionate about education of science to adults as well. So it's not just about trying to make sure that every student studies a formal science degree, for example, and become scientists themselves, but it's around making sure that we communicate and educate people in general about science so that they can use that knowledge in their everyday life to make decisions.
Andi Horvath: Renee, what makes you hopeful about the future of science and technological capability? Do you reckon we're going to get on top of the big wicked problems?
Renee Beale: I mean, I'm really positive about the future. I think food, that's a perfect example of where a whole pile of different scientists are working on issues around food sustainability, but they're also working with people like philosophers and artists, and all kinds of people that you would be surprised to hear that they're working with. But because it's a societal issue, we have to come at these things from many different directions.So we're always moving deeper and deeper into knowing more about specific problems from a scientific perspective, but I think with some of our societal challenges that we're facing at the moment, that we need to engage with other people outside of science as well to help us get to those answers.
Andi: Hey Catriona, you are part of the new, let’s call it a STEM-pire, and part of a group of activists and STEM-inists. So go forth, and do good.
Catriona: Already there, together with our listeners. Action, people!
Andi: Time for the credit roll. This series was made possible by the University of Melbourne.
Thanks to everyone who shared their stories. This episode was hosted by
Catriona: Catriona Nguyen-Robertson
Andi: and me, Dr Andi Horvath.
Catriona: The reverse engineering segment on sunscreen was researched and presented by Rebecca Vincent, with editing and sound design from Silvi Vann-Wall.
Andi: This podcast is produced and edited by Buffy Gorilla, with additional production support from Arch Cuthbertson. Supervising producer and science advisor is me, Dr Andi Horvath.
Catriona: You can explore the range of STEM courses the University of Melbourne has on offer by visiting study.unimelb.edu.au. - we’ll pop a link in the show notes. Thanks for listening!
Catriona: I don’t understand the whole ‘activated almonds’ thing.
Andi: Activated just means they’re wet, and dried.
Catriona: Yeah basically.
Andi: I reckon that’s hooey.