When is a weed not a weed?

Heather Bray:

Here’s something I wrote for Science for Life. 365 …

Originally posted on Science for Life. 365:


A ScienceforLife.365 guest post by Dr Heather Bray* 

Heather: My garden needed a darn good weeding this morning. I spent a couple of hours on it, furiously pulling up or digging out the offenders, being careful not to disturb the plants I have nurtured since before the summer..

When it came to this little fellow however, I left him alone. I decided this one wasn’t a weed.

The best definition for a weed is the first one I learned in Year 7 Agriculture:

A weed is a plant in the wrong place.

We decide which plants are in the right place and which ones aren’t based on a whole range of factors; many of the reasons are based in science, but some are not. Some plants are dangerous and so we consider them weeds because they are toxic to humans or animals. Some weeds can affect nearby plants through competition…

View original 430 more words

Day 350. I can’t explain that

Heather Bray:

Here is a post I wrote for my friend Sarah Keenihan. It’s a little sad …

Originally posted on Science for Life. 365:

freddy copy

Yesterday my friend and science-y colleague Heather made me cry.

A few days earlier, we had agreed that she would write a guest piece around science communication for this blog. But then something far more important happened.

Here’s what Heather wrote:

This is not the post I was going to write* for ScienceforLife.365.

But last weekend my son’s guinea pig got sick from pneumonia and died in our arms. It seems like such a little thing in the scheme of things, but it was my son’s first real experience with grief and loss.

As a scientist, I understood all too well what was happening.

My own PhD was on pneumonia in pigs.

I knew Frederick, or Freddy for short, just wasn’t right on Friday night and by Saturday morning I could see that he was working to breathe, and breathing and eating simultaneously was difficult for him. I remembered seeing the…

View original 289 more words



Tonight I went to a happiness workshop.

It was run by kikki.K and yes, I did expect that part of the answer to happiness would be to buy more stationery.

I was ok with that, because I have a bit of a thing for stationery, especially Swedish designed stationery.

However, I’m pleased to say that there was also some method in it all and I’m feeling quite motivated about my ‘happiness journey’.

I’m someone who has struggled with happiness. I realised tonight that it’s not even a word I use in the context of my own life. However I’m also someone who has learned the hard way that I’m the one (and the only one) responsible for my own wellbeing (which is the word I prefer to use).

The thing is, I’ve been reading about mindfulness lately (I picked up Ruby Wax’s book at the airport, as well as in several of my friends blogs) and coming across it and aspects of cognitive behavioural therapy in my professional life more commonly than ever before. Of course I know something about mental illness, and more recently CBT, from personal experience. We’ve come such a long way in the last 15 years. Thank goodness!

So I went to the happiness workshop, not only because of the free journal and the special one time only offer of 35% off MORE STATIONERY, but because I thought that the happiness journal could be a tool to use in practicing mindfullness. (You could probably use anything for this, and there’s lots of online resources around now, like the fact sheet on midfulness from the Black Dog Institute. I just like stationery).

After having a play with the journal in the workshop (and that’s the real strength. The workshop makes us start to write in it, rather than take it home and put it on the ‘good shelf’ never to be used) I think I will be able to commit to, and record, a journey of mindfulness. Whether it will make me ‘happy’ is yet to be seen. I’m aiming to just be ok with being me, now.

Oh, and as part of my ‘thimble list’ or ‘list of little things I can do to make me happy’ which we started tonight, I’ve decided to try to take a photo a day on Instagram of things I see that make me smile. (There was a beautiful 365 photo journal on sale but I just know I would never print out the pictures to stick in it).

In 3 months, I’ll let you know if I’ve developed the happiness habit!

Science communication stuff, again

I’ve been thinking about science communication again lately, which is not so surprising after the Big Science Communication Summit.

I’ve also been thinking that I really should be blogging more, and that I probably could produce more if I took some inspiration from my pal Sarah Keenihan and write shorter posts.

So here’s something I thought about on the bus home today …

I’m in science communication because I want to change the way someone thinks, and therefore, acts (I know that there may be more than one flaw in that line of thought). For me, it’s not about awareness or engagement, or even inspiration. I think lots of people need to act differently if the human race is not going to destroy itself and the planet. I also think that this is going to take a lot of time and if we are to have any chance of success we need to understand why they act the way they do now.

In #onsci tomorrow night we are talking about science communication myths. You know, things like “we need to just give people the facts” or “if only we did science communication better then we could fix everything”. These ideas still seem so pervasive in science communication in Australia, and I was musing on why while I staring out the window.

I’m ‘A’. I’m communicating with ‘B’ in the hope ‘B’ will do something different because of the information I’ve just given them.


‘B’ changes and this makes ‘A’ (me) feel pretty good because my focus is on MY activities. atob2

I’m a science communicator and I just communicated some science. My focus is on me, radiating information.


But here’s ‘B’ …


Perhaps it’s time we really focused on ‘B’ a bit more, or at least shifted our gaze toward them from time to time?

ScienceOnline made my head explode!

People who know me know how excited I get by ideas. The pace and pitch of my voice increases and my hands move wildly like the lovechild of Peter Garrett and Kermit the Frog. My mind leaps from one thing to another as I furiously try to fit all of these new pieces into an enormous jigsaw puzzle, connecting little islands of thought into scenes of clarity.

In this state, it is incredibly difficult to compose a crisp piece of writing. I’m feeling anything but ‘flow’ at the moment. It’s more like a car wash, coming from all directions. But I wanted to share some of the things that have resonated with me since attending the ScienceOnline Watch Party on the weekend.

ScienceOnline is a conference that happened in the USA last week. The theme is “Conversations, community and connections at the intersection of science and the web”. Before the event, Sarah Keenihan, Kristin Alford and I chose four sessions from the ScienceOnline ‘menu’, grouped losely into two themes: Our audience – Why won’t the deficit model die? and Persuading the unpersuadable – communicating science to deniers, cynics and trolls; and self awareness – We are who we are? Who are we? Issues of identity and the internet, and Life in the vennWhat happens when you’re forced to wear many hats? There have been many blogs and Storify collations of ScienceOnline, too many to link to right now. I might come back and do it, but I suggest you just google them (or just look at Bridge8′s list here.)

All of the sessions were great and stimulated lost of thinking and conversation. Sarah has already written about juggling roles and identity as a response to those sessions, and both she and Kristin have written responses to the session on ‘persuading the unpersuadable’ (Sarah’s here, Kristin’s here). Which is convenient really, because the one that has been going through my head the most is the one on the deficit model.

But why that one? Well, I’m a nerd really (and identify with nerds culturally – reference session on identity) and my Discipline is Science Communication. The theory of science communication lights me up, because it helps me understand what I do and helps me do what I do better. I have worn, and still wear, many hats as I move(d) from scientist to science communicator to researcher (reference session on hats) and the theory is what helps bring all of those things together. I can combine all of those hats into one when I think of my core interest: How people relate to science and technology in food production. Also, I have been reading about the deficit model for a couple of things for work at the moment, so it’s been churning around in my mind. My third reason for focusing on that here follows on from our #onsci twitter chat last night where we discussed the deficit model more broadly and I’m taking the opportunity to explain it and my thinking in more that 140 characters.

Science communication is still a relatively new discipline, and I’m beginning to think it has the wrong name but haven’t come up with a better one. Basically we are a bunch of people who work at the intersection of science and society. Some people are scientists who do outreach, talking to schools, community groups, the media. Some people are science journalists or writers, writing for the masses. Some people have a qualification in science communication and may be working for research organisations, developing and delivering programs to inform and engage people. Some may be educators, working in the non-formal/informal space. Some may be researchers, coming from a history and philosophy of science perspective, trying to uncover how we as a society engage with scientific ideas. There are probably others that I’ve missed. I have been (and arguably still am) most of the roles on this list, but it is the last role that, at the moment, excites me the most.

For most of my career, I have worked within a deficit model of science communication. I have paraphrased this as “If you knew what I knew, you’d like it too” (although I better a better paraphrase is “I believe there’s a space in your head. I’m going to fill it with information and then you will act differently”). By this I mean that this was the underlying philosophy/strategy of the program I worked on. Even my title, Education Officer, made this quite clear. I was there to educate you, because there was stuff you didn’t know, and you needed to know it so that you could make informed (better) decisions. I talked to a lot of people that were cynical (reference session on persuading the unpersuadable). I knew we needed to change, but my scientific training didn’t equip me with the skills I needed to address it as a research question. So I went back to Uni to learn how people do research into how people learn and I learned about constructivism.This theory of learning suggests that people have unique sets of experiences and these will influence their learning. New information becomes integrated, filtered and constructed in light of these experiences. I also learned about research in the social sciences; how and why to do it. Now I’m focusing on understanding what people think about science in food and why. In particular, I’m interested in how ideas about science in food have been constructed socially and culturally.

I believe the deficit model needs to die, and die soon, but I sense an anxiousness about this among others in science communication, particularly those who are coming from a more sciencey perspective. “But people NEED information” I hear. Throwing out the deficit model does not mean we can’t give people information. It does not mean that scientists can’t talk about their work, or that they should start to feel anxious about what model of science communication they are using. I think the key message for scientists is that it is more important than ever that they talk about their science with the passion and the ability to go into detail that only they can do. But, recognise that people are not the same as you minus the sciencey bit. They have constructed a meaning for the world already on the information they have, based on their experiences, background etc. Your information will need to become integrated with that somehow if you want to change their behaviour.

So where do we go if we kill the deficit model? I believe that constructivism goes a long way to developing a new model without throwing the baby out with the bathwater and losing the information part of the process. And here’s where I become frustrated with science communication as a discipline; education (as a discipline) has been grappling with this for some time. Education researchers have been writing and publishing about it for years. Why are we only starting to think about it in science communication now? Aren’t we all learners? Working at an interface is tricky, and lonely sometimes. Science communicators in practice (the people that talk science) are often in and of science. The people that research how people relate to scientific ideas are usually not, often in education or the social sciences. The distances between the two groups can feel enourmous at times. I physically work at two different campuses and have two different contracts for each role so I feel the gap between science communication practice and research quite keenly. As a science communicator I was not encouraged to keep up the date with the research literature, despite being in an environment that was completely devoted to knowledge and evidence. The theory and complexity of what I did (and do) was often invisible to my scientist collegues. Then again, I would not expect scientists to become experts in my discipline, just as I don’t expect to become an expert in theirs. But we have to work together.

I’m am so excited about having more dialogue between researchers and practitioners in this space in the future because we won’t ever make any headway if we allows the silos to persist. And it also means that I can stop talking to myself.

Silos at Wallaroo

Silos at Wallaroo

Back into the swing of things

I can’t believe my last post was July. Since then many ideas for posts have been jotted down in notebooks and on pieces of paper. Some have been half written and are sitting in drafts. Others are half composed in my head. I blinked in July and suddenly it was November and I felt like I hadn’t achieved anything. My year of downshifting did not go to plan and I was as busy as ever. Life threw up the usual smeggy stuff and that, along with the energy and time dedicated to continuously juggling two roles, just didn’t leave time for much else.

But I’ve had a holiday since then, one of the better ones. I spent time with my family, made some stuff and tried something new. I’ve taken a deep breath, reflected on what I did achieve and have some new strategies to try and make it all a little bit easier.



This year I’m going to try not to juggle so much. There is so much evidence around that we humans are not good at multitasking very much, so I’m going to try to limit it. I attended two wonderful workshops by Maria Gardiner from Thinkwell last year that really pulled together what I had already started to think and feel about the way I work. Maria’s background as a cognitive behavioural coach and clinical psychologist means that she unpacks the flawed thinking that so many of us in academia have about work. Basically, I’m inefficient. Maybe I’m being hard on myself, but if I’m going to get where I want to go then I need to become more efficient. I can’t physically make more time in a day to get through my long to-do list, so something has to change. I looked at my work habits logically and I kept a time diary for two weeks, much like you would a spending diary before preparing a budget. I realised that, even after all this time, I grossly underestimate the time it takes to do things and I don’t allow for any contingency in a day. I realised my to-do list, which always has about 20 things on it, would realistically take a couple of weeks, partly because I only worked two days per week in each job. I dedicated a lot of headspace to creating, prioritising and re-prioritising the lists, trying to remember where I was up to the last time I was in that office as things seemed to come up with twice the speed they were supposed to, because I only worked in each role less than half the time. No wonder I would go to sleep at night feeling terrible that I hadn’t got enough things done. I was setting myself an impossible task and wasting time and energy thinking about it. This year I’m diarising the tasks (with a time allotment), leaving contingency in a day and saying “no” a lot more. If my diary is full then I can’t take on a new task … and I still have so many things to do.

My friend Kristin Alford also passed on another tool to me at the end of last year and I’m giving it a shot too. She suggested the personal kanban which is based in management ideas that I came across in my organisational theory studies. Sure, I still have a lot of things on the to-do list, but I can’t do 20 things at once. I can probably manage 3-5 and this will force me to only have those 3-5 things in my ‘doing’ list at any one time. I’m going to allow things to go backwards into the ‘backlog’ pile as well as moving into the ‘done’ pile, but I already feel like only carrying around a ‘doing’ list of a few things, rather than a ‘to-do’ list that’s impossible is making me feel a lot lighter.

I guess, on the whole, I’m trying not to struggle against it all so much. Things are the way they are and I just need to work with it, and make it work for me a little better.

I’m also planning on starting a new blog this year that’s more specific to my research. I will probably cross-post some of that here too, but I expect that this site will become a home for stuff on science communication and agriculture and for more reflective pieces (such as this one).

Tomorrow I’m heading off to the Adelaide ScienceOnline Watch Party organised by Sarah Keenihan (see her recent post here) and I expect I’ll be writing a few posts after that.

I’m really looking forward to getting back into the swing of things.

So, what IS permeate?

Today I butted in on a twitter conversation. [View the story "So what is permeate?" on Storify] The question that caught my eye was this:

What is permeate?

I’ve been following the discussion about permeate and I knew that Lynne Strong from Clover Hill Dairies had recently posted something on the subject.

Now my friends who were having the original discussion are not your average consumers. They are scientists! They felt frustrated that they could not find the answers that they were looking for. They could find out that permeate was a natural by-product of milk processing, but could not find out what it actually was.

So I decided to do some research and find out for myself.

I should add that I find the biochemistry of lactation fascinating and I very nearly did my PhD on it. Lactation defines and unites us as mammals on a biological level as well as having a huge social and cultural role in human society. But I digress. Before I talk about the ‘science’ of permeate, I need to describe the chemistry of milk.

What is milk?

Milk is just amazing really. Of course the composition differs with species but essentially milk has the same components: water; proteins; fats and carbohydrates.

Milk proteins include caseins, which are large (in molecular weight) and will become solid in acidic conditions (pH4.6 for cows milk) which is how we make cheese. The proteins which stay in solution during cheese making are called whey proteins (or milk serum proteins) and include lactoglobulin, lactalbumin etc.

There are a number of different types of fats in milk and it varies between and within species. In non-homogenised milk, the fat of milk will eventually float to the surface.

Milk carbohydrates include lactose (milk sugar) but there are other carbohydrates aswell such as glucose and galactose..

Other milk constituents include milk salts (some of which include calcium) that can be bound to proteins or not, cellular metabolites, trace elements (vitamins and minerals) and a few other things.

So what IS permeate?

The diagram in Lynne’s post shows milk entering a factory and some of it going of for cheese making through a process called ultrafiltration. This filtration separates the large proteins (the caseins) and the fats for cheese making and leaves the rest – the permeate. Although whole milk is used in cheese making, adding extra fat and protein makes a better cheese (according to my quick scan of websites etc).

At this point it’s important to remember that permeate is a word meaning stuff that passes through a membrane full of pores, in the same way that filtrate is what passes through a filter. It’s about as meaningful on it’s own as the word ‘leftovers’. It is also why whole milk does not contain permeate, but it does contain all the things that are in permeate.

So what’s in the milk permeate?

This fact sheet from the Dairy Manufacturers Sustainability Council describes ultrafiltration as removing molecules with a molecular weight of 10,000 – 150,000 and a pore size of 0.005-0.1 micrometre. A quick scan for research articles on the composition of milk permeate pulled out this article which states it contains water, lactose, minerals and some nitrogenous compounds (presumably amino acids). The precise composition of milk permeate will vary from factory to factory and season to season, depending on the size of their filters, and the lactose and other content of the milk from the cows supplying the factory.

So what does this all mean?

Lynne has explained what this all means for her dairy and other producers like her in this post. Permeate comes from milk and was added to some milk to standardise it in terms of fat and protein content. While the move to ‘permeate-free’ does mean more whole milk is needed, it also means potentially that a ‘waste’ product from milk production won’t be used. However, while researching for this post I found that groups such as the Dairy Manufacturers Sustainability Council have been promoting ways to remove everything from milk, leaving behind the water that can be used in other processing operations. And that sounds like a good deal to me!