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Is science communication actually worth the effort?

A couple of weeks ago in Mexico we were able to read in several news media the so call #ladygrapheno, an undergraduate student with a robotics major who won a science fair with a product containing graphene, stating that it was capable of cellular regeneration. Sadly, she used the media coverage to sell this product and make some money out of the need and despair of many people. Understandably, the scientific community was in a raw and within days managed to expose this case nationwide. Many blamed the media for not having scientific literacy or people trained in science communication, but none to what I believe is the origin of this problem, the indifference of the scientific community in science communication.

Many asked, how is it possible that the media managed to pick up that story and not one of many awesome advances or discoveries done by actual scientists? The answer is simple, where exactly we think a journalist is going to read what I or any of my colleagues actually do? In the papers we publish in journals where you have to pay to read them or in the patents we submit? In the outreach/science communication office that many institutions don´t have? Or in the outdated news section of institutional webpages?

It is all too common to hear scientists to complain about the lack of sufficient funding and disinterest of the general public and government for what we do and the continuous grow of pseudoscience movements. However, how much time do we, scientists, actually spend promoting and explaining our work away from the academia? How much time do we spend training the next generation of scientists on how to better explain what they do and why anyone should spend millions of pesos/dollars on their work?

As a research scientist working on a federal research centre I am well aware that for many, outreach /science communication is not part of our contract, and with our endless list of e-mails to answer, reports and papers to write, proposals to submit, thesis to read and students to mentor, we hardly have any time left to do anything else, so why we should bother?

I believe we should bother because it has a positive impact on society, the institution, the PI and the students.

Science communication not only allows the general public to understand what we do, why we do it and why we should continuously get money to do it, but also helps to humanise the challenges faced by students and Professors in achieving that new product, theory or idea. It allows us to connect with other people beyond the hard numbers and graphics, generating not only empathy but interest in what we do. Without science communication all those papers in Nature and Science will get limited impact since apart from our peers no one would understand them. Science communication can impact our students not only by improving their communication skills or help them to get noticed, but also by allowing them to see and feel what science can make in the life of a kid or a person when engaged in hands on activities. Science communication can change the perception not only of the general public, but also of the scientists who spends their days and nights in the lab for an ideal. Without science communication our work has a more limited meaning. This is what I try to convey my students when I get them involve in science communication/outreach.

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Happy New Year!

If I have to choose two words to describe 2017 they would be Love and Exhaustion. In June my third son was born and needless to say his arrival was an amazing experience.  I am physically exhausted,  last night for example I had no sleep at all since I had to send some reports and right now I am waiting for the arrival of the “three wise kings” (Los tres Reyes Magos), it is already 1 am. Nevertheless, I love being a dad and I love having my three boys with me, regardless of how much work I have overdue. I know I haven´t had much time to write on this blog but when you are faced with the decision of writing here or go to bed I invariably choose to go to sleep a bit before one of my two babies wakes up.

For the first time in my professional career, in 2017 I decided not to submit a single proposal for a grant; with four active grants totalling more than a million dollars and 16 students I thought I had enough. Loosing my research assistant was also a big thing to me this year since now I had to redistribute the administrative work, which is not very pleasant. I am desperate for a new assistant or better yet a postdoc. This year I also saw an important change in the number of students in my group: 2 MSc and 1 PhD student graduated, with three more about to present their BSc, MSc and PhD viva. Although I currently have only 10 students, I have three PhD students waiting to start working in my Group in March this year, so my Group is not going to get smaller any time soon. In the area of publications 2017 wasn´t a good year, however 2018 will be different since we already have 10 papers submitted and to be submitted.

Outreach was also a bit slow, I decided not to organise Cinvesniños-Saltillo in the hope that this year we would have a stronger interest from colleagues and students to participate. On the other hand, we finally received all the material from Lego Education and a few microscopes to start our work with rural schools. Next week I am expecting to arrange a visit to our pilot school to formally arrange the dates and activities that we will perform with the kids. I have been waiting for this to happen since a couple of years so for me this will be a big thing.

Now that I see it, it seems I left many things on hold in 2017 only to realise that they are getting accumulated for 2018, anyway, HAPPY NEW YEAR!

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Graduation time

With a few days left to end the academic activities this year at Cinvestav, today, my third postgraduate student of the year graduated. The first one was Felix who obtained his PhD in Materials Science working on TRISO fuel particles. The second in line was Lilia, an MSc in Materials Science, who developed a bioinspired self-cleaning surface and found an interesting temperature induced transition from superhydrophobic to superhydrophilic that we hope to send for publication early next year. Finally, today, Orlando obtained his MSc in Sustainability of Natural Resources and Energy developing YSZ environmental barrier coatings for the molten salt fast reactor as part of the European project SAMOFAR.

None of these students will continue to work in my lab since the two MSc depart to do their PhD abroad. I am grateful to each one of them for their hard work and excellent results that has led to other students to continue their line of research. I am looking forward to receive three new PhD students in March next year but for now I have to say see you soon to those who leave.

Mexican Centre for Innovation in Ocean Energy

It took almost two years to get this done but a few weeks ago, we finally officially started the Mexican Centre for Innovation in Ocean Energy (CEMIE-O). This projects aims at boosting the development of Mexican technology on Ocean Energy, covering the areas of wave, tidal/currents, thermal and salinity gradient, modelling and materials. With a total budget of 348 million pesos (aprox 17.5 million dollars) the Mexican government is aiming at uniting all efforts towards the development of this technology. Contrary to other sources of energy where technology is already mature, making it difficult to compete, Ocean energy is still under development which could allow Mexico to truly compete in this new area and become a provider of technology.

I have the honour to coordinate the work on the development of new materials, components and subsystems for CEMIE-O, where I coordinate 22 scientists of 7 different institutions. With the third largest funding within the consortium, the purpose of our subproject is to develop materials and components capable of surviving the harsh marine environment. We are developing coatings, ceramic composites, concrete and a new type of electric generator, having in mind a direct application of our work, especially considering that we have three companies eager to use our products.

After the kick-off meeting we understood that the materials section felt short at trying to solve the complexity and needs of all energy generation systems, however throughout these years we expect to provide the grounds for further developments.

The environment within the coordinating group I believe is fantastic, we are truly a multidisciplinary group where engineers, materials scientist, biologists and environmentalists working together, good times ahead.

We made the news in Nature, MRS Bulletin and Business Inside

Last year we had three articles on the news regarding the activities we do in our lab. One of the highlights without a doubt was an article in Nature (Young, talented and fed-up). To be blunt I wasn´t particularly happy with the word “fed-up” when I first saw the title, however after reading all the comments of other young scientist I understood the origin and the purpose of such article. Like many others, prior to my permanent position I had to live with the uncertainty of where to go and what to do after my temporary contract finishes, not a happy feeling considering that I had a family with me. Like it was mentioned in the article, we were not really whining but putting our life and struggle into context considering that our chances of success got slimmer from the time senior colleagues started their career. I feel honoured from being chosen to participate in the discussion and being featured in that article.

Another article about our work was focused on the out-reach activities we do with kids of low-income and rural schools. With the support of the MRS Foundation we have been working with a few schools and performing outreach activities as part of Cinvesniños-Saltillo. Our project finishes this year, the funding that is, but I am certain that we will keep working in these activities and those schools for a long period of time. I hope we will be able to see the effect of working with kids from an early stage and see them progress in their lives.

Finally, Business Inside Latinoamerica made an article of the work we currently do on arsenic removal using graphene oxide. We are on an early stage of our work but preliminary results show adsorption capacities already of 30 mg/g despite early reports in the literature of much lower adsorption capacity. We are showing that by controlling the production route and even functionalising its surface we can considerably increase the arsenic adsorption capacity of graphene oxide without the use of other nanoparticles as it is commonly used.

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Making history

Yesterday marked the beginning of what I hope will be a long list of graduated students from my group. Juniet, an MSc student from Nicaragua, successfully defended her viva and obtained her degree in Ceramic Engineering after working on a project funded by the industry. Her collaboration helped us to advance the progress on the development of a new product that we hope will be available into the market soon. She will no longer work in my group but I wish her the best in her PhD.

Although my family couldn´t be with me and I am in the last days of a sickness that left me on bed for a week, I feel very happy for her and for my group. Four years it took to graduate my first student, four years with lots of ups and downs. In the following months I hope to graduate three more students so this is just starting.

Five rural schools in five days, part 2

A couple of months ago we were approached by the Ministry of Education to support them to do a Science Fair in five rural schools near the city where our research centre is based. Considering that we have a project funded by the MRS-Foundation to do exactly that we were delighted to participate.

Working with rural schools was challenging since it was hard to know what to expect, how simple or complex should be your experiments? Which topics should you cover? Would I be able to take robots and the microscopes with me?

The first day was probably the worst as we were totally outclassed. During the first day of the Science Fair we realised that the experiments that the 6-11 years old students prepared were considerably more complex in elaboration and explanation than ours. Needless to say my students and I were totally shocked…in a good way. That day as soon as we came back I had to ask my students to prepare new experiments. As always my students stood up to the challenge and came up with a refreshed set of experiments that finally got the always expected “wow-effect”. The following days were full of excitement as we were able to witness the hard work that all those kids and teachers put to prepare their experiments.

At the end of the week we were of course totally exhausted and although I was supposed to be happy I couldn´t stop thinking that one week full of activities was not enough. If we want to make a long-lasting impact we should work with them on a constant basis, through out several generations of students. We are coming back, I know we are and hopefully we will stay with them for good.