Saturday, November 27, 2010

Antarctica Part 2 - Getting to Mount Erebus

After arriving in Antarctica, many days were spent preparing for the 2 weeks we would spend out in the field on Mount Erebus. Basically, science gear all had to be listed, boxed, and weighed before departure. Additionally, gear had to be separated into two shipments: 1) for the gear going with us to Fang Camp, 2) the gear we would need once we got to Lower Erebus Hut.

I spent quite a bit of my downtime drinking tea and writing in my journal while looking out at the sea ice and pressure ridges from the lounge area. I also got out for a couple of walks along the pressure ridges, which was very scenic and refreshing.

What made the walks even more interesting were the Weddell seals that had chewed their way through the ice and were lounging on the sea ice near the marked trail.

After spending nearly a week at Scott Base preparing, we got confirmation that we would be heading to the field the next morning. After a few last minute changes, it was determined that we would it take 2 helicopter trips to get the 6 of us and our gear up the mountain to Fang camp. Fang camp is about two thirds of the way up the mountain and is used as a stop for a couple of days to get used to the altitude. Flying directly to Lower Erebus Hut isn't done much anymore since the altitude is 12000 ft, which feels more like 16000 ft since it is so far from the equator, and altitude sickness is a real concern. In fact, most of us took Diomox to help adapt to the altitude sickness along with drinking at least 4 liters of water per day.

It was my first helicopter ride and it was simply amazing.

Once we landed, everyone helped unload and start to get gear put into our tents. A few helicopter trips later and we were on our own on the side of Mount Erebus.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Antarctica Part 1 - Getting to the ice.

After about 20 hours of traveling I arrived in ChristChurch, New Zealand. It was early morning, and I didn't really now where I was going so I walked from the airport to Antarctica New Zealand. I tried on all of my clothing that they provided including enough to have 6 layers on top, 4 layers on bottom, 2 pairs of boots, and lots of other accessories. I met with the rest of the research team who are based out of University of Waikato:
Craig Cary, PI
Ian McDonald, PI
Craig Herbold, Post-doc
Chelsea Vickers, Master's student

That night we all attended the 2010 New Zealand Research Honours Dinner. This was the beginning of a crash course in NZ culture. Considering that I would be spending most of my time with these people in close courters with out running water, it seemed fitting to start the trip with everyone all dressed up.

After spending a day getting little things done in Christchurch, our flight for Antartica left the next morning. For our flight we had to be wearing (or at least carrying) all of our ECW (Extreme Cold Weather) gear. We were given a short intro video on Antartica, then we went through security, and boarded a bus. A short bus ride took us out onto the tarmac and we picked up a bagged lunch as we boarded our plane.

Seating was first come first serve so I grabbed one of the business class seats and settled in for the 5 hour flight. Almost everyone on board are scientists so there was lots of interesting projects being discussed on the flight. For example, the person beside me worked for NASA and was studying the soil and microbes in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, because these regions are thought to be very similar to Mars.

Interestingly, the cock pit was open and you could go up at anytime to chat with the pilots and to check out their view. The visibility was perfect and the views were fantastic as we started to approach Antarctica.

As we got closer to Ross Island, Mount Erebus was clearly visible and it was unimaginable that I would be living on top of it for 2 weeks.

After landing on the ice runway, it was a short drive through the American McMurdo Station (max. ~1100 people) and into the smaller, cozier, New Zealand Scott Base (max. 86 people). At last I had arrived!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Heading to Antarctica!

On Nov. 8th I will depart from sunny California and with a quick one day stop in Christchurch, New Zealand I will be in Antarctica. Now this isn't just a trip to Antarctica, this is the trip to Antarctica. Please allow me to gloat a little bit. After arriving at Scott Base on Ross Island I will begin a 5 day field training course to make sure I survive the expedition I will be taking on. After training, 8 of us will be flown halfway up Mount Erebus where we will acclimatise to the altitude by living in unheated tents for a couple of days. Then we will travel to the top of Mount Erebus to reach the "Lower Erebus Hut" at an altitude of 12,000 ft. We will stay there for 2 weeks doing daily trips to "fields"/fumeroles where the snow has melted away due to hot volcanic gases (did I forget to mention that the Mount Erebus is a active volcano?). The main goal is to collect soil samples and environmental data to examine the microbes living in this extreme environment. At the research station there is a small heated hut for meal times and work, but sleep will still be in the same cold tents with 24 hour sunshine. Dehydrated food and -20 to -40 C temperatures will ensure I lose some weight, but that is an added bonus.

To say that I am excited is an under-statement. Sure it will be hard to be away from my family for a month and the altitude sickness will make me feel like crap, but the chance to go on such a crazy expedition ruled out any chance of me turning it down.
How many scientists, especially those that do bioinformatics, gets a chance to do field work like this!?

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Review of Open Science Summit 2010, #OSS2010

I have been attending Open Science Summit 2010 at Berkeley, CA and although not quite finished yet I feel like I can give an overall review of what I thought of the conference. You can check out my individual comments during the conference on Twitter.

I would like to state that in general I am grateful and respect the work that Joseph Jackson and the organizing committee conducted to make this open science conference a reality. It is a tremendous amount of effort and the following is only meant as a constructive criticism for possible open science summit conferences in the future.

  • Bringing together a very intelligent diverse group of speakers. Good mix of policy makers, developers, traditional scientists, biotech, young and old, etc.
  • Great use of technology. Providing a live video stream of conferences is an idea that I wish more conferences implemented. Also, using is a nice additional add-on that couples well with the live video stream.
  • Willingness to try to adapt (as much as possible) to conference attendees comments via twitter, back channel, etc.
  • No scheduled breaks. Breaks are needed for numerous practical reasons: people need bathroom breaks, time to get some fresh air, and time for talks to get back on schedule. Even more importantly, it allows people to mingle. People travel to conferences so that they can get a chance to connect with people face to face (otherwise they would just watch the online feed).
  • No time for Q & A. Questions immediately after speakers not only is informative, but gives a temporary "mind break" for the audience. It also gives time for IT to get the next presentation queued. Note: this did tend to improve as the conference proceeded.
  • Too many speakers. Having 25 speakers in a single day (without parallel sessions) is just too much information for people to take in and sit through.
Additional lessons learned
  • A no slide presentation is not a guarantee that it will be a good one.
  • Videos do not always make a presentation better.
  • Having 2 or more speakers from the same organization or having the exact same opinion is not really beneficial.
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Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Use Mendeley to list your publications on your personal homepage

I was updating/creating my personal website a little while ago and was looking for a good method to keep my "Publications" page updated without having to edit it manually.
At first I played around with using Exhibit. This was kind of fun and allowed my publications to be sorted in all kinds of ways and exported in lots of formats.However, this method seemed like overkill (might be more useful if I had hundreds of publications....maybe one day but not today), and required that I update a .bib file every time I had to add a publication.

Then I noticed that my Mendeley profile has a nicely formatted page of my publications. Unfortunately, Mendeley doesn't yet provide html code to embed this on your own page, there is a slight workaround.
  1. In your Mendeley software client create a new collection and name it "Publications" (you can rename this later if need be).
  2. Add your publications to this new collection. Note!! The publications need to be added from oldest to newest one at a time. This is because Mendeley orders the publications by the date they were added to the collection (and not by pub. date).
  3. Right-click->Edit Settings, then under "Collection Access" choose "Public - visible to everyone". Then click "Apply and Sync".
  4. Go to the settings again for the collection and follow the web link to the collection online.
  5. In the upper right click on "Embed on other websites". You can customize the size and the color if you want. Then copy the html code to your website, blog, etc.
  6. That's it! When you have a publication to add just add it to your new "publications" collection, sync, and now your personal page is updated as well.
The default settings will result in your publications looking like this:

Publications is a group in Biological Sciences on Mendeley.

For my personal website I changed the color and made it a bit larger so it looks like this.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

An interview with the creator of BioTorrents
Who better to interview the creator of BioTorrents than the creator himself? :)

Interviewer: So Morgan, your article entitled “BioTorrents: A File Sharing Service for Scientific Data” was published today in PLoS One. BioTorrents uses the popular peer-to-peer file sharing protocol, BitTorrent, to allow scientists to rapidly share their results, datasets, and software. Where did this idea come from?

Morgan: Well about 6 months ago I was downloading some genome files from NCBI's FTP site and was watching the download speed hover between 50-100Kb/s and I said to myself (much like this interview) I wish could download these with BitTorrent. I have used BitTorrent for downloading other non-scientific data (lets not discuss what they may be) and I know it is a much faster and more reliable way for getting large files. A few minutes later I posted to Twitter asking if anyone had thought about setting up a BitTorrent tracker for scientific data and the response was over-whelming (well only 1 response, but I could feel it had a larger impact). About a week later, I brought up the idea again over coffee with some members of my lab and more importantly my post-doc supervisor Dr. Jonathan Eisen. He thought it was a good idea and well worth pursuing, which was all I needed to push aside all my other "real" research and focus on this much more "fun" project.

Interviewer: Thanks for that long-winded response. Maybe you could comment more briefly on the benefits of using BioTorrents/BitTorrent for sharing scientific data.

Morgan: I think it is explained fairly well in the manuscript and in my previous blog post, but to reiterate the major benefits are:
1) Faster, more reliable, and better controlled downloading of data that scales well for very large files.
2) Instant "publishing" of data, results, and software.
3) Very easy for anyone to share their data. No dedicated web server needed.

Interviewer: Who should consider sharing data on BioTorrents?

Morgan: Everyone that has something to share. Large institutions can benefit from reduced bandwidth requirements, while individual users can benefit from the simplicity of sharing with BitTorrent technology. Personally, I really like the idea of open data and the idea of sharing results before publication. How many times has someone done an all vs all blast of microbial genomes? In theory this can be done once, and that person can be recognized (referenced, co-authored, etc.) when other researchers use that data.

Interviewer: Are there any challenges/limitations to using BitTorrent with scientific data?

Morgan: BitTorrent excels at transferring very large popular datasets. Therefore, if only one person is "seeding" a file and only one person is downloading the file most of the advantage to using BitTorrent is lost. However, even in this worst case scenario, the transfer speed would be roughly equivalent to using traditional file transfer methods such as FTP/HTTP and BitTorrent still provides the benefit of error checking and ease of data transfer control (pause, resume, etc.). Another possible problem is that some institutions often try to limit BitTorrent traffic since it is often considered illegal non-work related network traffic. However, I would encourage users at these institutions to explain to their network administrator that many times BitTorrent traffic is legitimate and shouldn't be blocked.

Interviewer: Why publish in PLoS One?

Morgan: I have been a big fan of the PLoS One journal and ever since I blogged about it last year "Is PLOS One the future of scientific publishing?", I have been wanting to submit a paper there. Also, considering that BioTorrents is aimed at improving open access to data in all fields of science, PLoS One seemed like the most obvious journal choice for our manuscript.

Langille, M., & Eisen, J. (2010). BioTorrents: A File Sharing Service for Scientific Data PLoS ONE, 5 (4) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0010071

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Please don't use Clustal for tree construction!

{{en|A phylogenetic tree of life, showing the ...Image via Wikipedia

There are reams of books, articles, and websites about the correct way to build a phylogenetic tree. My post is not to argue about what is the best method, but rather point out that most people do not consider Clustal (e.g. ClustalX or ClustalW) to be an optimal solution in almost any circumstance. Countless times I have asked people how they built their particular tree and they give me the vague "Clustal" answer. Of course this answer is fine if this is the first tree you ever constructed, but beware you will be labelled as a phylogenetic newbie.

Clustal is technically a multiple alignment algorithm, but it also includes methods for tree construction in the same interface. Most of these methods are not really considered "good" tree building methods. If you do use Clustal, at least specify what tree building method you used (ie. "Clustal with neighbor joining"). Most people don't use Clustal even for multiple alignment anymore, because Muscle has been shown to be at least as accurate as Clustal and is much faster.

For tree construction, most people would agree that a Maximum Likelihood or Bayesian method would almost always be a better solution; PhyML and Mr. Bayes seem to be the most popular implementations for these methods. Advanced users might also want to look into using Beast.

I usually interact with most of these programs through a command line interface, so I don't have an expansive knowledge of the best graphical tool. However, I did come across, "Robust Phylogenetic Analysis For The Non-Specialist" which does a good job allowing easy interaction between various methods for multiple sequence alignment, tree construction, and tree viewing.

Whatever you use to build trees, just make sure it isn't Clustal!
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