Episode 49: From Cambridge to the Commons

This episode features Julian Huppert, former Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge, and now Director of the Intellectual Forum at Jesus College Cambridge.

We chat about Julian's journey from academia to the House of Commons where he was recognised as the only scientist, a label that Julian was keen to not define and confine his policy goals. We wanted to get his insight into the general state of scientific understanding in parliament, and how scientists can better engage politicians. There's an unfortunate stereotype that scientists hold politics at arm's length, and while there may not be a need for all scientists to be engaged at the policy making level, even minimal involvement (contacting local MPs, etc) can ensure that the topics that matter to researchers are heard.

We were also eager to dive into his new(ish) role as Director of the Intellectual Forum, an organisation that has critical thinking and open discussion at its core, covering an impressive breadth of topics which can essentially be boiled down to anything 'interesting and worthwhile', including the role of automation in the workplace, and addressing social mobility.


Related Episodes:

Episode 29: Bringing Science to the Senate, where we chat to UC Berkeley Biologist Michael Eisen about his run for senate, and how scientists cannot afford to be apart from politics.

Episode 48: Build. Test. Repeat.

This episode features our pals Ali Afshar and Ignacio Willats founders of Hackscience, a startup focussed on streamlining research by taking time consuming lab tasks out of hands of the scientists through automation. Their principle product currently is the cell feed exchanger, which replenishes the liquid food required for healthy cells in culture. This process can take hours out the day, and often requires the researcher to come in during weekends. Automating research also allows for science that is reproducible, and it seems that the future of biology is machine readable.

HackScience has its origins as a hackathon, with Ali keen to collide scientists and engineers to solve research problems, and Ignacio being well versed in hackathons, and startup development. The interdisciplinary nature of the hackathon nicely represents the constructive, collaborative nature of the ideal research environment, exposing two often isolated groups with the skillsets, and problem sets of the other.

Rapid prototyping is in the DNA of HackScience. This is characteristic of hackathons, but when combined with Co-Founder Ignacio's drive to always stay on top of the demands of researchers and iterate accordingly, has resulted in HackScience losing sight of the core mission which is to actually help researchers. 

One thing that was particularly interesting to hear about was Ali's dual life as a startup founder, and as an active PhD Researcher at Imperial College. We've spoken to researchers that have developed their startups as PhD's in their spare time (Episode 13 - Mark Hahnel), and founders who in order to really make a go of the company felt that leaving academia made the most sense (Episode 46 - Bethan Wolfenden). But Ali is operating under an exceptional set of circumstances. Working three days a week at Imperial developing the science behind printable solar cells and developing HackScience every hour of every other day. The balancing act is impressive, however it seemed Ali would not have it any other way, with the rapidity of startup life as a kind of hectic respite from the slow plod of research.

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* If you liked the episode be sure to subscribe on iTunes (or your podcast site of choice) and leave a rating/comment. It helps a bunch :)

** Other podcasts on similar topics:

Episode 28: Science's Mission Control, with Alok Tayi Founder  of TetraScience

Episode 46: From Side Project to Startup, with Bethan Wolfenden Co-Founder of BentoBio

Episode 47: Building the Impossible

This episode features Winfried Hensinger, Professor of Quantum Technologies at the University of Sussex. Following on from our chat with the brilliant Chad Rigetti, we were keen to get the academic perspective on the burgeoning field of quantum computing. We were immediately struck by Winfried's fire for this field, describing it as making science fiction a reality (he made his way into physics via a love of Star Trek).

We were keen to dive into the core challenges of building the technology, whether there's any fundamental physics left to do to make quantum computing (or whether it's now in the hands of the engineers), and the desperate need for coders willing to learn and develop quantum algorithms. 

Winfried was also very candid about how he feels physics and quantum physics in particular should be taught, through meaning rather than through rote learning of facts, and that nobody should be left behind when it comes to accessing this realm of physics.

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* The audio on Winfried's end does some strange things occasionally, however he was really an amazing person to chat to and so we wanted to get this episode out to you. We'll also be visiting his lab in the near future, so if you have any burning questions for an active quantum researchers, let us know and we'll ask it on the pod


** If you liked the episode be sure to subscribe on iTunes (or your podcast site of choice) and leave a rating/comment. It helps a bunch :)

*** Other podcasts on similar topics:


Episode 40: Quantum Computing in Startup Land, with Chad Rigetti Founder of Rigetti Computing
Episode 33: From Lab Bench to Marketplace, with Katie Rae CEO of MIT's Deep Tech Accelerator - The Engine
 


Show Notes

Theorists versus experimentalists

  • Harking back to episode with Mark Levinson where we discussed the rivalry between experimental and theoretical physicists 
  • Winfried’s experience is much more harmonious – he believes the two work best when they’re working together
  • The theorists learn the limits of experimentation in practice
  • The experimentalists can learn from the creative thinking and leaps of imagination of the theorists

Why are more people talking about quantum technologies now?

  • There are 2 technologies which have got to the point of not being restricted to fundamental physics research in order to advance
  • Super conducting qubits
  • Charged atoms – ions

Where are we right now in quantum computing?

  • Similar to computing in the 1940s
  • No one had personal computers, they were research projects
  • But they arguably won the war – so despite not being ‘out of the lab’, they still had huge impact
  • There were few applications to begin with, and only a few players had them
  • The software development took a while to advance
  • Lots of people ask why we haven’t yet made it to Mars – it’s a similar question around quantum computing
  • Still need all the engineering details reliably right
  • We need minds, money, infrastructure and time

Advancing physics education for a quantum future

  • Need computer scientists to help program these machines
  • Could count on one hand the number of quantum programmers in the UK
  • We don’t teach the amazing things out there in physics, in the classroom – we are losing brilliant minds to boredom
  • We can build what’s in science fiction – we can make it real…that’s what we should teach
  • At the undergrad level, should be encouraging research experience right at the start so as to get exposure of lab work and understand how to make things happen in the lab
  • Hark back to Chad Rigetti idea of teaching quantum mechanics by introducing first the idea of building a quantum computer – and work up to that
  • Idea of teaching meaning, not a historical timeline – problem-based teaching
  • “I want to know more”, not “Is this going to be in the exam?”

Corporate / Academic / Startup dynamics

  • University research groups are great at developing early prototypes and theory, and asking fundamental questions
  • Recently, Winni and his team published the ‘blueprints’ for a quantum computer
  • But university research groups aren’t the best place to do the building
  • You need reliability, manufacturing, engineers, and traditional formal employment systems
  • So Winni and his team are starting a company to do this – watch this space!

Forming strong networks to advance

  • National Quantum Technology Programme (£270m investment by the UK government to accelerate the translation of quantum tech into the marketplace)
  • 4 hubs of quantum research, and they work with each other and with companies
  • 1st phase of the project has been a huge success – and in order to refine the 2nd phase, focus needs to go on encouraging companies to commit, despite not being able to make a profit for ~10 years while research develops

Superconducting qubits v ion trapping

  • All will contribute to future of the technology – who can remember who ‘won’ in the development of computers in the 1940s?
  • There is simplicity in ion trapping, which Winni believes makes it a much more powerful system
  • No matter who ‘wins’, there will be translation of findings, skills
  • Cannot reduce it to ‘VHS v betamax’ – will be different machines with different strengths (IBM machine, Rigetti machine, Sussex machine!)

Debunking media myths

  • Quantum computers aren’t ‘fast computers’
  • They solve certain problems conventional computers could never solve, no matter how fast they become
  • The nature of the problem is different
  • You won’t own a quantum computer
  • You will operate on the cloud, buying time on them – so you will have to decide which problems to assign to the quantum computers, which are worth it
  • They will be large – about the size of a football field or a whole building

What else in science needs disrupted?

  • We shouldn’t underestimate blue sky research
  • Make education in schools such that more people realise the amazing things they can do with science
  • Cut out the boring stuff people teach simply because of tradition
  • Teach not by historical events, but by meaning
  • Widen participation in science
  • At Sussex they offer a foundation year to bring everyone’s science knowledge to the same level before the degree begins
  • Need more of this to get more people to enter science through alternative routes



 

Episode 46: From Side Project to Startup

This episode we chatted to Bethan Wolfenden, the co-founder of Bento Bioworks, a biotech startup that has created a 'laptop size laboratory'. This kit allows the user to perform simple DNA analysis and dramatically reduces the cost of the components you'd need to analyse samples, thus lowering the barrier to entry for molecular biology.

This episode is a very candid discussion about founding the company, as we cover the difficult decision to move on from a PhD to develop Bento.Bio and the challenges of crowdfunding the product (of which they had a successful KickStarter campaign). 

We also meander through the burgeoning DIY bio community, how the IGEM competition has informed her attitude towards science done within the confines of academia, and what citizen science can actually achieve (when it's not reduced to data collection) 


Other podcasts on similar topics:


If you liked the episode be sure to subscribe on iTunes (or your podcast site of choice) and leave a rating/comment. It helps a bunch :)

Episode 45: Securing the Future of Food

In this episode we chatted to Christine Gould, founder and CEO of the Thought for Food Foundation. Their annual conference, startup challenge and active community centres around the science and tech working to ensure we have enough food to feed the world. 

With Christine, we talked about how to bring together diverse groups of people - startups, scientists, designers, policy makers, corporates and, in particular, young people, to work towards solutions. She explained how the TFF annual summit is centred around experience design and a strong culture of innovation (openness, collaboration, beginner's mindset, entrepreneurial methods, purpose before paycheck and larger-than-life energy), and that this can be replicated across sectors. 

Christine was particularly passionate about how young people can build and design the future, and how critical their involvement is. 

We were particularly interested in Christine's attitude towards agriculture in 2017 being a place ripe for tech and science innovation, and hence, one of the most exciting sectors to be focusing on right now!

Episode 44: Leading the Automation Revolution

In this episode we chatted to Kristin Ellis, the Scientific Development Lead at OpenTrons, about all things science. OpenTrons is a company that builds affordable open-source lab robots, that remove the need to perform tedious manual pipetting tasks, to free up valuable time for researchers. 

We touched on the importance of good science communication and the unfair stigma that often impacts researchers that are keen to involve and talk to the public, and the true value of encouraging that "...and then it just clicks" moment with people previously disengaged with science. 

We also spoke about the innovative ways tinkerers have adapted their open-source robots, the value of putting automation into the hands of the many, and the attitude shift required in science to promote prototyping and hacking. We were keen to see how OpenTrons has been received by academics looking to streamline their research and were fascinated by their passage through Haxclr8tr (a hardware startup accelerator, now called HAX). Their relationship to Shenzhen is also pretty amazing - described as the silicon valley for hardware, the labyrinthine market in Shenzhen allows hardware hackers to rapidly test out ideas, a concept essentially intractable even with the electronic hardware superstores elsewhere.

 

Episode 43: Getting to Science 2.0

In this episode Tim O'Reilly (CEO of O'Reilly Media) joins us in a far reaching conversation spanning the whole science ecosystem. From the communication of science, to liberating knowledge generated by research from the confines of the static PDF, to the mutual learning experience of colliding technologists and academics,

Tim has been regarded as a thought leader in Silicon Valley over the past few decades, popularising the terms open source and web 2.0. So we were interested to see how he believes the rapid technological advancement of late could impact science and academic culture.. 

O'Reilly Media also operates an awesome conference called SciFoo. The event is a partnership between O'Reilly, Google, Digital Science, and the Nature Publishing Group which brings together an interdisciplinary cohort of scientists, as well as technologists and policy makers, so it was great to hear how Tim feels collaboration can be done in the 21st century. 

Episode 42: Taxonomy 2.0

This episode we speak to Jose Carranza, a deep learning PhD researcher in Costa Rica who has taken his expertise to an unexpected field, that of the biological classification of plants. 

We've spoken to plenty of former researchers who have moved out of the academy and into new ventures. However Jose's career has taken a different path, going from engineering roles at Intel and HP, back into academia to tackle a PhD. We were intrigued by the tough challenge of bringing AI to the field of botanical conservation, an area of research that is still highly qualitative, and the language barriers that must be overcome to make progress. These difficulties in communication are bi-directional, but with that said so are the opportunities for learning.

We also get into the value of herbarium's and classifying species in general, from the ecological consequences of understanding the biodiversity at a deep level, to raising the public's appreciation of the natural world (of which Jose is particular passionate). And whether there is a role for botanists in the future, given that deep learning has had great success finding new ways to classify plants - in short botanists have nothing to fear....phew!

Episode 41: Taking Action in Science

This episode we speak to Elizabeth Iorns who is the Founder and CEO of Science Exchange. We wanted to get Elizabeth's view on what it really takes change the status quo in science - both from a process perspective in the way we conduct ourselves in a lab with regards to suppliers, but also from an activation standpoint - instead of training people up on reproducibility, actually going out and making change using the resources she had access to. We are all about finding role models for change at Science: Disrupt, and Elizabeth is a perfect example of someone who takes action and builds the future - making scientific revolution seem just that bit more achievable.

Episode 40: Quantum Computing in Startup Land

We speak to Chad Rigetti, CEO of quantum computing startup Rigetti Computing. We dive deep into the challenges that face deep tech startups, the core debates within quantum computing, and what it's like to compete with the likes of Google in this brave new world of the future computer.

We wanted to get an insight into what's actually going on behind the scenes in the burgeoning quantum computing industry. We were also intrigued as to how a startup is able to play competitively in a space that requires so much up front investment and such a focus on experimental and theoretical research. 

Episode 39: Building Trust in the Digital Age

This episode we spoke to Imogen Bunyard, CoFounder of Qadre a startup focussed on building blockchain solutions that tackle trust issues within enterprises. This could include tackling the counterfeit drug market. Imogen has a particular knack for breaking down a complex topic (in this case the blockchain), grounding it reality, and imagining use cases that can really make a difference.

There's a lot of hype and plenty of misinformation around blockchain, it's either the domain of drug smugglers and the dark web; or like AI, it's presumed that it's a silver bullet for every company woe you can imagine. There's also little effort made to make the topic actually understandable, with convoluted analogies galore

We were keen to hear about the paucity of academic research in the field as researchers are drawn away from the academy. There's plenty of articles on the idea of brain drain, as corporates look to build up their intellectual inventory by essentially buying up scientists (sometimes even entire labs). Research skills in data science, computer vision, or AI are incredibly lucrative propositions for organisations, and the big tech companies are hoovering up research departments left and right but at least those fields had time to become established as topics of study within most universities.

Episode 38: Open Minds, Open Hardware

This episode was recorded in the bowels of Sussex University when we met up with Tom Baden a Neuroscientist interested in how the visual system processes information. Our motivation for chatting to Tom was a brilliant project called the FlyPi that he developed, along with Andre Chagas another Neuroscientist who joined us via the magic of Skype.

FlyPi is a great representation of a seemingly growing phenomena of DIY tools within the labs - you can read the paper for the specs, but in short it's a 3D printed lab for imaging experiments - specifically of the fruit fly (as the name FlyPi might suggest). Along with the FoldScope, and a number of other simple, cheap tools (including a fidget spinner centrifuge ...), the ability to probe the natural world in a meaningful way is being made available to a much wider audience.  
We spoke a bunch about Tom's Trend in Africa programme, which trains up researchers in underserved parts of the continent so they're up to scratch with the latest neuroscience tools/knowhow. We also discussed the broad topic of the maker movement in biology, the fear of experimenting with experiments, and the way that DIY hardware in science needs to be shown off in the appropriate venues (and that means not just buried away in the academic literature).

We thoroughly enjoyed chatting to Andre and Tom, and we left feeling energised that the spirit of ingenuity, of tinkering, and playing with science is alive and well.

Episode 37: Science in Seattle

This episode we speak to Zach Mueller, an Amazon Data Scientist and co-Founder of Sound.Bio, Seattle's first DIY Biohackspace. We wanted to hear about how they aim to build a community around biology, the challenges of setting up the lab, and the efforts they go to to educate Seattleites in modern biotech.

Zach comes to biology with little experience, in fact he was drawn to the field after listening to a podcast that spoke about IGEM, the synthetic biology competition for undergraduate teams. This idea of arriving at the lab with a minimal background in the science, is what these biohackspaces are all about. They're a place where you can experiment with experimenting, learn new skills, and join a community that is committed to producing value through biotech.

The space itself is kitted out with the kinds of tools you would expect in order to carry out modern biology experiments. However, the lab is also keen to leverage the skills and resourcefulness of the maker community, to really hammer home the important concept that biology doesn't have to be restricted to the confines of a university. Or perhaps more importantly, that participating in biology is not simply the reserve of institutions with pockets deep enough to purchase the latest tech.

Episode 34: Being Agile at 130

This week we spoke to Josh Ghaim, CTO of Johnson & Johnson. We were interested in how at around 130 years old, one of the largest organisations on the planet can stay nimble, forward facing, and seek out innovation in new places. We met Josh at the Hello Tomorrow conference last year, and were interested in how important that kind of face time is with budding healthcare innovators. We were keen to break down the role of J&J Innovation, an arm of the company that seeks to develop healthcare through entrepreneurship. This includes the international JLabs and JLinx accelerators.

Josh also spoke about their Africa Innovation Challenge, which offers budding founders up to $100,000, in the areas of early childhood development and maternal health to name a few.
 

Episode 33: From Lab Bench To Marketplace

This week we spoke to Katie Rae, the CEO of The Engine, a Cambridge (Mass.) based deep tech accelerator that provides the physical workspace to develop the companies, the Cambridge brain trust to guide the founders, and the financial backing to make each transformative idea a reality. The companies range from robotics, energy, medical devices, and biotech. Prior to The Engine, Katie was the served as Chairman and Managing Director of Boston TechStars.

The Engine, solves an enormous problem in taking these deep tech companies from ideation to realisation. That is, despite the enormous interest from investors in these areas, it's simply too difficult for these companies to access the resources they need - you can't just build a quantum computer in a WeWork...

The Engine Room is the nexus of The Engine concept; an online platform that provides the lab space and equipment for the founders to build their companies. But beyond the resource-poor founders, the Engine Room encourages external organisations that wish to support seedling companies by providing equipment to sign up too.

We were keen to hear about the innovation- and collaboration-focussed Kendall Square area, the difference in working with typical tech companies and the kind of deep tech startups The Engine brings in, and why deep tech can both be incredibly lucrative but also rewarding to fully realise a truly transformative company out of the lab.

You can see more on what The Engine is all about here:

Episode 32: Truth, Beauty, Science

Our latest episode is with Tom Zeller Jr the Editor in Chief of Undark (formerly at the New York Times). Undark was set up as way of applying hard hitting investigative journalism to the intersection of science and society. Supported by the Knight Foundation, Undark is unbeholden to advertisers which allows them to tackle the cases they want to. 

We think their description blows anything we could say out of the water...

"" The name Undark arises from a murky, century-old mingling of science and commerce — one that resulted in an industrial and consumer product that was both awe-inspiring and, as scientists would later prove, toxic and deadly. We appropriate the name as a signal to readers that our magazine will explore science not just as a “gee-whiz” phenomenon, but as a frequently wondrous, sometimes contentious, and occasionally troubling byproduct of human culture.

As such, the intersection of science and society — the place where science is articulated in our politics and our economics; or where it is made potent and real in our everyday lives — is a fundamental part of our mission at Undark. As journalists, we recognize that science can often be politically, economically and ethically fraught, even as it captures the imagination and showcases the astonishing scope of human endeavor. Undark will therefore aim to explore science in both light and shadow, and to bring that exploration to a broad, international audience.

Undark is not interested in “science communication” or related euphemisms, but in true journalistic coverage of the sciences. ""

We were keen to discuss what we see as the current failings on how science is communicated, such as are we failing the general public by only communicating the end result of the science? Undark treats science as a process that has wide reaching impacts far beyond the publication that's typically reported, covering corruption in science, academic discrimination, and research censorship.

Outside of Undark we were interested in Tom's time at the New York Times, the inspiring work environment, the grinding to meet deadlines, and being one of the "children and geeks" at the embryonic New York Times website.

Episode 31: Curating Creativity

This episode we chatted to Hugh Forrest, the newly minted Chief Programming Officer of South by South West (SXSW). This role puts Hugh in charge of one of the most dynamic and diverse conferences around, covering around 1300 panels & talks, approximately 2000 bands, and roughly 300 films (many making their premieres at SXSW). Hugh's been at SXSW since the "stone ages" of the conference (way back in 1989...) - in fact he was the first paid employee! 

We were keen to see how SXSW has evolved over time by incorporating new tech and science streams, committing to the city of Austin, and bringing in some of the most sought after speakers - Vice President Joe Biden and CRISPR co-inventor Jennifer Doudna made an appearance this year.

We were fascinated by how SXSW has come to be the engaging and inclusive conference that people come back to year on year. And more specifically what can science conference organisers learn from the SXSW model.

Episode 30: The Reinvention of Research

This week we chatted to Chris Hartgerink a PhD metascientist (the science of science) and open access advocate, whose core focus is on data fraud. Chris was recently featured in this Guardian piece - he ruffled plenty of feathers when he modified and implemented Statcheck, a tool developed by fellow metascientist Michèle Nuijten that scans tens of thousands of research papers and analyses the credibility of the findings. We talk data fabrication, the unfortunate resistance to skepticism in science, how to separate criticisms of research findings from personal attacks, and how we can reinvent science with what we know now.