What is HI-SEAS?

On the last day of 2013, Dr. Kim Binsted announced that I would be participating in the next 4-month HI-SEAS mission. HI-SEAS stands for the Hawai’i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, which is a research study focussed on discovering strategies for future astronauts travelling to Mars.

Here is a description of the upcoming HI-SEAS mission from the HI-SEAS application page:

The upcoming missions are focused on evaluating the social, interpersonal, and cognitive factors that affect team performance over time. Researchers from outside of the space analog habitat will monitor each mission to evaluate the communications strategies, crew work load and job sharing, and conflict resolution / conflict management approaches that contribute to the success of a long-duration mission.

Like the astronaut mission specialists they will represent, each participant will be expected to bring a significant research project or other scholarly work of his or her own to complete while inside the space analog habitat – for instance, biological or geological field research, engineering design and technology evaluation, scholarly writing, or artistic endeavors compatible with the limitations of small living quarters in an isolated location with limited internet bandwidth.

Subjects will be compensated for their participation and for associated travel and housing costs. Successful applicants will be placed into a pool from which researchers will assemble three well-balanced teams for the various study periods.

For the last two weeks I’ve been looking at the world with an entirely different perspective. What will I bring with me? What will I do in my spare time? How will I digest the news from the outside world?

I will be updating this page with more news as it arrives, so if you’re interested in the project, check out the HI-SEAS website and some of the articles written during last year’s mission.

(Photo credit: Angelo Vermeulen)

The Landscape of Optimism

I’m a PhD candidate hoping to graduate within the year, and as a result my radar is on full alert for what comes next. Unfortunately, the landscape for careers in academia looks bleak:

The pattern reaching back to 2001 is clear — fewer jobs, more unemployment, and more post-doc work — especially in the sciences. A post doc essentially translates into toiling as a low-paid lab hand (emphasis on low-paid as shown below. Once it was just a one or two year rite of passage where budding scientists honed their research skills. Now it can stretch on for half a decade . (The Atlantic)

Of course, the article that I’m linking to refers primarily to our American counterparts, but the story for Canadian PhDs is worse:

However, economic returns and employment situation of higher educated persons in Canada — as compared to U.S. and other OECD countries — are disturbing. PhDs, even after five to six more years of schooling, earn only 8 per cent more than Masters. In U.S., they earn 43 per cent more. In Canada, PhDs unemployment rate is even worse: 50 per cent more than Masters (6 per cent as compared to 4 per cent).

In U.S., their unemployment rate is only 1.9 per cent. Although U.S. has nine times higher population than Canada, it produces 14 times more PhDs. After adjusting the difference in population and number of doctoral graduates of the two countries, unemployment rate of PhDs in U.S. in Canadian terms should have been 8.4 per cent, not 1.9 per cent. Also, a government report shows that a good number of PhDs are driving taxies in Canada. (The Huffington Post)

The full Statistics Canada report from 2011 that this article is based off of is here: Expectations and Labour Market Outcomes of Doctoral Graduates from Canadian Universities.

So if the world of academia is shrinking, what options do graduates have? According to a recent article in the Globe and Mail:

Just one of four PhD graduates becomes a professor, which begs the question of how to capitalize on the talents of those not headed for academia.

One answer, many believe, is internships at the master’s, doctoral and postdoctoral level. Such programs give young scholars an early taste of working in industry and help Canadian companies boost research and development activities.

However, matching companies and researchers is a challenge. Canada lags the United States in the proportion of PhDs in industry, research shows, and newly-minted PhDs, with theoretical expertise, typically lack job-ready experience. (The Globe and Mail)

So great, maybe there will be some impetus to incentivize PhDs to take positions in industry? The National Science and Engineering Research Council Postdoctoral Fellowship looks like the ideal vehicle to give recent PhDs the leg up they need to enter the industry, only NSERC has been cutting back their fellowship awards for 5 years:

I always knew that bad news was released on Fridays in the summer… but last Friday was pretty ridiculous.  NSERC has just announced that in order to improve its success rate (just clocked at 7.8% in the most recent competition) it will now reduce the number of times an individual can apply for a postdoctoral award from two to one.

…  now that your jaw is back in place,  let’s look at what really matters.  The absolute number of fellowships awarded by NSERC represents how many scholars it supports each year through its program, and no matter how many people are applying, this is the most important number.

Sadly, the last five years have seen NSERC’s funded fellowships drop dramatically (awards / applicants):

  • 250 / 1169 (2008)
  • 254 / 1220 (2009)
  • 286 / 1341 (2010)
  • 133 / 1431 (2011)
  • 98 / 1254 (2012)

This is unbelievable and it cannot be sugar coated with a letter about streamlining or complaints about increased applicants (just a 7% increase in applicants from 2008 to 2012).

The sad facts are that NSERC is awarding 66% fewer fellowships.  As you can imagine, this has had an effect on success rates, but NSERC’s solution is to try and reduce the number of applicants in an effort to bring up the rate so that they can rid themselves of their sub-10% success rates. (University Affairs)

What does this mean for you and me? It means that we need to explore the options that are off the beaten path, because the way that our professors wended their way to academia are almost all dried up.

Lytro gets an underwater housing

Recently, Eric took one, in a custom Nauticam housing with Light & Motion SOLA 2000 lights, with him on the Wetpixel Ultimate Indonesia expedition, and has just published the results. Light field cameras potentially represent a completely different approach to photography, in which the viewer has creative control, rather than the photographer only.


I’ve been eyeing the Lytro camera since its release in October 2011. The camera works on the principle that it captures the full light-field of a particular scene; meaning every point in the finished image can be brought into focus. The reason I think this underwater housing is so exciting is that underwater photography makes it very difficult to see what your capturing. With the Lytro, you take a picture, and focus when you’re back on dry land!

Make sure you click through to see some of Eric’s images.

DNA as a data storage medium

The project, led by Nick Goldman of the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI) at Hinxton, UK, marks another step towards using nucleic acids as a practical way of storing information — one that is more compact and durable than current media such as hard disks or magnetic tape.

DNA packs information into much less space than other media. For example, CERN, the European particle-physics lab near Geneva, currently stores around 90 petabytes of data on some 100 tape drives. Goldman’s method could fit all of those data into 41 grams of DNA.

The promise of extending DNA storage is largely hampered by the high cost of writing and reading DNA. The EBI team estimates that it costs around $12,400 to encode every megabyte of data, and $220 to read it back. However, these costs are falling exponentially. The technique could soon be feasible for archives that need to be maintained long term, but that will rarely be accessed, such as CERN’s data. If costs fall by 100-fold in ten years, the technique could be cost-effective if you want to store data for at least 50 years. And Church says that these estimates may be too pessimistic, as “the cost of reading and writing DNA has changed by a million-fold in the past nine years, which is unheard of even in electronics”.

via Nature News.

Just like all data storage technologies before them, the techniques are prohibitively expensive in the research domain, but costs are expected to fall quickly as consumer products are developed and newer technologies are implemented.