SciFoo 2017

If you’re a science-y person with a public profile, you tend to get a lot of email invites to bogus-sounding conferences, which you promptly (and very wisely) ignore. So when this email popped up in my inbox in May, I gave it a cursory glance, and almost deleted it.


I’m very glad I didn’t. SciFoo – also known as Foo Camp – is a gathering that’s unique in the world of science. Rather than being a conference on a particular discipline, where specific topics are presented and then discussed over a series of days, SciFoo is an ‘unconference’ – a lightly-structured, informal gathering of peers from right across the scientific spectrum. There is no predefined agenda, and until the invite list has been finalised, campers have no idea who they’ll spend the three days talking to. You can’t ‘pitch yourself’ to get in – former campers are asked to suggest people to invite, and most people only get to attend once. Oh, and it’s held at the Googleplex, California.

So yeah, getting an invite is a pretty big deal. But despite replying ‘Yes please’ almost immediately, for several months, I wasn’t even sure if I’d be able to go. The thing is that, although you are very well looked-after for the duration of the camp, and there’s no registration fee to pay, you have to make your own way to Palo Alto. And NZ –> California flights are never cheap… especially if you’re self-employed. I couldn’t possibly fly in for just the weekend (jetlag much?) and with the event happening in peak-travel-time (August), I found myself totting up the growing cost of attending, and wondering if it would even be worth it.

I tried looking for funding / grants, pitching a story on it to various outlets, and I even contacted Air NZ to see if they could help cover some of the cost of my flights, but nothing seemed to work. It was only when my lovely friend Rachel offered a sofa in her San Francisco apartment that I began to think that, maybe, I could consider going. After much soul-searching, budgeting, many messages to previous campers, and emails to various researchers whose labs might be relevant to Sticky, I bit the bullet and booked my flights.

Over the following few months, the SciFoo organising team sent us various nuggets of information, including a link to a Wiki that listed all of the campers…. With names like Steven Chu (Nobel Laureate in Physics), and George Dyson (son of Freeman, and acclaimed historian of science/tech) on the list, being referred to as a ‘peer’ seemed ever-more ridiculous. But also increasingly exciting. And after some ‘encouragement’ from my mate (and fellow camper) Jess Wade, I pitched a proposal for a Lightning Talk. These are a staple of SciFoo; 9 – 10 people each have 5 mins to talk about their work, with the session done-and-dusted in one hour.

The day before I headed off, I found out that my talk (on Sticky) had been accepted, which added both to the pressure and to the excitement I was feeling.

After a few days of chilling with Rachel in San Francisco – highlights included a day trip to Sonoma, and the best Southern US food I’ve ever eaten – I was ready to join Foo Camp! On arrival at the hotel, I met up with some long-term Twitter friends – the aforementioned Jess, Abbie and Sam – along with other campers, who without exception, proved to be excellent humans. At the scheduled time, we all piled onto the shuttle bus, and headed towards Google for Day 1.


Those who know me in real life will know that I am the very antithesis of cool. I cannot pretend to be all chilled out when something awesome happens. So, it’ll come as no surprise to hear that when I first caught sight of the Google logo, I squealed, before jumping off the bus and taking multiple selfies in front of it. And I wasn’t alone. All around me, people were visibly thrilled to be there, and many, many smartphones were busily snapping away. The ever-patient SciFoo volunteers eventually managed to guide us to registration, where we were given our namebadges, along with a cool tote bag full of goodies. We each had our photo taken before heading off to grab a drink and start mingling with our fellow campers.

After a while, we piled into the auditorium so that the organisers could give us a brief intro to the event, before asking us all to stand up individually, and introduce ourselves to the room. Though it took a little while (there were ~220 campers!), I really enjoyed this bit – it demonstrated better than any attendee list just how diverse the campers were, and it allowed me to identify a few people I was especially keen to meet! After that, we were guided to a series of boards showing the next three days, split into parallel, one hour time slots. By arming us with sticky notes, the organisers allowed us to collaboratively build the schedule for the camp, based on our own interests / expertise. What a fricken cool idea!

The rest of the evening was focused on networking, which gave me the opportunity to meet some really incredible people, and to catch up with other online friends. With so many of us saying “I have no idea why they invited me”, I found my nerves gradually slipping away, and being replaced by excitement for Day 2 of Foo Camp.


Saturday morning was clear and bright, so I enjoyed a delicious breakfast in the sun with a biologist, a product designer and a roboticist, and we compared notes on our agendas for the day ahead. First stop for me were the Lightning Talks, which were kicked off by Prof. Liz Stokoe from Loughborough University. Liz’s talk was fantastic, and was concerned with conversational analysis, and the power of pauses! Next up was Andrew Pelling from the University of Ottowa. His lab (and his talk) focused on biological augmentation, and the takeaway line for me was that “Ears are the ‘hello world’ of tissue engineering”.

A journey into curvature came next from Prof Renate Loll, followed by probably my favourite talk of the session – Extreme Cell Biology from Wallace Marshall. In just five minutes, he showed us that cells aren’t simple, inert organisms, but that they can walk, tunnel, learn, and explode! (Watch this video for a longer version of his talk). Jess Wade was next on the list, and she demonstrated just how beautiful organic electronics can be, and Philip Moriarty talked about ‘printing’ atoms. Amanda Lynch from Brown University introduced us to the challenges of navigating today’s Arctic, and Valerie Voon discussed what ‘free will’ really means. The first session was closed by George Dyson, who talked about Project Orion and ‘the nuclear spacecraft’ of the 1960s.

And all that fitted into a single hour!! Afterwards, I ended up chatting to a couple of people about the challenges of getting a science book published, and that chat went on for so long that we missed the next session. But those chance meetings are partly what SciFoo’s about, to be honest. Next, I went to a session run by Sam Illingworth, called ‘Rhyme Your Research’. In it, I learned the rules of Haiku and other forms of poetry, before writing up a little ditty of my own. It’s DREADFUL, but given that I did it in 15 mins, I’m pretty damn happy with it. This was another highlight for me – I’d never have sat down to write poetry without Sam’s encouragement, and everyone in the room seemed to get as much out of the exercise as I did!

20170805_141003 - Copy

During lunch, I bumped into Tim O Reilly, so I decided to be brave and offer him a copy of Science and the City. He seemed delighted to get his hands on it, so when he asked me to sign it, I was only too glad to! I also gave one to Cat Allman, who is the keeper of all things SciFoo, before leaving a couple out for quick-on-the-draw campers to pick up. After that, I headed to my first afternoon session, during which I learned all about brain privacy, from UC Berkeley’s Jack Gallant. That was followed by yet another topic WAY outside my comfort zone – the history of Homo erectus, and the complex communication skills that it appears they had. A busy coffee break was followed by two more hour-long sessions – the first, led by materials scientists Bruno Schuler and Philip Moriarty, discussed the growing role of data in materials discovery, and the need for a smarter use of AI in the field.

TED Fellows Kristen Marhaver and Andrew Pelling then ran a ‘Sci-comm secrets’ session which had a really neat format. They asked each attendee to write down a positive – a tip, or skill that you have, along with a negative – a worry or limitation that you operate under. We then had to place those up on the board and discuss them with the room, in the hope that we could learn from each other. I volunteered to go first. My + was ‘Be true to your own voice, don’t try to be anyone else’, and my – was ‘I lack an affiliation that sometimes mean I get passed over’. There were lots of good points made, along with a few others that seemed to be more of a general whine rather than actionable points. The session also made it clear to me that scicomm is a very different beast in the US than in Europe – not better or worse, just very different. Overall, I found the session to be thought-provoking and frustrating in equal measure, which means I give it a big thumbs up!


After a delicious dinner, we plunged straight into Lightning Talks Session #2, which included topics that varied from decoding dolphin sounds to the concept of cognition. The standout talks for me were Katherine Schoepp’s development of a low-cost prosthetic that can restore some sense of touch, and an overview of the fantastic 500 Women Scientists program from Maryam Zaringhalam. I also REALLY loved Niamh Nic Daeid’s take on the state of forensic science, and Kim van Netten’s work on extracting more value from metal ore.

I spent the rest of the evening looking at the demos and exhibitions, including sandstone 3D-printed brains, and having a go at Jonathan Eisen’s microbial boardgame. [PS: Jonathan did a Storify of SciFoo tweets – you can find them here]. I had a long and fascinating chat with a fellow Celt, Prof Wallace Arthur, who has written numerous books on everything from biology to cosmology. In fact, his latest one – Life Through Time and Space – was due to be published the very next day! Many other chats later, I headed back to the hotel to finalise my slides… My Lightning Talk was scheduled for the next morning!

Sunday morning dawned behind a blanket of cloud, but for pale people like me, it was a welcome relief from the sun! I admit that, as I sat on the bus on the way to Google, I was feeling rather nervous. I’d been so impressed by the other talks, that I worried I’d mess mine up, or even worse, that I’d bore people to death.


After breakfast, Daniel Kim opened proceedings, with a fascinating look at cancer through the dark-side of RNA. The lovely Lola Fariñas was up next, and she told us all about her ultrasound approach to plant leaf characterisation. Science fiction writer David Brin went all apocalyptic on us, and he was followed by Amy Sterling’s talk on the marriage of art and neuroscience.

Michael Frachetti was up next, and he gave what was probably the most exciting talk of the entire weekend. An archaeologist and anthropologist, Michael is an expert on the Silk Roads, and in March of this year, published a truly remarkable paper in Nature. By looking at a flow accumulation model of herd animals (e.g. sheep), he and his colleagues proved that early nomadic herders paved the way for the Silk Roads that went on to change the world. Not only that, but by examining this model in detail, and combining it with GIS imaging, they identified the location of a previously unknown high-altitude city in Uzbekistan. At the end of his talk, there were more than a few cheers mixed in with the applause. And one of them was from me – it’s rare that you hear a story of science changing our understanding of history, so I was thrilled to be there.

Following on from that was no mean feat, but science journalist Maryn McKenna did an incredible job. She talked about her upcoming book, Big Chicken, and her slides were jammed full of fascinating bits of info. The one that will stick with me is the fact there’s four times the amount of antibiotics used in agriculture as in human medicine. Yes, really.


And then….. it was my turn! I decided to use my 5 min slot to talk about Sticky, but to keep it ‘tight’, I picked just two things to highlight; both examples taken from nature. They were the gecko (stickiness) and the salvinia plant (slipperiness). I’ve saved the ‘Notes’ for my slides here – feel free to have a look! I pretty much have no memory of what I said, but from the lovely comments I got afterwards, including from several biologists who told me they’d never known how these organisms ‘worked’, I will assume that it went ok!

Laura Peticolas followed me onto the stage, with information on this week’s Eclipse that will be visible across a huge swathe of the US. It has inspired a citizen science project too, which you can find details of here. The final Lightning Talk for SciFoo 2017 was delivered by my mate Sam Illingworth. He recited one of his own poems, We Are All Made of Stars and it seemed incredibly fitting, both for the place and the time (listen to him deliver it here). There was a moment of silence before the crowd broke into applause – and I couldn’t help high-fiving him on the way back to his seat.

There were only two more sessions on my list, and I was honoured to know the women who led each of them – first up was Abbie Hutty, spacecraft engineer, and Project Leader for Exomars. She gave us an overview of the challenges that would face any humans who might want to journey to Mars, and it kick-started a lively debate on the value of human space exploration. The hour absolutely flew by, and once we wrapped up, Abbie and I headed to another room, where Jess Wade was setting up for her session on diversity. Jess has long been involved in a number of programs that aim to make science more inclusive to all – a few months ago, she’d even came down to NZ to speak about the efforts of the Institute of Physics in this area. But, she had an extra challenge on her hands, in the light of the ‘manifesto’ published by a Google engineer that had hit the headlines just two days previously. Rather than not mention it (as others had done), Jess led with it, and used it to launch a fascinating presentation on diversity and equality in STEM. To say that she smashed it would be an understatement.


Abbie joined her to tell us what it’s like to be both a public face and an introvert, and she argued that we need a new type of role model for STEM (I highly recommend her TEDx talk on the same topic). The room was absolutely packed, and everyone provided valuable insight on things they’d tried, experiences they’d had, and observations on what might help in future. Jess then offered up 5 copies of Angela Saini’s fantastic new book, Inferior, to the audience… they were gone in 20 seconds!! I found this to be one of the very best sessions of the entire weekend, and I left feeling empowered and determined to do more to make science more welcoming.

After that, we had a wrap-up session, followed by a drinks reception, and too many goodbyes to mention. I hung around for as long as I could, before heading back to the hotel to freshen up. Luckily, lots of us were staying that night too, so we wandered into Palo Alto for a delicious feast of Burmese food, washed down with a beer or two. I’ll write separately about how I spent my final two days in California, but just to finish up on this post, here are the SIX impressions that I’ve been left with from SciFoo:

• Making new friends through science – I loved meeting people from lots of different backgrounds, and it was especially gratifying to find out that individuals I thought were ace on Twitter are also ace in real life
• The lightning talk sessions blew my mind – they were superbly-well organised and curated, and the breadth of topics covered was hugely inspiring
• The food / drinks – everything was delicious and plentiful… no wonder everyone who joins Google puts on weight!
• The atmosphere – despite there being many ‘big cheeses’ at the camp, there was a distinct lack of hierarchy. Everyone seemed delighted to be there, and keen to learn from others. It’s made me look as science events in an entirely new light.
• It is truly unique – the structure of the event and the diversity of the campers means that everyone experiences a different SciFoo. and that is really, really special
• The organisers deserve applause – I can only imagine how tricky this event is to pull together, but every single person-behind-the-scenes that I interacted with were WONDERFUL. Huge thanks to Cat, Tim, Sara, Chris, and all at Google, O Reilly Media, Digital Science and Nature for making it an event to remember.

In summary, if you get invited to SciFoo, and you can afford to go, DO IT. I had an absolute ball 🙂

PS: As well as being an excellent scientist, a brilliant scicommer, and the best spokesperson for diversity in STEM that I know, Jess Wade is also a fantastic doodler! Her SciFoo Doodle can be found here, and if you’re on Twitter, you can share it using this link