Author Archives: Vivek Murthy

Epernicus Launches Private Social Networking Solutions for Companies

We are excited to tell you about a new development at Epernicus – the creation of internal social networking platforms for pharma companies and non-profit research institutes. This new venture was inspired by companies who liked what they saw on our public site and realized they needed a community like Epernicus inside their institution.

Many companies and research institutes have thousands of researchers spread across multiple locations. As you might imagine, enabling effective communication and collaboration among researchers and between internal business units can be challenging. Social networking platforms can facilitate these interactions by enabling people to easily locate, learn about, and contact each other. They can also accelerate serendipitous interactions which, in turn, can speed up the path to discovery and development.

The private internal versions of Epernicus are highly tailored to fit the specific culture and needs of institutions ranging from non-profit research organizations to pharmaceutical companies to medical device companies. Our platforms can also be molded for companies outside the traditional biomedical research space.

You can learn more about Epernicus Solutions and see a brief slide show at http://solutions.epernicus.com/. Please contact us at http://solutions.epernicus.com/contact.php with questions or comments.

posted by Vivek Murthy, Chairman

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Top Scientific Breakthroughs of 2008 – The Votes Are In!

At the start of the year, Epernicus members cast their ballot for the top scientific breakthroughs of 2008. Below are the three candidates which received the most votes.

#1. GROWING A NEW ORGAN FROM A PATIENT’S OWN STEM CELLS

Thanks to stem cell research, people with failing organs may not need to wait for a donor or take harsh medications that prevent their immune systems from rejecting transplanted tissue. One of the greatest examples of regenerative medicine — the science of building or fixing body parts — took place in 2008, when doctors removed some cells from a 30-year-old woman with tuberculosis and used them to grow a new trachea, replacing a segment that was destroyed by the bacterium. They took stem cells from her bone marrow, layered them onto a decellularized trachea from a deceased donor, and surgically implanted it in the woman. Four months later, Claudia Castillo could breathe well and showed no signs of the side-effects that patients have when they receive an organ from someone else. (Source: Wired Science)

# 2. REPROGRAMMING CELLS

This year, scientists achieved a long-sought feat of cellular alchemy. They took skin cells from patients suffering from a variety of diseases and reprogrammed them into stem cells. The feat rests on a genetic trick, first developed in mice and described 2 years ago, in which scientists wipe out a cell’s developmental “memory,” causing it to return to its pristine embryonic state and then regrow into something else. Researchers achieved another milestone this year when they prompted mouse cells to make the leap directly from one mature cell into another – flouting the usual rule that development of cells is a one-way street. These achievements could be an important step on a long path to treating diseases with a patient’s own cells. (Source: Science)

# 3. TURNING WATER INTO FUEL

Companies like Nanosolar and Solyndra slashed the cost of solar energy, but we still need a clean way to store all this power. Daniel Nocera of MIT has an elegant solution: Use electricity to break water into hydrogen and oxygen, store it in separate tanks, then recombine the gases in a fuel cell when you need power. While this process normally takes a lot of energy, Nocera and his team found a catalyst that makes the task of splitting H2O remarkably easy. It could prove to be an efficient storage mechanism for energy harvested by solar cells and wind farms. (Sources: Wired Science, Science)

Reflections on 2008

I remember sitting in the Epernicus office a year ago, staring out over a thick blanket of December snow and wondering what the next few months had in store for us.  Epernicus was in its infancy in those days.  Our mission was bold but untested.  Our portfolio of assets was thin.  It included a basic web application, 2 office chairs, 1 file cabinet, 4 enthusiastic founders, and a whopping 20 members. 
 
Over the next several months, we held focus groups, built and rebuilt many parts of the site, and refined our vision for what would make high quality, high utility scientific network.  During this time, it was the input of many of our members, friends, and colleagues which shaped our ideas and the eventual platform. 
 
Since we opened our virtual doors this past summer, we’ve seen scientists join from over a thousand institutions in 57 different countries.  Epernicus members have added nearly 20,000 assets and have built rich profiles that are helping colleagues learn about their skills and accomplishments.  It’s been very gratifying for us to see the community grow.  We’ve also appreciated all the feedback that we’ve gotten along the way through emails, focus groups, and our member advisory council.  Our members’ feedback – both complimentary and constructive – has been a key factor that has made Epernicus one of the leading scientific networks. 
 
We have come a long way in one year; but we also know that we have a long way to go.  Our core mission remains the same: to enable scientists to find the people and resources they need to advance their research. 
 
In 2009, we have set an ambitious agenda for ourselves.  Our focus will be on helping scientists showcase their talents more effectively while also facilitating more productive exchanges between researchers.  We want Epernicus to be a resource that scientists can go to whenever they want to learn about a colleague, find a specific skill, or ask a question to their community.  As it has been from the beginning, the input of our members will be a critical part of ensuring success. 
 
Happy Holidays from everyone on the Epernicus Team!  We’re looking forward to 2009!

Should we provide incentives for answering BenchQs?

As I was reading through questions and answers in the Epernicus BenchQ archive the other day, I was struck by how many questions have been receiving helpful replies.  Without the expectation of reward, Epernicus members from across the country have been helping fellow scientists (strangers though they often are), providing advice on equipment, kits, techniques, candidate antibodies, and much more.   Third parties have been reading and benefiting from these exchanges as well.  Overall, it has been quite exciting to see.

One of the things we’ve often discussed is if and how these types of contributions should be incentivized.  Should people be rewarded for sharing their knowledge through BenchQ or should it be left up to inherent goodwill?  And if answering questions is rewarded, should it be with public recognition, tangible rewards, or something else?  Shirley Wu raised this issue of rewards in a thoughtful blog post earlier this year, and it generated quite a discussion.  I’m not yet sure what incentive structure would be best (or if incentives are even necessary), but any incentive system will carry the inherent risk of distorting motives.  The question is what kind of distortion and to what degree. 

A related issue that comes up is whether contributions in a forum like BenchQ should be represented in a scientist’s professional record.  A scientist who helps 100 colleagues through BenchQ has made a real contribution to the community – should this be represented in his or her resume or tenure file?  We’d be interested to know what our colleagues in the scientific community think about these questions.

Last summer, there was a lively discussion at BioBarCamp about considering new standards for scientific contribution.  Despite a growing recognition that peer-reviewed publications and impact factors are insufficient measures of contribution, we haven’t seen a significant change in these traditional standards.  Cameron Neylon, Chris Patil, Shirley Wu, and many others raised alternative activities which could be factored into a scientist’s curriculum vitae of contributions: blogging, sharing data (from failed and successful experiments), making protocols widely available, engaging in collaborations, and answering questions, to list a few.  There are many uncertainties about how we would quantitate and standardize such contributions; but even from a qualitative perspective, we have yet to see these types of contributions make their way to the score cards of tenure committees or admissions councils.

In the case of BenchQ, we want to reward people for helping other scientists and adding to a larger body of knowledge.  We’re open to experimenting with incentives and would welcome any suggestions.  Our hope is that tools like BenchQ will become a growing opportunity for scientists to make contributions, learn from their peers, and establish helpful relationships. 

Harvard Professors Join Epernicus Scientific Advisory Board

We are happy to announce that Pamela Silver, Ph.D. and Angela DePace, Ph.D. have joined the Epernicus Scientific Advisory Board. In addition to their rich scientific experience, Professors Silver and DePace bring a keen interest in the use of web technology to advance science. We’re looking forward to their input and advice!

Pamela Silver is a Professor of Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School. She received her B.S. in Chemistry from the University of California Santa Cruz and her Ph.D. in Biochemistry from the University of California Los Angeles. After completing her postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University, Dr. Silver served as an Assistant Professor at Princeton University where she was an established investigator of the American Heart Association and a recipient of the National Science Foundation Presidential Young Investigator Award. At Harvard, Dr. Silver’s work is directed at understanding the principles of natural biological design. Her lab hopes to develop principles for building novel cells and subsystems that act as sensors, memory devices, bio-computers, and energy producers. Dr. Silver has received many research and mentorship awards, and she serves on a number of editorial boards including Nature Molecular Systems Biology and Genes and Development. She is an avid runner, having participated in several Boston Marathons.

Angela DePace is an Assistant Professor of Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School. She received her B.S. in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry from Yale University and her Ph.D. in Biochemistry from the University of California, San Francisco. She conducted her postdoctoral work at the University of California Berkeley with Michael Eisen, Ph.D. before coming to Harvard Medical School. Dr. DePace’s work focuses on the evolution of transcriptional networks in animals. Using early development in multiple Drosophila species as a model system, her lab applies biochemistry, comparative genomics, molecular biology and quantitative imaging techniques to understand how regulatory information is encoded in the genome, how it is deciphered as gene expression patterns in space and time, and how it changes during evolution to contribute to organismal diversity.

You can learn more about Professors Silver and DePace through their Epernicus profiles.

Video: Epernicus Talk

Mikhail and I frequently give talks on Epernicus to labs and departments.  In case you missed one of our presentations, you can watch the short video below.

Why should you join Epernicus if you’re on LinkedIn?

Recently, we received the following in an email:

“I am already on LinkedIn – which I find useful.  How is this site different?”

I really like LinkedIn as well as Facebook, and I find them incredibly helpful.  I’ve used LinkedIn to learn about business contacts and research potential hires.  And I spend more time than I’d like to admit on Facebook connecting with friends from all parts of my life (including long lost elementary school buddies). 

Mikhail and I started Epernicus because we realized that the social networks to which we belonged weren’t able to serve our needs as scientists.  The profiles didn’t capture what was important to scientists.  And equally as important, we couldn’t use these networks to help us find expertise in real world scientific networks. 

For example, I have hundreds of contacts on Facebook and LinkedIn.  But neither site can help me find a person in my department who has who expertise with dynamic light scattering or siRNA delivery.  This is why we built Epernicus.

Epernicus connects you automatically with your real world scientific network.  Your real world network is not just the people who you know directly – it’s also the people to whom you’re connected through your department, institution, and advisors (current and past).  This is one of your most valuable resources.  Some of these people you’ve never met before, but you share a kinship with them through your common affiliation.  When you register on Epernicus and enter your affiliations, you are automatically connected with this network.

Epernicus also captures people’s assets – the specific topics, materials, and methods in which they have expertise.  Assets give you a more detailed understanding of a scientist’s skill set, and they make searching on Epernicus a rich experience.

With Epernicus, I can now search quickly through my scientific networks for a specific topic or technique to find the people that I need.   It might be someone I know peripherally in my department, someone I’ve never met at my institution, or a former labmate.  It might also be someone I know (Epernicus can help you learn new things about people you see all the time!).