Niche Social Netwoks — PC Magazine

Epernicus was recently featured on a list of “10 Cool Niche Social Networks” by PC Magazine. While I’m not sure how I feel about us making the same list as MuggleSpace (a network for people who love Harry Potter), I do believe there is significant value to social/professional networking platforms that do a really great job of addressing the needs of a certain group of people. One of our core tenets has been that researchers are a unique bunch (with concepts like one’s scientific genealogy being a strong part of our culture, for example) whose needs can only be addressed via a networking platform that understands the way science works.

Other specialized networks mentioned on the PC magazine list would include Shelfari for book collectors and Bottletalk for wine aficionados. Members of both of these networks have very specialized knowledge across a number of categories.

By the way, given the popularity of Harry Potter, I wouldn’t be surprised if MuggleSpace were the most popular site on this list ;).

posted by Mikhail Shapiro, Co-founder


Good article on Social Networking in Science in Bio-IT World

Bio-IT World recently published a great article on social networking for scientists. It explains the benefits of scientific social networking and why you need specially-built networks like Epernicus to do it right.

Epernicus as a new quantum state

Somewhere in physics heaven Erwin Schrödinger must be having a laugh. The following T-shirt design by Jonathan Littleton of Purdue University (thank you Jonathan for sharing it with us!) claims to solve the issue of the superposition of two mutually exlusive quantum states: academic and social.


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.


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)


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)


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. 

Drumroll Please… One Figure contest winners

As promised, is happy to announce the winners of our first One Figure contest, recognizing the ten people whose Figures have been complimented the greatest number of times in the month preceding Marie Curie’s birthday (Nov 7). This year’s winners will each receive a (BPA-free Camelback) Epernicus water bottle. Our congratulations go to:


Here’s a sampling of the winning figures:


(A) “Developing zebrafish pancreas and liver” – Duc Dong
(B) “A 10.5 day old mouse embryo, stained to show canonical Wnt signaling. Wnt signaling is seen here in the forebrain, midbrain, limb buds, and neural tube.” – Vanessa Horner
(C) “Obstruction of the ammonia channel by the T-loop of GlnK as determined by the 1.96 Angstrom crystal structure 2NS1. “ – Franz Gurswitz
(D) “Gecko Feet” – Jeff Karp
(E) “Nitric Oxide production in Arabidopsis taliana mitochondria” – Maria Cristina Palmieri

Thanks to everyone who complimented these figures, and to the hundreds of members who have put up One Figures of their own. We hope you will agree that these figures are a great way to share something special about your work. You can add one to your profile under the Edit Profile tab. And browse the latest, most complimented, or in-your-network One Figures in the One Figure Gallery.