Feature - Handheld Science

There’s a YouTube video making the rounds of a band who, while sitting on the subway in New York, break into a song.  There's nothing new about singing on a subway car in New York City, but in this instance, the band used apps on their iPhones as their instruments and recorded a video on their iPhone cameras. 
Mobile devices have come a long way fast.  If a band can record a video using an index card advice, surely scientists have found them useful at scientific meetings?
I met Erin Rericha at the “Opportunities at the Interface of Physics and Biology” meeting in Chicago earlier this year. She was taking notes on the slick front of her iPad that rested in her lap.  I was taking notes too, but unlike Erin’s which were going directly electronic, mine would have to be deciphered in a week or so from my notebook.
Trying to mask my iPad envy and asked her what she liked about the device and her response was:  “It has changed the way I approach scientific meetings.”
I wasn’t surprised at the response but it did catch me off guard.  Handheld devices are not merely gadgets to check the weather and update fantasy football teams, they have the ability to alter the way we interact.  This is not a new concept.  Clay Shirky talked about communication technology in his book Here Comes Everybody. “When we change the way we communicate, we change society.  The tools that a society uses to create and maintain itself are as central to human life as a hive is to bee life.”
While, Shirky is looking at a much larger picture of group dymanics, on the scientific meeting front Rericha’s iPad has enriched her experience at meetings.  During dinner conversations phones and iPads are passed around to watch movies of data.  “A lot of science I do is with high speed and high resolution cameras,” she said. “You don’t get a feel for the data until you’re able to sit with the data and zoom in and observe.”  It helps in understanding what the scientist is attempting to accomplish in a particular experiment.
The instant access is another benefit of the mobile devices.  It helps, as Rericha’s says, to get to the next order of questions. Rather than delaying the moment and emailing a paper when you get back to the office, Rericha can pull the article, discuss the data, and keep the energy around the questions.
“The other thing I really like at casual poster conversation if I have an idea I can show them right away,” she says. “I don’t have to drag them over to my poster.”
I ask if these devices will make posters obsolete but she doesn’t think posters are going away anytime soon.
“You can scan the posters when no one else is there and you wouldn’t have the ability if you had everything electronically,” she says.  “Having the handhelds makes it much better you can show your dynamic data that you can’t with just a poster.  Posters use snapshots of movies to demonstrate the dynamics…on the handheld you can show multiple movies rather than just the ideal.  For people to understand your data more deeply, the technology is invaluable.” 
Having the iPad also helps her network better among her peers.  No longer does she find herself wondering where she put the piece of paper with contact information.  “I find myself following up more and doing all the polite things that we all intend to do but we get distracted by other things or of course lose the paper.”

What Apps to Use

Papers – An organizer for PDF files of research papers.  Browsing is in the iTunes-style.
Keynote –  Presentation software designed by Apple.
Evernote – A great organizing tool for taking and bookmarking notes.

Travel Tip: Ipads don’t have to be taken out for security and it also fits on the airplane tray table.


I asked media consultant Denise Graveline, who has led workshops on communications for scientists, for her advice on how scientists can use their mobile devices at meetings.  Denise wrote:
Here's what I recommend scientists try with their mobile devices at scientific meetings for networking and for communicating their research:

  • Use an application like Evernote (www.evernote.com) on your mobile device to remember contacts. The app lets you take a photo right from your phone of a business card or colleague with a nametag, then enters it into a notebook. Later, you can easily find it just by searching for a name or institution--even the text on a name tag. Capturing the person's photo will help you put a face to the name. You can also scan business cards and other meeting papers into Evernote on your laptop, so you don't need to lug so many papers home with you.
  • Use apps for Twitter, Facebook or Foursquare to let your colleagues know you're at the conference and to organize meetups. Ask for the conference hashtag (a short code preceded by #) and use it when you post to Twitter or Facebook--then anyone searching for the conference will see your post. It's a great way to find old friends and meet new ones.
  • Giving a paper? Make your first slide one with the conference hashtag and your Twitter handle, so that colleagues who wish to can share your insights on Twitter, giving you credit--and visibility. Bonus: Stop by the press room and make sure the meeting staff have your Twitter handle as another way of contacting you or publicizing your work.
    • You can use an e-reader in place of paper or index cards if you need to present from a prepared text. Just email a Word or PDF document to your Kindle, then adjust the font size so it's readable. For iPads, try the new app Prompster, which lets you write and edit your text, then serves as a teleprompter to help you read it.

By Russ Campbell, Burroughs Wellcome Fund
Special thanks to Denise Graveline of don't get caught