What’s on Life Sciences TV?

By Kevin Davies

May 29, 2009 | First Base | The winner of the 2009 Benjamin Franklin Award, Australian Philip Bourne (see page 13), shares much in common with the previous winners of the Bioinformatics Organization’s annual prize. He’s a savvy computer scientist, journal editor, author, open access advocate and, of course, widely respected among his peers. But he may be the first to add TV mogul to his list of accomplishments. No-one’s going to confuse Bourne with Rupert Murdoch, even though they share the same accent. But, Bourne’s multimedia venture for scientists, deserves rather more attention than it has garnered thus far. was launched by Bourne and Leo Chalupa at UC Davis, and is backed by the Public Library of Science, the San Francisco non-profit that has pioneered open access publishing through excellent journals such as PLoS Biology. is, in a glib sense, YouTube for scientists—indeed, Bourne unashamedly says the popularity of YouTube in his lab was his inspiration. It contains a broad selection of videos of scientists giving lectures, presenting posters (postercasts), summarizing their latest publications (pubcasts), and conducting interviews. Some enterprising students are using the site to broadcast multimedia resumes.

The topics covered a range literally from agriculture to zoology, and the site comes with full Web 2.0 capability. Just like YouTube, videos can be bookmarked as favorites (or flagged). Comments are welcome, though few and far between, and communities and discussion groups are encouraged. Uploading is easy and the video navigational tools are improving.

The videos range greatly in quality, but even just a quick perusal of the site finds a lot of interesting material. For example, hot off the video recorder, there’s Harvard’s George Church speaking in March at a DOE Joint Genome Institute meeting on “Reading and Writing DNA.” His lecture concludes with the unpublished news that one of his Personal Genome Project volunteers is a carrier of a mutation for hypertrophic cardiomyopathy ( Craig Venter is here also (taken from the same meeting), talking about institute’s pioneering work in synthetic biology and metagenomics ( Nobelist Sydney Brenner is recorded delivering a typically quirky two-part monologue on evolution and “what genomes can tell us about the past” (

Some of the videos are of impressive technical as well as scientific quality. Several researchers, including Caltech biophysicist Stephen Mayo ( and UCSF geneticist Cynthia Kenyon, deliver slick powerpoint presentations on topics ranging from computational protein design to longevity genes in the nematode. But what makes them stand out is the use of green screen technology, just as TV weathercasters use, allowing the host to gesticulate in front of their presentation. And of course there’s Bourne himself, offering a series of “ten simple rules” for getting published or, indeed, making a good presentation ( and similar initiatives have a huge upside, disseminating information not only to active researchers and students but also helping to educate the next generation of scientists. SciVee categorizes videos for elementary and high-school children, although this needs a bit of work. One entry, “Cell isolation of flow compatible mouse CD4+ T cells” doesn’t appear entirely appropriate for kids aged 2-12 years. It’s also in Japanese!

SciVee is clearly popular in Bourne’s home town of San Diego. For example, the site hosts the “nifty fifty” videos from the San Diego science festival. That popularity is not yet matched across the country or in other parts of the world, but Bourne’s innovation deserves to succeed. We congratulate him on SciVee and his Benjamin Franklin award.

Life Science Webcasts
Here at Bio•IT World, we’re increasingly enamored of the potential of video. As part of a Cambridge Healthtech Media Group initiative (see, we’ve been posting life science webcasts of some of our past Bio-IT World Expo keynote lectures and panel discussions, and plan to do so with this year’s crop. We’ve also presented one-on-one interviews with thought leaders such as Phase Forward founder Paul Bleicher, CollabRx co-founder Marty Tenenbaum, and former director of the Allen Institute of Brain Science, Mark Boguski, discussing his new Internet company, Resounding Health (see page 18).

This article also appeared in the May-June 2009 issue of Bio-IT World Magazine.
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