Got a question? Why not ‘Ask a Biologist’?

This went up today on The Times’ online science section and so I’ll shamelessly reproduce it here in a vague attempt to get a bit more interest in the site. Thanks to all of you who have promoted AAB and please continue to do so!




Growing up as a child I was, I strongly suspect, quite an irritant to my teachers and parents. The problem was that I would see an animal in the zoo, or museum, or on one of the wildlife programs on TV, and be left with a question about the animal that could not easily be answered. Family, teachers, and whole shelves of books would all be consulted, but rarely would they know about the evolution of giraffe tongues, or anteater claws or the reason naked mole rats were hairless. I’d learn a lot, but I’d rarely get the answer I was looking for, despite the best efforts and intentions of the people I pestered. I always knew (well, blithely assumed) that the information was out there, but the problem was how to get at it. Now I am privy to that kind of information as an academic and I want to be able to pass it on. Thus was born the website ‘Ask A Biologist’.

The website was intended to provide the service my childhood self wanted, but never had available. The very short version is that anyone can leave a question on the site, and one (or more) of a team of professional biologists will provide the answer. Despite the huge wealth of information on the internet, ensuring that it is correct, accurate and comprehensible is quite another matter when one is not an expert. AAB hopes to provide something that is – while far from infallible – authoritative, accurate and accessible.

The site has trundled along over the three years since its creation and has racked up a good half million hits and an archive of nearly 2500 answered questions. I’m quite proud of this given our initially limited resources and reliance on a disparate group of biologists, palaeontologists and medics spread across the globe, giving up their spare time to answer questions that often quite bizarre, intricate, but definitely interesting. However, several new grants have allowed us to expand and improve the service greatly, and we are now hopefully in our second phase – newly designed website with many new features and increased usability.

While the initial goal of the site was to try and inspire schoolchildren and nurture their interest in science, our mandate expanded in a rapid and unplanned fashion. We have had questions from kids, teachers, students, Joe Public, and even other academics. The feedback has been wonderful and we genuinely seem to be doing what we set out to do – spreading enthusiasm about biology.

Science communication is, I feel, central to my job as an academic. We as researchers should want people to understand what we do, why we do it and why it is important. It’s genuinely critical that we try and educate and excite people in our work – after all the young ones will be our next generation of scientists, teachers and engineers and the less old ones are supporting our work through their taxes. We really do have a duty to them and to ourselves to get the message out. AAB provides one of many outlets for effective science communication, but critically it also gives people direct access to scientists who are actually doing the science they are talking about. There’s no filter of the TV produce or the journalist or book editor, it’s all from the horse(researcher)’s mouth. We’re not locked away in our ‘ivory towers’ but out in the open.

The effects are not one-way either. Those working on the site find it genuinely rewarding to engage with the public, and we are also learning ourselves. The questions we receive make us think about our work and what it means to others, and I find myself constantly learning when doctors answer questions about titanium plates and HIV treatments. At the same time, the doctors are picking up information on dinosaur evolution and biogeography. So if you want to know why zebras have stripes, why you sneeze when you look at the sun, if plants can get cancer, or even what a dead echidna smells like, then hop over to AAB and ask us a question or check out our archives.

Oh, and one final point to ease the potential concern of some, we make it a specific policy not to help kids with their homework. We want to help them learn, not remove the need for learning.

7 Responses to “Got a question? Why not ‘Ask a Biologist’?”

  1. 1 Tom 19/04/2010 at 2:44 pm

    I actually did ask a question, before the site change. But it hasnt been answered yet.

    Still, I’m sure I’ll use this in the future, as new questions pop up all the time in my palaeoart.

    • 2 David Hone 19/04/2010 at 4:36 pm

      Ah yes, the one about dinosaur faces? Sorry, some of them just take time and some slip through the cracks. I’ve been meaning to take a pop myself, but had hoped one of the other dino guys might step in.

      Hopefully you’re not too put out, we are usually pretty fast. Honest! And of course this hasn’t been the best time to leave us with anything complex to deal with as while the mainsite has been kept running there has obviously been huge amounts of running around in the background to get the new one running.

      Glad you like it and there are a bunch of palaeoart-type questions on there already if you want to take a look (pterosaur tail vanes, sauropod skin textures and dinosaur leg positions as I recall). The new upload facility should really help as well.

      • 3 Tom 19/04/2010 at 6:48 pm

        Yeah, that’s it. Don’t worry, I’m not out off, I’m a patient person. And I can see from the other threads that you guys are usually very fast in replying.
        And I acknowlage that I posted right before the big changes to the site, so its a busy time.

  2. 4 Maija Karala 19/04/2010 at 5:45 pm

    The site is really an excellent idea, and I’m happy you all find enough time to answer questions. I think you’re doing very important work there.

    A small disappointment with the site is that askers can’t ask further questions in the same threads. I understand you probably had a good reason to decide so, but I think many askers would like to ask further, and it feels quite a bit awkward to start another thread to ask about an older answer. At least that’s what I felt, when I asked about nasal turbinates a while ago.

    • 5 David Hone 19/04/2010 at 5:58 pm

      Yeah we know but it’s not something we can handle easily unfortunately. I wrote a long comment about this recently but now can’t find it, gah.

      In short, it’s combination of things. It’s a pain to give every visitor a password / ID and it’s very hard to program and that takes time and money we don’t really have. We would have to do that in order to make sure that only the registered experts and the person who started the thread can add to it. If not then anyone could post on any thread.

      That would defeat the point of AAB which is that it is *not* a discussion forum but a place where you get answers from real experts / professionals. We don’t want the boards loaded with random opinions / ideas etc. You can go to Yahoo answers if you want a voting system and no quality control. (Plus it’s a real pain for 1 off users, which are most of our readers, to have to create a user ID etc.).

      In the end, it was easiest and cheapest to leave it out. At least the http text works better now to embed link and cross reference things and search terms will always turn them up. Plus, very few things go on for more than one post in any case. It’s not ideal, but it’s not bad either.

  1. 1 Ask A Biologist « Trackback on 07/06/2010 at 3:31 pm
Comments are currently closed.

@Dave_Hone on Twitter


Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 573 other followers

%d bloggers like this: