Just so I don’t get all rusty and completely forget how to post in this blog, I thought I’d share a cool new tool I’ve discovered- thinklink.
This is the background: I am currently assembling an online course about disease in nature and am looking for ways of getting students to work with the material in a series of small-ish assignments. Our students get plenty of practice writing essays, but with scientific information, text is not everything. It has always struck me in student dissertations and literature reports that very few include custom-made figures. Of course for anything other than reports of their own research, it is perfectly fine to borrow published figures, as long as they are correctly attributed. By comparison, it is a lot of work to prepare figures from scratch, but it’s the thinking, not the doing (as in graphics design) that takes so much time. You don’t know if you really understood something until you’re made to draw it (try explaining how a toilet cistern works!). This is why I am going to include a small number of “creative” tasks in the course.

fungal life cycleOne specific example in my online course was the reasonably complex topic of pathogen life cycles. Both fungi and oomycetes (aka “water molds”, including such lovelies as potato late blight, sudden oak death and crayfish plague) tend to have alternative sexual and asexual life cycles (see pic). There are all sorts of variations on the themes of plasmogamy (cells from separate hyphae fuse, but the nuclei stay separate), karyogamy (nuclei fuse), meiosis (nuclei split) and spore formation. Not all species include all steps.

I’m going to ask students to research the life cycle of one pathogen of choice and then to annotate the generic picture (above) with info on what each stage/ event/ process looks like for the particular pathogen they have picked. Here’s where thinglink comes in:

Life cycle of Phytophthora infestans (Potato Late Blight)

Life cycle of Phytophthora infestans (Potato Late Blight)

Rather than producing really complex composite graphics, or simply reproducing an existing pic (see example for potato late blight; M. Piepenbring via Wikimedia commons, CC BY-SA 3.0), I’ll get them to insert information tags and/or hyperlinks into the template via thinglink.


When I tried to do that for wheat stem rust, with admittedly one of the most complex life cycles of all fungi, I realised quickly that I hadn’t completely understood it. This pathogen does not quite fit into the general scheme, and I had to get a bit creative while thinking how to map the different types of rust fungus spores and hyphae onto the scheme. (For nerds: the “problem” is that like many basidiomycetes, rust fungi spend much of their life as dikaryotic mycelium. Karyogamy and meiosis occur a long time after plasmogamy, and crucially, after a host switch from barberry to a cereal, before going back to barberry. I know, right?) Below is my annotated scheme for stem rust. This would be provided for students as an example of how it could be done, but also with a note that pretty much any other pathogen is less complex than this one. Simply hover over the pic for long enough to see pics and text. I think that’s pretty neat.

I have not completely worked out how to make this work for students. If they like, they can get their own accounts and just share a link with me, much like I’m sharing my thinglink here on this blog. If I can bring myself to shell out $35/year for the “edu premium” version, I can set up student groups that don’t require them to sign up, and in addition I would unlock many new features.

Speaking of which, in the free version there is a limited choice of tags (five coloured dots, or letters A-E) and (I think) only text, online figures, web links and links to youtube videos can be included. I’ve not really needed anything fancier yet, so currently for demonstration the free version is fine. There are some bugs though; when I tried to copy and paste text I had written in MS Word, it wouldn’t let me. Bizarrely, only pasting into the for the URL box worked, from where I could drag it into the free-text box. There was also an issue with moving the tags (dots) around. Rather than allowing simple dragging, any click and drag on a tag would resize the tag itself. Using opposite corners to enlarge and then shrink the tag, it’s possible to move tags elsewhere- but what a drag. Perhaps this is sorted in the “edu premium” version, and they are testing users’ patience by making the free version buggy? Might upgrade after all…

On the thinglink website, many of the featured examples are just randomly placed links on fun pics. Once I had a closer look at what’s possible, though, it really struck me that this could work fantastically well for science education; both as a didactic tool and (as described above) to get students to assemble interactive graphics as an assignment. Thinglink provides an embed code that has worked well in our virtual learning environment. Here are two more examples I’ve put together in relatively little time: