Thursday, September 30, 2010

Historical Documents

I consider letters historical documents. I think that when you put words down on paper, even in the casual form of a personal letter it becomes a piece of history. It records what you were thinking at a specific time and place, sealing a bit of history onto paper. I love seeing an envelope in my mailbox, so in the age of email I am lucky to have a few friends that love mail as much as I do, and so write me letters in exchange for me filling their mailboxes.

I just got a letter today from my friend Cassi, and have been wanting to write a reply all day, but have been tremendously distracted by my paper on the American Red Cross, among other things. The paper is for J620 my International Communication class -- we are studying the media of humanitarian movements, which has nothing to do with science writing but as far as electives go I'm learning a lot. It is due tomorrow and my brain is totally tapped out so I'm taking a break from editing to blog (although blogging isn't exactly relaxing for my brain.)

Anyway, I was already thinking about letters and how much I love and appreciate all of my letters, when I saw the article "Rivalry Among DNA Sleuths Comes Alive In Letters," by Nicholas Wade for the New York Times. I am very tempted by the field of science history, if I were ever to turn academic instead of professional I would definitely be interested in exploring the history of science journalism, which in my opinion would include correspondence between scientists (if it becomes part of public record of course.)

The authors of biographies of Watson and Crick (the scientists credited with discovering the double helix structure of DNA) told Wade that the newly found letters from Crick's personal documents don't really add anything new to the historical record of the research that led up to the double helix discovery, but do add personal anecdotes to the rivalry that existed between the researchers at the time.

The correspondence also added a bit to the sympathy that I feel for Rosalind Franklin. She is a researcher who was working on finding the structure of DNA, and she had done all the research and documented everything that she needed to unravel the structure -- she just didn't realize the significance. Watson and Crick are the ones that took Franklin's basic research and realized that DNA has a double helix structure. I've always felt that Franklin got gypped when they were giving out the Nobel Prizes, so I feel for her, she was so close! The snippets from the letters in Wade's article just reminded me of that.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Sawatsky Approach

For J800 we had to read a piece by Susan Paterno from 2000 called The Question Man about reporter John Sawatsky and his method of reporting. Of all the things that I've read thus far this semester I found this one article the most helpful.

Basically the idea behind the Sawatsky approach to reporting is that when an interview fails and a source doesn't open up it is usually because the journalist asks the wrong questions. What he means by that is asking a question that can be answered with a simple yes or no, will always generate that singular response and won't force a source to elaborate. If you ask open ended questions like how does that make you feel, or what do you think about that will force a source into talking at least a little bit more.

This might seem like a pretty basic concept, but in all of my journalism instruction no one has bothered to point this out. I think that remembered to revert to open ended questions if an interview starts to go poorly is something that could save an interview and avoid wasting your and your sources time. This approach is definitely something I'm going to try using in the next interviews that I have to do for class, namely the two feature articles that are due in October for J800.

I also have to point out that he is Canadian, which makes me think of my friend Cassi, which makes me think of this:

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


Today I failed at getting to see the President of the United States. Obama was speaking at UW as part of a campaign tour for the midterm elections in November. The Senate and Governor races in Wisconsin are pretty close, and I guess that makes the state a key one for the Democrats.

On Bascomb Hill. Credit: Erin Podolak
The President spoke on the library mall, which is a pretty small area on campus. The gates were set to open at 3:30 and he was going to go on at 4:45. I joined the line at 2:30 and after waiting until 5:00 was told that the library mall was at capacity and they weren't going to let anyone else in. Really lame. But, the good news was that the President was late so I hadn't actually missed anything yet. So, I parked myself on the lawn in front of Bascom Hall so I could at least listen to the speech as it was taking place. The rumor is that 17,000 people made it inside the rally and another 10,000 sat on Bascom Hill where I was.

The event started off with music from The National and Ben Harper - although I have to say I enjoyed the Obama transition soundtrack more (Bon Jovi and Bruce, my Jersey loves.) Then, Russ Feingold (Democratic Senator)  and Tom Barrett (Democratic Mayor of Milwaukee, and candidate for Governor) each spoke. I'll keep out of the politics because A. this blog is not political, B. as a journalist it wouldn't be right for me to give my personal political opinions, C. I know very little about Wisconsin politics. 

Best view in the house. Credit: Erin Podolak
While we were waiting for the President to take the stage, I found myself thinking about why I voted the way I did in 2008, and the changes that have taken place in the last 20 months that Obama has been in office. Hearing the President speak, and to a large regard defend himself and his party, was a really good experience. Even though I didn't have a visual, hearing his voice boom out of the PA system was still exciting. 

I thoroughly enjoyed the crowd that I was sitting with, there were some very entertaining people around me. My favorite might have been the Republican who kept making snarky remarks to counter what the President was saying, who would occasionally find that he agreed and had to mark those moments by shouting "true dat, true dat." 

There were also a few activists/protesters in the crowd, most of whom I found really annoying. There was one carrying a sign saying that 9-11 was covered up by the government and the attacks really came from within the United States. He made me angry, and I did not mind when the aforementioned Republican decided to heckle him. The same protester was also apparently against the presence of soldiers in Afghanistan. 

Credit: Erin Podolak
Overall, I am really glad that I stuck it out and stayed outside to hear the President speak live, even if I wasn't able to get in to actually see him. It was kind of like listening to a gigantic pep talk, that honestly kind of cheered me up a bit. It was the first political rally that I've ever attended, but I hope it won't be my last because even if you don't agree with the politics of whoever is speaking, it is just great to get out and be around that kind of a group of people to experience that little swatch of the public. 

New York Times coverage of the event: Obama's Visit Was Not Simple

Monday, September 27, 2010

That British Sense of Humor

I have to give Deb Blum credit for passing around this article from the Guardian that spoofs science writing. Anyone who has ever written or read science news should read it. It crushes my soul but gives me tremendous hope all in one fell swoop. Essentially, 99.9% of science news is less than stellar. At least now keeping myself out of this category is something I can strive for.

The comments that follow the article are equally hilarious and actually really add to the article, completing the satire of web media and public interaction.

My favorites:
"This is where I forgot to say that 99% of other scientists researching in this field disagree and think this scientist is a nutter" (I love that this person used the word nutter)
"This comment is simply an inexplicable and unrelated reference to Hitler"

This whole thing had me laughing out loud. A win for Martin Robbins.

Slouching Toward Bethlehem

My procrastination has continued in full force - I really don't want to write an essay now that I've gotten myself into article/journalist mode, but it must be done. But anyway, in addition to cleaning the apartment, running errands, taking a walk, I also read Joan Didion's Slouching Toward Bethlehem for J669 next week as a means of putting off my essay for 620.  Which I'm going to start after this blog post, I promise.

I have been pretty critical of some of the books I've read for class so far this semester, but I actually really loved this collection of Didion's essays and articles. I think she is great the way that she is so clearly a part of the text but in the news pieces she never uses first person. I guess you just really get a sense of how she views herself through her writing no matter what the subject matter.

She is also really great with one-liners that just completely stop you in your tracks as you are working through a page. I always admire writers who can set up a rhythm and then completely knock you off it without leaving a reader feeling disoriented. All of the work in this collection also use really great language, I think she is a good example of the idea that all words have a specific meaning, and that there are no synonyms. She seems to focus on choosing the perfect word for what she is trying to convey.

So overall, this one was a win. I think its also important to note that for how famous and well regarded Joan Didion is, I had never heard of her before. We've been talking in J669 about the new journalists - Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, Truman Capote and I think its interesting that out of the whole bunch, Didion was the one that I hadn't heard of.

I also have to say that the title of the book made me think of Lehigh, how I miss Bethlehem, PA.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Is There A Market for Female Science Bloggers?

Yesterday in J901 Deborah Blum gave a talk about how to make money as a writer (which certainly isn't easy these days). One of the things she recommended was that all writers should have a blog where they promote themselves as a brand. I'm not sure how I feel about this blog representing me, but since apparently more people are reading it than I even realized I guess it really does.

Deb passed along this article from Seed, Blogging Out of Balance by Dave Munger that talks about how there are many more male science bloggers on the big blogging hubs than there are female. Some of this probably correlates with the fact that science and research used to be a boys game, but I also think it has to do with the fact that many female bloggers want to be anonymous.

I suppose I qualify as a science blogger but there is a big difference between my science writing blog and a blog that is written by a researcher. There are a lot of science writers that do have degrees in biology, chemistry, physics, geology, etc. and so can consider themselves an expert in whatever science field they choose to blog about. Since I do not have a degree in any science, I don't think I'd want to have my blog be about a certain research field, I don't want to make false claims about being an expert. What I know is writing, which is why this blog is all about being a science journalist, instead of about the science itself.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Interview Bureaucracy

Today I did a lot of interviewing for an article that I have due for J800 next week. I was pretty unsure about the topic, funding for addiction research, but now that I've spoken to several people I am much more confident that I can make it really interesting. I have all of the materials that I need to write it now too, which always makes me happy because then I have time to write the article and re-work it over the course of several days without waiting for sources down to the wire.

In the course of my interviewing, I had to track down someone from NIDA the National Institute on Drug Abuse. I considered just cold calling numbers I found on the NIDA website, but I decided that even if it took me a couple of days I stood a much better chance if I actually went through the media office. So thats what I did, and I think it worked out really well because I got the material I needed from an official source and didn't really waste a lot of time calling around and getting re-directed. So lesson definitely learned, when dealing with the government go right for the PR people, they pull the strings.

The Chili Pepper Angle

Source: Wikimedia Commons
I really don't find food and nutrition writing all that interesting (sorry to those who do but its just not my cup of tea) but I wanted to highlight this article on chili peppers from the New York Times. A Perk of Our Evolution: Pleasure in Pain of Chilies by James Gorman because I think he takes a really interesting approach to talking about a food item.

The angle the Gorman uses is answering the question of what makes humans want to eat foods that are hot/spicy with chili flavor even though at times it can be painful? I think this is an interesting way to approach writing about peppers, and honestly I was just impressed that Gorman was able to write such a long article about the topic without it becoming boring or redundant. 

There are also parts of the article that Gorman writes in first person, which is an interesting choice. The article starts off as would be expected, a soft lead that describes a chili pepper festival - hinting at the allure of the vegetables and then goes into expert opinion. So when Gorman inserts his own narrative later on in the piece and discusses his own feelings toward chili peppers I was a little surprised. I do think it works though, because with a topic that could easily slip into the mundane, the more casual feel later in the piece actually works to hold me attention. 

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

This Is Not Polite Dinner Conversation

Francis and I have been having the most ridiculous conversations over dinner. Apparently we both favor talking about the things you aren't supposed to talk about like religion, abortion, politics, and even global warming. I guess we are just getting a feel for each other and what we think and believe. Although I have a tendency to provide my opinions about these topics freely, which I suppose thats why getting my own voice out of my reporting was a challenge for me when I first started writing.

But on the topic of global warming, she made a fairly decent argument for why she doesn't believe in global warming specifically (she does believe in climate change) based on the geologic record of cooling and warming trends, but she is a geologist after all. On the opposing side, I think I also made a good argument in favor of global warming and climate change. In the end it was a respectful parting of opinions, which when you share a small apartment is probably best.

This article in the New York Times reminded me of our global warming conversation, because I think it is another scientific finding that provides evidence in favor of global warming. Extreme heat bleaches coral, and threat is seen by Justin Gillis reports on the mass death of coral reefs due to high water temperatures.

According to the article, with the rising temperatures the coral are far more sensitive, so any other slight disturbance in their environment can send them right over the edge, causing them to lose their color killing the organisms that rely of them. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) scientists believe that 2010 will rival 1998 as the hottest year on record, and probably the most damaging to coral. Not that you can just accept everything NOAA says, but I do think that the article presents a concise and logical argument in favor of a warming trend and its negative affects of coral reefs.

Thats So Nerdcore

I found the article Nerdcore: Hip hop for rhyming geeks from the BBC's Jamillah Knowles and Chris Vallance quite entertaining. The article takes a look at a new trend in the hip-hop music scene, self proclaimed nerdy people rapping about the societal struggles that come with being a geek. I'm going to refrain from expressing a staunch opinion on nerdcore rap, but I commend the reporters for chasing down and interesting topic and finding a unique angle with which to talk about the stigma of being a nerd.

I also liked the multimedia components that the reporters incorporated into this story. I think its important to get a picture of what these nerdy rappers look like in addition to hearing their actual rhymes so the video and audio clips to me really made the piece.

On a similar nerdy note, if you've never seen the Big Bang Theory on CBS, it is about a young group of professors and researchers (physicists, no less) at a university and it is hilarious.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

And Then There Were Ducks

Credit: Erin Podolak

Today I took a walk on the lake front to get some pictures to go with the article on toxins in the lakes that I wrote for my J800 class. I walked for over two hours and gave myself blisters and I ended up mostly taking pictures of ducks.  Good job Erin. 

Although, there is something to be said for simply getting outside and going for a walk. I've found that Madison has a lot of good walking trails right near campus that offer you a way to get out and be in semi-natural surroundings without having to go far from the UW campus.

At least they ducks are cute, and I did take a few shots that I can use for my article, mostly warning signs for toxic algae blooms. I'm not sure how I feel about the idea that journalists are supposed to now be able to do all of their own multimedia to accompany their articles. I don't mind taking pictures because I've always liked photography but I definitely couldn't make some of the graphs and maps that you see accompanying articles. I guess I'll have to learn to keep up in this business though, and something tells me my ducks certainly won't cut it.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Pitching Articles

I've been working on my first article for my J800 class, its due this Wednesday, and I'm still in the process of editing it - but I decided to pitch it to the Cap Times, which is a local news outlet here in Madison. They expressed some interest in it which I was excited about, but they told me flat out that they can't afford to pay me for it, so we'll see what happens. I sent it to them anyway, just to see if they might be able to use it and give me the byline.

Pitching articles can be really difficult, and in all of my journalism education it isn't something that any professor has ever gone over. So I turned to my back-up teacher: the Internet. I looked through a lot of sample pitches and came up with what I think was a convincing argument on behalf of my article. I think the most important thing to remember when pitching articles is to identify the reader base of whatever news organization you are going to pitch to. It has to be something that is written to the level of the audience, but also that will have particular interest for them.

Sending in my first pitch for an organization that I didn't previously work for definitely made me feel like a newbie. I know that being in school is a great time to get my feet wet (pretty much my only opportunity considering I need to be making money once I graduate) but its awkward for me to have experience in some things and no experience in other things. Fingers crossed this article will work out.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Fear and Loathing in Wisconsin

For J669, my literary journalism class, we have to read Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I sat down last night and read it in one shot, it took me about three hours which really wasn't that bad. Its hard to critique a work like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas because it is so famous, but I do have a few thoughts about it.

I didn't love it, but I didn't hate it either. It was really hard to look at it as a piece of journalism, although I can actually see pretty clearly how the piece is almost like a stream of conscience list of what happened during Thompson's drug binge in Vegas. I like that he uses a fake name, and that name (Raoul Duke) becomes like a fictional character. I think what made it so hard to take seriously when it was written is that he describes all of his acid trips and subsequent illusions with complete and total seriousness, not really acknowledging that they are just fantasies created by LSD. He also chronicles his paranoia with complete and total certainty, which also gives the piece more of a fiction feel.

Overall I think that Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas falls into the realm of journalism because it is a very accurate record of Thompson's memory of his trip to Vegas. I think its true to his memories, and what isn't in his memory is apparently on a tape recorder. I think it is what happened during the trip, I just think it rattled cages because it shows such an extreme case of drug use. Its also notable for the fact that he didn't write either one of the articles he was assigned, the desert race or the drug enforcement meeting.

For anyone who wants to learn more about Hunter S. Thompson I whole heartedly recommend Oscar-Winner Alex Gibney's documentary film Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, and not just because the director is from my hometown. The film tells the story of Thompson's life from birth, through the peak of his career, to his suicide in 2005. Gibney gets an insider view of Thompson's funeral, rocket and all. It also has Johnny Depp, which pretty much makes it a win.

Hip Hop Meets Chemistry

An interesting article today in the UW paper, "UW-Madison student mixes passions for science, dancing." The video that accompanies the article is actually pretty awesome, provided you want to see a guy dance hip hop style covered in glowing chemicals, and really who wouldn't.

The article explains how UW-Madison student Jeffrey Vinokur combined his love for chemistry and dancing to create the act the Dancing Mad Scientist, which finished in the top 100 out of more than 70,000 auditions for the NBC show America's Got Talent. Vinokur's hometown is Montvale, New Jersey, so clearly as a Jersey girl myself, it caught my attention.

I think its great that Vinokur is taking his act to schools and helping people get excited about chemistry, but I do have to point out that in the video where he talks about chemiluminescence he never actually explains what it is. He explains how a glow stick works. This is not at all the same thing as explaining WHY certain chemicals glow when you combine them.

If you do want to learn more about chemiluminescence check out this link:

Saturday, September 18, 2010

My Atomic Bomb Education

I just wanted to share the New York Times' article The Bomb Chroniclers by William J. Broad. I don't have too much to say about it analysis wise, but I learned a few things so I thought it was worth mentioning. It is about the first tests of the atomic bomb in the US before we used the technology on Japan to end World War II.

The tests were recorded by videographers, and over the last few years the government has been declassifying the video so that it is now available to the public. The article talks about the experiences of the people who took photos and videos of the tests and also about what has happened to their work, documentaries, books, etc.

In J620 this week we talked about the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki from the humanitarian angle, and in J669 we read excerpts of Hiroshima by John Hersey so the topic was already on my mind. Its always good to learn new things and I don't really know too much about the tests that came before actually dropping the bomb to end the war so I enjoyed reading this article to learn more.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Uplifting Video For Science Nerds

This video is exactly what I needed today. Time lapse photography and video is an amazing technique in its own right, but set to this music, the BBC's Introduction to Speeding Up Life was exactly what I needed today.

The index to extra information on the animals, plants, habitats, and environmental science concepts featured in the videos available when you scroll to the bottom of the page also shows exactly the power and opportunity to educate that the online format has. 

How To: Survive Just Long Enough Not to be an Awful Writer

This morning I finished Jon Franklin's Writing for Story, what I hope is the last "how to" book I'm going to have to read this semester. Textbooks aside, in the first three weeks of classes I've read three books focused on how to avoid complete and total blinding failure as a writer. I have found it incredibly depressing that there is even a need for such manuals. Combined with those that I accumulated during my time as an undergrad at Lehigh, I am now the not-so-proud owner of quite the collection of books on how to write.

It isn't that I don't find value in these books, I think that there are definitely nuggets of good advice and even a little humor about style, format, the industry, and numerous other aspects of journalism as a profession. However, I find that I get pretty frustrated listening to someone who is considered a "success" brag about how they got there. Congratulations, by capturing the ever elusive combination of financial success, public success, and the praise of your peers you have been deemed worthy enough to hold the distinguished title of being a "good writer." Good for you.

I think the reason I am annoyed right now largely has to do with the generalizations that Franklin makes in his book. He assumes that all young journalists are a bunch of immature children that need to have rejection beat the desire to write, right out of us before we can accept that we aren't going to be great artists. Well Jon Franklin, I for one don't want to be an artist, I've never thought of writing as my art, and I hold no misguided feelings of anguish when an editor tells me a piece doesn't work.

Yes, I've struggled to find my way in terms of all the mechanics of writing, to figure out what works and what doesn't, as my early copy from BioTechniques CLEARLY indicates. But, I just don't consider myself some downtrodden journalist struggling to find their literary voice. I want to talk in facts, I want to write hard news, sweeping poetic literary statements just aren't my style, and I don't like being lumped in with every other young writer afflicted with wanting to write. I don't like the fact that to be considered "good" I have to unlock some magical realm of literary style that will come only with experience. 

Perhaps I just aspire to lesser things than my more ideological counterparts, because I see the value in literary journalism and I think its great, but I just don't feel some terrible stinging sensation in my soul that I'm not there yet.  I know I'll get there, every piece I write I see myself getting better. Reading all of these books on how to write and what mistakes to avoid hasn't left me questioning whether or not I can be a great writer, I know that I can be a great writer, I guess I'm just wondering if I'm not tormented by words that go bump in the night, if my desire to be a writer is strong enough. 

Its troubling to me that I'm upset that where I'm at in life isn't upsetting me. If you follow all of the "expert" opinions contained in these books I should be pulling my hair out, and I'm not. I'm also not disillusioned to think its because I'm so wonderful that I just don't fit the mould. That's not it. So why, as a fledgling journalist am I not depressed? According to all these how to manuals I should be. 

I feel like  the authors of these books could have really benefitted from a manual entitled: How to enjoy learning how to write. I am enjoying my ride and the twists and turns it takes me on, even the rejection. It might sting but it means I'm still chasing after something, and I find comfort in that. I'm in no rush to be perfect right out of the gate, and I always thought that was a good thing, but is it? Should I be more driven? Reading these books didn't teach my how to write, all they did was make me question my personality. 

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Chocolate Genes

Source: Wikimedia Commons
A science news story that has been circulating in the media this week is the sequencing of the chocolate genome. I know I've already talked about genome sequences and why I think some are more important and interesting than others so I won't bore you with that. But, I did want to put up links to a couple of different articles on the subject because I think it is interesting to compare and contrast the headlines and leads in terms of who went for the cheesy chocolate jokes, who worked the chocolate in a subtle way, and who went for a strictly hard news angle.

There is value to all of the approaches, so my mind isn't made up yet on what I favor. I think if I had to choose I'd go for middle of the road approach (which is usually a pretty safe place to be) and say that you have to work the chocolate in, in some way because its what makes the story fun, but that you don't have to get ridiculous with yourself and lose the science and the purpose of the story.

CNN: Sweet scientific discovery in the world of chocolate
ScienceDaily: Sequencing of cacao genome to help chocolate industry, subsistence farmers
GenomeWeb: Consortium Using 454, Illumina Sequencers to Decode Cacao Genome
US News and World Report: A Taste of the Chocolate Genome
SiFy News: Cacao genome sequencing a boon to chocolate lovers
CBS News: Sweet Science Cacao Genome Map Completed
Scientific American: Candy-maker releases cacao (coco) genome sequence online
Reuters: Scientists Unlock Coca Genome, Release to Public Domain
New York Times: Rival Candy Projects Both Parse Cocoa's DNA
AOL News: Wunderbar! Scientists Crack Chocolate's DNA Code

Overall, I think that all these articles (which are just a sampling of what is out there) have interesting differences in the way they handle the headlines and even the rest of the body of the story. It might all be about chocolate, but each news organization definitely puts on their own spin.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Crackdown on Antibiotics for Animals

I think the New York Times' Eric Eckholm did a really good job with the article US Meat Farmers Brace for Limits on Antibiotics. As a standard practice farmers in the US give healthy animals antibiotics to make sure that they stay healthy, and to help them grow faster. I do understand the economic value of such a practice, those animals are those farmers livelihood and if they can do anything to safe guard against losing their investment in those animals I see why they would do it. HOWEVER, there is a serious impact to the environment and to public health by giving healthy animals antibiotics.

I like Eckholm's article because he's clear in the way he explains the new components of the story (that the FDA is considering stricter regulations on the use of antibiotics in animals, and that such actions are gaining popularity in Congress). But he also provides the background and context necessary to understand both the farmer's point of view, and the science behind the call to end the use of antibiotics in animals because of their detrimental affects on humans.

The article also has a really nice lead by taking the story down to the level of a single pig farmer and his experience using antibiotics in his healthy animals. It imparts a literary aspect of story telling that I admire in a hard news story. I think its a good example of a writer going beyond the hard news angle and giving some really nice and necessary context to the story.

On a different, but similar, note for those of you who have never seen the Meatrix you should watch it.  I love it and I think its a great way to talk about the use of antibiotics and other issue facing the meat industry (as long as you aren't a farmer).

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Phone Phobia

When I was younger (say middle school age) I HATED talking on the phone. For some reason it made me really nervous, as if the person on the other end of the phone were going to be constantly judging me. Like I was going to make a mistake, or somehow divulge some dark secret or something... not that I have any. In my line of work, its a good thing I've gotten over that (for the most part).

The reason I bring up my phone phobia is that as a journalist I constantly make phone calls, talking to strangers trying to confirm information or score an interview. Today I did the first of three interviews that I have to do for my first article for J800. The article is due next week, but so far this was the only interview that I've been able to set up. I decided to write about a recent USGS study on cyanotoxins in lakes in the midwest, so I interviewed the woman who led the study.

It was a good interview, and I got a lot of useable material for my article, so its a step in the right direction. I contacted a UW professor working on toxins in the lakes, and I contacted a local conservation group but got no reply. Tomorrow I'll have to work on setting up the remaining two interviews -- hopefully just by contacting a bunch of people/groups I'll be able to convince two more people to talk to me.

It would pretty much make my day if this article came together nicely because as soon as its done I have to start on the next one. Oh, the joys of grad school. I always prefer to set up interviews by email first and then schedule a time to talk on the phone. I think it makes me less anxious about calling to know that someone is expecting me. Although cold calling can sometimes be very affective. I suppose in this line of work I'll have to get more used to it.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Smaller, Better, Faster

To borrow the name-sake of my friend Cassi's blog, We Live in the Future. I say that, because new technology just hitting the news today is reporting the creation of artificial skin that is so sensitive it can pick up on touch the way that living organisms can feel through their skin.

Reported in Nature Materials, the new technology could be used in robots to help them hold and feel fragile objects, on artificial limbs for human patients that have lost an arm or leg, or to improve minimally invasive surgery. According to the researchers, the artificial skin is made of nanowires, and is able to sense pressure changes as quickly as the human nervous system transmits such signals from real skin to the brain.

Nanotechnology is an exploding field in research, and a hot topic for science writers. But, it can be hard to explain exactly what nanotechnology is. While broken down simply it is very small technology, so small you can't see it with the naked eye. But it has a variety of applications from biomedical applications, like the artificial skin in this article, to genome sequencing mechanisms and beyond.

Talking about nano always reminds me of the old adage "bigger, better, faster" with nano the case has truly shifted to SMALLER, better, faster.

True Stories

Well the good news is that I seem to be fully recovered from my bout of food-induced illness, the bad news is that means I'm back full swing into my grad school work load. Last night, I finished reading True Stories by Norman Sims for my literary journalism class. The book goes through the history of literary journalism, from the reporting of World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, the lull of the 40's and 50's, New Journalism in the 60's and 70's, Vietnam, and through to the status of literary journalism today.

 In addition to Sims' take on the history of the literary journalism style, the book also includes: The Long Fall of One-Eleven Heavy by Michael Paterniti, Red Caucasus by John Dos Passos, The Jumping-Off Place by Edmund Wilson, The Old House at Home by Joseph Mitchell, and Family Journeys by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc.

Overall I liked True Stories, it gave me a lot of important background into literary journalism and how writers need to immerse themselves in a topic and strike out on their own a bit in order to get a story that hasn't been told time and time again. Sims made me want to devour more examples of literary journalism, particularly Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. I might have to add that one to my to-do list.

Of the samples of literary journalism included in the book, I found Paterniti's The Long Fall of One-Eleven Heavy to be incredibly powerful. It was emotional for me reading about a plane crash so close to the anniversary of September 11. But despite that, I thought the way Paterniti told the story without naming names added a lot of drama to the way he told the story. It was gripping, and the pages flew by. Unlike Dos Passos' Red Caucasus which I actually had trouble focusing on and staying involved in the story.

One useful thing (I think at least) that Sims did was to include a historical list of literary journalism pieces. If you had the time, you could go through the pieces and trace the history of literary journalism through the words themselves. Although sadly I know that I, and very few people I know, would actually have the time for so much reading for the sake of curiosity. It is still useful to have the list, so you could go back and pick out select pieces to follow up on.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Where To Find A Good Article

My apologies for a lack of blog posting this weekend. It seems as though Wisconsin has conspired against me and I contracted some type of food poisoning, thus I have not been out of my apartment in the last 48 hours. But, I'm doing much better now and so I have the joy of conquering my stack of homework for this week.

In addition to my typical reading, homework for this week also includes coming up with a story idea, contacting at least three sources, and writing up a 800+ word article. I really need to get a jump on it, so I've spent today getting the reading out of the way and hopefully will be able to focus on the article tomorrow and Tuesday.

This article is intended to be short news, which I am very comfortable with since that was the bulk of my duty at BioTechniques, but it has one component that makes it more difficult. The three sources in the article have to represent three different points of view, which can be difficult in a breaking science story. So, that makes choosing the topic that much more important, it has to be something very specific but that has a more general impact so that there will be more people to interview than just the bench scientists.

That being said, Marianne and I were just discussing how to find article ideas. I find press releases to be the best way to find science stories, because they can help show you stories that are important, but that occur at Universities or even in countries that are far away from where the reporter is physically located. Press releases also focus on new information, so that almost always leads to an element of timeliness, which is crucial to a breaking news story.

Although, just reading the science news from other media outlets can help inspire a story, or talking to researchers and seeing what they think are important trends in their community. I'll let you know what I decide to write about, fingers crossed a good press release won't be hard to find.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Another Chapter on Stem Cells

More news today about the controversy over federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. A federal appeals court has temporarily reinstated the ability of federal funds to be used for embryonic stem cell research, while it takes more time to review the Obama Administration's appeal of an earlier court decision banning federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. The issue just seems to go round-and-round.

Coverage of the court's new decision:
The New York Times: Appeals Court Ends Ban on Stem Cell Financing, for Now
The BBC: Court delays ban on federal funds for US stem cell work
The Washington Post: Stem cell funding gets reprieve
The Associated Press (In The LA Times): Court allows funding of embryonic stem cell research for now, but projects still remain uncertain

The Elements of Journalism

For my J800 class I was assigned to read Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel's The Elements of Journalism - What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect. I finished it in two days, it was a quick read, but an important one. Just in these first few days of classes, I've been reminded how important it is for the public to build a relationship with a journalist based on transparency and verification of information. If no one trusts what you say, you can't be a journalist. Its that simple.

So what are the "Elements of Journalism?"
(Taken directly out of the book)

1. The primary purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing.
2. Journalism's first obligation is to the truth.
3. Journalism's first loyalty is to citizens.
4. The essence of journalism is a discipline of verification.
5. Journalists must maintain an independence from those they cover.
6. Journalists must serve as an independent monitor of power.
7. Journalism must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise.
8. Journalists must make the significant interesting and relevant.
9. Journalists should keep the news comprehensive and in proportion.
10. Journalists have an obligation to exercise their personal conscience.

Things to think about as I start to settle into my chosen profession...

Monday, September 6, 2010

Communicating Uncertainty: Ever Changing Evidence

The New York Times article by Denise Grady, "In Feast of Data on BPA Plastic, No Final Answer" brings up some interesting issues not only on BPA plastic itself, but also on communicating science and how "experts" can become mistrusted when, to the public, the "facts" seem to constantly change.

Bisphenol-A, more commonly called BPA, is a chemical found in some plastics. For over a decade researchers have had inconclusive findings with regard to whether or not it is safe to be exposed to BPA (or in what quantities, in what forms, etc.) yet, most people are constantly exposed to it from plastic bottles, and other products. BPA is a public health concern because the chemical has been shown in studies on lab animals to mimic estrogen, which makes the chemical an endocrine disruptor. 

Whether or not exposure to BPA causes harm to humans is still up for debate, and has become a hot topic for researchers, activists, parents, and politicians. Grady's article does a good job explaining how it is possible for researchers to come up with different results from identical studies (causing all the confusion) but still be good scientists. Research at its core is based on searching for answers, sometimes the answers are elusive, but that doesn't make the researchers inept. Even in the face of public outcry and demands for answers that won't seem to come.

I like Grady's article because I think she does a really good job going through the history of the BPA issue, showing what findings are new and relevant, and explaining the holdups and problems that have caused different research findings. Overall, I think the article is a good example of science journalism, and how to strip down an issue to simplify it, while building it up at the same time to give the audience all of the information they need to understand the topic. 

Sunday, September 5, 2010

UK Hunt for Invasive Snail

I've posted before about invasive species, but this article from the BBC just caught my eye. The UK's National Trust Nature Conservation recently found out that their own grounds are home to a rare species of snail, native to the Mediterranean.

According to the Nature Conservation, the snails most likely arrived on their grounds more than 100 years ago on stones imported from Italy and Greece. Since then the snails have only populated a small area, but the Nature Conservation is conducting a search to see if the snails have populated anywhere else. They are asking the public to be on the look out for the snail.

One quote from the article actually makes it sound as if finding the snails outside of their natural territory is a good thing: "The Victorians and Edwardians loved importing statues, rock, and brickwork from the Mediterranean," says Mr. Oates. "The shipping over of this 'bling' in large quantities suggests that we could find new species, such as this lovely little snail, in surprising places."

It doesn't seem as if the snail has any negative impact on the environment in terms of disturbing the food chain or causing any other disruptions, but I still find it strange that finding the invasive species seems to be more of an oddity than a concern. I also find it strange that it took over 100 years for anyone to notice the snail where it wasn't supposed to be. 

J. Craig Venter: Portrait of a Businessman

The New York Times' Andrew Pollack just published an interesting article on J. Craig Venter, the scientists and businessman who became a household name (at least around geneticists' dinner tables) by competing with Francis Collin's federally funded team to complete the Human Genome Project.

Venter's company Synthetic Genomics created a sensation in May when they announced the creation of the first synthetic organism. I covered the finding for BioTechniques: Venter Creates First Synthetic Life. Recently Venter has focused on his efforts to use algae as a biofuel. Despite receiving funding from companies like Exxon Mobil and BP, Venter's algae efforts have generated far less of a media frenzy.

The article takes a look at why Venter's more industrial aims haven't generated the kind of success that his research and science based work has. It also gives some interesting insight into Venter himself.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Romanian Velociraptor Fossil

Researchers have uncovered a fossil in Romania of a relative of the velociraptor that is distinctive due to the two claws on its foot. Velociraptors are typically characterized by a single-clawed foot that helped to make it such a well known predator. According to researchers, the dinosaur would have lived in the late cretaceous period. The species has been named Balaur bondoc, meaning "stocky dragon."

I know I've said it before but I love it when the Earth gives up its secrets and new discoveries are made. Fossils are particularly interesting because they help researchers piece together the past and understand how we got where we are today, to help tell where we'll go in the future.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Because the Gulf Hasn't Had Enough Already...

More problems in the gulf of mexico as another oil platform caught fire. The platform (Vermilion Oil Rig 380) belongs to Mariner Energy. The company released a statement saying that all 13 of the people that were forced overboard due to the fire have been rescued, and that the fire was not started by an explosion. The exact cause is still under investigation, but it did start at one of the platform's active wells.

The Mariner Energy rig is located in the gulf of mexico about 100 miles off the coast of Louisiana. If you've been watching the news at all in the past few months, then you know that Louisiana and the whole gulf region have been dealing with the explosion and oil spill that occurred from the Deepwater Horizon, which exploded April 20th and was finally stopped on July 15th. Owned by BP, the Deepwater Horizon spill is the largest ever recorded in the petroleum industry, spilling an estimated 4.9 million barrels of crude oil into the gulf. According to Mariner Energy, no oil is leaking from their well that started the fire on the Vermilion Oil Rig 380.

My 19th First Day of School

Counting Preschool, Kindergarten, Elementary School, Middle School, High School, Undergrad, and now Grad School, today marked my 19th first day of school. I always love the first day of school, I find it exciting and for the most part teachers and professors are in a pretty good mood because they haven't yet had to deal with students or grade papers.

I had two of my four classes today. The first, literary aspects of journalism - taught by Deborah Blum (a working journalist and science writer whose latest book is The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Science in Jazz Age New York). The course is going to explore journalism as an art form, with an emphasis on story telling. I'm really excited about it, because while I'm pretty confident in my ability to write short news, I'd really like to develop my skill at writing feature stories.

We're going to be reading a lot in Blum's class but two books that I'm particularly excited to read are Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (I've fallen asleep during the movie starring Johnny Depp at least four times, but I am hopeful that the book will do far more for me), and Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. UW-Madison's Go Big Read initiative is featuring Skloot's book so she's going to be coming to campus this semester to give a large lecture at the Kohl Center, and a smaller lecture at the Journalism School. I'm excited about this book because my last article for BioTechniques before ending my internship was on cell line contamination, and was picked up by Skloot on her Twitter page. It was thrilling, so I am really looking forward to hearing another science writer, especially one so successful, speak.

The other class I had today was International Communication with Jo Ellen Fair. The class is focused on "Celebrity Culture, the Media, and International Humanitarian Interventions." I think focusing on the role celebrities play in generating interest about humanitarian issue will be a really interesting way to look at international reporting.

So far it looks like this is going to be a great semester, I really liked being back in class and I felt comfortable being back in the college atmosphere. I have one class tomorrow that is just a lecture with no work attached to it and then the three day weekend before seriously starting course work next week, I'm pretty excited about it.

Discovery Channel Hostage Situation

Yesterday a man armed with guns and bombs held people captive at the Discovery Channel's offices in Maryland, before he was shot by police. He was shot and killed after a three hour standoff, when according to police, it seemed like he was going to harm the three men he was holding hostage.

The Washington Post's article on the shooting:

Among the shooters demands was for the Discovery Channel to alter their programming to do more to improve global warming. Now, I believe in global warming and society's negative impact on our natural environments, but blaming the Discovery Channel for not doing enough? Really? What about government and industry? If the hostage-taker had lived, I'd be interested to see if he mounted a mental defense because its basically madness.

The Discovery Channel isn't a news source, they feature science-related programming (some of which is about global warming) but their purpose is to entertain while educating on a variety of topics. The company is a part of the entertainment business. Its like getting mad at Nickelodeon for not going enough to stop domestic violence just because their programs cater to children and families.

Even if the Discovery Channel wanted to do a plethora of news-based programs on global warming, who is to say that anyone would watch them? Part of what I do as a science writer is try to make science appealing to the public, and trust me its not easy to compete with celebrity gossip and the latest sports scores. Global warming is particularly difficult to report on, because the very nature of science and the evidence for a warming trend is open to change. Try to convince the masses that you are absolutely sure that something is happening, when new findings constantly emerge, and well-credentialed "experts" openly disagree on the topic. I think the challenge that has been presented to reporters is to make global warming stories pressing and moving, so the public wants to hear about it.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Australia Gets To Have All the Fun

Researchers have discovered a 9,000 year old coral reef off the coast of Australia near Lord Howe Island that they believe will provide clues into how other (younger) coral reefs will react to rising ocean temperatures.  I really need to get to Australia to see a coral reef for myself, before they all blanche.

The BBC article (my news source of choice) was concise while addressing the parts of the story that made it newsworthy, namely that it was a new discovery, and that it can be tied to global warming. I like the fact that researchers had no idea that this reef was there, somehow with all the discoveries that have been made the Earth still has its secrets just waiting to be found. Stories like this call to the adventurer in me, but I've always known that I'm far more suited for communicating discoveries than making them myself.

The Latest in Protein Folding: Video Games?

I wanted to highlight this BioTechniques article (yes, finally showing off something from BTN that I didn't write lol) by Ariel Elghanayan about an new online video game for protein folding.

The online video game is called Foldit, and was developed by a group from the University of Washington. Recently debuted in a paper in Nature, the game challenges players to compete to manipulate the structure of proteins to create the most stable model. I thought it was an interesting way to make science more fun and approachable, but also to help people understand how proteins fold and re-fold, which is a topic that can be difficult to explain to someone who doesn't have a science background.