Monday, December 17, 2012

Crowdfunding A Library

Before you read this you should know that for this post I interviewed a personal friend, Cassi Elton, whom I have known since the sixth grade (we've come a long way since 1999.) I’ve supported her project financially, so obviously I’m not an impartial voice. However, the purpose of this post isn’t to raise funds for the Antelope Lending Library – it is to take a closer look at the structure of the project. With grants harder and harder to obtain, harnessing the power of the Internet as a community is playing a larger role in taking a project from enthusiasm to reality. Crowdfunding is something that is already being done to support science research, education, and other community projects so I asked my friend to share her experience.

First things first, who is Cassi Elton and what is the Antelope Lending Library? I’ll allow her to explain using their fundraising video:

Elton is a graduate student in the School of Library and Information Sciences at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa. She saw a need in her community for a library on the southeast side of Iowa City – located closer to several schools so that students can go there regularly rather than needing parents to take them downtown to participate in events at the main library. As you can see from the video, the people involved in this project are certainly not short on ideas and excitement – or on books. They already have stacks of donated books. What they need is a physical space. So where does the money for that come from?

While there are grants and funding opportunities for educational, community based projects, according to Elton they usually support programming. So, it is a lot easier to find a grant that would support classes for STEM education, than it is to pay for a building to hold them in. This is something that I’ve heard echoed by scientists and researchers as well – not that they need a building, but that getting started is becoming harder and harder because to get a grant for research you need to have already done research. A lot of work goes into getting to the point where a project could compete for a grant. It reminds me of the employment dilemma so many of us are facing today:  to get experience you need to already have experience. To get financial support, you need to have proof that your research or project is worth funding.

So if a grant isn’t an option to fund the physical space needed for the Antelope Lending Library, what else is there? Private philanthropy is a possibility, but the Antelope Lending Library is a small endeavor. These are graduate students trying to do something to make an impact in their local community. Finding a philanthropist willing to give the library $20,000 as a lump sum is highly unlikely, I mean how many people do you know that would give that kind of cash to a library that doesn’t actually exist yet? What is far more probable is that if Elton, along with her fellow graduate students and members of the community start reaching out to their personal networks the sum needed for the library’s rent can be cobbled together from smaller gifts – everything from $10 to $1,000. That’s where the Internet comes in.

The Antelope Lending Library is hosting their fundraising on Indiegogo – which some people who read this blog may already be familiar with, since it is the website used by Matthew Inman of the Oatmeal to raise over $1 million for a museum dedicated to Nikola Tesla. But Indiegogo is just one platform for launching a project like this. Kickstarter is another popular crowdfunding website. For scientists there is also PetriDish, and RocketHub which hosted evolutionary pharmacologist Ethan Perlstein’s successful campaign to crowdfund a methlab (for science, of course.) One of the things Elton says she likes about Indiegogo is the fact that through flexible funding the Antelope Lending Library will still get whatever funds are raised even if they don’t hit their $20,000 goal. Although, with more than $6,000 raised to date the question of what to do in that situation is a complicated one, “It is stressful because if we don’t reach our goal then what are we going to do with the money we get?” said Elton, “Push forward or try to come up with a different project? We’re responsible for these donations and we take that seriously.”

When I asked what the experience of trying to raise rent money through crowdfunding was like, Elton has positive and negative feedback. On the positive side, putting the project on the Internet took the community from individuals in Iowa City, to individuals across the country. “Something really great about the Internet is that the community can extend beyond your physical location,” said Elton, “A lot of the donations are people from all over the country who value books and libraries so it’s great to get their support for a project that isn’t in their town – but that they still value.”

Although, Elton was quick to point out that calling on existing relationships was the first thing they did to start getting the word out about their campaign, “We have gotten donations from strangers – at least they are strangers to me, but the majority of the donations so far have come from people that I or my family contacted,” said Elton.

Another positive (or negative, depending on how you look at it) aspect of crowdfunding the library on the Internet was the ability to make in impression using multimedia. If you watched the video above, you’ll see that Elton shot it herself at home – but even this homemade endeavor is more appealing than a simple block of text. “The multimedia aspect is really great, but it was really intimidating to make a movie,” said Elton. “To make a movie is easy – to make a GOOD movie, that is harder.” Elton says it took roughly two months to get the movie together in part because volunteers balancing timing with other commitments presents a challenge, but also because a video itself is a project and trying to be ambitious and do a great job with it can consume a lot of time.

“The video isn’t the only way you are letting people know about the project, so it’s not the end all be all you are also letting people know what other sites to go to, and the written summary is also important,” says Elton. “Let people know through your own social media, the video is a part of it, but it’s not all of it.”

While incorporating multimedia was its own rewarding challenge, Elton says there are some downsides to fundraising on the Internet. According to Indiegogo it can take seven interactions with a cause before an individual will consider donating. So, the Antelope Lending Library has to get their campaign in front of people over and over to be effective – but they also have to balance getting out there with being overwhelming or annoying. “It’s hard to ask people for money,” says Elton. “With this you have to ask them for it several times that can be a lot.” Elton also says that with a campaign that spans 60 days, building up momentum and continuing to be excited, getting the word out, and keeping those who have already given up to date on the campaign’s progress is a big time commitment.

Another tip Elton has for anyone interested in crowdfunding their own project, is to make sure that when people ask you, “Why are you doing this?” (Which they inevitably will) you have a solid answer ready. It is also important to have an open conversation with other similar organizations in the area. The public library in Iowa City is aware of the Antelope Lending Library and has no opposition to a library opening on the southeast side of town – especially since the public library doesn’t have the resources for a location in that area. “Keep conversations going and stay open to collaborations,” says Elton. It makes it easier for the community to support a project that they know other organizations in their community also support.

Elton also highlighted social media – their website is hosted on Tumblr, they also have Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter pages – for getting the word out about the project. “Ultimately, I think that person to person outreach is the most effective,” says Elton. “As you get people on board, they talk to people so it’s still a one on one interaction but it expands.”

With grants more competitive than ever, I think we’ll see more and more projects like this turning to the public for help. The Antelope Lending Library project is just one example of how crowdfunding can work – if you’ve been involved in a project that used the Internet to raise funds, I’d love to hear about your experience.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Media Consumption 12/2/12-12/8/12

I've chosen a few things that I read or watched this week to share. I hope you'll check them out, and if you feel so inclined, share with me something that you came across this week that you enjoyed!

Cancer Pick
The Real Housewives of Chemotherapy – Suleika Jaouad in The New York Times

Jaouad writes a column for the Times called Life, Interrupted about her own experience as a young person with cancer. It is a great column, and it is really wonderful to get a patient’s voice and perspective on things. She has a great post about “battle language” Fighting Cancer and Myself that I also recommend, but I chose this video post that she did along with her friend Kristen Howard because I think it fits really well with my cancer pick from a few weeks ago about finding humor in cancer. It’s also a great Real Housewives spoof, and is really well done so what’s not to like there.

Science Pick
I chose this first and foremost because I love the title. But, it is also a great little short post about how uncertain the future of physics research is because things are quite certain at the moment. Having found evidence of the Higgs Boson last summer, there isn’t a whole lot left to prove.

Writing Pick
Tips: Harnessing Social Networks For Information When You Write A Story – Khalil Cassimally onScientific American’s SA Incubator
The SA Incubator is Scientific American’s blog dedicated to new and young science writers (I’ve made a few appearances there myself) but it has a lot of information that I think is applicable to people who are in different stages of their career as well. This "tips" post has a lot of great information about how journalists can use social media sites that I think is a useful read for anyone.

Bonus Pick
Again, chosen mostly for the title. At work this week, my colleagues and I were discussing issues related to uncertainty/risk communication and how to cover scientific “failures.” The issue of paper retractions came up, and this is just one of many stunning examples that can be found on Retraction Watch – it’s a great site, and really useful for journalists trying to keep track of a story and what happens after a paper is published.

Monday, December 3, 2012

SFSYO: Scientist of the Month Anne-Marike Schiffer

Science For Six-Year-Olds (SFSYO for this school year) is a recurring segment on Science Decoded for Mrs. Podolak's first grade class at Lincoln-Hubbard elementary school. This year the posts are inspired by #iamscience (also a Tumblr) and #realwomenofscience two hashtags on twitter that drove home for me the importance of teaching people who scientists are and what they really do.

Hello first graders! I'm so excited to introduce you to our December scientist of the month. Remember our November scientist, Philipp? Well he enjoyed telling you about what he does so much, that his sister Anne-Marike decided to join us this month to tell you all about being a neuroscientist. Like I did with Penny and Philipp I asked Anne-Marike some questions to find out more about what she does. I hope you will enjoy learning more about her. Below you can read our interview, and if you'd like to ask her any questions, be sure to leave them in the comments!

Courtesy of Anne-Marike Schiffer.
Erin: What type of scientist are you?

Ann-Marike: I'm a neuroscientist. This means I look at how our brains work. I'm interested in how the things we see and hear make the brain learn to expect what to see and hear. For example, when you listen to a song you know, you will know what sounds and words come next. I study what the brain does if we see something that surprises us: when does the brain change it's expectations? For example, if your friend always sings a wrong line in a song, does your brain expect his errors?

Erin: What did you study in school, and where did you attend?

Anne-Marike: I studied Psychology in Bochum in Germany and Neuropsychology in Masstricht in the Netherlands. I also did some work in a lab in Dunedin in New Zealand. After that I did my PhD in Neuroscience in Cologne in Germany. 

Erin: Where do you work and what does a typical day at work entail?

Anne-Marike: I work in the Psychology department at Oxford University in England. I spend most of my time either at my desk or in a laboratory running experiments with my students. The experiments I do to study how the brain learns are very much like computer games. So when I'm at my desk I write these computer games or read about what other scientists who study similar things have done. Sometimes, I spend my time in a center where they have a scanner that I can use to see what the brain does during these computer games. 

Erin: Why did you decide to become a scientist?

Anne-Marike: I think I loved biology at school and then decided to become a scientist early on, in my first year in college. Some of my friends think it's the thing I'm cut out for and predicted that I would become a scientist when we were at school. They say I wouldn't be as good at anything else, maybe they are right. 

Erin: What is you favorite thing about your job?

Anne-Marike: I very much enjoy coming up with new theories that I can put to the test. I love deciding on questions and on how the questions could be answered. I find it very exciting to look at the results of my experiments, like the images of brain activity. 

Erin: What is something about your job that might surprise us?

Anne-Marike: When you find something interesting and can try it out, then thinking about it is actually a lot of fun. I thought even writing my PhD thesis was a really cool thing to do. 

Erin: What are some of your favorite things to do for fun?

Anne-Marike: I go horse-riding and sometimes play touch rugby. I try to spend a lot of time with my family and I meet my friends as often as I can. We often get into great discussions, that I enjoy. When I was still living in Cologne, I'd also spend a lot of time at the zoo.
***What do you think about Anne-Marike's work as a neuroscientist? What do you think about the fact that she studies how the brain works using tests that are like computer games? I think she has a pretty great job, and has a good time being a scientist too! If there is anything you'd like to ask her about being a neuroscientist be sure to leave your questions in the comments!

For any of my adult readers, if you enjoy these posts and would like to be the scientist of the month yourself, send me an email or DM me on Twitter, I'd love another volunteer!

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Media Consumption 11/26/12-12/1/12

Curating links again this week for interesting things I recently read. But, be sure to check out Bora's picks and Ed's missing links too!

Cancer Pick
Can a Jellyfish Unlock the Secret of Immortality? – Nathaniel Rich for The New York Times and First we get proof of heaven; now the secret of immortality by Paul Raeburn for the Knight Science Journalism Tracker
Might seem like an odd choice for cancer story of the week, but I chose the jellyfish and Raeburn's great takedown because I think the ways that the Times article fails readers are important to take a look at. In my opinion Raeburn lays it out it perfectly when he says, "It's conceivable that hundreds or thousands of Times readers will get in touch with Kubota, desperately trying to save a dying parent, or a spouse, or themselves. They will come away empty-handed." Rich draws a parallel between cancer cells and jellyfish "immortality" and it's a dangerous one, creating false hope is a serious disservice to readers.

Science Pick
Yasser Arafat and the Mysteries of Polonium 210 – Deborah Blum for Elemental at Wired
I’m admittedly biased since Deborah was my advisor for my graduate program at UW-Madison, but I was really enthralled by her blog post about the issues surrounding the recent exhumation of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the claims that he was assassinated by Polonium 210. She just does a fantastic job putting things into context.

Writing Pick
Generalists and Specialists Can Coexist – Kathleen Raven on Science Tomorrow
Kathleen is one of the journalists that I’m working with on a panel discussion for the World Conference of Science Journalists in Helsinki in June 2013. Our panel, the Killer Science Journalists of the Future, tackles a lot of different issues being faced by new and young science writers. The issue of how journalists should be trained, and if or when to specialize is important and definitely something that could be debated. She even frames the issue around Nate Silver of election prediction fame.

Bonus Pick
Bigfoot DNA, because this is happening. Insert face palm here. And just one of many valiant debunking efforts, this one by Eric Berger for the Houston Chronicle

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Question of Code Revisited: I Think I Can, So Can't I?

“All of the true things I’m about to tell you are shameless lies.” Is it ever acceptable to walk into an interview with a mentality straight out of the Books of Bokonon from Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle? In addition to being what is possibly my favorite literary quote ever, I think the idea of telling true lies really epitomizes an issue that so many science writers trying to break into the business are facing: when asked what our skills are, is what we feel comfortable knowing, all that we really know? 

I’ve been turning this over in my brain for a couple of months now. In September I wrote a blog post about whether or not learning to code should be required for journalists. Since I admittedly can’t code, I took the position that it doesn’t need to be required. I also said that in interviews it is totally unacceptable to claim that you can code when you can’t. I didn’t expect that statement to be a part of the post that would get any discussion going, but as it turned out it became for me the most interesting part. When the #sci4hels got talking about it, what seemed like a black and white issue (of course you shouldn’t stretch the truth in an interview!) became a lot less clear and a lot more complicated.

Degrees of truth
A lie is a lie, right? As journalists don’t we value the implicit requirement of honestly above nearly all else? Doesn’t this extend from what we say in a piece to the way we conduct ourselves professionally? So then, can you sit in an interview and when asked if you can code, edit video, make a podcast, etc. say that you can when you’ve never done it before? Is the skill that you have the ability to code or is the skill that you have the ability to learn to code? Learn quickly. In a way so that your potential employer never finds out that the moment you told them you could code you actually couldn’t. Is stretching the truth about your abilities lying? Even if it is lying, is it wrong or is it just a smart business move?

For me, the idea of claiming to know code when I don’t is absurd. Mostly because I don’t stand a chance of learning code in the time between getting hired and needing to use it on a professional level. I know, I know code isn’t THAT hard. I’ve heard that argument, the “you can do if you try” talk. I’m not scared to try, I just know myself enough to know that I’m not going to learn to code in a day. It took several weeks of my seventh grade school year for the Pythagorean theorem to make sense, and that's not exactly hard. I try, but I’m not always a quick study. Maybe as far as being a millennial goes this puts me in the minority, but I know that if I sat in an interview and promised to code at a professional level in a days time I’d be telling a Vonnegut style shameless lie.

Why was this the bane of my middle school existence?
Via Wikimedia Commons
But, I’m not everybody. If the light bulb in your brain turned on a little bit faster when you were twelve and learning that a² + b² = c² then maybe you can learn to code in a day. Maybe code is the most logical thing you’ve ever seen and you will be its master by dinnertime. If you tell a potential employer that you can code, and you are completely sure of your ability to be able to deliver when called upon to use those skills, are you telling a lie? Is knowing what you need to know in order to know how to code the same as just knowing how to code?

I said before that I wasn’t afraid of code, but by sitting in an interview and swearing to the things I can’t do, am I selling myself short? Some of us might just be hiding behind a list of things we can’t do or won’t do and simultaneously shrinking our career prospects. Self sabotage, as it were. Is it principled, or pathetic? Being honest might be a one way ticket straight to the rejection pile. If I communicate the fact that I’d like to learn to code, and would gladly rise to that challenge enough to make someone want to hire me?

I have no faith in common sense
How do you know whether what you know is enough to claim that you know it? As #sci4hels were discussing this issue, what came up over and over was that you have to use common sense. You have to walk a thin line between what you know, what you know you can learn and how you present yourself and your abilities to your employers. If you claim to know something, and you fall flat on your face and don’t deliver the goods, you could do some real damage to your career. Not just because you’ll make your boss angry, not just because you might lose your job, not just because it might be embarrassing; but also because when you fail to deliver what started as a stretched bit of truth unraveled into a shameless lie. Getting caught in a lie in this business is a nail in your career’s coffin.

Sure, telling a lie about your ability isn’t the same as telling a lie in a story. I’m not saying that getting caught lying to an employer about what you can do is going to send your career to Lehrer type depths, but it isn’t going to help you get hired anywhere else. You run the risk of ending up labeled as someone who can’t deliver. Getting paid jobs as a science writer is hard enough, getting them once a pissed off editor tells all their connections not to hire you because you aren’t going to produce the work you say you will is going to be impossible.

This is a business about connections, if you start burning bridges so early in your career, you can really back yourself into a corner. It also speaks to character, doesn’t it? If you’ll lie about your abilities, what else will you lie about? How is anyone supposed to know where your professional ethics fall when you establish yourself as someone for whom a lie isn’t a lie it’s really more of a gray area.

So should we be telling young journalists that it’s okay to claim to be a master of science communication so long as you don’t fall flat on your face? It’s okay to lie, as long as you don’t fail and get caught. Is that really the lesson here? I have zero faith in advising journalism students to use common sense. Zero. If common sense were a clear boundary we wouldn’t still be spending entire class periods discussing what is Facebook appropriate (yes, even that cute picture of you playing beer pong with your Grandma probably doesn’t convey that you are serious about your career) and I’ve sat through those classes so I know very well what kind of questions students are asking. Use common sense doesn’t satisfy.

It's raining code, and apparently we're in the Matrix.
Via Shutterstock
So then what are you supposed to do? The only answer that doesn’t present an ethical dilemma is to just learn code and then you’ll know you know it and you won’t be in a position where stretching the truth even comes up. Even someone with my stance has to agree that code is a nice skill to be packing in your arsenal. But this goes further than code. It could apply to any kind of program or web application; you can’t be an expert in everything. There are definitely going to be jobs that you might want where you don’t know the technology that is being used. It comes down to a personal risk vs. benefits assessment.

There is a lot to lose if you get caught claiming you can do things and not rising to the challenge – your reputation and your future prospects to name a few. There is also a lot to gain by forcing yourself to rise to the challenge to learn new things, get the job and stay competitive in this field. Maybe what new and young science journalists need is the kick in the rear that promising to deliver upon a skill brings. Maybe if I put myself in that situation I’d find that code isn’t nearly as bad as the Pythagorean theorem, and a lot of doors for future job prospects would get opened. Maybe I would torch my promising young career in a blaze of gray area glory.

Common sense is itself a gray area. If we are going to advise journalism students of anything, I’d say informed decision making is probably the way to go. You should be aware of the risks you take when you climb out on a limb with no safety net, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still climb. It has to be a personal case by case call, which really doesn’t help much. Hopefully though, if you think through the risks and the benefits of how you can present your skills, you’ll come to a decision that is the right one for you and your career. So proceed with caution. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

Media Consumption 11/12/12-11/18/12

Curating links from last week. But before you do any reading, watch this PSA on train safety, because it completely cracked me up. Perhaps a little morbid, but a really interesting example of how to get someone's attention. This song has been stuck in my head all day.

Cancer Pick
Move Over Movember – problems with the global campaign Gary Schwitzer for
Since it is November aka moustache month, it’s a good time to think critically about what awareness campaigns (in this case for Men’s health and prostate cancer) really accomplish, and what role journalists play in supporting or participating in them. Personally I know several guys growing moustaches who aren’t doing anything for prostate cancer, some because they don’t know what to do and some because they just want an excuse to rock a moustache. This post also raises some good points about the necessity for informed screening, especially in prostate cancer where screening is often associated with unnecessary treatments.

Science Pick
Mummy Proteins Tell A Different Tale Andrew Wiecek for BioTechniques
Blatantly biased in this pick considering I used to write for BioTechniques, and this was written by my boss who IMHO is a wonderful editor and science writer.  I think for a story that is highly technical and uses multiple sources the structure is a huge issue. This piece flows really well, and makes sense (a little jargony but BTN’s audience is largely grad students and post docs, so understandable) plus it has to do with ancient proteomics, which is a pretty incredible topic.

Writing Pick
Trying to dispel myths and falsehoods is a huge issue in science communication. I liked this post because while it is essentially an article about a new plugin for Chrome that helps debunk ridiculous claims that get made in forwarded emails it also makes some good points about how to confront someone in denial about the truth, and what the facts show.

Bonus Pick
This week I decided to choose the recipients of the 2012 Kavli Science Journalism Awards, which were just announced. If I had to select a favorite from the bunch, I’d go with Michelle Nijhuis’ What is Killing the Bats for Smithsonian Magazine about white nose syndrome.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

On Admiring Moustaches and Hating Children

I don't actually hate children, there is a story attached to this title. Please don't send me angry emails. Also, since I'm about to rant about charitable giving for full disclosure you should know I work for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. There will also be sarcasm, so read accordingly.

A few weeks ago I was checking out at a national grocery store chain that shall remain nameless. I had stopped in after work and was rooting through my giant bag for my wallet when I got asked the standard "would you like to donated $1 to fill in the blank" in this case it was "healthy school lunches." My answer, as I was swiping my card, was "no thank you." Not because I don't think children should have access to healthy meals through their schools, but because I had no idea what this charity was. Sure, I could have peppered the woman at the check out with questions about which organization the money was going to benefit, what schools did it work in, what kind of food were we talking about, but if I demanded calorie counts would she have known? On top of that I, and I'm sure everyone behind me in line, had somewhere to be. I was in a rush. I donate to other things. If I gave my obligatory $1 every time I got asked, I'd be giving away money every day. I had reasons for saying no so I expected that to be the end of the exchange.

It was of course not the end of the exchange. As I was swiping my card, the woman at the register responded to my "no thank you" with "why, you hate kids?" Yes. Obviously. That's it. Little bastards needing all that nurturing and attention. It's not like they're the future of America or anything, they definitely don't deserve healthy lunches. Let's just give everyone the physical and emotional burdens of obesity! Nothing like a little diabetes to set the kids straight. Come, on! Just because I don't want to fork over my $1 for an unknown charity doesn't make me a child hating monster. I don't work with kids regularly, but I've made it my mission this year to write a blog post every month introducing first graders in my hometown to different scientists that I've met on Twitter. I care about education, and yes I care about issues like obesity and access to healthy food.

In retrospect, I should have done more than just fix the woman working the register with my best dirty look, but I didn't. Upon seeing my reaction she quickly covered with "just kidding" which for me just amounted to, "please don't ask to speak to my manager."As I said, I was in a rush so while still pretty ticked I just grabbed my bag and walked out of the store but this whole incident bugged me. I'm blogging about it weeks later, so clearly it has lingered.

It wasn't just that I thought the women was rude. Or the insinuation that because I won't give to that specific cause, I hate children.  It has much more to do with how we give to charities as a whole. The give $1 to support fill in the blank model works. It works very well. Just look at places like St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital who raise millions every year doing just that. But St. Jude's is recognizable, I'm more inclined to say yes to them because I at least have some idea that they are legitimate. But a completely unknown charity, no thank you. So why was the response to my "no" public shaming? When did we become a culture where taking the extra 30 seconds to think through the request to give was cause to embarrass me at the register?

via Wikipedia
Coming through the months of October and November, marked for breast cancer and prostate cancer awareness respectively, I think we can all identify with feeling a little bombarded by pleas to donate. But donate to what exactly? Buy a cookie, buy a bracelet, buy a pair of windshield wipers. Particularly with breast cancer awareness month, everything turns pink, and we are supposed to believe that our consumption of these products is helping cancer patients. But is it? I saw many examples of the ways that all of this product consumption doesn't help the people you intend it to chronicled on twitter - especially with the hashtag #pinknausea started by Xeni Jardin of Boing Boing. Why aren't we more careful with our money when it comes to supporting causes? There are any number of cancer charities or research organizations you could donate to when October or November roll around. But we keep buying the cookies and the bracelets, despite warnings to "Think Before You Pink."

Is the worst that we are doing just spreading apathy toward doing our duty to ensure that our money goes to a responsible place where it will have an impact? Is "slacktivism" relatively harmless? I'll answer my own question here with no, it's not. When you support an awareness campaign, don't you wonder what their action is going to be? What is the increased awareness actually going to do?

This brings me to the moustaches. You may have spotted many of your male friends or relatives sporting a little excess facial hair this month, I certainly have. It is November, also known at Movember a month dedicated to moustaches...and prostate cancer. Although what moustaches and prostates have to do with one another I'm not sure exactly, I suppose it is the association with manliness. Regardless, the Movember campaign encourages men to grow a moustache for a month to help raise awareness, and funds, for prostate cancer. Now I admire moustaches as much as the next gal, although sometimes things just go too far (oh, the things that can't be unseen!) but really are the men out there growing and grooming their facial hair doing anything for prostate cancer?

via Wikipedia
I've known that my friends grew moustaches in November for at least two years. I've known that this had something to do with prostate cancer for about three weeks. Shame on me I guess, but clearly this is a problem for an awareness campaign, and it isn't the only one. While some people are out there growing moustaches just for the awesomeness, for people who do take Movember seriously when we say we want to raise awareness of prostate cancer, what are we advocating for? More screening? Prostate cancer screening, like most screening, is a giant kettle of worms.

The issues associated with Movember and prostate cancer screening are summarized really well in this post by Gary Schwitzer on (and reading it is what really motivated me to write this!) Essentially, when it comes to prostate cancer sometimes routine screening can lead to unnecessary treatments and procedures that can do some harm. There are also benefits to screening. In general when it comes to screening the answer is to talk it through with your doctor and figure out what is right for you. Still, these are not clear cut issues and even doctors have different opinions. The New England Journal of Medicine featured prostate cancer screening in their Clinical Decisions column which pits opposing medical views against each other and asked readers to vote on them (see here and here, though I'm not sure about your access situation.) The results came back in favor of screening with the prostate cancer specific antigen (PSA) test. But, it wasn't a landslide.

So does that mean we shouldn't give to Movember when our moustached brethren ask us? No, if you want to support the Prostate Cancer Foundation or LiveStrong, then you should. But you should at least know that those are the organizations that Movember supports. We need to think more critically about these awareness campaigns, and what we are doing when we agree to give $1 to any charity that asks. All of this - my grocery store I don't hate children episode, the pinking of America, and all the moustache growing - all come together with one main point. It isn't enough to just participate or toss in your $1. You need to know and understand what you are giving to and why. Supporting cancer research is so important, especially in these days when funding from the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute is so hard to come by. All the more reason why if you are going to give, you should give intelligently. Make sure it matters.

I said at the beginning of this post that I work for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. This little fact makes me undoubtedly biased when it comes to charitable giving, so I'm not going to give you any recommendations about where to give. Your money is yours, and you should make those decisions yourself. That's what I do. But, since I've spent this whole post ranting about giving smarter I am going to recommend that should you find yourself interested in giving to cancer research or healthy lunches or veterans or anything else you check out where your money is going. Charity Navigator is one tool that I really like to help sort through which organizations handle their money well and might help you figure out where you can do some real good.

In the meantime I'll just be over here ranting, admiring moustaches, and hating children.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Media Consumption: 11/4/12-11/10/12

In case you missed the memo, I'm providing a weekly round up of things I've read recently for my colleagues at work and I'm cross posting them here on the blog. So, there's that.

Cancer Pick
Cancer’s Funny? – Nara Schoenberg for The Chicago Tribune
When choosing a cancer story from the past week’s media coverage there seem to be two ways to go. Either choose the glaring example of that weeks “x reduces cancer risk” and how it was written about, or you can choose the human interest stories. This week I went with a really nice (I think) story about how as cancer becomes more ingrained into our lives and culture, it is becoming more acceptable to find humor in the disease.

Science Pick
Smilodon the Vampire – Brian Switek for his Wired Blog Laelaps
The idea of bloodsucking saber cats is really something that needed to be debunked. Really. Also the title, I don’t know how you could see that and not click on it. Some background on the LaBrea Tar Pits might be helpful if you aren’t familiar. (Also of note, this post appeared on Bram Stoker's birthday - thanks for that bit of information Google Doodle.)

Writing Pick
In Praise of the Big Old Mess – Carl Zimmer for his Discover Blog The Loom
This was a re-read for me, but it was something I was thinking about this week. When Carl Zimmer rants about science writing, I listen. I picked this piece for two reasons, one I closely followed the Jonah Lehrer debacle (Perhaps the greatest case of a young journalist torching their career since Jayson Blair, for background see this Slate Article the other reason I chose Zimmer’s blog post is because the issue of how we cover the messy business that is scientific research is something that is always up for debate.

Bonus Pick
Triumph of the Nerds: Nate Silver Wins in 50 States – Chris Taylor for Mashable
Perhaps I just follow the nerdiest people on twitter (okay, I do follow the nerdiest people on twitter, and I love and appreciate you all so very much) but in terms of election coverage, the story of Nate Silver blogger/analyst for The New York Times at FiveThirtyEight was a huge topic this week. Cheers for math!

Monday, November 5, 2012

SFSYO Scientist of the Month: Philipp Schiffer

Science For Six-Year-Olds (SFSYO for this school year) is a recurring segment on Science Decoded for Mrs. Podolak's first grade class at Lincoln-Hubbard elementary school. This year the posts are inspired by #iamscience (also a Tumblr) and #realwomenofscience two hashtags on twitter that drove home for me the importance of teaching people who scientists are and what they really do.

Hello first graders! I hope you are all okay and back at school after hurricane Sandy. Now that it is November we have a new scientist of the month. I am so excited to introduce you to Philipp Schiffer who is finishing up his PhD at school in Cologne, Germany. Like I did with Dr. Penny, I asked Philipp a bunch of questions to find out more about what he does. I hope you will enjoy learning more about him. Below you can read my interview with Philipp, and if you'd like to ask him any questions, be sure to leave them in the comments!
At work in the lab. Courtesy of Philipp Schiffer.
Erin: What type of scientist are you?

Philipp: I'm an evolutionary biologist [this means he studies genetics, DNA, and how different living things came to be,] currently I've morphed into a computer geek but I'm hoping to move away from the computer screen a bit more in the future. 

Erin: What did you study in school, and where did you go?

Philipp: I studied Biology, majoring in Zoology with minors in Genetics and Palaeontology. I did most of my studies at the University of Cologne, Germany with some time in Australia studying and catching wombats.  I'm currently finishing my PhD thesis in Cologne, but I've also studied at the University of California Riverside where I was learning about nematodes. I also got to spend some time in Edinburgh in Scotland. 

Erin: Where do you work and what does a typical day at work entail?

Philipp: It's called the Cologne Biocenter, in the middle of K├Âln am Rhein. At the moment I am spending most of my working hours in front of my computer, doing science in-silico, which means I am analyzing data from the genome sequencing assays I conduct. In between I hop over to the lab to study the nematodes, look at their DNA or run some other experiments. 

Erin: Why did you decided to become a scientist?

Philipp: I have always liked to think about things. I guess when I was in the 9th or 10th grade I wanted to tackle the big problems/questions like finding a cure for diseases. Now of course, I do something totally different, which I actually like better!

Out of the lab! Courtesy of Philipp Schiffer.
Erin: What is your favorite thing about your job?

Philipp: There is a new and intriguing question to answer every day, more than one on most days. That is the main thing, I am really interested in answering questions about life - why it is the way it is and how did it become like that? Why are species different and how does it happen. There is a woo hoo! moment when things finally click into place and make sense, which is really cool. It is also really nice to work with people around the world - I like the exchange of thoughts and ideas in different cultures. I enjoy talking to colleagues very much, and working with students. It is also fun to be able to listen to music when working, and so much more. 

Erin: What is something about your job that might surprise us?

Philipp: There is no magic in science, actually most ideas or experiments don't work the way you think they will, and once something really works the main thing is to wonder why did it work this time? So there is a lot of frustration in being a scientist, but then there is also a lot of fun. Still, the first thing is the most important, science is hard work. 

Erin: What are your favorite things to do for fun?

Philipp: Science IS fun. I also like wind surfing and sailing, I like rugby too and wish I had more time to do that. I also read about history, politics, and the world in general as much as I can. I very much enjoy chatting with friends over coffee.

What do you think first graders? I think Philipp has a pretty cool job, and he's gotten to go to school in so many different places, can you find them all on a map? If there is anything you'd like to know about his research, make sure to ask him questions in the comments. 

For any of my regular (adult) followers you can catch Philipp on Twitter @evolgenomology. If you'd like to be featured as a scientist of the month send me an email or DM me on twitter, I'd love more volunteers and thank you Philipp for lending us your time to share what you do!

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Media Consumption: Round One

I've started curating some of my favorite cancer/science/communication articles and posts from the internet as a weekly project for my colleagues at work. Since everyone loves a good cross-post, I've decided to also share them here. This is not exactly (or really, not at all) a comprehensive list, it caters to my work writing on a cancer beat and there is only one pick in each category. Ed Yong's I've Got Your Missing Links Right Here and Bora and Khalil's picks on the SA Incubator are examples of very thoughtful and comprehensive weekly roundups of the best science writing. I suggest you check them out (I always do!) 

They do such a great job, it would be silly for me to try to emulate, so I'm not. Still, I do think it never hurts to promote articles and posts that you enjoyed so I'm still going to share my weekly picks. For this first week I went a little far back in time (all the way to August, ages ago, I know) to include two articles that I really thought were great. Going forward I'll choose only stories published in the previous week. 

Cancer Coverage Pick
“Study: Multivitamins May Lower Cancer Risk in Men” – Kevin Lomangino and Kathleen Fairfield for
I think we all saw the plethora of media coverage of the multivitamin/cancer risk study that came out last week. This is a really helpful breakdown of why the AP’s coverage of the study was spot on.

Scientific Study Pick
“Mars and the Science of Skipping Stones” – John Grotzinger for The New York Times
Written by the chief scientist for NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover project this is just a nice piece that I think breathes some life into a story that has been a story for years – the issue of finding evidence of running water on Mars.

Writing/Communication Pick
Even though this was posted a few weeks ago, it is my first writing/communication pick because being able to make heads or tails of a scientific report in a journal is a critical component for being an effective science writer. This is a nice primer on how to approach a scientific paper and start discerning the value it has.

Bonus Pick
“Big Med” – Atul Gawande for The New Yorker
This is from a few months ago, but it actually came up in a discussion I recently had so it has been on my mind again. Gawande (a surgeon at Brigham and Women's Hospital) finds inspiration at the restaurant the Cheesecake Factory for how healthcare could be structured. The article is long, but worth reading.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

"Medical History is Biography"

The title of this post is a very elegant summation provided by Siddhartha Mukherjee of a talk that he gave at Harvard Medical School (HMS) last week. I was lucky enough to be at HMS (in the overflow room, sadly) to listen to Mukherjee's talk. You may remember that I recently read and reviewed his Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. I leapt at the chance to see him talk about his work because I loved the book so much, I gave it a full recommendation for everyone with no caveats, which doesn't happen often.

Mukherjee was the speaker for the 37th annual Joseph Garland lecture, honoring the former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine 1948-1968 and former president of the Boston Medical Library. Mukherjee is an Assistant Professor of Medicine at Columbia University, but he earned his MD from HMS and thus spent many hours in the Countway Library, which is the merged effort of HMS and the former Boston Medical Library. Mukherjee is every bit as eloquent when speaking as when writing, and I enjoyed hearing him articulate the thought process that went into his book.

The talk was called "Four Revolutions and a Funereal" and walked briefly through the history of cancer research (as much as one can in an hour) to arrive at present day. The four revolutions represented the greatest breakthroughs in the understanding of what cancer is: 1. Cancer is a disease of cells, 2. Cancer is a disease of genes, 3. Cancer is a disease of genomes, and 4. Cancer is an organismal disease. The fourth I found particularly interesting, and it is worth repeating Mukherjee's explanation of how he defines organismal, "of or pertaining to an organism as a whole including its physiology, environment and interactions." From everything I've learned in the last three months writing on a cancer biology beat, I feel like that statement certainly hits the nail on the head.

From the 1800's when cancer was thought to be a disease caused by black bile and an imbalance of cardinal fluids, which Mukherjee jokingly called the "hydrolic theory of pathology," our understanding of cancer has come a long way. But it seems like with every bit of progress made the field almost becomes murkier. The more we tease the problem apart, the more complicated we realize it is. From cell division, to genes that drive the process, to the proteins that control gene expression, it seems as though the smaller you go into the cell processes the more numerous the possibilities about what could go wrong get. Mukherjee closed his talk by saying that cancer is a disease of pathways, and that figuring out how to alter aberrant communication and information processing as it goes on within a cell is the future of cancer research.

Throughout the talk I was struck by the way Mukherjee managed to engage with a audience, perhaps a third of which was sitting with me in a room across the quad from where he was presenting. I was so captivated by his talk, which I thought was pretty impressive for watching a live stream. Just like in his book, he interspersed his talk with annecdotes that brought to life his personal quest for understanding which is what I think from listening to him really drove him to write the book in the first place.

An example of this is how he dedicated his book to Robert Sandler (1945-1948) a little boy who achieved a temporary remission from leukemia under Sidney Farber's care at Boston Children's Hospital. Though Sandler ultimately died of the disease his place in history was solidified by that landmark medical study. When Mukherjee was trying to track the identities of Farber's early patients all he could come up with were the initials R.S. He never was able to find the identity through available records in the United States. He discovered who R.S. was while visiting his parents in India, the information was in the hands of a neighbor of theirs who was a historian and had a roster of Farber's first chemotherapy patients. Mukherjee dedicated the book to the little boy, and after the book was published, he got a phone call from Robert Sandler's twin brother who had seen the book in a store, opened to the dedication page and noticed his brother's name.

This story hits at the heart of what Mukherjee meant when he said that "medical history is biography." This holds true for science history in general. Discoveries made, research conducted, experiments performed, trials carried out - the personal narrative underscores everything. We always say that being able to craft a compelling narrative is critical to effective science communication, and this is why. People want to hear stories about other people, and science including medicine is inherently a story about people. As a speaker Mukherjee was able to do exactly what I admired so much in his book; he explained the science and told us where it was going, but he did so in a way pulled at our emotions, perceptions, and our ability to relate to other people. He made it human, driving home the idea that good writing doesn't just serve to explain. Context is everything, and as writers our challenge is to make sense of science, to connect people with science through a context that they can understand.

If you haven't read Emperor of All Maladies yet, you might want to get on that...

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

SFSYO Scientist of the Month: Penny Higgins

Science For Six-Year-Olds (SFSYO for this school year) is a recurring segment on Science Decoded for Mrs. Podolak's first grade class at Lincoln-Hubbard elementary school. This year the posts are inspired by #iamscience (also a Tumblr) and#realwomenofscience two hashtags on twitter that drove home for me the importance of teaching people who scientists are and what they really do.

Penny in the Canadian High Arctic
Summer 2012. Courtesy of Penny Higgins.
Hello first graders! I am so excited to share with you our first scientist of the month, Penny Higgins, PhD. I asked Penny a bunch of questions to find out more about what she does. I hope you will enjoy learning more about her. Below you can read my interview with Penny, and if you'd like to ask her any questions, be sure to leave them in the comments! 
Erin: What type of scientist are you?

Penny: I am a vertebrate paleontologist, which means I study fossil animals that have bones (fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. Dinosaurs in are in this category too.) I am also a geochemist, which means I study the chemistry of geological things like rocks. These are related because bones and teeth are made of a mineral (called apatite). I study the chemistry of fossil teeth and bones to learn about what extinct animals ate and what the environment was like (how warm was it? how much did it rain?) when they were alive.

Erin: What did you study in school, and where did you go?

Penny: I studied both geology and biology in school, since fossils come out of rocks (geology) and represent animals that were once alive (biology). I also took a lot of chemistry classes. I ultimately got a PhD in Geology. I went to school in Colorado for five years, then went for another five years in Wyoming, where I got my PhD. Then I studied another four years after that in Florida. Now I live in Rochester, NY.

Erin: Where do you work?

Penny: I work at the University of Rochester, in Rochester, New York. My main job is to manage a laboratory where we measure the chemical properties of rocks and minerals. We also analyze things like hair, bugs, and flowers. I also teach beginning geology and a couple of paleontology classes. During the summer, I travel all over to collect fossils (and rocks) for my research.

Erin: What do you do on a typical day?

Penny: Most days during the school year, the first thing I do in the morning is start a set of analyses on our mass spectrometer. Then I go and teach classes, work with students on their research projects, and make sure that everyone is getting good data. When things are quiet I do my own research.

Erin: Why did you become a scientist?

Penny: I loved science from the moment I knew what it was. I was hooked by Carl Sagan’s Cosmos videos [Cosmos is an old TV series, you first graders wouldn't know it but maybe your parents will!] I also enjoyed drawing animals, especially horses, and started to study their anatomy and the shapes of their bones. Once I realized I liked bones, I wanted to draw dinosaurs and started to study them so I could draw better pictures. That’s why I became a paleontologist. What’s funny is that, now that I really am a paleontologist, I’ve never done anything with dinosaurs, but I have looked at fossil horses!

With a helicopter in the Canadian High Arctic, Summer 2012
Courtesy of Penny Higgins. 
Erin: What is your favorite thing about your job?

Penny: My favorite thing is the discovery. I learn things that no one else has ever known before. And I get to share what I learned with other people, so everyone can know more. I also get to go to some really neat places, like Bolivia, or the Arctic, where no-one else hardly ever goes!

Erin: What is something about your job that might surprise us?

Penny: I work in a laboratory, but it’s nothing like what you think. We only sometimes wear white coats. We listen to loud music. I’ve named all of the scientific instruments (Specky, the mass spectrometer; Norm, the water analyzer; Tina, the laminar flow hood). And there’s a talking chicken hanging in the lab.

Erin: What are some of the things that you like to do for fun?

Penny: Besides being a scientist, I have other hobbies. I am a writer, and I am about 600 pages into writing my first novel. It’s not about paleontology at all. It’s set in medieval Europe. I like to sew and make costumes, and then wear those costumes at Renaissance Festivals (where people dress up like it’s the time of knights and swords). I am really interested in medieval history.

What do you think first graders? It seems to me like Penny has a pretty cool job, and that she has a lot of fun too! Is there anything else you'd like to know about her work as a scientist? Be sure to leave her questions in the comments. 

For any of my regular readers, all kids at heart I know, you can also check out Penny on twitter @paleololigo. If you'd like to be featured as a scientist of the month, send me an email or DM me on twitter, I'd love more volunteers - but I'll beg if I have to!