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!