Sunday, January 27, 2013

Jorge Cham: The Science Gap

I recently watched this TED talk given by Jorge Cham, the creator of PhD Comics (Piled Higher and Deeper) and I wanted to make sure I shared it here because he makes some great points about science communcation. I don't think anything he brings up would really come as a shock to someone who pays attention to science and the media, but I do think that his use of humor and cartoons is very effective.

The traditional way that scientists get their research in the form of an academically published article out to the public is "sub-optimal?" Not exactly a shocker, but an important point nonetheless. Sometimes I think we (and by that I mean me) have a tendency to get so wrapped up in the science communication world that you can almost forget that so many people are really far removed from the issues and research that we tackle on a daily basis. As a science writer it is my job to be a bridge between scientists and the public, so it is always a good reminder to think about the level of understanding and interest of your audience.

There are a lot more points to make about this one, but I'm short on time for blogging this week, so I'm just going to take my own advice from last week's post and not push myself to think things when my brain is tired. (Better to put my brain cells toward thinking about #scio13!) But, if you have thoughts, by all means I'd love to know what you think!

Before I just leave this here, Cham mentions the cartoon he made at the request of Daniel Whiteson to explain what the Higgs Boson is in the TED talk so I thought I would also post that for those who are interested. It really is a great explanation of the Higgs... something I know a lot of science writers including myself have struggled with!

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Media Consumption 1/13/13-1/20/13

Once again just sharing a few things that I read last week that stuck out to me... as always, let me know if you have a favorite story that you want to share!

Pick 1: Cancer/Medicine Coverage
Study Highlights the Risk of Handing Over Your Genome – Susan Young MIT’s Technology Review
With genome sequencing for biomedical research on my mind, I think this is a really interesting story for all of us to be paying some attention. A new study showed that researchers were able to deanonymize genomic data – essentially take genetic information that had been made anonymous and figure out whose data it was using information that was publicly available on the Internet. It raises a lot of questions about regulations, and questions of security for people who allow their genomes to be sequenced for research.

Pick 2: Scientific Study
Ebola virus: PLoS Pathogens
Thomas W. Geisbert, Boston University School of Medicine
Now Where Did I Put That Ebola? – Helen Shen for Nature
“In the first study of its kind, the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) unveiled statistics on problems related to the handling of hazardous biological agents, such as Ebola, SARS, and anthrax, at hundreds of academic and government research centers.” Forget Outbreak or Contagion, this one will make you want to break out the hazmat suit – unless of course the “inadvertent release” of pathogens isn’t as horrifying to you as it is to me.

Pick 3: Writing Pick
Should You Be a Writer or an Editor? Part One: The Writers and Part Two: The Editors – Christie Aschwanden for The Open Notebook
This was a really great two part article, which tackles an issue that I think all writers face at some point in their careers – is what you are best at and what you should be doing to write or is it to edit? The natural career progression goes from writer to editor, but if you just want to write or just want to edit? How do you tell what fits for you? Some great writers and editors weigh in with their experiences. Also, if you’ve never heard of The Open Notebook, take the time to explore the site a little. I can’t stress enough what a great resource for writers it is. 

Bonus Pick:
Sherlock Holmes and the Infamous Brain Attic – Maria Konnikova on BoingBoing
Partly chosen because I have a recent fascination with Sherlock Holmes, but also chosen because Konnikova is an awesome science/psychology writer (you can normally catch her over at Scientific American writing the Literally Psyched blog) and I’ve really been looking forward to her first book “Mastermind: How to think Like Sherlock Holmes” which is out this month.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Media Consumption: 1/6/13-1/12/13

A few choices from what I read last week - as always feel free to share with me some of the things you've been reading lately. 

I'm leading with the bonus pick this week, because I don't even do research (but I certainly read enough research papers) and I found the #overlyhonestmethods tweets hilarious. 

This week a hashtag on Twitter (which is used to join/catalog tweets) was circulating about overly honest methods in science research. Most of these were pretty funny, some were a little scary in terms of the things that really go on in the lab and why decisions are made to run an experiment a certain way. Pretty much scientists on twitter had a field day with this. What I’ve linked to is a storify of the tweets, if you’ve never seen storify you should check it out, it is a web platform that you can use to pull tweets on a specific topic together so that they read like a story.

Cancer/Medicine Pick:
Pap Test Could Help Find Cancers of the Uterus and Ovaries – Denise Grady, The New York Times
This week the cancer research story that made a big splash online was this research led by Dr. Luis Diaz out of Johns Hopkins University. The study provides evidence that pap tests which are done to detect cervical cancer could also be used to detect cancers of the uterus and ovaries – thus screening for three cancers with a single test that is already being done.

Science Pick:
The Million Dollar Dinosaur Scandal – Brian Switek, Slate
Switek is an awesome science writer/blogger (he writes Laelaps for the new National Geographic network Phenomena, and previously blogged at Wired) and is a go-to for context and debunking on dinosaur stories. This is a long read, but I thought the world of fossil smuggling was fascinating so that’s why this is my science pick of the week!

Writing Pick:
Great advice here from Deborah Blum, Jeanna Bryner, and Tom Breen on how they prepare before an interview with a scientist.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Filling the Empty Page: Reading To Write

You've started a blog. Congratulations. Now what?

Of the many things I learned while in Journalism school, perhaps the bit of advice that I echo the most is that if you want to write well, you must read good writing. I've found this to be particularly true when blogging. If you want to blog about a topic it is extemely adventageous for you to be aware of what others have already said on the subject. It doesn't do you or anyone else any good for you to produce content that is already out there (especially if your audience is smaller, and definitely if you don't cover the topic as well as your peers.)

It has been my experience as a science blogger for three years that what you write doesn't have to be the most timely, exciting thing on the Internet. Sure, those studies and stories that are making waves are great to write about, and when I blog about things like dinosaurs farting themselves to death I get a decent amount of traffic. But why would anyone care what I think of a study on dinosaurs when they could head over to Laelaps and read what Brian Switek has to say about it? Why would anyone care what I think about an infectous disease story when the world has Maryn McKenna's Superbug? Or any chemical story when Deborah Blum has that beat superbly locked down?

I don't think there is much value to writing about things that others have already covered, and covered well, unless there is some angle or something I feel like I can bring to the conversation. For the record, "I agree" doesn't add much to the conversation - unless a topic is controversial and someone is getting attacked by the trolls and you want to show solidarity. If I do have something to say, in most of those cases it would probably be more beneficial as a blogger (especially a new bloger) to add a comment to those existing posts and jump into the conversation than sounding off in my own diatribe. There are, of course, exceptions when I do think it is worthwhile to toss in your two cents about a topic. But, in general if you aren't going to blog about the latest splashy story, then what ARE you going to blog about?

What has made the traffic on my blog spike, and has increased my profile as a blogger more than anything else that I've done is to write about what interests me the most. Simple, I know, but I think when you are just starting out as a blogger it can be easy to feel like you need to be talking about what everyone else is talking about. The way to get noticed isn't to join the herd, the way to get noticed is to do something that no one else is doing. Writing about what you feel most passionate about, regardless of everyone else, will make you stand out. Writing about something that matters to you, and gets you fired up, is in my humble opinion the key to writing an exciting post. If you're excited, it will bleed through your writing.

Offer readers something they can't get elsewhere - whether that is a manifestation of your childhood obsession with Amelia Earhart, a series of interviews with people you find interesting, or ramblings on your love/hate relationship with learning to code. Find answers to the questions that are bugging you, like when I decided to find out why the Scientific American blog network is so supportive of fledgling science writers. Your blog is your corner of the Internet, so carve it out for yourself. Make yourself at home. You wouldn't decorate your home in a style that everyone else likes just because they like it, so don't do it to your blog.

All this isn't to say that the ideas are just going to start pouring onto the page. Just about every week I spend too much time staring at the empty screen trying to figure out what it is I want to say, and what matters enough to warrant a post, and throwing out all my bad ideas before I hit on something with a spark. Which brings me back to the advice I started with: read good writing. The idea for this post came from reading a collection of blog posts called The Best Science Writing Online 2012 (fomerly known as the Open Laboratory) the brainchild of series editor Bora Zivkovic and 2012 edition guest editor Jennifer Ouellette. The collection gets my sincere recommendation - if you have any interest in being a science blogger, you should check it out. Reading the posts in the collection inspired me, and reminded me how important it is to worry less about what you think everyone wants to read, and more about what you want to say.

The sheer diversity of topics, of styles, and of voices in this book is pretty astounding, and drives home the point that writing about what excites you is so important to having a successful blog. Reading all of those posts didn't make me want to blog about any of the topics, but it did make me want to emulate every one of those writers' ability to draw on what interests them and write about it in a way that is beautifully their own. Whether than means giving a voice to a fungus fairtale, telling us a tragedy worthy of Romeo and Juliet, or getting pissed off about the way the media ran with a story - all of the writers in The Best Science Writing Online 2012 gave me a piece of themselves in their posts. They are all great writers to be sure, but what makes the posts effective, makes them resonate, is the excitement and interest that they have in their subject whether they are writing about sperm, gin or pirates (really, you should read this collection.)

If you want to write a blog, find the time to read. I get ideas from other writers and other blogs all of the time. It's never about copying the subject matter, the inspiration comes from putting my own twist on trends and ideas and figuring out what I want to say. I want to talk about what I read, so I write book reviews (even grossly out of date ones) and have started collecting weekly links of my Media Consumption. I want to share my passion for science so I interview researchers for Science For Six Year Olds. When I wanted to talk about grad school, and the job market, I did. When I wanted to write about pengiun sex (and then mention it in a job interview) I did. You don't have to write about current science news to have ideas that are relevant and worth talking about. Reading other science blogs is the best way I've found to figure out what kind of science blogger you want to be and to figure out what fits for you. The Best Science Writing Online 2012 is a great place to start.

If you were to go back in the archives of my blog and see what I wrote about when I first started, it is really nothing like the Science Decoded that I have today. I started out writing a daily post about a science story plucked from the media. I almost never do that anymore. These days I blog more about issues related to being a blogger and a writer than I do about actual topics in science. I think this shift happened because right now I feel more passionate about sharing my experience as a writer than I do about actually doing more science writing (I am priviledged enough that science writing is my day job, afterall.) That's not to say that I won't shift back to writing more about scientific research, or to writing about current science news. There is absolutely a need for that type of analysis and for having those conversations online, but I'm not going to force myself to have an opinion about something when there are so many other topics that I actually do have an opinion on. As The Best Science Writing Online 2012 reminded me, your blog should never be a chore. If you always write about what interests you, it won't be.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Media Consumption 12/31/12-1/5/13

Back to rounding up weekly picks of some of the best/most interesting things I've read in the past week. I hope you'll enjoy them, and feel free to leave me links to your favorites!

Animation by Rose Eveleth for Nature Publishing Group. Found this great video on twitter this week (actually, found all of these links on twitter) about research papers and how a paper comes to be published in a journal like Nature.

Science Pick
Scientists Use Cells to Fold Origami – Joanne Manaster for PsiVid at Scientific American
Short but informative post about the latest in biotechnology for tissue engineering, which is something we’re all going to be hearing more and more about.

Cancer/Medicine Pick
Be Careful in Reporting on Composite Outcomes – Kevin Lomangino for
This post is the most recent in HealthNewReview’s Toolkit and Tips for Understanding Studies, which I think everyone might find helpful. This topic covers how to tell what conclusions should really be drawn from a study about a treatment’s effectiveness.

Writing Pick
Popular blogger Andrew Sullivan announced this week that he is taking his blog independent (not only self published, but no advertisers) this post by Jay Rosen dissects the decision and the gamble that Sullivan is taking by asking his readers to actually pay for his writing.

Bonus Pick
Will Panda Blood Solve The Antibiotic Crisis? Unlikely. – Ed Yong for Not Exactly Rocket Science at National Geographic's new blogging network Phenomena
Mostly chosen because Ed Yong says he’ll eat a panda. Also chosen because it highlights National Geographic’s new blogging network (for which they scored several high profile bloggers, including Yong, from other places) and also tackles an interesting topic that shows the need for critical thinking and debunking in the way that some media outlets cover research.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

SFSYO: Scientist of the Month Pete Etchells

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! Happy New Year! I'm so excited to start 2013 with our January scientist of the month. This month we have Dr. Pete Etchells, a psychologist. Like I did with our other scientists I asked Pete some questions to find out more about what he does. I hope you will enjoy learning more about him. Below you can read our interview, and if you'd like to ask him any questions, be sure to leave them in the comments!

Erin: What type of scientist are you?

Pete: I'm a psychologist, which means that I'm interested in how the human mind works. More specifically, I'm a biological psychologist, which is a broad area of psychology that uses biology to understand human behavior. My research covers all sorts of things - from how we make eye movements when looking at things that are moving, to how people perceive the way others walk, or how video games might influence our behavior when we're growing up.

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

Pete: I studied for all three of my degrees at the University of Bristol in the southwest of the United Kingdom. My undergraduate degree was in Experimental Psychology, and I loved it so much that I stayed in the same department for a Master's in Research Methods and then a PhD in Psychology. All together, I spent seven years in University!

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

Courtesy of Dr. Pete Etchells
Pete: I'm actually about to start a new job as an assistant professor at Bath Spa University, but I've been doing a bit of teaching there since September. My main job for the past two years has been as a research assistant at Bristol University. I’ve been working on a really cool project looking at why certain types of walking movements might be seen as attractive by others, and whether or not parts of someone’s personality can be seen in the way that they walk. For example, if I rate myself on a questionnaire as being a really anxious person, if I showed someone a video of me walking along, would they similar think that I looked anxious? It’s a really big project, so an average day might involve collecting data from participants in the morning - I work in a motion capture lab, which is the sort of technology that they used when filming movies like Avatar! Testing someone takes about 3 hours, and after that we have a lot of video, motion capture and questionnaire data that we need to collect together and tidy up, so I’ll probably be in my office doing that at my computer. Two days a week, I teach classes at Bath Spa University on Biological Psychology, so I’ll head over there in the daytime to give the class, and then rush back to Bristol to finish off my work for the day. It’s pretty hectic!

Erin: Why did you decide to become a scientist?

Pete: I don’t think I ever decided to be a scientist - I think I’ve always been one. You don’t need any qualifications to be a scientist, you just need to be interested about how the world around you works. I’ve always been excited by trying to figure out how stuff works, so doing a science degree at University was a natural choice for me.

Erin: What is your favorite thing about your job?

Pete: The best part of my job is that it’s so varied - some days I might be in a dark lab running experiments, while other days I might be in a coffee shop working on a paper. It means that I don’t get stuck doing one thing for too long, which I think would make me bored. Also, I love teaching - I love giving classes on how the brain works, because it’s such a huge and fascinating subject that’s relevant to everyone listening.

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

Pete: Lots of people think of scientists as stuffy old men in white coats who never leave their labs. One thing that you might find surprising (apart from the fact that we don’t look like that!) is that we get to go all over the world to talk about our work. Every year, we have conferences where scientists in a specific area get together and tell each other about what they’ve been researching over the past year. Since I started my PhD, I’ve been lucky enough to go to Naples in Florida, Albuquerque, Philadelphia, Montpellier in France, Laussanne in Switzerland, Holland, and lots of other exciting places! In 2014 I’m hoping to go to a conference in Brazil, which would be brilliant because I’ve never been.

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

Pete: I’m a gamer, so I play lots of video games in my spare time - Halo, Professor Layton, World of Warcraft, all sorts of things! I also play guitar to relax and unwind. I also have two lovely little kittens called Louis and Molly, who spend a lot of time causing trouble that I have to clean up afterwards.
What do you think first graders? I think Dr. Pete has a really interesting job. Is there anything you'd like to ask him about his research or being a scientist? Be sure to leave any questions in the comments!

For my adult readers you can catch Pete on twitter @DrPeteEtchells, and if you are interested in being a scientist of the month feel free to DM me @erinpodolak. Thanks so much for volunteering Pete!