This blog was written in collaboration with our partners at Promega GmbH.
Scientists are comfortable speaking to people who know their field. Speaking to scientists outside of their field of expertise can become a little more challenging, and many find the greatest challenge of all is speaking to people who do not have a science background and are hearing about a scientific concept for the first time, such as journalists in the popular media. What can scientists and journalists do to make the most of the interface of science and journalism?
The importance of the interface between science and journalism is increasingly visible with scientific topics appearing on the national news more frequently due to COVID-19, climate change, and diseases like cancer. So, where can journalists go to learn best practices for interviewing scientists and writing about scientific topics? Promega GmbH offers a platform in which scientists and journalists come together and learn from each other in a constructive exchange. In this workshop setting, scientists speak about a certain topic, and journalists from all kinds of backgrounds can ask questions. When the journalist authors an article about what they learned in that workshop, both sides benefit. The scientists’ work becomes visible, and society learns more about scientific research and discovery that can help all of us to better understand the world and contribute to a brighter future.
Here we describe several common themes that have emerged from these science journalism workshops that may help you the next time you find yourself trying to explain your research to someone unfamiliar with your field.
There has been no shortage of amazing science stories in 2020, a year where so many scientists have been working in overdrive focused on the pandemic. Everyone working hard to understand SARS-CoV-2 deserves recognition, but we thought we would take a lighter approach and share five favorite non-pandemic stories from throughout the year. Hint, they are all about animals.
Lynch Syndrome is the autosomal dominant hereditary predisposition to develop colorectal cancer and certain other cancers. This simple, one sentence definition seems woefully inadequate considering the human toll this condition has inflicted on the families that have it in their genetic pedigree.
They Called it a Curse
To one family, perhaps the family when it comes to this condition, Lynch Syndrome has meant heartache and hope; grief and joy; death and life. Their story is told by Ami McKay in her book Daughter of Family G, and it is at once both a memoir of a Lynch Syndrome previvor (someone with a Lynch Syndrome genomic mutation who has not yet developed cancer) and a poignant and honest account of the family that helped science put name to a curse.
“The doctors called it cancer. I say it’s a curse. I wish I knew what we did to deserve it.”
Anna Haab from Daughter of Family G (1)
The scientific community first met “Family G” as the meticulously created family tree, filled with the stunted branches that mark early deaths by cancer. The pedigree was first published in 1913 in Archives of Internal Medicine (2). In the article, Dr. Alderd Warthin wrote: “A marked susceptibility to carcinoma exists in the case of certain family generations and family groups.” In 1925, an expanded pedigree of circles and squares was published in Dr. Warthin’s follow up study in the Journal of Cancer Research (3). But each circle and square in that pedigree denotes a person. Each line represents their dreams together for the future, and Ms. McKay wants us to know their names: Johannes and Anna, Kathrina, Elmer, Tillie, Sarah Anne (Sally); and—most importantly—Pauline. Because without Pauline there would be no story.
Photo 51 is the now-famous X-ray diffraction picture that allowed Watson and Crick to crystalize centuries work of scientific study (from Mendel to Chargaff) into a viable structural model that explained how DNA could serve as the material of the gene. The photo was painstakingly produced by Dr. Rosalind Franklin, a contemporary of Watson and Crick. Although she and her colleague R.G. Gosling did publish their work in the same issue of Nature as the Watson and Crick paper (1,2), their work did not receive the same public accolades of that of Watson and Crick.
Women scientists have been contributing to our understanding of the world around us throughout history. On this 100th anniversary of Dr. Rosalind Franklin’s birth, we want to take a little time to recognize the work that women scientists are doing at Promega.
As scientists, we can do science forever. The beauty about science is that the questions never end – we can keep asking, and every time we find an answer, we have a new direction to pursue. But it’s very important to know when it’s time to write up your results.
Publishing may be connected to leaving or transitioning your position, but at all times you should be thinking, “What is my end goal? What is the big question I want to answer? What are the questions the field has about my research?” As you reach milestones and make discoveries, whether big or small, consider whether you will have a complete and compelling story to tell in the end.
Science touches our lives, daily. But far too many scientific concepts and terms are misunderstood and used incorrectly. Even those of us wearing a “scientist” badge sometimes misappropriate terms, which can act to reproduce the misuse.
A basic level of science literacy is so important for all of us. Why? So that when bombarded with comments about vaccination or climate change on a social media site, we are able to sift through the jargon, understand what’s correct and what is not correct, and make decision based in facts vs. internet gossip. With just a bit of knowledge of basic science terms, you are better protected against deception and you’ll know how to sort facts from fiction.
Here are a few general science terms that are commonly misunderstood and misused.
Have you read last week’s breaking story about the microbiome of the human placenta? Wait, stop, don’t run away to Google it! I’ll tell you all about it – this is a science blog, remember?
I’m asking because as I started reading about the topic in preparation for writing this blog post, I noticed two things. First, as a science writer who tries to stay well-connected with what’s going on in the world of biology research, it would have been nearly impossible for me to avoid this story. I get eight or nine daily digest emails from scientific publications every day, and I think over the course of last week, every single one came with a headline related to the placenta study. (Of course, I read them all. And the Nature study they were based on.)
Second, I noticed that each story I read had a slightly different angle on covering the research. As scientists, we like to believe that science is, well, just science. It’s factual. We pore over the data and reach a conclusion. If we aren’t sure of something, we search the journals. The story, if there is one, is about methods and controls, protocols and reagent quality. However, when information about that research is communicated broadly, outside of the journals, we can get a different impression based on how the author frames their article. Continue reading ““The Human Placenta,” or “Why I Love Science Writing””
We have published 130 blogs here at Promega this year (not including this one). I diligently reviewed every single one and compiled a list of the best 8.5%, then asked my coworkers to vote on the top 5 out of that subset. Here are their picks:
As a first-year grad student, I was so excited to start my thesis work. I brainstormed to make a list of experiments to try and then discussed them with one of the senior grad students in the lab. As I enthusiastically explained the goals of my experiments and what I was planning, he gave me a strange look. Puzzled, I asked for some feedback. He told me that, while these were good ideas, almost all of them had been published. Hence, my first lesson learned from grad school: immerse yourself in the field by reading relevant papers and then plan some innovative experiments to move forward. It’s critical to have a deep knowledge of your field of study—not just to be a good grad student, but to see what is being done and then build on it, or take a totally different approach to innovate.
Reading papers is a big part of keeping up with the latest research. And attending conferences can give you a sense of current work before it’s published. However, I’m sure that, at least once, you’ve heard a cool talk at a conference and then quite a while later, haven’t seen the corresponding paper (so that you can read about all the ins and outs of what they did!). Why would this be? They may have been discussing the data early on in their project. Or perhaps they submitted a manuscript and the review/publishing process is taking a long time. Maybe the data were so surprising that they felt they needed to do a lot of follow-up work to support their conclusions. Or maybe their PI takes forever to write/comment on manuscripts. Etc.
The sooner that you can find out what is going on in a field, the sooner you can design smart, relevant experiments. What can be done to get cutting edge work out there to facilitate the progression of a field as a whole?
Dennis Dimick has focused his journalism career on the collision between human aspiration and the planet. The son of fisheries biologists, Dimick grew up on a farm in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and he holds degrees in agriculture and agricultural journalism from Oregon State University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In his 35 years at National Geographic, he served for over a decade as the magazine’s environment editor, and guided major projects on climate change, energy, freshwater, population, and food security. Dimick is co-founder of Eyes on Earth, a project meant to inspire a new generation of environmental photographers.
As a young man, Dimick witnessed firsthand the price of progress when his family’s farm was cut in half by the construction of an interstate beltway. This invasion of their farm, in addition to the clear-cut logging of nearby forests where Dimick had spent his youth, combined to sensitize him to the profound impacts of human progress on the Earth. Early photography experience and his personal connection to the effects of human progress led to a life and career spent combining these two dimensions.
In anticipation of hisparticipation in the 2018 Wisconsin Science Festival, I asked Mr. Dimick some questions about photojournalism, and what it’s like documenting the human impact on the environment. Some of his answers have been slightly edited for clarity.
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