Tick, Tock! The Molecular Basis of Biological Clocks

A long time ago, before the rise of humans, before the first single celled organisms, before the planet even accumulated atmospheric oxygen, Earth was already turning, creating a 24-hour day-night cycle. It’s no surprise, then, that most living things reflect this cycle in their behavior. Certain plants close their leaves at night, others bloom exclusively at certain times of day. Roosters cock-a-doodle-doo every morning, and I’m drowsy by 9:00 pm every night. These behaviors roughly align with the daylight cycles, but internally they are governed by a set of highly conserved molecular circadian rhythms.

Jeffrey Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael Young were awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine for their discoveries relating to molecular circadian rhythms. The official statement from the Nobel Committee reads, “…this year’s Nobel laureates isolated a gene that controls the normal daily biological rhythm. They showed that this gene encodes a protein that accumulates in the cell during the night, and is then degraded during the day. [They exposed] the mechanism governing the self-sustaining clockwork inside the cell.” What, then, does this self-sustaining clockwork look like? And how does it affect our daily lives (1)?

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Writing Scientific Papers: Is There More To This Story?

The tactic of “telling a good story” is nothing new within the business of selling, marketing and even educating about science. The word itself, science & storytelling“storytelling,” achieved buzzword status a few years ago in the corporate world, so it’s no surprise that it now touches industry scientists.  But the importance of telling a good story within the realm of scientific peer-reviewed papers?  That is something new, and it may impact how scientists write up their results from this point forward.

In a provocative scientific study published in PLOS ONE in December 2016, researchers from the University of Washington showed that “Narrative Style Influences Citation Frequency in Climate Change Science.” Perhaps the results they report are unique to climate change science—an area of science especially susceptible to public perception. But then again, perhaps not. This paper may be worth considering no matter what field of science you call your own.

The authors—Ann Hillier, Ryan Kelly, and Terrie Klinger—used metrics to test their hypothesis that a more narrative style of writing in climate change research papers is more likely to be influential, and they used citation frequency as their measure of influence. A sample of 732 abstracts culled from the climate change literature and published between 2009 and 2010 was analyzed for specific writing parameters. The authors concluded that writing in a more narrative style increases the uptake and influence of articles in this field of science and perhaps in scientific literature across the board. Continue reading

Top Science Books of 2016

While I planned to write about New Year’s resolutions for the first Promega Connections blog of 2017, I was sidetracked by some “best of 2016” lists—in particular, best science books. I realized though that these seemingly unrelated ideas overlapped at some level because every year I resolve to find time to read more books. What was once an easy and natural escape for me, like for so many others, reading for fun now requires a bit of effort and prioritization. With the continual distractions of Netflix, social media and online news stories, it’s a challenge to find time to read books the way I once did.

So, in honor of a new year’s resolution do more of what I like and less of what I don’t like, here is a list of what has been deemed the best science books of 2016. I culled through the lists of several of the most reputable science blogs and publications and looked for overlap among them. Between the Science Friday blog, New York Magazine’s blog, The Science of Us, Smithsonian Magazine, NPR, and the New York Times’ best of 2016 lists there are loads of suggestions to keep you reading until the start of the next decade. Below are eight recommendations that appeared on several “best of” lists. Continue reading

To Seq, or Not to Seq

Seq—shorthand for “sequence”— has become a more recognizable term thanks to a novel and provocative genomics initiative called the BabySeq Project. The project, officially launched in May 2015, was designed to explore the impact of whole-exome sequencing (WES) on newborn infants and their families. A randomized, controlled trial to sequence healthy and sick infants and then provide sequencing information, it is the first of its kind. Those infants randomized to receive WES undergo genetic sequencing of all protein-coding genes and analysis of about 1,700 genes implicated in childhood health, along with 18 years of follow up genetic counseling.29813751-nov-2-blog-post-nicole-600x470-web

The project is directed by Robert C. Green, geneticist and physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School and the Broad Institute, and Alan H. Beggs of Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. Funding, totaling $25 million, comes from the National Institute of Child Health and Development and the National Human Genome Research Institute. Continue reading

Back to Basics: Organizing Your Writing like It’s a Hamburger

The "hamburger" scheme for organizing a paragraph.

The “hamburger” scheme for organizing a paragraph.

Last night I was helping my daughter, who is in fourth grade, with her homework. We had completed a math worksheet, a geography worksheet and had moved onto writing. For her paragraph assignment, she was supposed to write about a special place. So I began drawing the concept map that we typically use to help her organize her thoughts. She stopped me before I could get started.

“No Mom, wait,” she grabbed the pencil and paper from my hands, “I have a better idea.”

She drew five shapes on the paper.

“We should write the paragraph like it’s a hamburger. The first sentence is the topic—it’s the top of the burger, tells you what is inside—it makes you hungry to read more. Next comes the juicy, meaty part. Three details—three sentences. Then the bottom bun, the summary that supports the whole paragraph. It’s the hardest to write.” She proudly sat down with her drawing and pencil.

“I LOVE that,” I exclaimed. “That’s a great way to organize a paragraph.”

“Yeah,” my husband looked up from his Suduko that he had been working on, “and the cheese goes right here.” He pointed to one of the three boxes my daughter had drawn underneath the bun.

“And the lettuce over here,” my daughter giggled.

“Well, I like mine with lettuce and tomato,” I chanted with no apologies to Jimmy Buffett, “Heinz 57 and French-fried potato..,”

“A big kosher pickle,” my daughter joined in, and the evening’s homework activities degenerated from there. (Sometimes it’s the parents who are easily distracted.)

My daughter’s hamburger graphic was new to me, but the concept wasn’t. It is a solid method for organizing a piece of writing, and it can be applied all kinds of writing—from a paragraph, to an essay, to a speech and even to a scientific article. Continue reading

Science Is Not a Wet Blanket: A Marketing Plan for Antibacterial Soap

The relationship between science and marketing usually has great chemistry: effective marketing evokes an emotional response that compels people to buy something, which enables companies to research and develop new products. Let’s call this the honeymoon phase: things seem pretty great on the surface, yet they really need to sort out some uncomfortable truths. For example, don’t these two advertisements make you feel shocked that you aren’t sanitizing your hands before you eat? While cleverly executed, they are a little misleading because they paint a very stark picture of hygiene.

protex-ad-rock-paper-scissors

Ad text: “Rock, Paper, Scissors.” Protex worked with the agency Y&R in Brazil to create this ad in 2012.

Lifebuoy worked with the agency Lowe in Indonesia to create this ad in 2009.

Ad text: “You eat what you touch.” Lifebuoy worked with the agency Lowe in Indonesia to create this ad in 2009.

These ads were created before scientific consensus was reached on the safety of 19 antibacterials. An earlier review of 27 relevant studies found that antibacterial soap was no more effective than regular soap and increases the risk of antibacterial resistance. Has science effectively put an end to antibacterial soap? What should a company that makes both regular and antibiotic soap do to comply with the new FDA ruling without losing revenue?

Identifying Marketing Opportunities

Adhering to good science doesn’t mean stomping out the creativity of your marketing team. Instead, marketers can gain inspiration from the diverse impact bacteria have on human health and present their products in the right context. Continue reading

Common Misconceptions About Scientific Terms: Volume 2

Misconceptions About Scientific Terms Volume 2Media coverage of the Zika virus and colistin-resistant E. coli have introduced new terms for some people. What do they all really mean? Even people with technical backgrounds may benefit from a refresher. This set of eight terms covers topics related to diseases and nutrition. This article is a continuation of my previous blog post about scientific words that are frequently misunderstood.

Epidemic

Common misconception: A disease that is going to kill all of humanity or turn us into zombies.

What it means for scientists: According to the Centers for Disease Control, an epidemic is “an increase, often sudden, in the number of cases of a disease above what is normally expected in that population in that area.” This could happen with a new strain of the flu or with something more devastating like Ebola. There is an endemic level, or baseline, for the number of people affected by the flu at any given time, and an epidemic would be a significant increase from this level. The endemic level for diseases like Ebola would be zero. Epidemic diseases that spread across multiple continents are considered pandemic. Continue reading

Common Misconceptions About Scientific Terms

science-lecture-DNAScience touches our lives every day, yet far too often, scientific concepts become misrepresented in the media. This problem is not an innocent one; swaying public opinion on policies about climate change and vaccination has a large impact on public health. It is the responsibility of every person to achieve a basic level of scientific literacy. More important than being able to recall a library of scientific facts is the decision making process we go through; a mindset that is asking questions and addressing uncertainty can serve as a barrier against deception. Understanding the words common among scientific studies should help non scientists navigate through the sea of information they encounter online.

This article covers nine common misconceptions about scientific terms. We recognize that there are hundreds of words that are misused, so we encourage your contributions below.

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Can’t Go to A Conference? Try Following the #Hashtag

Members of an audience at a scientific conference may tweet what they hear or see, and because these messages are free and open, it has the potential to reach anyone, anywhere in the world. This has profound implications for the communication of science, enabling discovery, discussion, teaching, and learning outside of the confines of the conference itself. Image credit for globe: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center on Flickr. doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1003789.g001

Members of an audience at a scientific conference may tweet what they hear or see, and because these messages are free and open, it has the potential to reach anyone, anywhere in the world.
This has profound implications for the communication of science, enabling discovery, discussion, teaching, and learning outside of the confines of the conference itself. Image credit for globe: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center on Flickr.
doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1003789.g001

AAAS included a session on social media at the 2015 annual meeting. This year the #AACR15 stream was so busy, by the time I finished reading a tweet that piqued my interest, it had almost scrolled off the bottom of my feed–a bit like an agarose gel that was running too fast. Scientists are connecting with other scientists on forums like reddit to discuss cloning strategies and transfection issues, and the Global Biological Standards Institute (GBSI) is running a huge campaign to educate life scientists about cell line authentication (#authenticate) through social media.

Social media have decidedly entered the science mainstream with attendees at meetings posting to twitter and Facebook from their Instagram accounts, societies setting up multiple hastags for meetings and popular sessions, and journals tracking not  just the “old-fashioned” Impact Factor, but rather social media shares, comments, retweets and likes of articles. Increasingly social media are the impact factors in science communication.

Live tweeting at meetings is rapidly becoming a way that hot topics are being disseminated far beyond the limited reach of the presentation room at the conference center, and PLOS One recently published an article by Ekins and Perlstein that provides guidance to meeting organizers and attendees for live tweeting events. The article talks about what a hashtag is and how it is used. It is great for novices or experienced social media users who might have missed that one particular twitter abbreviation, but the authors go beyond the technical aspects of tweeting to discuss the promise and potential of reaching a global audience with the leading edge science that is presented at scientific conferences and the richness that can be gained by bringing more people into the discussion.

Have you ever “live tweeted” a talk or event or followed a live tweet stream? Do you have a favorite  scientist “live tweeter” that you follow? Let us know in the comment section below. How are you, as a scientist, using social media?

 

 

 

Compelling Science Communication

An archive of 35mm slides. There's probably one in a dark corner of your lab.

An archive of 35mm slides. There’s probably one in a dark corner of your lab.

Back in the dark ages, when I was in graduate school, if we were traveling to a conference to give a presentation, we always made sure that our slide carousels (yes, scientific talks used to be given from 35 mm slides) were in our carry-on baggage. That carousel was more important than our underwear or our toothbrush, no trusting it to baggage claim.

Things have improved markedly, I’m happy to say. Now everything has to go in the carry-on baggage, because most PIs don’t have the financial room in their grants to pay for checked bag fees. Fortunately, we can store copies of our presentations on several different clouds and bring a thumb drive or two on board the plane, tucked safely away in the underwear in the duffle bag that doesn’t quite fit in the overhead compartment. No need to choose between unwieldy slide carousels and clothes.

But are PowerPoint® and Prezi® presentations the best way to communicate your science? When you hit your audience with slide after slide of bullets are you killing their interest? When you show that slide of three years worth of work and say “Don’t worry about trying to read this…” are you killing your presentation?

Is there a better more compelling way to communicate science? Accurately. So that people care. So that people understand.

FameLab International certainly thinks so. Begun in 2005 by the Cheltenham Science Festival in the UK, FameLab seeks to promote better science communication through sponsorship of a competition in which scientists and engineers have three short minutes to communicate their science with enthusiasm and accuracy–armed “with only their wits and a few props that they can carry on stage.”

It is truly a global competition with over 5,000 young scientists and engineers from 25 countries around the world competing for the grand prize each year. The Grand Final Competition is held in June each year, but you can take a sneak peak at some of the entrants on the FameLab Facebook page now.

Here’s a winning taste from the 2014 competition. There is more on the FameLab YouTube channel.