Living in the Anthropocene: A Photojournalist’s Perspective

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.

Clearcut Forest in Oregon's Cascase Mountains in April, 2016

Clear-cut timber harvest in Oregon’s Cascade Mountains south of Eugene in 2016, one of a series of images for an ongoing project documenting the Anthropocene landscape across North America as seen from passenger airplanes. Photo: Dennis Dimick

In anticipation of his participation 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.

What does it take to be a good environmental photographer? Continue reading

When School is just a Memory: Science after Graduation

Happy graduation! Whether you graduated last week or twenty years ago, the experience is roughly the same. As soon as you arrive on the far side of the stage, empty diploma folder under your arm, hand still sticky from the Dean’s sweaty handshake, the reality of post-academic life sets in. Perhaps grad school is on the horizon for some and others might be busy prepping for med school. For some of us, though, our years of formal education end after four and we run off to rejoice in our newfound freedom. No more exams, group projects, late nights writing papers, disapproving professors, supervisors and mentors – done with that life forever! We didn’t even bother with the GRE, MCAT, LSAT or a single “Why [insert school]” essay. Now it’s off to enjoy the Real World, which will definitely be better than college.

I’ve found, in my one year of post-college life, that sometimes you can miss academic life. You’ll occasionally look back and think, “I didn’t know how good I had it.” In particular, those of us with a pure love of learning can find ourselves unsatisfied with our prospective learning opportunities or lack thereof. We spent college soaking up mountains of knowledge–and not just from textbooks. University life gives you access to free talks from eminent thought leaders, unrestricted access to myriad scientific journals, and plenty of people around who are eager to argue about that day’s lecture in Cell Biology or Neuroscience. After college, it’s tough to fill that void.

I work at Promega (obviously), a biotech company, so I still have access to journals and there are plenty of brilliant scientists around me. However, I’m still looking for more opportunities to learn and grow. I may be out of school, but the love of science never goes away. Here are a few of my tips for everyone receiving their hard-earned science degree this spring.

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Orchestrating the Genome: Final Thoughts for #HumanGenomeMonth

Recently I wrote about the completion of the human genome sequencing project and the promise, problems and questions that the project has generated in the last decade and a half. One of the biggest realizations that I had from researching and writing that post is that our human genome makes us more alike than different at the molecular level, yet there is incredible variability in the human species around the globe.

I started to think about other things where the basic building blocks were the same, yet the final products were so very different—and I landed in the middle of a symphony orchestra.

Orchestras, if we look at the instruments that they have at their disposal, are very similar: dare I say 99% identical? For instance the instruments listed in the February 2017 roster for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra on Wikipedia (1) are very similar to the lists of instruments listed for the musicians of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra on its web site (2). Numbers and groupings might vary, but the instruments are the same.

However no one would argue that the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus are interchangeable. Experiencing one is not the same as experiencing the other, and two separate experiences of either are often completely different.

The orchestral “DNA” is the same: highly trained musicians playing essentially the same set of instruments, and quite often the same piece of music. What makes each experience of these organizations unique is the when, the where and the how of the expression of that DNA. Continue reading

The Intersection of Poetry and Science

March 21, 2018 is World Poetry Day, we’re getting into the spirit with some scientific poetry. Science and poetry overlap more than many diehards in either camp would like to admit. History is filled with poets who dabbled in science, as well as scientists who dabbled in poetry. In honor of World Poetry Day, I’ve pulled out some of my favorites. Continue reading

The Free Scientific Resource: Evaluating the Accuracy of Wikipedia

Several weeks ago, I came across an article on ScienceNews.org about how Wikipedia is becoming a scientific resource, whether we like it or not. Scientists are reading Wikipedia, the article said, and it’s affecting how they write. The article cited a study by researchers from MIT and Pitt that found statistical evidence of language in peer-reviewed articles being influenced by Wikipedia articles relevant to the topic. They concluded that journal articles referenced in Wikipedia are subsequently cited more than other similar articles, and that on a semantic level, Wikipedia is influencing the language of scientific journal articles at an astounding rate.

I was intrigued by the idea that reading Wikipedia affects how we later write about a subject. When I start writing about a new topic, the first thing I do is head to Wikipedia to gather a basic understanding before I dive into journal articles. I’ll skim through the overview and most relevant subsections, then check out the references to see what I should continue reading. However, the findings of the study imply that even though I don’t directly use information or language from Wikipedia in my work, it’s still subtly influencing how I write. Continue reading

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