5 of Our Favorite Blogs from 2018

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:

1. The Amazing, Indestructible—and Cuddly—Tardigrade

No surprises here, everyone loves water bears. Kelly Grooms knows what the people want.

The face of a creature that is nigh un-killable.

Continue reading “5 of Our Favorite Blogs from 2018”

Overcoming 5 Bottlenecks in Communicating Life Sciences Research

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 research 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?

Bottlenecks in communicating research can occur at 5 different points in the process. Here are some tips to try to alleviate these delays. Continue reading “Overcoming 5 Bottlenecks in Communicating Life Sciences Research”

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 “Living in the Anthropocene: A Photojournalist’s Perspective”

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 Intersection of Poetry and Science”

Writing Scientific Papers: Is There More To This Story?

science & storytelling

The tactic of “telling a good story” is nothing new within the business of selling, marketing and even educating about science. The word itself, “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 peer-reviewed scientific 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 “Writing Scientific Papers: Is There More To This Story?”

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 “To Seq, or Not to Seq”

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

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, compelling science communication meant traveling to a conference to give a presentation from 35mm slides. We always made sure that our slide carousels 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.” The competition will have run its course in 2021, but viewing the videos is a great way to learn how to give great presentaiton.

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.

Poisoners and Scientists

If you eat enough silver, you will turn blue, but it probably won’t kill you.

In the 1920s, you could buy energy drinks and cosmetics containing radium. Because of its beneficial effects on tumors, it was believed to be healthy.

Arsenic was once known as “the inheritance powder”, because it was so commonly used to eliminate relatives who stayed alive too long.

In the 1930s the poison thallium was used in depilatory creams, because of its excellent ability to make hair fall out, but also because of its ability to lend a beautiful pale luster to the skin.

These are just a few of the fascinating facts and stories you can find in “The Poisoner’s Handbook”, by Deborah Blum Continue reading “Poisoners and Scientists”

When the Writing Gets Tough, the Tough Write about Semicarbazide-Sensitive Amine Oxidases

These are the cranes I saw while walking and thinking about SSAOs.
When you hold a position as a scientific communication specialist at a biotech company, you never know what you are going to need to write. Most of the time I really like the fact that I have to master new subject matter on a daily basis. I’m using my degree and my brain, and articulating science in a way that connects with the reader is incredibly rewarding. It’s why I do what I do.

However, when I was asked to write about a new assay for semicarbazide-sensitive amine oxidases (SSAOs), my enthusiasm waned. This is a subject about which I know nothing, so I searched the literature to learn as much as I could. After reading several review articles I was able to write this scintillating paragraph: Continue reading “When the Writing Gets Tough, the Tough Write about Semicarbazide-Sensitive Amine Oxidases”