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 “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”

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: Volume 2”

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.

Continue reading “Common Misconceptions About Scientific Terms”

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.

Why Not Go Swim in the Lakes

The results of wading only, but this guy still needs a rinse to be safe.
The results of wading only, but this guy still needs a rinse to be safe.

We are moving into the third week of May here in southern Wisconsin and have finally had a day or two near 80 degrees. Yesterday was a warm humid, day, the kind that makes a person think about taking a swim. I live in a city with four lakes, so a fresh water swim is never far away.

We humans have many options for keeping cool in warm weather; short and short-sleeved clothing, for instance. Dogs, on the other hand, have fewer options for cooling off.  Whether dogs shed or is trimmed, they still sport a lot of fur/hair and suffer when temperatures rise. Again, thoughts turn to swimming.

In our city of lakes, when the dogs and I are walking, water is never far away. However, we generally stay out of the lakes, no matter how warm it is. We know that these lakes sometimes contain blue-green algae.

About Blue-Green Algae
Blue-green algae, also known as Cyanobacteria spp. exist around the world and are found in the fossil record, according to the Centers for Disease Control on an informational page about this organism. Fresh water, brackish water and salt water all can host cyanobacteria.

There are a number of these photosynthetic bacterial species. Several of the species found in Wisconsin include Anabaena sp., Aphanizomenon sp., Microcystis sp., and Planktothrix sp., according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR). And there are others. Continue reading “Why Not Go Swim in the Lakes”

Bird vs. Window: Windows 900-Some Million; Birds 0

Cedar Waxwing at rest.
Cedar Waxwing at rest.

In the battle of bird vs. window, the birds are getting “skunked”.

Perhaps something like this has happened to you? You are in your east-facing kitchen making coffee early on a nice spring morning. The sun is just coming up, birds are at the feeder, just off the patio, 12-15 feet from your kitchen window, enjoying their equivalent of breakfast.

There’s a sudden flurry of activity outside, you see a streak as something flies past, followed by several “thuds” on the window. A Cooper’s hawk, also ready for breakfast, spotted easy prey at the bird feeder and zoomed in for a meal. While the hawk was unsuccessful– didn’t catch a single bird—the bad news is that in fleeing, the birds at the feeder mistook the reflection of your window for open space, and flew directly into the glass.

You rush outdoors to find three birds lying on your patio, stunned but alive. You gently move them off the patio into the grass where you hope they’ll be able to shake it off and return to feeding. And when you get home after a day at the office, the birds are gone. But there is a neighborhood cat that’s always lurking, plus raccoons and a dog in the unfenced yard next door. You don’t know if the birds made it or not. Continue reading “Bird vs. Window: Windows 900-Some Million; Birds 0”

Don’t Be Tricked by the Nixie: Science Writing Lessons Gleaned from Fairy Tales

Bronze statue in Bremen, Germany by Gerhard Marcks.
Bronze statue in Bremen, Germany by Gerhard Marcks.

If I close my eyes, I can just conjure a hazy vision of the copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales that I had as a child. It was a large, hardcover book, with a pen and watercolor painting of browns and yellow-oranges serving as the cover art. The top right corner of the book was worn, with layers of cardboard poking out from the frayed cover.

My mom’s favorite story of the collection, and the one that has stuck with me as well, was “The Bremen Town Musicians” (The Musicians of Bremen).  In his notes on this story,  (in Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version ) Philip Pullman comments  “When a tale is shaped so well that the line of the narrative seems to have been able to take no other path, and to have touched every important event in making for its end, one can only bow with respect for the teller.”

According to Pullman “The Musicians of Bremen” is a perfectly crafted story.  Actually, with Grimm, we have a collection of amazingly crafted stories. Drawing on my experience from a ScienceOnline 2013  workshop led by David Dobbs and Maryn McKenna describing what science writers can learn from genre writing, I began to wonder:  Can a writer of science stories can learn something from the Brother’s Grimm and their latest curator, Philip Pullman?

The answer is “yes”, and here are a few of the lessons I learned: Continue reading “Don’t Be Tricked by the Nixie: Science Writing Lessons Gleaned from Fairy Tales”

Preparing for Science Online 2013: Can You Ever Truly Be Ready?

This is the site of one of the most amazing science-related conferences ever held.
This is the site of one of the most amazing science-related conferences ever held.
When this blog goes live, I’ll be on my way from Chicago, IL, to Raleigh, North Carolina, for Science Online 2013. (Okay I lied, we moved the blog live early…soon I’ll be on my way from Chicago to Raleigh.)

Last year was my first experience with Science Online, the unconference that brings together scientists, science writers, journalists, teachers, and students of science from the far reaches of cyberspace for face-to-face conversations about science communications, science, statistics and all sorts of topics.

How do you prepare for an unconference that sucks up bandwidth like a group of nine-year-olds devour Halloween candy? You bring lots of electronic gadgets and their chargers. You scope out your hotel room for electric sockets, immediately upon entering. You also bring your watercolor pencils or markers for any “science scribing” you may be doing, because Science Online is a tech conference that blends science with art beautifully, and Perrin Ireland will be back leading a sketch noting workshop and capturing many of the sessions as a “science scribe”.  Her workshop was one of my favorites last year, and sketch noting is something that I have applied several times over to my work at Promega.

You bring comfortable shoes and clothes, because this is a meeting where you put ideas to work, and conversations require energy.

And, this year you get your children to help you practice moving Gangnam Style. Ack! Continue reading “Preparing for Science Online 2013: Can You Ever Truly Be Ready?”