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 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

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)?

Continue reading

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

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

Differentiating but not Mature Adipocytes Provide a Defense Against S. aureus Infection

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/65/Blausen_0012_AdiposeTissue.png

Cross-section of skin and adipose tissue enlargement. Used courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Blausen.

A basic tenet of immunology is that antibodies produced by B cells are very important and specific immunoprotective agents, released in response to infection.

However, antibodies do not supply immediate protection. The invading organism needs to get into the host, meet up with T cells and then B cells, in order for antibody production to occur. If the host has seen this particular pathogen previously, the antibody response occurs somewhat more quickly, but we’re still talking about days. If the invading organism is a bacterium, it can multiply and double in numbers in just hours. Thus an infection could potentially gain a foothold in a body prior to an antibody response.

Fortunately we have a more rapid, first line of defense to invading pathogens, a cellular response. In the case of a puncture or skin wound, epithelial cells, mast cells and leukocytes are activated quickly in response to pathogens. Neutrophils and monocytes also aid the cellular response.

Now a recently published report demonstrates that fat cells also play a part in the cellular response to invading bacteria. R. Gallo et al. published a study on Jan. 2 in Science, providing more in depth information on the role of adipocytes in the host response to the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus). Continue reading

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

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

A Walk in the Woods: A Short Story about Persuasion

Here is another tidbit for thought from the Science Writing in the Age of Denial conference. The first keynote address was given by Dr. Arthur Lupia, from the University of Michigan. His talk entitled “Communicating Science in Politicized Environments” focused on the physiological mechanisms of learning and the evidence from the social sciences about how people learn and make decisions when they have limited knowledge of a subject. During his talk he presented a 1-minute story synopsis of his “main point”, in the hopes that if we came away with anything from the talk, we would, at the very least, remember this story. Here is my sketched version of his story with notes.

What do you think? Do scientists and science writers do a good enough job of knowing where our audience is when we write? Continue reading