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

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

How to Evaluate Consumer Health Reporting

NASA image

In April I had the privilege of attending Science Writing in the Age of Denial, a conference held at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, that featured science writers, journalists and scientists from around the world discussing some of the perils, pitfalls, challenges and amazing opportunities of covering science, medical and health stories in today’s media landscape. I reveled in the two days of intense discussion.

My notebook from the conference is filled with notes, sketches, web addresses to visit and names of books that I simply must read. One of the talks that hit home hard was given by Gary Schwitzer, a consumer healthcare journalist who is publisher of the web site HealthNewsReview.org

Schwitzer’s talk, “Cheerleading, Shibboleths and Uncertainty” addressed the status of consumer healthcare reporting which, in his opinion, often tends to be little more than “cheerleading” for the latest greatest drug, technology or screening test. His talk addressed some of the cult-like following for screening tests (the shibboleths) and the tendency to convey with certainty the “upside” of screening without discussing adequately the risks or downsides (uncertainty).

His focus on the screening issue was particularly poignant to me, because I have experienced my own transformation of thought regarding health screening. Continue reading

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

Reflections on Write by the Lake: Lessons Learned for Science Writers

This week I attended the Write by the Lake Retreat at UW-Madison, and I will be genuinely sad to see it end. The magic in the nonfiction session led by Amy Lou Jenkins has been incredible.

I want to share a few of the writing tips I have picked up from this week, even though this wasn’t a “science writing” workshop. What I have found as a writer is that what I work to improve in one type of writing ends up improving every other type of writing that I do. I have heard so many scientific writers claim that science writing is different from all other types of writing. Not necessarily.

So what are some of the things that I picked up at this workshop that I think can easily apply to scientific writing? Continue reading