Give yourself a break and pick up a book

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Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

My husband is the kind of person who has to read a book before he sees a movie based on the book. It was a scramble to read all three books of the Hunger Games Trilogy before the first movie came out in 2012. He even re-read all of the Harry Potter books before their movies. Naturally, he’s finished the first book of the Divergent series with plenty of time before the movie comes out next month.

I, on the other hand, am not quite on track. Last week he casually yet admonishingly asked if I was going to read Divergent in time for the movie. Sadly, though, my first thought was, “Do I even have time to read a book right now?” I am often plagued with the well-ingrained grad student guilt that comes along with doing anything other than lab work or reading journal articles. “Surely I could spend the last few minutes of my time before bed doing something more productive than reading a teen fiction novel,” I thought.

However, as I read C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures for my science communication class the other night, I came across a profound statement (amongst all the other profound statements in his influential piece) that changed my mind about my husband’s suggestion.

Writing about the scientific community’s perspective on literary works, he states: “It isn’t that they lack the [psychological, moral, or social] interests. It is much more that the whole literature of the traditional culture doesn’t seem to them relevant to those interests. They are, of course, dead wrong. As a result, their imaginative understanding is less than it could be. They are self-impoverished.”

“Self-impoverished” – such a powerful phrase to describe the state we, as scientists, put ourselves in when we refuse to consider the value of doing things like reading literary works. Snow points out that an “imaginative understanding” can be gained from reading books. Think about the ways our scientific ideas could become more innovative, integrative and cross-disciplinary if our minds were also being fueled by the works of imaginations that inspired Anne of Green Gables and Elizabeth Bennet.

Of course, in no way am I comparing Divergent to the works of Jane Austen, and I’m not saying you should skip lab tomorrow so you can dust off a copy of Moby Dick. But, the next time you feel drawn (or forced by your spouse) to pick up a book, give yourself a break and read. Let your mind relax into flowery turns of phrase or engage following chilling cliffhangers. Let your imagination unfurl, guilt-free. Your scientific ideas will thank you later.

 

Innocent Scientific Curiosity

I’m taking a science communication course designed for undergraduate science majors this semester, and I can’t help but think about how lucky these students are. Not only are they getting scientific training as undergrads, but MU has taken a step toward providing these young scientists with skills in how to communicate science to the public.

We’re starting out with reading the Science Times each week. This brings back fond memories for me, as reading this section of the New York Times my freshman year of college got me absolutely hooked on writing about science and learning how to do it. I remember reading Benedict Carey’s articles and being in awe of his ability to turn a complex scientific concept into a relatable idea with a well-crafted metaphor.

For today’s class we read a piece by George Johnson, entitled “New Truths That Only One Can See.” In this article, Johnson unpacks the theory of Dr. John P. A. Ioannidis in which he purports that most published scientific findings are false due to bias and the lack of replication in science.

In class one of the students expressed that he was surprised that some major scientific discoveries may in fact not be true. This feeling of surprise struck me in two conflicting ways. First, I was frustrated that the importance of replication of results and the real influence of statistical confounds such as Type I error are not being effectively conveyed to undergraduate science majors. It’s clear that the concept of unconscious bias in an experiment, while all too present, is often not acknowledged in science education.

But, then I was also relieved by the student’s surprise. Perhaps it’s my burned out grad student mindset, but I’m often too critical of my own findings in lab and those of others that are published. I think, “This is too good to be true! Something must be wrong.” I’ve lost a bit of the ability to believe that some discoveries can be true and, what’s more, change the world. Perhaps I’ll learn more in this class than I originally thought. Perhaps I’ll regain some of the innocent scientific curiosity that got squashed somewhere along the way of long hours spent banging my head against an SPSS output file. Perhaps I’ll remember why scientific inquiry is not just vitally important, but wholly exciting.

Storify Dabblings and an Outreach & Communication Symposium

This past Saturday, September 21, I attended the Science Outreach & Communication Career Symposium put on by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) here at MU. I thoroughly enjoyed the symposium, and when it was over, I found that I didn’t even mind that it involved getting up at 6:00 AM on a Saturday. Instead of a blog post about the event, I decided to try my hand at Storify, since there were a few loyal tweeters that covered the event alongside me. Of course, after spending last night compiling my tweets, I woke up to an email with a link from a Storify post from another symposium attendee. #scooped However, I still finished my Storify post and am providing the link here, because I interspersed some of the insights I gained from the symposium speakers between the tweets and websites. If anything, in two months when I’ve forgotten everything about the symposium in exchange for manuscript revisions and mountains of data analysis, I can go back to my Storify post and refresh my memory. Enjoy!

http://storify.com/TheMrsZam/science-outreach-and-communication-an-asbmb-career

Sharing Science with Students

1024px-US_Navy_101013-N-8863V-460_A_fourth_grade_student_from_Arlanza_Elementary_School_looks_through_a_Navy_thermal_imager_during_the_11th_annual_Science

Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

My 5th grade Gifted & Talented project was all about the brain. I was fascinated by all of its functions and cerebral folds. I loved how it wasn’t so much the size of the brain that was important, but the complexity of its neural networks. My project included a form core board with light bulbs placed on a hand drawn man, representing the different body regions affected by the fight or flight response. I wonder if my parents could have foreseen that I would later be pursing a PhD in neuroscience and leading a project very much related to my fight or flight poster. What they probably could have guessed is that I would not be in graduate school today if I hadn’t been exposed to science in such a genuine way in elementary school.

You can find me over at the Columbia Daily Tribune today with an article as part of the weekly “Ask A Scientist” column. This project was developed out of the cooperation between Columbia Public Schools and the University of Missouri Office of Science Outreach. Local elementary, middle, and high school students submit questions about science, and MU graduate students work with the Office of Science Outreach to interview MU researchers and write articles to answer the students’ questions. Participating in this project has been not only fun but surprising in several ways. I’ve been extremely impressed by the nature of the questions asked by the students. Some questions probe advanced concepts in fields such as genetics (“If monkeys are our cousins, how much of our DNA do we share?”) and astronomy (“What are dark energy and dark matter, and how are they related?”). I’ve also been surprised by how willing the scientists and physicians at MU have been to sit down and discuss their research with us. These researchers are passionate about their work, and they are excited to share about it with the public, especially K-12 students.

Why is a project like “Ask a Scientist” so important? It gives students a way to extend the knowledge they are getting in the classroom. They are given opportunities to reach out of their textbooks and engage with real scientists doing real science. They are getting a peak into fields like physics and chemistry, the way I got a glimpse of neuroscience in 5th grade. It’s important to realize that these aren’t just students with whom we are sharing about science, many are (hopefully) future scientists themselves, and they may not even know it yet.

We Need More Rapunzels in the Ivory Tower

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday I attended an NSF Becoming the Messenger workshop here at MU. It was such a great experience. I really appreciated the advice the presenters provided for scientists about becoming more effective communicators, especially with the general public. It also revealed some unexpected (at least to me) perspectives on public communication and social media.

During a session on the advantages of Twitter, presenter and science writer Chris Mooney expressed that many scientists have a “dignity problem” with Twitter. Some feel that tweeting about their work somehow makes what they do less important because anyone can be on Twitter, anyone can send out a tweet. This viewpoint demonstrates what I think is a real problem in academia: scientists often think that communicating with the public involves an act of stooping down, reducing themselves, or discounting their credibility.

Having this outlook perpetuates an ivory tower mentality, a belief that the work scientists do is meant only for an academic elite to understand and that it’s beneath scientists to inform the public. What we need, however, is more Rapunzels. We need scientists who are willing to provide a connection from the ivory tower to the public and who find true value in doing so.

Here’s where Twitter can serve as a useful tool. As Mooney stated, anyone can be on Twitter. What is a better way to communicate about your research than by sharing it with anyone and everyone? By tweeting, scientists make their work accessible. They can even move beyond sharing about their research to starting conversations with the public through replies and retweets.

Twitter can also serve to gauge the quality of scientific research. Mooney shared about a study that found a positive correlation between the number of citations an academic paper gets and the number of times that paper is tweeted about (aka “tweetations”). Citations, the currency of academia, can actually be predicted by a social media site used mostly by laypeople. How’s that for some dignity?

There is hope, however, in knowing that some brave Rapunzels are already out there. During a session on science blogging, Mooney talked about Dr. Rosie Redfield (@RosieRedfield), a scientist at the University of British Columbia who is a regular tweeter. Redfield also writes a blog where she shares about daily life in her research lab. Instead of closing the doors tight, she invites the public right into her lab for a peek at the real ways in which science happens.

Dr. Jon Brock (@DrBrocktagon) of Macquarie University comes to my mind. This autism researcher tweets daily and blogs about real issues in cognitive science and autism research on a regular basis. Another strong presence in the Twittersphere is Christie Wilcox (@NerdyChristie), a PhD student at the University Hawaii who writes for Discover Blogs.  I was excited to hear Mooney mention Wilcox at the NSF workshop as he highlighted her unique voice for science and sharing it with the public.

These scientists represent many tweeters and bloggers that I follow and others I hope to discover soon. But we need more. Rapunzel shouldn’t be just a fairy tale. We need real life scientists to strive to communicate with the public, to let down their hair from the ivory tower, so the public can climb up and join them in understanding and enthusiasm.

Where should the burden lie?

Last week, I started a course in college science teaching here at MU.  As part of an introductory assignment, we were asked to write a statement explaining the purpose and value of undergraduate science education.  While our stomachs growled (the class is 5-8 PM, aka feed me NOW time) we discussed our statements on the first day of class.  One point that many made, and that I hadn’t considered, was that undergraduate science education serves to provide basic science literacy to future adults who may not otherwise encounter science.  This literacy  informs both professional decisions, including policy making, and personal ones, such as whether or not to buy organic food.  This literacy would also dispel misconceptions about scientific concepts as these science-educated adults enter the general public and voice their opinions.

Suddenly my science teaching course was sounding like a science journalism course.  If undergraduates are not informed of science and given a chance to appreciate it, public knowledge and understanding will suffer.  But isn’t this also the function of science journalism?  This made me wonder: where should the burden of public communication of science lie? Should educational institutions (K-12 and higher education) have the task of explaining science to the general public?  Or is it science journalism that should fill this role?

Both, working in concert, with each one filling in where the other falls short, would be the best case scenario.  If currently proposed reforms for science education in the United States are successful, high school and college graduates will enter the professional world with informed views about several fields of science.  However, these views will be at a basic level, as gaining a deep understanding of many fields would be cost and time prohibitive.  Here’s where science journalism can step in, informing the public of scientific findings that go beyond surface level knowledge in an accessible manner.  Moreover, if the consumers of science journalism are equipped with a foundation of scientific knowledge, science writers could share increasingly complicated ideas with their audience.  With this shared burden, science communication could thrive.

Granted, these ideas are, perhaps over-optimistically, under the assumption that we can have our cake and eat it too.  But when the public understanding of science is at stake, I think it’s worth a shot at even just one slice.

Tuesday Thoughts: Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens

Although these aren’t the favorite things of Julie Andrews, here are some of my favorite things related to public communication of science that I have come across over the past several weeks. Enjoy.

{Favorite thing #1}
I found the quote below from The Common Sense of Science by Jacob Bronowski on an autism research blog I follow.  I just love it’s pointed depiction of the lack of public communication ability among most scientists:

“[Scientists] have enjoyed acting the mysterious stranger, the powerful voice without emotion, the expert and the god. They have failed to make themselves comfortable in the talk of people on the street; no one taught them the knack, of course, but they were not keen to learn. And now they find the distance which they enjoyed has turned to distrust, and the awe has turned to fear; and people who are by no means fools really believe that we should be better off without science.”

{Favorite thing #2}
I’ve been following the launch of Matter (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/readmatter/matter) for several weeks.  Matter is an upcoming journalism project that focuses on long-form reporting about science and technology.  This publication will be one of the first to bring this type of in-depth, highly quality science journalism to the web. See the link for a video and information about the project.

{Favorite thing #3}
Thanks to Twitter, I was able to check out Brainfacts.org (http://www.brainfacts.org/) the day it launched.  This website, developed in part by the Society for Neuroscience, is a brand new resource for the public to learn about all things brain. What is so great about this particular “public information initiative” is the source of its information.  The  editors to the site are all leading neuroscientists, making the information not only highly accurate, but up to date and relevant.

{Favorite thing #4}
I don’t even remember how I found To Think, To Write, To Publish (http://www.thinkwritepublish.org/), but I’m glad I did. To Think, To Write, To Publish, is a workshop dedicated to advancing the publication communication of science in a unique way. Instead of handing a scientist a press release request or a journalist a microscope, this workshop pairs scientists and science writers, asking them to develop a creative non-fiction story together. With this approach, the stories produced and later published are (refreshingly) both informative and enjoyable to read.

 {This post was originally published at my previous blog, http://postitjunkie.blogspot.com/}