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Twitter and Science Publications

#Scio13: The good, the drunk, and the sketchnotes

It’s been almost two weeks since Science Online 2013 kicked off in Raleigh, NC….

You know, I’ve tried ending that sentence a number of different ways, and I hated all of them. There have been several blog posts written over the last ten days that all did great jobs of summarizing the conference. Some were personal, others professional. For me, Scio13 was a perfect mix of the personal and the professional. I hung out with old friends, made new ones, and had insightful conversations (although at times insightfulness transmogrified into contagious joke-telling) with all of them.

As always, Science Online is what you make of it, and this year I turned my attention to the “how” of communication. How do we tell good stories? How can we learn from the narrative styles common in genre writing? And, perhaps most importantly, how do we get people excited about (instead of frightened of) science, and then turn that excitement into social and political change?

I had some epiphanies of my own over the three short days I was in Raleigh, and made my own resolutions regarding how I try to communicate science from now on. But I figure from the same information you will likely reach other conclusions and make different promises to yourself. So, here are the notes I took at Scio13. Feel free to share them with your friends, include them in your own conference roundups, or print them out and frame them (kidding 😉 ):

URI Sci Comms Day with Bora Zivkovic

Yesterday AmasianV and I took a little jaunt down to the University of Rhode Island Bay Campus in Narragansett. It was a beautiful day, and after missing the turn off for the building we ended up at a little beach. For a brief second we considered a swim, but decided showing up bedraggled to Bora Zivkovic‘s science communication talk would be a little uncouth.

The purpose of the day was to give science grad students a crash course in online communications. And what a day it was! Sunshine Menezes from the Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting at the URI Graduate School of Oceanography had put together a wonderful program, starting with a public lecture by the Blogfather himself and ending with a panel discussion that included myself, Biochem Belle, and Dan Blustein.

As always, I went armed with a pad of paper and a box of markers and recorded the day sketchnote-style. So rather that recap the day in words, I shall do so in pictures!

@Biochembelle and @AmasianV were also live-tweeting all day using the hashtag #riscweet, and I think there are plans to Storify all the tweets. I will keep you posted!

Science has a PR problem

Today sees the start of a series of blog posts on’s Soapbox Science blog. Starting with a post by me about how scientists can begin to change the face of their industry, and hopefully rectify some of the damage that has been done over the last few years. Click on the doodle, have a read, and then get involved in the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #reachingoutsci.


Is God Just In Your Head? Answering the BIG questions with Jesse Bering

Today’s departmental seminar took a bit of an existential detour from our usual fare. Jesse Bering (@JesseBering) lead us on a tour of the inner workings of our mind, from considering our place on earth to what happens after we die. From his analyses we were encouraged to think about how these “Big Questions” might influence our need to find a reason for everything, which in turn leads some to live a life of faith.


So you want to be a science writer? Pearls of wisdom from Carl Zimmer

Last Monday my lab-mate said, “are you going to the Carl Zimmer thing?”.

“Huh?” Said I. “What Carl Zimmer thing?”

“He’s doing a talk on Thursday evening. Oh and office hours in the afternoon.”

After scraping my jaw off the floor and berating myself for not reading the weekly email that would have informed me of this event, I did what any other wannabe science writer and soon-to-be destitute (i.e. qualified) grad student would do. I signed up for the event, set multiple calendar alerts on my phone, and sent out several overly excited tweets.

So when Thursday rolled around me and my fellow blogger @AmasianV strolled over to the Science Center to meet Carl Zimmer. After everyone awkwardly introduced themselves, the first question for CZ was of course “how did you get into science writing?”. In case you don’t know the answer to that one, he graduated from Yale University with an English degree and subsequently got a job copy editing at Discover. A self-professed terrible copy editor, he then moved into fact checking, and the rest, as they say, is history.

But then we started talking about what it means to be a GOOD science writer, which, given the upcoming Wellcome Trust/Guardian/Observer competition and the associated blog post by Ed Yong, seemed like some useful information to share with y’all.

The most important thing, it seems, is to remember to tell a story. There’s no point just dumping a load of information onto a page and expecting your reader to wade through it. So figure out what the point of your piece is. Perhaps you are making an argument. But whether it’s an 800 word blog post or a book you need direction. Then, once you’ve figured out your angle, you have to find a way to sneak the science-y bits in there. If you need to introduce a piece of scientific jargon, do so with care. Make sure to explain each and every term you use.

The next step is to start cutting. Carl made the point that while it’s sometimes painful to cut a paragraph that you might be especially proud of, remove it from the essay and ask if it’s worse for it. If you don’t need it, it shouldn’t be there. “Extra” information could result in the reader moving on to another article in the magazine, or putting your book down, meaning you never get to make your point. And, if you find yourself cutting to the point that there’s no essay left, perhaps you need to rethink what you were trying to achieve!

Carl also had some great tips about story selection. This is particularly important in this day and age, when information is so freely available on the web. When you’re looking for a topic to write about make sure it is relevant, that the work you’re covering has a clear point to it, and that YOU can turn that work into a story for someone to read. In a nutshell: If you don’t care about it, why should anyone else?

And then the conversation turned to blogging

I asked a question about the value of blogging to a potential employer, as this blog is intended to also form a kind of online portfolio for me. Carl made the excellent point the all the advantages of blogging (the software is generally easy to use, you can self-publish, and you are free to write in whatever style you choose) can also be construed as disadvantages by a magazine editor. After all, anyone can blog. That being said, if you use your blog well and accompany it with an engaging online presence, there are definite pros to writing about science on the web. (If you haven’t already, do check out Carl’s blog, The Loom.)

But then the room seemed to polarize, with a division appearing between the “writers” and “scientists” in the room. The debate was nothing new, with the writers accusing the scientists of being distant and uptight, and the scientists decrying the abundance of mis-representation in the press. However what really shocked me was a comment from the other end of the table:

“Why aren’t scientists just better writers? Why can’t all scientific communication come from within the academy, and not just in the form of blogs?”

I felt all the blood in my body rush to my face in pure rage. My initial thought was what on earth is wrong with blogging? The last couple of years have seen a huge increase in the value of online communication. A fantastic example of this, as Carl pointed out, was the #arseniclife debacle and the subsequent efforts by Rosie Redfield to repeat the controversial experiments. But then, as my blood pressure started to return to normal, I realized that I was more annoyed with this undergrad’s complete lack of understanding of what both scientists and journalists do. What he was asking was the equivalent of someone saying “why can’t teachers also run a restaurent?”, or “why aren’t policemen also doctors?”. Being a scientist and being a writer are separate and demanding careers in their own right. While some people may have the ability to do both at the same time, they are the minority. To do either profession well, you need to be focused, dedicated, and talented.

Deep breath.

Viruses and Whales: Adventures in Science Writing

The talk in the evening was fabulous, obviously, and rather than continue typing, I will leave you with my sketchnotes. Enjoy, and happy science writing!

I sketched #BBBos

On Saturday I took a trip up to Boston to attend the first annual Blog Better Boston conference. Appart from having to get up at 5am it was an awesome day. The organizers (Amy Allen and Alana Brooks) did an amazing job: There were great panel discussions, more intimate workshops, and a whole host of swag!

I of course went armed with a sketchpad and my trusty markers, and set about using my scribing skills I learned at #scio12. So, if you missed the conference and want to find out what happened in the five sessions I went to, or were at the conference and just want a little reminder of what went on, here’s a gallery of my sketchnotes:

If you want to download a PDF of all these pictures, click here:

Tweet to download this file now!

…and if you want to try sketchnoting yourself, download my guide available on the sidebar (look to your right)!

(N.B. if you presented in these sessions and want to use these images on your site, do let me know and I can email you a high-res file.)

What exactly is a genetically modified plant?

Over the last few months I’ve been forced to think about the agricultural giant Monsanto. On the one hand I know someone who went to work there, someone I hold in high regard. And on the other hand I see repeated calls to action in the social media (by people I count among my closest friends) to boycott all Monsanto products.

Having done some research I have yet to come to a definitive conclusion myself. Monsanto has, in the past, been found guilty of serious environmental and ethical misconduct, and is currently being accused of aggressive enforcement of its patents amongst mid-western farmers. These things are obviously inexcusable. That being said, often the problems being voiced against the company are to do with the food their seeds ultimately produce. The goal appears to be to smear science when it is in fact human error that is to blame for Monsanto’s reputation.

But that’s as far as I will go with my opinion on the matter. My goal on this blog is to tackle hardcore science and explain it without any jargon, so that is what I will attempt to do. I’ll start with conventional plant breeding, move on to looking at how modern molecular biology has accelerated plant breeding processes, and finally take a look at how true genetically modified (a.k.a. transgenic) plants are made.

Conventional Plant Breeding

Humans have been breeding plants for around 10,000 years. The basic goal of this breeding was to improve certain plant characteristics. For example wheat, a common cereal crop, has been bred to produce more and larger seeds than its wild ancestor, and to fight off common infections. These traits were all present in the wild ancestor, but over time farmers encouraged the consolidation of these traits into better and better strains of wheat. The diagram below shows a brief schematic of how this is done:

Enter Molecular Biology

In the mid-19th century Gregor Mendel showed using pea plants that traits (or phenotypes) are inherited in a predictable manner. A century later, Watson and Crick showed that the molecular identity of this heritable material, genes, was DNA. From this discovery the field of molecular biology was born. New techniques started springing up left and right to manipulate DNA, to duplicate DNA, and, importantly, to sequence DNA. Knowing the sequence of an organism’s genome leads to a far greater understanding of the genes it contains, and therefore the day-to-day workings of its cells. It also allows scientists to track the movement of genes, a fact that is extremely useful in plant breeding. By using DNA sequencing technology, breeders can ensure that they select the plant that has gained a favorable gene without also assimilating any unwanted DNA.

We can therefore re-draw the above genetic cross as a molecular biologist would view it:

Vistive Brand Soybeans

Soybeans (as most other plants) produce fatty acids. These fatty acids come in a variety of different forms, but broadly speaking are long strings of carbon atoms decorated with hydrogen atoms. Soybeans contain linoleic acid, which contains two carbon-carbon double bonds. This renders it an “unsaturated fatty acid”. Saturated fatty acids, on the other hand, contain no such double bonds. The carbon atoms are “saturated” with hydrogen atoms. Chemical hydrogenation, a common facet of food processing, aims to remove these double bonds. But this process has the unfortunate side effect of producing trans fats, in which the carbon-carbon double bond assumes a different shape. This alternate conformation is rarely found in nature, hence the aptitude of trans fats for clogging up our arteries.

So Monsanto used molecular biology to speed up the conventional breeding process to vastly reduce the amount of linoleic acid their soybeans produced. They inserted no foreign DNA into the plants, they simply selected the plants that had the correct genomic sequence.

Generating a Transgenic Plant

Towards the end of the twentieth century, molecular biological techniques had become so advanced that scientists were able to move pieces of DNA, particularly interesting or useful genes, between organisms. In the case of agriculture, plant biologists started to insert genes into crop breeds that could impart resistance to the common pests that plagued them. While the overall effectiveness of these measures remain controversial, let’s take a look at how it’s done.

The first step is to select a “gene of awesome” that you want your plant to express. Monsanto’s Genuity Brand Roundup Ready crops, for example, contain a gene that imparts resistance to the herbicide glyphosphate (trade name, Roundup). This has allowed farmers to use Roundup to control weed populations in their fields without killing the crop. This is desirable not only because Roundup is relatively cheap, it is also less likely to run off into drinking water supplies than other herbicides (which given the controversy regarding its toxicity is no bad thing).

Once you have your gene of awesome you need to put it into a plasmid. This circle of DNA will also contain at least one other gene, which can then be used to track the insertion of the gene of awesome. This is called a genetic marker, and plant biologists often use a gene called GUS. GUS is useful because in the presence of a particular chemical it will turn a plant blue.

Then you need to get your plasmid into a plant cell. This is done in a variety of ways, including my personal favorite, the “gene gun”. In this method plasmid DNA is applied to tiny particles of gold. These microscopic bullets are then fired at the plant, and the DNA is incorporated into the plants genome.

After growing the cells into seedlings, the GUS marker can then be used to select the seedlings that contain the gene of awesome. The new transgenic plants are then grown and propagated, et voila! You have a genetically modified plant.

Smartstax: Bt-Corn

The most recent Monsanto-related headlines have pertained to Bt-corn being approved for sale at Walmart with no indication to the consumer that that’s what they’re buying. If you have a problem with Monsanto, then I fully understand why you might not want to eat their corn. However, that it is poisonous to humans is, as far as I can tell, a spurious claim.

Bt stands for Bacillus thuringiensis, a bacteria that produces pesticidal toxins. These toxins, called Cry proteins, attack the larvae of particular insect species (including moths, butterflies, beetles, and wasps) and kill them. Cry proteins do this by recognizing proteins found on the cells of the larval gut wall. They then insert themselves into the membranes of these cells forming a channel through which water can flow. When enough water flows into the cell it bursts, and when this happens to enough cells the larva will die. Importantly, the proteins that Cry recognizes are specifically expressed in these insects, which means it represents a safe and specific pesticide.

The use of Bt in agriculture dates back to the 1920’s, when French farmers began using it for pest control, and continues to be used extensively in approved organic pesticides (Dipel and Thuricide).

The Specter of Resistance

Recently it has become apparent that insects are increasingly becoming resistant to Cry. Understandably this has infuriated organic farmers who rely on biological pesticides too. Monsanto has attempted to combat this through the use of “refuges”. Refuges are small amounts of non-Bt seeds that are mixed into Bt products (about 5% of the seed is non-Bt) that when planted form regions of the field where insects can flourish without relying on resistance. This reduces the selection pressure on the insects to become resistant to Cry.

So…Monsanto. Friend or Foe?

I will leave that for you to decide, but would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section. Equally, if you have any questions, I will do my best to wrangle the information out of the internet, although the polarizing nature of this topic makes finding unbiased information challenging to say the least!

I sketched #scio12

I just got back to lab after a few days in balmy North Carolina where I attended the amazing un-conference, ScienceOnline2012 (#scio12). There are lots of great posts appearing about the conference (such as this one from Ed Yong) that speak to the amazing atmosphere, the great conversations, and the liver-capacity of the ocean bloggers, so I thought I’d do something a little different…

Perrin Ireland (@experrinmentin) lead a wonderful workshop at the beginning of the conference on the topic of Sketchnoting (#sciencescribe) and got me hooked on the idea. So here are my notes from the meeting. Some are better than others, obviously, but unlike other meetings I’ve been to, I suspect I will actually refer back to these notes! Enjoy!

P.S. Yes, I will be doing this more often.

P.P.S. Sorry some of the scans got cut off due to technical limitations. C’est la vie.

P.P.P.S. #scio12 ROCKED.

Featured image credit: Brian Reid