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Congratulations to this year’s CSWA Book Award Winners!
The Canadian Science Writers’ Association/ Association candienne des rédacteurs scientifiques is pleased to announce the winners in the 2014 Science in Society Book Awards competition. The winners will each be presented with a certificate and $1000 cash prize during an awards dinner held in conjunction with the CSWA ‘s 44th annual conference in Saskatoon, SK, hosted by the University of Saskatchewan 18-21 June 2015.
Winner for the 2014 Science in Society Children/ Middle Grades Book Award competition:
The first in a series of humorous books about “disgusting creatures”, The Fly is a look at the common housefly. It covers such topics as the hair on the fly’s body (requires a lot of shaving), its ability to walk on the ceiling (it’s pretty cool, but it’s hard to play soccer up there), and its really disgusting food tastes (garbage juice soup followed by dirty diaper with rotten tomato sauce, for example).
Elise Gravel is an award-winning author and illustrator from Québec. She is winner of the Governor General’s Award for Children’s Illustration in French, and is well known in Québec for her original, wacky picture books. Having completed her studies in graphic design, Elise found herself quickly swept up into the glamorous world of illustration. Her old design habits drive her to work a little text here and there into her drawings and she loves to handle the design of her assignments from start to finish. She is inspired by social causes and likes projects that can handle a good dose of eccentricity.
Winner for the 2014 Science in Society General Book Award competition:
Being among bees is a full-body experience, Mark Winston writes—from the low hum of tens of thousands of insects and the pungent smell of honey and beeswax, to the sight of workers flying back and forth between flowers and the hive. The experience of an apiary slows our sense of time, heightens our awareness, and inspires awe. Bee Time presents Winston’s reflections on three decades spent studying these creatures, and on the lessons they can teach about how humans might better interact with one another and the natural world.
Like us, honeybees represent a pinnacle of animal sociality. How they submerge individual needs into the colony collective provides a lens through which to ponder human societies. Winston explains how bees process information, structure work, and communicate, and examines how corporate boardrooms are using bee societies as a model to improve collaboration. He investigates how bees have altered our understanding of agricultural ecosystems and how urban planners are looking to bees in designing more nature-friendly cities.
The relationship between bees and people has not always been benign. Bee populations are diminishing due to human impact, and we cannot afford to ignore what the demise of bees tells us about our own tenuous affiliation with nature. Toxic interactions between pesticides and bee diseases have been particularly harmful, foreshadowing similar effects of pesticides on human health. There is much to learn from bees in how they respond to these challenges. In sustaining their societies, bees teach us ways to sustain our own.
Mark L. Winston has had a distinguished career researching, teaching, writing and commenting on bees and agriculture, environmental issues, and science policy. He was a founding faculty member of the Banff Centre’s Science Communication programme, and consults widely on utilizing dialogue to develop leadership and communication skills, focus on strategic planning, inspire organisational change, and thoughtfully engage public audiences with controversial issues. Winston’s work has appeared in numerous books, commentary columns for The Vancouver Sun, The New York Times, The Sciences, Orion magazine and frequently on CBC Radio and Television and National Public Radio. He currently is a Fellow in Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Dialogue, and a Professor of Biological Sciences.
Short List for the 2014 Science in Society Children/ Middle Grades Book Award competition:
Zoobots by Helaine Becker, Kids Can Press.
Starting from Scratch by Sarah Elton, Owl Kids Books.
It’s Catching by Jennifer Gardy, Owl Kids Books.
The Fly by Elise Gravel, Penguin Random House.
If by David J. Smith, Kids Can Press.
Short List for the 2014 Science in Society General Book Award competition:
The End of Memory by Jay Ingram, Harper Collins Publishers Ltd.
Canadian Spacewalkers: Hadfield, MacLean and Williams Remember the Ultimate High Adventure by Bob McDonald, Douglas & McIntyre.
Pain and Prejudice: What Science can Learn about Work from the People Who Do It by Karen Messing, Between the Lines (BTL).
Is that a Fact? by Dr Joe Schwarcz, ECW Press.
Bee Time by Mark L. Winston, Harvard University Press.
By Sarah Boon
Despite many excellent examples to the contrary, science communication remains plagued by two overarching stereotypes that seem to pit scientists and communicators against one another:
1. Scientists often are terrible communicators; and,
2. Communicators often get the science wrong.
These perceptions are slowly beginning to change, however, as people realize that scientists and communicators don’t live on fundamentally different planets.
For example, in a recent article for BioScience, Vancouver science writer Lesley Evans Ogden cited research that found that scientists and communicators are generally comfortable with each other’s worldviews – likely because those worldviews are actually more similar than they think. Evans Ogden quotes COMPASS director Nancy Baron, who says: “They’re two sides of the same coin…Journalists want to dive in, dig deep, kick hard, and move on, whereas scientists delve deeper and deeper into their topic…Because science is slow and ongoing, that difference of time frames makes for tension.”
Another factor in changing the communications’ stereotypes is that scientists are realizing that they must communicate better – and are actually learning how to do it. At the same time, communicators are more easily able to access scientific publications, blogs, and scientists themselves, so are more readily able see and address potential reporting errors.
With this in mind, scientist-turned-science-communicator Nick Crumpton last month argued that better and more accessible scientific publications are critical given increasingly open access to the scientific literature, and the subsequent need to engage the new audience accessing this literature. In addition, scientists increasingly understand the need to convince people of the relevance of their work – especially in an era of government budget cuts and public mistrust of science. Good communication by scientists is also vital to inform ongoing policy debates around science-related topics such as climate change, vaccination, and GMOs.
Aware of their reputation as poor communicators – and knowing what’s at stake – many scientists are keen to remedy the situation. Ecologist Stephen Heard attributes the dull and unintelligible nature of scientific writing to three factors: a lack of respect for scientists who write creatively, editors and reviewers squashing creativity in scientific articles, and the fact that it rarely occurs to scientists that their writing could aspire to rise above a strictly fact-based writing standard. He champions improved and more accessible science writing, and is writing a book on that very topic to be released in 2016.
Understanding their previous failings, scientists are increasingly reaching out publicly through social media and blogging to share their research. While these efforts are largely attempted on an individual basis, scientists are also taking communications training such as that offered through international programs like COMPASS Online and the Leopold Leadership Program, and Canadian programs like the Banff Science Communications program or the University of Toronto’s Fellowship in Global Journalism.
On the other side of the coin, science communicators increasingly understand the need for rigour in science reporting. In a recent post on the Talk Science To Me blog, Amanda Maxwell outlined some of the methodological difficulties she faces when determining the quality of the science she’s communicating. “Is the experimental design robust? Are the inferences supported? Does the news come from a genuine source? Am I propagating rubbish?”
Her post shows not only the difficulty in interpreting science, but the careful attention paid by many communicators to make sure they get it right. Science communicators are turning to tools like the UK’s NHS Behind the Headlines to help them assess scientific studies, Retraction Watch to show which studies have gone off track, and the unfortunately now-defunct Knight Science Journalism Tracker to assess how studies are covered. Science writers can also connect with professional organizations such as the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, and with media organizations that facilitate fact-checking with scientists – such as science media centres in Canada, the UK and other countries, with one also planned for the US.
This two-pronged approach (scientists improving their communication skills and communicators improving their reporting skills) has had some great results, from active scientists like Dr. Ray Jayawardhana publishing popular science books, to journalists like Jude Isabella winning awards for their scientific reporting.
Unfortunately not everyone agrees with this approach. Some feel that science writing should be left to the experts, rather than relying on scientists to bring their communication skills up to snuff.
For example, editor Iva Cheung suggests that perhaps academic writing should be done by communications professionals – at least in the biomedical sciences. “Rather than forcing academics to hone a weak skill, maybe we’d be better off bringing in communications professionals whose writing is already sharp,” she writes. She also says, however, that “liberating scientists from writing should not absolve them of the responsibility of learning how to communicate. At a minimum, they would still need to understand the publication process enough to effectively convey their ideas to the writers.”
As a scientist and freelance writer for over a decade, I’ve seen the benefits from both sides. Switching between communicating to a scientific versus a general audience isn’t always a smooth process – and I’ve definitely had missteps along the way. However, my communication skills have been invaluable in preparing high quality, readable scientific manuscripts; in teaching students complex concepts in understandable ways; and in preparing conference presentations that clearly engage with existing research while presenting new ideas. As a communicator, my scientific training has been critical in distilling scientific literature to its key components, and ensuring that the focus is on a well-supported story. I’ve also found that science communication has encouraged me to step back from the minutiae of the science itself to gain a broader perspective on the practice and culture of science. This provides excellent context for understanding how various science studies contribute to society – and how scientists themselves view that contribution. I’ve also found that scientists are sometimes more comfortable talking about their research with someone who’s familiar with science and/or academic culture, and can thus converse in a semi-shorthand about scientific methods and results.
I think that – where possible – it’s more effective for scientists and communicators to meet in the middle and learn from each other, thereby benefitting both fields. As Evans Ogden concludes in her BioScience article, the divide between scientists and communicators isn’t as defined as we may think, and both sides have a lot to gain from each other.
For more on the relationship between scientists and communicators, see this recent Guardian article.
Sarah Boon has straddled the worlds of freelance writing/editing and academic science for the past 15 years. She blogs at Watershed Moments about nature and nature writing, science communication, and women in science. She is a member of the Canadian Science Writers’ Association and the Editors’ Association of Canada, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society in 2013. Sarah is also the Editorial Manager at Science Borealis. Find Sarah on Twitter: @snowhydro
By Kasra Hassani
What could possibly be interesting about a worm? What if it could enter your body through your mouth and somehow find its way to your foot? Or what if it could grow in your body from a microscopic size to potentially a couple of feet? These statements describe the Guinea Worm, a parasitic worm that was once widely endemic in Africa and parts of Asia, but that is now on the brink of extinction — while it used to infect 3.5 million people in the 1980s, the number of documented cases has dwindled to only 126.
While scientifically fascinating, the consequences of ingesting the Guinea Worm are medically devastating. The worm enters the body by drinking water contaminated with Guinea worm larvae. The larva survives exposure to stomach acids and digestive enzymes and somehow escapes the intestinal wall, finding its way to our limbs, usually our legs. Approximately one year after the initial infection, the worm rips open the skin and buds out, causing excruciating pain, forcing its host to do whatever he/she can for some relief, which usually involves dipping the foot in water. It usually takes days, even weeks, for the worm to completely exit the body and, as one could imagine, this is a very painful process. For those who have the fortitude to watch it, here is a video documenting this process. Upon first contact with water, the worm releases thousands of eggs, and it continues to release eggs while it is slowly exiting the body, spreading its offspring as much as it can.
Indeed through its evolution, the Guinea Worm has developed tricks to increase its chances of survival and of spreading its offspring. It lays hidden inside the body causing very little damage, subsisting in its host for a very long time — certainly not killing the host. When it is time to spread its offspring, it exits the body causing a lot of pain, leading the host to submerge his foot in water, providing the environment the worm needs to release its eggs and carry out the next phase of its life cycle.
The Guinea worm’s curious biology and ability to hide from its host’s immune system in plain site could provide important scientific knowledge. However, we don’t know much about the Guinea Worm, and chances are we never will. As cases of Guinea Worm disease dwindle mainly owing to Jimmy Carter’s eradication program, the Guinea Worm is becoming increasingly less relevant to Western clinicians and scientists. A quick search on PubMed (a database of publications on life sciences research) with the keyword “Dracunculus”, the worm’s scientific name yields about 1700 results, or scientific publications. That might sound like a lot, but compared to 230,000 that come up for “AIDS” and about 500,000 that come up for “Diabetes”, it’s negligible. Guinea Worm Disease is categorized by the World Health Organization as a “neglected tropical disease”, a term which has sparked some attention to the disease and other diseases of poverty. Rabies and Leprosy are some of the more familiar names on this list — once widespread diseases that now have a greatly reduced prevalence because of increased hygiene and sanitation.
There is no cure for Guinea Worm Disease and there is no vaccine. The only “treatment” available is to slowly wind the worm around a stick and manually remove it from the body, an agonizing process that has been practiced for centuries. This is not surprising because very little research has been done on Guinea Worm treatment.
Luckily, controlling and preventing Guinea Worm Disease is simple, at least in theory: (1) Don’t dip your infected foot in your household drinking water (2) Don’t drink water you suspect may not be clean. In practice however, it has not proven to be so simple. Over the past 30 years, The Carter Center, which is the leading organization in the effort to eradicate Guinea Worm Disease, has needed to engage in a number of diverse efforts to tackle this problem— from community-driven education for safe water consumption to negotiating for peace in civil-war-inflicted zones so that care can be given to those who need it. The 1995 Guinea Worm Cease-fire in Sudan is a famous example.
Another feature of the Guinea Worm that has facilitated eradication efforts is the fact that it has no known hosts other than humans. Therefore, if human infection is managed, you can control and potentially eradicate the disease. That is not the case for many other diseases. For example, Rabies can infect almost any mammal. Although a Rabies vaccine does exist, the fact that the Rabies virus can be freely transmitted in the wild without going through humans makes its eradication more difficult. But that’s a topic for another time.
So far in human history, only one disease has ever been eradicated — small pox. Could Guinea Worm Disease be next? Bill and Melinda Gates think so. They believe that through global efforts and distribution of free medication and vaccines, we could see the end of Guinea Worm Disease, River Blindness, Elephantitis, blinding Trachoma, Polio and even Malaria.
by Naomi Stewart
Leprosy seems to be a disease of the past — an antiquated issue and something not to worry about in our world of modern medicine. But it’s not completely gone, and there is a fascinating link in the United States that ties humans to leprosy through an unusual third-party vector. Leprosy is a bacterial disease, also called Hansen’s disease after Gerhard Hansen, a Norwegian doctor who isolated the bacteria Mycobacterium leprae as the cause of leprosy in 1873 —the first time a bacterium was identified as an agent of disease for humans. Leprosy had been noted historically as far back as 4,000 years ago, and the DNA of M. leprae has been found in funeral shrouds dating back 2000 years.
The disease is a chronic infection mostly found in the skin and nerves (also in eyes and respiratory tracts), resulting in many small nodules called ‘granuloma ’ which are the body’s natural defense mechanisms against the bacterial invaders. Diminished sensations and secondary infections cause the loss of extremities and limbs, all symptoms commonly associated with leprosy, though not caused by the disease itself. Despite low rates of contagiousness, the physical appearance of leprosy has created a long-lasting social stigma (think of the now-banned infamous leper colonies).
The incubation period is anywhere from five to 20 years, so it’s difficult for doctors to tell how many new cases actually occur each year. But with novel modern treatments, worldwide initiatives to halt the disease, and the fact that 95 percent of humans are now considered genetically immune, researchers estimate that infection rates have dropped from tens of million in the 1960s to just a few hundred thousand in 2012. New cases occur mostly in isolated, small pockets of India, China, Brazil, and a few countries in Africa, such as Mozambique, Tanzania, and Madagascar in tropical or semi-tropical areas stricken with poverty, where people have weakened immune systems, polluted waters, and are therefore more susceptible to transmittable diseases.
While understandably common in these conditions, leprosy also still lurks in North America: about 200 people in the US contract leprosy annually. Doctors noticed that while a majority (about two thirds) of these patients had lived or traveled abroad in areas with leprosy, the rest of the infected patients claimed that they had never traveled to somewhere with leprosy, and had no contact with anyone with leprosy. So how were they possibly contracting the disease? Suspicion fell on an odd, yet adorably armored agent of infection – the armadillo.
In addition to humans, the African chimpanzee, mangabey, red squirrel, and a few others, the armadillo* is part of a group of mammals vulnerable to the M. leprae. There were no known cases of leprosy in any creatures in the Americas prior to the arrival of European colonizers, so it is thought that settlers actually carried the disease across the ocean, somehow passing leprosy on to armadillos. It is likely that the cool body temperatures of armadillos are hospitable homes for M. leprae, who also like the cool extremities of the human body (noses, toes). Scientists knew that armadillos could carry the disease, as they were using them in the lab by the 1970s to study leprosy, and indeed, many of the outlying cases were occurring in Texas and Louisiana, where armadillos are commonly hunted, skinned, and eaten.
However, the connection between leprosy, humans, and armadillos remained a mere suspicion until 2011, when a landmark study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Lead author Richard W. Truman, who works for the US government, and collaborators in Switzerland had long wondered about this potential link. The researchers used whole-genome sequencing from a number of infected humans and armadillos, discovering a bacterial strain that was common to both, but unique when compared to strains found elsewhere. Thus, unlike the rest of the world where leprosy is still passed from human to human via respiratory droplets, Truman and his colleagues showed that armadillos are unwittingly giving humans back this special strain of leprosy, tossing it back and forth like a beach ball in a biological game that has lasted 400 to 500 years so far.
So, while only 20 percent of armadillos are suspected to be infected with leprosy, what can you do to avoid it? If you end up or live in the southern U.S. or Central America, avoid a meal with armadillo meat,, avoid piles of armadillo excrement, and generally stay away from their flesh and guts. Just admire them from afar — the way they jump and roll into a curled little ball is still cute from a distance. And in the meantime, as scientists can’t actually duplicate and grow M. leprae in a lab to study because they are difficult to culture, armadillos are now serving as excellent models to study leprosy and neuropathy for Truman and his peers. .
*Armadillos are colloquially called Hoover Hogs, dating back to the Great Depression in the USA. President Hoover was blamed for many of the economic issues that, out of desperation, forced people to consume animals previously considered pests, including the armadillo – thus, the Hoover Hog.