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Our Members' Blog posts cover a wide range of topics, some have been picked up by major international media outlets, others have become the subject of national news stories in Canada, and some have made the top science communications article lists for the year they were posted.

If you are a SWCC Member and would like to contribute a guest post, send us an email to office@sciencewriters.ca. 

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  • 03 Feb 2016 11:42 AM | Anonymous member

    By Claire Eamer

    I spent much of the summer researching a new kids’ science book. (Sorry – can’t get specific yet.) It’s about a very hot research topic – so hot that fresh stories seemed to hit the news every other day all summer long.

    If you’re writing one of those news stories, it’s exciting. You can get your story out in days, if not hours. If you’re writing for a magazine or another long-form medium, you have a problem. Your story might not appear for a couple of months or even longer. That means you have to dig deeper into the background of the story and give your readers the tools to evaluate the hot-off-the-press news stories that will continue to crop up.

    But pity the poor book writer! The authors of non-fiction books can spend years researching their topics, reading the literature, interviewing experts in the field, grappling with the complexity and implications of the topic. And that’s just the beginning. The process of editing, designing, proofing, printing, and publishing usually adds at least another year to the process.

    I write science books for kids, and that gives me an advantage. The books are shorter, so the turn-around time is faster. Still, the book I’ve been working on since late last spring won’t hit the shelves until next fall. And that’s a long time for a hot topic.

    Still – you have to try, even if you’re writing for kids. Maybe especially if you’re writing for kids. They are the scientists and science-consumers of tomorrow, and they need the best, most accurate information writers can give them. Kids’ science writers generally try very hard to provide that.

    And sometimes that relatively short lead time for kids’ books works to our advantage.

    A few years ago, I spent months researching material for Traitors’ Gate and Other Doorways to the Past, a book for kids aged 10 to 14 on the history of eight different buildings around the world.

    (Yes, I know this blog is supposed to be about science, but we’ll get there. Promise!)

    One of the doorways was the grand entrance to the Treasury, or Al Khazneh, in Petra, Jordan. You’ve probably seen it. In the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, when Indy dashed up a wide stone stairway and through the imposing doorway of the Grail Temple, he was really dashing up the steps and through the entrance of the Treasury.

    In this 2010 photo of the Treasury, the grating covering the 2003 excavations is visible to the left of the great door. Photo by Arian Zwegers, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic Licence.

    Of course, there’s no Grail Temple on the other side of the door – just a big empty room carved into the red-stone cliff. Both room and façade were created by the Nabateans, who controlled the desert trade routes for several centuries until the Romans took control of Petra in 106 CE.

    The Nabateans built the Treasury about 2000 years ago, and the circumstances of its building and its purpose were lost in time. In 2007, when I was researching my book, the best source of information was Jane Taylor’s beautiful 2002 book, Petra and the Lost Kingdom of the Nabateans. The author listed the most common speculations about the purpose of the Treasury, and the reasoning behind them. That should be enough, you’d think. After all, I was writing a single chapter in a book for kids – 20 short pages at most, with lots of pictures.

    The trouble is, you have to be sure. So I searched academic journals, trawled the Internet, and poked through proceedings from archaeology conferences.

    (See – I told you we’d get back to science!)

    Although the journals produced nothing new, the Internet kept throwing up tantalizing references to recent excavations. But – no journal articles, no first-hand accounts, no contact information.

    Finally, I searched for email addresses under the names I’d identified and sent messages to all of the addresses in the hope that one would connect. It did. Dr. Suleiman Farajat of the University of Jordan and the Petra Archaeological Park responded and kindly sent me a draft report with the information I needed.

    In the summer of 2003, with tourism in Jordan all but dead because of political tension, Jordanian archaeologists had done some long-delayed excavating in front of the Treasury, where ground-penetrating radar suggested there was something interesting. And indeed there was. The broad steps and huge entry were not, it turned out, the base of the structure. They were, in fact, one storey up. Beneath them, buried in millennia of flash-flood debris, was an entire storey – tombs, some still holding skeletons and the remains of offerings to the dead.

    The 2003 excavations revealed this narrow stairway leading down to the tombs that once formed the main-floor level of the Treasury. Photo courtesy of Petra National Trust.

    The mystery of the Treasury – still a mystery in the 2002 book – was a mystery no more. The Treasury was a mausoleum built to honour the royal family of Petra and to awe and impress visitors. Its grand entry had once loomed metres above the heads of visitors and worshippers, who filled the plaza beneath it with the smoke of their offerings and the murmur of their prayers.

    When Traitors’ Gate and Other Doorways to the Past – a book for kids – came out in 2008, it was the only publication with that new information, apart from a print-only annual report on excavations that was shelved in a library in Jordan. And that remained true for a couple of years, until the rest of the publishing world caught up.

    Sometimes, all those awkward timelines just work out right.

     

    Website of the Petra National Trust and its list of archaeology projects: http://petranationaltrust.org/UI/showcontent.aspx?ContentId=79

    A guide to Petra as one of the Seven New Wonders of the World: http://www.theworldwonders.com/new-petra.html

    An account by a tourism operator shortly after the 2003 excavations: http://www.diggingsonline.com/pages/rese/arts1/2004/petra.htm

    A story about Petra and celebrations for the 200th anniversary of Europeans’ “rediscovery” of the city (the Bedouins knew it was there all the time): http://www.gadventures.com/blog/200-years-of-discovery-petras-re-discovery-bicentennial/

    “Preserving Petra Sustainably (One Step at a Time)” in the inaugural edition of the Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology and Heritage Studies (2013): http://www.psupress.org/Journals/Journal%20PDFs/JEMAHS_mockup_FINAL.pdf

    A rather breathless documentary about Petra from the program, Digging for the Truth – but with some good video and an interview with Dr. Farajat: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VeKabIpA69A

     

    Claire Eamer  is a BC-based science writer who writes popular science articles and books for both kids and adults, as well as writing and editing major scientific reports for international science-based organizations.

  • 07 Jan 2016 3:32 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)
    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, 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

  • 07 Jan 2016 3:31 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

     

    Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Kókay Szabolcs

    Eight months pregnant and stressed-out was how I found myself roughly two years ago, sitting in front of the computer screen. I was on the Air Canada website, attempting to book a flight from Vancouver to Winnipeg so I could visit family six weeks after my daughter’s due date. But I was terrified to click on “Book Flight.”

    Everyone knows that airplane cabins are festering clouds of germs, right? There’s science to back that up: one study of microbes inside airplanes found that circulating cabin air contained an abundance of opportunistic pathogenic inhabitants of the human respiratory tract and oral cavity. So if I brought a newborn with a still-developing immune system on board, would I be putting her life in danger? She wouldn’t even have had her first vaccinations yet. What kind of monster would I be for taking her on this flight?

    At the time, my knowledge about the infant immune system was based mainly on what my health care practitioners had told me--which was practically nothing. I had even asked a nurse about airplane flights, specifically, and she said she didn’t know whether or not it was a good idea. That probably accounted for why I couldn’t bring myself to click the button that committed me to the flight.

    What I failed to realize at the time was how much the recent research on the human microbiome—the bacteria that live on and inside us--was relevant to the issue. It just required putting together a few scientific pieces.

    When a baby is born, she is more-or-less a microbial blank slate. Recent research calls into question the age-old assumption that babies are completely bacteria-free in the womb, but it’s clear that the main bacterial exposure comes during and after birth.) So the act of coming into the world is of great importance to a baby’s health, because the moment she hits the birth canal, she is exposed to a diverse set of bacteria that colonize her tiny -- Tender makes me think of food  -- body.

    The baby’s immune system is indeed immature at that point, leaving her vulnerable to infections. In fact, a new study actually found evidence of immunosuppression in newborns, which is probably because the baby needs to remain “vulnerable to,” or open to, good bacteria taking up residence. It seems excessive inflammation caused by a sensitive immune system would do more harm than good at that point.

    The microbes that colonize a newborn’s body in the first weeks basically are her immune system. When the right kinds of good bacteria are present, pathogens have more difficulty getting a foothold.

    So what gives a newborn a healthy collection of microbes that provide immunity? Studies consistently find that infants who have been delivered vaginally, rather than by cesarean section, have microbiomes that contain a greater number of species. Ditto for those who were breastfed--they got a bunch of good bacteria packed into every meal (though certain probiotics can easily substitute). Gestational age at birth also seems to matter, as the colonization happens differently in a preterm baby’s gut -- Are there other ways these bacteria could be acquired? I don't think we necessarily need to guilt mothers who delivered via c-section or who can't/don't want to breastfeed --. Other bacteria, both good and bad, come from the baby’s environment--the people and surfaces that she touches.

    The science seemed to say that as long as baby’s good bacteria are thriving, the chances of her getting a terrible bacterial infection on an airplane flight should be quite low. Great news.

    But on the other hand, there’s still a problem. Despite the gargantuan importance of the microbiome early in life--with some calling it the “forgotten organ” of the human body and arguing that the effects of early microbial colonization last a lifetime--why are health practitioners not prepared for questions about it? My (anecdotal) survey of friends who’ve recently had babies uncovered not a single report of a care provider who had brought up the topic. It’s a huge oversight, given the volume of research on the topic over the past two years or so. Doctors, nurses, and midwives need to get up-to-date on this, and quickly. Especially because a few good ideas are bouncing around that may help save some newborns from serious infections. In my case, giving me all the facts might just have saved me from unnecessary anxiety.

    The end of the story is this: I took the flight, and the baby was fine. In fact, we took 18 flights the first year, and all of them were fine. The risk of taking a baby on an airplane, or anywhere that’s microbially unfamiliar, can be mitigated by ensuring good colonization in those early weeks.

    Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for the risk of dirty looks from fellow passengers when your baby cries. Good luck with that, parents.

    Kristina Campbell, a.k.a. “The Intestinal Gardener”intestinalgardener.blogspot.ca

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