by Meredith Hanel
Peaches and nectarines are the same fruit minus a small genetic variation that makes nectarines hairless. When I first learned this little trivia tidbit I wondered about the difference in flavour. I prefer nectarines to peaches, but wondered if the taste difference was all in my head. Well, it’s not.
The genetic variation affects flavour, aroma, size, shape and texture. While the rough location of the genetic change has been known for some time, the exact gene and the exact change in the DNA sequence of “nectarineness” has been a mystery. In March, scientists from Italy finally identified a disruption in a “fuzz” gene that is absent in peaches.
Agriculturists in China gifted fruit lovers with the peach about 4000 to 5000 years ago. At least 2000 years ago, again in China, nectarines burst on to the scene. Charles Darwin pondered about how nectarines popped up on peach trees and vice versa and described the odd finding of one fruit that was half and half. Would we call that a “peacharine?”
Darwin, and others, deduced that the nectarine was a peach variety. In 1933, scientists determined a recessive gene variant was responsible for the inheritance pattern of the nectarine's hairless (glabrous) skin. The glabrous trait was given the designation G, with big G for the normal fuzzy peach character and little g for the glabrous nectarine character. Each fruit has two copies of this gene. Each parent gives one to the offspring fruit, which can be either GG, Gg, or gg, and only the gg fruits are nectarines.
The chromosomal location of the G trait was already roughly landmarked but the Italian research team zoomed in on the spot, sort of like how you zoom in to street view with Google maps. Many DNA sequence differences exist between nectarines and peaches that are not located in genes but are useful as landmarks along the chromosomes. These are called genetic markers. To zoom in on the G trait, the researchers crossed peach and nectarine trees and followed the offspring through two generations. The offspring had a mixture of peach and nectarine markers along their chromosomes but certain genetic markers, the ones closest to the G trait location, always went along with the nectarineness. These genetic markers landmarked the region to search for genes with mutations that could explain a nectarine’s fuzz-less-ness.
Within the landmarked region, the researchers identified a disrupted gene. The peach to nectarine gene disruption is a genetic modification by the hand of Mother Nature, an insertion of a transposable element. This type of DNA element can move because it contains its own code for the production of an enzyme that can “cut”and “paste” the transposable element to other locations in the genome. Transposable elements can get pasted right in the middle of genes, disrupting the DNA sequence. They are a known cause of genetic variation in plants. If you like chardonnay wine, you can thank a transposable element for disrupting the cabernet grape genome long ago.
In nectarines the transposable element stuck itself right in the middle of a gene called PpeMYB25. Genes with similarities to PpeMYB25 in other plants are important for making plant hair, called trichome, which can occur on the stem, leaves, flowers and fruit of plants. The PpeMYB25 gene is the recipe for making a protein that is a transcription factor, a type of protein that controls when and how much other genes are turned on, so a mutation in this one gene could explain not just baldness in nectarines but other nectarine characteristics as well, depending on what these other genes are that it controls. In this report the researchers focused on the peach fuzz characteristic. When they looked at flower buds during the period when fuzz or trichome first develops, they found PpeMYB25 to be active in the peach but not the nectarine buds.
This is the first description of a specific genetic modification that can explain the difference between peaches and nectarines, something that has long been a mystery.
This research makes a strong case that nectarine lack of fuzz is due to the inability of nectarines to produce the PpeMYB25 protein. How lack of PpeMYB25might lead to the other nectarine characteristics — flavour, for instance — still needs to be worked out.
Vendramin, E. et al. (2014) A Unique Mutation in a MYB Gene Cosegregates with the Nectarine Phenotype in Peach. PLOS ONE. 9: e90574
Ien-Chi, W. et al. (1995) Comparing Fruit and Tree Characteristics of Two Peaches and Their Nectarine Mutants. J. Amer. Soc. Hort. Sci. 120(1):101-106. </a>
Darwin, C. (1868) The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication, Volume 1, pg 363.
Peach flower, fruit, seed and leaves as illustrated by Otto Wilhelm Thomé (1885) public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Nectarine Fruit Development by jjron - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Meredith is a science writer who once enjoyed life in the lab as a biomedical researcher. She blogs at BiologyBizarre and tweets @MeredithHanel
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.
The mission of this award is to promote excellence and creativity in the reporting of statistics-based findings to the Canadian public in an era when more and more reportage is being based on statistical analyses and interpretations. Data journalism on any subject involving statistics based findings and analyses is eligible for the award. The award is to be presented at the annual meeting of the Canadian Science Writers' Association.
We actively seek submissions from individual Canadian print, online and broadcast journalists and bloggers as well as journalism media outlets. Entries can have been published, broadcast or mounted online in English or in French and must have appeared in 2015.
The following criteria will bear equal weight in the evaluation of the submissions:
(1) Ease of understanding what the data is saying and the visual elegance and originality in how that data is conveyed.
(2) Impact of the entry on improving the public’s understanding of the data and on its general contribution to increased statistical literacy amongst Canadians.
Note: An article exhibiting significant flaws in its statistical interpretation shall not be considered for this award.
Applicants must be Canadian citizens or permanent residents, and the submitted work must have appeared in Canadian-based media. Applicants need not be members of the Canadian Science Writers' Association.
The Excellence in Data Journalism Award will normally be given out yearly. Award winners will receive a total monetary prize of $1,000 and a certificate from the Statistical Society of Canada. The prize may not be awarded if none of the submissions are deemed to have achieved a high level of excellence.
The deadline for this award is March 15, 2016. Jurors for the award will include at least one statistician and one journalist.
Cette distinction vise à promouvoir l’excellence et la créativité dans la présentation au public canadien de conclusions fondées sur les statistiques, à une époque où de plus en plus de reportages font appel à des analyses et des interprétations statistiques. Est admissible au prix toute œuvre journalistique dont le sujet comporte des conclusions et des analyses s’appuyant sur des statistiques. Le prix sera décerné au congrès annuel de l’Association canadienne des rédacteurs scientifiques.
Nous sollicitons des candidatures parmi les journalistes et blogueurs canadiens de la presse écrite, en ligne et audiovisuelle, ainsi que des organes de presse. Les œuvres journalistiques doivent avoir été publiées, diffusées ou mises en ligne en français ou en anglais au cours de l’année 2015. L’évaluation des dossiers se fera selon les critères suivants, à importance égale :
(1) La facilité de compréhension de la signification des données, ainsi que l’élégance visuelle et l’originalité de la présentation des données.
(2) L’impact de l’œuvre journalistique sur l’amélioration de la compréhension des données par le public et sa contribution générale au niveau des connaissances statistiques de la population canadienne.
Remarque : Un article dont l’interprétation statistique comporte d’importantes failles ne sera pas considéré dans le cadre de ce prix.
Les candidats doivent être citoyens canadiens ou résidents permanents, et les œuvres journalistiques soumises doivent être parues dans un média canadien. Il n’est pas nécessaire d’être membre de l’Association canadienne des rédacteurs scientifiques pour participer.
Le prix d’excellence en journalisme des données sera normalement remis chaque année. Les lauréats recevront une somme de 1 000 $ et un certificat de la Société statistique du Canada. Si aucune des œuvres journalistiques reçues n’atteint un haut niveau d’excellence, il est possible que le prix ne soit pas décerné.
La date limite pour participer cette année est le 15 mars 2016. Au moins un statisticien et un journaliste feront partie du jury.
By Chelsea Matisz
A one year old male.
I research inflammatory bowel disease. A few days ago I started a new experiment, using human cells from a cell line called THP-1. Not being very familiar with these cells, I was interested in where they came from. The results of a Wikipedia search left me speechless. They are derived from the peripheral blood of a one year old human male with acute monocytic leukemia. One year old.
My son had his first birthday less than two weeks ago. On that day he had his first taste of cake (red velvet with buttercream frosting). The cells I am using in my experiment came from a little boy whose first birthday was likely his last. These cells are identical to those that used to course through the circulatory system of a little boy the same age as my mine. Through the arms he used to hold his favourite toys, crawl up the stairs, and hug his mum.
Cell lines are a population of genetically identical cells that are all descended from a single individual cell. Normally, cells don’t live forever. However if they have mutations that prevent their natural cell death from occurring they will madly proliferate, and given the right conditions, live forever. For a cell line to exist, these mutations are necessary. But in a living organism, these cells are cancer.
Journalist Rebecca Skloot deserves credit for investigating the human story behind immortalized cell lines. Her Pulitzer prize winning book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” delves into the life of a woman whose cancerous cervical cells were used to establish the ‘HeLa’ cell line-the line used for most cancer research done today-without her knowledge or consent. The book humanized the woman whose cells have become immortalized in science, but also highlighted the ethical and legal complexities of using biological tissues in research.
It was in 1980 that the THP-1 cell line, established in a Japanese lab, was reported to the scientific community in a published paper. Based on some details in the paper,
the cells were probably extracted from the little boy around 1977. Did his parents know his cells were cultivated into a cell line? Who owns the discarded biological tissues from patients and research participants? What level of control should donors have over their samples? Should we limit the rights of tissue donors in favour of the benefits of tissue-based research?
These are challenging moral and philosophical questions that legal experts are currently debating. I cannot comment on what ethical and legal frameworks were in place when the boy’s cells were extracted, and the THP-1 cell line established. I can tell you that in Canada, upon the parents’ request, the existence of THP-1 cell line would be disclosed. Additionally, the parents could withdrawal their consent for the cells being used in research. Whether there is an obligation for researchers to disclose this information without the donor’s request is being debated. The profits from a commercial cell line would likely not be shared with the donor.
I can tell you that in Canada, research involving human biological tissues involves intense scrutiny via the research ethics board, and similar protocols are in place in other countries. While it varies from country to country, human tissue-based research operates under the core principles of respect for human dignity, informed consent, patient privacy & confidentiality, minimizing harm, and maximizing benefit.
I can also tell you that THP-1 cells have contributed immeasurably towards our knowledge of the immune system, cancers, bacteria and viruses, and have played a key role in the development of drugs and vaccines. I can tell you that as a mother, I am conflicted about the thought of using the cells that killed my son for medical research. I can tell you as a scientist, I care both about the ethics of, and recognize the necessity for, tissue based research.
But I still wonder about that little boy with acute monocytic leukemia. According to WebMD, the survival rate for this kind of cancer is 24%. Did he survive? How was he feeling on that day his blood was drawn? Was he scared? Did his mum hold his
hand? Did his parents know what happened to their son’s cells, that they inhabit research laboratories across the globe? Do they have any idea that the mother of a one-year old son is thinking about theirs?
Chelsea Matisz is a PhD Candidate at the Faculty of Medicine, Department of Physiology and Pharmacology, University of Calgary, AB, Her website is: sciencesoup.net.
AWARDS PROGRAM DEADLINE FEBRUARY 15, 2016
CSWA Science In Society Journalism & Science Communication Awards
The Canadian Science Writers’ Association offers Science In Society awards annually to honour outstanding contributions to journalism and science communication in Canada.
CSWA Science Communication Award: $1,000
This award goes to an individual or small team, museum, university or college, whose work in 2015 explored or explained the topic of science to the public in an informative, accurate and engaging way. The work can be in any medium, and was produced for the purposes of public communications, outreach, advertising, marketing, or any similar venture. submit here
CSWA Science Journalism Award: $1,000
This award goes to an individual who has a science piece published in their name in any media during the calendar year 2015. submit here
CSWA Herb Lampert Emerging Journalist Award: $500
This award is goes to a student or newly practicing journalist who has a science piece published in any media during 2015. submit here
CSWA GENERAL SUBMISSION GUIDELINES:
Submissions Now Open: Deadline February 15, 2016
Competitors must be Canadian citizens or residents of Canada.
Each award is presented for original material disseminated – in French or English –
during the 2015 calendar year.
The awards will be presented during the CSWA annual conference.
1 entry per person or team
All entries must submit:
· description of the entry, less than 150 words
· biography of the writer(s), less than 150 words
· confirmation of the date published, broadcast, or presented
· online entry form
· entry fee online: entry fee $50 for non-members, $25 for members, (no fee for Herb Lampert Emerging Journalist Award)
Entries in each of the categories may deal with research and development, regulatory trends or social issues. They are judged generally on the basis of initiative, originality,
clarity of interpretation and value in promoting a better understanding of science by the public and on the following specific criteria:
PRESENTATION AND CLARITY
Is it understandable without being overly simplistic? Is the medical or scientific terminology clarified? Have the facts or hypotheses been marshaled in an orderly and progressive fashion? Has the importance, or purpose, of the subject matter been clearly stated relative to its value? Is the grammar good? Is the material in good, logical order? Does the presentation flow easily?
Has the entrant expended more than standard time and effort in soliciting and preparing the entry? For example, this would rule out straight reporting of speakers and papers at scientific meetings, regardless of excellence, unless the entrant has pursued the topic in greater depth or obtained other expert validation, beyond the initial presentation.
Is it relevant to the majority of the audience or does it have a narrow interest appeal? Does it lead to a higher degree of awareness or practical understanding of the importance of science in society today? It may be either educational or informative.
The subject matter does not necessarily have to be new. However, if a familiar topic or review is presented, it should offer more than another presentation of the facts. It should reinforce current understanding of the topic, or create a new awareness by offering a new perspective or innovative concept.
How to Submit Formats:
· four copies of the article or series on one topic or theme
· ora link to the online article or series on one topic or theme
radio or podcast:
· link to mp3 file either through an active url or an archived link,
· or4 copies on DVD
· 4 copies of on DVD
· ora link to an active url
Live Event or Media Campaign (Science Communication):
Event or campaign promotion material, images, video, audio and media coverage as appropriate and relevant to the event. Material can be submitted in any of the formats listed above. You’ll be asked to provide a complete list of all links and DVD or print copies being submitted per entry.
Print copies and DVDs must be delivered by February 15 to:
CSWA SIS Awards, c/o Andy F. Visser-deVries
455 Lakeshore Road, PO Box 249
All audio and video files and links or urls must be active and available throughout the submissions & judging and awards presentation period (Feb 15 to June 30)
(I, CSWA President Stephen Strauss, had intense discussions with Stavros about his new approach to helping journalists finding experts. I thought it was interesting both as a Canadian development and as something that could be of use to our members. What particularly appealed to me was that it was free and that the journalist could craft his or her search for experts according to their own criteria. Accordingly, I suggested Stavros write the blog posting which you will see below.)
Help. I Need An Expert: Now!
While working as a producer on TVO’s The Agenda with Steve Paikin I was too often scrambling to find quality experts by deadline. It was frustrating to put less than ideal guests on air. I thought there must be a better way. But nothing beat the power of the Google sledgehammer.
I teamed up with an engineer in Waterloo with a similar passion for knowledge and together we created the tool I wished for as a journalist.
Expertise Finder is a search engine for journalists to find experts.
How Expertise Finder Works: An Example
Canadian Arthur McDonald wins a Nobel Prize for the discovery that subatomic particles called neutrinos have mass. Speaking with specialists in neutrinos would help enhance your story.
Step 1: Search
Step 2: Result
Step 3: Contact Expert
Total time: 10 seconds
American journalists like to note that we have a disproportionately high number of Canadian experts. We certainly do. This makes Expertise Finder particularly useful for Canadian journalists.
Build for the New Paradigm
We don’t have a permanent office or corporate swag. We use open source software. It’s a tool and a business model for the web era. We exist because we have rejected old models that limit experimentation and require lots of money. The result is a tool where it’s utility does the marketing and is free yet has a sustainable business model.
We are not supported by grant money or philanthropy even if our mission has similar goals. Expertise Finder is a money making enterprise. I worked in international development in the former Soviet Union and the experience of seeing unsustainable projects frustrated me and the core issue was not necessarily money.
It could be hard to define success, even if most of the final reports claimed otherwise. My feeling is that the greatest influence often comes over time. Resources spread over a longer period of time to support seemingly intractable situations can do more, but this is not the norm for NGO work in part because funding is cyclical.
For journalism the ability to speak with knowledgeable experts on an ongoing basis is a key to supporting an informed and fact based society. No one story, not even if it wins a Pulitzer can do this.
I’m a Clay Shirky fan, I call him the modern day Marshall McLuhan. The web is redefining how we communicate, and possibly approach knowledge/information. My eureka moment (since science has disproven the eureka moment I use it in the literary sense) was in 2010 with the cost of AWS (Amazon’s cloud computing) to the point where people like me with limited means had the possibility to do something like Expertise Finder.
Video: Why Journalists Use Expertise Finder
Who Is Using Expertise FinderMainly journalists from major media across North America from CNN to CBC. Why You Should Not Trust Us
MIT and Memorial University do not carry the same weight, this if for you to judge, not us. We currently do not list experts where our subjective judgement is a key to determine credibility of an expert for a journalist.
Our search engine is based on relevancy of expertise. We do not rank one institution higher than another. There is no way to buy a higher ranking or listing. There is no advertising.
How We Make Money
We primarily make money selling our software for custom experts directories for universities and colleges. It’s a cloud solution; with no IT they get a directory with our search technology.
Here is a client’s directory we power, Ryerson University: http://experts.ryerson.ca/.
How to Contact Me
Feedback and suggestions appreciated.
Congratulations to Sarah Boon, her guest blog for CSWA has been selected for Kirk Englehardt's list of best science communications articles for 2015. Here it is again. Enjoy!
To Communicate or to Excommunicate?
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
The Herb Lampert Emerging Journalist Award is now open to any student or newly practicing journalist (two years or less) who has a science feature published in print, broadcast or online during 2015.
Deadline to Enter February 15, 2016
Competitors must be Canadian citizens or residents of Canada. The award is presented for original material disseminated – in French or English – during the 2015 calendar year.
The $500 award will be presented on June 4th at the awards dinner during the CSWA annual conference in Guelph.
Entries may deal with aspects of basic or applied science or technology, historical or current, in any area including health, social or environmental issues, regulatory trends etc.
Entries will be judged on literary excellence and scientific content and accuracy. Specific judging criteria will include initiative, originality, clarity of interpretation and value in promoting greater understanding of science by the general reader.
Entries must be understandable to the layperson with appropriate clarification of medical and scientific terminology, and an orderly marshalling of facts.
Also the subject matter should be significant and relevant for the majority of the public, and so presented that it increases public awareness.
Here is further information about how to enter:
1 entry per person
· online registration form
· link to the online article or series
· or four copies of the article or series
· or 4 copies on DVD
· or 4 copies of DVD
Any print copies or DVDs must be received at 105 Villeneuve O, Montreal, QC H2T 2R6 by February 15, 2016.
All audio and video files and links or urls must be available throughout the judging period (February 15-June 15)
The CSWA awards for general audience and youth books published in 2015 are open, the deadline is December 15th, 2015.
Here is more information about the awards:
The Canadian Science Writers’ Association offers two annual book awards to honour outstanding contributions to science writing 1) intended for and available to children/middle grades ages 8-12 years, and 2) intended for and available to the general public. Competitors must be Canadian citizens or residents of Canada, but need not be members of the CSWA. Entries, in either French or English, must have been published in Canada during the 2015 calendar year. The winners will be announced in the spring of 2016, and the awards will be presented at our annual conference in Guelph, June 4, 2016
Books will be judged on literary excellence and scientific content and accuracy. Specific judging criteria will include initiative, originality, clarity of interpretation and value in promoting greater understanding of science by the general reader.
Books must be understandable to the layperson or children, with appropriate clarification of medical and scientific terminology, and an orderly marshalling of facts.
Also the subject matter should be significant and relevant for the majority of the public or children, and so presented that it increases public awareness.
Rules for Submissions
Include a fully completed entry form with each submission:
Entry form available on our website
Voici le formulaire en français.
Submit a brief biography of the author(s)
6 copies are required for judging purposes
Entry must have been published in Canada during the 2015 calendar year
Entries should be received by Andy Visser deVries, Awards Chair by Dec 15, 2015
Entries failing to comply with these rules will be rejected. For more information please phone the CSWA office at 1-800-796-8595, or email firstname.lastname@example.org
All entries become the property of the CSWA
P.O. Box 75 Station A