Bridging the gap between scientist and writer… when they’re the same person

Who's going to bridge that gap? (matthowe/Flickr)

This week, I read two thought-provoking pieces on the issue of scientific misinformation. In his piece, Colin Schultz discusses three studies that help illustrate that “[s]cience journalists do not work in isolation, and sometimes errors start further—much further—up the chain.” He quotes from David DiSalvo’s piece, which explores why scientists and journalists mistrust one another and what we can do to repair that trust.

So what happens when a scientist decides to cross the big divide… and become a writer herself? Problem solved, right?

Not really. It’s still not easy. At the risk of being a little too honest here, let me point out some of the challenges I’ve run into as a scientist-turned-writer.

I empathize with the scientists. I know first-hand how difficult research can be and how much work/time/blood/sweat/tears goes into any scientific study. As a young editor for a top-tier journal, I often struggled with papers in which I recognized that the authors had done a TON of work, yet the findings were less than exciting. Given the interests/standards of the journal, these were studies that would eventually be turned down, but the decisions were not always clear-cut or easy for me. As a writer, empathy is less of a “problem” – no matter the impact or findings of the study, there is always something interesting about the science into which I can sink my teeth. But I always need to be mindful of context – make sure I am accurately conveying what we have learned from the study and what there is yet to do – and not oversell a story just because I know the scientists worked really hard at it.

I am obsessed with accuracy and precision. As a scientist, you learn to formulate all of your assertions with a dozen modifiers and disclaimers: “Protein X interacts with protein Y, but only in this cell type, under these conditions, and when there’s a full moon.” We don’t do this for fun – we need to think this way when considering a study in a critical manner. In fact, one of the things I looked out for as an editor – and which has carried over into my work as a writer – is overstatement of claims. I need to distinguish between what is clearly supported by data and what is speculation and extrapolation. I rely on the specific nitty-gritty details to tease out what has actually been shown in a study. Detail and specificity builds precision, but unfortunately can sometimes obscure clear communication. When writing up the study, I need to decide which nitty-gritty details are actually important in conveying the central message of the study (while preserving context) and which are extraneous and need to be left out.

What do you mean you don't understand why yellow slime mold is cool? (xkcd.com)

I spend so much time getting the science right that I forget about the “angle”. I know I need to get your attention. But I don’t write as fast as my more experienced colleagues, and having spent most of my time making sure I’ve got the science right, I sometimes rush through the process of crafting a compelling introduction or hopeful/dramatic conclusion – elements that make the science more relevant. It can be tempting – when I am writer-blocked or running headlong into a deadline – to say the hell with it and conclude a story with “Therefore, X causes Y, and now that we know this, we’re going to cure cancer.” Schultz and DiSalvo both touch on the issue of oversimplification in their respective articles. Luckily, my obsession with accuracy and precision (as mentioned above) generally prevents me from making such statements. Yes, I need to write compellingly, but I also can’t toss accuracy out the window. I need to spend time thinking, “Why should anyone read this?” and provide a good answer in my piece.

In closing, I wholeheartedly agree with this paragraph from DiSalvo:

Thankfully, there is an attainable middle ground.  Some scientists and journalists have chosen, to use a Reaganism, to “trust but verify,” and I think this is the healthiest outcome of the debate we can hope for.  Scientists have every right to be concerned about how their work is represented to the world.  If they choose to extend their trust to a journalist to handle the subject well, the journalist should also be willing to reciprocate by making every effort to tell the story appealingly, but without reckless embellishment. That means checking and double checking the facts and making sure that the scientists’ reservations are honored.

It is important to me that the scientists about whose study I’ve written has a chance to read my article. I want to make sure I’ve understood the nuances of the study and that I’ve represented the central take-home message accurately. I also strive to make my articles accessible to the desired audience – and hope they will be able to read it, understand it, find it interesting, and derive something from it. Finally, I seek the approval of – or at least seek to avoid ridicule from – other science writers and communicators. I want to know I am producing good quality work. I am still learning. I seem to be headed in the right general direction.

The take-home message of this blog post, in combination with Schultz and DiSalvo’s pieces? We all have a part to play in good, accurate science reporting, whether we are scientists, editors, writers, journalists, PR practitioners, etc. We must keep working at it.

Agreed: Google+ should allow pseudonyms

Happy one month birthday, Google+! Let’s pretend I meant to write this post today instead of on Monday, which is when everyone else was writing and thinking about Google+ vs. the pseudonyms.

Last weekend, a large number of Google+ accounts were suddenly suspended. The issue was that these users were not using “real names” on their account (“real” as determined by Google). As Mashable reported on Tuesday, it now appears that Google is “working on ways to handle pseudonyms”. (Edit 07/29: adding explicit links to Robert Scoble’s account of his conversation with Vic Gundotra and Bradley Horowitz’s post).

Initially, I wasn’t sure where I stood on the issue. I don’t use a pseudonym in my online interactions (I have that luxury – see below). And I understand and appreciate where Google and Facebook are coming from in encouraging the use of “real” identities. (On a related note, I have started to come down on the side of open and non-anonymous peer review.)

But after reading a few excellent posts on the matter (coincidentally or not, mostly from female science bloggers), I must say that I come down on the side of the pseudonymous. Why? Because a pseudonym (much like a pen name or a stage name) is NOT the same thing as a fake identity created for malicious or fraudulent intent. And because a pseudonym is sometimes necessary for the person’s safety and freedom from harassment.

The first article to really call my attention to the pseudonym issue was Bug Girl’s blog post. I credit Bug Girl’s over-the-top title for grabbing my attention. (Normally I am not a fan of such sensationalism, but well, in this case, it worked.) Bug Girl makes many critical points in her piece, including this one (links removed, emphasis hers):

I initially adopted a pseudonym because I had been the target of some white supremacist groups in the 90s, as well as experiencing stalking. Later I discovered that I had become a high-enough level civil servant that I was actually PROHIBITED, by law, from having opinions online.

I would say these are pretty damn good reasons why she (and others) should be allowed to use a pseudonym!

Additionally, many online pseudonymous folks are in fact better known by their pseudonym than by their “real” name. In this regard, the pseudonym (like the pen or stage name) is connected to a body of work. Pseudonymous folks may have an extended online presence that is connected to that pseudonym – requiring them to suddenly use their “real” name could actually result in disruption of dialogue and much confusion. GrrlScientist makes this point (and others) in her piece on the Guardian:

Like it or not, the fact is that many people routinely use pseudonyms, and online pseudonyms typically feed over into real life. As I’ve already stated, my pseudonym is the name that I go by in daily life, and further, my pseudonym IS my identity. I’ve published under this pseudonym. I’ve copyrighted documents and photographs under this pseudonym. I’ve signed contracts and received payments, email and snailmail addressed to this pseudonym in several cities in two countries. I’ve given lectures at several universities in several cities in several countries under this pseudonym, and I use it on my business cards. Even my spouse refers to me by my pseudonym, more often than not.

In response to a commenter, GrrlScientist adds, “oh, and since you mentioned it … on the rare occasion when i do attend a party, i do introduce myself as grrlscientist.” Which I think is awesome.

I’ve quoted these two posts, because they happened to be the first posts I read on the subject, but obviously, there are many many good posts and comments about why pseudonyms should be allowed (and I list here just some of the ones I’ve come across and read). Janet Stemwedel has two great posts on pseudonymity, Google, and ethics (first post here and second post here). It is from her first post that I found SciCurious’ excellent defense of pseudonyms. Bora posted on Google+ explaining that pseudonyms are names and followed up with a Storified-Twitter discussion about what makes a name “real”. And finally – I haven’t even read the whole piece yet because it is epic – Tony on tekfrenzy’s thoughts on pseudonymity.

Update 07/28: GrrlScientist has written an open letter to Google.

One last thought: let’s not forget that the use of your real name on the internet used to be extremely uncommon, even unadvised. I remember being warned not to use my real name as my email address – I think this was back in the late 90s, early 00s? The insistence on using one’s “real” name is a relatively recent development in online/social media.

Signing off with one of Bora’s tweets. I second the thought.

Changes to projectsteph

jphilipg/Flickr

It’s been more than a year since I started this blog. Some elements were in need of review and revision.

The most significant changes are a new theme and an updated About page.

I’m not a big fan of the name of my blog, but I can’t think of anything else I like better. So for now, it will stay “projectsteph”. (Suggestions?)

Theme

I just changed my blog theme last October, but I keep finding myself drawn towards what WordPress calls “magazine” themes. I love their clean crisp feeling!

After much deliberation, I decided to update my blog to this theme called “The Morning After”. The feature that really sold me was the skinny header image up top. As you can see, I’ve already uploaded an image of a Coomassie-stained gel (detailed description to come later). I plan to upload more fun science images in the future.

The other feature I really liked was the way “sticky” posts are displayed. To avoid crowding up the home page too much, I’ve only made one post sticky: my blog post on “I am not wasting my Ph.D.” It is by far my most-viewed blog post and continues to get a few views every week.

Apologies for any awkwardness while I adjust to the new theme! I’ve already spotted a few posts that need some layout adjustments. I also need to figure out what I want to do with my widget areas!

About

The About text used to read as follows:

At the undergraduate level, female biology majors outnumber male biology majors. At the graduate level, the numbers are roughly equal. However, from the postdoc level and onward, there is a dramatic decrease in the proportion of female biologists. At the tenured faculty level, female professors are few and far between. (Based on my own experience and observations. Current reports are vaguely consistent, I think.)

This phenomenon is known as the “leaky pipeline”. It exists not only in biology, but also in many other science and engineering fields.

I am one of these females who have “leaked” from the pipeline.

The funny thing is that I never intended to become a professor or run my own lab. I went into grad school with the intention of becoming a scientist in industry. Along the way, I was introduced to so-called “alternative” science careers… all of which have served to lure me away from the bench.

I don’t intend to only write on “alternative” science careers, although this may certainly make up a large proportion of my posts. I’d like to try my hand at some proper science writing – examining/discussing a recent science publication or topic of interest – but I’m not sure yet how much of that I’ll actually be doing. I’ve always thought that scientists make fascinating sociological/psychological subjects, so perhaps that’s also a topic worth exploring.

I have a number of other interests, some of which may find their way into this blog. I’ve always thought the most interesting blogs were not limited to their topic of choice, but rather were ones that occasionally veered off topic and gave you insight into the blogger’s personality.

So, in short, rather than strictly defining this blog a priori as a “science blog”, I will just start writing and see where it goes.

Welcome to my work in progress.

I’ve updated the text to something I feel is more fitting. It probably needs editing, but here’s where it is at the moment:

About me

I am a cell biologist by training and a writer by profession. This is not where I expected to end up.

I started my PhD with the full serious sincere intention of becoming a scientist in industry. However, two years into my PhD, I started to get the unsettling feeling that I didn’t want to be at the bench. My career transition is ongoing and has so far spanned several long years, starting from when I first learned about so-called “alternative” science careers in graduate school.

My transition has been fairly meandering, but I have learned a great deal about myself in the process. I am immensely grateful to everyone who has supported me in my adventure.

About the blog

I expect many of my blog posts will be on “alternative” science careers, particularly on my own transition from scientist to writer. I may also write the kind of posts you might find on a science blog. I think there are interesting science stories that can be found in our everyday lives (at least in my everyday life!), and I hope to tell some of those stories. Many other things interest me and may occasionally find their way into this blog. I’ve always thought the most interesting blogs were ones not limited to their topic of choice, but rather, ones that occasionally veered off topic.

So, in short, I am not going to define the scope of this blog a priori – I will just continue writing and see where it goes.

Other changes

  • Description of this blog has been updated from “musings and obsessions of a biologist searching for a fulfilling career” to “musings and obsessions of a biologist and writer”.
  • Added an “Archive” page. I like being able to visually skim the titles of my blog posts.
  • Updated the “Writings” page.

Networking: it can do a mind good

Until last week, I’d forgotten how energizing good networking can be.

I’m an introvert. Sometimes, I find socializing to be extremely mentally and physically draining. I work from home, and I know it’s important for me to get out of the house and talk to a live person every now and then. But lately, I just haven’t found the motivation.

I think my lack of motivation stems partly from having attended one too many bad networking sessions – sessions that initially held promise, but turned bad (for me) because of negative interactions or a lack of positive interactions.

So, it is with much gratitude that I thank the ladies of Palo Alto AWIS for organizing a fantastic career panel event last week! You’ve reminded me how fun and energizing a networking event can be.

This machine would make networking much easier! (Richard-G/Flickr)

I had signed up to be a volunteer at the event – being a self-branded “alternative” careers evangelist, I was excited about helping to support an event that would present different career options for scientists. I attended many similar events when I was contemplating my own career transition, and they are extremely helpful.

I met some great people, listened to several interesting career stories, and came away feeling positive and enthusiastic.

As it turns out, I will be doing a write-up of the event for the Palo Alto AWIS newsletter. During the dinner/networking part of the evening, I happened to mention to Chapter President Ashley Fouts that I’m a science writer. Next thing I knew, I had grabbed my laptop from my car and was poking around the auditorium looking for an electrical outlet. (Attendees: Yes, that was me in the second row, furiously typing during the panel discussion. There was a reason for those copious notes!) Exciting! I’m more than happy to volunteer my services for spreading the word about “alternative” science careers! Perhaps they won’t mind me cross-posting the write-up here…?

Networking can be tricky sometimes – being selective with networking events has helped me to find events that end up being good and to avoid the ones that end up being bad (good and bad of course being subjectively defined). What I enjoy most about networking (and what is likely to make an event good for me) is meeting science-minded people (not necessarily scientists!) and/or people who are interested in communication or education. In other words, I want to meet people with whom I have something in common. (Go figure.) And because I go to networking events with the goal of connecting with people and exchanging ideas, I want to know that there are people there who are actually interested in discussion (and not just handing out their business cards).

Although I am more of a generalist these days as compared to when I was a graduate student studying yeast cell polarity, I have found (to my surprise but probably to no one else’s) that I am still very specialized compared to the average professional.

It’s not that I mind meeting or talking to people with different interests or careers – sometimes it’s great fun (and very eye-opening) to meet someone who’s doing something completely different from me! But in some cases, the result can be a severe lack of connection, which can lead to an increasing sense of what am I doing here?

Last week’s Palo Alto AWIS event was nearly ideal for me in terms of finding like-minded people: scientists thinking about and discussing “alternative” careers. I was so happy just listening to the women of the panel describe their respective careers and transitions out of the lab. I had to restrain myself from jumping up and shouting Amen! at certain points.

The only negative thing about the event? I’m a bit out of practice when it comes to networking. Perhaps I should consider attending more random networking events just to keep up the “schmoozing” skills and avoid sounding too much like Chester in this classic Looney Tunes cartoon.

#arseniclife, peer review, and the scientific process

I set out this morning to write down some thoughts about the arsenic-containing bacteria study (aka #arseniclife). Three hours later, I realized I was completely in over my head. What follows are lots of links and some musings of my own.

I wasn’t even attempting to delve into the science. (Being a yeast cell biologist by training, this is a bit outside my area of expertise.) Rather, I was interested in the controversy surrounding this paper and what we might be able to learn from it about the scientific process.

Turns out there is quite a lot to mull over.

The study was published online in Science in December and stirred up a great deal of controversy, which wasn’t helped by a provocative press release from NASA that included the phrase “evidence for extraterrestrial life”. Science published online today eight Technical Comments critiquing the arsenic bacteria study, as well as a formal response from the authors, Felisa Wolfe-Simon and colleagues.

[Note 06/03/2011: The Technical Comments and authors’ response are no longer available on Science Express, because they are published in the today’s issue of Science, along with the final version of the arsenic bacteria paper. The links I had included here for the paper take you to the version that was published online. Here’s a link to the final full text of the article, which appears to be freely available, at least for now.]

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Writing support

Sometimes we all need a little support.

I started seeing the #madwriting hashtag on Twitter… maybe a couple days ago? I had a suspicion of what it might be, but was too shy to ask. Luckily, @nparmalee started a Posterous for #madwriting and expounded there on what it represented for her, how it worked, etc.

She mentions that #madwriting for her at the moment is her PhD thesis. (Best of luck @nparmalee!)

That brought to my mind an online support network in which I was briefly active during the last stages of my thesis writing. (I wrote my dissertation in the summer of 2007, before I had joined Facebook or Twitter.) It was a forum/message board (remember those?) called PhinisheD.

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Human chromosomes

One of the best/worst things about my job is that I sometimes get/have to come up with suitable images to accompany a blog post or an article that I’m writing. As is the case with most searches, I don’t always find exactly what I was looking for. Sometimes though I find something I wasn’t looking for.

For a recent project, I was perusing Google Images* in search of a good karyotype image. I was working on an article about aneuploidy, so I was hoping to come across a usable image depicting the karyotype of an extremely aneuploid tumor cell.

In my perusals, I came across this great concept photo from photographer Jessica Lobdell – she posed as the chromosomes in a typical karyotype image! I’ve always thought chromosomes could look quite jovial. She’s captured that spirit perfectly in her poses.

Below are Jessica’s photo and (after the jump) an image of a normal human male karyotype for comparison.

Photo by Jessica Lobdell. Click the photo to go to her site.

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