Idealism and Tech: Modern Dating

Idealism and Tech: Modern Dating

Dating — online or off — is frustrating and bewildering, a long and tearful journey to a great partner. While technology has absolutely transformed how we find potential dates, the most significant change is cultural. Instead of settling down with someone “good enough” we ask so much from our partners now that it’s only natural the search for them is arduous.

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Review: The Lives of a Cell

In a scurrying ant hill, it is tempting to see a civilization, constructing its pyramids or cathedrals for generations far in the future — tempting too to consider our own societies as higher-order ant hills, each individual barely aware of their contributions to a larger force. Often these metaphors are dry, breaking down at the slightest probing, offering little beyond a shrug.

But in The Lives of a Cell, Lewis Thomas manages to create, from such simple analogies, deep and complex meaning. In this delightful collection of essays from the early 1970s, Thomas, a physician and member of the National Academy of Sciences, uses empiricism not as final truth, but as a nucleating event for greater insights into our human nature and the driving curiosity behind science.

His central thesis, conveyed steadily across each compact essay, is the fundamental need for life to interact and the whole that emerges greater than its parts. From termite colonies to human language to the biosphere itself, Thomas treats symbiosis and emergence not as special arrangements but as the natural order of things: organisms seek cooperation before annihilation.

What sets this collection apart from most science writing is that it principally focuses on forming good questions rather than leading the reader to the ‘correct’ conclusion. It is searching and expansive. The essays synthesize disparate facts into cohesive, fresh interpretations of the meaning of life — all life. Most of Thomas’ ideas, unlike the science they are based on, are untestable. Those that could be falsified may be one day. Does this detract from his insights? I hardly think so; not all things worth considering can be tested.

It is also refreshing to see a committed scientist connect his discipline to his wider interests. Language in particular fascinates Thomas, with whole essays committed to language as humanity’s anthill — our genetic inheritance to construct and improve, ceaselessly. Entire other pieces absorb the reader in the speciation of words from Indo-European roots and the surprising (or is it obvious?) parallel development of etymological and biological evolutionary theories in the 19th century.

The work is of its time, of course. Thomas writes lovingly of our endosymbiotic organelles — the mitochondria and chloroplasts that undergird all complex life — and speculates that the centriole, the fibers that properly divide chromosomes, may be the third such cellular companion. Though this is not the case, we now know, it hardly detracts from the lesson on symbiosis as a deeply entrenched force of nature.

And even 25 years after the Cold War, his appeal against Armageddon resonates still. It takes the form of a challenge: to input into a computer a complete set of knowledge about a single organism, so that the survivors of a nuclear holocaust have a head start in rebuilding biological science. The target, Mixotricha paradoxa, is a brilliant choice as it, astoundingly, comprises at least five species in close endosymbiosis. These bonds are so tight that, in place of cilia, the protozoan uses hundreds of thousands of spirochete bacteria to power its swimming through the termite’s gut, where it digests cellulose in an additional layer of collaboration.

Thomas gives the challenge a lunar-like ten years and, more optimistic about a computer’s motivations than our own, writes:

“I take it on faith that computers, although lacking souls, are possessed of a kind of intelligence. At the end of the decade, therefore, I am willing to predict that the feeding in of all the information then available will result, after a few seconds of whirring, in something like the following message, neatly and speedily printed out: ‘Request more data. How are spirochetes attached? Do not fire.’”

With such cleverness, he explores the anxieties of his time and communicates enduring lessons about the ceaselessly mysterious nature of studying biology, where each new answer only spurs more questions.

Science can tell us truths about nature; it has little to say on truths about ourselves, on how we should live, how we should feel about the world we study. Yet in contemplating the human need to search for understanding, and in attempting to synthesize a collection of biological facts into a philosophy of life, Thomas has drawn from science inspiration for a decidedly unreductive view of the creatures that inhabit our blue and green Earth.

Joyce Carol Oates, in reviewing this collection, writes:

“The Lives of a Cell anticipates the kind of writing that will appear more and more frequently, as scientists take on the language of poetry in order to communicate human truths too mysterious for old-fashioned common sense.”

Indeed, it is just this kind of poetry that elevates science — so often mistaken for dull and dry — to the the level of exploration, of wonder, of… what if!

[A version of this post originally appeared on the Haswell lab blog]


Ushering Science through the Media

I joined other scientist-communicators to talk about science in the media

I joined other scientist-communicators to talk about science in the media

 After four long days at a conference, all you want to do is board a flight home, crawl into bed, and try to forget how your boss saw you dancing at the open-bar party. But on July 30, 2015, a dedicated group of scientists and communicators rallied at the end of Plant Biology 2015 conference in Minneapolis, MN, for the Standing Up for Science Media Workshop on science and public engagement hosted by Sense About Science USA.

As the 2015 ASPB-sponsored AAAS Mass Media Fellow, I was invited to participate in the workshop and talk about why and how I began pursuing opportunities in science communication. And I eagerly joined my colleagues in discussing ways early-career scientists can improve how science weaves its way into the media.

The media workshop was divided into three sessions, with a corresponding panel of scientists, journalists, and scientist-communicators.

To start, Douglas Cook, a professor at University of California, Davis, made it clear that scientists should be firm about combatting myths and speaking forcefully for evidence-based action. “Science is not democracy,” he said, no matter what the polls say. For effective communication, facts and data are insufficient—people find their own version of the truth. Instead, Cook suggested, look for the values people hold, and see if your work can fulfill those values.

Coming at the issue of how to engage with the public from a different perspective, Sally Mackenzie, a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and president-elect of ASPB, felt that a coordinated, repeated message could break through even to opponents of some scientific advance, such as genetically modified (GM) foods.  “Some level of activism is our responsibility,” she said, dispensing with the notion that scientists should remain disinterested observers from their labs.

During the question and discussion period of the session, we discussed the labor force of science communication: should it be advanced by scientists who add on communication, or by dedicated communicators with scientific training? Do you need a Ph.D., or is a Bachelor’s degree sufficient? Do you need to study science at all?

The issue we kept coming back to is whose responsibility is communicating science? In academia, science communication is usually left as an extracurricular activity for overworked professors. That will never compete with efforts made by organizations that are committed to advocacy that goes against science and evidence. For instance, as someone noted Greenpeace—a vocal opponent of GM foods—spends $185 million a year on communication alone [The figure was closer to $211 million in 2013].

And with that, it was time for lunch and group work on what the media gets right and wrong when covering science, which led to the second session for the day. In the journalist panel we heard from Emily Sohn, a freelancer and contributor to the Science Writer’s Handbook, and Elizabeth Dunbar of Minnesota Public Radio.

To a room filled mostly with scientists, Sohn described how she finds stories, and how scientists can help her get their research to the public. If you are responsive to emails and phone calls from journalists and give clear, concise answers to questions, you might just end up as one of her “Super Sources” – someone she returns to time and again. And though Cook and Mackenzie, as well as several other scientists in the audience, felt that they had “been burned” by sloppy journalism, Sohn tried to make clear that she was on their team: “We’re all trying to get it right,” she said.

Dunbar, who had stumbled into science journalism from a general assignment background, freely admitted that in radio—where four minutes is a lifetime—she has learned that to communicate effectively she needs to cut all but the most basic scientific concepts. “I try to teach my audience something about science,” she said, and then explain just a fraction of the hot new research.

At the end of the panel discussion, the audience was given a chance to pitch their own work to the journalists to see how well they could capture attention for a possible story. In one instance, Sohn and Dunbar helped Don Gibson, a Ph.D. student at University of California, Davis, plan his pitch to journalists on his campaign to put Barbara McClintock on the ten-dollar bill. Their advice: Give a positive message, and make the main point—it’s time to put a female scientist on currency—pop out right away.

And then it was finally time for the last panel, where I joined Karl Haro von Mogel of Biology Fortified; Natalie Henkaus of the Boyce Thompson Institute (which supported the workshop) and soon-to-be ASPB staff member; and Neda Afsarmanesh, Deputy Directory of SAS USA and the organizer of the Media Workshop. We all had scientific backgrounds and we were all in the process of or had already moved into full-time science communication positions.

Henkaus stressed the importance of collaborative communication efforts from the NSF’s Research Coordination Networks, ASPB’s National Plant Science Council, and Cornell’s Alliance for Science (another supporter of the day’s workshop). Von Hogel described how Biology Fortified began as a group blog and morphed into a forceful advocate for biotechnology—and purveyor of cute GMOs. And I got to tell what it’s like to jump straight from the lab into the newsroom, and the importance of funding for training in communication. As the final panel, we had the luxury of longer, casual conversations that conveniently morphed into hor d’oeuvres and drinks. Business cards were exchanged; dramatic reenactments of speeches were staged; theories of science communication were pored over and debated.

My takeaway from the day: Journalists and scientists have a lot in common. They both want to tell others about what they see in the world—what they know to be true—and they both want everyone to be as excited about the story they have to tell as they are.

[This post first appeared on the Sense About Science USA website]

Why my sources are (usually) happy to talk to me

Hard at work in the Journal Sentinel newsroom

Hard at work in the Journal Sentinel newsroom

Mid-way through my experience as a science journalist for the summer, I realized that unlike some of my colleagues in the newsroom around me, my conversations on the phone with sources were rarely combative. The university researchers and government scientists and physicians were usually happy to talk with me about their work—the process, the scope, and the limitations.

(In fact, many are keen to point out the limitations, for fear of stoking baseless hype.)

Sure, getting your name in print is fun, and most scientists don’t often see that. But maybe more that that: Scientists want to look at the world and then tell other people about what they’ve seen. Is that really so different than what drives journalists?

We even use the same language. The verb “report” comprises a formal account, as in a research study, and the gathering of information and preparation for print or broadcast. Reporting is what I do at the Journal Sentinel. Reports are the main section of Science Magazine.

Science has its share of scandals and closed doors—it's a human endeavor after all—but as an institution it’s about discovery and transparency, even if it falls short of those goals.

So I can go ahead and ask probing questions. That’s what scientists are trying to do of themselves all the time; there’s no offense to be taken there.

Now, it doesn’t always go so smoothly.

Scientists are concerned about their reputation, like anybody else. The one piece of hate mail I have received in my work was from a researcher who was incensed, thinking we intentionally made him look bad. It was a misunderstanding, and he reacted petulantly, saying his reputation was at stake. Nobody wants to look dumb, and I’m sorry he felt hurt.

Other sources have been guarded at the beginning of our conversations, claiming they have been “burned” before with misquotes and inaccuracies. Speaking with a reporter is a brief relationship built entirely on trust, so it’s natural that when that trust is violated people are more cautious for a time. A few well-formed questions and assurances typically open them up; their inclination is ultimately to speak freely.

But most have been thrilled to set aside half an hour or more of their time to talk with me. They are passionate about sharing their work with just one person, and hopeful that our readers will see their work as they do.

I am preparing to go back to being a scientist as my ten-week internship continues to fly by. I hope that I have gained some skills in communication, writing and investigation that will help me be more successful in that work.

But I also hope that the passion for discovery and communication I hear from the sources I speak to every day sticks with me as I head back to lab.

 [This post originally appeared on the Haswell lab blog]

A Summer of Science Reporting

The motherboard at the NPR mothership

The motherboard at the NPR mothership

After learning I’m a graduate student, a lot of people I meet start asking me in the spring what kind of job I’ll get for the summer. It’s a year-round appointment, I tell them, and is a lot like a normal job—no summer vacation. I had to do even more explaining than usual this year because I am taking the summer off from lab, but neither to lollygag nor to pad my bank account. Instead, I’ll be a science reporter in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This summer, I am one of 20 scientists accepted into the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Mass Media Fellowship. We will scatter all around the country to report on science for newspapers, magazines, radio, and television.

Now in its 41st year, the MMF aims to give young scientists the opportunity to learn about and hone their skills in science communication. Many alumni stay in academia or industry research, while still writing for a general audience more often than their peers. But many others—43% according to the AAAS—formally transition to science journalism and communication, a number many fold greater than for most graduate students.

The fellows are drawn from a pool of students pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees in the natural sciences and engineering; journalism students do not qualify. Across their different disciplines and education levels, the MMF participants are connected by their motivation to solve the challenges of translating technical information into understandable and engaging material. The program has trained hundreds of students in four decades, and counts among its alumni the co-chair of President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, and popular reporters such as NPR’s Joe Palca and David Kestenbaum.

I can no longer remember how I learned about the program, or even how I discovered that ‘science communication’ was a viable (albeit not exactly lucrative) profession. But knowing both, securing a spot in this program became my top professional priority. As one alumni says, the MMF is “a ready-made way to pole vault out of academia and into journalism.” And I needed that boost.

About this time last year, I happened to meet the one person in the world who knew that the American Society of Plant Biologists-sponsored fellow had dropped out at the last minute, and I was put in touch with the program coordinator, Dione Rossiter. I hurriedly submitted a half-application to try and fill the slot, but was rejected in light of the unusual circumstances, although invited to reapply for real in 2015. The 2015 program was already in my sights, but I was only more motivated to land a spot by this close encounter. Plus, I got to learn more about the application process in a way that helped me prepare to apply in January of this year. Luckily, things broke my way and I was accepted.

Now I am cruising at 33,000 feet on my way to Washington, D.C. to meet the 19 other fellows and go through orientation. We’ll practice interviewing techniques and how to pitch a story to our editors, tour NPR(!), and mingle with alumni. Then off to Wisconsin, where I will write science stories for the local desk of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. According to accounts from previous fellows at the JS, it’ll largely be up to me to find, pitch, and report the stories I’m interested in, so long as they have a local angle. The freedom is enticing, but nerve-wracking. Fortunately, the paper has Pulitzer prize-winning science reporters I can probe for advice, but the impetus will be on me to make the connections necessary to be successful.

I am grateful for this opportunity and anxious to get started moving my byline from blog posts to newsstands. Check back here for updates during the summer. Or pick up a copy of the Journal Sentinel in the coming weeks to see what I've been up to.

[This post first appeared on the Haswell lab blog]

Audio File #4: Civil, Civic Discussions

Our conversations about civic matters—economic policies, schooling systems, religion, science, and social institutions—are severely lacking in nuance and reasoned debate. Instead, what flourishes are simplistic arguments and ad hominem attacks. This trend is strengthened by a media environment where we can easily consume pieces tailored to our point of view, avoiding challenge and change.


On Being is a weekly public radio show hosted by Krista Tippett ostensibly about religion and spirituality, but now the host of a broader series of discussions called the Civil Conversations Project. I used to turn off On Being when it came on my radio Sunday afternoons, put off by the wispy quality, assuming it was a liberal echo chamber of feel-good, empty spirituality.


But as I would listen in snippets, or accidentally turn it on in the car, I found it to be a series of careful, respectful dialogues about difficult subjects, with religion, of course, among the trickiest.


So it did not altogether surprise me to find myself enchanted by arecent episode on gay marriage, which really became a window into how to have civil debates. An interview of David Blankenhorn and Jonathon Rauch—originally on opposite sides of the gay marriage debate, and now friends in agreement on many issues—the discussion covered David’s changed mind on gay marriage, but much more interestingly their process of what they called “achieving disagreement.”


For this post I really want to excerpt some longer segments that, I think, speak for themselves. I encourage listening to the full episode. To have two people agree about how to disagree, that are intellectually honest in their point of view and empathetic enough to consider the other side is tragically rare these days and models a better way to converse. I think we can learn from them how to continue to passionately disagree while remaining not just polite, but truly civil.


Following are minimally-edited excerpts.

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Listening in on Plant Defenses

It’s enchanting to consider that classical music might help plants grow better, like something out of a fairy tale. A simple Google search shows that a lot of people are interested in it, from the throngs at Yahoo Answers to marijuana growers looking for an edge. Mythbusters tested it, with mixed results. Academic researchers have explored the effects of tones on plant growth, finding frequency-specific gene regulation and growth responses. But it remains unclear what evolutionary benefit sensitivity to sound could provide, and a solid understanding of what is sometimes called ‘plant bioacoustics’ eludes researchers.

In a widely-reported study released last year, two researchers over at the University of Missouri, Columbia tested the effects on plant defenses of the vibrations caused by a caterpillar chewing on a leaf. Although much of the reporting fell prey to the temptation to claim the plants “heard” the chewing and responded, the real answer is both more complicated and more interesting. I had the opportunity to attend a talk Drs. Appel and Cocroft gave at Washington University a few months ago where I learned more than I could have extracted from their paper, published in Oecologia, alone.

Sound waves are longitudinal. Insect vibrations are transverse

Dr. Cocroft studies insect communication, especially the ability of insects to find mates and prey by sensing the vibrations of other insects on a plant. Like sound, the information is encoded in vibrational waves passing through a substance. Instead of a pressure wave like sound that varies in the same direction of travel—a longitudinal wave—insect vibrations on plants are transverse waves, moving up and down like a wave on the ocean (see figure).

We could never hear these kinds of waves ourselves, but their frequency can be directly translated to sounds we can hear. Cocroft played a number of humming soundscapes recorded with a laser on a wild prairie—the result of hundreds or thousands of insects communicating silently on stalks of grass. A plant, Cocroft noted, is a great conductor for these vibrations, flexible yet strong. His field studies how insects benefit from communicating this way, but he joined forces with Appel to ask: Do plants respond to the vibrations of insect herbivores in an adaptive way?

One major defense that plants have against pests is producing noxious compounds to deter feeding. Appel and Cocroft hypothesized that Arabidopsis plants would produce more defense compounds if they were exposed to the vibrations of herbivorous insects before actually being attacked. This effect is called priming, and could help defend against a second wave of insect damage.

To test this, the researchers first used lasers to record the vibrations of caterpillars allowed to eat the leaves of Arabidopsis plants. To play the vibrations back to undamaged plants, Cocroft attached leaves to tiny pistons driven, essentially, by speakers, ones that could replicate the vibrations of an insect chewing. Then caterpillars were allowed to feed on either the leaf that was vibrated or another, untouched leaf.

Both vibrated and distant leaves responded more vigorously to caterpillar attack than leaves on untouched plants. The plants that were primed by recorded caterpillar vibrations produced more glucosinolates, or mustard oils, than those of unvibrated plants. This is evidence of an adaptive response to insect vibrations, but leaves open the possibility that any vibration encouraged plant defenses.

To see if the effect really was specific to the herbivorous caterpillars, Appel and Cocroft played back vibrations of harmless insects, wind, or caterpillars on different plants and again measured defense compounds—this time anthocyanins, responsible for the deep reds and purples of many plants. Only caterpillar vibrations could prime plants to increase their defense response to herbivory; wind and the neutral insects had no effect.

One important caveat: although the researchers looked for an effect of vibrations alone, they found none. Only vibrations plus actual insect feeding induced higher defenses; the plants were primed for future attack, but vibrations alone made no difference. Of course, a real insect is more than just its vibrations. Herbivore attack is a physical, chemical, and auditory assault, and plants likely respond to each stimulus in different ways.

But how are plants able to sense the vibrations of caterpillars, and even differentiate them from similar sounds in nature? It’s entirely unknown. A very good candidate is a diverse group of proteins bound together by their responsiveness to physical forces—mechanoreceptors. These proteins can signal within a cell in response to vibration or touch and are potentially behind the priming effect that Appel and Cocroft observed.

In fact, to test this, the Haswell lab is working with Appel and Cocroft to see if our favorite mechanosensitive ion channels are part of the vibrational-response pathway. I got to see Liz’s face pop up in the corner at the end of their presentation over on the medical campus as they told us that work was underway. We’ll just have to wait to find out.

[A version of this post first appeared on my lab's blog]