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]

Beer in the Garden

As humans first started to settle down from nomadic hunter-gatherers into early agricultural societies, they took what must have been an exceedingly keen understanding of the diverse plants in their environment and applied that knowledge to the cultivation of crops. Instead of relying on the bounty provided by nature, these people began to select the most appealing and nutritious plants to work deliberately. In so doing, they actively produced brand new crops and developed an even deeper relationship with the plant world.

And here, at the very dawn of civilization, early agriculturalists took their growing understanding of plants, and perhaps a bit of serendipity, and developed something to rival agriculture itself—beer. Agriculture and brewing developed side-by-side because both required a deepening understanding of the plant world. Today, the increasingly popular hobbies of home gardening and homebrewing can bring us back to this early world thousands of years ago where an appreciation for and knowledge of the plant world translated into intoxicating, frothy, delicious brews.

This past Wednesday I was invited to give a presentation on the intersection between gardening and homebrewing at the wonderful, new(ish) Urban Chestnut bierhall in The Grove. I was invited by Gateway Greening, which runs a monthly seminar series called, appropriately, Pints ‘N’ Plants. Around fifty people came to learn and talk about the understanding of barley and hops that is required to make great beer, and the many plants we can grow right here in St. Louis to brew with.

Bread baking and brewing happened under the same 
roof in ancient Egypt. Photo by Keith Schengili-Roberts
Barley of course provides the essence of beer, the sugars that yeast ferment into alcohol and carbon dioxide. But barley kernels straight from the field are full of starch, a form of sugar inaccessible to yeast. To unlock this sugar, maltsters control the germination of barley seeds, the developmental program that converts starch into sugar for the young seedlings. Instead of letting the seed continue to produce a whole new barley plant, maltsters instead dry and roast the sweet malted barley to halt the process and caramelize the sugars.

Fermented malted barley is all that is needed to make an intoxicating beverage, but it will result in a cloyingly sweet, unpalatable beer. Hops, the aromatic female flowers from the hop plant, perform the job of balancing the saccharine barley with bitter hoppiness while flavoring the beer as well. Hops took over from a diverse array of local herbs, fruits, and other plants around a thousand years ago to become the exclusive flavoring of most beer.

These earlier brews—called gruits—also relied on a strong sense of the qualities of local flora to produce drinkable beer that would not poison the drinkers. Hops likely superseded these hundreds or thousands of other plants because of their ability to protect beer from bacterial infections so well, but they also make a damn fine beer. The dozens of different varieties of hops lend distinct flavors and aromas from dry and earthy to bright and citrusy, helping to recover the diversity in flavorings lost with the gruits.

As any would-be usurper of the Busch crown will tell you, beer only requires barley, hops, yeast, and water. However, the craft beer and homebrewing renaissance has helped rediscover the variety of beer flavorings that harken back to an earlier time when all manner of local plants found their way into the brew kettle. Here, gardeners and homebrewers can join together in search of homegrown, quality ale.

Any number of bizarre plants can find their way into homebrewed beer. I covered just a handful to consider and get started in my talk, some I have experience with and some I do not. By far the easiest to grow is cilantro, the herb flavoring a lot of Mexican dishes. Instead of the leaves, however, brewers seek the bright, citrusy seeds called coriander. They have a completely different taste and are used in a very popular style of beer called Belgian witbier. This is the style of Blue Moon and is a very refreshing beer brewed with wheat, bitter orange peel, and coriander. In fact, the witbier is light on hops and calls back to the gruits that were flavored with an array of herbs and spices. Cilantro is so easy to grow it will even reseed itself from year to year, reliably producing pods of brown, crunchy seeds in the summer. Only about five tablespoons are required with an equal weight of orange peel to flavor the beer, an amount easy to acquire from just a plant or two.

I also covered how to grow and brew with pumpkin, chili peppers(!), and potted citrus plants. Perhaps the best plant to get in the ground this spring, however, is hops! A perennial, fast-growing vine, hops do well in community spaces where they can spread out and grow stronger year-over-year, or in the backyard of an enthusiastic gardener-brewer who has enough space for a sturdy trellis. Each spring, homebrew supply stores sell chunks of hop rhizomes, a root-like structure that overwinters to produce vines the next season. This vegetative means of propagation ensures that gardeners get only the female plants and clones of their favorite variety. After growing up to thirty feet high and maturing at the end of summer, the hops are ready to be tossed in the brew kettle for truly homegrown brewing.
My former community garden, Block 1035. Hops growing
on the common space trellis in the background.

To combine gardening and brewing, with an eye for creativity and variety, is truly to travel back in time to eras when most beer was brewed at home alongside the baking of bread, and when a knowledge of local plants was required for making delicious brews. For a time it seemed we had lost both of these skillsets. But now with the ongoing popularity of home and community gardening and the rapid rise in homebrewing, we all have the opportunity to capture again that intrinsic link between the growing of plants and the brewing of beer. Prost!

[I relied heavily on The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart and The Complete Joy of Homebrewing 3rd ed. by Charlie Papazian]

Lindbergh HS

This morning I had the opportunity to speak at Lindbergh High School in St. Louis County about GMOs. I was invited by an advanced science teacher, Bryan Cintel, after he asked around through the biology department listserv for a guest speaker.
It was fortuitous because their AP biology course was already covering biotechnology and GMOs so I was able to contribute to that unit by giving a scientist’s perspective on the matter. Even though I don’t work on GMOs myself, my work as a plant biologist brings up the topic a lot. And since I went into plant biology because of an interest in developing strong food systems, genetic engineering is a topic I’m always trying to learn more about. I’m the resident ‘plant guy’ to a lot of my friends and family so I’m used to covering everything from plant science to organic farming and Monsanto’s legal team. It just comes with the territory.
But I was excited to present to students after presenting at the Community Garden Summit a few weeks back. The students were very advanced—they had covered the cloning of genes, gene regulation, the structure of DNA and restriction enzymes among other topics. So I was able to focus more on the science and biology behind genetic engineering than I was when presenting to the more heterogeneous crowd at the Community Garden Summit. This was my first time giving a presentation exclusively on GMOs and I was happy to have the practice. I know it won’t be my last!
I borrowed a few slides from my previous presentation but I wanted to make sure I contributed some actual biology that was new to the students. They had learned about genetic engineering in bacteria, but plants are a bit of a different story and I taught them about how we use Agrobacterium to help us transform plants. Or a ‘gene gun’ when we can’t use Agro.
The students had questions ready from an assignment but of course a handful of students in each period spoke up the most and were really interested in the topic, which was great. One girl already knew about Golden Rice, which was a topic I covered in my slides. Of course, some students were interested in the ethics and legal issues surrounding the patenting of genes and whether Monsanto was in the right when they sued some farmers for patent infringement. I always try to make it clear that I’m no expert on Monsanto’s legal issues, but the fact is that I keep abreast of the information as much as I can so I do usually have something to contribute. And the students wanted my opinion on some of the other concerns surrounding GMOs, like the health consequences of eating them. I told them that it was the strong consensus that GMOs are perfectly safe to eat. But I did bring up some of the more legitimate issues that skeptics have with the technology, like the problem of ‘gene escape’ from a genetically engineered crop to a wild relative.
Mr. Cintel asked me to talk a little bit about biotech jobs as well. Although I don’t have direct experience in the biotechnology industry, GMOs and plant science in general are great to talk about in the St. Louis region. We have the highest concentration of plant scientists in the world, largely thanks to Monsanto. But we also have great non-profit institutions like the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center and of course Washington University. This gave me a chance to talk about the several different ways that students could become involved with science as a career. It’s not only academic research, but it can be industry work or work at independent research centers like the DDPSC. And I told them that a career in science isn’t necessarily limited to those with Ph.D.s. A place like Monsanto should have jobs for all educational levels where you still get to ‘do science’ at a different level.
I had a great time, even though I had to wake up an hour earlier than usual to get out to the school by 8:10. Several of the students were interested in going into science and I told them that Washington University probably has opportunities for them to do work during the summer even in high school. That’s how I got started.
I hope to speak to more students in the future. Maybe I’ll even return to Lindbergh High School to speak next year on a similar topic.
(Topic preview: I was selected to attend the Clinton Global Initiative University conference taking place at Washington University from April 5-7. My Commitment to Action continues my outreach efforts to bring plant scientists in the region together with the urban agriculture community. I’ll write about that shortly.)