Best Shortform Science Writing April-June 2016

(A Highly Subjective Round-up of Standout Science News)

The online science news ecosystem teems with blog posts and videos about animals doing interesting things. And why not? Animals are fascinating, adorable, and beloved by the science nerds who frequent science news websites. Many of those stories are well-written. So when you’re sitting down to choose “standout” shortform science writing, how do you choose between them?

News judgement”–the journalese terms for “ability to spot impactful stories”– was the subject of a lively Google Hangout debate amongst the Best Shortform Science Writing editors: Did we want to highlight the articles with the cutest and cleverest turns of phrase? Did we want to focus on the stories with the most potential to change readers’ minds? Or feature the ones that explain new developments with the most accuracy and nuance?

The hangout included returning editors Sarah Lewin (staff writer at Space.com) and Jennifer Caitlin Welsh (editor-in-chief of Wonderhowto.com), new recruit Amanda Alvarez (writer at RIKEN Brain Science Institute in Japan), and me (freelancer for hire). Collectively–along with fellow editors Shahla Farzan (UC Davis PhD student and reporter at KBBI Public Radio in Alaska) and Christine Scaduto (PhD student at Brown)–we’d gone over almost 200 short science stories from around the internet and were trying to narrow down a dense pack of “news-length” honorable mentions down to a select few.

“So this CRISPR mushroom story,” Jen began. “Does it really make you feel that the story’s important?”

“Hmm…Well, I’ve got a soft spot for fungi,” I said. And besides, gene editing policy is important.

However, covering an interesting topic isn’t the same as showing–rather than telling, or worse, assuming–the story’s impact, Jen countered. At the same time, judging based on practical impact crowds out a lot of well-written stories about studies that are just, y’know, interesting.

In the end, we decided to prioritize impactful stories–especially for the News, Investigations, and Opinion sections. But since Best Shortform Science Writing is a crowd-sourced project, our audience will ultimately drive the evolution of these round-ups. Send us the sorts of stories you want to see recognized via this submission form!  

Also, if you’re interested in joining the project as an editor, email me at diana@dianacrowscience.com.

Enjoy our picks from April, May, and June:

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Why You Can Blame Your Metabolism on Liver Proteomics Instead of Your Genes

Blaming things on genetics–everything from lateness to diet quirks–is wildly popular these days. However, DNA’s role in your body’s overall destiny has been greatly exaggerated. Sure, DNA is the “master blueprint”, but any one gene from that blueprint can contain instructions for making hundreds or thousands of tiny cell parts. And even so, there are plenty of cell parts that defy the master template.

Proteins–tiny biological machines made from proteins that you eat– are key players in pretty much every biological process that happens. Yet, their behavior remains almost impossible to decipher. Scientists have gotten pretty good at decoding genes and RNA snippets, and tracking a single type of protein is pretty doable. Also, since RNA snippets are templates for building proteins, scientists often use RNA data to estimate the total number of proteins. But there are thousands of different protein forms in every cell; tracking all of them at once remains basically impossible.

However, variations in those proteins can make an enormous difference in processes like weight gain. And according to a new study, our most-used method for estimating protein numbers–counting the RNAs–only works about 30% of the time. 

As in, according to science’s latest numbers, at least 2/3rds of all “genetic bad luck” happens outside of genes. 

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How to Ace an Interview with a Science Journalist [Part 2]

[Illustration by Fredik Walloe via Flickr & CC 2.0] 

A few days ago, I posted Part 1 of an informal guide to rocking interviews with journalists about your science. That post covers what to do before an interview; this post focuses on the During and the After.

Step 5: Invite Co-Authors Along.

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[Photo via UBC Learning Commons on Flickr & CC 2.0] 

Science writers know that grad students and post-docs carry out most of the experiments, not lab leaders–aka “Primary Investigators” aka “The Profs Who Do the Paperwork, Presenting, and Mentoring” aka “Boss Scientists”.

If you are a lab leader, looping in key co-authors is not just good manners; it shows that you’re giving credit where credit is due.

Not to mention that the post-docs and grad students who carry out the bulk of the experiments may have some cool stories of their own to share.

Step 6: Be a Good Listener.

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[Photo by Britt Reints via Flickr & CC 2.0] 

Scientist-journalist interviews start off like any other conversation, with a quick “Hi! How are you?” and confirmation that you’ve got the right person on the phone.  A journalistic interview is just a conversation, except for the fact that both parties have very specific goals.

Continue reading “How to Ace an Interview with a Science Journalist [Part 2]” »

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How to Ace an Interview with a Science Journalist [Part 1]

[A woman interviewing a Lego Sculpture. Photo by Matt Brown via Flickr & Creative Commons 2.0] 

Let’s say you’re a young lab leader or grad student and you’ve just gotten an email from a journalist asking if you can speak to them about your upcoming paper.  You haven’t heard of this reporter before. You ‘re not sure which outlet they’re writing for, and you’re concerned that a badly botched piece about your research might harm your standing in your field.

At the same time, a well-researched and well-written piece can actually help your research become more visible.  A piece that highlights your research in Nature News & Comment might actually be something you want to (humbly) mention when up for faculty gigs. Plus, links to news articles for general audiences liven up your lab’s home page.

You may ask yourself, “How do I work this?How do I make sure this interview goes as well as possible? How do I make sure that the reporters don’t take my comments out of context?  Which reporters are worth talking to in the first place?!

As a young journalist, I can’t pretend not to have a horse in the race: I’m in favor of scientists taking time to talk to journalists, even (and maybe especially) those of us who are just starting out. There are a lot of resources out there on “media training” for scientists, which focus on telling scientists how to best “sell” yourself and your research, and I’ll link to several resources at the end of the article.

My perspective is that of a young journalist, not a seasoned media training expert. But I have interviewed enough scientists to recognize some behavior patterns. Here are some of the habits that good scientist sources* share and etiquette tips for responding to journalist behavior. 

*[“source” = journalese for person or entity giving a journalist information]

Before the Interview

Step 0: Don’t Panic.

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[Photo by Ruth Hartnup via Flickr & Creative Commons 2.0]

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Why DNA is like a phone cable (Recap of a Talk by Prof. Jacqueline Barton)

[Computer rendering of DNA. Via Caroline Davis2010 on Flickr & CC 2.0] 

The Talk:

“DNA-mediated Signaling with Metalloproteins”

In Plain English:

DNA can conduct electricity–like metal wire–and that helps the cell life

The Speaker:

Jacqueline Barton of Caltech

The Sponsor:

MIT Inorganic Chemistry (invited by the grad students)

What It Covered:

When Jacqueline Barton’s lab began publishing papers claiming that DNA can conduct electricity, many of her colleagues didn’t believe them. But in experiment after experiment, they kept finding that they could send small amounts of electricity–much lower than the amount that flows through your charger cord–from an electrode on one end of a DNA strand through to the other.

The exceptions were stretches of DNA with “missense mutations“, hiccups in the genetic code that violated the rule of “G” aligns with “C” and “A” aligns with “T”.

A,T, G, and C are biologists’ shorthand for four small molecular structures– adenine, thymine, guanine, and cytosine– that repeat over and over again along DNA’s backbone. It just so happens that a G-C pair takes up exactly the same amount of space and adds exactly the same amount of twist as an A-T pair.  Anything else–a misplaced guanine, a broken cytosine, or a chemical tag on thymine– throws the DNA’s twist out of whack. And apparently,  the missense mutations also blocked electrical currents’ flow through a tiny gap in the center of the DNA.  Mismatched base pairs or base pairs that were even slightly damaged blocked the electrons’ path. Continue reading “Why DNA is like a phone cable (Recap of a Talk by Prof. Jacqueline Barton)” »

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The Case of the Sugars that “Strike Back” Against HIV

[Electromicrograph of an HIV-infected T-cell via NIAID & CC2.0] 

“Pitch Imperfect” is a series of blog posts where I highlight stories that I pitched but didn’t quite sell and discuss why it was tough to sell them. The goal is to share both interesting research stories and some of the obstacles in getting them into the news cycle.

Proposed Headline:

Sugar signals force HIV out of hiding

Proposed Dek:

And the same sugar signalling pathway “poisons the virus on the way out”

The Pitch:

Anti-retroviral therapies can block HIV’s attempts to infect new cells in patients but do nothing to get rid of HIV sleeper cells that are already in the patient’s blood stream. The immune system can’t spot infected cells unless the HIV is actively building viruses.

However, a paper in PLOS Pathogens may have revealed an unexpected ally in the fight against HIV–the sugar coatings on immune cells. Having sugars on the surface of a cell isn’t unusual; surface-sugars serve as ID-badges that allow immune cells to tell self from not-self. But they’re usually thought of as relatively passive in cell-to-cell communications. This study indicates that yanking on a certain class of surface sugar can start a chain reaction that forces HIV into the open.

“Even though it seems kind of counter-intuitive to wake up the HIV, it really boils down to: the infected cells will die if we wake them up,” says the study’s senior co-author Satish Pillai of the Blood Systems Research Institute in San Francisco.

The paper came out on Thursday, but a Google News search turned up zero hits.

Sugars, in general, are relatively underused in next-gen medicine strategies–while genes, proteins, and RNAs hog all the glory–but they may have been potential allies ambushing HIV, hiding in plain sight.

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New Gig: Acting Editor of Science Philosophy & History at Lateral Mag!

[A screenshot of the webzine Lateral’s home page. The theme of June is Sport.]

I am super-psyched to announce that I’m taking on a new part-time gig as editing stories on the history & philosophy of science at an up-and-coming webzine called Lateral.

It’s based out of Australia, has monthly themes like Nautilus, and is largely written and edited by grad students who are considering or transitioning into science writing careers. (And if, I’m not mistaken, that’s a large chunk of the audience here on this blog.)

I’ll still be posting original blog posts on this site every Thursday(ish)*and pitching stories as a freelancer. The good news is that if you’ve ever thought, “Hmm…I wish I could get Diana to edit some of my science writing,”  now you can, by pitching me stories and essay ideas for Lateral. 

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Caltech grows miniature “river deltas” in a lab

About half a billion people live on fan-shaped floodplains that form where rivers meet the sea.

Those plains, called river deltas, share the same fan-like shape the world over. Even after controlling for factors like the size of the river, the slope of the land its channel traverses, and the makeup of the local soil, river deltas have a remarkably consistent shape.

Seriously. Here’s The Nile: [satelite image via NASA Godard Space Flight Center’s Flickr]

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Here’s the Yukon River in Alaska [satelite image via NASA Godard Space Flight Center’s Flickr] 

Image acquired September 22, 2002 Countless lakes, sloughs, and ponds are scattered throughout this scene of the Yukon Delta in southwest Alaska. One of the largest river deltas in the world, and protected as part of the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, the river's sinuous waterways seem like blood vessels branching out to enclose an organ. Credit: NASA/USGS/Landsat NASA image use policy. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center enables NASA’s mission through four scientific endeavors: Earth Science, Heliophysics, Solar System Exploration, and Astrophysics. Goddard plays a leading role in NASA’s accomplishments by contributing compelling scientific knowledge to advance the Agency’s mission. Follow us on Twitter Like us on Facebook Find us on Instagram
Image acquired September 22, 2002
Countless lakes, sloughs, and ponds are scattered throughout this scene of the Yukon Delta in southwest Alaska. One of the largest river deltas in the world, and protected as part of the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, the river’s sinuous waterways seem like blood vessels branching out to enclose an organ.
Credit: NASA/USGS/Landsat
NASA image use policy.
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center enables NASA’s mission through four scientific endeavors: Earth Science, Heliophysics, Solar System Exploration, and Astrophysics. Goddard plays a leading role in NASA’s accomplishments by contributing compelling scientific knowledge to advance the Agency’s mission.
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4 Things Science Writers Can Learn from Screenwriters

[Image by Ozzy Delaney via Flickr & Creative Commons]

Movies. They’re the stuff of fiction, and scientists love to make fun of those darn Hollywood writers. (The Core, anyone?)  How dare they abuse and twist the science to hit a plot point? 

Journalism is supposed to be an emphatic move away from fiction. But I’d argue that the screenwriting–the “craft” of writing movie scripts–has a lot of lessons to teach science journalists. 

I know because I use tricks and rules of thumb teen-aged and college-aged aspiring screenwriter-me picked up in my science writing every day.

Several science writers have pointed out the parallels between science writing and screenwriting. Ben Lillie–best known as the co-creator of Story Collider–suggests Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!  series in the chapter of Science Blogging: The Essential Guide on narrative storytelling.  MIT SciWrite prof Tom Levenson is always joking that he talks about magazine feature writing with a “TV writing accent”. (He does; he talks about loglines and “the fractal nature of feature storytelling”, which is far more obvious in screenwriting than print writing.) And most science writing grad school programs include at least one unit on scripting and making documentaries. 

But I think that screenwriting has more to offer science writing than just a means of structuring story arcs. The techniques screenwriters use to develop characters, set up scenes, and deliver exposition can all be imported quite easily. Here are just 4 of the first screenwriting wisdom-nuggets that come to mind:

1. Screenwriting teaches you how to write as part of a team.

Our first assignment in my first actual sitting-around-a-table-with-fellow-humans screenwriting class–during sophomore year of college–was to write a page-long scene that told a story with zero dialogue.

I had written an utterly forgettable scene about a love triangle and a soccer game. In one bit of direction (the paragraphs in between dialogue), I had two soccer players running after the ball, one on the bad guys’ team baring down, and our heroine running after the ball “with the same fierce glint in her eye.”

“Um…I don’t know how I would direct that,” one of my classmates said. A senior, a film major who actually went around making movies, as opposed to armchair-dissecting every Joss Whedon plot point.

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The Case of the Hot-Blooded Lizard

[Photo of a black and white tegu lizard (Salvator merianae) by Wagon16 via Flickr & Creative Commons]

“Pitch Imperfect” is a series of blog posts where I highlight stories that I pitched but didn’t quite sell and discuss why it was tough to sell them. The goal is to share both interesting research stories and some of the obstacles in getting them into the news cycle.

Proposed Headlines:

–Hot-blooded lizards may hold clues to mammals’ evolution
–(shorter alternative) How mammals evolved their heat

Proposed Dek:

–Cold-blooded Tegu lizards can turn up their own body heat during their breeding season, says Brazilian-Canadian study

The Pitch:

Nine months out of the year, Argentine giant tegu lizards split their time between basking in the sun to recharge their cold-blooded bodies, digging the underground burrows where they sleep at night, and hunting insects. However, when their mating season begins, these cold-blooded creatures warm up. And stay warm, even while sequestered in their sunless burrows.

Researchers only discovered this temperature increase when they used surgical implants to monitor the lizards’ heart and breathing rates, said Brock University biologist Glenn Tattersall. When they dug deeper into previous research on warm-bloodedness, they realized their evidence lined up with an evolutionary hypothesis about how mammals and birds got their heat.

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