Tag Archives: public health

Best Shortform Science Writing July-September 2016

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

[Image above by Silke Remmery via Flickr and CC 2.0 license] 

After nine months of searching through short science stories with an eye out for some of the best that the genre has to offer, I’ve come to a conclusion: Investigative pieces under 1200 words are rare.

Since the investigative genre often hinges on journalists showing their work and offering evidence on top of evidence on top of evidence, the relative dearth of short-n-sweet investigative pieces makes sense from a logistics perspective. At the same time, most members of the general public encounter science not through investigative reports but through brief segments on TV news shows and by the short but (hopefully) informative articles that crop up in Facebook news feeds.

And then we wonder why the public seems unable to effectively question science and why science journalists have a reputation for being less critical than their colleagues in business and political reporting…

Anyway, if you see any standout investigative or data pieces in the next few months, I hope you’ll share them with the editors of Best Shortform Science Writing. You can nominate stories via this Google form or simply by tagging us at @SciShortform on Twitter. (Be sure to include a link to the piece you’re nominating in your tweet!)

Special thanks to our editorial team’s new recruits– Dyani Lewis, a freelancer based in Hobart, Australia and Nola Taylor Redd, a freelancer based in Atlanta, Georgia– as well as our returning editors Sarah Lewin of Space.com and Amanda Alvarez of the RIKEN Brain Science Institute in Japan.

Continue reading “Best Shortform Science Writing July-September 2016” »

The Case of the Infected Fruit Bats

[Photo  courtesy of Brian Giesen via Creative Commons & Flickr]

“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:

How Fruit Bats Spread Ebola and Hendra Viruses Without Getting Sick

Proposed Dek (aka “the sub-headline” or  “social media blurb”)

Unlike most mammalian immune systems which leap into action in response to threats, fruit bats’ immune systems are “on” all the time.

The Pitch (as sent on February 23rd 2016)

Flying foxes– aka fruit bats or megabats— can harbor viruses that are strong enough to tear a human body apart without exhibiting a single symptom.

Or more precisely, while viruses like Ebola and Hendra virus set off violent (and often deadly) immune system chain reactions in humans, fruit bats’ immune systems are able to nip viral infections in the bud right away.

Unfortunately, that means that healthy and highly mobile bats can inadvertently end up transporting viruses like SARS, MERS, Ebola, and Hendra to new locations. However, studying fruit bats’ ability to control viral populations without collateral damage may eventually help humans learn how to coexist with our own volatile immune systems.

Continue reading “The Case of the Infected Fruit Bats” »

How do you translate neuroscience into education?

The Talk:

Storming the Ivory Tower: Why autism interventions don’t work as they should in the community and what to do about it

In Plain English:

Autism treatments & management techniques that succeed in neuroscience labs often fail in public schools. (And we really, really need to figure out why…)

The Speaker:

David Mandell of University of Pennsylvania

The Sponsor:

Simons Center for the Social Brain Colloquium

What it covered:

Even though there are thousands of neuroscientists working on developing management and treatment options for autism, very few of those techniques make it into real-world homes and classrooms. Despite the growing public concern about autism, there aren’t very many people focusing on translating data into things teachers can do to help their autistic students learn.

(The issue here is that the type of training you need to be able to interpret an fMRI and the type of training you need to be able to understand the social dynamics in how public school teachers interact with their students are two very, very different types of training. And since most graduate programs assume that you’re going to be spending 60-80 hours per week working on stuff related to your degree, hardly anyone has time to pursue graduate level work in both of those areas, much less decipher the intersections and implications of the two….But that makes the handful of people who do work on translating neuroscience into implementable best practices all the more valuable.)

David Mandell is one of those people. His background is in public health, so his research focuses more on the social and infrastructural issues around autistic people’s education and treatment than what’s going on in their brains. He covered a huge amount of ground in a relatively short talk, but the takehome message was the point he led with: Translational research, or research that focuses on how to implement lab scientists’ ideas in real-world clinical settings,  is “the biggest gap in the autism research portfolio” and that we need to do better.

Hospitalization, special ed, and behavioral interventions are all expensive. And the costs don’t disappear once the autistic kids become adults. “We think about autism as a childhood disorder, but the life expectancy for folks with autism is not that different than the general population,” Mandell pointed out. “They spend most of their lives as adults.”

Continue reading “How do you translate neuroscience into education?” »

Do stem cell researchers ignore social inequalities? – Recap of talk by Dr. Ruha Benjamin

The Talk:

People’s Science: Bodies & Rights on the Stem Cell Frontier

In Plain English:

Sociologist investigates the tensions between the stem cell research community and racial minorities and/or low-income communities

The Speaker:

Ruha Benjamin of Boston University

The Sponsor:

BU Discoveries Lecture Series

What it covered:

Dr. Ruha Benjamin, a sociologist who studies scientists and the way they interact with marginalized communities, opened her talk with a story about a bench.

Not a lab bench. A park bench. In Berkeley.

It was a nice day, and she had a few minutes to spare after giving a talk at UC-Berkeley, so she decided to try and take a nap on the park bench. She found that she couldn’t. “Tell me why,” she said, clicking to a slide with a picture of a metal park bench with three sets of arm-rest-style dividers.

“…It has bars on it?” one audience member said tentatively.

“Right. But why do you think those bars are there?” Continue reading “Do stem cell researchers ignore social inequalities? – Recap of talk by Dr. Ruha Benjamin” »

Asleep by Molly Caldwell Crosby: A great epidemic history story, up until the last chapter

The book:

Asleep: The Forgotten Epidemic that Remains One of Medicine’s Greatest Mysteries by Molly Caldwell Crosby (2010)

What it’s about:

Asleep is the story of the encephalitis lethargica epidemic that followed in the wake of the 1918 flu. Encephalitis lethargica is mainly known by the nickname “Sleeping Sickness”, but shouldn’t be confused with African trypanosomiasis, a tsetse-fly-borne malady that also goes by the “Sleeping Sickness” moniker. The two diseases are unrelated (as far as we know) but have vaguely similar symptoms.) It is terrifying.

Each encephalitis lethargica case began with an innocuous sore throat. Most people thought nothing of it at first. But then weird things began to happen. Patients began to fall asleep and not wake up for days or weeks or else began to lose motor control of their own bodies. They moved like zombies or puppets on strings. Still others retained normal motor function but began to feel uncontrollable violent urges, while remaining completely lucid and logical in normal conversation. (There was one story of a teenaged girl who dug her own eyes out of their sockets with her fingernails and then calmly denied doing any such thing because they had “fallen out during the night”. Otherwise, her behavior was completely rational.)

I couldn’t help but think of the Reavers on Firefly. (If you haven’t seen Serenity, I don’t want to spoil it for you. But seriously? Why haven’t you seen Serenity?)

Asleep follows the doctors and neurologists who tried to help these patients. Their efforts were overshadowed by the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, fragmented by war, complicated by the pathogen’s invisibility (whatever caused sleeping sickness couldn’t be isolated under microscopes of the day), and hamstringed by the fact that the symptoms varied so widely. In fact, sleeping sickness initially appeared to be several different diseases.

Crosby is working off of case studies from the era, so the overall effect is almost like reading a series of interconnected short stories (featuring some of the same lead detectives). Separately, the chapters are kind of creepy and puzzling, but together they add up into a portrait of the neurology and epidemiology fields in their nascent state.

The Upsides:

It’s incredibly vivid and well researched. My favorite passages in the book actually had nothing to do with science; they were the passages where Crosby describes the bustling streets of 1910s & 1920s New York City. Her descriptions are extraordinarily cinematic, and I loved the way she presented the history of the disease almost as an anthology of stories based on the original case studies. Plus, it’s just an interesting disease. Creepy, ethereal, & unresolvable. Continue reading “Asleep by Molly Caldwell Crosby: A great epidemic history story, up until the last chapter” »

Epidemic of Absence: A book that made me think too much

What it’s about:

Moises Velasquez-Manoff’s Epidemic of Absence tackles one of the trickiest and trendiest topics in 21st-century biomedical research: the complex relationship between autoimmune disease and the bacteria that live in our guts.

A growing body of evidence suggests that by decimating the number of pathogenic microbes people are exposed to, modern medicine has inadvertently shifted the ecological balance between the human immune system and the human microbiome, leaving millions of people vulnerable to allergies and autoimmune disease.

The basic evolutionary argument is that our immune system evolved to cope with a constant onslaught of opportunistic microbes by developing a complex system of checks-and-balances with our bodies’ microbial populations. With those microbes gone, many of the immune system’s coping strategies are having disastrous side effects. In this book, Velasquez-Manoff implicates the depletion of bacterial biodiversity as a driving agent in the pretty much every non-infectious disease you can think of (cancer, depression, Crohn’s, Celiac’s, allergies, and autism are all covered in this book).

The Upsides:

It’s a rare snapshot of a scientific revolution in progress. And it’s easily the most thought-provoking book I’ve read all year. Continue reading “Epidemic of Absence: A book that made me think too much” »