We need to talk about CRISPR

By Gesa Junge, PhD

You’ve probably heard of CRISPR, the magic new gene editing technique that will either ruin the world or save it, depending on what you read and whom you talk to? Or the Three Parent Baby, which scientists in the UK have created?

CRISPR is a technology based on a bacterial immune defense system which uses Cas9, a nuclease, to cut up foreign genetic material (e.g., viral RNA). Scientists have developed a method by which they can modify the recognition part of the system, the guide RNA, and make it specific to a site in the genome that Cas9 then cuts. This is often described as “gene editing” which allows disease-causing genes to be swapped out for healthy ones.

CRISPR is now so well known that Google finally stopped suggesting I may be looking for “crisps” instead, but the real-world applications are not so well worked out yet, and there are various issues around CRISPR, including off-target effects, and also the fact that deleting genes is much easier than replacing them with something else. But, after researchers at Oregon Health and Science University managed to change the mutated version of the MYBPC3 gene to the unmutated version in a viable human embryo last month, the predictable bioethical debate was reignited, and terms such as “Designer Babies” got thrown around a lot.

A similar thing happened with the “Three Parent Baby,” an unfortunate term coined to describe mitochondrial replacement therapy (MRT). Mitochondria, the cells’ organelles for providing energy, have their own DNA (making up about 0.2% of the total genome) which is separate from the genomic DNA in the nucleus, which is the body’s blueprint. Mitochondrial DNA can mutate just like genomic DNA, potentially leading to mitochondrial disease, which affects 1 in 5000-10000 children. Mitochondrial disease can manifest in various ways, ranging from growth defects to heart or kidney to disease to neuropsychological symptoms. Symptoms can range from very mild to very severe or fatal, and the disease is incurable.

MRT replaces the mutated mitochondrial DNA in a fertilized egg or in an embryo with the healthy version provided by a third donor, which allows the mitochondria to develop normally. The UK was the first country to allow the “cautious adaption” of this technique.

While headlines need to draw attention and engage the reader for obvious reasons, oversimplifications like “gene editing” and dramatic phrases like “three parent babies” can really get in the way of broadening the understanding of science, which is difficult enough as it is. Research is a slow and inefficient process that easily gets lost in a 24-hour news cycle, and often the context is complex and not easily summed up in 140 characters. And even when the audience can be engaged and interested, the relevant papers are probably hiding behind a paywall, making fact checking difficult.

Aside from difficulties communicating the technicalities and results of studies, there is also often a lack of context in presenting scientific studies – think for example of chocolate and red wine which may or may not protect from heart attacks. What is lost in many headlines is that scientific studies usually express their results as a change in risk of developing a disease, not a direct causation, and very few diseases are caused by one chemical or one food additive. On this topic, WNYC’s “On The Media”-team have an issue of their Breaking News Consumer Handbook that is very useful to evaluate health news.

The causation vs. correlation issue is perhaps a little easier to discuss than big ethical questions that involve changing the germline DNA of human beings because ethical questions do not usually have a scientific answer, let alone a right answer. This is a problem, not just for scientists, but for everyone, because innovation often moves out of the realm of established ethics, forcing us to re-evaluate it.

Both CRISPR and MRT are very powerful techniques that can alter a person’s DNA, and potentially the DNA of their children, which makes them both promising and scary. We are not ready to use CRISPR to cure all cancers yet, and “Three Parent Babies” are not designed by anyone, but unfortunately, it can be hard to look past Designer Babies, Killer Mutations and DNA Scissors, and have a constructive discussion about the real issues, which needs to happen! These technologies exist; they will improve and eventually, and inevitably, play a role in medicine. The question is, would we rather have this development happen in reasonably well-regulated environments where authorities are at least somewhat accountable to the public, or are we happy to let countries with more questionable human rights records and even more opaque power structures take the lead?

Scientists have a responsibility to make sure their work is used for the benefit of humanity, and part of that is taking the time to talk about what we do in terms that anyone can understand, and to clarify all potential implications (both positive and negative), so that there can be an informed public discussion, and hopefully a solution everyone can live with.


Further Reading:


National Geographic

Washington Post


Mitochondrial Replacement Therapy:

A paper on clinical and ethical implications

New York Times (Op-Ed)


So You Want to Be a… Technical Copywriter

By Sally Burn, PhD

In this week’s edition of Scizzle’s post-PhD career series we talk to Colm O’Regan about being a freelance Technical Copywriter. Colm trained in the physical sciences – which makes a welcome change from our usual biology-centric focus – and came to our attention when he commented on one of our previous interviews on LinkedIn. We were so intrigued by his job title that we just had to get the lowdown on his career! If you also happen to have an interesting post-PhD job, please reach out to us – we’d love to hear from you. Just connect with Sally Burn via her LinkedIn. Colm can also be contacted via his LinkedIn or by email.


Hi Colm, so what does a Technical Copywriter do?

I write marketing communications and content for scientific companies. This means any material a science company uses to promote its products. These range from white papers, technical/scientific articles, landing pages, advertisements, application notes and case studies. Many science companies put out a wide range of marketing collateral and this stuff needs to be written. They’ll do a lot of it internally, but often they’ll outsource it to a writer like me to take some of the pressure off. Specific responsibilities include: marketing my services, making contact with potential buyers (typically marketing managers), talking to these buyers on the phone to ascertain their needs, making an offer, writing proposals, doing the actual writing, following up constantly, bookkeeping etc.


How did you get to where you are now?

I enjoyed science in school, particularly chemistry and physics. Chemistry was always my favorite subject so I continued studying that in university in Ireland. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. After my degree, I didn’t want to get a job in a chemical plant or a pharmaceutical company, which seemed to be the typical route most of my classmates were following. By the time I finished my third year, I had developed a strong interest in nanotechnology and materials science. So when I was offered a PhD in materials science at the same university, I jumped at the chance. After that, I went on to do a postdoc at the National University of Singapore. The research was focused on using electron microscopy to study dendrite growth in battery systems. However, by the end of this, I realized that working for someone else was not something I wanted to spend my life doing. Even if it was in academia which, admittedly, can be quite cushy. I had always enjoyed writing so after spending many months trying to figure out what I wanted to do, I found that marketing writing for science companies seemed to be the best choice.


What are the key skills or experience needed for this job?

You don’t need much in the way of experience from a skills point of view, as most of it you can learn on the job. That said, any relevant background you have will be helpful. For example, if you’re targeting a specific industry such as biotechnology, a degree, masters or PhD in biotech will be a huge advantage. It will set you apart from other writers targeting biotech companies. You know the technology, the field, and the industry, and will probably have hands on experience with many of the scientific instruments you’ll be writing about. Companies value this and you’ll be able to command higher fees. The main skill I got from my PhD and postdoc was the ability to research effectively (I mean look up papers, documents, articles etc. pertaining to my field) and keep persevering when things get tough. Anybody doing a PhD project knows that it’s three and a half years of crap followed by six months of good things happening. When you’re in your second year, your 150th experiment in a row has failed and you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, it can be disheartening. That perseverance and ability to tough it out is critical when going out on your own.


What would be your advice to a PhD wanting a job similar to yours?

Anybody wanting to do this job (or start a freelancing business in general) should know that it’ll probably take twice as long, cost twice as much and be twice as difficult as you initially anticipated. I know this isn’t exactly encouraging, but if you come into this knowing what to expect, then you’re already ahead of the game. I definitely thought it was going to be easier than it is. So the first thing someone needs to do is market themselves and their services like crazy. Estimate how much marketing you need to do, double it… and then go do that. I didn’t do enough marketing in my first year (and the marketing I did was the wrong kind). Ultimately, the people who are successful think of themselves as marketers of the services they provide (in my case, marketing communications writing for scientific companies), rather than doers of that particular service.


What are the top three things on your To Do list right now?

Usually, my to-do-list involves marketing. Right now, the list includes launching a direct mail effort (sending letters through the mail to promote my services), finishing writing a proposal for a project, and following up on a previous project that I finished recently (I do this a lot)


What are your favorite – and least favorite – parts of the job?

Least favorite part right now is the inconsistent paycheck. Some months you have work, others you don’t. Invariably, this comes down to consistent marketing. When you let up on the marketing, your income takes a hit. My favorite part is working to my own schedule, and not a schedule set by someone else.


Is there anything you miss about academia?  What was the most challenging aspect of moving from academia to your current job?”

One of the things I enjoyed most about academia is the relaxed working atmosphere. Specifically, it’s not a typical nine to five job, so there’s nobody checking up on work hours. As long as you do the work, it’s fine. So that was a big plus. I was also lucky to work in a fun lab with a lot of great people. Now, I work on my own so I sometimes miss the interactions of working in a research group. The most challenging aspect of moving into freelance work is being your own boss. You’re responsible for every single aspect of the business. From marketing, selling, doing the work, bookkeeping, to running the business. If you slip up on anything (marketing in particular), the business as a whole takes a hit. It takes some getting used to. You definitely need to develop good habits (getting up early, not wasting an hour scanning your Facebook feed), improve your productivity and have the discipline to work and market the business when you need to. Which is most of the time.


How do you see your field developing over the next ten years?

In terms of marketing writing for scientific firms, I guess It really is a buyer’s market due to the sheer number of people going out on their own and starting businesses. Over the last decade, copywriting has been actively promoted as a business opportunity by several organizations. This has prompted more and more people to start freelance copywriting. Though admittedly, you don’t see many science graduates and researchers doing this, but that could change over the next decade. Copywriting in general is sure to become more and more popular, so narrowing down your specialty and focusing on a particular industry will be even more important than it is today.


And finally: In the event of a zombie apocalypse, what skills would a technical copywriter bring to the table?

Well, if the remaining living scientists ever discovered a cure for people turning into zombies, a technical copywriter would be the one helping to promote it!


Beyond Neuromania

By Celine Cammarata

As someone within the field, it seems to me that neuroscience – in some form or another – appears in the media nearly every day. Indeed the term “neuromania”, originally coined by Raymond Tallis, has come into use to describe both the lofty claims made about the power of neuroscience to answer nearly every question and the general mainstream media frenzy surrounding the field. Scholars have paid increasing attention to this and it is often regarded as a problem, but more recent work suggests that despite the mania, neuroscience is still not widely understood or even considered by the public at large. So does all the hype conceal a true lack of public interest?

It’s undeniable that neuroscience is the target of extensive and potentially problematic media attention. In a 2012 Neuron editorial, O’Connor, Reese and Joffe examined the coverage of neuroscience-related topic in six UK newspapers from 2000-2010 and found that not only did the number of articles related to brain research nearly double from the early to the late 2000s, but the topics also changed and the implications of neuroscience research was often exaggerated. Whereas in the past neuroscience was generally reported on in relation to physical pathology, the authors found that in their sample the most common context for discussing neuroscience was that of brain enhancement and protection – topics that are both more widely applicable to a broad audience and that suggest a newly emerging sense of ownership over ones’ brain.  O’Connor et al describe that “although clinical applications retained an important position in our sample, neuroscience was more commonly represented as a domain of knowledge relevant to ‘‘ordinary’’ thought and behavior and immediate social concerns. Brain science has been incorporated into the ordinary conceptual repertoire of the media, influencing public under- standing of a broad range of events and phenomena.”

Such issues are also highlighted in Satel and Lilienfeld’s 2013 book Brainwashed: the Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience, in which the authors explore – and lament – the at times unrestrained application of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to answer questions from “Pepsi or Coke?” to “does free will exist?”. The tantalizing ability to see the brain has carried neuroscience into the realms of marketing, politics, law and more, not to mention changing the way we think about more standard brain research topics such as addiction. But, the authors point out, pictures of a brain alone can not address every level of analysis and are not inherently of greater scientific value than are other research methodologies. Tracking the physical footprint of a desire, attitude, or propensity in the brain does not in and of itself tell you why or how these things emerged, nor can it be necessarily used to assign guilt, decide what is a “disease” and what not, or determine how people choose their politicians – and yet this is precisely what neuroscience is often touted to do.

Both of these works, and many others, are based on the premise that neuroscience has become markedly pervasive, nearly omnipresent. Fascinatingly, though, the brain craze seems to stop short of making a final leap from the media to public consciousness. To be sure, public interest in neuroscience does exist – someone must be buying the growing number of brain-centered books popping up at Barnes and Nobel, right? – but a 2014 paper by the same authors as the Neuron piece found that the public in general is not nearly so interested in neuroscience as the media frenzy and emergence of the brain in societal matters might suggest.

To probe how everyday citizens think about neuroscience, the authors conducted open-ended interviews where a sample of Londoners, chosen to span age, gender and socioeconomic divides, were asked to share what came to mind when they considered research on the brain. These interviews were then examined and the themes touched upon quantified, and the results showed clear indication that neuroscientific research has largely failed to penetrate into the mindset of the public at large. Participants consistently indicated that they thought of brain research as a distant enterprise quite removed from them, performed by some unknown “other” (who was consistently described as a man in a white lab coat). Brain research was widely convolved with neurological medicine and brain surgery, and was almost entirely assumed to focus on medical application – the concept of basic science on cognition, emotion, or other mental phenomena appeared nearly unheard of.

Consistent with this, although most participants were quick to tag brain research as “interesting, they also reported that it was not of particular interest to them specifically except in the context of illness. That is, above all the brain was something that might go wrong, and unless it did participants gave it little thought at all. The authors connect this to an earlier concept of “dys-appearance,” the idea that much of the body is inconspicuous and ignored so long as it is healthy, and only attracts attention when there is some kind of dysfunction.

Based on these finding, O’Connor and Joffe concluded that despite rapid advancement and intrusion of neuroscience into more and more areas of inquiry, research on the brain nonetheless continues to have little relevance to the public’s daily lives. As they put it, “heightened public visibility should not be automatically equated with heightened personal engagement.”

So is neuroscience flooding our popular culture, or simply washing up then falling away like a rolling wave, never really lasting in our overall societal consciousness? For the moment, it appears to be both. Perhaps the concern over “neuromania” need not be so heated, but also perhaps we need to do more to understand how our work can take the extra step to become more relevant to those outside the lab.

So You Want to Be a… Medical Writer

By Sally Burn, PhD

What can you be with a PhD? So many things! In our new series on post-PhD careers we explore the options out there, providing tips on how to break into different industries and helping you identify jobs your skill set is ideally matched to. Check back every two weeks for the lowdown on becoming, to name but a few, a Publisher, Tech Startup Founder, Medical Science Liaison, Editor, Industry Scientist, Consultant, and Space Pirate (OK, so perhaps not the last one).

Today, in our first post, we chat with Elizabeth Ohneck about her career as a Medical Writer and find out how you can become one too. Elizabeth works for Health Interactions, a medical education and communications agency; she’s also one of our regular Scizzle blog contributors.


Hi Elizabeth! So, what exactly does a Medical Writer do?

Medical writers work with research teams in pharmaceutical, nonprofit, and other institutions to develop manuscripts, abstracts, posters, and presentations. In general, our clients send us reports outlining the methods, results, and analysis parameters of their studies, which we use to develop the desired publications or presentations. We also attend conferences and prepare conference summary reports, as well as write literature reviews over current publications in a particular disease or therapeutic area. In addition, we provide support for administrative tasks such as manuscript and abstract submission and the preparation of biosketches for physicians and researchers.


How did you get to where you are now?

I have a BS in Biology from the University of Dayton, where I first experienced working in a lab for my honors thesis in microbiology. I enjoyed research at the time, so I decided to go to grad school. I got my PhD from Emory University in Microbiology and Molecular Genetics. I knew I didn’t want to stay in academia, but wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, so I took a postdoc position at NYU while I looked into other career options. I’ve always liked writing and am often frustrated by how poor the communication of science is among researchers and between researchers and the public, so I started looking for opportunities in science communication. My husband is a postdoc at Princeton, and a former postdoc from his department emailed the department saying his company was hiring medical writers and any interested candidates should contact him. My husband sent me his information and I emailed him to set up an informational interview. After our conversation, he sent my CV to the HR department at his company and from there I went through the standard hiring process – phone interview, writing test, in person interview, job offer.


What are the key skills needed for this job? Did you develop any of them during your PhD/postdoc?

You really have to love learning and be an effective self-educator. I work in rheumatology and veterinary medicine right now, not areas at all related to my background in microbiology. So I had to learn a lot about new subjects very quickly, and it’s really important to stay up-to-date with the research and developments in the field. And you obviously need to enjoy writing and have strong communication skills. Time management and the ability to meet deadlines and prioritize work are also critical. A PhD and postdoc should help you develop all of these skills through planning your research, preparing publications and presenting your work. The ability to professionally and effectively communicate with clients has probably been the skill I needed to work on the most, since it requires much more formal communication than we usually use in academia.


What would be your advice to a PhD wanting a job similar to yours?

Take every opportunity you can to write and present. In addition to your own manuscripts, take advantage of any offers to contribute to book chapters, reviews, commentaries, etc. Write for a research blog (like Scizzle!) or a department or program newsletter. Attend conferences or participate in symposiums or presentation opportunities at your institution to become comfortable and efficient with poster and oral presentations. For entry-level medical writing positions, effective scientific communication skills will really be the key to demonstrate that you are a strongly qualified candidate. And network. I know everyone says that for every position, but it’s true. Create a professional social media presence and look for opportunities to meet people in the field.


What are the top three things on your To Do list right now?

Right now, I need to finish editing the monthly rheumatology literature review we prepare for our rheumatology clients, submit a manuscript, and prepare an outline for a new manuscript that we will be kicking off next week.


What are your favorite – and least favorite – parts of the job?

My favorite part of the job is writing manuscripts. It’s the most writing-intensive task, and writing is really my passion. I love the feeling of accomplishment that comes with turning a collection of data into an intelligible story. My least favorite part is making slide presentations, but that’s only because I’ve never been particularly fond of the software used to make said presentations. The most challenging part for me is conference coverage. Travel to and from the conference, long days of taking detailed notes during conference sessions and meeting with clients, and tight deadlines for creating conference summary documents afterward can be exhausting. But getting to travel to new places is fun.


Is there anything you miss about academia? What was the biggest adjustment or most challenging aspect of moving from academia to your current job?

I don’t miss anything about being at the bench or the academic environment. The experience helped get me where I am today, but it just wasn’t the right fit for me long term. The biggest adjustment was getting used to not being on my feet all day – I have to remember to get up to walk around and stretch every once in awhile! The biggest challenges were learning the writing style preferred by our clients and adapting to the more formal style of communication required for interaction with clients.


How do you see your field developing over the next ten years?

From what I understand, there is a huge demand for people in the medical communications industry, so it seems that it’s a growing field. I imagine this growth will continue, since there is increasing demand for more transparency in scientific research, and medical communications companies can help increase the clarity of publications and the efficiency of the publication process.


What kind of positions does someone in your position move on to?

The next step after entry-level Medical Writer is Senior Medical Writer, which involves more projects, more independence and leadership in your projects, and opportunities to mentor newer medical writers. In my company, the next step would then be Associate Scientific Director, which involves more management responsibilities.


Finally, the all-important question: In the event of a zombie apocalypse, what skills would a Medical Writer bring to the table?

I imagine we’d be responsible for informing the public about the virus or genetic mutation (it’s always one of those) that’s causing the zombie condition and communicating information about the cure. Although, as far as how we would distribute that information – that might be outside of our job description. If you figure out what career that would be, let me know. It’s never too early to start networking…

Uprooting my Research From the Bench and Planting it in an Office

By Heather D Marshall, PhD

My mind would often wander while dissecting mice, smashing spleens, and filtering cell suspensions from one tube to another.  Occasionally, I would set the centrifuge and grab a notebook to jot down an idea.  Over the course of more than a dozen years in a lab, I had notebooks full of pages with “young parents aren’t scared of measles” and “No GMO – I don’t want DNA in my food! (haha)” scratched about them. After many long days in the lab, I would often come home and write.  I wasn’t working on a grant proposal, nor a manuscript, protocol, or presentation—though there was a never-ending supply of that to do.  Instead, I would transcribe my notes and create pitches for my as of yet nonexistent, hypothetical science blog.

I enjoy communicating science with the public and have participated in science literacy outreach in my community.  I also designed and taught a course for non-science majors at Yale, dissecting science in the media ranging from Crichton’s Jurassic Park to Soderbergh’s Contagion.  And I’ve taken workshops on science communication with notable voices including Bob Bazell and Carl Zimmer.  As I reflect, the one thing preventing me from starting my blog back then was time.  As a postdoc with these various extra-curricular activities, I had very little of the so-called “free” kind.  Although I tried my hardest to find the holy grail of work-life balance, it was impossible for me to stop thinking about research—a paper that almost scooped my project, a fellowship needing revision, the next experiment to set up, data to analyze, or how my work fit into the grand scheme of life.  I quite literally didn’t have the mental bandwidth to deal with much else.  So time and again I would scribble notes about interesting story ideas that went seemingly nowhere.

After a number of years as a postdoc at Yale, I started applying for faculty positions.  It was the career I had always envisioned for myself, leading a lab of young scientists to investigate how immune cells respond to viral infections and immunizations.  I submitted what seemed like an endless number of applications, and although I had a couple interviews, no offers came in.  I had many friends and colleagues doing the same and getting similarly disappointing results.  At one point, I was shocked to discover that I personally knew every single applicant interviewing for one of those faculty positions (a friend nabbed that one—nice work B!).  Over the course of about a year, I was tired and stressed.  I needed a change.  I needed to do something that I enjoyed.  I needed to start my blog.  So I did.

That was the pivotal moment that changed the entire trajectory of my career.  It was evident from the start that I loved writing about science, and I wanted, nay—needed, to foster that professionally.  I stopped applying for faculty positions and started applying for science writing and editing jobs.  To get one wasn’t any easier.  I didn’t have a lot of experience as a writer and apparently failed grant proposals didn’t count.  I finally landed a medical writer position at DynaMed, a part of EBSCO Health at EBSCO Information Services.

DynaMed is a point-of-care medical reference for clinicians.  At DynaMed, we create a living database that is continuously being updated and adjusted to reflect the most current, useful, and rigorous evidence in medical research.  Like myself, the majority of medical writers at DynaMed have life science PhDs and backgrounds in research, which is excellent training for the objective appraisal and reporting of evidence in the medical literature.  My immunology expertise allowed me to immediately contribute to the infectious disease publishing group. In this role, I research pathogenic microbes, evaluate study design and rigor, and write about signs and symptoms, diagnostic assays, and treatment regimens for diseases caused by pathogens.  In collaboration with clinicians, we synergize my research analysis with their clinical perspective to craft this living, working database to be used by doctors in the clinic. For an inside peek at DynaMed, check out our Ebola virus disease page, which was made open-access during the 2014 outbreak.

Truly the best aspect of this career transition has been the ability to take a step back from the basic science to consider how all of research from mice to men comes together to help patients.  I recently researched a viral pathogen called BK virus.  Most of us have BK just hanging out, virtually asleep in our kidneys and bladder, not causing any problems at all.  However, if you’re unlucky enough to need a kidney transplant, you may well be wary of some tiny hitchhikers coming along with that life-saving gift.  One issue that arises is that the surgery can cause inflammation that awakens BK virus in the donor kidney.  Secondly, the very powerful drugs needed to suppress your immune system’s attack on your new kidney also make it possible for BK virus to make lots of viral babies.  Finally, all those viruses that have grown in the donor kidney may be able to hide from your immune cells, unless the donor just happened to be your identical twin.  Alas, in up to 10% of kidney transplant recipients, a perfect storm brews allowing BK virus reign over that new organ.   As I wrote about BK virus in DynaMed, it was evident that my background in immunology and virology coupled with my interests in science communication had perfectly merged to provide me the opportunity to actively contribute to the medical community as a writer at DynaMed.

As I look back on my trajectory though, I’m surprised by how close I was to becoming a PI (principal investigator) and I ponder how many others may be in a similar situation.  We’re all in the same boat when we start this journey.  We begin our research careers with lofty aspirations of curing cancer or discovering something that changes medicine.  In reality, the observations we make in the lab extend our knowledge in tiny increments and in all sorts of directions (sometimes even backwards).  But we put our heads down and continue to do it because we’re a curious bunch.  I’m still just as curious as I always was, and although my job no longer requires me to gown up to inject mice with viruses in a biosafety level 3 containment lab, it still affords me the ability to satisfy these curiosities from my cubicle.

Given the variety of nonacademic careers available to life science PhDs today, it’s bizarre to me that the training process continues to be an apprenticeship—grooming us for our own labs.  No doubt a major reason for this is that as students and postdocs, we look up to our mentors.  We want to have a similar impact on science, medicine, and life as they’ve had on us.  But the reality is that there are far too many PhDs and far too few academic jobs.  And yet, this needn’t be disheartening as there are so many ways for a scientist to contribute to society.  I challenge you all to think outside the proverbial academic box when considering your future careers in science and medicine.  As a postdoc, I was strategically aware of how my extracurricular activities in teaching and communication would contribute to aspects of being a PI.  However, it wasn’t until I started blogging that I realized that my particular combination of attributes and interests aligned more closely with a career outside of academic research.

Think about your strengths and weaknesses early and often.  Be open to new opportunities (like blogging!) that may alter your skill sets.  And don’t be afraid to trail blaze your own path by doing whatever inspires you.  For me—someone with a comprehension of the immune system, a thirst for knowledge, a motivation to communicate science, and a passion for writing—a Medical Writer position at DynaMed should have been an obvious choice much sooner.  And yet, it’s never too late to do what you love.


Please feel free to contact me for any additional information on medical writing, DynaMed, or even my lowly Red Sox (there’s always next year!).  You can reach me at Cloudy Media Blog, hmarshall@ebsco.com or on Twitter @cloudymediablog.

Scientists, It's Time to Step Up!


By Michael Burel


For years, I have preached the importance of better science communication. I’m not talking about how scientists talk to other scientists. We’re already good at that. We’re trained to discuss what we do with such specificity and precision that only 10 other people on the planet could possibly understand our research. Kudos, us.


I’m talking about communicating science with general audiences, like your long-distance aunt you only see on Thanksgiving. Or your neighbor who’s wondering about potential vaccine dangers. Or even your local representative who needs opinions on funding research in your field. Scientists truly struggle in these arenas, and we must do better.


Scientists’ inability and apathy  to engage with the public wreaks havoc on society. Barely one-third of Americans understand the basics of scientific inquiry, such as knowing the importance of control groups in drug trials. American students fall embarrassingly behind other countries in international assessments of science and math education, jeopardizing the next generation of science leaders. Scientists and the public remain polarized on several key science issues, including the requirement for childhood vaccines and climate change. And when 80% of Americans support mandatory labeling of food that contains DNA – which is basically all food – because they mistake DNA for being dangerous, we have a problem. (As one of my peer’s quipped: “I don’t see anything wrong with this. DNA is an acid, and acid has the potential to melt my face off.”)


None of these points, however, could ever hold a candle to when I recently learned that my mom has breast cancer. I am petrified. I am petrified to see my mom go through complex surgeries. I am petrified to see her go through radiation and toxic chemotherapy. I am petrified to see her lose her breasts, hair, identity, and energy for life. I am petrified of losing my mom.


I am also petrified of the tsunami of information charging her way. My mom is a model local government employee (she’s the Leslie Knope of administrating county-wide elections), but she doesn’t hold any degrees in science. In fact, she took her last science class more than 40 years ago.


So when my mom was put to a firing squad of doctors, I was worried. They fired complex terminology like bullets, where patients can only recoil with confusion at each hit. Hormone receptor status. HER2. Bilateral mastectomy. Cisplatin. Tamoxifen. BRCA1 and 2. Mosacisim. Triple negative.


“Any questions?” a doctor would gently ask.

“Yes…am I going to die?”


In that moment, I realized why scientists must actively communicate to non-experts. We must arm patients with the knowledge to untangle complex jargon, ask insightful questions that link diagnosis with prognosis, and empower them to be proactive and disciplined in their treatment. Patients should be educated on the evolving research of their disease to provide a holistic perspective on what is known and what is not.


“I want all the knowledge about what’s going on inside me. I want to understand everything,” my mom said. “I want to make good choices for myself. If a researcher gave me more information, I could have a fuller conversation with my doctors. Knowledge makes me feel powerful.”


But by current means, scientists remain insulated from the public. When I asked my mom to name all the scientists she knew, she could name only one: me. “I wish it was easier to get to know more scientists,” she confessed. “When I Google, I don’t know who is a researcher and who isn’t. There’s no way I can understand journal articles, so where do I turn?”


As bearers of scientific information, it is scientists’ civic and moral duty to tell the world what we know. If we don’t, we risk the spreading of misinformation, or even worse, no information at all. In turn, the public continues to view scientists as elitists and their work mysterious, expanding the gulf that divides those with science expertise from those without.


Not only has the public paid for our tenure and research, but they also continue to guide the ebb and flow of research trends by electing representatives and engaging in open discourse. By precluding their rightful access to new knowledge, scientists endanger the public’s ability to make informed decisions about their future and, as in the case of my mom, their health.


I call upon every scientist to engage proactively with the public. Open up your world to those not privileged to it. Stimulate wonder and curiosity in young, impressionable minds. Get representatives on your side about funding research for orphan diseases. Instill hope in patients who have nowhere else to turn. Share what you know, because anything less is myopic and selfish.


Let’s get to work.


Science Through the Airwaves:


By Robert Thorn


Have you ever been curious about the way different organisms seen light, the history behind zoos or how the placebo effect works? Then Radiolab might be the radio show for you! Radiolab is produced by WNYC, which is one of New York’s public radio stations, and can be found in podcast form at radiolab.org. To date Radiolab has released over 70 full length podcasts (about an hour in length), countless “shorts” and a handful of live shows. Radiolab is hosted by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich. Neither Jad nor Robert are scientists per se, but what they do during each segment can only be described as science. Each episode starts with Jad and Robert discussing a topic, they give their thoughts about how a topic may work (a hypothesis if you will) and throughout the hour they discuss the topic and unravel some of the mysteries, leaving each episode with a better understanding of the topic.


Throughout each hour Jad and Robert get in contact with experts in the field, many times by phone, to help them build the story. Not only are these people expert scientists, but they will sometimes contact people who were personally involved in events pertaining to the topic and can give eyewitness accounts of revolutionary events in the field, giving the show a wonderful sense of relevance that would be otherwise hard to obtain. Oftentimes Jad will take one point of view and Robert will take another, allowing a full, genuine discussion of topics that may sometimes be controversial. Jad and Robert are supported by a team of producers and writers who will often be heard on the show helping to synthesize the ideas for shows or tracking down story leads around the country and sometimes even further!


The team at Radiolab thrives in its ability to discuss subjects in such a way that it is accessible to people of all scientific persuasions. I find as much enjoyment listening to the show, as my non-science friends do. It not only expands my perspectives on familiar topics, but it also allows me to discuss science topics with friends who are new to the topic. The Radiolab podcast is not only about the science though. They interweave sounds and music into the podcast in such a way as to breathe life into the story. Before listening to Radiolab I thought that public radio was solely comprised of boring newscasters speaking in monotone reporting on political events, but Radiolab shattered that perception in a wonderful way. Sound is not only used as a way to liven up the narrative, but it is also used as a tool to help explain scientific concepts.


The best example of the use of sound to illustrate a point is in the Radiolab episode titled “Colors” (Season 10 Episode 13). Jad and Robert were discussing how different animals would see a rainbow. As they explored this topic, they enlisted the help of a choir to illustrate what they learned about color vision in animals. Different voice parts of the choir sang different color names. Lower voice groups were the reds of the rainbow and the voice groups became progressively higher until they reached the violet and ultraviolet ranges of the rainbow. As they moved on to different animals with better vision than humans they would play a recap of the voices harmonizing as an analogy to the rainbow that the animal would see. This use of sound is typical of Radiolab’s ingenious ability to illustrate points that are otherwise sight dependent.


Overall, the best description of Radiolab comes straight from the about section at radiolab.org, stating, “Radiolab is a show about curiosity. Where sound illuminates ideas, and the boundaries blur between science, philosophy, and human experience.” Whether you are casually interested in science, or work in a scientific field, Radiolab is a podcast that will captivate your interests and have you thinking about science in a new way.

5 Killer Ways to Use Your Smartphone for Science


Celine Cammarata


Take your smartphone from toy to tool with these simple tricks!


512px-App_Store_icon.svg1. Increase you APPtitude for Science

Want to calculate dilutions, figure out what that blob under your microscope is, or know which buffer to use?  There’s an app for that!  There are hundreds of great apps to help you with your research, but here are a few of our favorites:

[unordered_list style=”green-dot”]

  • Protocolpedia gives you offline access to hundred of protocols in the palm of your hand, as well as a set of useful calculators, a new lab timer feature, and even forums to discuss your work with other researchers.
  • Dilution is a super simple app that does exact what it sounds like – calculates dilutions.  This no frills app is perfect if you want find your dilution quickly without having to do math in your head or fill your lab notebook with scribbled numbers.
  • Beakr aims to give the one things that scientists often struggle to find: instant gratification. Like any great game, you can level up by completing tasks – in this case experiments – track your success, and even share (or compete) with friends.  Demotivation be gone!
  • Bacteria identification is unimaginatively named but incredibly handy, not to mention cool.  This little app combines Advanced Bacterial Identification Software based on morphology, growth conditions, etc. with an encyclopedia of bacterias to figure out just what it is you’re seeing on those plate.


 [box style=”rounded”]Bonus tip: For even more great apps, check out the collections at BioTechniques and Life Technologies [/box]


Credit: katerha via flickr
Credit: katerha via flickr

  2. Read Papers Without Deforesting a Small Country

Forget teetering stacks of printed out papers – your smartphone is you new best friend for scientific reading.  Many journals, including Science, Nature, and Cell, now have their own apps allowing you to browse and access papers, and there are numerous apps for using PubMed on your mobile device.  The screen may seem small at first, but the trade off is being able to zoom in on figures and keep them looking great – no more monotone, impossible to interpret images courtesy of your printer.  Finally, apps such as Notability let you mark up PDFs of papers freely, so you can highlight, annotate, and doodle (and even add voice recordings) to your hearts content.

[box style=”rounded”]Bonus tip: Discover new and relevant papers on Scizzle and stay tuned for the Scizzle app! BTW, Did you see our new home page?[/box]



Credit: Jmak via WikiMedia Commons
Credit: Jmak via WikiMedia Commons

3. Collaboration Elaboration

Don’t let distance keep you apart – a little smartphone handiwork can make collaborators feel like they’re right in the lab with you, no more attempting to describe exactly what that weird result looked like.  To keep your hands free to work while still allowing your smartphone a good view of your experiments, try mounting it on a tripod – you can even make one yourself!  Use FaceTime or Skype for real-time collaboration, or snap pictures and video to share later – most phones let you edit videos easily so you can send only the relevant parts.  Time for lab meeting? Google+ Hangouts lets you discuss your work with multiple people at once – it’s simple, free, and gets the job done.  If you want to share a presentation with others, Fuze Meeting and Join.Me let you share screens and slides.

4. Present in the Present (Not in the Past)

Credit: WikiMedia Commons
Credit: WikiMedia Commons

Tired of dragging your computer around when it’s your turn to give lab meeting or journal club?  Present from your phone!  Making presentations from scratch is fairly simple on an iPhone using Keynote, though it’s still tricky on Android devices, and either platform features numerous ways to display presentations once created.  You can buy cables allowing connection to a projector, follow instructions to hook your iPhone or Android  to a larger screen, or even make a projector yourself.  Even if you do still lug in the laptop, you can liberate yourself from the podium by turning your iPhone or Android into a remote control, letting you advance the presentation from anywhere in the room, get a preview of upcoming slides, and even see presenter notes.


5. Keep it Clean

Credit: Karen/ karpatchi (Flickr)
Credit: Karen/ karpatchi (Flickr)

Ahh lab notebooks – they start out so pristine and organized, but somehow they always end up as a jumbled mess of scribbles and scotch-taped gel pictures.  Not anymore!  Now your lab notebook can stay crisp and clean, and can fit in your pocket.  Labguru is designed specifically for scientists, and lets you not only easily take notes – including pictures – but also pull up protocols, keep a running shopping list for supplies, and more.  The more general Evernote is also widely popular, and several blogs give in-depth tips for using Evernote in the lab.

[box style=”rounded”]Bonus tip: electronic lab notebooks are becoming so popular that a group at NYU did what any good scientists would and wrote a paper on it![/box]

Do you have a favorite app worth sharing? Did we miss any cool app?

Let’s turn up the heat and turn STEM into STEAM

Thalyana Smith-Vikos 


I recently had the pleasure of watching an amazing performance of the Pilobolus acrobatic modern dance troupe, and something in the program caught my eye: it said that the dancers had worked with MIT scientists to develop new dance routines! This was quite evident in the “Automaton” performance, in which the dancers were all arranged into different acrobatic positions and moved in unison to create the effect that they were all parts of a robot. It was really quite astonishing: at first, I was just watching the dancers on stage, but then suddenly it really looked like there was a robot moving across the floor. With many kids in the audience, there was definitely a lot of oohing and aahing at this moment.

Another example where it was evident that the dancers had worked with scientists was in the “Sextet” performance, in which the performers placed pieces of rope on the stage and then moved the rope (like doing double dutch) in sync with the music to mimic sound waves. As additional beats were added to the music, more dancers appeared with rope to start copying those specific sound waves, and suddenly there was an entire orchestra on the stage! The dancers moved with such grace and poise while still perfectly depicting sound waves with the rope; it reminded me of ribbon dancing at the Olympics. There were more oohs and aahs during this performance, and I thought to myself, “That’s not just the art of music, kids, that’s the art of science.”

Since its founding in 1971, Pilobolus has been devoted to establishing educational programs to encourage kids to develop an interest in dance, and hopefully they throw in some of what they learned from the MIT scientists, too. Using their platform, I think there are many more programs like this that could help encourage the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) Educational Initiative, an addendum to the STEM Initiative.

The City University of New York (CUNY) has a Science & the Arts program funded in part by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Examples of recent performances include AstroDance, a multimedia dance performance illustrating the discovery of gravity waves at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), and DNA Story, a play that tells the story of how Watson, Crick, Franklin and Wilkins discovered the structure of DNA in the 1950s. While the NSF remains concerned about how to fund the “broader impacts” of science research, I think this is actually a great way for the NSF to promote science education, by funding groups that present the beauty of scientific discovery in an entertaining and approachable manner.

Here’s another example that the NSF could support: the Cambridge, MA game company Harmonix creates technology for the Xbox game “Dance Central,” which allows players to learn dance routines step by step without a controller. Students could be invited to spend the day in the music lab learning how to translate the K-pop hit “Gangnam Style” into an interactive game. Who doesn’t love “Gangnam Style”? And who doesn’t love video games? This would go over in a heartbeat.

And then there’s the initiative to have students rap about scientific principles, which has garnered a lot of support and been quite successful in getting students interested in science. The program was started when Christopher Emdin, a Columbia University professor, and GZA, a member of the Wu-Tang Clan, met with Neil deGrasse Tyson, an outgoing physicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium, at a radio show. Starting in New York City public schools, they launched a pilot project to bring hip-hop and rap into science classrooms. There’s a lot that can be learned from the success of Emdin and GZA’s program that could be implemented in schools across the country, namely teaching science using something that students already enjoy and can relate to. In fact, in a manner that deGrasse Tyson has termed “dropping science,” GZA will be rapping about the Big Bang in his upcoming album “Dark Matter;” hopefully his younger fans will take to the album and be inspired.

There’s really no limit as to how STEAM education can be accomplished, whether it be acting, dancing or rapping. Many scientists themselves have an artistic inclination, which could lead to initiatives where scientists visit classrooms and teach the artistic side of science. Take the winners of the annual “Dance Your PhD” contest (which Pilobolus dancers help judge): these are scientists who are conducting their thesis research in the lab and have found a way to illustrate their research using interpretive dance.

If you would rather scientists sing instead of dance in the classroom, I’m sure Indre Viskontas, a cognitive neuroscientist, professional soprano opera singer and TV host, could help with that. She has found a way to combine both scientific and artistic passions and studies the psychology of music, specifically how musicians can best use their practice time, and how they can find a way to connect with the audience. Viskontas is the perfect example of a scientist who has interests outside of science and can incorporate these interests into her research. Moreover, her artistic pursuits enhance her success as a scientist and vice-versa.

Overpowering all of these excellent STEAM initiatives, however, is the idea that while students may better appreciate science by using art in the classroom, this still does not mean they will want to become scientists when they grow up. Adding on to this is the misconception in the media that scientists are nerds, or that scientists plan to destroy the world in every Marvel or DC comic on the big screen. Have no fear, The Science & Entertainment Exchange is here! The Exchange is a program of the National Academy of Sciences that connects entertainment executives with scientists and engineers to develop accurate and engaging scientific concepts for TV shows and movies. The Exchange has consulted on over 500 projects, and while it still bothers me that they haven’t completely solved the misrepresentation of how scientists are portrayed, along with the scientific ideas that are being discussed in TV and film, imagine how worse “The Avengers” could have been without having an Exchange consult?

Bringing this back to STEAM education, wouldn’t it be great if The Exchange established an internship program? In this way, students with the Hollywood bug could rub shoulders with entertainment executives, while also learning that they could have super cool jobs as scientists who consult for these executives. Maybe being a scientist is not so nerdy, after all.

Keep Calm and Comment On


Tara Burke

PubMed begins pilot program to allow users to comment on abstracts


Traditionally post-publication commentary on scientific publications has been limited mainly to the ‘Letters to the Editor’ section of journals. Last week, in an effort to create an easily accessible forum for open criticism and dialogue about scientific ideas, the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) started the pilot phase of PubMed Commons, a program that will allow users to comment on any publication indexed by PubMed, a free database of abstracts from biomedical journals. As of now, PubMed Commons is open to limited users but once the program is officially launched every individual listed as an author on a PubMed citation will be able to be make and view comments.


Before you rush to comment on a paper that contradicts your research, you should read the detailed PubMed Commons user guidelines. The most significant guideline is that comments can only be made with a user’s true identity. That is, no anonymous comments or pseudonyms will be allowed. The guidelines also ask that comments be detailed and provide specific references to the papers (i.e. page and figure numbers). You may mention your own unpublished data but NCBI asks that you not comment on unpublished work by others. NCBI requests that comments be respectful and polite, and neither contain partisan political views nor commercial endorsements. It’s also worth noting that the comments will be permanent once posted and will be citable. A more detailed explanation of the comment guidelines is available on the NCBI FAQs page.


Right now, reactions to the addition of comments to PubMed show moderate enthusiasm as scientists wait patiently to see how well the pilot program is executed. The most contested parts of PudMed Commons appear to be whether comments should be anonymous and who should be allowed to comment. NCBI has adopted the strict commenting guidelines because they are concerned that many scientists may not want to comment if a large number of the comments are irrelevant. Some argue that not allowing comments to be anonymous may deter younger scientists from commenting on certain publications out of fear that it may hurt their career. PubPeer, a website that allows scientists to provide feedback on publications, is excited about PubMed Commons but urges NCBI to allow anonymity of commenters. They argue that anonymity is vital to boosting useful comments. PubPeer sites that the majority of their comments do not come from registered users but from unregistered commenters. Another criticism of the new comment system is that it’s too exclusive, allowing only PubMed-cited authors to comment. Retraction Watch, a blog that reports on retractions of scientific papers, is generally enthusiastic about PubMed Commons. They are excited to see another forum for post-publication review. However, they hope that PubMed Commons eventually becomes open to all individuals.


The implementation of online comments on PubMed brings up other important issues that plague the scientific community such as a seemingly lackluster effort by scientists to engage the public, open-access to all journals, as well as the often criticized peer-review process. More specifically, if comments were open to the general public this may require the addition of a synopsis that better explains and communicates the significance of the findings to the general public. Also, allowing open comments by the general public may further propel the movement to make all journals adopt an open-access format as it may become contradictory that the general public is allowed to comment on PubMed abstracts but doesn’t have access to the full articles. The most direct effect of the new PubMed policy will most likely be on the peer-review process. Comments will likely extend peer review so that it no longer ends once the paper is published. Also, since comments will now be recorded, opinions of papers will now extend beyond the discussions often observed during scientific conferences.  NCBI hopes the pilot program will reveal the best guidelines for comments on PubMed but it is clear that science publications are headed towards a more open policy.


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