How I broke into science writing

Every month or so, I get an email from someone, usually a very polite graduate student, asking if I’d be willing to chat about how I got into science writing and any advice I have for breaking into the field. I always say yes. Because I’m a recovering people pleaser but really it’s because so many kind science writers shared their time with me when I was a graduate student looking to do anything but stay in academia.

If you add them up over the past 7ish years since I started getting paid to write about science, that’s a lot of chats. And while the audience always changes, my story, which is very windy, remains the same. Except that each year it gets a little less relevant to how one might actually go about becoming a science writer. This becomes instantly clear to people when I try to explain that having a blog, at one point in time, could legitimately lead to a real writing job.

So, in the interest of having more time to learn about what you’re interested in, here is my science writer origin story:

I started looking in earnest for a career outside of research my third year of grad school. This is the probably the most common year for people to start seriously thinking about bailing. It’s the inflection point when you’re finally finished with classes and have nothing ahead of you but research, which may (or may not!) inspire a deep, soul-crushing dread.

My first thought was that I might like something in scientific editing. My labmates would praise my edits on their manuscripts and it was close to writing without actually having to write. I loved writing as a kid but never seriously entertained it as a career because who would voluntarily subject themselves to pain everyday? (Writers as it turns out.) To test this theory, I got a low-paying part-time job at a contract editing company editing manuscripts for non-native English speakers. Then a slightly less low-paying part-time job as a copy editor for a humanities journal. It only took a few months to realize that editing was boring for me personally (no shade to editors), and that, against my better judgement, I wanted to write.

The big turning point for me was meeting a science journalist who happened to be covering my research for a story. Over lunch, which she bought (my first clue that she’d be a great mentor), she gave me three excellent pieces of advice that I ran with:

1) Start a blog. Mine was called MustLoveScience (this here site) and I posted every-ish Sunday. The blog taught me how to sit down and just write one word after another, essentially training me to write a shitty first draft instead of being paralyzed by the need for perfection, but really, approval. It also introduced me to an active and welcoming community of chemistry bloggers, which led to invitations to write guest posts on blog networks that now only exist in the minds of, at this point, old-ish people.

2) Get on Twitter. This bit remains unfortunately relevant as most journalists, and more importantly, editors are on Twitter. I’ve come across many job opportunities, writing gigs, and people in the field who become acquaintances that have actually led to paying assignments on that otherwise hellish site.

3) Take a journalism class. I audited one master’s level journalism course and it was crucial. I learned the basic structure of a news story but more importantly I learned the basic ethics around journalism. I also had the opportunity to have my writing edited and came out with writing clips. I knew that once I graduated, I would need three good clips to apply for writing jobs, which in my mind meant I needed at least double that amount of clips so that I had some to choose from. For me, this meant a lot straight-up asking for writing opportunities.

The easiest place to start is where you are, which is what I did. I wrote for my university research magazine (I showed up to an open editorial meeting and asked if I could write a story) and the university press office (after cold emailing and having an informational coffee meeting with someone from the press office, I asked if I could write a press release for them). I also walked up to a journal’s expo booth at a scientific conference I was attending and asked if they needed student writers. Like, what? Just walking up to people? This wasn’t even the 80s. But it turns out they did need writers! Six months later I was writing regular blog posts for this journal for free. All of this writing was for free. I don’t recommend anyone write for free unless you, like past me, have literally no writing clips to your name and want the practice. But even then, nowadays there are places like Massive Science that help grad students start writing and that pay you for your time, which is really how it should be.

Also around this same time, I started making science videos. I entered two video scicomm contests geared at graduate students and would highly recommend contests in general. For one, it gives you a deadline, which forces you to find time (a precious commodity in grad school) to create something. Two, these contests are typically judged by professional scicomm folks and even if you don’t win, it’s valuable just to have them watch your work and vaguely know who you are. Scicomm/sci journalism as fields are relatively niche and you will absolutely cross paths with many of the same people over the years.

Finally, after about two years of constant side hustles, upon graduating I landed a job as a science writer for a university (I think I applied for like a dozen university writing jobs and only got one interview) and also a six-month fellowship with The Open Notebook, the best website ever on the craft and business of science writing, seriously check it out.

Side note on science writing masters programs: I never considered going. I couldn’t imagine another two years of school after graduate school and I didn’t want to go into debt to pay the tuition (it’s something like ~$70k, apparently less after financial aid). I hear it’s great for people who want that formal training in journalism and also multimedia. It also gives you a huge leg up on networking and internships, and many people from these programs end up in staff science writing jobs.

Anyways, if all that stuff I did leading up to a real job sounds exhausting, that’s because it was. Here’s where I want to add a word of caution. I burned out hard about six months after leaving graduate school which is not that surprising. Grad school was hard. Actively trying to leave academia was also hard although exciting. I’ll just say if you’re in the midst of your own overwhelming transition into writing, take care of yourself as best as you can. Like me, you’ll probably be tempted to work yourself into the ground because grad school generally doesn’t teach healthy work boundaries, but I don’t really know that it was necessary just to get into science writing.

I’ll condense what happened next. For the next several years, I worked for the university for ~60%-100% time while slowly starting to pitch and write freelance stories and video scripts for places like TED-Ed, New Scientist, Mental Floss, SciAm and ViceNews. After three years of this, I was planning to freelance full-time but then a staff reporting job at C&EN opened up so I jumped at the chance to work in a newsroom. After almost two years there, I left to freelance full-time because I wanted to see where my curiosity would take me. Along the way, I wrote a lot of stories, made more videos and even learned how to edit them (thanks YouTube!).

I know I glossed over a lot in that last paragraph. But it really does get easier once you break into the field and as you make more connections. Professional societies are great for networking and providing resources to sharpen your skills–I’ve gotten a lot of professional relationships and leads for work through NASW, AAJA and now DCSWA. I’m also part of several freelance science writers groups. These small (8-12 people) email/slack groups were formed organically–just thoughtful people you can vent to, ponder career decisions, share negotiation tactics/pay rate/editor contacts–and they’ve provided invaluable community over the years.

Ultimately, I think transitioning from scientist to science writer takes initiative, sustained effort, and a willingness to learn new skills. And it’s totally doable if that’s what you want. If that’s you, good luck! And I’ll leave you with a few things that I’ve learned and am still learning:

  • What you want in a career will change over time and that’s OK.
  • Editors are not always right. It can be hard to speak up, especially at the beginning for me, but it’s your job to work with editors and together figure out the best way to tell the story.
  • Your worth as a person does not at all depend on your professional achievements.
  • It’s always worth it to be kind. In the words of the great Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Why I should blog (again):

An eternal (okay, more like for the past few months) internal conversation about why I should return to blogging:

  • I can regularly log a word count that might make me feel better about myself as a writer. On the other hand, the actual words might make me feel worse about myself as a writer.
  • It’ll let me direct my creative energy into something productive. Or I’ll waste my creative energy on a non-paying, non-career advancing and time-consuming side project.
  • Because it’ll be fun! You know, the agonizing kind of writing fun.
  • To connect with cool, like-minded people on the Internet (because that happens, right?). May have to dodge the stray sexist, annoying comment (annoying=best case scenario in this realm), but hey, don’t rule out the chance that the writing is so mundane and of so little consequence that every person on the planet refuses to acknowledge its existence.
  • It could lead to more writing opportunities. Even though the year is 2016 and not 2006, really, who can tell the future?

Well, in the way that most things are decided, arbitrarily and against my best interest, it’s been decided! I’m going to start blogging again. Or at least tell my friends I’m going to and then feel guilty after more than a week passes from this post and I have nothing in the works. It’s fine, I feel guilty all the time already, what’s one more thing? This is going to be fun.*

*See #3

On Building A Community For Women In Science

As a first year graduate student, being called on to solve a chemistry problem at group meeting was nerve-wracking. Walking up to the whiteboard, questions rushed through my mind.

What if it went terribly? Would my advisor and lab mates still respect me? Did they even think I could do this? Could I do this?

Though I survived the exercise, the questions never quite went away. After research discussions with my male colleagues, I was left with a vague feeling of weariness. My energy was spent making sure my explanations were articulate and accurate. Yet I noticed that speaking about science with other women did not drain my energy. I felt like I had to prove my intellect before receiving the same level of respect afforded to my male peers.

While I made respectful and cautious suggestions, my male colleagues confidently argued and proposed highly experimental ideas. This confidence seemed instilled from a young age, bred by a society that encouraged men to share their opinions and rewarded their confidence. The same society had taught me that I should always appear polite and humble.

When none of my reactions were working, I hid my frustrations, thinking that showing emotion would be written off as female weakness, a far cry from the image of an objective scientist. These thoughts slowly formed my awareness of a gender-based divide of expectations and stereotypes.

Doubt seeped in as I replayed my decision to drop my physics major in college, instead pursuing chemistry. I was making mostly B’s and a couple of C’s but as one of only two women in all of my classes, I felt an intense pressure to excel. Did I really leave because I liked chemistry better, or because physics was too stressful? Would I make it through the chemistry graduate program?    

I wanted to understand how these attitudes towards women in science were formed, in myself and others. For months I read and shared with friends every article that mentioned unequal treatment of women in science in the headline. Around this time I met a post-doctoral researcher who was very informed on these issues named Ginny Hench. She was toying with the idea of starting a women in science group on campus but decided against it because of her work schedule.

As I was lamenting this loss to my roommate Jazz, an analytical chemistry graduate student, over dinner, she casually said to me, “Why don’t we do it?”

The seed was planted. We recruited a small group of women graduate students to help us shape this new group and named it UNC Women in Science and Engineering (WISE).

Exec Board 2013

 [Left to right: Courtney Roberts, Jazz Dickinson, Me – 2013 WISE Executive Board.       Photo credit: Andrew Perkowski]

We wanted to create a safe space to sort through our own understanding of implicit and explicit bias against women in science and together find a way to move forward. We decided this space would take the form of monthly meetings, based around a peer-reviewed study or popular article. We felt that grounding our discussions in concrete data would not only provide structure but be useful in conversations outside of the group.

Jazz came up with the idea to also share the life and scientific work of a woman scientist at each meeting. We felt it was important to value the contributions of the women who came before us and always end on a positive note.

As famed astronomer Maria Mitchell put it, “the more we see, the more we are capable of seeing.”

Our first meeting covered current statistics relevant to women in science, led by Valerie Schmidt, an organic chemistry graduate student. She presented a myriad of national statistics from amount of PhDs awarded to women to percentage of women faculty to salary comparisons by sex.

Many of us present had heard the claim from our male colleagues that being female gave us an advantage in applying for awards. But we learned that women PhD’s and professors actually received less scholarly awards than expected based on the proportion of women in the field.

This simple statistic sparked multiple calls for more data and carefully designed studies. We wanted to know whether women were equally aware as men of award opportunities, how many women were actually applying for awards and if they weren’t, why not? While every meeting was unique, it was a recurring theme for us to critically analyze and question the data from multiple angles.

We ended that first meeting with Jazz sharing the life and scientific work of Wangari Maathai. Maathai was the first woman to receive a doctorate in East and Central Africa in the biological sciences and who won the Nobel Peace Prize for her contributions to sustainable development.

Over the months we discussed balancing work and family life, unconscious bias, mentorship, female tendencies to undervalue their contribution and many others. I led a meeting on stereotype threat, finally able to define my anxiety in situations where I might fulfill a negative stereotype about my group. Each discussion was guided by a member on a volunteer basis. The discussion leader brought their own personality and gained affirmation from the group’s thoughtful engagement while members grew confident in articulating their opinions.

Member participation was key to our success and we were very deliberate in providing opportunities to lead special projects. The goal was not only to encourage active investment from members, but to help them develop leadership and organization skills outside of laboratory research. This way we could promote women in science in tangible ways and not just through rhetoric.

unc-science-expo-2013-collage

[WISE booth at the UNC Science Expo, Spring 2013]

We’ve also been involved in two large science outreach events in the community, both organized by motivated student members. We demonstrated science experiments for kids and families, sharing our passion for science and physically representing the idea that anyone can be a scientist.

In December, we elected new leadership and as graduating members Jazz and I passed the reins of the group onto amazingly dedicated younger members. Over the past 18 months, WISE has become more than just a meeting ground for discussions. It has become community of trusted allies. They are women and men who are learning how to speak up for themselves and for others. Leading this group, I have seen strength and brilliance in our members and finally in myself.

Guest Post: Preventing HPV and Treating Science Illiteracy

Yesterday, Katie Couric’s daytime talk show weighed in on HPV vaccines. It seems the lack of representation of the benefits of the HPV vaccine was disappointing as many others have pointed out. Read this from Phil Plait for a good breakdown of the segment and corresponding issues. This from Alexandra Sifferlin on the dangers of vaccine misinformation a la Jenny McCarthy. This from Matthew Herper on “Four Ways Katie Couric Stacked the Deck Against Gardasil.” And this from Seth Mookin, really illustrating how disheartening this choice was given literate showrunners.

I have not seen the segment myself but I think more information about HPV, the vaccine and what it can lead to is in order. I’m pleased to introduce Megan Tetlow’s informative guest post on HPV. Megan Tetlow is a Physician Assistant in the subspecialty of gynecologic oncology, providing healthcare to women with cervix, vulvar, vaginal, uterine, and ovarian carcinoma. She is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Nova Southeastern University in Florida.

HPV[Photo credit: http://bit.ly/1d1U1jf]

What is HPV?

HPV (human papilloma virus) is an extremely common virus that is transmitted by sexual contact. In fact, it is the MOST common sexually transmitted infection (1). It has been estimated that 50+% of sexually active adults have had the infection (2), with general medical opinion estimating that today it is probably higher. Rates of infection are highest among young women less than 25 years old (3).

Beyond that, according to the CDC, almost all sexually active adult men and women will be infected with this virus at some point in their lives, even if they’ve had only one sexual partner (1). Additionally, while condoms do prevent other sexually transmitted diseases, they may not prevent transmission of HPV (3).

The lack of knowledge about exactly how widespread this virus is may be one of the barriers to its prevention. Last year I watched an episode of Girls, and the main character’s biggest “baggage” was that she had HPV, when in reality every person on the show probably has HPV and most of the show’s viewers as well. The bottom line is that if you are an adult who is or has been sexually active, it is likely you have or have had HPV, and are potentially at risk for the diseases associated with this virus.

There are over 100 subtypes of the HPV virus. While most of these infections will be cleared by our immune systems, scientists have identified certain sub-types of the virus (specifically subtypes 16 and 18) that are oncogenic, meaning they can give rise to cancer. Oncogenic HPV subtypes are responsible for over 99% of cervix cancers (3). These virus subtypes (16 and 18) have also been found to cause cancers of the mouth, tongue, throat, anus, penis, vulva, and vagina (4). The CDC estimates that vaccination could prevent 22,000 cases of cancer in the US each year (5).

What is the HPV vaccine?

There are two HPV vaccines currently on the market. One is a bivalent HPV vaccine (Cervarix) that works against the oncogenic HPV subtypes 16 and 18.  The other is a quadravalent vaccine (Gardasil) which protects against those two subtypes, as well as sub-types 6 and 11 that are associated with anogenital warts.

Both vaccines are given in a 3 shot series over a 6 month period. Both HPV vaccines are approved and recommended for females ages 9-26. Gardasil has also been approved and is recommended for males ages 9-26. Since HPV is sexually transmitted, the goal age for males and females to be vaccinated is at around 11, with the hopes of being able to administer all 3 vaccinations before an individual becomes sexually active.

Is the HPV vaccine safe and effective?

Both vaccines are licensed, have undergone stringent testing, and have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for the groups listed above. The CDC and FDA have several systems to continue to monitor safety of a vaccine, including the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS). VAERS uses patient reporting to track and detect possible new or unexpected adverse reactions to a vaccine (7). Of adverse events reported from 2006 to 2013 through this system, only 7.9% were classified as serious in nature; among these, headache, nausea/vomiting, fatigue, dizziness, syncope (fainting), and weakness were the most frequently reported (8).

While decades of follow-up are certainly required to determine rates of cancer prevention following vaccination, short-term follow-up results have been very promising. The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey published this year demonstrated a 50% decrease in HPV infections caused by subtypes 6, 11, 16, and 18 in females between the ages of 14 and 19 (9). Countries like Australia that have incorporated the HPV vaccine into the national vaccination program have noticed a significant decrease in genital warts infection among young men and women (10).

What are the barriers to vaccination?

Despite encouraging results, the majority of young men and women are still not being vaccinated.  Based on results of the 2012 National Immunization Survey-Teen, who have been collecting vaccination information on teens with the CDC since 2006, found that only 33.4% of appropriately aged adolescent females had received all 3 doses of the vaccine (8).

Additionally, over 23% of parents surveyed stated they did not plan to vaccinate their child (8). Why are adolescents not getting vaccinated against high risk HPV? In the same study, the most commonly listed reasons against vaccinating were parents felt the vaccine was not needed or not recommended, safety concerns, lack of knowledge about the vaccine and/or diseases it prevents, and that their daughter is not sexually active (8).

As a health care provider, I hear apprehension from parents that vaccinating their child will somehow cause them to be sexually promiscuous or that they are condoning sexual intercourse among adolescents, which is certainly not the case. If an adolescent ever has intercourse over the course of his or her lifetime with just one partner, then he or she is at risk for HPV and HPV-related diseases including cancer.

Overall, these results illustrate how dire education is needed—for patients, parents, friends, and the public. If you are a twenty-something male or female, consider vaccination. If you are a parent who would like to reduce the risk of your child getting cancer but have reservations, tell your healthcare provider and get more information. Only through increased education and awareness can we hope to prevent HPV-related cancers and one day cure science illiteracy.

References

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Genital HPV Infection—CDC Fact Sheet. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2010.
  2. Myers ER, McCrory DC, Nanda K, et al. Mathematical model for the natural history of human papillomavirus infection and cervical carcinogenesis. Am J Epidemiol 2000;151:1158–71.
  3. Kevin A. Ault. Epidemiology and Natural History of Human Papillomavirus Infections in the Female Genital Tract. Infect Dis Obstet Gynecol. 2006; 2006: 40470.
  4. Cogliano V, Baan R, Straif K, et al. Carcinogenicity of human papillomaviruses.
    Lancet Oncol 2005;6:204.
  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. HPV Vaccination- CDC fact sheet. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2013.
  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sexually Transmitted Diseases Treatment Guide- Human Papilloma Virus. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2010.
  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Vaccine safety: HPV Vaccination. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2013.
  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Human Papillomavirus Vaccination Coverage Among Adolescent Girls, 2007–2012, and Postlicensure Vaccine Safety Monitoring, 2006–2013 United States. Centers for Disease Control Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 2013.
  9. Markowitz LE, Hariri S, Lin C, et al. Reduction in HPV prevalence among young women following vaccine introduction in the United States, National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys, 2003–2010. J Infect Dis 2013;208:385–93.
  10. Ali H, Donovan B, Wand H, et al. Genital warts in young Australians five years into national human papillomavirus vaccination programme: national surveillance data. BMJ 2013;346:f2032.

Guest Post: How a two hour commute changed my research (for the better)

This guest post is written by Amanda Keener, a graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill in Microbiology and Immunology interested in science writing. You can check out more pieces from Amanda at http://amandabkeener.wordpress.com/. Here she offers excellent advice on maximizing productivity and minimizing stress in grad school. The floor is yours Amanda!  

I’ll never forget the time I responded to my lab mate’s complaints about his twenty minute commute to campus by asking “well, why do live so far away?”  To me, there was no reason to live more than a few miles away from lab. I expected to work long hours and had no desire to have to do more than hop on a free town bus or a bicycle at the end of the day.  I found a happy little rental in a walkable, well-bused part of town and stayed there for over three years.  In that time, I met a guy, he moved to a thousand miles away, we stayed together, we got engaged,  he moved back to my state and we decided to get married.  His new job was two hours away from my happy little rental, so we’d both have to make sacrifices if we wanted to live together. This is how I ended up commuting fifty miles to lab each way—a situation I mourned and resented at first.  I now recognize the positive impacts it’s has had on my research, and see lessons in it that other students may also find useful.

Image

Partitioning real life from lab

I’m quite effective at keeping my private life out of work, but I sure have trouble keeping work out of my private life.  My research could be on my mind at any time of day, any day of the week—especially when something in lab isn’t going right.  It was hard not to feel guilty about not being in lab when I lived only two miles away.

Being fifty miles away is actually kind of freeing.  I’m not tempted to beat myself up over not going to lab on the weekend.  I’ve had to discern what’s urgent and what’s not. On weekdays, the drive home is a fantastic “de-fusing” period that allows me reset before I walk in the door. I have a completely separate, satisfying life at home, and I’m allowed to enjoy it even if I’m in the midst of troubleshooting frustrations at lab.

Intentional scheduling

Once I moved I knew I had to shape up my schedule. Commuting costs me two hours a day and I can no longer run home for dinner during an incubation or set up an experiment that would require a 5 minute step on a Saturday or Sunday. My time is now starkly partitioned. I plan my experiments weeks in advance and only schedule certain types of assays on certain days of the week.  This means I have built-in time for planning experiments and writing up results.  It also means that on long experiment days I can immediately start working without spending an hour in the morning drinking coffee and writing protocols.  This works especially well for long term animal studies because it lets me give my PI (and myself) realistic expectations for my progress.  I am more flexible with shorter day-to-day experiments, but set weekly deadlines so I don’t put anything off for too long.

Fine-tuning my research

My first couple of years in lab were defined by a pattern of constant, often thoughtless “doing.” I felt that as long as I was active, I must be making progress. But a pile of uninterpretable data isn’t exactly progress. I realized if I was going to justify my new commuting lifestyle, I needed to be more critical about which experiments absolutely had to be done to answer a specific question. I stopped doing experiments just because they were suggested by my advisor or a collaborator in passing.  I decided I would only set up experiments that I felt truly fit into my research plan.

Of course this hinged on actually having a research plan, so I had to commit to one that I could point to when my PI brought up rabbit trail experiments to do. This doesn’t mean she can’t convince me that an experiment fits, but it forces her to take a comprehensive view of my project, even if just for an hour before she gives me a list of things to do and goes off to think about someone else’s project, a grant, invoices, etc. (I’m not against exploratory or risky research. I just don’t think it’s advisable for a graduate student late in her career.)

Respect for my time

Before moving, I thought nothing of a quick trip to lab over the weekend. This strategy often backfired, though, because I was more likely to put off tasks during week and dissipate my focus and productivity in lab. Moving has forced me to be more efficient while I’m in lab, and to reserve weekends for reading and writing. If there are enough tasks to fill up several hours on a Saturday, I consider the drive worthwhile, but taking control of my calendar helps me avoid that. What it really comes down to is having respect for my time.

Respecting my time helped relieve that guilty feeling that used to come when I left lab at 3pm, even if I intended to spend the rest of the evening analyzing data. I came to realize I’m not in a corporate job, I’m not a customer service representative and I don’t have to hang around until someone needs my services. I am in lab to learn skills, do experiments, and confer with my advisor and others about my science. There is an appropriate level of making yourself available to help others in the lab, so I’ve had to learn to communicate my schedule to be respectful of their time as well.

Carpooling

About six months into my commuting life I found a carpool buddy on a listserv. He too is a grad student and is commuting due to his and his wife’s job circumstances. Carpooling (and commiserating) with a fellow grad student has had a great impact on my outlook on school. In the past, I could go for months without having a conversation with another student about troubles in lab and the frustration of an uncertain future. My isolation gave me a sense that I was the only one having those troubles. Comparing experiences and brainstorming several times a week with another student has broadened my perspective.

No regrets

Sometimes I really miss this one long steep hill that I used to ride my bike down on the way home from work. I would bounce my front tire up and down while the houses and trees whooshed past me on either side. But at the end of my ride, all there was to come home to was Skype.  I don’t regret the trade-off I made. Yes there are many downsides—like increasing my carbon footprint—but I’m glad to have had a chance to redefine my approach and outlook on lab research. My situation won’t last much longer, and in the meantime, I just offset my carbon footprint by eating less red meat.

How Batteries Work

Our entry to the NC ACS Chemtube competition, please vote for us by clicking the like button on youtube.

I recruited some very talented friends to make this latest one. I’m learning so much with each video, wish I could spend all my time just making explainer videos. I would blog about behind the scenes action, but I’m gearing up for a stress-ridden, laser-focused, Battle Royale style job search which will probably consume my life. It is tough out there so I will be lucky to find a competitive job in less than 6 months. But as an ever optimistic organic chemist that always puts too many things on her daily to-do list, it would be awesome to have that settled before writing my thesis this spring, just to lower the chances of my head exploding.

Hope you enjoy this video!

All quiet on the blogging front

You may have noticed that I’m falling behind on my blogging and I’m starting to feel guilty about it, so here’s my defensive explanatory post.

So what have I been doing? Lots of thinking, listening and learning. This week Wired released 101 Signals: Best Reporters, Writers, and Thinkers on the Internet, with no chemists making the cut. See Arr Oh’s post “Hey Wired, why no chemistry love?” and the comments  pretty much sum up the chemblogosphere’s reaction. The twitter conversations I’ve seen are different iterations of “damn, that’s cold” to “how did we get here” to “why does this keep happening” to “what are we going to do about it.” Good stuff and I don’t think I need to rehash the convo here.

Point is, all of us chemistry bloggers obviously think something has to be done/are doing something about chemistry outreach. I think science communication works best when you take a strategy that’s comfortable for you and also personally think it’s the most effective one.

So I’ve been busy making sure I can bring something solid to the party. I started the HTML/CSS unit on Codecademy, which is sweet, thanks to everyone for their tips on where beginners could get their webpage design feet wet. Been watching lots of tutorials on photoshop, video-editing, animations (totally inspired by Domics) and GIFs. Also, can’t wait for next week because my science journalism class starts, which I’m very lucky that my PI is letting me take.

Whoa, somehow this post went from “my bad for not posting” to “hey look at all the stuff I’m doing.” Let’s end with “I think chemistry communication is important and to be successful, we need to get creative. The tools are there for anyone with a bit of time and a computer.”

I wrote a book review

So I wrote my first book review on Dr. Paul Offit’s “Do You Believe in Magic: The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine.” It appeared in the August UNC TIBBS (Teaching Initiatives in Biomedical and Biological Sciences) Times newsletter (http://tibbs.unc.edu/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/TIBBSTimesAug2013.pdf). To be honest, writing the piece was incredibly stressful, like I might really have an ulcer now. Writers who review books for a living, consider me impressed and sympathetic. What a challenge to decide what parts to highlight when there is an abundance of amazing and heart-wrenching stories while also capturing the essence of the book. But it really was worth it and thanks so much Erin for putting it in the newsletter, I appreciate the opportunity to write about this important book.

Science vs. Sensationalism: A High-Stakes Battle

In 1970, ten-year old Joey Hofbauer died of Hodgkin’s disease, a treatable cancer of lymph tissue. Doctors’ estimated that Joey had a 95% chance of survival through radiation and chemotherapy, but his parents tragically opted to treat him with a natural remedy called laetrile, coffee enemas, massive doses of vitamin A and raw liver juice. Social services attempted to intervene through the courts, but faced with financially powerful laetrile advocates, a movie star and a burgeoning social movement, their efforts to save Joey’s life were denied.

Joey’s story was one of Dr. Paul Offit’s earliest encounters with alternative medicine and opens his latest book, “Do You Believe in Magic: The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine.” The case contains all of the staples of a fraudulent alternative medicine movement: a desperate and vulnerable family, a charismatic alternative medicine doctor, a celebrity advocate and a highly profitable industry. This cast of characters assemble in each of his accounts, always ending with a tragic and preventable death. This narrative structure is repetitive, but highlights alternative medicine’s perpetual reliance on the same tactics and treatments for a range of unrelated diseases.

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Image: http://bit.ly/19A88xK – And yes, everytime I picked up the book I did wonder if someone had thrown up on the corner

In the book’s most captivating chapter, Offit reveals how the dietary supplement industry’s successfully positioned itself as separate from the pharmaceutical industry to justify its deregulation at the cost of public safety. The industry spent billions of dollars to pass the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act in 1994, which blocks the FDA from regulating the safety of vitamins, supplements or amino acids. Referred to by the New York Times as the “Snake Oil Protection Act,” this deception was made possible by a powerful publicity campaign. Industry lobbyists recruited politicians and movie stars to spread the message that the government was attempting to limit the American people’s right to choose their vitamins. The public not only accepted the deregulation of the vitamin industry, they demanded it. It was the FDA’s worst defeat, one that millions of American’s are paying for.

Only 170 of the 51,000 herbal supplements in the market have undergone any safety testing. Yet a recent poll shows that 58% of the American public believe that over the counter supplements are approved by the FDA. An investigation of 450 supplement manufacturers found that half had significant problems, from lacking ingredient lists to contamination with rat droppings and urine. Money, power and greed drive this $34 billion dollar a year industry even though about 50,000 adverse reactions to supplements are reported each year.

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Photo: Dr. Paul Offit, Wikipedia Commons

Yet alternative medicine has not survived on dishonesty and charisma alone. Offit illustrates the power of the placebo effect and warns against underestimating it. One therapy he targets is the ancient practice of acupuncture. Studies show that there is no difference in patient relief when needles are placed in correct or incorrect position or whether standard or retractable needles are used. The placebo effect has specifically been proven in pain alleviation. In response to pain, spicy foods, or exercise the human body can produce endorphins, which have the same effect as morphine. In an experiment in 1978, patients were given morphine, a placebo, or naloxone, a drug that blocks endorphins, after dental surgery. Individuals from the morphine and placebo groups reported feeling less pain while those that received naxolone did not.

Offit allows that using the placebo effect can be ethical if the patient is at low risk, low cost or low burden. However, he specifies four ways in which alternative medicine becomes harmful quackery. This happens when practitioners recommend against conventional therapies, promote potentially harmful therapies and charge inordinate amounts of money that bankrupt people. Lastly, it is most dangerous when it promotes magical thinking and discourages scientific literacy, which is the only defense against those who would exploit disease for their own gain. At its best, alternative medicine provides placebo induced comfort, but at its worse it bankrupts families and kills people.