Starting a digital magazine, how the Flint water crisis came to light, and more from #DCSWA16 – a reading list

As always, DCSWA professional development day was a treat! One day, 100+ science writers, two plenary sessions, nine breakout sessions, and an epic happy hour afterward. The organization works hard to make sure we make the most of giving up a weekend day to think about what we science journalists do and how to do it better.

And as always, I walked away with a zillion things to ponder and many, many things I want to (re)read and sites I want to note for future use. So here’s a partial reading list for this year’s event.

First, the Newsbrief Award winners!

Writing awards:

Winner: “How to prevent a sheep traffic jam” by Emily Conover, which she wrote while she was an intern at Science. (She joined the Science News staff last week as our physics writer – yay!)

Honorable mention: “For penguins, it’s a matter of no taste,” By Tina Hesman Saey for Science News. Fifth year in a row we’ve been honored!

Honorable mention: “Rats forsake chocolate to save a drowning companion,” By Emily Underwood for Science.

This year was the first year for a separate category for multimedia. A multimedia team from NASA Goddard won for “What are the chances of another Katrina?” The ace team at Chemical and Engineering News won an honorable mention for “Why don’t we recycle Styrofoam?“, and Steve Baragona also got an honorable mention for the Voice of America video, “Scientists study slums for signs of spreading superbugs.”

Plenary: How to start a magazine in 10 months

Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist and professor Deborah Blum was the plenary speaker. It’s always a treat to hear what Deb is up to, and these days, it’s quite a lot. She’s now the head of the Knight Science Journalism program, and just launched the digital magazine Undark. The name, she noted, came from something she found when researching the story of the Radium Girls. “Undark” was the name of a radium-based paint used to paint watch faces. “The power of radium at your disposal,” one of the paint adverts read. She writes more about it in “The legacy of Undark: Why science journalism matters.

Among the features on Undark: “What I Left Out,” a space for book authors to tell stories that didn’t make the cut. Noting this one to read: Elizabeth DeVita-Raeburn tell the story left out of her and her father’s recent book that asks whether Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn really did cure his testicular cancer with some mandrake root and a bottle of vodka.

Deb mentioned that one of her favorite pieces to write for her blog at Wired was “How to read a scientific paper.”

Of course the topic of that Pacific Standard article and Undark’s publication of an essay by the author of it came up. Deb noted that science journalism is not so holy that it’s above critique (see also an article in Motherboard about coverage of a study of the “vegetarian allele”), hence the invitation to invite Schulson to respond to criticism of his original article.

How to do great investigative journalism

Frontline correspondent David Hoffman noted that “scientific reports are the antithesis of storytelling.” But one day he came across a report in Science Translational Medicine that tracked an outbreak of antibiotic resistant bacteria through the NIH clinical center. He dug into the paper, went deep into research and then pitched a story to Frontline — that turned into “Hunting the Nightmare Bacteria.”

Storytelling, selling your story, and making stories better: A #DCSWA15 reading list

The DC Science Writer’s Association professional development day was this Saturday. It was an inspiring day with lots of food for thought! Storytelling was definitely a theme in several sessions, as was the notion of “selling” your story, whether it’s to an editor, to your dedicated audience or to an unknown population of readers. It also featured multiple rants against adjectives and adverbs in favor of stronger nouns and verbs, and at least two uses of the word verisimilitude.

The chance to reflect on writing, on being a journalist, on career development, on communicating science comes all to infrequently. But when it does, I’m always inspired to check out the dozens of articles, websites, apps, programs and books I hear about and figure out how I can use them to enhance what I do and how I do it.

And somehow the time to actually do that never materializes.

So, while it’s all still fresh in my mind, and while I’m casually keeping an eye on the sanctity of my NCAA bracket, I thought I’d throw together a reading list (a periodic habit …) of some of the stuff I jotted down at the meeting. And then, of course, share it on the Internet. I hope it’s useful! Feel free to shout out other resources/articles/apps/etc. you heard about.

First off, congratulations to all the DCSWA newsbrief award winners!

Joel Achenbach of the Washington Post was the first plenary speaker – so much good advice! Alas, rounding up his advice is not the point of this post. Onward to the links:

Session: Secrets from Skillful Storytellers

(two-thirds of the way through the session I managed to delete my notes on this session, so it’s a bit thin.)

Richard Panek, author of 4 Percent Universe, among other things, and contributor at Last Word on Nothing

Liz Szabo, USA Today

Christopher Joyce, NPR

Session: Animation

Lauren Wolf and Adam Dylewski of Chemical & Engineering News/American Chemical Society

Sean Kelley, now an animator for NIST

Adam Cole – producer at NPR

Examples he showed:

I’m sure there was much much more! Feel free to shout out any resources/books/links/apps/etc. that you heard about at DCSWA PDD. thanks!

Finding the Higgs (video)

This little video seems to have brought some attention to my website in the last two days. It’s true that I did indeed play a role in the video’s early release coming to light on July 3. But as an editor, I usually watch such things unfold from behind the scenes and behind the bylines. So imagine my surprise when I’m reading the coverage of it in, say, The Telegraph, and I come across my name. It’s really great that many people in the blogosphere/Twitterverse/news world are careful to hat-tip and cite sources, but the more times I saw my name, the more I wanted to crawl under my desk.

Nevertheless, the whole experience was pretty darn fun.

Let’s recap.

Today was the official announcement of the discovery of a new boson whose mass and properties are consistent with the Higgs boson. (Superb Science News story here.) But if you were doing your job, you knew — or at least strongly suspected — this news for a week or more. And since we at Science News are in the business of, erm, science news, we’ve been closely monitoring the situation, making plans and back-up plans, and brainstorming for many possible scenarios. My contribution to that effort was to keep my eyes peeled for graphics, images, video, animations, whatever, so we would know what was available when we sat down to put the final package together.

I noticed late on Monday afternoon that CERN had started uploading some explainers, like this video of John Ellis explaining what the Higgs boson is. So Tuesday while making my morning rounds of the Internet over coffee and cereal, I thought I’d check up on the CERN site. There among some obvious placeholders for Higgs decay events was the video above with the headline, “Joe Incandela, CMS Spokesperson, on CMS progress on the search for the Higgs Boson, 4 July 2012”. It was July 3. I thought, “Surely this must be another explainer.”

His first line: “We’ve observed a new particle.”

Wha …?

I fired the link off to Alexandra Witze, who covered the Higgs this week for Science News. She wrote back 20 minutes later not only concurring that they couldn’t have meant to release the video, but also with a couple of paragraphs with quotes to add to her Monday story, or something. I hurried in to work so we could work with the other editors to decide what to do.

Well, when the people you work with include a former newspaper editor and former wire reporter/editor, the answer is write it fast, triple-check everything, and run with it. I started editing the paragraphs Alex wrote and dashed off a new lede. I passed it over to news editor Matt, who added the background and boilerplate while I watched the video, downloaded it for the 17th time, and checked all the quotes. Around 10:37 a.m., we hit “Publish” on both story and tweet.

The tweet took off in the Twitterverse. Alex also tweeted it with a shout-out to me for finding the video, which is how my name got attached to this extravaganza. After about an hour, David Bradley at saw the item, grabbed the video, and ran with a post. Somewhere along the line it acquired the reputation of being a “leaked” video. After two hours, CERN had password-protected the video. Minutes after we discovered this, we saw a tweet from Nick Collins at the Telegraph:

@NicholasCollins: CERN says joe Incandela video leaked online is one of several made to cover every eventuality and not representative of final #higgs dataset

Alex got a similar response from CERN, which we added to the story.

The idea that they prepared multiple videos was the theme of a funny post by the Physics Buzz blog from the American Physical Society:

I wonder what these other videos would announce if they do indeed exist. A week ago, the Physics Central team came up with a list of potential scenarios for the actual Higgs announcement tomorrow, and I really hope they filmed a few of our suggestions. A few of my favorites would have made for great TV, in my humble opinion: …

When asked why Higgs results appear to have leaked to bloggers early, a CERN spokesperson replies, “That’s a clown question, bro.”

By the end of the day, there were versions of the story (besides in the places already mentioned) in MSNBC’s Cosmic Log, Discover’s 80 beats blog, New Scientist, Ars Technica, Huffington Post, National Geographic News, LA Times, CNET, … and more. My name was mentioned in a small handful of them, some of which linked to my Twitter profile, but several which linked here. Late today I finally gathered the courage to look the stats for this site, which I don’t really maintain. What I found:

statistics graph
What's that bump? The Higgs boson, of course.

Whoa. Um. Hi there?

While my editorial role for today’s Higgs announcement was as the support crew, yesterday’s excitement gave me a sense of attachment to the story. So, I woke up at 3 a.m. to tune into the CERN webcast, sharing in the excitement with my husband (also a geeky science writer) and coworkers via IM.

All in a day’s work. Lucky for me, I *love* what I do.

What I learned at summer camp

I asked everyone this question when filming the clips for the video I put together because, by day 9, there was no doubt that we were at the closest thing there could be to summer camp for grown-up science geeks. I’ve been back from the fellowship for more than a month, but here’s a bit of a summary of the fellowship, both from stuff I jotted down while there and my own reflection:

I really enjoyed the lessons in model organisms; we later brought in yeast to study genetics. We continued to work with sea urchins, looking at both embryos and sperm tails. (why the latter? Because they are complex structures of proteins whose molecular motors serve an important purpose.) We played with tunicates, or sea squirts, too, dissecting out sperm and eggs and fertilizing under the microscope, then later looking at their larvae, which look like tadpoles, complete with a tail containing a nerve cord that’s reabsorbed when they mature.

brooke at gel
Brooke Borel pipettes pulverized protein into a gel.

We learned techniques: staining for specific structures in embryos; doing polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis to determine what proteins are in a particular sample; doing yeast two-hybrid analysis to study protein-protein interactions; pipetting; dissecting; looking through microscopes; learning microscope software; and waiting and repeating, two important tasks in a scientist’s routine.

We heard talks on regeneration, science politics, funding and publishing,  science at the Poles, arsenic, basic cell biology, meiosis, DNA transcription — seemingly all over the map, but very appropriate for the setting.

We went out on MBL’s boat, the Gemma, to

Our haul from the trawl on the Gemma.

collect plankton and life from the sea floor, including everything from sponges to sea stars to crabs, followed up by a tour of the Marine Resources Center, where they keep and raise all the critters for various scientific purposes.

But one of my favorite parts was the informality of it all; the chance to sit around and talk to scientists in the field who have years of experience teaching, mentoring, learning, writing grants, sitting on committees, writing and reviewing

David Burgess leads a discussion about science funding and publishing.

papers, and so on and hear what they think. Equally important was the chance to meet journalists from other publications with a wide variety of backgrounds, to hear their trials and tribulations, journeys and experiences, especially at such a challenging time for journalism, and particularly science journalism.

After I posted about sea urchins, a family member asked how that could possibly help me in my job. Fair enough: I haven’t ever covered marine science or written about sea urchins. But just yesterday I edited a piece on photoreceptors on sea urchins’ tube feet, and I knew precisely what the writer was talking about and was able to confidently tweak the item because I’ve now held and touched sea urchins and learned about their structure.

Maybe I won’t directly use anything else I learned for a while; maybe I will. But for me, the fellowship encompassed the very reason I went into science journalism in the first place: to learn cool new things.

The personnel sphere of the recently retired deep sea submersible Alvin. How cool is that?!



MBL: Fun with video

Well that certainly went by quickly. I wish I would have posted more updates from the MBL biomedical journalism fellowship, but for now I’ll leave you with two videos I put together. I must brag a little: I recorded the video clips and put each of them together on an iPad, which I bought 4 days before leaving for Woods Hole. I’m pretty pleased with the result. (And a little in love with my iPad.) And, if you’d like to read a little more about the fellowship, visit the blog or read the press release.
Here’s an introduction to everyone:


And here’s what we learned:


Greetings from the Marine Biological Laboratory!

I’m spending the next nine days at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, as a Logan Science Journalism Biomedical Fellow. There are seven journalists on the biomedical course, and we’re here to get a hands-on understanding of cell biology, development, model organisms, and genetics, by doing the science ourselves through experiments and imaging.

Today we officially met all the other fellows, including the environmental

sea urchin under stereoscope
A sea urchin under the stereoscope (@MBL, May 19, 2011)

science fellows. (Of course, we all informally met last night at a certain bar that’s well known among the 300 or so former Logan fellows.) We saw our lab space and got an intro to different model organisms. “Scientists start with a problem and a question, and then seek out model organisms,” said course co-director David Burgess. For example, yeast is great for studying genetics, whereas frogs are good for studying embryonic development. We’ll be working with sea urchins, which are good for studying fertilization, cell division, and development.

After tonight’s evening lecture on embryo development and sea urchin biology, Burgess and course co-director Brad Shuster extracted some eggs tonight that they will fertilize so we have some embryos to look at in the morning. There’s 12 hours of science on the syllabus for tomorrow, so that’s all from me tonight. Stay tuned!

After several injections with KCl, female sea urchins release their eggs (yellow goo at the bottom). See the tube feet? (@MBL, May 19, 2011)

Reading list for #DCSWA professional development day

I moved back to Washington, D.C. in April after 4 years in Cambridge, England. Conveniently, the DC Science Writers Association was holding its annual professional development day just after my arrival, which gave me a great opportunity to meet up with friends and reconnect with professional colleagues. In the better-late-than-never department, here’s a post-meeting reading list. This isn’t a meeting summary – it’s just link goodness and things I want to follow up on, and maybe you do, too.

I’ll start the list with this year’s winner of the DCSWA newsbrief award: “Rare Earth Elements Not Rare, Just Playing Hard to Get,” by the lovely and talented Sarah Zielinski for Smithsonian’s Surprising Science blog. Yay, Sarah!

Honorable mentions went to “How Mussels Hang On” by Sujata Gupta in ScienceNOW, and “Microscale Mimic of Human Ingestion” by Rajendrani Mukhopadhyay in Chemical and Engineering News.

The first plenary kicked off with a session on building online comunities with The Blogfather, Bora Zivkovic. Bora writes A Blog Around the Clock and edits Scientific American Blogs. His fellow panelist was Darlene Cavalier of Do read her bio — she’s fascinating!

Next came a session on maintaining standards on the Web, again with Bora and also with Mary Knudson, veteran science journalist, co-author of a Field Guide for Science Writers, writer of the blog HeartSense, and author of the book Living Well with Heart Failure.  On the topic of maintaining standards, see Bora’s Pepsigate post, A Farewell to Scienceblogs: the Changing Science Blogging Ecosystem, and Mary’s post, Why I Won’t Blog for U.S. News and World Report.

At some point, the discussion in this session disintegrated into Blogger vs. Journalist, a debate (or “debate”, if you will) that, IMO, most people in the room didn’t really want to have. Brian Switek incorporated some of the discussion into his blog post, ‘Apples and Orangutans‘. Also somewhat related was Alice Bell’s post, ‘Has blogging changed science writing?

Building an audience for your book: I didn’t go to this session, but I sure do love hearing about new books. On the agenda were Sam Kean, author of The Disappearing Spoon; Eric Roston, author of The Carbon Age; and Brian Switek, author of Written in Stone, which was just about to be released when I last saw him at the NASW meeting in November.

The day concluded with some sage wisdom from former Scientific American editor John Rennie. Rennie reiterated his Science Online 2011 point that we should be adding value to stories online, not chasing the herd, which he summed up in Why Ed Yong is the Future of Science News (and You Could Be, Too). More from Rennie on his blog, the Gleaming Retort.

Q&A: Taking Mathematics to Heart

This was a fun Q&A to do. One of my colleagues spotted a press release about an article on mathematical cardiology that was published in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society. I called up the author, John Wesley Cain, just to find out what the heck mathematical cardiology is. Our conversation was so interesting that I decided to publish the Q&A.

Intro to the article is below; read the whole thing on Science Careers.

John Wesley Cain, 34, started graduate school with a mathematician’s aversion to biology. He took a course in his first semester at Duke University with David Schaeffer, an applied mathematician who was just beginning to study models of cardiac rhythms. In the class, Cain had to choose from a list of projects and ended up working on mathematical models of cardiac action potential. “I think that was secretly his favorite project,” Cain says.

Cain himself took quickly to the work. “I thought the mathematics was cool. I thought the applications were cool.” Eventually, Schaeffer became Cain’s Ph.D. adviser. Now, Cain is an assistant professor at in the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. There, he works in applied mathematics with an emphasis on cardiac electrophysiology.

Much of the work he does is in interdisciplinary teams. In fact, he is a co-principal investigator on a training grant in computational cardiology that focuses on teamwork. “The idea is to try to get clinicians, basic science researchers, mathematicians, computer scientists — you name it — to actually talk to each other,” Cain says. The culmination of that grant will be the World Congress on Mathematical Modeling and Computational Simulation of Cardiovascular and Cardiopulmonary Dynamics at the College of William and Mary from 31 May to 3 June.

This summer, Cain will move to a new position as an associate professor at the University of Richmond, which, he says, is more geared toward undergraduate education. “I have a lot of projects that I have been really itching to get some of their undergraduates involved [with],” he says. He will continue his collaborations with VCU, in part for its medical center and team of cardiologists.


Read our interview here.

Q&A: Finding and Exploiting Cancer’s Weaknesses

My latest story posted on Science Careers:

Oncologist David Solit, 41, has some close professional role models: His father was a surgeon and his grandfather a family practitioner. Like many doctors who pursue oncology, he became interested in the disease after a relative died from breast cancer. But it was a laboratory rotation during his oncology fellowship that sealed his interest in cancer research.

“My interest was not to stay in the clinic and try to use the drugs that we had, which, in my opinion, were not very good,” Solit says. “I thought it would be best to stay in the lab and to try to actually develop some better treatments that we could bring into the clinic.”

Now, Solit holds the Elizabeth and Felix Rohatyn Chair for Junior Faculty and heads his own laboratory in the Human Oncology and Pathogenesis Program at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. His lab studies a particular signaling pathway, the RAS/RAF/MEK/ERK pathway, which regulates cell growth and survival in several cancers. “We try to identify the underlying genetic basis of different tumor types and then develop novel therapies that will exploit the specific mutations that drive tumorigenesis or cancer progression,” he says. Solit is the author of an upcoming Perspective in Science Signaling on MEK resistance, which will be published on 29 March.

Solit spoke with Science Careers earlier this month about his research and his career path. The following highlights from the interview were edited for brevity and clarity. A full transcript of the conversation is available on CTSciNet.

Click here to continue reading on the Science Careers Web site.

The article was part of a special issue of Science on cancer; see the list of all related content in all the Science publications at