Category Archives: Science and the Media

Forensics and Science – Should those two words go together?


This is the logo from the Show CSI from this site:

Continuing the (admittedly sporadic) reports on the AAAS meeting, I wanted to report on a great talk I went to about the Science behind Forensic Science.  How accurate is it?  I heard a great presentation by three speakers: Anne Marie-Mazza who helped write a report from the National Research Council on Forensic Science, Karen Kafadar, a Statistician from Indiana State, Greg Ridgeway, the Acting Director for the National Institute of Justice, which is the Science part of the Department of Justice (they also investigate things like body armor).  I was excited before I even went to the talk because I had heard of the CSI effect in which juries essentially think that evidence should be like in those crime shows. I knew there were lots of inaccuracies on the forensics shows on tv.  (For instance, why would people all work in the dark or green light?  Turn on the light!) What I didn’t realize, however, was how little validation there was behind the techniques that I had taken for granted. Much of this was revealed in a 2009 report by the National Research Council, after a call by Congress for a study.

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Security: A Report from AAAS

One of the privileges of being part of FOSEP is that we are able to find more ideas for topics and speakers by going to conferences.  I was able to attend the AAAS meeting in Boston this past February, and for the next few blog entries, I’m going to report on some of the interesting facts I’ve learned, and try to group them by topic.

Security and Research
8:00 AM on February 15th, I’m Jet-lagged, so the time is more like 5:00 AM.  Thank goodness for coffee!  This Security Research is targeted at making sure NOTHING happens, so nobody will notice when the research works. It is difficult to measure prevention, something I feel keenly in public health.  If there were attacks that were prevented, who would know besides those in the CIA, FBI, or Pentagon?  Do we really want to know all the risks that we face?

The three speakers were Stephan Lechner, (Joint Research Center, Institute for the Protection and Security of the Citizen from Europe – see ), Scott Borg (U.S. Cyber Consequences Unit – see ) and Suvi Sundquist, (Finnish Funding Agency for Research and Innovation).  Sundquist presented on her company that funds small research projects in security for the commercial market.

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Nancy Baron's Escape from the Ivory Tower & the Message Box

Last Tuesday we discussed Nancy Baron’s book Escape from the Ivory Tower for our FOSEP book club event. We were lucky to have Liz Neeley, who contributed to the book and works at COMPASS with Nancy Baron, join us in the discussion. She was very helpful in answering questions we had on the topics and issues covered in the book. Broadly summarizing, the book is divided into four sections: why scientists should/would want to communicate with the media or with policymakers, what cultural differences inhibit clear communication between scientists and media/policymakers, how scientists can improve their ability to communicate, and how to approach backlash and challenges.

I especially appreciated the numerous real-life examples that contextualized the main points in each section. One idea from the book that had a lasting impression on me was that each encounter is different (different context, different audience) and no step-by-step instruction can ensure clear communication of your science. The thing that’s most important is to properly prepare each time beforehand so that I know why and what I want to communicate. And it was nice to see in the real-life examples how each step in the preparation led to a specific outcome.

One nice tool that I discovered in reading the book is the message box. The message box is a really neat tool to summarize the essence of your research, especially when it comes to communicating to your audience and to yourself what your research is about. By filling out the message box and refining it, you can even find a previously unknown way of looking at your research.

There are four boxes to the message box. In the middle is the “Issue” section. Surrounding the “Issue” section are four other sections titled “Problem?”, “So What?”, “Solutions”, and “Benefits”. Quoting the book and a handout on message boxes, each of the five sections ask five different questions:

• Issue: In broad terms, what is the overarching issue or topic?
• Problem: What is the specific problem or piece of the issue I am addressing?
• So What?: Why does this matter to my audience?
• Solutions: What are the potential solutions to the problem?
• Benefits: What are the potential benefits of resolving this problem?

As Nancy Baron mentions in the book, these are more like guidelines, which can be changed to fit the situation/audience. It is a useful way to simplify all the ideas in your particular paper or body of research. It’s especially useful for a starting point when coming up with an elevator pitch summarizing your research and its relevance and benefits.

For those of us with research topics that are more on the basic side of the basic/applied spectrum, the “Solutions” or “Benefits” section may look difficult to fill in. For me, the question was, how does knowing the particular mechanisms involved in drizzle formation in clouds over the open ocean have direct benefits to our everyday life? During the discussion Liz Neeley suggested that if we were stuck in such a rut, then we should take the long view and fill in the “Benefits” section with a vision for the future i.e. with the knowledge we can obtain from answering my specific problem, what large overarching question can we ask and answer?

So far I’ve worked on one message box for my current research, but I can see how I’d have a collection of multiple message boxes for different audiences. My guess is that my message box for a second grader would be drastically different from my message box for a policymaker. I can also see how the message box can very helpful in the grant and paper writing process.

I enjoyed reading Escape from the Ivory Tower, and among many other things, it introduced me to the versatile and useful message box. Do you have suggestions for what to read next for our book club?

ScienceOnlineSeattle and Seattle Science Festival co-host Conversations About Our Changing Planet!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012 from 7:30 PM to 9:30 PM

University of Washington
Kane Hall, Room 120
Seattle, WA


2011 was a record-breaking year for extreme weather events worldwide.  March 2012 went on record as the warmest in the United States since record-keeping began.  The first quarter of 2012 was the warmest ever recorded in the Lower 48 states, with over 15,000 warm temperature records broken.  What could this mean over the short- and long-term for the region, nation and globally?


This signature event welcomes three experts in the field to join us for Conversations About Our Changing Planet: Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Environmental Observation and Prediction and Deputy Administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Dr. Anthony Janetos, Director of the Joint Global Change Research Institute at the University of Maryland and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) and Dr. Nicholas Bond, Washington State Climatologist and UW and NOAA Atmospheric Scientist.  Each will give a TED-type presentation  on the dynamic earth system and climate, focusing on observations, modeling, policies and linkages to energy and regional impacts in the Pacific Northwest.  Speakers will share their personal stories and passions about this important subject, moderated by Dr. Lisa Graumlich, Dean of the UW College of the Environment.

AAAS Annual Conference: Saturday

Exploding Myths on Reactor Security, Harm Reduction, and Genetically Modified Organisms

Day 2 started off with a very interesting although potentially one-sided panel aiming to dispel common misconceptions concerning three major global science policy issues. The first talk was given by Dr. Roland Schenkel, a nuclear energy consultant from Germany. The main theme of his talk was that keeping nuclear energy is imperative to a successful global future. His reasoning behind this was that nuclear energy is sustainable, it addresses climate change issues, and will secure long-term energy supply and thus reduce global tensions pertaining to gas availability. Additionally, he claimed that a new generation of safer and more efficient reactors are ready for deployment and solutions for waste disposal management are already available. Dr. Schenkel explained that although there are 30 countries with nuclear reactors, the regulations and policies involved varies substantially. He stressed that there needs to be pressure to establish a global regulatory framework for safety with internal benchmarks and that all work pertaining to nuclear energy needs to be open and transparent in order to increase public acceptance and dispel common misconceptions. The second talk was given by David Oriely, the Group Scientific Director for British America Tobacco. The main point of his presentation was that smoking harm reduction can be obtained by producing and marketing safer sources of nicotine. He presented data showing that people who use solely nicotine products such as snus or smokeless tobacco have an extremely decreased incidence of lung and other cancers. While I admit the data demonstrating that nicotine alone products are safer was convincing, the issue still exists that people will be ingesting nicotine, which will still hijack your brain reward pathways and produce adverse effects such as cross sensitization to other drugs of abuse.  Dr. Guy van dee Eede from the Joint Research Center gave the final talk of the session which dealt with genetically modified organisms (GMOs). His main thesis was that GMOs are a revolution in evolution in that they are subject to evolution themselves and therefore should not be viewed as so foreign. He maintained that GMOs are an integral part of the future of global food supply and that work needs to be done to increase public knowledge and expel myths regarding GMOs. Overall I do agree with the myths presented and dispelled but I also would have liked to have heard from a similar panel presenting the opposing view on these controversial issues.


Carl Wieman, A Scientific Approach to Science Education

 Dr. Carl Wieman is the Associate Director for Science in the Office of Science and Technology Policy within the Executive Office of the U.S. President and gave one of Saturday’s Topical Lectures. He described an alternative science teaching method to the typical teacher stand in front of a class and lecture from a textbook. He described that many teachers, including himself as a young professor, believe that when a student does not understand a seemingly basic concept it is because they are not trying hard enough and thus the answer is to teach them the same material again with that belief that eventually the student will get it. The new approach draws from the basis of how scientists think and then applies that to the classroom setting; scientists are experts that have a mental organizational framework that they can access and apply, they can see complex relationships and patterns, and have the ability to monitor their own thinking and learning process.  The approach is to, instead of lecturing to a classroom about scientific concepts already explained in the assigned textbook, give the students challenging but doable tasks and questions with the explicit focus on expert-like thinking, feedback, and reflection. An example of this new method is to first pre-assign the textbook reading of the material and give a subsequent online quiz. Next, because the reading has already taken place, the class becomes about problem solving and critical thinking. Each student has a hand-held answer remote and the class begins with a multiple-choice question pertaining to the previously read material (data shows that when a student is forced to give an answer that they are accountable for they are more invested in the answer and think more deeply). Before the answer to the question is shown, small groups of students debate the various multiple-choice answers, then the class as a whole discusses the different answers, and finally the answer is shown and the problem is explained by the teacher. Dr. Weiman gave numerous examples of improved class performance using this new teaching strategy. An example taken from an introductory UW biology class showed that not only did some of the students improve with this teaching method but that the whole bell curve shifted to the right (including low performing and underrepresented or minority populations). Based on this very convincing real world data one would think that teachers around the world are accepting and using this new strategy, but in reality change has been hard to bring about. Dr. Weiman concluded his talk with speculation about why it has been so hard for teachers to give up the traditional methods but also with hope that with new efforts by organizations such as AAU, APLU, professional societies, and NAS, increasing numbers will begin to adopt these new strategies.


Beyond Evolution: Religious Questions in Science Classrooms

I was very excited to attend the session on religion and science, as I have on many occasions had to address these issues with friends and family. The talks focused on teaching evolution and climate change to religious students. Dr. Ken Miller from Brown University showed data demonstrating that as the level of education increases, even throughout the four years of college, the acceptance of evolution increases, regardless of religious view or political beliefs. Additionally data shows that as education level increases students stop believing in the idea that science and religion have to be in conflict and that either one or the other is correct. Surprisingly, while this increased belief in evolution is progressing, students in the sciences are also becoming more, not less religious! Unfortunately many students and the general public are shown anti-evolution propaganda and taught that science is evil and will destroy morality. Examples of Rick Santorum’s stance on science and evolution and documentaries like Expelled narrated by Ben Stein were given. Dr. Miller closed with a three-part strategy: one to teach more science, two to teach science as a process and not as a doctrine, and three to teach the interconnectedness of science and religion. His bottom line was that instead of adhering to the conflict model and pitting science against religion we should be teaching more and better science. Dr. Mark Mecafery next discussed the issues of teaching climate change to religious students. His talk focused on the history of climate change research, started in the early 1800s by contemporaries of Darwin. Studies done in the 1950s postulated that by year 2000 temperatures would be increasing and melting of the polar ice cap would be seen. Dr. Mecafery suggested that so many people deny that climate change is occurring because certain groups have made the environment and climate change into a new religion, again pitting science against religion and teaching an either/or belief. As far as solutions go, he also echoed Dr. Miller that we need to teach more, better science in an attempt to expel the now common notion that science is anti-religion and thus threatening to the sanctity of life.


Plenary Panel Science is not Enough

I ended the day with attending the Plenary Panel Science is not Enough. The panel was moderated by Dr. Frank Sesno and included Dr. James Hansen, Dr. Olivia Judson, and Dr. Hans Rosling. The panel addressed why even in the face of overwhelming data and support for climate change by the scientific community so much of the American public is in disbelief, and focused on the increasing need for outreach and communication by scientists. The panel was videotaped and will be available online, so instead of describing it, I will provide a link to the video when made available to the public.

AAAS Annual Conference: Friday

Secrets of a Science Communicator: Engaging General Audiences

First on my agenda today was a Career Development Workshop held by Andy Torr, Communications & Research Resource Officer at the University of British Columbia. Throughout the session Torr repeatedly stressed that successful science communication is not about knowing your audience or crafting a simple key message, but instead about telling a story, sharing an experience, and engaging your audience in order to obtain leverage and create a ripple effect. He split his talk into three acts. Act 1 dealt with You. Torr described a triangle in which ethos (credibility) was at the top corner and logos (logic) and pathos (human-ness) are at the bottom corners. He explained that if you lean too far towards one bottom corner, logos or pathos, you lose ethos and thus lose your credibility and your audience. He also gave the example of Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle (a series of concentric circles with why in the inner most circle, then how in the middle circle, and what in the outer circle). Torr explained that while most people communicate from the outside in, the best leaders communicate from the inside out. Act 2 dealt with Them. He explained that people normally retrieve what we believe and that everyone has different experiences and therefore different beliefs, thus people in general are different. Torr instructed to take your message, put it through a prism, and then find answers for each group, be it scientists, government, industry, media, or entrepreneurs. Finally, Act 3 was about being persuasive. You need to tell a story instead of just explaining facts. Torr was adamant that bullets kill; 80% of people are visual learners and thus instead of bullet points we need presentations with story, context, and life. He gave the example of Hans Rosling’s BBC4 talk. Finally he suggested some additional reading: Nancy Baron’s Escape from the Ivory Tower and Resonate (perhaps one of these could be the next book we read for FOSEP’s book club).


Not Science as Usual: Become a AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow

Although the title of the next event I attended suggests a focus on the AAAS fellowship, this Career Development Workshop addressed opportunities both in the US and internationally to obtain science and technology policy training. We heard from a recent AAAS Congressional Fellow and representatives from the Canadian Science Policy Center and the US Union of Concerned Scientists.  While I was hoping to get more information on the AAAS fellowship, I was encouraged by the wide range of science policy opportunities available both inside and outside of the US.


John P. McGovern Award Lecture in the Behavioral Sciences: Joseph E. LeDoux, The Emotional Brain

After two career development workshops it was time for a lecture pertaining to scientific research. Dr. LeDoux is the Henry and Lucy Moses Professor of Science and University Professor at New York University. He started his talk by explaining that much of what he would present is contained in a Neuron review article due out next month. His talk focused on survival circuits instead of actual emotion because while survival circuits are highly conserved and similarly organized, emotion is a hard to define concept and the circuits involved vary across species. Dr. LeDoux postulated that emotion is what happens when a survival circuit is activated, that feelings result when consciousness witnesses one of these states, and that this is a function of the specific brain an organism has. Dr. LeDoux concluded his presentation by showing fear conditioning data obtained by his laboratory at NYU. He took us through the experiments involved in determining that the central and lateral amygdala are required for fear conditioning, the signal transduction pathways involved, and finally recent studies using optogenetics to further investigate this phenomenon.


Delivering on the Promise of the Human Genome Project

After a short lunch break I next attended the first part of a seminar on unlocking biology’s potential. Although I had to leave early to attend another session I was able to catch Dr. Daniel von Hoff’s lecture titled: The Human Genome Project 11 Years Later: New Medical Treatments for Humanity. Dr. Hoff is an oncologist from the Translational Genomics Research Institute. He spoke about the 7th vital sign of oncology, the context of vulnerability of a tumor cell. He gave examples of phase one clinical trials conducted on patients who had exhausted all other treatment options and had 8-12 weeks to live. Each patient had his or her whole genome sequenced and from that data novel drug targets for each patient were found. Although not successful for most patients, Dr. Hoff showed remarkable examples of rapid remission following treatment with drugs used to target gene mutations found by the genome wide screens. He did stress that although promising, much work is still left; currently only simple cancers (cancers arising from only one mutation) are susceptible to this type of treatment approach, subsequent mutations in the tumor cells as a result of the novel drug treatment can develop rendering the tumor again resistant, and the cost of sequencing is still very high and takes too long (6-8 weeks). While his talk focused solely on cancer, I was also curious how the Human Genome Project is being used to research and treat other medical disorders, unfortunately there was no time allotted for questions at the end of Dr. Hoff’s talk.


Bad Presenter Bingo: The Science Communication Game You Don’t Want To Win

The last event I attended before the Plenary Lecture was a very interesting Career Development Workshop by Monica M. Metzler from the Illinois Science Council (ISC). Metzler founded the ISC as a nonprofit with the goal of science outreach and promotion focused on adult audiences. She started with going through Who, Where, Why, How, and What of science presentations. WHO: consider anyone that doesn’t have a Ph.D. in your subject to be a lay audience and remember that not all audiences are the same. WHERE: Science on Tap, Nerd Nights, science cafes, volunteer opportunities. WHY: giving a talk will make you a better scientist, grant writer, fundraiser, and more attractive to potential employers. HOW: be a normal person, just talk, don’t do things that bother you when you watch others present, and start simple. Its ok to “dumb it down” i.e. make your talk accessible and give context. WHAT: your presentation doesn’t have to be about your research, make it interesting and something people will appreciate because the main goal of public outreach is to get people excited and curious about science. Next Metzler gave us handouts of a bingo card where each square contained a bad habit often seen in science presentations, both presentations aimed at other scientists and at the public. Finally, she ended the session by fielding questions. Although I still have much to improve on in my own presentation skills, I was pleased to see that many of the bad habits listed on the bingo card are ones that have previously been address by my instructors at UW.