Showing posts with label science communication. Show all posts
Showing posts with label science communication. Show all posts

Friday, 17 August 2012

Does the PhD process need changing?

Just so you are aware, there is a conversation happening on the Nature Soapbox Blogs website and on twitter hashtag #phdelta about the PhD process and if it needs changing.

There are lots of reflections, thoughts and comments coming into the debate.

I have written a post about science communication and the PhD and this has sparked the question, should science communication activities be compulsory in a PhD? You can read it here.

Also, I spotted this fab post about why blogging during the PhD is good and how to get started :-)

Join twitter. If you need help getting started with twitter, this might be useful !

Friday, 8 June 2012

Blog Review! Ed Yong's 'It's Not Exactly Rocket Science' in Au Science Mag

I wrote this 'Blog Review' for the latest edition of Au Science Magazine published in June 2012 (more info below)

Move over books, it’s the Age of the Internet, and blogs are the literature of choice. 

These aren’t the blogs of the Myspace era that shared too much information about teen troubles, break-ups and parent problems. The new wave of blogs are well written, informative, can help keep you up-to-date with the latest and greatest, or quite simply exist to provide entertainment. And as we are Au Science Magazine, I have taken a look at some of the science blogs out there in the crazy land of the Internet. 

Science blogs are often hosted by expert science writers and/or scientists. They debunk the latest news stories, explain the latest research as it is published and, best of all; they are easily readable on a quick lunch break. 

Quite possibly the biggest science blog cheerleader is Ed Yong. An award-winning British science writer who has written for New Scientist and the Guardian among others, he also writes Not Exactly Rocket Science (NERS), a blog hosted on the Discover Magazine website. 

NERS covers a range of topics from fungi to fMRI. Although, Ed’s personal interest in zoology is clear, insects and animals feature heavily, cuddly animal blog this is not. He also provides debate on current science issues as they happen, like conversations from a conference about controversial scientific studies on the h5n1 flu virus. News, topics and debate are all fresh, new and timely. 

Ed’s background is in science, with an ma in Natural Sciences from Cambridge and I have no doubt that his degree helps him pull out the best and most interesting news from published scientific papers. E d started blogging to, ‘flex [his] writing muscles on different topics’ in a style of his own. His goals, as he explained in an interview are to, ‘make the complicated seem simple, the obscure seem fun and the unknown seem tangible’. Which is a great quote to describe exactly what his blog achieves. 
His style is humourous and playful; take the headline, ‘Tiny insect soldiers with butch forearms are actually medics’ as an example. What Ed manages to do really well is create entertaining, understandable, informative and importantly, factually correct articles from science that would probably be ignored by the mainstream press. 

Many of the stories Ed covers are not found anywhere else, so, if you aren’t reading Ed’s blog or working in the field he covers, you are missing out. The title of the paper that gave the headline about ‘tiny insect soldiers’ above is, ‘An inherited virus influences the coexistence of parasitoid species through behaviour manipulation’. Not something you would find on the bbc News website. But Ed manages to transform it, like many of his other pieces, into a short, concise and perfectly to the point article worthy of a place on the ‘most read’ list. Ideal for that tea-break science fix. 

One of the most enjoyable things about blogs is that you can comment on an article and let the writer know your thoughts and that you enjoyed reading it (or not). Authors usually reply to comments and discussions can start. This interaction with the author adds an extra dimension that books do not allow. 
NERS is just one excellent example of a number of fantastic science blogs on the internet. If you want to read more good science writing on the web, Ed helpfully collates the best science writing he has seen and posts it on his blog under the title, ‘I’ve got your missing links right here.’ And if that is still not enough for you, Ed is also active on Twitter, Google+ and Facebook where he often shares links to other science writing on the Internet. 

Other science blogs worth a click:

Au Science Magazine is produced by students at the University of Aberdeen

Twitter @ausciencemag

Monday, 9 April 2012

How to use Twitter

If you ever meet me in person I can, sometimes, sound like a broken record. I am somewhat.. persistent.. in my efforts to get every single PhD student I meet on, and using, Twitter. Surprisingly, although my generation is labelled as being, 'social networkers' the vast majority of people I know and meet are not on Twitter. Facebook yes. Twitter no. Twitter is for weirdos and celebrity stalkers.

Oh my friends, how much you are missing out. Do you know that Professors are on Twitter? PIs are on Twitter? Post-docs are ADVERTISED and links made for post docs in the future are made through Twitter. (Sometimes I get a *gasp* at this stage, especially if the person I am talking to is a final year PhD student).

Next question, so how do you DO it? How do you USE it? What happens in Twitter world? My response.. Twitter is what ever you want to make it, and it is up to you how you use it. You could use it to talk to the other three people in your lab and your mum. If you wanted to. Or you could branch out and expand your network. Talk to people across the globe. Deliberately you could talk to people who are similar to you. Or you could seek out people who are different to the people you currently talk to.

Twitter is a conversation and you need to get involved in order to get the most of it. You can just watch, but it gets waaaay more fun if you join in.

My Twitter Tips:

- It's hard work when you first join, you need to find people, follow them, and join in conversations with people you do not know. I started using it anonymously at first in order to find my feet. I was a bit apprehensive about who was online, who could see me and what people were tweeting. Make sure you have a profile picture so people can tell you aren't a spam bot (try to have one with not so much bikini in it, Twitter has had a little problem with friendly 'sexbots' usually found wearing bikinis in profile pictures. I am NOT saying that everyone wearing a bikini is a sexbot. But it might be worthwhile distancing yourself from the sexbots if you were thinking of using a bikini snap as your picture). Fill out your profile description too, so people know who they are talking to.

- Conversations on twitter are happening on an open forum. If you have something to say. Join in. If people didn't want you to join in then they should take the conversation somewhere else. Join in with a debate about a current news story or event. People often link to their blog posts on twitter too, read them and comment (or tweet them) to let them know what you think and to say hello!

- You can search for terms and find people tweeting about things you are interested in. I searched for 'Aberdeen' so I could find the Aberdeen twittererers. I also then found out that there is a tweet up that you can go along to (no longer running in Aberdeen, unfortunately). It is a bit daunting to go on your own, but make yourself do it, it's lots of fun and great to put faces to Twitter accounts.

- If you are a PhD student there is a PhD hashtag - loads of PhD students all over the globe tweeting about issues that relate to PhD students. It's a fantastic forum. They also share blog posts, tips and just general grumbles. Is fantastic reassurance that YOU ARE NOT ALONE. #phd and #phdchat

- Always tweet imagining that your mum, dad, sister, PhD supervisor and head of school are following you (especially if you are not anon). They might not be on twitter.. or they might be.. personal attacks on twitter are not cool. By all means tweet if you are annoyed about something, but the phrase 'Don't say anything you wouldn't say to their face' is one to keep in mind.

- Be careful. You don't really know the people you are talking to. But don't be too scared of opening up, it's a balance between being yourself and not sharing everything! If you are interested in a certain group/Professor search for them on Twitter and say hello! Link your profile to a linkedin page or your blog so people can find out more about you (if you are on the job hunt). Be careful with your tweets though.. remember potential employers might be reading what you are up to so *skived off to go to the pub with my mates* might not be the best thing to share.

- Interested in science communication and public engagement? You NEED to be on Twitter. I do not think that Twitter is the best way of engaging and talking to the public (although you can use it for that) but it is a fantastic place to talk to other sci comms and public engagement ENTHUSIASTS from all over the globe. You can see what they are doing, share experiences of what works and what doesn't. Get help and advice and importantly get ideas! I often find that people who aren't on twitter get the heads up about new and exciting things on average 3 weeks later than the ones on Twitter. Keep up to date people. Keep up to date and don't repeat other peoples mistakes.

- Scientists are on Twitter. Scientists share their work and published papers on twitter. People also tweet from conferences. So if you weren't able to attend a session or conference you might be able to find out what went on right from your desk by following the hashtag, or someone at the conference, even ask a question from your desk. Some conferences have 'official bloggers'. Search for the conference name or scientists you are aware of to see if they are tweeting what is going on (ask them too if you are interested!). Conference organisers are usually on twitter too. I will be acting as one for, Experimental Biology Conference 2012 on behalf of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.
- How much time should you spend on Twitter? Tough question. You could quite easily find yourself online 24/7 which isn't advisable. I tend to check twitter in the morning (bad habit probably) before I check the BBC news website! (I know *gasp*) . My PhD involves many experiments in the lab, with strange time points (like steps with 5, 10, 15 minute gaps - too short to do anything else, but long enough to tweet! So I use it then. Lunchtime is usually a busy spot, but I do always try and have lunch with the people in my lab if they are around. Then the other time I REALLY use it is when I am watching T.V. Greatest time to be on twitter? When watching The Apprentice..

Some more tips for making twitter friends -

  • Be nice
  • Give credit if you RT someone or tweet someones blog/video
  • Act like you would if you were having an actual conversation with someone
  • Don't be spammy (don't keep tweeting the same thing over and over again)
  • Don't keep tweeting the same person over and over and over
  • Use it. The more you use Twitter the more you will get out of it (by 'use it' I mean talk to people)
  • A hashtag is a # followed by text. It can be used to categorise tweets e.g. #phd . You can click on the hashtag and a list of tweets with that hashtag will appear. Good for following conversations or topics.. like #bbcapprentice
  • You can create blog posts out of tweets using tools like Storify, this is good and useful for capturing debates/live tweets interesting convos that people can then read at a later date.
  • Twitter is instant. Conversations do move quickly, use it often. 

Some interesting folk to follow:

PhD Tweeters -

@hapsci - Me, obviously. PhD student, tweeter.
@NSRiazat - #phdchat moderator
@thesiswhisperer - Thesis whisperer blog
@misspond - PhD student manchester
@ajebsary - Twitterer extraordinaire
@gradnessmadness - Does what it says

Top sci comms/public engagement/blog people:

@darwins_cat - fantastic blog
For my Skeptics to follow list see here

There are many more people too, if you have anyone else to add, put it in the comments below.

This post got a mention in a few places -

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

How to get involved in public engagement / science communication if you are a PhD student / post-doc

I see/hear get asked this question quite a lot, here are some tips and some examples of things I have been involved with 

Periodic Table cupcakes at the
Freshers Fair 2011 for Au Science Magazine
1) Before you do anything, find out what public engagement and science communication activities are already going on at your university/place of work and in your area. There are a number of ways you can do this.
  • Search the Internet, find out if there are any bloggers/tweeters in your area. Find out if there are any meet ups/tweet ups scheduled (usually advertised on Facebook and Twitter)
  • Get on google, find the bloggers, tweet them, message them, comment on blogs you find interesting. I have found that the sci blogging and Internet community are very friendly and incredibly helpful
    Car Boot Science at Techfest Aberdeen 2010
  • Find out who the key people are in your area (by key, I mean the ones with lots of connections and ones that organise events and know what is going on)
  • Speak to others around the world, find out what they are up to
  • If you are in the UK register as a STEM ambassador and sign up to your local British Science Association branch (they circulate opportunities running in your area)
  • Be inspired by others that are already involved and have experience
  • If you are at a university, find out and contact the representative for your research field (if there is one)
  • Speak to others that you work with and find out what they know
  • Start a blog (if you don't feel confident starting your own, write a post for someone else)
  • Get on twitter
  • If you are funded/member of a research council or academic society find out if they organise any events, schemes, or offer any advice and support.

Encouraging the undergraduate
students to win the 'hand of science'

2) Think about what it is you want to do. What do you want to get out of it. What will you enjoy? What is missing in your area? Who needs help and support and how could you fit in? What kind of engagement/communication do you want to do? Do you want to talk to children or adults? AND how do you judge if you have been successful? These are lots of questions, but important to ask yourself at the start. There are lots of different opportunities out there.

Not all public engagement/science communication involves talking about your research to an audience. You could do something online, run a website, behind the scenes, help raise funding or organise an event where someone else talks or help someone else organise an event.

Au Science Magazine

3) If you spot something that is going on elsewhere, but isn't happening in your area, think about how you could set this up (if you wanted to!). The connections you have made will be able to help and support you do this.

4) I think the worst thing to do is spend a lot of time and effort to trying to set something up and then find out someone else is already doing avoid this make sure you get connected with the right people. Put yourself out there.

5) And another thing, you need to make sure what time you have available. Do not sign up for lots of things and make too many promises to people (most engagement/communication events, schemes rely on volunteers). People do not appreciate being let down at the last second.. saying that, everyone understands that people are volunteering and that other things sometimes have to take priority.

Aberdeen Skeptics in the Pub

6) Have fun with it. Don't force yourself to continue with something you hate but try everything you can!  

Anyone else got any tips/advice or useful links to share?

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Why Good Biologists are Better Than Sherlock

Me, pretending to be Sherlock with my 'critical thinking' hat on
Sherlock Holmes is famous for his ability to apply logical reasoning. His amazing ability to watch, to observe, to put two and two together and make a conclusion. A critical thinker, his theories are not wild and are only based on fact. He studies, finds ways to find and gather all the information he can.. and then boom, hits everyone with the name of the culprit.

My argument, is that a good biologist (actually, any good scientist) needs to be at least as good as Sherlock to perform, and if they want to be really successful they have to be better.

Friday, 3 February 2012

The Cosmic Comic - Interview with Helen Keen

Published in Issue 1 (June 2011) of Au Science Magazine. Find out more about Helen here

Helen’s show, 'It IS rocket science' is a humorous look at the people involved in space exploration. It was recently aired on BBC Radio 4 and has been performed at the Edinburgh Fringe. I caught up with Helen in Aberdeen where she did a short version of her show for, 'Skeptics in the Pub' in March.

Monday, 30 January 2012

Cannabis: menace or medicine?

Latex gloves, white lab coat and an expression of intense concentration. This is not your stereotypical image of a cannabis user, but it is one. Scientific researchers from all over the globe are devoting their time to uncovering the secrets of cannabis. If you are able to believe the hype, cannabis can relieve pain, prevent infection by HIV and fight cancer. In the UK, the first medicinal license for a cannabis-based medicine, Sativex, was granted in 2010, yet cannabis remains an illegal substance. So, is it medicine or menace?

Friday, 25 November 2011

Recognising Public Engagement

Universities in the UK have embraced 'Public Engagement'. There is a Public Engagement Manifesto. My university (University of Aberdeen) have signed it. But who carries this 'vital' work out and are they being recognised for it?

The University of Aberdeen is committed to achieving distinctive excellence across all aspects of its activities including the vital objective of engaging with society. We are building on a considerable track record, where public engagement has become ever more embedded in our core business. Moving forward, our Strategic Plan 2011-2015 reflects our ongoing commitment to support and empower our staff and students to help deliver a diverse, creative and accessible programme of activities with a measurable public impact. Partnership is central to our strategy and our active involvement with the work of the NCCPE extends back to its inception. We therefore endorse the principles of the Concordat for Engaging the Public with Research and fully support the NCCPE Manifesto.” Professor Ian Diamond, Principal and Vice Chancellor, University of Aberdeen

This is great news. One I am pleased with as a PhD student. I want the university I am studying at to be embracing this and I want to (and do) support public engagement events. I think there is a great value in engagement and both for the university, the people at the university and for the public.
I do see one problem though. The vast amount of public engagement activities that happen are reliant on volunteers. The volunteers tend to be a small (ish) pool of people that take part in events and often the pool is of students (both undergraduate and postgraduate).  
Public Engagement is starting to be seen as something employees of the university should be doing within their 'normal work'. Some institutions are including it on their assessment and promotion criteria which is a great start at integrating it into peoples jobs (I am not sure that the University of Aberdeen have introduced this). Including it as promotion criteria makes sure that staff time is dedicated to public engagement and that people are rated, judged and recognised for the work they do.
I see plenty of support for people that want to get involved with public engagement and have an idea at the University of Aberdeen. However, I feel the recognition for people that take part in these activities; especially those that are students and on short term contracts (post doc etc) is lacking. This creates a culture where those interested in public engagement and feel strongly about it do it. But do it in their own time because they want to. There is no extra incentives other than 'building your C.V.'. As the university are placing an expectation on people to take part in these activities, should there be bigger incentives, recognition and awards or should people not taking part and not 'doing their bit'  be penalised?
UCL seems to be doing a good job at both embracing and recognising people (both staff and students) who take part in these activities through the Provost awards - However, is the introduction and use of awards such as these (although they may be great incentives to get people involved in public engagement activities) a way for the universities to get work that they deem as 'vital' done but not pay people for it?

Monday, 14 November 2011

The Cervical Cancer Jab and the 'Waking Coma'

I read an extremely sad news story this evening about a girl who is trapped in a 'waking coma'. Sleeping for 23 hours a day she has been unable to open her eyes for several weeks. Her condition is according to the news reports undiagnosed, but her symptoms have been linked to ME/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Her story has been covered on The Daily Mail, Telegraph, Sun and many other major news websites after the local newspaper covered the story.

Unfortunately, I feel that this story has only hit the big newspapers as her symptoms coincided with her receiving the cervical cancer vaccine and the headlines and articles all suggest that the cancer vaccine is the cause of the girls condition. These are some of the headlines:

Daily Mail:  Girl, 13, left in 'waking coma' and sleeps for 23 hours a day after severe reaction to cervical cancer jabs

Telegraph: Cervical cancer jab left girl, 13, in 'waking coma'
The Sun:  Cervical cancer jab puts girl, 13, in 'waking coma'

The link between the jab and her condition has not been proven.

Obviously it is important to get to the bottom of this story,  and find out what is the cause of the symptoms, but I am disappointed to see this story being sold as an anti vaccine scare story.

News organisations may say they have a responsibility to report on stories that may suggest a danger from a product/vaccine however, is a very isolated case and overshadows the benefits of the vaccine (and other vaccines).

How can possible side effects be reported whilst making it clear that the links are not yet proven? Can they? Has the media still not learnt its lesson from previous misreporting of unsupported vaccine side-effects?

For the facts on the cervical cancer vaccine visit the NHS website:

I would encourage everyone to submit a complaint about these articles to the PCC here - as I feel they are in breach of clause 1 (accuracy) of the code of practice -

As Stephen Adams was identified as the author of the Telegraph acticle I contacted him:

I am writing to you in response to the article posted on The Telegraphs website titled - Cervical cancer jab left girl, 13, in 'waking coma'.
I am unsure why you have chosen to produce a story linking the jab to the girls condition when a link has not yet been proven. The article clearly comes across in a way that suggests the link is there and I think that is misleading. I have written more on my blog here
I have also submitted a complaint about the article to the PCC.
I would like to ask you why you felt the need to write the article in this way? Do you not see the need to be cautious in the representation of vaccine side effect stories after the problems with the MMR vaccine?

This Stephen's response:

The article clearly states that it is the parents' belief that the jab has produced an adverse reaction in their daughter.
It does not claim this is the doctors' judgement, or claim there is a proven link.
The article makes clear the very great benefit this vaccine should have in the future in reducing the burden of cervical cancer, and the fact that it has demonstrated a strong safety profile so far in trials and in practice.
That, however, should not stop papers from reporting suspected adverse reactions. And that is all we have done - reported the parents' fears of a suspected adverse reaction. It does not, as you write, suggest there is a link.
I believe papers should be free to report claims of such reactions, in a fair and balanced way. As a medical sciences student you undoubtedly know that vaccines can and do produce adverse reactions in a small proportion of people.
I don't have an axe to grind about vaccines, and am certainly not one of the minority who objects to them.
For your information I have written other reports on HPV vaccines, see for example here and here
Anti-vaccine campaigners might take the view that these are to 'pro-vaccine'.
You might, however, be interested to read some of the comments from parents on the bottom of the first of the two.
I am acutely aware of the need not to scaremonger about vaccinations in the wake of MMR; I think you will find most journalists are.

I haven't got much time to write my reaction - here is what I believe is the 'original' article in the local newspaper - This article really suggests that it is the parents feeling that there is a link to the jab more than the article in the Telegraph does. A lot of the stats and statments in this article also appear in the Telegraph article.

I understand that Stephen probably did not write the headline for the article in the Telegraph and I feel that it is the most misleading part, however, he doesn't see a problem with the article at all.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

No Grazie, Grazia

A few weeks ago Dr Petra (@DrPetra) highlighted a story that was doing the rounds in the national press about 'bossy women have less sex'... Google it under news and you will see the stories from around the globe (see here, safe to click). The story was formulated from a piece of research carried out with Sub-Saharan African Women, (freely available for all to read here)

This extract is taken from the abstract of the research article, 'Understanding how women’s position in the household influences their sexual activity may be an essential piece in protecting the sexual rights of women and helping them to achieve a sexual life that is both safe and pleasurable.'

This weekend I picked up a copy of Grazia Magazine and found this story -

I tweeted it because I was frustrated, I tweeted it at Grazia and Dr Petra. I was frustrated that a magazine, marketed at women, that aims to go beyond regurgitating the usual trashy gossip that other magazines print, found it appropriate to include a 'debate' about this headline, which should never have been a headline. Another case of misrepresented research.

Others offered their support and said they were disappointed also. I sent an email to Grazia saying why I thought this story was inappropriate and that they could have done a much better job by covering the fact that the mainstream press thought it was appropriate to change this study about empowerment in women in Sub-Saharan Africa into a story about 'bossy women having less sex'.

The response from Grazia:

JaneGRAZIA @hapsci Sorry you feel that way, but that certainly wasn't our intention

DrPetra @ Tbh @janeGRAZIA unsure saying 'it wasn't our intention' to misrepresent research on African women's empowerment is good enough @hapsci

DrPetra @ Was it that writers didn't read this research or read it+ decided to misrepresent it?Both worrying @hapsci @janeGRAZIA

DrPetra @ A better approach=reflect on why folk upset with column+commit to reporting research more accurately AND entertainingly @hapsci @janeGRAZIA

JaneGRAZIA @DrPetra @hapsci It was a huge story in national press we were debating - not original research

JaneGRAZIA @ @marykmac @hapsci Hard not to react with frustration when accused of misogyny, and for that I apologise. We do take your comments on board

I wrote this blog post because I wanted to share this story with my friends away from Twitter and get their response about a magazine I know they read - what do you think?

UPDATE 12.10.11

Response from DrPetra

Thanks for writing this @hapsci. While Grazia's coverage wasn't the only problematic piece in this whole sorry media saga (which managed to completely twist a piece of research into suggesting the opposite of its actual findings), it is a good illustration of how the media relies on other press coverage rather than original research papers to inform stories. As such it's a great case study for teaching both journalism and science communication students/practitioners.

I may be wrong but it seems Grazia had not read the original research at all and probably had no idea about what it was really about. Again that's not unusual as often journalists misunderstand papers. In this case the research was freely available and easy to track down. The press release was also easily accessible. It would have taken a bit longer to find the original study and report it than it would have taken to simply do churnalism with existing press coverage, but that would have made for a lot more interesting piece. I'd be interested to hear from Grazia (and other journalists who covered this story) about why they did not do this? Or why they felt talking about the press coverage rather than the research itself was adequate?

Following the discussion on Twitter Grazia asked for people to get in touch. For the purposes of transparency here's the message I sent them:

"Following the discussions about the 'bossy women have less sex' here's a few resources that may be of use to you if you plan on taking this story further.

The original study (open access) is free to view here:

and the press release that went with it here:

As you can see neither of these go with the 'bossy woman' angle. In fact what the study set out to do was see how much autonomy women had within their lives and from that looked at sexual activity. They found that women who have more say over what happens elsewhere in their lives are less likely to be coerced into unwanted sexual behaviour. So rather than it being a case of 'bossy women having less sex', the study found that women who have control over their lives have more equal relationships. This is important as equality in relationships translates to more pleasurable sex for women and their partners. It's also very important given the context of this study was Sub Saharan Africa where there can be problems of gender equality and where coercive sex can be a problem. As talking about sex is often taboo, having a way to discuss relationships based on women's wider autonomy in the home could be a helpful means to uncover problems of coercion/violence but also be a way of looking at achieving gender equality and empowering women more widely.

When this research hit the headlines it got respun into 'bossy women have less sex' (summarised here by The Media Blog It's not clear why this happened, or where this angle originally came from. But if you compare this coverage to the original paper it's not just a case of getting the science a little bit wrong, it's an entire rewrite of the findings to basically advocate for the opposite position that the research is coming from. Resulting in reporting of this research that airbrushed out African women entirely while repackaging a study about women's agency into a stick to beat UK women with - for being both opinionated and withholding sex. A study that was looking at avoiding coercive sexual practices was transformed into coverage that implied saying when you don't (or do) want sex is a bad thing.

At the time of this reporting people were complaining about how badly the research had been covered, but it didn't stop it being picked up in other media outlets (including your own) in ways that rehearsed or added to the myth of the 'bossy women have less sex' account. Which is why there has been some vocal criticism about the coverage in Grazia.

I'm really glad you're taking time to reflect on this particular case and hope it can be something that could be used in future. Perhaps either as a timely warning that a research report in mainstream media always needs checking at source, or if you wanted to revisit the study to write up what was found (and perhaps interview the researchers who did the study), or to use the main outcomes from the study to discuss how women who have greater autonomy may enjoy more pleasurable sex lives - and how that might be achieved. UK women also can struggle in this area so it could become a sex positive piece about enjoying greater intimacy without rehearsing the usual misinformation about great sex being measured simply on how often you do it. I'd be happy to help out if you wanted to take this forward at all. And if you are writing about research in future and aren't sure about a study (or can't find an original paper) please do ask as if I can't help interpret it I'll usually know someone who can. Most academics working in this area want to help as much as we can to ensure interesting research hits the headlines in fun and empowering ways (that are also accurate)".

They've replied thanking me for my response and restating they were debating the coverage of the story as it appeared in the press, but they'd discuss it at their next meeting and as they're always looking for people to help with features would I be willing to provide quotes for future pieces. I've replied saying this is fine as I'm always happy to help journalists where I can.

In my experience with other cases like this journalists often seek to placate critics by seeming like they'll improve future pieces, but usually are just hoping the pesky scientists will go away and have no intention to alter practice. Time will tell if Grazia truly intends to sort out content and use original research to create fantastic coverage. I hope they do, and I'd be interested in hearing from them or any other journalist who could reflect on what happened here and how this could be moved forward positively.

Disclaimer: I wrote an advice column for Grazia for a while after launch and helped with content ideas for the early issues. More recently I've provided quotes for features.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Why get involved in 'Public Engagement' and 'Science Communication'?

I was asked to talk to the new PhD students about some of the 'public engagement and science communication' activities that I am involved in and encourage them to take part.

I just got stuck. Why should students give their time to get involved with these activities on behalf of their university? Are they really going to help their career? I was told that if I was applying for a post doc, I should probably leave out of my application all the activities I do, as the potential employer may worry that I do not do spend enough time in the lab. (Just to stress... my PhD is my absolute priority, I make sure that I prioritise my PhD first and I never do an 'activity' instead of my PhD. I do them as well as, and mostly in my spare time).

So why do I do them?

Honestly, I started getting involved these 'activities' in an effort to meet people. I moved here from London after growing up in the North West of England and going to university in the North East of England. I knew very few people in the far North East of Scotland (/arctic circle), probably about 6 people. I am a sociable person, so I started getting involved with things and I got involved with science things, because I am rubbish at sport and those seemed the best option for me. I also enjoy new experiences and love a challenge. I struggle to say no.

I am a registered STEM ambassador and during the past 2 years I have blown up film canisters for 5 year olds and talked about my PhD project to a group of people that wanted to hear about it. Just because the opportunity was available.

I started up Au Science Magazine because I felt that the University of Aberdeen produces some really great science, and really great events, but students and people in city did not know about any of it. How can a story get on the BBC news website, yet students from the university  know nothing about it? (I am not sure why I felt so strongly about this; it isn't my job to feel like this!)

I wanted to share with people just how exciting 'science' can be, because I find it exciting. I started by trying to get involved with the student newspaper, but that attempt failed somewhat, so I put forward an idea for the science magazine. It worked, and I met a great bunch of people through the magazine.

I started Aberdeen Skeptics in the Pub because it looked like fun...

As a PhD student you are supposed to give a certain number of hours to 'development activities' but make of that what you will. You could spend your time teaching, attending some of the skill development courses that the university runs, enter yourself into business competitions (like Biotechnology YES) or do nothing at all. These alternatives could all help develop communication skills, without needing to get involved in 'public engagement'. The time is your own.

The situation gets even more difficult as a post-doc. Jobs are hard to come by and research papers are a necessity for employment, if 'public engagement' is not specifically written into your employment terms -why waste any precious time outside of the lab?

Do academic researchers have a duty to communicate what they are doing? (I would say yes if they are publicly funded). But what if they are industry funded? Do they have a duty to share their work?

The university depends on people giving up time and being involved in these kinds of activities, but what real incentive is there for the students? Is the promise of 'experience' or as a C.V. enhancer enough?

I know there are a million and one reasons why the universities encourage people to take part in 'public engagement' just take a look at

So why should students get involved in public engagement? Why did you get involved? Alternatively, why do you not get involved?

Friday, 16 September 2011

Get Ripped by Scoffing Chocolate

The world press has gone ABSOLUTELY CRAZ-EE with this fabulous piece of news, 'SCIENTISTS' claim, 'eating chocolate may be as good for you as going to the gym', ' eating chocolate is as good as jogging', 'as good as exercise'.

Image: André Karwath aka Aka

WOWZERS. As if we needed another excuse to skip a gym session and eat more chocolate. Unfortunately, none of the headlines above are true. Sorry. Here's why:

- The study was small and carried out on MICE. Not people.

- The mice were not given chocolate, they were given an extract, (–)-epicatechin (which is found in chocolate). There is nothing to say how much chocolate (and what types of chocolate) you would have to consume to get the benefits that were seen in mice. You might have to eat 5 bars of chocolate a day to get those levels of (–)-epicatechin, who knows. Chocolate contains lots of other things, namely fat and sugar (which is why we like it). They did not investigate chocolate vs exercise in this study, they investigated (-)-epicatechin.

- They only measured certain benefits of exercise, namely muscle performance. Exercise is known to have a whole host of other benefits, which were not assessed. The paper actually found that there were no differences in muscle mass between the groups.

It is impossible, incorrect and irresponsible to conclude that eating chocolate is as good for you as a gym session. The researchers did not conclude that either. The press did and/or the journal press department did.

The research is valid and interesting but it doesn't mean we can stop going to the gym. The news coverage of this story not only misrepresents the science, it is completely irresponsible. The U.K. (and other parts of the world) has a serious obesity problem. Reporting that chocolate, 'is as good as going to the gym' does not help the fight against the flab. It only encourages consumption of high fat food.

The research was published in the Journal of Physiology (paper available to read via this link). A peer reviewed scientific journal (therefore, 'good'). The NHS Choices website have already carried out a really good debunking of the news coverage, so I have just summarised why the news coverage is untrue - for a more in depth coverage of the paper vs the news, see here.

This 'story' has been covered by Marie Claire, The Mirror, The Scottish Daily Record, The Telegraph, The Daily Mail.. and around the world. EVERYWHERE. I am not including links to the stories. I don't want to encourage even more views on the web pages... If you are interested, just google 'exercise and chocolate' and please leave them a comment as to why they are incorrect... This is standard bad journalism.

I can't seem to find the source of this story, but I will try.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Who Can You Trust?


It has been proven by leading scientists that happy men are less attractive. However, happy women are more attractive. Have I got your attention? Do you trust me? Do you trust the 'scientists'? Are you going to change your behaviour?

How can you tell what to believe out of what you read, see or hear? Have you believed in something and then lost your belief? Green men from outerspace? Ghosts? Crop circles? God? Have you ever bought a new shampoo/mascara/body spray/car thinking it would change your life/get you the person of your dreams? We are bombarded with information, ideas, views and adverts. It is impossible for us to look into all the information that is thrown at us. How can we question an expert on a complex issue when we are not experts ourselves? Do we just pick and choose what we like to make ourselves feel better and to suit the beliefs we have already?

Often when we are given information we are presented with snapshot of the story, sometimes with an added bias from the person giving the information. Take news articles as an example. News articles are short, punchy and usually have a big bold strapline. GRUMPY MEN = MORE ATTRACTIVE. Although these snapshot headlines certainly do a great job of attracting attention and selling newspapers and other stuff they can often confuse the issue in question. How often do you check a news website to get a snapshot of what is going on that day? How many stories do you read into in more detail? And how many do you discuss with others?

Headlines stick in the mind. A headline might tell you that more carrots may help prevent Alzheimers, next time you are in the supermarket, instead of buying your usual vegetable of choice (let's say peas) you might buy carrots. Companies and organisations know this, obviously and can cook up ‘news’, in the form of dubious scientific studies, equations and stunt events in order to get attention. The example I created is probably harmless enough to everyone other than pea farmers. What if the headline tells you that chocolate, wine or cheesecake contains miracle crystals of health? You might use that to justify buying an extra treat, even if you know you are at risk of diabeties… still harmless? What if the headline tells you that the MMR jab causes autism? Or that climate change doesn’t exists and was created by scientists. Harmless now?

People are aware of these tactics but real news and rigourous scientific investigations get mixed up with the rubbish. How can you pick out what has sound reasoning and what hasn't? The BBC recently had a change in policy, all news articles that mention a scientific study or research link back to the journal of publication, which makes it slightly easier for people to follow up on the story. However, a lot of research is not freely available.  Beauty products do not provide the justification for the claims on bottles of shampoo. Everything is limited, the data is limited,  which leaves everyone else in the hands of ‘experts’.

Time is limited too, how do you know when to be sceptical? Is it worth the effort? Do you believe that you can spot a marketing tactic from a mile off? I am pretty good at it (although it doesn't stop the sales tactic working on me). Do you disregard anything that sounds too good to be true?

I didn't make the grumpy men are less attractive headline up by the way, it's a classic example from The Daily Mail.

At risk of sounding like an advert...If you are interested in delving deeper into stories (and find yourself researching the information behind the headlines) you might be interested in attending a Skeptics in the Pub meeting.. if you don't already, more info can be found here ...

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Science Communication Conference 2011

Last week I attended the British Science Association, Science Communication Conference 2011. I was granted a bursary to attend, covering transport, accommodation and conference fees - which was nice, as without it I would not have been able to go! I was really looking forward to meeting people involved in science communication across the UK (& world) and some of the people I have spoken to through email & twitter. Creating networks when you are based so far away from the main source of the action can be difficult, social media does help enormously - but it still never beats meeting someone and having a conversation in person. The conference seemed the perfect opportunity to do this. So, off I went to London town with a bag full of Au magazines to share. I was really pleasantly surprised to find that quite a number of people had already come across the magazine and were interested in the project. That made conversation easy! As I was at the conference on my own I had no option but to speak to everyone I met (I'm not a fan of silence) and I met lots of wonderful, lovely people and shared lots of ideas and  found a few ideas that I would like to 'borrow' ..

The point of the conference, besides networking, was to have the opportunity to learn about different aspects of science communication and listen to a few keynote speakers. I don't wish this post to sound negative, but what I took from these sessions was somewhat limited. I felt that there was plenty of opportunity to share ideas & ask questions openly throughout these sessions but there was very little guidance or talk about how to actually push through the ideas discussed and implement them. Although I enjoyed the keynote speakers talks I felt the talks in someways were disconnected to the realities of implementing 'outreach/engagement/communication' activities. The beauty of the conference is that people from all different sides of science communication were there and maybe that is why (as science communication is not a part of my full time job) I felt somewhat disconnected to some of these discussions.

I do not want to post about all the problems and disagreements I had. The whole nature of the conference was to encourage debate, discussion and provoke different viewpoints. However, I think there were two rather large things missing from the conference that really need to be addressed.

I felt there was a lot of emphasis and talk about the monetary cost of engagement/communication activities. There was no talk (apart from the times I pushed it) about the time cost that people give up to take part in engagement/communication activities. Following this, there was no talk about how the people that do have an official engagement/communication role as their main job could help people that volunteer their time and put a serious amount of effort in to organise engagement and communication activities. There was however, a consensus that all PhD students & post docs have a responsibility to take part in these activities and Universities should support that. Would it not have been worthwhile to have a specific session for 'volunteer' engagers/communicators to help them get a network of support (these networks are there) and give some guidance on what they can do to make their somewhat 'extra curricular' activities become part of their main job in some way? I know that the activities of my university rely heavily on people volunteering to help. How do you make Universities realise the worth (and give proper reward) to these people?

The second point is regarding outcome and 'next steps' (to put my business hat on). There is no point just having endless discussions without some guidance/help of how these steps will be implemented after the conference. Going back to the point above. Although everyone seemed to agree (to a point) that engagement/communication should become part of the role for scientists, there was no talk on how people could communicate that to universities and help supervisors implement it. What can a student, who has a story they want to tell, do if their supervisor views 'engagement'/'communication' as a waste of time? You might dismiss that point as 'well that supervisor is missing out/doesn't understand' but that still leaves the student in a tricky position. I made the point at the conference, no PhD or Post Doc is going to be denied a job in research because they haven't taken part in any science engagement activities (and in fact, some people view taking time out away from research as a disadvantage), but that is a whole other debate...

I do think the science communication network/field/movement (whatever you like to call it) could learn an awful lot from the 'business community'. Essentially what a lot of people are doing, is, selling science. We have a segmentation model of how people think about science, which is a fantastic tool to use to understand how to reach out to the different people in a group of people. All businesses that have a product to sell have a segmentation model and there are many different ways to use these models, learn from the model and develop it further. Seriously tapping into that world of knowledge may open a lot of peoples eyes. Although, whenever I mentioned the word 'business' to people, I mostly got a look of fear and worry....

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Launching a Magazine

Blogging has taken a back seat recently, whilst I along with a team of others at the University of Aberdeen launched a new science themed magazine.

I think I am in a very lucky position here at the University of Aberdeen. I mentioned this idea of a science magazine last September to the public engagement team and since then they have very kindly sent anything they came across (including people, interviews, events, stories) in my direction. I organised a meeting with 5 others that had mentioned creating a science magazine to the public engagement team. We met, clicked and then set on a mission to create the magazine. Without working as a team this would have been impossible.

We have written stories that we think are interesting, but the science is not over-hyped. We do not shout about the latest cure for cancer, but we discuss how compounds in the cannabis plant are being tested for their therapeutic potential. We do not say there is life on Mars but we do talk about how we are exploring the possibility that there is life in space. We also explore links between art and science, the life of a researcher and have a bit of fun with Helen Keen.

It has taken A LOT of work and we have had a few setbacks (mainly bank account related) but we have done it and we have launched our magazine. It will be available in communal areas of the University of Aberdeen but also across Aberdeen city in bookshops, coffee shops etc (including Waterstones and the Satrosphere).

You can find Au (get it?) here on twitter @ausciencemag and on facebook

We are really interested in what people think, so please fill out our survey (accessed by clicking on the picture of mars on the homepage).

Friday, 4 March 2011

Why I dislike the term Scientist

What does the word 'scientist' mean? Really mean? Who can call themselves a ‘scientist’? Someone who studied a 'science' subject at degree level? But what if they became a HR manager and worked in a non 'sciency' company, are they still a scientist? Do you need to have a science PhD to be called a scientist? Or be actively doing science research? But what about all the people that work in science without 'sciency' qualifications? Are they still scientists?

Apparently the word scientist was coined by William Whewell in 1834 at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, to describe a group of people all studying different scientific disciplines (I have to admit, I haven't found any solid sources for this but you can read more about the term scientist here). The word scientist can be used by anyone. The description of someone as a scientist in my view is pretty meaningless; it tells you nothing about the person. I think there is a problem with overuse of the futile word 'scientist' and I do not feel that science reporting, 'engagement' or the image of science in general is helped by the term. This thought occurred to me whilst watching the BBC Horizon programme (Horizon: Science Under Attack). Part of the programme involved looking at climate change articles in different newspapers, the conclusion being that the articles presented an inconsistent story and lead to confusion. Some of this confusion comes directly from the topic, in an area that is still being researched there are bound to be inconsistencies and limitations to what is known, theories are new and still being disproved. However, many science stories have different 'expert scientists' or 'a group of scientists' (named only as 'scientists' and not by their proper job title) who have ‘discovered’, offered an opinion on or have written about the topic in question. Calling yourself a 'scientist' does not give you an expert view on every aspect of science and the majority of media offerings do not make the distinction between different types of scientists or researchers. This lack of distinction is where confusion lies. Unqualified individuals can comment on issues and be seen as an 'expert scientist' in the eyes of the press and public, if the research is questioned by another scientist there is no distinction made between the expertise of the two scientists and therein is the problem, who do you believe? The more sinister side of the story is that people who are not qualified in any way start offering advice to people (an extreme example being misleading use of the word ‘Dr’ by Gillian McKeith) and become recognised public figures, whilst the real experts are ignored. Take this ‘Chocolate healthier than fruit’ (research carried out by scientists) story as an example (it is an example of awful journalism too, the science was carried out at ‘Hershey Centre for Health and Nutrition’ which is clearly a conflict of interest). What it all basically comes down to is checking your sources.

There are other problems with the term 'scientist', such as the negative connotations it generates. For the majority of people the word scientist creates an image of a 'crazy mad scientist' and this has been proven through 'draw a scientist' experiments (if anyone has any other links to the results of any of these experiments please share it with me!). If you do not believe me, just do a quick Internet search for images of scientists. How much is the opinion of a crazy mad scientist who spends all day hiding in a lab really valued? I do not know - I imagine there has been some research into this, somewhere. The solution to this problem could be to drop the word scientist in the media all together and for people to insist that the proper job title of the person or group of people in question is used. I had a little tweet exchange with Mark Henderson (@markgfh) (Science Editor of The Times) and he said he tried to use proper titles but the title or explanation of the person had to be accessible/understandable to all readers. Personally, I think most terms are understood (biologist, pharmacologist, geologist, chemist, mathematician to name a few 'general' terms) by the public. If you really need to use the word scientist or scientists then I see no harm in specifying what kind of 'scientist' the 'scientist' in question is (i.e. cancer research scientist) or when describing a group of people, so a biologist, psychologist and a chemist there is no problem using the description as a 'group of scientists' as long as you specify who makes up the group.

Let me also add that I have no problem with use of the word science my only issue is with 'scientist'.

I would be interested to know what other people thought about this!