Tiny life sticking to growing green things

Communicating science to non-scientists is important, but often the jargon scientists use makes their work impenetrable, even to other scientists. So how can scientific writing become less obscure and more approachable? Randall Monroe, the creator of xkcd webcomics, gave it a go with his annotation of a Saturn V rocket blueprint. The annotation used only the 1000 most commonly used words, so instead of Saturn V the name of the rocket became Up Goer Five.

So can scientific communication in my field (microbiology and genetics) be effective using only the 1000 most commonly used words? In the interests of simplifying my writing, I wrote a summary of my PhD project using only the 1000 most commonly used words (using this text editor):

This study wants to find the ‘small pieces’ which are important for tiny life (the helping ones) to stick to growing green things. Pseudomonas tiny life are some of the best helping tiny life and one of the most well-known ones, Pseudomonas protegens Pf-5, can control problems in growing green things used for food. But in the field, helping tiny life show does not stick to growing green things very often or very well. This study will look at the whole set of ‘small pieces’ important for P. protegens Pf-5 to stick to growing green things. Making tiny life stick better to growing green things will help lower problems with growing green things and better the return from growing green things used for food, which are important both here and around the world.

This is hilarious and obviously oversimplified (to the point of not making sense in a lot of places). For comparison, this is the ‘normal’ version of my project summary:

The project aims to identify the essential genes for colonisation of plant surfaces by biocontrol bacteria. Pseudomonas bacteria are some of the most successful biocontrol bacteria and one of the most well-known strains, Pseudomonas protegens Pf-5, has the ability to control diseases that affect cotton, wheat, pea, maize, tomatoes and potatoes. Despite this, field trials of biocontrol bacteria show a lack of reliability and persistence on plant surfaces. This project will conduct a genome-wide study of genes essential for P. protegens Pf-5 colonisation of plant surfaces. Enabling reliable colonisation of crop roots by biocontrol bacteria will contribute to lowering plant disease and increasing crop yields, which are important both in Australia and internationally.

From this exercise I learned that some level of complicated language is important to communicate a precise meaning (important in science), but not every complicated word is necessary. Sometimes the language I choose can be off-putting to the reader, make my work harder to understand and appear pretentious even when I don’t mean it to.

So overall, science writing in my field using the 1000 most used words is not practical and makes it harder, not easier to understand (even nonsensical in places). But it’s an interesting exercise to see just how much jargon you’ve used or if a simpler word will do in place of a complicated one. And wouldn’t we all like simpler rather than complex!


JAMS symposium = ECRs, viruses, bacteria, biocontrol, mining, big data and whale snot

On the 21st of March, over 30 Macquarie University staff and students attended the 7th annual symposium of JAMS, the Joint Academic Microbiology Seminars, at the Australian Museum. JAMS was very popular on Twitter, with the #JAMS7 hashtag trending on the day.

Six students from the Paulsen and Tetu groups presented posters and Vanessa Pirotta won the student poster prize. Congratulations Vanessa!

Our new posters will feature in the corridors of our department to show off the exciting microbiology work happening in our group.

A major topic of the day was remediation of contaminated sites with talks on amending microbial communities to assist with remediation, microbes using atmospheric hydrogen to survive in nutrient depleted environments, and stochastic vs directed assembly of microbial communities in mine tailings.

Continuing the environmental microbiology theme there were also talks on marine viruses in contrasting environments, and the physiology and metagenomics of plant-fungi associations.

On top of all of that it was great to hear about the valuable work the EMCR Forum is doing on behalf of early- and mid-career STEM researchers, and to everyone’s relief it’s free to join.

Thanks to the JAMS organising committee for another excellent microbiology meeting – we’re all looking forward to the next monthly JAMS meeting (for more information visit jams.org.au).

Google Scholar is Filled with Junk Science

An interesting commentary on the state of Google Scholar’s search results.

I haven’t personally experienced the junk science results in Google Scholar that this author discusses, but then again my current research may not be attractive for predatory publishers. I’m focusing on plant physiology and biochemistry, which may be less prone to junk science when compared with more controversial areas or topics.

But this problem is very important to keep at the front of your mind if you’re researching a new area and may not have the skills to evaluate the research and determine ‘good science’ from ‘bad science’.

Storytelling in Science

I’m always looking for that something extra to make my presentations more interesting and stand out from the rest of the crowd. I like to think I’ve mastered the standard recommendations for improving presentations such as:

  • Not too many slides – about one per minute is good
  • Don’t just read out your slides, add something extra to your talk
  • Reduce the number of words on each slide, and make sure to use a big font size
  • Use images to illustrate concepts if possible, but don’t add irrelevant pictures
  • Look at the audience (they’re not as scary as you’ve made them out to be in your head – they’re probably either scared witless about doing their own presentation in a minute or not even really listening)

Randy Olson’s TED talk about adding story to science presentations was something new for me. He’s a science professor turned filmaker and science communicator who is passionate about bringing more ‘story’ into science communication to increase the general public’s engagement with science.

He desribes the standard model for scientific presentations as ‘here’s my data and here’s my results and here’s a graph and here’s another graph and here’s my conclusions’. This makes for clear communication, but it’s not very interesting.

Randy’s idea is for science presenters to use the AND, BUT, THEREFORE rule to create a story and more interesting talks, not just a boring bunch of facts. See Randy’s presentation at TEDMED 2013 here. I’m going to try it out in my next presentation and see how it feels.

Don't be such a scientist

He’s also written a book called ‘Don’t Be Such a Scientist‘ which discusses the idea that the general public doesn’t ‘speak science’ and how to communicate science ideas with ‘more heart and less head’. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Understanding scientific evidence is in everyone’s best interests

After having a conversation today with some researchers about how science (mostly bad or badly portrayed) is being used in the current Australian federal election campaign(s) I realised again how much trust I place in the word of people in positions of authority. This authority can be in the form of powerful people or people I perceive as being an authority on a topic.

I’m not gullible but I’m also not all the way at the other end of the cynical spectrum. I’m somewhere in the middle where I don’t actively question the motives of people and the evidence they are presenting (except in the form of advertising where these are just blatantly obvious). Maybe I do it subconciously, Ill have to keep an open mind to that possibility.

question marks
Image courtesy of Master isolated images / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

So when I came across an article about scientific evidence from The Conversation it was particularly poignant and I appreciated again that it’s not just me who doesn’t actively question or ponder the evidence. If I have a science degree and I’m not in the habit of doing this then I’m scared worried nervous about what the rest of the population is doing. There is so little scientific literacy in the community – how many people even know about:
– objectivity and bias
– validity and accuracy
– peer review
– interpreting evidence

Increasing scientific literacy would benefit so many parts of everyday life for all of us and reduce the misinformation, misunderstanding and conflict about the need for conservation, water resource management and coping with climate change (and sooooo many other things).

Read more:

Scientific evidence: what is it and how can we trust it? by Manu Saunders