Another advantage of blogging

As you may have noticed from the extended radio silence, it’s been a busy few months between classes (both taking them and giving them), tenure packaging, and research. To add another responsibility to the mix, I gave a talk a few weeks back at the National Institute for Animal Agriculture’s annual symposium. This year, the featured topic was antibiotics and agriculture, so I was invited to give an overview of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus and livestock.

While I’m always happy to give talks to new audiences, discussing my work and the state of the field in general, I have to admit that I was a bit nervous. Given that my work hasn’t really yielded the results that many in the ag industry want to hear (who wants to hear about yet another ag-related pathogen to deal with? I get that), I knew the audience might not be exactly the most welcoming, as it was composed largely of industry representatives. However, as I was prepping both my talk and reading up on potential issues that might come up during the planned question/answer period, I realized that blogging has provided me with yet another advantage–a really thick skin.

Now sure, simply being a scientist helps with this as well. You have to get used to rejection and a lot of criticism or you won’t make it–grants rejected, papers rejected, ideas torn apart in various grad school defenses, etc. You need to possess, or learn, humility. However, blogging on the topics that I do also leads to a lot of less restrained, and more personal, attacks. If you can get used to those, and gain the skill of either ignoring them or responding in a fitting manner, what can your other critics possibly do to you that are any worse? At least in a conference setting, I’m probably not going to get criticized (openly, at least) on my appearance, age, etc.–hopefully, critics will stick to my science and keep their remarks in that realm. And I’m definitely much more comfortable responding to limitations in my study design or analyses and where they fit into the big picture of the field than defending what I’m wearing.

So, was the Q&A a bloodbath? I felt like I was prepared to handle about anything that could be thrown at me, but alas, it ended up to being a disappointment. I was one of the last talks of the day, and we were running behind schedule due to earlier talks, so the moderator cut off our planned discussion portion to give the final speaker almost his full allotted time. When the meeting ended, I was hoping a few people might come to discuss and challenge my results and conclusions, but that didn’t happen either. A bit of a bummer, but I suppose it’s better to be over-prepared for questions that don’t happen than not ready for those that do, and blogging also prepares you for curveballs. Many of my readers are laymen and sometimes have very basic questions over knowledge that I take for granted, just the same as many in the audience at this meeting (a good number were farmers rather than scientists). So, it prepares one to be able to step back a bit as well, in addition to being ready for the hard science questions.

Is this training limited to blogging? Nope. But I think regular blogging helps you to hone these skills–rather than only needing to answer tough questions during talks or presentations, it’s a more regular occurrence (and under less stressful circumstances, I might add). Score one more for science blogging.

Rock Stars of Science, part deux: coming to a GQ near you

The second edition of the Rock Stars of Science is now out online, and in the November 23rd (“Men of the Year”) edition of GQ magazine. As Chris Mooney notes, this is a campaign funded by the Geoffery Beene Foundation, working to raise recognition of scientists’ work (and scientists, period, since roughly half of the American population can’t name a single living scientist). Part of the campaign is to make science noticeable and “cool;” I’ll quote from the press release:

ROCK S.O.S™ aims to bridge a serious recognition gap for science, observes journalist Chris Mooney, co-author of the recent book, Unscientific America, and a partner of the campaign.

“The current gap between science and our popular culture,” says Mooney, “keeps Americans from recognizing the centrality of science to their daily lives. They think science is some strange activity performed by slightly geeky others in white coats. In fact, science fuels our economy and is our great hope for cures to diseases that affect all of us.”

“The RSOS™ campaign shines the spotlight on this critical national issue,” says G. Thompson Hutton, CEO and Trustee of the Geoffrey Beene Foundation, supported by the designer menswear brand Geoffrey Beene, LLC, which dedicates 100 percent of net profits to philanthropic causes. “If we invest in research, we will save lives now and trillions of dollars later.”

So, I think it’s a great cause, and a unique way to spread the word. From that side of things, I’m all for it.

But… (there has to be a “but,” right?)

The first campaign didn’t exactly knock my socks off. Chris gives an update on the participants at The Intersection; if you read through it, you may notice the 2009 participants had many things in common: they were universally older, white men. To be sure, they include older white men doing great things (Tony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIAID, was one of those featured)–but they promoted the stereotype of scientists as, well, old white guys.

This time around, the lineup is more diverse, featuring 17 scientists–including 4 (white) women and 2 men of color (though still, mostly older). The scientists chosen include notables such as Nobel prize winner Elizabeth Blackburn and physician/astronaut Bernard Harris. The lineup is also heavy on cancer researchers and other biomedical types; understandable, since they are focused on disease and cures. I realize these are easier to “sell” to the public, because we all know someone who has experienced cancer–but if the foundation does a round 3, perhaps some more physical scientists could be included? Even if they maintained the focus on health, climate change, for instance, has the potential for huge impacts on health–and many engineers, physicists, and chemists work on health-related problems.

They also have a cutesy Q&A with each scientist, providing them all the same questions. Some I find to be fairly lame (“What was your worst part-time job?” “Alternate career choice?” “Longest med school study session” [!? why the emphasis on med school?]), along with some that I think make a better impact, like discussing misconceptions of their work, or their best moment in science/research. I realize the “lame” ones are to help the audience see that scientists are just like them, and spent time in crummy jobs, but diversity in the questions would be nice to shake things up a bit. Then they have a portion where the scientist’s research is described…which is terrible. I don’t know if this made it into the print version or is only online, but in many cases, these descriptions are lifted right off the scientist’s professional website. Look at Catriona Jamieson’s, for instance (taken verbatim from her lab website):

Dr. Jamieson specializes in myeloproliferative disorders (MPDs) and leukemia. Myeloproliferative neoplasms are a family of uncommon but not rare degenerative disorders in which the body overproduces blood cells. Myeloproliferative neoplasms can cause many forms of blood clotting including heart attack, stroke, deep venous thrombosis, and pulmonary emboli and can develop into acute myelogenous leukemia. Although some effective treatments are available, they are laden with serious side effects. In addition, individuals can become resistant to the treatments. Dr. Jamieson studies the mutant stem cells and progenitor cells in myeloproliferative neoplasms. These cells can give rise to cancer stem cells. Cancer stem cells may lie low to evade chemotherapy and then activate again later, causing disease progression and resistance to treatment. Her goal is to find more selective, less toxic therapies. In the past two years, Dr. Jamieson’s stem-cell research studies have taken a great leap: from identifying a promising treatment in the laboratory to opening and completing the first clinical trial to target cancer stem cells in humans. This trial is the result of teamwork that has brought together her discoveries in myeloproliferative neoplasms and a local pharmaceutical company’s drug development track.

I mean, really?? I’m a scientist, and just reading that even made *my* eyes glaze over. If one thing they’re trying to convey is the importance and relevance of the scientist’s research to GQ readers, what percentage of the readers are really going to walk away with a deeper understanding of what Dr. Jamieson does by reading that description? It would have been a small thing to ask each participant to submit a layman-friendly version of their research (their “elevator talk” description, for example) for GQ to include.

Finally–one of the “scientists” is Dr. Oz. What is he doing in there? One, I would think he’s already well-known enough; why not save that spot for another scientist? Two, yes, I know he’s actually done research and published, and is on the faculty at Columbia. Fantastic. He’s also a serious woo peddler, who has even featured everyone’s favorite “alternative” doc, Joseph Mercola, on his talk show, and discussed how vaccines may be playing a role in autism and allergies (despite mounds of evidence to the contrary). This seems to completely contradict their goal of “research funding as a national priority,” since Oz is often (and Mercola is always) highly critical of “mainstream medicine.” I really don’t understand his inclusion, and think it’s to the detriment of the rest of the campaign.

I know, this is quite a lot of complaining (isn’t that what bloggers *do*?), but I’m sincere in hoping that this campaign does raise awareness. I hope they expand it beyond GQ–why not do something similar in magazines with a larger female readership, such as Good Housekeeping or even People magazine? Women are the ones who make many of the healthcare decisions, after all. We’re often advocates for health and healthcare research–and if more funding is what they’re ultimately looking for, we vote too.

[Edited to add: Science has an article on the campaign as well.]