Sunday, 26 August 2012

I made the worst decision of my life the other day and think the guilt will linger for at least another decade. You know those little parks you can go to which are liberally scattered with ducks? Ducks on all the ponds, ducks mingling with the sheep and random alpacas, ducks pestering visitors for food in the picnic areas? Everywhere.

So we visited one of these parks and happened upon a lost duck who’d managed to get itself separated from its flock. On one side of a small fence were ducks floating on a tranquil little pond; on the other side, quacking forlornly and pacing back and forth, was the duck in question.

“Ha ha, why doesn’t it just fly back over?” I said.

“Because it’s a duck and it’s stupid,” the boyfriend said.

Well I’d grown up with pet ducks and chickens (not literally with them. I was raised by actual humans. In a house). But, yes, I did have to agree with the boyfriend that ducks really are very stupid. Once, a fox got into our open-roofed pen and, instead of flying away, the vast majority of our ducks let themselves get eaten. See, not the cleverest members of the avian race.

So we hit on what, in retrospect, is clearly a hideously bad idea. I picked up the stupid duck and gently threw it back into the enclosure. Now, normally when you throw a duck, they flap to the ground. This one didn’t. It kind of crash-landed in the mud.

Hmmmm, I thought, its wings are clipped. Maybe it wasn’t actually meant to be in that particular enclosure…

We watched on with mounting horror as the duck metamorphosed from a cute little creature into Duckzilla the dictator duck from hell. It stormed onto the water and set about trying to KILL one of the innocent residents of the enclosure, swinging it around by the neck and basically trying to force it beneath the concentric circles of a watery doom.

“Oh no,” said the boyfriend. “What have we done?”

Before you get too upset, nothing actually died. Although I think the brutalised Mallard did look a little depressed once it had been released and had recovered from its ordeal enough to return to paddling around dibbling its beak in the (feather-strewn) water. Dictator duck then proceeded to chase the female ducks around, doing an impression of a drunk dude in a cheesy nightclub. And I have been left with the lingering guilt of knowing I have sentenced that whole flock to live under the rule of the avian reincarnation of Josef Stalin.

As I should have remembered from the childhood trauma of witnessing what tended to happen when a new duck is introduced to a flock, birds have what is cleverly termed a ‘pecking order’. This ultimately allows peaceful coexistence of everyone in the flock but, at first, there can be a bit of a power struggle while all the ducks work out who is the toughest, meanest duck that gets to boss all the others around.

See, ducks and chickens, while not being particularly intelligent as species go, do have their own little personalities. We had this one pet chicken that, over its ridiculously optimistic 15 year life, resolutely remained the grumpiest inhabitant of the hen house. It hated everything and everyone and, while all the other chickens would let me pick them up and carry them around, this one would peck anything that came close to touching it. Nothing messed with this chicken. Not even Death, it would seem, considering the fact that it managed to live nearly as long as the world’s oldest hen. This chicken was born mean and it died mean, maintaining a remarkably stable personality for all those years.

But other chickens are more pathetic. My parents had this thing for rescuing battery chickens and every year, they would introduce a few featherless, twitchy birds into the pen and we’d watch with crossed fingers to see how they’d fit in with the rest of the flock. Occasionally, there’d be one that, to heap more trauma on top of its already miserable existence, would get pecked so horribly that it would have to be separated from the others until they’d all got used to each other through a chicken-wire barrier. But, in the end, everyone would learn to get on with everyone else, and the battery chickens would grow back their patchy feathers and be less disturbing to look at.

All this has got me thinking about what kind of chicken I am. Do others size me up upon first meeting me and work out that I am very unlikely to peck them back if they try to pinch my choicest vegetable peelings? Am I destined to live out my own life being pushed around by others or can a chicken better its position in the social hierarchy? More importantly, why am I attempting to analyse my own personality based on chickens?

Giving me some hope that we don’t always need to accept our lot in life is an ambitious experiment currently being performed by my slightly mad parents. Chickens can’t exactly fly, providing a good example of how evolution can work in both directions, removing a previously successful adaptation from a species that no longer needs to use it. But my parents are attempting to teach their ex-battery hens to take to the skies using the motivation of grapes dangled from a great height. So far they’ve had moderate success although the chickens’ eyes weirdly roll over white whenever they jump, which is both strange and slightly terrifying to witness.

I think it is close to a metre off the ground. Chickens really like grapes.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

A 500-word news article on a research paper and two days to write it. You'd think it would be simple. Yeah, right. One week into my first foray into the world of science journalism and I feel like my soul has been severely paper-cut with my own poorly phrased copy.

To be fair, the majority of the responsibility for this probably lies with me. Today's Important Journalistic Lesson was how much writers have to rely on talking to the author of a paper and other experts in the field. Understanding a paper is one thing, but there's no way a normal human-being could absorb enough of the nuances of a subject area in an hour to see where it fits into the bigger picture. What might appear to be a paper about the mating dance of the Irish Pink-spotted squid could be key to the evolution of language to a squid-expert. Or the missing link! Or it could just be a paper about oddly-behaved calamari. Sometimes, the press release gives you a clue to the important take-home message of a paper. Other times, the press release is not entirely accurate. 

This is why science writers call up the author and ask them lots of questions before writing anything. Unfortunately, through a combination of French public holidays and the only author on the paper capable of answering my questions off hiking in the wilderness, I had to make do with a slight language barrier and a giant understanding barrier. And when it came to talking to other experts in the field, my two days of expert-hunting experience failed me utterly and the only person I managed to snare was fairly luke-warm about the paper, which wasn't much help.

Then the deadline caught up with me and it was all 'get it submitted', 'check the facts', 'find related articles for the website', 'work out how to use the complicated submission system', 'panic, panic, panic.' Then it was gone and I was left with a vague feeling of disquiet.

Fast forward a few days and I can see that I could have done a few things better. Such as checking that the copy-editors hadn't removed an integral "-like" from the title. Unfortunately, a few scientists who commented on the post also spotted the flaws. So we had to issue a correction. Then then someone else pointed  out a paper from April that I missed, and we had to correct something else. And I've been in a science-based sulk ever since.

What this did make me realise is that journalists sometimes get an unfairly hard time when science reporting goes a bit wrong. But it's impossible to know everything about a subject and you put a certain degree of trust in the peer review process, the authors accurately representing their work, and the press release not over-selling the importance of the results.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

I’m a week into a month-long placement in a science journalism office made up of real journalists and me – a research scientist who is rapidly learning a new respect for those who write about science in a professional capacity. In the past, I know I’ve Googled ‘where do science journalists get their ideas’ and ‘how to write about science’ and ‘what does it mean when your tongue goes green’, and this post touches on at least two of the above. Only from the point of view of someone who isn’t a professional journalist and doesn’t fully know what they are talking about. Tomorrow I will be giving advice on how to do brain surgery.

But first on to the results of my knowledge-leech/journalist-stalking behaviour...

So where do science writers get their ideas?
  • Embargoed papers from the big journals which are available a few days before the papers are published. Science, Nature and PNAS are the only ones I've seen so far and a huge majority of the covered papers seem to originate in these journals. Even then, maybe only one per issue will be interesting enough to cover.
  • Daily press releases from Eurekalert and other sources, which are again journalist only resources (I couldn't even register with Eurekalert because I am a working scientist and therefore deemed unworthy/untrustworthy to access embargoed papers). These lists include press releases for papers and important reports and, from what I've seen, contain a lot of dreck as well as the interesting stuff.
  • Keeping an eye on the news for disease outbreaks, natural disasters, pharma company share prices, takeovers, policy info, funding announcements, politicians saying silly things about science, and many other things I am yet to fully grasp. Everyone seems to have their own area of particular interest.
  • Blogs written by scientists or industry insiders can often turn up mentions of new developments in the field, or point out areas that would be worth thinking about. 
  • Conferences can be a good source of soon to be published work and ideas, although some aren't open to journalists. 
  • Then there are the connections journalists build up with scientists or companies, or pet subjects they've been watching for years writing for the right paper to come along. A few times, I've heard someone mention a scientist emailing them in quite a non-scientisty bout of self-promotion.
  • Finally, there's trawling through next tier down journals for recently released papers that didn't send out press releases and have slipped under the radar. This is harder as generally the really world-changing stuff goes into the super-journals but I did manage to find one really interesting paper and was allowed to write a 120-word summary of it, which was cool.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

For the next month, I am taking a teeny break from science to pretend to be a journalist at Nature News. It's a scheme aimed at teaching working scientists about how the media works by dragging them out of the lab, bleary eyed with the residual smell of growth media lingering upon their person, into the wonderful world of 10am starts and actual, real deadlines.

Three days in, and I have learnt:

1) Science journalists know much more about science than I do. Sure, they couldn't tell you all the three hundred ways there are to accidentally kill a culture, or the gene number of the TB glycerol kinase. But I'm beginning to wonder why, exactly, I've spent so many years filling my own brain up with all this esoteric trivia while neglecting some of the important stuff. Like science policies that directly impact on my work. Or Exciting Stuff happening in fields that are unrelated to my own.

2) Journalists are not the anti-Christ. From how some people in science talk about the media, you'd think everyone who writes about the news sacrifices babies in their spare time and has no regard for things such as factual correctness or the truth. Yeah, Nature is about as sciencey as science journalism can get - its aimed at actual scientists for starters, not those other bipedal furless mammals I am occasionally forced to interact with. But I was still surprised by how much effort goes into fact checking and writing a balanced story. I will, in fact, write an entire post about the creation of an article at some point.

3) Some scientists don't half moan. Getting a quick peak into another industry makes me realise how small and insignificant I am to the world of science as a whole. I think maybe it's easy for scientists to forget how lucky we are when we are constantly surrounded by others who share our worries and fears. Yeah, there are plenty of things in science that could do with being fixed. But whining doesn't help anyone. Fixing them fixes them. Being in a different work place makes it painfully clear that those bitter, complaining scientists who you can find lurking in every lab are not what I want to become </end bitching>

4) So much science is not news. No one wants to read about the latest advance in understanding membrane signalling proteins in Th96 CD61+ T cells, even if the scientist who wrote it is Very Clever and Important. August isn't the greatest month to work in science journalism as there isn't very much going on. I keep trying to find things to write about but very few papers come out that would work as news. 'Surprise, sensationalism and significance' are all required. Makes me realise how insular my own scientific niche is -  even the biggest, most self-important scientists in my field have rarely done anything newsworthy when it comes to their millions of Nature/Science/Cell publications.

5) Phone interviews can be painful. If an author is busy, do you wait patiently for them? Noooo, you phone them again and again, and their co-authors, and anyone else you can think of and PESTER! And, if they don't give you a good enough answer, you keep asking until they tell you to go away. It's like working in a call centre, only without bonuses. This is the part of the placement that I don't think I will quite get used to. That cringing, 'I can't believe I made a stranger hate me in the name of science'-feeling. Urrrgh, scarred for life. But, looking at the positives, I think is will cure me of any residual shyness still lingering from childhood.

6) The novelty of a free canteen runs out very quickly.