Science Communication Boot Camp: The Experience

Earlier this month, I went to Science Communication Boot Camp. It was at the ‘Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science’ at Stony Brook University. We did not get to meet Alan Alda. That was disappointing. But everything else was really, super awesome. We played a lot of improv games, we did a lot of woodshedding explaining our own science, we learned about how to make stories, we learned about metaphors, and at the end we taped three-minute mock media interviews and talks to try and implement what we had learned throughout the week. It was exhausting, it was embarrassing, it was hard, but it was a blast.

BASEBALL

I first realized we were someplace special when we started talking about baseball. Now, I am not a baseball person, but that’s okay: I know enough. But in the beginning of the first day, they asked us to explain the following to someone who knew nothing about baseball:

In the bottom of the ninth, Jeter worked a one-out walk and stole second. But the Red Sox’s ace reliever got Ellsbury and Teixeira to strike out swinging to end the game.

And it was super hard. We started explaining baseball: there are three bases, there are these things called outs, you get a point by… That just wasn’t working. And then… they put up this explanation:

The game was almost over, and the home team was losing to its most hated rival. The beloved captain of the home team, playing in his last season, made a last-ditch effort to win. He took a big risk, and it looked like it might pay off. But when his teammates tried to help him score, a key player on the other team shut them down. The game ended, and the home team went down to bitter defeat.

Suddenly you understand the stakes. Suddenly you understand why someone might care about baseball.

YES, AND…

Don’t worry, the rest of the camp was not about baseball. Time-wise, the plurality of the boot camp was spent doing improv games. Why, you may ask? What do science and improv have in common? Why would you do improv, where the whole point is that you’re just making stuff up, to become a better scientist, where the whole point is precisely that you do not just make stuff up? Because improv is about connecting. Improv is about ‘Yes, and..’

Not ‘No, but…’, not ‘Yes, but…’, but ‘Yes, and…’. Agree and add something. Find how to connect to someone and then add to that. At the beginning the improv games were not science related. Zip-zap-zop, the mirror game, the ball game, the positive side of ranting, etc. My hypothesis is that they’re to get us talking. To get us comfortable with talking about anything, anything at all. To find our own rhythm, and try to connect that rhythm to whoever you’re communicating with. In one of the most powerful games, we were told to take a blank piece of paper and describe a picture. It was intense. Almost everyone talked about something deeply personal. A picture of an important family space or pet that got you through hard times. There were no instructions to ‘do your best to make everyone cry’, but somehow that’s what happened. And this was all without any preparation. Somehow, we already had these stories inside of us, but how could we use them *dun dun dun* FOR SCIENCE?

STORIES, DISTILLING, AND METAPHORS

The first night, guest speaker Carl Safina told us about (among other things) his ‘Spray can theory of science communication’: he used to be pissed off that you buy a can of spray paint and it’s only 2% paint, but then he realized that the paint is no good without the 98% propellant. The story is the 98% propellant. The science is the 2%. Sorry, guys. That means it pays to find that 2% of your science that is really what you want to communicate. Unsurprisingly a lot of what we learned when we weren’t doing improv was how to ‘distill our message’. We would go around in small break-out sessions and have one minute to describe our work. One of the first things I learned was, “bring cancer up front”. Apparently in my first run-through I left it to the very last sentence. Another was “tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them”. I think this is more powerful than it seems. It forces you to decide what you’re going to say, and decide your goal instead of just rambling off a laundry list of facts that probably don’t mean anything to the person you’re talking to, anyway.  Relatedly, getting rid of jargon was surprisingly difficult. In retrospect, it shouldn’t have been surprising, but also I now feel bad for all the people I have explained my science to in the past that had to deal with all those meaningless (to them) words. If anything came out of this camp, I hope I am now better at recognizing when this when it happens.

One of the things that helped a lot in explaining more difficult concepts was using any kind of comparison to a real life thing. Why do we care about semiconductors? How small is an atom? What analogies can you make to other complex, but more commonplace things? Coming up with these kinds of comparisons, I think, is often scary for scientists: we don’t want to lose reality in an imperfect analogy. But actually, having any kind of reality to compare to is surprisingly helpful when your other option is just an abstract concept… and you only have three minutes to get your point across. We even did a game to explore how easy it could be to find everyday things to relate to scientific topics: everyone writes down a scientific topic on a piece of paper and puts it in a pile; everyone puts a random object from their backpack or purse in the pile; pick four of each. Surprisingly, after mixing and matching, it is not hard to find reasonable pairs: swiss army knife and adaptive evolution, broken retractable badge holder and the RNA folding problem, sunglasses case and protecting DNA in epigenetics, headphones and being desensitized to the song ‘Happy’ for antibiotic resistance, etc. The hardest part, it turned out, was not pairing a scientific concept to an every day object, but telling a story around it.

THE MEDIA INTERVIEW

So that was a lot of fun. We got a bit better at improv and finding our rhythm. We got a bit better at distilling our scientific message. But then they got out the big guns: time to record it. This was definitely invigorating, partly because it was actually at the Stony Brook journalism school where they had real lighting and real cameras, and the Alda Center brought in some totally legit interviewers (they were kind of a big deal: googling Marcy McGinnis or Rory O’Connor is a good way to misplace a few hours of your day). It was also pretty nerve-wracking. I for one felt like an idiot because I was wearing a black shirt in front of a black background. What a noob! See my little interview below for your viewing pleasure:

Eh? If you liked that, it is probably just because I’ve heard my boss say those same things over and over and over again… Also I did do a bit of (extremely professional) editing and cut out some parts I messed up. Anyway, it’s certainly not perfect, but maybe I managed to put into practice the bits and bobs mentioned above. Hopefully, now you know more about what the Chodera lab does!

CLOSING REMARKS

One of my favorite things about all this is that from these short (1-3 minute) talks, I now understand the science of other boot campers  better than the work of scientists I’ve seen talk for 15 minutes or more at conferences! While this is great, there are still things that bother me about a lot of these techniques of communicating science. What if what you want to communicate is the history of the material of the bases and how that has had an impact on the game of baseball. Something smaller, something that is harder to make seem important. I think most of us were able to make our science personal by talking about how it effects human health, and I would have loved to see more diverse ways of making science personal. I would have loved to take a crack at explaining why we care about the Higgs boson.

This hits on another issue we ran into several times during the course: we don’t want to oversimplify. And I think we didn’t cover how far is too far very well. On the first day we picked an abstract of someone in the course (Hi, Tali!) to explain to a lay audience: a study on Archer fish (the link is a sweet NYTimes ScienceTake video) that seemed to indicate that fish could do conflict resolution even though they don’t have a brain with a prefrontal cortex, which is where humans and mammals do conflict resolution (while this particular abstract is not published yet, here’s a link to a related study from the same lab/author). The resulting impression the audience had was: “This research says that an injury to the decision-making section of the brain, may be curable.” This made the abstract’s author cringe. To me this is exactly what we want to avoid, and I think I am still a little scared of this, and as a result might still fall into jargon sometimes when I explain my research because my instinct is that it is better to communicate poorly than to communicate wrongly. Ideally, we wouldn’t do either.

These are some of the more complex nuances that I don’t think we quite got to cover and clarify in the class. But that’s fine. No one said this was going to be easy. One of the most important things we learned, I think, is that we all have our own rhythm and our own stories and that tapping into those is all we need to communicate science effectively. We don’t all need to be Bill Nye.

This post was originally on our ‘lab blog’ at choderalab.org.
Now it lives here, too.

A superdrug to fight the superbug? A resistance-proof antibiotic and the tool that discovered it.

The iChip.

Image adapted from reference (3).

Imagine a world without antibiotics. Imagine a world where an ear infection is a death sentence. This was the case less than one hundred years ago, and most of us cannot even imagine it. One of the most revolutionary discoveries in medical history was that of the antibiotic, but with few new antibiotics and an ever-increasing number of drug-resistant bacteria, many fear we may return to this pre-antibiotic age. However, with the promising results of a recent technology, a new era of developing unique antibiotics to which resistance is unlikely to develop may be upon us.

If it weren’t for antibiotics, diseases like pneumonia, tuberculosis, and gangrene would still be a constant threat. Now, at least in the Western world, human life is no longer so fragile. However, few new antibiotics have been developed since the 1960s. In the 1940s, Selman Waksman took advantage of the millions of years bacteria have spent fighting each other and developed a successful method to systematically check bacterial strains for antibiotics, but soon new compounds were scarcely found. This would be less problematic if the rapid life cycle of bacteria didn’t allow it to develop resistance against existing drugs. ‘Superbugs’ like methicilin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and other hospital-borne pathogens are becoming a real threat. The overuse and misuse of antibiotics, which increase the likelihood of drug-resistant bacteria, is getting worse. Almost more worrying, low profit margins make antibiotic development unappealing to pharmaceutical companies.

Lifting the spirits of even the most pessimistic is the recent discovery of the antibiotic ‘teixobactin’ found with the help of the ‘iChip’. In this project lead by Kim Lewis at Northeastern University in Boston, the new antibiotic eliminates Staphylococcus aureus infections both on a Petri dish and in mice, without any resistance development. Why is this new drug being discovered now? Lewis’s team used a simple but innovative technology, the iChip, to culture types of bacteria not previously culturable. Only 1% of soil bacteria can survive in the lab environment of the Waksman method. With the iChip, this number rises to 50%. Cells are harvested from the soil and separated into the tiny compartments of the iChip. The device is then returned to the soil, and nutrients pass through semi-permeable membranes while the different bacteria remain separated.

Screening this new series of bacterial strains to see which would fight off Staphylococcus aureus, the team found Eleftheria terrae. Screening all the chemicals produced by the new bacteria, they found teixobactin. When in further tests, teixobactin neither resulted in resistance nor toxicity in mammalian cells, the team thought their finding was too good to be true. However, when they found it likely bound two lipids in the membrane of S. aureus, not present in mammalian cells, these properties began to make sense. When teixobactin is bound to it one of the lipids prevents the creation of new membrane while the other induces the destruction of it.

Because teixobactin binds the lipid directly, resistance development would happen differently than for other antibiotics. Penicillin, for example, gets its antibiotic properties by binding an enzyme involved in building the membrane. Small changes in this large enzyme can evolve to remove penicillin binding without changing the activity of the enzyme. Any change in these small lipids that would prevent teixobactin from binding is likely to also have wild functional consequences for the bacteria itself. This is probably why resistance to teixobactin has not been seen so far, not to mention that teixobactin binds two lipids simultaneously.

While all of this is promising, it is important to note that this is still early stages. Further tests of resistance and toxicity in humans will be necessary. While the initial data shows teixobactin is more effective at clearing MRSA than the current standard vancomycin, teixobactin is not likely to be in hospitals for at least another few years. The commercialization and FDA approval process can be long, and so far no human studies have even been mentioned. Additionally, teixobactin is only effective against bacteria with these specific lipids, called gram-positive bacteria, and there are many infections that are caused by gram-negative bacteria, toward which teixobactin is not effective. In this light, the most promising aspect of this study is the proof of concept of the iChip: even if teixobactin isn’t our answer, the iChip can be used to help screen the other 49% of bacteria that have previously been inaccessible to laboratory techniques, and hopefully this world without antibiotics will remain one we can’t even imagine.

References

(1) Original Article: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v517/n7535/full/nature14098.html

(2) Nature News Article: http://www.nature.com/news/promising-antibiotic-discovered-in-microbial-dark-matter-1.16675

(3) iChip: http://aem.asm.org/content/76/8/2445

This post slightly modified from part of an application for the

AAAS Mass Media Science & Engineering Fellows Program.

Ceci n’est pas une chaise: a story of the chair experience.

Arguably the most important thing I had to do this week was co-chair a platform. Not that blogging isn’t super important (and you know the people at my own talk, I’m sure were blown away) but in my and my co-chair’s hands was the success of 8 scientists talks and the audience experience that surrounds them.

I had never given a talk at BPS until yesterday, and felt woefully under-qualified to help others do this thing I had never done before myself. To top that off I kept hearing people say, ‘You’re not making any friends by going over time, either as a speaker or a chair.’ The errors just pile up. Rumors fly (‘Did you hear session XYZ has completely phase shifted?’). Everyone is angry. No one gets to ask questions. What if this happens to me?

Fortunately, after only previously knowing one other person to chair a BPS session, this time a handful of my friends were also chairing sessions! I think this is maybe related to the fact that the ‘theme’ of this year’s BPS is basically what I do, and therefore also up-regulated in my friendship circle.

Anyway, I was able to get some friendly advice from people who had chaired the day before me, which was comforting. I learned there would be an IT guy who would take care of both setting up computers and setting up the timer, which was a huge relief. There’s this green light that turns yellow at the twelve minute mark, as a warning for the red light of doom that’ll come at 15 minutes. It was also suggested I get a pad of paper to take notes and jot down question ideas, because it is the chairs responsibility to not only keep the session on time, but also pay attention to the science and have a question handy.

This quickly became the most terrifying aspect of chairing. Especially as I noticed in other sessions how often this extra chair-induced question lubricant was necessary. Furthermore, I am not usually that great at thinking of questions in talks, generally getting my brilliant ideas a few hours after they’re actually useful.

So when the time came, I was a bit riled up, but luckily my co-chair turned out to be a relatively senior guy who seemed to know what he was doing, and I relaxed quickly. According to a grad student witness, the best part of the whole session happened before it even started: my co-chair’s phone alarm accidentally went off with a jazzy little tune, and I instinctively did a little dance, apparently visible to the audience because they laughed.

The first few talks went pretty smoothly: things were pretty much on time, and I was able to think of good questions! Then somehow we started slipping minute by minute later off schedule. Maybe because the talks were pretty cool ( phosphorylation near drug binding sites, green and black tea polyphenol’s effect on amyloid-beta formation in alzheimers, finding ligands that increase the probability of a particular protein-protein interaction, etc.), and I was concentrating on question duties. I think by the time we hit the fourth speaker and I was introducing the speakers instead of my co-chair (as part of our splitting-of-duties agreement), we were starting a full 7 minutes late. Then we had some technical difficulties. One of the speakers had to reboot their computer so it would be able to connect to the projector! Utter disaster.

What do we do? Do we stop letting people ask questions? Should I be making wild hand gestures in conjunction with the lights? But all the speakers are being really great about being on time, it’s just me with the questions and transitions that has been a little off. The little green light is surprisingly misleading, as it only relates to the speaker’s internal timing, not to the overall fact that we had already started seven minutes late!

Luckily it didn’t really matter that much. We’re here to do science. The talks were good. The questions were good. We started encouraging people to keep their questions quick, and overlapped questions with next speaker setup a little bit more, and I think ultimately we ended on time, with my talk at the end. At the end of it all, I think it all wrapped up well. I even had someone come up to me and say ‘Nice job chairing,’ then I must have made a surprised face or something, cause they followed up with, ‘Oh yeah, and nice job on the talk, too!’

This post first published on the Biophysical

Society’s blog as part of the 2015 Annual Meeting.

The art of perusing the program guide.

The Biophysical Society Program Guide is a beast. Throughout the conference, we’re all flipping through it page by page in the back of talks, trying to figure out what is the best use of our time. Some even skip sessions so they can concentrate on studying the program. I’ve yet to find my own perfect zen to navigate this guy, but as this is now my fifth time attending this conference, I thought a buzz-feed-esque top five ways to peruse your program guide, might be in order:

1. The classic: pen and paper.

A tried and true method popular among veterans and rookies alike. Part of the appeal of this method is its flexibility: boxes for people you know, stars for that demi-god of your field, smiley faces for clever titles, underlines for things you’re interested in but are not at all related to anything you do, etc.

2. The techy: fancy PDF highlighting on your super cool tablet.

I tried this last year using an Evernote app on my tablet. I looked forward to having the flexibility of pen and paper, but without having to lug around this huge ridiculous book. Sadly, the PDF was so big it took a long time to load and a long time to save. One time I even lost all the amazing little pink bubbles I made around the Tuesday Posters I wanted to check out. Needless to say, I’m back to more traditional methods this year… It is possible that the BPS 360 App, has made this a new and amazing experience, but… I haven’t tried it…

3. The PDF: mobile, simple.

Download the PDF (47.8 MB). Look at it on your phone. Search for things on your phone. Write gmail drafts to yourself if you need to remember a poster number or room number.

4. The company line: Biophysical Society’s web-based program guide.

It’s here. I have been using it to search for specific things when I’m doing other things on my computer anyway, or if I am hankering for another dose of that awesome fake page turning sound.

5. The random walk: there’s a program guide?

Follow your friends/labmates/PI’s. If you lose them, wander aimlessly until you make new friends, happen into something interesting, or decide to check out the aquarium on your own.

This post first published on the Biophysical

Society’s blog as part of the 2015 Annual Meeting.