Originally posted at Ensia.

I had the opportunity to work through a piece I wrote for ComSciCon for publication with Ensia. Through their mentor program, I got guidance from environmental journalist, Hillary Rosner, as I worked through the story. The story is on disease-suppressive soil:

What is it about this soil that protects plants from devastating disease?

Figuring out why certain soils keep plant parasites at bay could be a boon for agriculture around the globe

Plants around the world are constantly under attack — often with big implications for humans. In the 1960s, millions of elm trees in Britain, France and the U.S. fell victim to Dutch elm disease, which clogs the vessels that carry life-giving water to the trees’ leaves. Starting in the late 1980s, Brazil’s thriving chocolate industry crumbled when witches’ broom disease devastated its cacao trees. Lately, banana growers have become increasingly concerned about Panama disease, which is spreading rapidly and threatening to wipe out their crops. The attackers, like many of the infectious agents that harm humans, are tiny but devastating fungi, bacteria and other microbial parasites.

Now, global change is giving these parasites an edge, helping spread deadly diseases around the globe. Desperate to find a way to fight back, some scientists have turned their attention to a special type of soil known as “disease-suppressive soil.” The plants that live in it seem to magically remain relatively free of disease, even if disease-causing parasites are present. These scientists hope to improve understanding of this phenomenon so they can use it to help make agriculture more sustainable. View Ensia homepage

Read the rest here!

ComSciCon-Triangle: DAY TWO

The second day of ComSciCon-Triangle was on Saturday, May 21 back in the Frontier at Research Triangle Park. For a summary of the first day of the workshop, feel free to read my post from last week.

My day started with picking up our keynote speaker, Joe Palca, and his intern, Maddie Sofia, to bring them to the workshop. Can’t say I ever expected to be driving an NPR science correspondent in my luxurious blue mini-van (or, as I like to call it, the suburban assault vehicle), but it was pretty cool to get to interact with them before the workshop started. You should definitely check out Maddie’s podcast, the Bench Warmers, to hear stories about what it’s like to be a graduate student in science.

The workshop itself started with more pop talks, of course. I never get bored of hearing the cool research that everyone is doing in the area, and it is fun to hear how they make their research accessible to a broad audience. Our first panel of the day was on developing your online brand and included Eleanor Spicer Rice, senior science editor of Verdant Word, Craig McClain, editor of Deep Sea News and Deputy Director of the Triangle Center of Evolutionary Medicine (which funded my fellowship this past semester!), Matt Shipman, public communications specialist at NC State Communications, and Jamie Vernon, editor-in-chief of American Scientist magazine. Evident from their titles, the panelists all come from different backgrounds within/including communication, but even with different backgrounds, you could hear common threads of advice from all of them. It was really interesting to hear them talk about the future of social media, with some predictions about what platforms may become really popular (Facebook Live?). Additionally, they had great advice about blogging (some specific pieces mentioned below). I think it’s easy to blog without a guiding mission (other than just writing), but they really emphasized thinking about the purpose behind a blog is. That’s something I would really like to think about moving forward.

Some specific advice and thoughts from the panelists:

  • There is intentional work you could do to build brand but there are serendipitous moments you should take advantage of. –Matt Shipman
  • What is the true part of yourself that you want to be outward-facing, and that is your online brand. Be yourself. –Matt Shipman
  • I felt like I was part of the public and scientific community so I blogged to increase trust in scientists –Eleanor Spicer Rice
  • You don’t have to be afraid to learn from the people doing what you love! –Eleanor Spicer Rice (regarding tweeting at people)
  • The brand of Deep Sea News is built on the fact that the contributors are scientists in the trenches of the research –Craig McClain
  • You need to blog with a mission just like you do science with a mission –Craig McClain
  • Find someone whose online brand you like, figure out why, and try to echo it –Craig McClain
  • Find a unique angle in your blog posts. Find your signal in all the noise that’s already out there. –Jamie Vernon

Following more pop talks, our second panel started, focusing on science communication outlets in North Carolina. Our panelists were Mary-Russell Roberson, a science writer, Joshua Hall, Director of Science Outreach and UNC PREP at UNC, Kate Maddalena, Assistant Professor of Professional Writing and Technical Communication at UNC Wilmington, and Kathryn Pietrosimone, a medical/regulatory writer on clinical trials at the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. Opportunities ranged pitching posts to existing blogs to local outreach events (like being an ambassador for DNA Day, organized by Joshua Hall!). During the question and answer session, there was also a debate about the role of academic journal articles and whether or not the current journal model needs a rethink. Folks brought up the fact that articles are often hard to follow if they are not from your field, and others pointed out the benefit of jargon, enabling colleagues to interact and communicate with each other more effectively. During a conversation about how to inform a broader audience about current science more readily (e.g. including lay summaries), I thought about how the Genes to Genomes blog does a good job addressing this with blog posts written for a broad biological audience on recent studies in Genetics and G3. I’m glad I was able to be involved with that blog last year!

Some final pieces of advice from this panel:

  • Be a scientist, but be a communicating scientist. –Kate Maddalena
  • Memorizing facts is not science. Students need to DO science to learn it. –Mary-Russell Roberson
  • Education needs to get students thinking critically to avoid students being bored by science. –Joshua Hall
  • You wouldn’t start a magazine if you wanted to write a magazine article. Try writing a post and pitching it to a blog –Kate Maddalena

The day finished with a closing keynote address from Joe Palca. It was hard not to get too distracted during my introduction of him when I saw in the corner of my eye that I was becoming a the target of a selfie. Best souvenir from ComSciCon?

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Joe has been at NPR since 1992, and his main focus has been on “Joe’s Big Idea” which produces segments on the stories behind scientists and their innovations.He spoke about how the integration of science in the news may be more likely to interest the folks who usually find science boring. Like all of the participants, Joe comes from a science background, with a PhD in psychology from UC Santa Cruz. His career path, like many of the other participants, was somewhat serendipitous, taking opportunities in local television, Nature, and Science before ending up at NPR. His story further emphasizes how important it is to seize opportunities fearlessly.

Some of his other thoughts:

  • Find the people who are getting paid for what you like, see what they’re doing and try to copy it
  • I’m doing what journalists think is a good job on science communication, but what matters is what the public thinks
  • Say yes to every opportunity, you don’t know what will come of it.
  • Never apologize for being interested in science. Approach every story like it’s the most amazing thing in the world
  • How can scientist better communicate science? 1. Show up. 2. Communication is not 1-way

Following the keynote, the workshop concluded with a happy hour, complete with ComSciCon-Triangle pint glasses! I think this was a great addition to the workshop, enabling participants to interact with each other during a less structured time. The unstructured time even allowed for a round of informal pop talks on the science outreach opportunities participants organize to encourage people to work together on similar projects! I think the overall workshop was a success, in large part because of fantastic panelists and engaged participants. I’m excited to see what the future for ComSciCon-Triangle holds, and to continue to develop relationships with the great people I met this weekend!




ComSciCon-Triangle 2016-DAY ONE

ComSciCon has returned to the Research Triangle! I’m excited to be able to return to the local workshop as an organizer this year, working with a great group of previous ComSciCon participants eager to give more graduate students the experience.’

I wrote about the first ComSciCon-Triangle last year, but briefly, ComSciCon is a science communication workshop organized by graduate students for graduate students. It started as a national workshop held at Harvard each year, but over the last few years, regional versions of the workshop have popped up to give more graduate students the opportunity to learn more about science communication.


The first day of this year’s workshop was yesterday, Saturday, May 14 at the Frontier in Research Triangle Park. The day started with a panel on communicating science through your career. Panelists included Kara Manke, a founding organizer of the national ComSciCon workshop who is now a science writer at Duke, Mark Derewicz, communications manager at the UNC School of Medicine, Corey Davis, an applied climatologist at NC State, and Holly Meninger, the Director of Public Science for the College of Science at NC State. What I loved about this panel is that participants were able to learn that there is no one right way of getting into science communication, as all of the participants had distinct career paths and experiences with science communication. Also of note was how almost all of the career paths of the panelists were not what they had originally intended. Mark got a degree in education and taught for a few years before getting into writing, and Holly’s career took a turn after the emergence of the 17 year cicada put her at the forefront of the topic’s extension and communication efforts.

A few pieces of advice that stuck out from this panel:

  • Corey Davis-As a scientist, you can get really pumped about something and lose sight on what the public would be interested in
  • Holly Meninger-There’s always room to learn, grow, and learn what your passions are
  • Kara Manke-You don’t want to be teaching [in a written piece]. You need to be telling the story.
  • Mark Derewicz-It’s easy to love science because it’s a field that is so deep and rich

Abby Olena, a postdoc at Duke Science and Society, and Karl Bates, Director of Research Communications at Duke Office of News and Communications led the second session of the day on writing/editing fundamentals. They started by running through general things to keep in mind when writing for a public audience and ran through examples of phrases that are used very often in academic writing but should be avoided in popular writing. Karl even referred to the word “elucidate” as the “E” word, saying that the word is only used on college campuses and urged us not to use it in science communication efforts. Other tips included using metaphors to connect scientific ideas to something your reader may already know. Additionally, Karl suggested keeping someone specific in mind as your target reader: “You have to write for somebody… I write for an 8th grade girl who is interested in science but is on the cusp of leaving it.” They finished by showing a clip from Avengers in which a scientist explains the powers of Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch to Captain America, first using lots of scientific jargon, then boiling it down the point to five words.

Abby and Karl then had the attendees actively participating by challenging them to come up with a 5-word title for the written piece that they will prepare for the second day of the conference. Attendees learned that they have to get the punchline quickly, grabbing readers with a short, catchy title. Then, Abby and Karl asked attendees to write an attention-grabbing tweet for their piece. I think these exercises were really helpful for attendees as they begin to prepare this written piece, but I also think these exercises are helpful for any scientist who would like to communicate their science to a broad audience. They force you to think about what the punchline is, and how to get it across in a simple yet attention-grabbing way.

The second day of the conference will be Saturday, May 21. Attendees will have prepared a piece of writing on a topic of their choice within science, and they will have the opportunity to workshop it with experts that will be joining us. Additionally, we have two more great panels on building your online brand and getting to know science communication outlets in North Carolina. I’m looking forward to seeing how everything goes!


The Dreaded Oral Exam

When I was looking at graduate programs three years ago as a prospective student, I spent a good amount of time scouring each department’s website to learn all I could about what it would be like to be a student in each program: who are the faculty members? what type of research is going on there? what requirements do graduate students have to fulfill? I realized pretty quickly that no matter what program I went to, I could not escape the requirement of the dreaded comprehensive exam. Then, it seemed like something far off, and I shoved it in the back of my brain for later. It’s hard to believe that what was so far off then is in the past now!


In the Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology program at UNC-Chapel Hill, second-year students are required to take an oral comprehensive exam. Students pick four topics within biology that generally pertain to their research interests that serve as a basis for questions that are fair game for committee members to ask. My topics were population ecology, population genetics, disease ecology and fungal taxonomy.

Other than that basic format, I learned that oral exam experiences vary immensely from student to student. Some students study for a whole semester, others only for a few days. Some exams last an hour and a half, and others may go for 3 or more hours. I can only speak to my experience, but graduate students should understand that everyone’s experience is different.

I took the advice of older students and explicitly asked my committee members for ideas on material to study. Some suggestions were very specific, pointing me to specific papers and texts; others were a little broader, focusing on concepts that I should study and be comfortable discussing. I found the latter a little overwhelming, as I didn’t know where to start and end. Should I just know the foundational work on certain concepts or should I know recent studies focused on them too? I decided to start with texts to make sure I understood the framework of certain ideas. I also tried to make a point to stay on top of recent papers in my field in case questions focused on current work (I wasn’t asked any explicit questions on current work, but super helpful habit to get into!).

The exam itself, was, of course, terrifying at first. I spent the morning before my afternoon exam desperately trying to distract myself from studying. I treated myself to coffee from my favorite shop in town, and talked the ear off of anyone who was willing to listen to me to keep the exam out of my head. When I finally got into the exam, it turned out to be a bit more like a conversation than I expected. I took my time to answer the first few questions, even if they were basic, because I didn’t want to stumble. As the exam progressed, there were questions I knew really well, and there were some that I was not as comfortable with (for example, do you know what the word parasexual means? I sure didn’t when I was asked a question that involved it.). I learned though that it is more a test of if you can think scientifically, and not knowing a word or two is okay!

In the end, there were certainly concepts I studied that I will likely not think about any time in the near future, but the exam made me more confident in my understanding of the field. Additionally, by refreshing my understanding of the basics, I have been able to more clearly explain ecological concepts to an undergraduate I work with.

A few tips for beginning graduate students preparing for a comprehensive exam:
1. Ask questions! Ask older graduate students what their exam was like and how they prepared. Ask your committee members for advice on what material to study.
2. If you can plan it correctly, don’t study the day before the exam.  I didn’t listen when I was given this advice, and I didn’t gain much from last minute studying except perhaps a even more anxiety. Give yourself the day to relax!
3. It’s okay to take a minute after a question is asked to think, but there is also value to thinking out loud once you have collected your thoughts. Your committee members are then able to see what your thought process is.
4. Think about how the material you have to study, so in my case, the four topics I had chosen, relates to your research. By question 2 of my exam, I had to talk about population ecology concepts in the context of my research, so don’t limit yourself to just studying from the textbooks.
5. Practice! I really think simply practicing answering questions aloud and with a chalkboard can really help you understand what the actual exam might be like. Ideally, practice with a graduate student who has taken the exam.


On Critical Thinking


When was the last time you thought about critical thinking? I know as a graduate student, I strive to think critically about my work and that of others, but I don’t often take the time to think about what “critical thinking” actually means. Thinking about the qualities of critical thinking is how Phil Edwards, an instructional consultant at the UNC Center for Faculty Excellence, started a teaching workshop sponsored by the UNC Geography Department that I was able to attend last week.

We started by breaking down the term “critical thinking,” with Phil asking participants of the workshop what qualities we could identify in the performance of a student thinking critically. Answers included contextual awareness, the ability to give support and counter-arguments for a stance, and the ability to identify assumptions in a given argument. Phil finished this exercise by listing the four things that happen when we think critically as defined by Stephen Brookfield in his 2012 book Teaching for Critical Thinking: Tools and Techniques to Help Students Question Their Assumptions:

  1. Hunting assumptions
  2. Checking assumptions
  3. Seeing things from different viewpoints
  4. Taking informed action

With our ideas pretty in line with those put forth by Brookfield, we were then asked to give examples from courses of how students demonstrate abilities to think critically. I was really impressed with the ideas of my peers and how they have challenged their students to do more than just memorize facts. Some had their students read current news from different outlets to look for differences in perspectives on the same topic. Others had taught their students analytical tools throughout a course and assigned a final project in which they had to apply those tools to a question of interest.

Phil proceeded to show us a figure of a model of how scientific knowledge is produced, circulated, and applied. The full model contained the entities doing each activity…for example, academics producing knowledge, and educators circulating knowledge. He then presented us with the same model, except he had pulled all of the entities off the model, and instead put them in a word bank. After having us discuss where in the model we thought each entity belonged, Phil demonstrated the quality of conversation and learning that can accompany such an activity. Instead of memorizing where all the players belonged, we came up with our own assignments and more importantly, reasoning behind them. Of course, we want students to understand terms correctly, but I think exercises such as this challenge students to provide their own thoughts and support for a concept.

We ended the workshop by working through ideas of our own. Phil gave us a list of teaching methods that could help students think critically, such as a categorizing grid or a concept map, and gave us time to talk through our ideas with those around us. He did urge us to not let a fascination of an innovative teaching tool or method make us lose sight of the purpose of these tools–to have our students come to a comprehensive understanding of the material. With that in mind, I tried to think about what methods might work to teach about population growth, a topic I had guest lectured on in an ecology and evolution course last semester. I think a great way to end a topic like this within a course that gives an overview of some of the many topics within ecology could be with a model like the one above. Students could take into consideration how different things like predation, competition, or nutrient availability might affect population growth. Of course, I didn’t come up with a whole lesson plan in the final 15 minutes of this workshop, but I am excited to continue developing methods to get students thinking critically about ecology.

Further Reading:

Brookfield, Stephen D. Teaching for Critical Thinking: Tools and Techniques to Help Students Question Their Assumptions. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2012.


Final Genes to Genomes Post: Clarity Within the Complexity of Human Breast Cancer

Happy New Year!

Check out my final post as a GSA science writing intern on a recent study on the genetics of breast cancer. I have really enjoyed my time as an intern with GSA, and I hope to use the writing skills that I have developed to write more posts of my own here, so look out for them soon!

Two groups of master regulators and human breast cancer. By Dr. Rob Knight