Ebola. Vaccines. Climate change. These familiar scientific terms are often cited in media reports and discussed in casual conversation, even if they are not well understood by non-scientists. Closing the gap between science awareness and science literacy is one goal of a new blog, Because Science, recently launched by Yale doctoral students Zuri Sullivan and Helen Beilinson.
“We were both interested in science writing and the idea of communicating science to the public,” says Sullivan, a first-year immunobiology student. The two teamed up with Ross Federman, another immunobiology student at Yale, and Vicky Koski-Karell of the University of Michigan to blog about science and translate new research to a lay audience.
“I want it to be a forum to explain topics I think are interesting in a non-science way,” says Beilinson.
Demystifying science: With their backgrounds in infectious disease and immunology, Sullivan and Beilinson have the knowledge and insight to write about complex topics such as the evolution of HIV and the intricacies of microbiota — the trillions of microorganisms that are present in and on our bodies. Drawing from research studies published in scientific journals, they use the blog to pose big questions and explore compelling issues in language that non-scientists can grasp.
Science terms such as “infectious disease” and “virus” are familiar to most people, the bloggers note, yet their precise meanings are less known. Another example is “gluten,” a popular word “that means a lot more to scientists than non-scientists,” says Beilinson. “We want to fill those gaps so that there is more of an appreciation for things we live with consistently but don’t necessarily appreciate.”
The Because Science bloggers also bring their technical know-how to their science writing. Unlike many professional health and science writers, Sullivan and Beilinson have worked in labs and conducted experiments first hand. “When we read a paper, we know what it’s like to do the experiments, the nuances, and the conclusions you can make from observations that people who don’t have formal science training might not be able to appreciate,” notes Sullivan.
A whimsical illustration of red blood cells by Vicky Koski-Karell.
Debunking myths and more: While popular science stories give us “news we can use,” too often key details are lost in translation, note the students. In a post titled “DNA: delicious,” Sullivan describes the results of a study that are not as helpful as they seem at first glance. Conducted by the Oklahoma State University Department of Agricultural Economics, the study found that more than 80% of Americans support “mandatory labels on foods containing DNA.” The problem with this finding, Sullivan points out, is that DNA is present in most of the foods we consume. The study results expose a fundamental misunderstanding of what DNA actually is (as opposed to GMOs — genetically modified organisms). As Sullivan stated in her post, mandatory DNA labeling would not only “be wasteful, but it would also be meaningless.”
In another blog post, Federman delves into research that purportedly links red meat to cancer. While the study did not prove a causal relationship, at least one popular interpretation of the research that appeared in the media did. Federman’s post delved into the details of the study to point out that not only was it done in mice — therefore not necessarily applicable to people — but the study actually found an association between red meat and inflammation, which raises the risk of cancer but does not cause it.
The posts on DNA and cancer/red meat underscore some key problems with popular science writing that Because Science seeks to address. “One problem is a lack of nuance,” says Sullivan. “Experiments in the lab are done in a very controlled manner. Even though findings have important downstream implications, very rarely is it shown that A directly and always causes B.”
Beilinson concurs. “There’s a lot of exaggeration in the media, too, and jumping to conclusions,” she notes. “Then you read the actual paper and it’s a lot less terrifying.” By pointing out the flaws in study assumptions or the subtleties of research, the blog aims to defuse hype while raising science literacy.
Celebrating all things science: Humor is another aspect of Because Science. Contributor Koski-Karell uses her graphic skills to turn slides into whimsical works of art — turning an image of cytoplasm, for example, into a scary mustached face, or a collection of red blood cells into smiley faces. It’s part of the bloggers’ effort to demonstrate that science is more than dry data and lab coats. With the graphics and titles like “Monsters of med school,” they show that science “can be cool and funny,” says Sullivan.
The bloggers are also actively recruiting writers from other disciplines and schools to explore more diverse subject matter. They would like to bridge gaps between disciplines such as biology and physics. “We don’t really hear each other’s departmental communications,” says Beilinson. “It would be cool to get writers from other departments to explain their work so that even we can understand it.”
Though Sullivan and Beilinson recognize that Because Science is currently read mostly by their peers and family members, they would like to attract and retain a broader audience. They hope that expanding of the blog into more diverse areas, while also adding medical illustrations and video as the bloggers plan to do, will draw more readers to the blog, and ultimately to science. Both have reached out to their undergraduate advisers to spread the word among budding scientists who might otherwise lose their interest in the subject while taking the more tedious intro college courses. “Getting undergrads involved is a great step to getting more people involved in science,” says Beilinson.