Hair-having animals and words

Photo courtesy of Burke Museum. Prehistoric sloth lived in ancient Puget Sound region.

What does a rowdy crowd of college students in a bar have to do with the science of science communication?

Everything. Rowdy people trying to share discoveries are just people. People want stories and narratives. People need things translated for them into words they know, rather than the jargon we all accumulate.

“I study tiny things that are man and woman parts of an animal. The woman part talks and the man part listens,” is part of the contest-winning entry in the 1000 Word Challenge that happened March 15 in Seattle at the Burke Museum.

Yasmeen Hussain, a graduate student in biology, won the contest by translating her science into a strictly limited vocabulary of the most common 1,000 words of the English language. The challenge comes from the XKCD comic strip Up Goer Five, an attempt to label parts of a Saturn V NASA rocket using only the ten-hundred most common words.

More excerpts from the contest –

“If we understand what happened to these really old hair-having animals when stuff happened, we might be able to know stuff about the hair-having animals we have today.” From Jonathan Calede, who won for Style.

“I study noises made by big rocks that were built from hot stuff bursting out of the ground.” From Kate Allstadt, who won for Use of Language.

I am a hair-having animal myself. I have recently returned from a conference with smart hair-having animals talking about why we have an obesity epidemic, among other subjects. I volunteer explaining health literacy to some Americorps staff who work with patients in poverty. I sometimes study the words used in informed consent documents, to be sure patients will understand research before they consent to it. Words matter to me, because understanding matters to me.

Back to the bar. The wonderful people at the Seattle Forum on Science, Ethics and Policy are deep thinkers, and they did not choose to stage this contest lightly. They have a mission – which includes fostering public discussion. Discussion requires understanding.

But before we go deep, let’s get another laugh from Yasmeen’s winning entry.

“The tiny things have a conversation so that they can find each other and make babies. Some man things are better at listening than others. I want to know if the man things that are better at listening are also better at making babies.” (So do I, Yasmeen. Where did you find man things that listen?)

Here is some of Yasmeen’s pure science version of her work.  “I study the link between sperm chemotaxis and fertilization success. Eggs in animals such as sea urchins release chemicals that act as sperm attractants.”

Telling stories about science and our health demands creative use of language. You can try this for yourself, right now. Do you think you are good at explaining?

Give it a try

In a phone interview, Yasmeen said she was very frustrated at the beginning of the contest. She spent most of a day, walking around campus worrying about how to avoid “chemical” in her description. She finally settled on talks and listens as a way to explain cell signals. Her entry led a friend to say “I finally understand your research.”

She is in her second year of doctoral studies in biology and hopes that this experience will help her write better for all audiences in the future.

“I think this is another way to check myself and make sure I’m grounded when I’m explaining science to people,” she said.

Grounding professionals in how to talk to people becomes vitally important in health care. Several Seattle folks are part of studying how social media may support literacy around health.  Dana Lewis runs a weekly Twitter meetup. Wendy Sue Swanson is a local pediatrician who pioneers leveraging social media to improve patient care.

May all of you hair-having animals get clear words from people about your bad things in your body when you need them.


Social + citizen science meets my porch

The envelope arrived a few days ago. Happy to see that my data loggers from the North Carolina State project known as Your Wild Life arrived. They are tiny metal cylinders, but powerful in their own way. For those of you who don’t know much about citizen science, I’m a volunteer helping gather data for a lab run by Rob Dunn, a biologist and writer. I was lucky enough to meet Rob and hear a lecture from him during the NASW conference in 2012.

Meeting Rob and hearing him discuss the microbiomes of our homes made me sign up for one of his lab projects called “The Wild Life of our Homes.” Rob’s team is collecting data from about 1,000 houses across the United States. When I write “data” you should picture a giant Q-tip.

To help Rob’s project, I had to swipe this giant Q-tip across a few surfaces in my house. The microbes captured by these swabs will be analyzed in a laboratory in Colorado. (Wild Life has promised me photos of this lab.) Just to return to the data loggers – some of us who sampled our homes are gathering additional information on temperature and humidity. (That’s what the two loggers at my home will be doing.)

But my participation in Rob’s project is honestly just part of an evolving interest of mine in what some people call big data. For someone like myself, who writes mostly about medicine and health, big data might have seemed more the territory of computer scientists. But believe me, big data is a part of all of our health lives. Carl Zimmer has written eloquently about this in this story.

Collecting information on the thousands of microbes (and their genetic footprints) in my house may turn out – years from now – to yield some useful information about health. As you may know, there are already people studying the internal (gut) microbiomes of people for clues to how that data may be mined for useful patterns. One of these research groups is also using citizen volunteers – Ubiome.

You can follow both Wild Life and Ubiome on Twitter at @yourwild_life and @ubiome

In Seattle, I meet scientists who are working at this intersection all the time. The Institute for Systems Biology is just one example. ISB has held conferences about the microbiome for several years, and you can listen to archives from 2012 at that link.  On the campus of the University of Washington, there are dozens of people I know who use algorithms to analyze giant data sets related to human health. There is much more to come on all of this.

Theater of the polymers

How much science could our audience absorb from 10 experts with only 6 minutes each? That was the experiment in science communication that played out at the Neptune Theater, a run-down but beloved ex-movie-house near the University of Washington campus in Seattle.

More than 100 people showed up to hear “Short Takes on Plastic” in February as part of a partnership between the Burke Museum and Seattle Theater Group, related to the exhibit Plastics Unwrapped at the Burke. The experiment is about bringing research out into the community in new ways.

During the rapid-fire presentations – we heard about the project to build composting latrines out of water bottles (via melting) and then re-form them using 3D printers. “Think of it (printer) as a computer controlled hot glue gun,” said Matt Rogge, the ex-Peace Corp volunteer who dreamed up the bottles-into-latrines model that somehow reminds one of weapons-into-plowshares.

We heard about Agilyx, a Portland, OR, company that is turning 10 tons of plastic every day into oil. Yes, crude oil. (Plastic comes from oil in the first place, frequently.)

Kim Holmes, another Portland expert, explained that designing for the environment in the first place might reduce how much plastic we use and therefore how much we have to recycle or transform.

Other experts explained the pre-plastic lives of Victorians, and the sans-plastic life that a Burke staffer attempted for one month. “I carried a lot of glass jars around with me in my backpack,” explained Samantha Porter.

Chemical engineer AJ Boydston spends much of his research time trying to create “better” plastics that will biodegrade and will not persist in the environment for 450 years.

Ironically, for a communication experiment audience, it turns out that communication is a key ingredient in recycling. Jack Johnson said people on campus can’t seem to distinguish between the coffee-cup lids that are compostable and those that are recyclable. Johnson helped create a Garbology project on campus, where student volunteers sort and catalog campus garbage.

UW sends the mass equivalent of 667 elephants to the landfill every year. If the lid confusion were fixed, some of those metaphorical elephants could be saved. When an archive becomes available for Short Takes, we will post it here.