China virus and Washington science


Seattle and Pullman may seem far from the front lines in the battle against the emerging virus known as H7N9 in China.

But scientists in both Northwest cities are watching carefully and working hard to help in whatever global effort is mounted against this new virus, which has passed from birds to humans. At the time of this post, about 131 people had been infected – and those were confirmed by lab reports. Thirty-nine had died.

Below is a partial list of some of the Washington scientists and labs who have a connection to the global work. Some of them are following with interest because they work on flu viruses or vaccines, and others because they work in surveillance of animals. Birds are a reservoir for many flu viruses.

In following this story, with so many daily twists and turns, it is great to have a “how-to” guide, and Maryn McKenna created just that for Wired magazine. McKenna wrote the book, “Superbug” and has great advice. On May 9th, one of the nation’s leading epidemiologists, Michael Osterholm, argued in an opinion piece in the New York Times  that we should pay very close attention to this latest flu virus, as well as an emerging virus in the Middle East – known as a coronavirus.

“Some seem to think that public health officials pull a microbe “crisis du jour” out of their proverbial test tube when financing for infectious disease research and control programs appears to be drying up. They dismiss warnings about the latest bugs as “crying wolf.” This misimpression could be deadly,” he wrote.

Here are some of our Northwest virus investigators:

Katze Laboratory – University of Washington

Paul Allen School for Global and Animal Health – Washington State University

PATH – Seattle nonprofit, Scientist Kathy Neuzil

Infectious Disease Research Insitute (IDRI)

Working on vaccine against H5N1, but following H7N9 closely

Seattle Biomed, Alan Diercks and others

Collaborating with St. Jude’s Research Hospital in Memphis, studying

human immune response to H7N9










The ghost of Photo 51


When I left the theater after seeing the play, Photograph 51, there was a haunting image in my mind. I had just seen a woman of science ignored and ostracized and jilted. The lab equipment on the stage looked quaint and distant, but the relationships seemed much more familiar.

My fellow audience members that night were mostly men and women of modern science. At least one very young woman left the theater angry at how Rosalind Franklin was called “Rosie” by her coworkers.

Riyanka Ganguly is a junior at Newport High School in Bellevue and she knew there was discrimination against women. “I wasn’t surprised,” she explained in an interview. “But seeing it on stage and hearing them call her “Rosie” made me angry.” Ganguly is studying advanced placement biology and imagines herself as a future professional in life sciences.

Ganguly is participating in a Seattle organization called Young Women in Bio, and along with Women in Bio, they helped sponsor a panel discussion of the glass ceiling for women at the theater. Most people may already know that Rosalind Franklin was a scientist at Kings College in London who helped take a famous x-ray photograph of DNA. Her more-famous colleagues, James Watson and Francis Crick, won the Nobel prize for their publication about the structure of the  DNA molecule.

There is a rich combination of opinions and resources at the Public Broadcasting website here. Not everyone agrees about the nature of Franklin’s contribution. But the play gives us a lot to chew on. She is depicted as prickly and aloof and does not seem to enjoy or participate much in discussions with other scientists.

Two other Seattle scientists, Therese Seldon and Hannah Thomas, shared their impressions about the play. Therese and Hannah are co-chairs of the YWIB. Therese is also director of product development for Immunexpress, and holds a doctorate in biochemistry. She pointed out that one element of Franklin’s career is not related to gender at all. When she arrives at her new post at Kings College, expecting to be in charge of one task, they immediately tell her “no, you will actually be doing something else.”

Seldon laughed and said that experience was modern and accurate. Responsibilities shift rapidly in the research environment. “The way politics and bureaucracy enter into her science life is fairly common now,” Seldon said.

Thomas is pursuing a master’s degree in health sciences and is a freelance consultant on research administration.

She pointed out that while overt discrimination may be rare, there are more subtle ways that women still may feel the cards are stacked against them.  She also noticed that Franklin’s own reluctance to mingle and discuss with her colleagues may have kept her from insights that are the product of discussion itself.

Women may hold themselves back by feeling more reluctant to show any weakness or ask for help. Several media reports about Seattle’s atmosphere for women are contradictory. News in the past few weeks has said Seattle is one of the best places to be a female entrepreneur, while a different article said women in Seattle have a greater disparity in income with men than in other cities. In Seattle, women earn 73 cents for every dollar that a man earns.

For me, the ghost of Photograph 51 is that women may limit themselves. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.” In the play about Franklin we see some of that consent.

One woman told me of a colleague who did not feel any discrimination in Seattle science, but deliberately did not wear fingernail polish at work for fear of seeming feminine. That’s consenting to something.

Just one postscript to this exploration, the family of Frances Crick includes his son, Michael who lives in the Seattle area. Michael chose the 60th anniversary of the publication of the article about DNA to sell a letter his father wrote to him about the discovery. According to this news story,  a buyer paid more than $6 million for the letter. Some of the proceeds went to a museum in California.




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.