Small words – Town Hall talk for Ignite Seattle

Some people in science like to use big words.

You know what I’m talking about. Climatology, prehistoric, proteomics. Or phrases that tie us up in knots.

I’m a fan of small ordinary words. Words that all of us use every day. The great cartoonist Randall Munroe of xkcd created a cartoon about labeling the parts of a Saturn V rocket – using only the most common 1,000 words in English. Hint: upgoer is the best way to describe a rocket if you can’t use the word rocket.

His colleague, Theo Sanderson, thought this idea was so much fun that he created a text editor gizmo where you can try it for yourself – and immediately get the red pen if you accidentally use the wrong word. About 180,000 people have already used the upgoer gizmo and many people post their creations to Twitter using the hashtag #upgoverfive.

Because I am a huge fan of this idea of distilling your science into ordinary words, I volunteered to give a public talk about upgoer at Seattle Town Hall as part of the Ignite Seattle nonprofit project.  The video of that talk is above.

That audience laughed a lot about the examples I gave from a competition. You can read more about that competition at my earlier blog post – “Hair Having animals.”

But here are some thoughtful stories about science writing:

Using metaphors:

Write like a human:
American Association for the Advancement of Science advice
A scientist makes fun of scientist writing

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










Pipettes in lab giveaway

There are people in Seattle who organized a lab-supply giveaway, no kidding, just for the sake of getting those beakers and pipettes to a better home.

One small gesture, on one January afternoon, but it is emblematic of Seattle science. My scientist friends tell me this is not universal. When I interviewed Lee Hartwell, before he retired from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, he said, “this city is different.”

When I interviewed Clay Siegall from Seattle Genetics, he praised the science climate of Seattle. I’ve heard similar things from a dozen of the leaders in life sciences – that this region nourishes a culture (pardon the pun) where collaboration is prized.

I would never accuse Lee Hood, the founder of the Institute for Systems Biology, of lacking a competitive spirit. But he won the National Medal of Science recently from  President Barack Obama and Lee definitely has nourished a posse of colleagues and biotech spinoffs from his own work in systems biology.

Do you want other examples? What about the crowdfunding site – Microryza? They help scientists post “wish lists” for research funds.

What I hope to do at this blog is celebrate intersections and overlaps and shares and crowdfunding and seeding and inspiration. Some of that inspiration may come from patients themselves and not researchers.

When I was reporting a story on malaria research, a source told me that the U.S. Army granted some research money for human clinical trials here because “we are known for having a willing public” that will sign up for such trials.

I’ve met some of those patients, and I’ve met many many scientists. I hope to bring you more stories from this Seattle science zone.