Next level science communication: humanize, normalize, illuminate

Easton White, UC Davis PhD student, population biology

Typically, Science Communication seminars or workshops spend a lot of time convincing participants why science communication is important. I am beyond this point. And, furthermore, I think we as a scientific community are beyond this point. We know the importance of science communication for science literacy, scientific funding, and science policy. Scientists will either get on board or be left behind.

How do we move to the next level? I think small, focused workshops are one potential avenue. Recently, I attended a science communication workshop at the University of California, Davis. The workshop was hosted by two groups: The People’s Science and Science Says. Stephanie Fine Sasse, the Executive Director of The People’s Science, led the event. Stephanie and the workshop organizers executed a great workshop on several dimensions.

First, the workshop was limited to 30 people and the room was small, which made the time more intimate and focused. Second, organizers asked participants to prepare a lay summary of a recent paper prior to the workshop. This facilitated discussions about our summaries during the workshop. Third, the workshop was three hours in length, providing enough time to dive into specific issues. Lastly, Stephanie did a great job of discussing specific tactics scientists can implement moving forward. She illustrated her points through a number of good examples and participant exercises.

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Moving beyond the workshop setup, what did participants actually learn? To begin the workshop, Stephanie presented a brief history of science literacy and science communication. This set the stage for current challenges science communicators face. She argued that now scientists have to reach out to the public and science itself has to be more connected to society. She also pointed to solutions which work to engage the public in science, like citizen science projects. There were three major takeaways I took from Stephanie’s presentation.

1) We (scientists) need to humanize scientific research.

Here, Stephanie stressed the importance of including the scientist, and their story, when communicating science. This builds trust between the science and the public. It is important for people to understand scientists are people too, not just some expert in an ivory tower. Further, telling a scientist’s story creates a more interesting story for the public.

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2) We need to normalize science communication.

A lot of scientists worry about participating in science communication. They fear that colleagues may perceive them in a negative light. It will be important to create a culture within science where science communication is not only typical, but also incentivized. Tangible incentives for science communication would allow researchers more time to communicate their science. For instance, science communication could be part of a broader impacts statement in a grant or during the tenure process.

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3) We need to illuminate the scientific process.

Yes, it is important to explain the latest and coolest scientific findings to the public. However, it is equally important—if not more so—to discuss the scientific process itself. Again, the storytelling of science is important. Describing the process that led to the discovery has at least two benefits. First, describing the process helps people understand how science works. For instance, describing the way a drug is brought into development would hopefully make people feel more at ease about the process. In addition, learning about the process of science enables people to think critically themselves.

What practical, tangible steps can scientists take? First, scientists must carve out time for science communication. As we all know too well, if you do not plan something in your schedule, you will never get to it. Once an individual wants to engage in science communication, there are a number of questions one should ask themselves:

-What audience do you want to reach? This will determine the appropriate medium for communicating science.

-Are there groups that you can collaborate with to communicate your science? A number of universities now have groups focused on science communication, either informally through clubs or through a media communications department.

After answering these questions, the next step would be to develop the material for presentation.

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Moving forward it will be important to offer small and focused workshops. A small group enables a richer dialogue between participants and instructors. Focused workshops are important to get into the nitty gritty details of how to actually engage with science communication. Lastly, a small and focused workshop allows participants to test their ideas on a willing audience. The workshop can serve as a laboratory for experiments with new analogies, active learning exercises, or pieces of writing.

You can find more information here:

http://thepeoplesscience.org/#home

https://davissciencesays.com

8 bee experts weigh in on pollinator decline & Cheerios’ bid to save them

We’ve been hearing a lot about declining bee populations. As scientists, we’re concerned about our pollinator friends. So we interviewed 8 entomologists, bee-keepers, and other pollinator experts to cut through the buzz about bees.

The Gist

Honeybees are okay, but wild pollinators are at risk. The biggest threat is habitat loss, but climate change, insecticides, and diseases also spell trouble. Certain agricultural practices can help, and we can all do our part by planting flowers instead of keeping grassy lawns and encouraging city planners to do the same. If you got one of those wildflower packages from Cheerios, consider ditching those seeds for native ones instead.

To bee or not to bee

We asked the experts whether or not bees are in trouble. The overwhelming response: WHICH bees?

Honey bees are commercially managed by beekeepers and trucked around to pollinate crops from almonds to zucchinis. The “beepocalypse” first gained attention in 2006 when honey bees in the US were dropping like flies, especially during winter months. The varroa destructor, a nasty mite, is likely the main perpetrator along with diseases it spreads. Insecticides and fungicides could also factor in, but it’s unclear how big of a role they actually play in the field.  

But honey bees are not even native to the US, and they’re managed like livestock. So bees died, beekeepers upped their numbers, and now honey bee populations are stable, maybe even increasing. But honey bees aren’t the only bees – far from it – and they aren’t the only insects that pollinate food crops and other plants, which whole ecosystems depend on. What’s worse, when beekeepers cart honeybees across the nation, they carry parasites and pathogens that can spread to wild populations.

Some wild bees ARE at risk, particularly solitary bees, some species of bumble bees, and other non-bee pollinators. The rusty-patch bumble bee is considered an endangered species in the US, and many other species are on the red list in Europe. While there are over 20,000 species of bees in the world and 4,000 in the US alone, we only have population data on a few. More research (and more funding) could identify at-risk pollinators.

People vs Pollinators

Pollinators face many perils, but most experts agree food and habitat loss dominate. For pollinators, food means flowers/plants and habitats mean undisturbed places for nests/hives/colonies/larvae. We actually compete with bees for homes and food. If a prairie is plowed to plant acres upon acres of soybeans, pollinators in that field lose their livelihood. If a forest is cleared for a housing development or a golf course, the flowers wild bees depend on go too. If you weed and mow your own yard, you too are contributing to pollinator decline.

While we could probably live without golf courses and lawns, we do need homes and food. Planning developments, gardens, and farms with pollinators in mind can make a big difference. That means leaving ditches, parks, lots, and lawns in their natural weedy state whenever possible. If the weeds really must be cleared, plant flowers in their place instead of grass– Preferably local flowers that vary in shape and color and flower at different times.

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Screenshot from httpp://www.cheerios.com/bringbackthebees

Apiaries in Agriculture

Farmers have an extra challenge. They need to ensure their crops have ample room to grow and don’t get choked out by competing plants, but plowing or spraying stubborn weeds destroys habitats. Pollinator habitats can be managed within and around farms by planting cover crops, practicing crop rotations, or managing less-fertile land as refuges for insects. Technologies that help increase yield per acre may also help prevent more prairies, forests, or wetlands from being converted into farms.

Insecticides that stop hungry bugs from mowing down crops can also mean bad news for pollinators. It’s tough to study the specific role of insecticides, because any given bee might be exposed to multiple compounds at varying levels. These factors interact with other threats like poor nutrition and disease, so it’s nearly impossible to identify a single, direct cause.

The bottom line: anything designed to kill insects — from commercial insecticides to organic alternatives to home remedies — certainly can’t help. On the other hand, banning specific pesticides may not be the best approach. Farmers have to control pests somehow, and alternatives might not prove any friendlier to pollinators or farmworkers.

Scientists are working to develop pest control methods that are more specific, and plants that produce their own defenses, so sprays aren’t necessary. In the meantime, integrative pest management approaches that “balance the good guys against the bad guys” can help protect beneficial insects like bees.

The end all bee all

In short, there are many threats to pollinators, and we don’t really have a good understanding of exactly which bugs are threatened. Such a multifaceted problem calls for a multifaceted solution, and no silver bullet is going to do the trick. But we know that habitat loss is a big concern, and we can all help by remembering pollinators when we make land-management choices. That’s why Cheerios distributed 1.5 billion wildflower seeds for free. The idea is awesome, but experts worry the execution is not.

Trouble is, no pack of wildflower seeds can possibly be native to every region in the United States. While Cheerios did their homework to ensure that none of the seeds spawn from known invasive species, scientists are still concerned. Some of the flowers included are considered noxious weeds and could prove problematic for farmers. These foreign flowers may also compete for pollination with native species, giving the invaders an edge, and potentially harming pollinators with a specific taste for native plants.

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All our experts agreed that planting wildflowers is a great idea, but you should really try to plant flowers native to your home region. The Xerces society can be very helpful in that department, as can the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and the Missouri Botanical Garden Plant Finder.

That said, General Mills has really done some great things to help pollinators. As have other corporations including Bayer, Haagen-Daz, Monsanto, and more. Their efforts should be applauded.

Want to know more?

-Expert Q & A

-Reader-friendly & expert-recommended sources

Scientific literature backing these claims

A BIG THANK YOU to these great eight bee buffs:

 

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Dalton Ludwick is a doctoral candidate in Plant, Insect and Microbial Sciences at the University of Missouri. His research focuses on the management of western corn rootworm, a serious pest of corn, with Bt proteins.

Rea Manderino is a PhD student at SUNY – College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, NY.  Her research has focused on the impact of gypsy moth presence in North America, and this has included examining the far-reaching influences of non-native organisms in our native ecosystems. Rea is also co-moderator of ‘Relax, I’m an Entomologist’ on Facebook.

Val Giddings is a geneticist, an outdoor enthusiast, an amateur beekeeper, and a policy nerd. Like some folks have a wine cellar with varieties from around the world, Val has a honey cellar.

Dr Manu Saunders is an ecologist based at the University of New England, Australia. Her research focuses on beneficial insects that provide ecosystem services in crop systems, particularly pollinators and natural enemies of pest insects. She writes about pollinators, ecology and agriculture at https://ecologyisnotadirtyword.com/.

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Jerry Hayes is the Honey Bee Health lead for Monsanto’s newly formed BioDirect business unit.  Before joining Monsanto he was the Chief of the Apiary Section for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. In that role he was responsible for the regulatory health of the 350,000 colonies in the State of Florida, a State highly dependent on Honey Bee pollination for agricultural success.  For the past 30 years Jerry has written a monthly column in the American Bee Journal called The Classroom and a book by the same name.  Jerry is a founding member of the Colony Collapse Working Group, a science advisory board member for Project Apis mellifera (PAm) , the Bee Informed Partnership, and he serves on the Steering Committee of the Honey Bee Health Coalition.  He has been author and co-author on multiple research papers that delve into how to understand and preserve honey bee health. In Jerry’s 35 plus years in the Apiculture Industry his overarching desire has been to create sustainable honey bee management practices while partnering with other segments of agriculture.  The cornerstone of his career has been to educate others that honey bees are the key pollinators and the critical role they play in agriculture; while in parallel encouraging the development of multi dimensional landscapes for the benefit of honey bees and all pollinators.

Rachael E. Bonoan is a Ph.D. Candidate who studies honey bee nutritional ecology in the Starks Lab at Tufts University. She is interested in how seasonal changes in the distribution and abundance of flowers (i.e. honey bee food!) affect honey bee health and behavior. Rachael is also the President of the Boston Area Beekeepers Association and enjoys communicating her research and the importance of pollinator health to scientists, beekeepers, garden clubs, and the general public. More info on bees via Rachael’s website www.rachaelebonoan.com or twitter @RachaelEBee

Kelsey Graham is a pollinator conservation specialist. Her graduate work has focused on invasive species and their impact on native pollinators and plants. She has used an interdisciplinary approach to provide a comprehensive assessment of an invasive species, the European wool-carder bee (Anthidium manicatum), within their invaded ecosystem. She will be defending her PhD in April 2017, and beginning a post-doctoral research position at Michigan State University in Dr. Rufus Isaacs lab, where she will study how landscape features impact the local bee community.

Dr. Maj Rundlöf is an ecologist and environmental scientist at Lund University in Sweden, currently visiting UC Davis as an international career grant fellow to work with bumble bees in Neal Williams lab. Her most recent research focuses on impacts of land use change and pesticides, particularly the disputed neonicotinoids, on bees and the pollination services they provide to crops and wild plants. A large part of her research is in the interface between conservation biology and agricultural production, aiming at exploring how we can support biodiversity while also facilitating food production. She has, for example, studied how farming practices influence plants, butterflies, bumble bees and birds as well as how created habitats influence crop yields and ecosystem services like pollination and biological control by pest’s natural enemies. The bumble bee, one of these pollinating insects, is her favorite study organism.

 

About the Author: Jenna E Gallegos is a 5th year plant biology PhD student at the University of California, Davis. Science Says is a science communication and outreach group composed of UC Davis graduate students and postdocs.

 

Science Distilled: March Preview

This past Wednesday, March 15 we heard from Dr. Lauren Camp of UC Davis Entomology & Nematology and Hung Doan of UC Davis Plant Pathology. They both spoke about parasite diversity, the many different hosts parasites attack, and the way parasites can hide. Here’s a quick interview for you to meet the people behind the science!

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What inspired you to study science?

Hung: Curiosity. As a child I was always curious about how things work. At first I wanted to study medicine, but it turned out I was afraid of blood, and didn’t like harming rats for research. Plants don’t get hurt so I realized I could enjoy research on plants.

Lauren: When I was a kid I realized it was something that I liked. It was also something that I was good at. I would look at my hair, fingers, and toys under a microscope. And my dad is a scientist. While it wasn’t a path he pushed me toward, my siblings and I would go to the lab with him during the summers. I started with an interest in human research and medicine, then realized I didn’t quite fit in with the premed crowd. I took an invertebrate biology class and was so excited by it. You look at animals and think they are all just fuzzy things with spines- but there is so much interesting variation in animals beyond that. And then I started to study parasites and I was done. They were so fascinating evolutionarily, in terms of what they can do and how common they are.

Do you have any affection for your study organism?

Lauren: It’s hard to have affection for something that is harming people and animals, and plants that we depend on for food. My study organism is a parasite that does relatively little to hurt raccoons, but can get into the brains of humans. I do find them fascinating though. A parasitologist once told me, saying you like parasites is kind of inappropriate, because they are harming people all over the world. I do experience excitement when talking to other people about it.

Hung: The pathogens I study just harm plants. Whether I see it in the field or in the lab, I get excited when I recognize the diseases. During my masters’ degree I worked with a plant disease called Fusarium, which lives in the soil indefinitely. When a farmer tells you they spotted it in the field, it’s exciting. Because you can then breed resistance to the disease, and the crops can overcome the disease. I definitely have pictures of Fusarium around- it’s kind of my research baby.

When someone approaches you as a scientific expert, how do you react?

Hung: When you speak with people who don’t have training in science, so many things can surprise them. Just the idea that plants can get disease can be surprising. I grew up in San Jose, where there is lots of biotech, but a disconnect in the way people don’t really know where their food comes from. Plenty of people I know studied a little biology in school, but sort of missed the big picture. It’s also good to have an outlet of friends and family where you don’t have to talk about science all the time.

Lauren: My dad has a PhD, and also studies parasites. So I didn’t have to be the scientist of the family- my dad already had that covered. And it often seemed like he knew about everything, how things work in the world. And that can be intimidating to hear! Now that I have my PhD as well, I’m taking that role a little more with my family. My grandfather and my mom have actually attended some of my formal science talks at meetings, and it helps me think about how I communicate my work. I make sure at the meeting that my mom can understand my science presentation, because she’s actually in the room. Among friends, if someone brings up raccoons I might talk about it. But we have lots of other interests in common- and I have non-scientist friends.

What do you like to do while you’re not doing science?

Hung: I have too many hobbies! I’m starting to scale them down. I enjoy mushroom foraging, hiking, fishing, painting. It varies by day, and I’m pretty spontaneous.

Lauren: I’m building my hobbies back up, after I had scaled them down to finish my PhD. I’m feeling motivated to start running again. I play D&D and love that. I’m reading a lot of books and listening to podcasts. Puzzles can be calming. I also really enjoy spending time talking with small groups of friends.

When people approach you as an expert due to your science background, how do you respond?

 Hung: I run a plant diagnostic lab, so this happens often with farmers. I start with a caveat that I don’t always know the answers. I can guess what the disease is, but usually have to get a sample into the lab to confirm it. Often, it’s not even a pathogen problem in plants, it’s some kind of non-biological stress from over-babying the plants. Overwatering and too much salt can look a lot like pathogens to the untrained eye. Sometimes we get plants from the bonsai industry, where a $10k plant comes in sick. 30 years of careful cultivation, and the plant looks sick because the grower has spoiled it! People can get very worried about their plants, and will text and call me for updates. I also have to be careful in how I state my conclusions – based on what I found in the lab, here is what I’m confident to tell you. But you are always free to get a second opinion. 100% certainty is rare in science.

Lauren: There’s a condition called “delusional parasitosis” in which people are convinced they have a parasite, despite all medical evidence. It’s hard to tell someone that they are  wrong about that. When I do outreach talks, sometimes people have strange ideas about parasites. I respond compassionately, but it’s important to be clear about what makes biological sense. Sometimes friends assume that all humans have parasites. We all have lots of bacteria living within us, but they are not parasites. They are “commensal”, meaning that the bacteria have no negative effect on us. Except when something really bad happens to your immune system, then the bacteria can overgrow and start to act like a pathogen,  like a parasite. But you can’t call these bacteria parasites of humans- because the vast majority of the time, they aren’t! We’re not riddled with worms or protozoans. There are parasites that are possible to get in the United States. But with sanitation and water filtration, we avoid most parasite threats. It’s more of a problem in other parts of the world.

Why is science communication important to you?

Hung: The general public needs to be aware that plants do get disease, and where their food comes from. It affects us personally, and affects politics. If people know that some areas are still under active research- then when it’s time to vote, people are more likely to really look into the issues, read about them, and come to a clear understanding. The plant disease clinic is a big outreach effort. We go to the farmers, to grower meetings. People need to know that science is not so complicated. Anyone can grasp a basic understanding of science! And if people realize that, they’ll be more supportive of research.

Lauren: We need people to understand that science isn’t so complicated. There are bits of science, some of the techniques, that are complex and difficult. But any scientist can talk to people about the basic ideas. I like to do outreach with a range of ages, from young kids up to adults. It’s personally fulfilling and lots of fun. I really enjoy how easy it is to gross people out with parasites! It’s funny to push those buttons just a little bit. I also like to break down the stereotypes, like the idea that someone who has a parasite infection is somehow “dirty”. Parasites are super common in the world. About half of ALL organisms are parasites. It’s also important that people realize when to be concerned about parasites. I also like just telling people about nematodes, which I study. Not all of those are parasites, but they are everywhere too.

Interview by Nicole Soltis of Science Says

Photography by Bobby Castagna of Sac Science Distilled

Science Distilled: HIV research recap

February’s Sac Science Distilled at Old Ironsides featured two HIV researchers from UC Davis: Dr. Lauren Hirao and Brenna Kiniry. You can learn a little more about them and their lives as scientists in our preview post here. Talking to Lauren and Brenna, they both have similar views of what it takes to communicate about hot topics like HIV. They find it important to talk to people as equals and understand where they are coming from. Without taking the time to build a background, it can be hard to bridge gaps in knowledge.

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The event kicked off with the scientists sharing some FAQ about their experiences in talking about science. On the whole, the public cares a lot about HIV/AIDS, but sometimes unclear information can lead to inaccurate beliefs. By sharing these preconceptions the speakers ensured the room, full of people from myriad backgrounds, could start the talk on the same page. They also made sure the audience understood the fundamentals of the virus and its global distribution before moving onto sharing research.

Brenna began by teaching the audience about how far treatment and education have come since the virus was first identified in the 1980s. The main concept here is the “cascade of care”. This means that for HIV-positive patients to lead healthy lives, it is essential for them to: be properly diagnosed, receive consultation and care, receive ongoing care, and have continued access to antiretroviral drugs. At any of these stages, patients can lose control of the infection and progress to AIDS. So, effective treatment must take a holistic view of the process; a great anti-HIV drug isn’t going to help much if the people who need it are not getting diagnosed or entering care programs. In fact, Brenna said it is estimated that 1 in 8 HIV-positive people are not aware of their infection. She talked about how important education is in improving that number, and how historical records of infections and mortality show that education really does have a tremendous impact on saving lives from this disease.

We learned about how a perfect cure—one that is safe, effective, and affordable—has not yet been achieved, but that 16 FDA trials are currently underway to test better and better treatments. There was a lot of excitement about how new developments with CRISPR technology could even lead to patients’ own immune cells being modified to help eradicate the virus from their bodies. It’s not going to be showing up in doctor’s offices tomorrow, but it is an exciting possibility.

After Brenna’s segment, the Powerhouse Science Center led us all in an activity to meet our neighbors and see firsthand how quickly an “infection” can travel through a crowd. While we were fortunate enough to have our “infection” be a cup of slightly alkaline water, the exercise still got all the 40-odd participants up, talking, and mixing our cups. Once everyone had figured out who got infected by the original 3 carriers (most people after only 3 exchanges!), Dr. Lauren Hirao took the stage to speak about HIV vaccines.

Lauren did her PhD research on vaccines, specifically ones containing DNA that could be active against HIV, and gave us an overview of the field. Since, “science education is better when it’s anthropomorphized,” she started out with some great cartoons to illustrate the normal immune response to an infection, and how that differs for HIV. She explained a lot of the different challenges, both in biology and in financing, that researchers like her face. Although a prominent HIV researcher claimed in 1984 he believed there would be a vaccine by 1986, Lauren told us about why that has not yet happened and why they have not lost hope.

Research has uncovered more and more complexity over the years, and each new discovery leads to more potential targets. While many of these targets deserve careful study, bringing a vaccine through trials can be prohibitively expensive. Combined with the fact HIV is a rapidly-evolving virus, making a good vaccine becomes quite difficult. It means you must consider the diversity of the target, its evasion from your immune system, and the opportunity your body has to create the right response to the vaccine. Many vaccine trials have taken place over the years, and Lauren told us about some of the more noteworthy ones. While many have had little impact on people’s infection rates in the real world, new ideas are being developed and studied constantly. One class of vaccines that seems to do well across a wide diversity of HIV varieties is broadly neutralizing antibodies. These, as well as other types of vaccines like the DNA ones Lauren studied, are showing promise for the future.

Lauren closed by telling us that there was recently another claim made about the time to an effective HIV vaccine. This time it was Bill Gates suggesting it could be achieved by 2030. While it will still take a tremendous amount of hard work, the discoveries and enthusiasm shared by our speakers made it seem like an important, achievable goal.

Mark your calendars for the next talks on March 15, when we’ll hear from two UCD researchers about the hidden world of parasites in plants and animals- and check out our new location at Streets Pub and Grub!

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About the author:

Eric Walters is a PhD student at the University of California in Davis. For more content from the UC Davis science communcation group “Science Says“, follow us on twitter @SciSays

Science Distilled: February Preview

Meet the Scientist, February 9 2017

We’d like you to get to know a bit about our Science Distilled speakers before the monthly talks. We’ll post short profiles to give you a glimpse of the personality and background of our featured scientists!

hirao_lauren_024brenna-kiniry-casual-pic_Left: Lauren Hirao, Right: Brenna Kiniry

 

We sat down with our two speakers for February’s Science Distilled: Dr. Lauren Hirao, a postdoctoral scholar in the Medical Microbiology and Immunology department, and Brenna Kiniry, a Ph.D. candidate in Microbiology. Both scientists are working on HIV research at UC Davis.

What inspired you to study science?

Brenna – I grew up on a farm and was given a microscope kit while I was in elementary school.  I would take gum, saliva, water from our llama pond, put them on slides and look at them under the microscope. The first time I saw little creatures under the slide I thought “oh my god!”  I would often talk with my father, a doctor, about science and it instilled in me from a young age just how cool science was.

Lauren – In 6th grade we had a science fair project and I got the highest grade in the class. I thought to myself “I must be kind of good at this!” In middle school I also happened to be the best in my science class, and that kept me going and interested in science. From there the rest is history.

How does audience change the way you communicate your science?

Brenna – Kids are much more open to listening to what you have to say. They get excited about something new immediately. If you can hook them in with something fascinating, you have their attention. Adults come with preconceived notions of how they think the world works. Personal beliefs can even hinder adults’ ability to look at the scientific data, or accept the findings.

Lauren – When I speak with friends who aren’t in biology, I try using the public health approach. I relate the science back to them. The politics of our science can be interesting, behind the scenes of the paper. Which means being skeptical. For example, if a press release is tied to a science conference rather than a published article, take it with a huge grain of salt.

How do you set your science workday off to a good start?

Brenna – Music is a big motivator, though the genre depends on how well my experiments are going! I also like to give myself a list of tasks I’m going to concentrate on that day, and try my best.

Lauren – On our floor we have a European style morning routine. We always start our day with coffee and chatting together.

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How do you spend your time when you’re not busy working in the lab?

Brenna – I try to play an active role in science-based medicine and skepticism. If a friend brings me some new story about a new miracle food, I’ll turn them back to look critically at the data. Besides that, I fill up my time with science communication- and I love to exercise.

Lauren – I’m always searching for the next novel thing. So if it’s not in the lab, it’s outside it. Falconry, flying trapeze, or traveling. The weirder the activity the more likely I’ll do it. I like to take my nephews on fun adventures. We always do something they’ve never done before, but now the bar is set really high! Parasailing, swimming with sharks, just a few examples of trying to broaden their worldview.

Interview by Nicole Soltis and Bobby Castagna of Sac Science Distilled

WTF Wednesday – Why Hate on Coffee?

Coffee seems to be one of those misunderstood foods. One day it’s great for us and the Starbucks sales boom, the next day it’s awful and everyone’s swearing off coffee.

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There is some truth to this, so for this week’s WTF Wednesday we’re going to dive into the mixed results from coffee research.

Adults in America drink a whole lot of coffee; it’s the second most consumed beverage (water is #1, hollaaa). Coffee doesn’t just have caffeine, it has hundreds of biologically active compounds and we haven’t even identified all of their functions yet! Due to its popularity, research has been dedicated to exploring the effects of consuming this beverage. Is it good? Is it bad? So far the evidence shows coffee can have a wide range of health effects.

Some potential benefits: 

  • may lower risk of type II diabetes
  • can help with weight loss/management
  • reduce depression
  • brightens up the morning!

View original post 598 more words

Risk assessment, explained: Interview with Dr. Travis Bui

-By Brittany Anderton

In a few weeks, Donald Trump will be inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States. Although science wasn’t featured prominently in the lead-up to the election, science inevitably influences our daily lives, in part by informing policy decisions.

Last October, Science magazine published six “science lessons” for the next president, agnostic to exactly who that person would be. Of the issues, including brain health, gene editing, and artificial intelligence, the topic that caught my attention most was risk assessment.

It is probably not surprising that this topic most interested me. As a Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of California, Davis, I am applying my PhD training in basic biology to a new discipline: the teaching and communication of biotechnology. Despite rigorous, federally-regulated testing and a scientific consensus based on two decades of evidence indicating that genetically engineered (GE) foods pose no greater risk to human health or the environment than conventionally grown foods, a sizable proportion of the public still thinks that GE foods are worse for health than non-GE foods. GE foods remain a contentious subject for which it is clear that scientists and many members of the public evaluate risk differently.

Recent evidence suggests that individuals’ aversion to GE foods stems in part from a gut instinct that flags them as unnatural, and therefore dangerous. However, as stated in the Science article, “[people] aren’t so great at assessing risk” and “gut instinct can lead to poor policy,” especially when we let our instincts deny the use of technologies that could be beneficial.

Relying on gut instinct alone can lead us to overestimate some risks (such as flying) and underestimate others (such as driving). Scientific risk assessment, on the other hand, uses complex statistical models to make evidence-based determinations of risk. Unfortunately, it is usually performed in ivory towers or behind closed doors, which doesn’t aid public understanding of how it works.

I thought it would be helpful to have an expert explain how scientists approach and calculate risk, since this type of evaluation commonly informs policy. Luckily, I have a friend, Dr. Travis Bui, who does risk analysis for a living. I got his take on the subject by conducting an informal interview. Some of Travis’s responses have been edited for brevity.

Before we start, a requisite disclaimer so that Travis can keep his day job 🙂 – 

The views and opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any current of former employer.

BA: Hi Travis! You have a PhD in Environmental and Occupational Health from the University of Pittsburgh. What did you study in grad school?

TB: Hi Brittany! My research primarily focused on assessing human health risks from exposure to mycotoxins – toxic substances produced by fungi, which contaminate food around the world. One of the more interesting and complicated projects was assessing climate change impacts on mycotoxin risks in US maize. We found that the mycotoxins that are currently found in the US will decrease, but the levels of aflatoxin and fumonisin will increase. This could prove to cause serious concern for corn growers as aflatoxin is one of the most potent liver carcinogens. My other work focused on assessing the impacts of mycotoxin regulations on human health. The “take home message” from this research was that regulations are often put in place to protect human health, but the positive impact of a regulation in one country could negatively impact another. For example, farmers in less developed regions who attempt to export crops to countries with strict regulatory guidelines will often be forced to export only their highest quality crops while consuming the low quality foods.

BA: What types of risk do you evaluate in your current job?

TB: Currently I am working in the agriculture industry assessing aggregate human health risks to pesticides and genetically modified (GM) foods [Note: the terms genetically engineered (GE) and genetically modified (GM) are used interchangeably throughout this post]. Aggregate risk means that I look at exposure from ALL sources. This includes exposure from food, drinking water, residential exposure, as well as to professional applicators. I take into account all routes of exposure including dermal, inhalation, oral and dietary. The risks are assessed based on a variety of age groups and even gender! The overall process is very in-depth and time consuming. The largest effort goes into the collection of data. Without accurate data, the risk assessments won’t be accurate and the risk could be over- or under-estimated.

BA: How would you describe the scientific approach to risk assessment? Think of telling it to your grandma or great-uncle, for example.

TB: The most important thing to remember in risk assessment is that risk is a function of hazard and exposure. Even the most hazardous substance poses no risk if you are never exposed to it and something you are exposed to daily isn’t a risk if there is little or no hazard. We’d all agree that a hurricane is very dangerous (hazardous), but if you are living in Iowa, you don’t have any exposure and, therefore, have little to no risk from it. Without hazard AND exposure, there is no risk.

The scientific approach to risk assessment seeks to incorporate real world (or as close to real world as possible) data for both hazard and exposure. For example, to determine how hazardous a chemical is, a scientist might look in the literature, compare it to a similar chemical, or conduct a study. Exposure may be estimated from a survey, a database, or another study. From here, the data is combined in various statistical and mathematical models to predict risk. These models range in complexity and vary based on the data you have. Assuming you have GOOD data, the more model inputs you have, the more complex the assessment, but the benefit is an increase in accuracy of the assessment. It’s a very dynamic process and there isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” approach to this science, but the approach is similar in all instances.

BA: Whew! Sounds complicated! So the take-home message is that risk is a function of hazard AND exposure. Can you tell us how the results of risk analyses are interpreted?

TB: Often times, risk assessments may be conducted using a tiered approach. This means that the first pass of a risk assessment could be very simple with limited inputs, but the model is HIGHLY conservative. If the risk is over-estimated and still is acceptable [ie, wouldn’t likely harm most people], your work is done! If the assessment isn’t acceptable [ie, you get inconclusive results], more data may need to be collected and analyzed in order to more accurately predict the risk.

Determining the acceptable level of risk is a whole other issue and varies based on the topic you are working with. In some cases, there is no benefit that will outweigh the risk, but there are many instances when some risk is acceptable because the benefit is worth it. For example, the pharmaceutical industry balances this constantly as you’ll see in commercials all the time – benefits of the drug vs. the side effects.

BA: To summarize, it sounds like the process of risk evaluation is iterative and relies on the best available data. Let’s switch gears to public perception of risk. Can you name a common misperception regarding risk you have encountered outside of work?

TB: Public misperception of risk is increasingly more common and there are a number of examples that I see on almost a daily basis. One very important thing to keep in mind with regard to risk misperception is social media. Social media is a very powerful tool and is probably one of the biggest culprits in spreading risk misperception. I cannot stress this enough because many of the examples I come across occur on Facebook or Twitter when people begin re-posting information from a celebrity or someone with little or no scientific background on the topic.

With that being said, some of the most common encounters I have with risk misperception are the idea that “organic” food is safer than conventionally grown and/or GM-food. There are many other examples like the anti-vaccine movement, but working in agriculture over the past few years, I have become very familiar with the “organic” movement. Fortunately, this has allowed me to spend a great deal of time reviewing literature on both sides of the argument.

BA: How do you typically address misperception of risk regarding GM (or GE) food?

TB: When someone tells me they prefer GMO-free, I always start by asking “why”. The majority of the time, the response I get is that “because it is safer” and the conversation abruptly ends. In the few instances that the conversation progresses beyond that interaction, I often find that someone read something on the internet or a celebrity tweeted something indicating that organic made them feel better or GM products made them “sick”. Ultimately, it is their choice to spend the money, time and effort to eat organic, but I still encourage them to research the topic and understand their decision. The most important thing that I push for as a risk assessor is an educated decision! On the flip side, as a risk assessor, we need to continue to push for better risk communication and have a louder voice. Even a basic understanding of risk-benefits would allow consumers to make more educated decisions.

It’s important to think back to the risk paradigm – hazard and exposure. Obviously exposure is high since GM proteins are in much of what we eat, but what about the hazard? Fortunately, this topic has been widely studied and thousands of scientific, peer-reviewed literature points out that the toxicity of GM-foods is no more than conventionally produced foods. Ultimately, this means the toxicity component of the risk paradigm is minimal; therefore risk is minimal. The benefits of GM technology far outweigh any possible risks and the peer-reviewed, scientific evidence behind this is increasingly apparent.

This argument is much more complex than a short paragraph, but it is important to think about risk as a function of hazard and exposure. As a risk assessor, I hope to encourage people who feel strongly one way or the other to do some research beyond what you read online or see on TV. Consider the source of information, think critically and don’t be afraid to ask questions!

BA: I agree that empowering people to critically evaluate the sources of their information is an important step towards addressing risk misperceptions. Okay, last question. Is there a risk-related topic that you think the public should be more aware of? Why?

TB: Many of the risk-related issues the public will face over the next few years are known, but the data needed to properly assess the risk is still being determined. Emerging infectious diseases are always something the public needs to be aware of and the landscape is constantly evolving. A few years ago we dealt with the Ebola virus outbreak and now we are dealing with viruses like Zika and chikungunya. With Ebola, many people survived the virus, which historically had a case fatality rate of nearly 50%. What will the long-term impacts be to survivors? Do they pose future risk as carriers of the virus?

Zika is another major concern that the public is aware of, but the actual risk is still undetermined. With the lack of data on both hazard and exposure, this is a topic that requires close monitoring. Obviously, we know the short-term impacts of the Zika virus, but what will the long-term effects be?

A huge thank-you to Dr. Travis Bui for taking the time to participate in this interview. If you’d like to follow up on any of the topics discussed here, please email Brittany at bnanderton@ucdavis.edu

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