Please, don’t kill this idea

This third round of essays contained some doosies—ideas risky enough to make any scientist cringe. A few truly jarring essays overshadowed this section and the subsequent book club discussion. The contentious essays were (in some people’s opinions) weakly argued and dangerous, and definitely deserving of a rebuttal:

Gary Klein boldly claims that Evidence-Based Medicine must die. This is a worrisome idea. Evidence-based medicine came about to rigorously test medical interventions in a standardized method to determine what medicines work, what medicines may be dangerous, and what medicines don’t really do anything. Without evidence guiding medical decisions, we are back to days without antibiotics, vaccines, chemotherapy, and other life-saving inventions. Klein argues that evidence-based medicine is not perfect because not every study can be replicated and, in a few extreme cases, results of clinical trials have been faked. Well, as a fellow book-clubber exclaimed, this essay is “trying to throw the baby out with the bathwater.” Yeah, science is not perfect. Nothing is. That is no reason to kill it, but more a reason to demand increases in rigor and integrity. Asking to kill evidence-based medicine because it isn’t perfect is reckless, and could dismantle trust in a medical system that strives to save lives.

In a similarly questionable essay, Dean Ornish tries to nix the idea of Large Randomized Control Trials. He calls out how some studies are poorly designed, which some studies are. In my opinion, poorly designed trials must die. Ornish takes his opinion to the extreme in stating that all large randomized control trials must die. The loose logic of his essays seems intended to make small studies about behavioral interventions appear stronger. Maybe the studies he mentioned just need a better design.

Tom Griffiths tries to argue that bias can be a good thing in his essay, Bias is Always Bad. Bias is bad. It makes for bad research questions, fraudulent and incorrect data interpretations, and a milieu of societal problems. Griffiths, however, is talking about a different kind of “bias” where it is used as a way to process digital images. Basically, he’s arguing that bias isn’t bad because some people have a different definition of bias. It’s a misleading argument, which may be intended to ruffle feathers with a flashy title. But the substance of the essay is arguing semantics, not thought-provoking ideas.

The last essay to which I will openly dissent is Richard Nisbett’s Multiple regression as a means of discovering causality. He argues that a statistical technique, multiple regression, is limited. And it is. Multiple regression is designed to determine which factors are correlated. Nisbett has a problem with people misusing this statistical technique. Well, that’s pretty obvious…Correlation doesn’t equal causation. All scientists know this. Bad scientists do abuse this. But the misuse of a statistical tool does not mean the tool needs retired (as the content of his essay argues); it means the misuse needs retired.

This reading section did contain some wonderful essays, too! Jamil Zaki’s The Altruism Hierarchy was delightful. Basically, it argues that the back-and-forth surrounding the meaning of altruism is trivial. Not only is figuring out a hierarchy of altruism “logically self-negating,” but it is “morally self-negating.” Zaki expresses frustration about how the science surrounding altruism strips the humanity from it, saying how “it’s profound and downright beautiful to think that our core emotional makeup can be tuned towards others, causing us to feel good when we do.” Honest and emotional human insights coming from a scientist like Zaki can hearten fellow scientists and humans, and I’m glad I read his piece.

Ian McEwan questioned the Edge question in his piece entitled Beware of arrogance! Retire nothing! The short, humorous, and poetic prose elegantly frames how even bad ideas need preserved, because that’s how science progresses. We learn from our mistakes, and it is dangerous to negate old ideas as meaningless.

Lastly, Robot companions by Sherry Turkle challenges us not to fight the developments of Artificial Intelligence, but to truly consider how we want robots to serve us. Do we really want to create a machine intended for companionship or love? Turkle “see[s] us on a voyage of forgetting.” As we embrace technological advancement, we must consider how a genuine, tenuous, and beautiful human experience shapes our relationships with others. Although AI geeks love to argue the seemingly limitless potential of robots to mimic humanity, robots will never truly have humanity.

Once again, this section provided plenty to discuss at our meeting—with equal amounts of frustration and intrigue (although surrounding different essays). It’s interesting, and maybe terrifying, to see the logical shortcomings of supposed scientific thought-experts in our society laid so bare. Discussing blatantly radical ideas does force reflection, both on the ideas and the identity of the authors. At the end of the day, these esteemed thinkers are simply humans, with ideas with which we may refute. Only time will tell whose ideas will die, but I for one really hope that evidence-based medicine and large randomized control trials live.

– Sam Tucci

This Idea Must Die: Intriguing concept, lackluster execution

In This Idea Must Die, John Brockman collected essays from notable thinkers of today to answer the 2014 Edge.org question: “What idea has become a relic blocking human progress?”

A nice feature of this book is that there is a lot about which we book-clubbers can opine: the essay selection, the ordering of the essays, the content of the essays, the writing style of the essays, the originality of the essays, the authors of the essays, etc. And opine we have!

The first few essays all pretty much said the same thing: there is no “Theory of Everything.” After reading the first essay, the following essays fell flat– the point had already been made. Although we read arguments dismantling the case for a theory that unified the mathematics describing the universe, it was hard for non-theoretical physicists to truly understand the point. Not necessarily because the writing was overly technical, although sometimes it was, but because the authors frequently failed to frame their arguments within a context relevant for an outsider to their specific field of research. Stereotypes of aloof physicists, out-of-touch with the real world, were thus reinforced. Bashing string theory while making the assumption that all humans follow and understand this debate is doubly condescending. And the redundancy of essay topics truly blunted the edginess of any attempt at a novel argument.

I will spare you my frustration about the jargon-filled and ego-laden, pseudo-arguments made in most of the essays—at least for now.

On a positive note, a few of the essays did teach us something new, and made us think deeper, drawing us to lines of thought far-removed from our typical work and interests. Like Infinity by Max Tegmark! Who knew there is more than one type of infinity?!

The essay on Entropy by Bruce Parker was similarly notable. It tackled a complex problem and was able to put in words the typical confusion many have when grappling with the concept of entropy, which measures the amount of disorder in a system. The idea also actually seems radical, and it is one of which I have never before heard. It was the type of intriguing essay I expected for a book teasing about retiring outdated scientific ideas.

Other favorite essays include “The Rocket Scientist” by Victorie Wyatt (my personal favorite thus far) and Indivi-duality by Nigel Goldenfeld (resonated with a few book club goers). Notice that you don’t need to own the book to read the essays, they are all freely available on edge.org.

Lastly, I must comment, the demographics of this book are pitiful.

timd authors

So far, of the 32 authors we have read 29 are male. Based on a crude googling of every author in this first section, the average age (where published online) is ~65 +/- 10 years. And, there are virtually no people of color. If we are looking to radically change the direction of science, asking a bunch of old, white dudes will not accomplish this goal. Regardless of the quality of any individual’s response, the scope of this book is blatantly narrow and we are certainly missing out on voices that are ready to argue an idea that must die.

Sam Tucci 

An honest discussion on the labeling of GMOs

GMO labels are misleading, frustrating science and science-advocates

The marketing of non-GMO products agitates many scientists. Although the frustration towards fear-based marketing and the public’s frequent misperception of GMOs is warranted, the blame on marketing companies is somewhat misplaced. Instead, disgruntled scientists must heed advice from marketers themselves: perception is reality. The large portion of the public sees GMOs as negative (Pew Research Center). To change this, we, as scientists and concerned citizens, must mend the public’s attitude toward GMOs if we want progress.

“GMO” is a terribly vague term, but we are stuck with it (for now)

The term “genetically modified organism,” or “GMO”, is non-descript to scientists who actually study genetics (Escaping the Bench). There are multiple processes people can use to alter the genome of an organism (Biofortified).

Arguably, most modern plants that we consume have been genetically modified through evolution and selective breeding techniques used by farmers for centuries (Vox). Modern methods have evolved to hasten the process of improving plants, like mutagenesis or marker-assisted breeding. Recently, advances in scientific tools have allowed for more precision. Researchers can now change specific genes in an organism or add new genes to improve a crop, perhaps making it more resistant to drought or pests.

To many scientists, “genetic modification” describes all the approaches mentioned above, thus any product derived from any of those methods could be labeled as a GMO. However, many nonscientists may only describe the more modern techniques that enable precision adjustments to an organism’s DNA as GMO. To have an effective, productive conversation, everyone needs to be talking about the same thing. The World Health Organization (WHO) does not clearly define GMO. GMO-scare sites have broad definitions. And the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) itself does not even use the term GMO, preferring instead “genetically engineered” to describe products cultivated using modern biotechnology.

I will use what the National Academies of Sciences defines as “genetic engineering” to define GMO:

Genetic engineering means the introduction of or change to DNA, RNA, or proteins manipulated by humans to effect a change in an organism’s genome or epigenome. Genome refers to the specific sequence of the DNA of an organism; genomes contain the genes of an organism… The committee’s definition of genetic engineering includes Agrobacterium-mediated and gene gun-mediated gene transfer to plants as well as more recently developed technologies such as CRISPR, TALENs, and ZFNs.

nas

In layman’s terms, a GMO has had its genes altered by humans using modern techniques that would not happen in nature*. GMO, in this article, does not refer to selective breeding or techniques involving mutagenesis, although it can be argued that those products have been “genetically modified”.

The layman’s definition is too vague for a scientist working with GE crops—they must speak in specific terms (jargon) within their community to communicate effectively. The field of genetic engineering has reached an advanced stage where one must specialize to understand all of its nuances. In reality, an average consumer will only ever care about the “gist,” and the underlined sentence is the gist.

*Nature is absolutely wild and always reveals unexpected phenomena. For all we know, nature may be employing weird genetic techniques we haven’t yet realized. This is a major reason many scientists cringe at the term “unnatural.” However, many people may be more comfortable with the term “natural.”

Products are being labeled as non-GMO as if there is an alternative

Upcoming conversations about GMO labeling are unavoidable. The FDA has no requirements for GMO/GE labeling (yet) but is trying to establish a clear system. In the meantime, Vermont established requirements for GMO labeling and similar initiatives to label GMOs have been pushed in many states. In response, many companies have begun to label their products as non-GMO, leading to a confusing consumer landscape and a frustrated scientific community.

The annoyance (and sometimes anger) felt by scientists and science advocates or allies towards GMO labeling is warranted. Products that are not even available as GMOs are being labeled as non-GMO.

First, some products will never be genetically modified:

  • Water
  • Salt

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These products are non-living and not derived from living organisms. Thus, there are no genes to modify along the production line. Consequently, scientists get rightfully upset about the products’ nonsensical labeling because the labeling can play on a customers’ lack of scientific knowledge.

Other products are not currently sold as genetically modified:

  • Bananas
  • Grapes
  • Kale
  • Peanuts
  • Carrots
  • Strawberries
  • Almonds
  • Many, many more…

labels

These products give the consumer the illusion that they have a decision to make. In fact, there are only a handful of genetically modified crops available in the US (Genetic Literacy Project):

  • Alfalfa
  • Apple
  • Argentine Canola
  • Bean
  • Carnation
  • Chicory
  • Cotton
  • Creeping Bentgrass
  • Eggplant
  • Eucalyptus
  • Flax
  • Maize
  • Melon
  • Papaya
  • Petunia
  • Plum
  • Polish canola
  • Poplar
  • Potato
  • Rice
  • Rose
  • Soybean
  • Squash
  • Sugar Beet
  • Sugarcane
  • Sweet pepper
  • Tobacco
  • Tomato
  • Wheat

For more information on any of the GMOs listed above, click here. Corn and soy are common GMO crops that are found in many products and are also fed to livestock used in meat and dairy production. (The use of GMOs in livestock cultivation further complicates the question about what is labeled.)

Non-GMO labeling, especially when a genetically engineered version does not exist, is misleading. However, nothing will be accomplished if we assign blame or stew in anger.


Take a hint from the grocery marketing community

Current labeling guidelines are dictated by consumer requests

Labeling products as non-GMO perpetuates the public’s confusion. Hence, many scientists believe marketing companies are to blame for this. I intended to write this article about how bad non-GMO labeling schemes are, but I’ve concluded that many misleading food labels are the outcome of poor public understanding, not the cause.

peteI spoke with a seasoned grocery marketer, Pete Tucci (pictured left), about his company’s experience with GMO labeling, and product labeling in general. Tucci has 40 years of experience in a private label company, assisting in the sales planning of merchandise. He has aided in the development of new items, interfaced with suppliers, and brought products to shelves.

I wanted to know why marketers would engage in labeling campaigns that are so seemingly destructive to the scientific enterprise. I would like to fully disclose that Tucci is my dad. Our relationship is the reason why a marketer would talk to someone with such great skepticism towards the role marketers play in our society.

Obviously, Tucci’s goal is to sell his clients’ products. When packaging a grocery item, companies need the labeling to be honest, but they want their product to stand-out. What makes an item stick out? At one time it was being “low cholesterol.” Then it was “low carb.” It has been “low sugar,” “high protein,” “gluten-free,” “organic,” and more. Now, being “non-GMO” makes a product stand out.

Who decides what makes a product stand out?

Tucci explained, “[We] are looking to call out the meaningful attribute of that item…We try to be very transparent. We try to be very ethical and honest with the customer. We identify items as non-GMO.”

Personally, I was annoyed that identifying an item as non-GMO was seen as an ethical decision. Scientists work tirelessly to perfect GE technology with the goal of feeding a hungry, growing population in the face of extreme climate instability. Many scientists are driven by a moral imperative to find solutions to global problems, and many of those solutions involve genetic modification of organisms.

But then, Tucci elaborated, “Customers catch things on the shelf.” If a customer wants to know what is in a product, we will tell them. Increasingly, the customers are asking if their products contain GMOs. Tucci’s experience with customer concern about GMOs is not unique, PEW research center found that many Americans are concerned about GMOs, with 50% of U.S. adults always or sometimes looking for GM labeling when they shop for food (PEW).

pew1

Moreover, “If customers are demanding non-GMO, we are going to see the possibilities of doing that.” Tucci’s clients (and many companies in the grocery business) are going to respond to the demands of their customers. If public opinion continues to steer people away from GMOs, GMOs will not be sold as much.

Then Tucci spoke a harsh truth: “In marketing, perception is reality. We don’t like to create a perception. We like to create the reality: This [the label] is what the item is. This is how you use the item. This is where we get the item.” Grocery marketers do not want to surprise their customers.

“A scientist might know more than the average consumer when looking at product labels. If marketers are putting ‘non-GMO’ on an item that would naturally not be a GMO item, that does not mean they are trying to mislead the customer. They are just telling the customer that doesn’t know [the product] is non-GMO. You might know it. But does every customer know it?” Most people are not scientists. Most people don’t know what GMO means. And sadly, a large amount of people fear GMOs.

As a last ditch, hopeful question, I asked, “Can a marketing company help to educate consumers about the science of GMOs?”

“Yes, I think… But, how much money can marketers put forward to tell the true story? Not enough. Not enough to overcome media, social media, free media. You’re stuck giving in. Look at what happened to organics. That’s the same thing that’s going to happen to GMOs.”

It is up to scientists to make perception equal reality. Marketers are not going to do it. They are neither equipped nor paid to educate the public.

Labeling can be good and consumers can be involved

Transparency is generally good, in my opinion. I do want to know what is in the products I am purchasing. When buying food, consumers may consider the nutritional value of the product, its safety, its environmental impact, or the business practices of the company that produces it. To weigh the factors considered when purchasing grocery items, products must be labeled.

Personally, I do not hesitate to purchase a product that is a GMO. However, I am not the only consumer. Scientists are not the only consumers—and not all scientists study and think about GMOs. The reality is that many consumers are now factoring-in whether or not the products they buy are GMOs.

If scientists and industries aggressively push back on the labeling of GMOs, this will create a narrative that GMOs need hidden. Historically, when consumers demand clear labels on food, industry opposes and distrust towards the food industry grows (Union of Concerned Scientists, sugar, overhaul of nutrition labels). Science is part of the food industry and part of that distrust, whether we deserve it or not. The majority of GMO labeling is a consumer-driven initiative. Do scientists want to deny the wishes of the consumer?

No matter your answer to that, the push for transparency is not going away. Label Insight is a company aimed at increasing transparency in industry. They are working with the FDA to create “the industry’s first scientifically accurate database of food ingredients, attributes and health claims.” Label Insight released  a report (not peer-reviewed) entitled “How Consumer Demand for Transparency is Shaping the Food Industry.” They argue that “lack of product information creates distrust and confusion amongst consumers.” Distrust and confusion are the exact opposite of what we want.

Furthermore, the majority of Americans do say the public should have a major role in GMO food policy decisions (PEW). If the public wants GMO food labeled, I think it should be. America is kind of democratic, right?

pew2


We need to change the public opinion, but how?

GMO education and advocacy efforts only go so far

Instead of denying the wishes of the consumer to have transparent GMO labeling, we need to both educate the consumer and challenge the negative attitude around GMOs.

Educating the consumer is an enormous challenge. One study about the public perception of GMOs found that “[r]espondents who had relatively higher cognitive function or held illusionary correlations about GM food…were more likely to have an opinion that differed from the scientific community.” This means that opinions on GMOs is not based on education level alone, since intelligent people have been known to disagree with scientists. That is a hard truth to behold. We must figure out how to talk with those who do not understand the science and, at the same time, those who do and still disagree with us.

Importantly, increased understanding of science does not equate to an improved public perception of GMOs (Scheufele). Possibly because opinions are based on more than intelligence and understanding. They often result from gut reactions (disgust or anger), relying on intuitive reasoning that can be easily exploited by anti-GMO activists (Blancke, Scott). Thus, education about GMOs alone is not a promising tactic for improving consumer buy-in for them. But, it can help to make sure that both sides of the GMO labeling discussion are informed about the science.

A 2017 documentary, Food Evolution, offered both rational and emotional arguments in defense of GMOs. Food Evolution proudly displayed the wonders of GMOs and underlined how public misperception is preventing GMOs from helping farmers supply food. For example, the director chronicled the policy debate surrounding the use of ringspot virus resistant papaya in Hawaii. The use of the GMO papaya saved the papaya industry, but public backlash led to significant regulations on growing GMOs in certain parts of the state, the papaya being the only GMO crop allowed on the island. Although Food Evolution received praise for its accuracy, some still find it too fact-based to change faith-based opinions on GMOs. Nevertheless, Food Evolution is a solid effort at educating the public’s more about GMOs.

The label is coming, let’s use it

Regardless of whether clear labeling of all GMOs in food is ever federally mandated, I believe most food companies will end up labeling their foods as GMO or non-GMO. If food labels can negatively change public perception, could they also be used to positively change public perception? Scientists from Dartmouth College propose GMO labels could be created to inform the public about the purposes of genetic engineering by subdividing GMOs based on their transgenic traits, like pest resistance or environmental stress response.

Campbell’s has been vocal in mandatory national GMO labeling and acknowledges the evidence that GMOs are safe and are not nutritionally different than non-GMO counterparts. They operate with a “Consumer First” mindset to build trust with their customers. They are not ashamed of using GMOs in their products and offer information to curious customers on their website: “What’s in my food?”. They also voluntarily label their products as containing GMO ingredients, but not with the Non-GMO Project’s seal for “GMO avoidance.” Instead, they use a simple label and direct consumers to their website.

campbells

(Consumer Reports)

These efforts are great, but we need more of them. More importantly, we need to figure out how to change the negative emotions about GMOs that have been built by expert fear-mongerers. We need to do more than brood and preach to each other about how annoying it is. I don’t know how to fix this whole mess, but do I think we need to learn how to actually market our product.

In the end, to really combat misunderstanding, the fear of GMOs must be replaced with the hope offered by them. GMOs can produce food in the face of climate change, feed a growing population, provide poorer agricultural communities with disease- and drought-tolerant plants. GMOs can have a major positive impact on our world if we let them.

 

Sam Tucci

Attacks on science come from multiple angles

Attacks on science come from multiple angles

The War on Science is fought on multiple fronts. This week, Otto guided us through an exploration of the ideological war on science and the industrial war on science.

The Ideological War on Science

Scientists could learn a thing or two from evangelical Christians. Celebrity preachers and popular religious figures relate to their audience personally and emotionally, a feat at which scientists often fail. Scientists must welcome people into their awe-inspiring, life-changing, profound, and, yes, emotional world if we hope to be relatable.

Comparing how religious leaders and scientists communicate is one thing; comparing the merits of religion and science is another. Science and religion exists in a false dichotomy, a theme discussed in prior book club meetings and underlined in this section:

“The desire to create knowledge that motivates science ultimately shares some of the sames drives as that of its progenitor, religion. Playing to these drives is one way science can reach the masses, by helping them to understand the mystery and wonder of the world and our place in it, to find meaning and hope, and to make life better.”

Science does not exist to oust religion. Science exists to explain and understand our natural world. Indeed, many religious people (including scientists) find the discovery process deeply spiritual and enlightening. Scientific wonder can deepen the appreciation for our natural world, which in turn, can deepen a person’s faith in the existence of a higher power.

As science reveals the beauties and intricacies of the natural world, it never challenges the existence of God. Science tests hypotheses using the scientific method. For a hypothesis to be evaluated, it must be testable and capable of being disproved. The existence of God is an idea taken on faith. No physical method exists to test for the presence of God. Thus, science can never disprove God, and real science will never claim to do so.

Big-picture religious ideals are very different than adherence to a fundamentalist belief system. Science can, and has, disproved notions set forth by certain religious groups about the timeline of Earth’s formation, for example. This is because a hypothesis such as “the Earth was created 10,000 years ago” is testable. So we tested it.

The ideological war on science is coming from a group of fundamentalists who fail to see the beauty in science and deny the facts of the natural world as they are revealed to us through experimentation and thoughtful observation. Fighting an ideological war seems impossible, and it truly may be impossible to open the minds of a group of people deeply and emotionally invested in clinging to fundamentalist stories.

As a scientist and a Catholic (me, not the book club), it is disheartening to see this ideological war on science conflated to a war between religion and science in many media representations. This ideological war may never end, but that doesn’t mean that all religious people (most of the world) are at odds with science. To keep it this way, the process of science– the process of discovering the natural wonders of the world– must be discussed openly, with emotion, and with reverence.

The Industrial War on Science

Unlike the ideological war on science, I don’t have much sympathy or hope around the industrial war on science. The industrial war on science is a dirty game played by powerful people designed to sow doubt, fear, and uncertainty in our already complicated society.

Basically, whenever science uncovers information about our world that may cut into the profits of certain industries, the industries launch strategic public relations campaigns to discredit the scientific claims so they can keep making money. This is what happened with Big Tobacco in response to scientists uncovering the link between smoking and cancer. This is what is happening with Big Oil in response to science uncovering the relationship between man and climate change.

Otto mapped out the PR tactics in detail. The responses from big companies are predictable: underline the uncertainties in the studies, bash the scientists, play games with statistics, prey on fears, etc. But no matter how predictable big industry’s response to science is, their tactics are scarily effective.

Our book club struggles to understand one particular part of this industrial war: Who, as a person, is so devoid of a moral compass that she/he is willing to intentionally mislead the general public? Who would willfully commit themselves, along with the rest of the world, to a fate stemming from a disrupted global climate? Denying the truth of such a far-reaching issue like man-made climate change hurts all of us–including the willful deniers–in the end.

Money (therefore power) is the only practical reason someone would devise these deceptive PR campaigns. The book club realizes that everyone must pay the bills, but we wonder if there is not an alternative in which a person could financially support herself/himself and keep their integrity?

So what are we to do?

Can science fight the blaze of misinformation with the flame of knowledge? Can we sow the seeds of scientific literacy as effectively as those who sow fear and doubt?

Otto reminds us, “knowledge is power, so it follows that suppression of knowledge to protect vested interests ultimately weakens government.” Spreading scientific literacy empowers others to think for themselves. When people can think for themselves and reject the propaganda of vested interests, our democracy is protected.

But who can distinguish a single flame amidst a wildfire? Science has evidence and knowledge, but it seems knowledge just doesn’t spread as quickly as fear.

 

Written by Sam Tucci 

Edited by Destiny Davis

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