Category Archives: resources

Say Hello and Feedback Welcome

Information

Information (Photo credit: heathbrandon)

I’ve been blogging for about 5 months now and WordPress has been keeping up with lots of statistics for me about how people find my blog. This endeavor started as a chance to communicate with a general (not necessarily scientific) audience about basic scientific research in general and research related to my field (photosynthesis and plant biology). It was really just a chance to let my friends and family (via social media) know more about what I’m doing and why it’s important. Along the way, some of my posts have needed extra background information that I have stored as static pages as this site has developed. According to WordPress, this blog gets a low but steady stream of hits from search engines for users looking for more information about photosynthesis basics. Things like how the light reactions and the dark reactions work, what other organisms perform photosynthesis etc. Now, in the fantasy world that exists only in my head, I envision these searchers are hungry for knowledge about photosynthesis because it is such a fundamentally important biochemical reaction for life on earth. Everyone should want to know more! But I know that the real reason people are probably searching for this information is because they are students that need some clarification or extra help completing homework assignments or studying for tests.

I get it. During class, you were probably lulled to sleep to the droning of “chlorophyll-bore-o-phyll.” As a classroom lecture topic, photosynthesis could use better spin to make it more interesting. The details can be tough to get through, making you hate it all the more. Maybe this is the state of mind you find yourself in when you stumble upon my blog. I hope you find it useful and understandable. I’m still working on adding more pages with even more information. The static pages on this site do not allow for comments or contacting me, but the posts do. So, I’m writing this post to give you the chance to give some me feedback and let me know how I’m doing. Did you find the information you were looking for? What other topics need to be included? If you still have a specific question about photosynthesis, try the ‘contact’ form below. For those of you brave enough, you are also welcome to de-lurk yourself in the comments below. Let me know your education level, what you’re looking for and why or what you think about the blog and pages on this site.

Johnna

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Tweet Your Science

Here’s something for both the scientists and non-scientists reading this blog… a new initiative called Tweet Your Science. It’s a database that allows scientists to register their Twitter handles. Remember, I’ve mentioned before that scientists need to make their research more publicly accessible and social media is the way to go. So, for those of you scientists already tweeting scientific pearls of scientific wisdom into the Twittersphere, go ahead and register yourself. The database just catalogs some general information about your affiliations and research interests.* For those of you non-scientists that are already ahead of the curve by using Twitter to keep up with breaking new information, consider searching the Tweet Your Science database. You can search by keywords to find scientists working on things you may be interested in. Become a follower to keep up with the latest and get to know a scientist. There are lots of scientists on Twitter that share what they are working on and its significance in easily understandable ways.

Sure, we may complain about failed experiments…

dwindling funding for science…

and our cats (It’s still the internet, right?)…

https://twitter.com/JoshuaWerkman/status/383140625031262208

but you also get  nuggets like this from some of the scientists (and groups) I follow…

But some of you attentive readers may worry about using social media because of yesterday’s post on the influence it has on your perception of science. Don’t worry baby birds (pun intended because you need to give Twitter** a try), it’s all about being aware of sources of bias and influence. Call me naïve, but I haven’t given up hope that humanity can still engage in spirited and productive debates on polarizing scientific issues, that people can make decisions based on data and logical arguments.

Johnna

* As far as I know, I didn’t give away any of my children or inadvertently put myself on any government watch lists, but I didn’t read the fine print that carefully either.

** I’m really not receiving any kickbacks from mentioning Twitter. I haven’t figured out how to make $$$ tweeting and blogging.

Under the Influence (of Comments)

I’ve mentioned before that the general public needs to be more scientifically literate and engaged with science related issues.* Well, here’s some interesting news about science news… is your head spinning yet? It may be no surprise to you that scientists like to objectively evaluate everything- even how science is communicated to the general public. Someone from the science side or the journalism side is keeping track of how breaking discoveries are communicated and perceived. As it turns out there is a new wrinkle in the science communication arena- specifically with the ubiquitous reader comments that follow every online news article.**

Here’s what a recent study found: You are under the influence of other reader’s comments. Your perception of a news article’s validity and trustworthiness can be influenced by what other random people post at the bottom of the page.

Let that sink in a minute.

Just when you think you have been as objective as possible and trying to minimize your bias and tease apart the bias emanating from any given news article, you scroll down a few more inches and BAM! more bias.

I’m not gonna lie to you- I’m a big time comments section lurker.*** I rarely post anything, but I somewhat enjoy reading through the comments sections at the bottom of articles. Some of them are quite amusing. Some of them just make me sigh and shake my head. For me, it’s another level of data to process, a way to gauge how the most vocal members of society feel about certain issues, a way to get exposure to other perspectives much different than mine. Now, I wonder how much subconscious influence I was letting anonymous reviewers have over me.

In the context of social commentary on the behavior of Miley Cyrus at the VMAs or who was wearing what and how well on the Emmy’s red carpet, this new insight on commenter influence doesn’t matter much. However, when it comes to ‘important stuff’ that shapes public opinion and influences national policy, the stakes are higher.

Check out this in depth analysis of the implications to science communication by Matt Shipman at Scilogs. As scientists, we want to engage with the public about our research and its implications. On-line news, blogs and social networks are convenient platforms for mass broadcasting what we think is important. Always up for debate and critique, scientists generally welcome commentary. However, these results mean that any random person in cyberspace with who-knows-what-probably-none credentials will influence how readers perceive the news as truthful or important.

So this new finding puts us in an uncomfortable position: (Presumably) the author of a science news article has carefully crafted an informative and well-referenced piece with solid supporting evidence that should adequately convey new information to the reader so that they can come to their own decisions based on the data therein. (I’m sure the author tried to contain his/her own bias and was not writing an overly-opinion-based piece.) All of that work can be undone by anonymous internet trolls**** that comment with impunity.

What can be done? Readers, just try to be aware of the influence of the comments section on your opinions of on-line news or skip reading them altogether. Commenters, comment judiciously. Please try to add something to the conversation and be honest about your biases. If you are Popular Science, you shut down comments on on-line news articles across the board. Click here to read their justification for the policy shift.

As for me, I will leave the comments section open. For any of you brave enough to de-lurk***** yourselves, I think there is currently more value in discussion than harm from undue influence.

Johnna

* Again, check out the Resources page for links to science news sources.

** In case you have been living under a rock for the past several years, anyone with an internet connection and a keyboard can post their unsolicited thoughts for the world to see at the bottom of a news article. But you already knew that since you were savvy enough to find an internet connection and stumble upon my blog.

*** Lurker (n): the official internet term for one who reads lots of internet content, but never engages in the comments section of an article, a blog, etc.

**** Troll (n): the official internet term for one who posts ugly, offensive, obnoxious, and possibly-unrelated comments on news articles for the purposes of shock value and baiting other commenters in pointless debates that general have little to do with the content of the original article.

***** De-lurk (v): the internet term for stepping out of the shadows of lurker status and into the realm of insightful commenter. (Please don’t de-lurk into a troll).

Science Literacy

This is part of a series of posts describing science in terms of a new social contract with clauses and expectations of both scientists and society. The links for all of the posts so far can be found on the ‘highlights’ page. So if you are interested, start there to get the complete contract.

contract

In my original post about a new social contract for science and society, I didn’t go into too many practical details as to how to make these terms work for all of us. So let’s dig a little deeper into the scientific literacy clause…

“We also need to work together to raise the level of scientific literacy for all people to make this two-way communication work. This means we will do a better job translating the science information, and you will up your game when it comes to processing that information. Ignorance is not bliss; in this contract, it’s not even an option.”

Having fundamental science knowledge

Fundamentally, science is a process of learning about the world around us.  Our new contract requires everyone to know the basis of the scientific method (observation, question, hypothesis, experiment, results and conclusion). It’s not always so clear. Check out this post for how it really works. Not everyone will be doing molecular biology, but the method is valid for answering questions as diverse as: What genes contribute to plant drought tolerance? Does that water leaking into my garage mean I need a new washing machine? Netflix isn’t loading- is it a problem with my cable connection, wireless router, or PS3? So, I would encourage you to use the scientific method to answer the questions nagging you in your daily life.

However, science is most often taught as a category of facts related to certain physical subjects (biology, physics, environmental science, chemistry etc). These are merely the results and conclusions of the practice of science as it was applied to specific questions. This post isn’t about new common core standards or any other benchmarks for evaluation. Not everyone needs to be an expert, but a little knowledge about a broad range of subjects goes a long way. Challenge yourself to learn something new every day, which brings me to my next point…

Finding and evaluating science news

We live in an information age. While having a little bit of knowledge on a broad range of subjects is great, you will always need to find additional information. I’ve mentioned before that the science community will be working harder to communicate our work more effectively. So take advantage of these new avenues for learning more about science. I’ve listed some links for science news resources on my resources page.* If you are hunting for something more specific, then your first stop is probably to do a Google search. How do you know which links in the results list will give you trustworthy information? The top hits will probably be to Wikipedia entries. I recommend starting there because they generally provide a general sense of the subject and provide links to primary information. These entries will at least give you an overview of the subject and a better sense of what other words you may want to use in a more refined search. Other links to scientific literature in PubMed or other scientific journal sites take you to the primary peer-reviewed literature. These are information-rich, but often difficult reading for the average member of the general public. Try reading it any way. Abstracts are always publicly available, but you may run into pay walls for full text access. Other links to webpages hosted on university, non-profit or government websites are generally reliable, but may vary in their understandability. I’ve also encouraged you to know scientists in your real life and have conversations with them about their work. Don’t be intimidated. Ask them questions. Make them continue to answer and explain until you understand. Repeat as necessary.

Our information age means that you will always have more information available to you that you will care to process. The real task is paring down all of that information to get to the answer for question that you actually have and evaluating the present facts for truthfulness. There’s no easy answer. Caveat entour always!!! You must always consider the source. Who is really telling you these facts and what credibility do they have? Most importantly, follow the money. Are they trying to sell you something? The answer to this question is always yes. Many sources are literally trying to sell you something and data will be presented in the best possible light (marketing!) to get you to be their consumer. Don’t trust them. Find additional sources where others have asked the question differently or come up with slightly different answers. You may be asking yourself, “What about you, Johnna?” Well, I’ll tell you. I’m human, which means that I carry with me inherent bias based on the sum total of my life experiences. As much as I try to suppress bias it in my scientific life, bias is always there as part of my human experience. So consider sources that appear to be doing their best at controlling against bias or at the very least can be up front about admitting their bias. This is the most difficult part of assembling truth from facts.

UPDATE: Check out this It’s OK to be Smart video by @JTOTHEIZZOE on How to Read Science News

UPDATE: Here’s another great link for evaluating scientific literature and another.

Actively participating in important decisions

As a member of our society, you must make all kinds of decisions. These can be as ordinary as what to eat, what not to eat or what car or computer to buy. Sometimes these involve evaluating scientific information. Our recent discussion in GMOs has highlighted this. Should you avoid the currently available GMOs in your diet and how do you do this? You may need more information on a medical condition, procedure or treatment option. These are just examples and there are many more, but they highlight the need to actively process more scientific information to make decisions relevant to your daily life.

Scientists are also seeking more engagement from the public on how science is done because ultimately you control important factors related to our research. Fundamentally, basic research and publicly-funded research is performed at the behest of, well, the public. Sure, it’s fun for us scientists, but ultimately we’re working for you. You have the power to guide research directions and the market of scientifically-based products. So, please let scientists know and let your elected representatives know about science-related issues that are important to you. What research is important to you? Is someone working on it? Do they have enough funding? How should we be allocating portions of the budget for research and education? What science-related products or services need more or less oversight and regulation? These are all important decisions that you need to be involved in. Choices will be made whether or not you are involved, so you need to voice your opinion them.

Johnna

* I distinctly remember assigning homework related to that original post on finding science news and making science more important than Bieber. Remember, I can tell which of my links get clicked (no, not which of you personally clicked on which links). Well, you all failed miserably. Horrible click counts that day. Here’s your chance to repeat the assignment.

UPDATE: Check out the retraction of info from this post as a warning for being critical of even seemingly reputable on-line sources. Always follow the data down to a primary source!

A caveat on science news

Now that I’ve introduced you to the wider world of science news, I have to give you some warnings. When you read about scientific discoveries, make sure you have a look at the reference links and primary sources. Ultimately, stories should be based on peer-reviewed literature because those sources have been vetted by other experts within the same field. If there is no primary data, you have reason to be skeptical. Also, follow the money. A commercial interest means eventually someone is trying to sell you something and you may not be getting the whole truth.

Here is an example from Science Daily: N-fix

A researcher at the University of Nottingham has discovered a new way to make atmospheric nitrogen available to more crop plant species. Currently only some plant species (legumes) are capable of having a beneficial relationship with special bacteria capable of taking up atmospheric nitrogen and sharing it with their plant hosts. This reduces the need for nitrogen fertilizers. With this new ‘N-fix’ technology, a more promiscuous nitrogen-fixing bacterium has been discovered that can interact with non-legume plant species. This would mean a non-engineered, non-chemical solution for reducing the use of fertilizers.

Sounds great, right? Yes, but right now I would file this under science speculation. Show me the data.* The only reference is a press release from the University of Nottingham with the same information. Here is a skeptical response to the press release that breaks it down in more detail.

There a few issues at play here. The only source is a press release from the University of Nottingham, no corroborating evidence. The principle investigator has been researching this problem for a number of years, but scientists just can’t take each other’s word without data. The technology has been licensed to Azotic Technologies, Ltd. to commercially develop the product.

There’s the other issue. Let’s say that this new potentially revolutionary and profitable technology really works as described. The researcher and the university that has sponsored decades of research leading up to this technology have good reason to want to protect this intellectual property. Just shouting it from the rooftops could result in other companies with mega-development power swooping in and capitalizing on that work. Academic labs and universities are not equipped to commercially develop all possible technology spawned from the basic research conducted within its ivory towers. So, it makes sense to license (allow defined use or further development for a mutually agreed upon financial relationship) these technologies to commercial entities that are capable of developing them into marketable products. Eventually, Azotic Technologies Ltd. is going to have to show some data comparing crop yields for plants with and without the N-fix bacteria and/or fertilizer if they want to sell it. The optimist in me says, “I want to believe,” but, for now, there’s just no way to evaluate these findings.**

Bottom line: Always check the sources for science news and consider its legitimacy (peer-reviewed publication is always best). The absence of or questionable sources should send up some red flags.

Second bottom line: Commercializing practical technologies from basic academic research is its own minefield filled with problems beyond the science.***

The truth is out there, but be careful.

Johnna

*Say it ala Cuba Gooding Jr. (Show me the money!) in Jerry Macguire… several times… louder each time. Yeah, now you’ve got it. Do this every time you read a factual statement and you are well on your way to becoming a scientist.

**If you’re a gambler, find a way to invest in Azotic Technologies Ltd. before it gets bought out by Monsanto or Syngenta or another BigAg company. N-fix may be commercially available as seed coating in 2 -3 years.

***We’ll have to get into more of those details later.

Keeping up with Science

I’ve mentioned before that scientists need to do a better job at communicating status updates on their research via on-line tools and social media. While we are working on bringing the science to you, I thought I would compile a list of links for breaking science news. These sites and blogs translate the new findings from the scientific literature into understandable stories and place them in context for you. These will be permanently posted under the Science News and Blogs link on the Resources page. In addition to having their own websites, many also have active Facebook pages and Twitter feeds if you would ‘like’ to ‘follow’ them that way too.

Science News Sites

http://www.scientificamerican.com/

http://www.nationalgeographic.com/

http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/

http://www.popsci.com/

http://www.newscientist.com/

http://discovermagazine.com/

http://www.sciencedaily.com/

http://news.sciencemag.org/

http://www.eurekalert.org/

http://www.scicentral.com/

http://scienceseeker.org/

http://www.nytimes.com/pages/science/index.html

Blog Sites

Each of these sites hosts numerous science blogs from all different fields- scan them all or just find your favorite blogger to follow.

http://blogs.nature.com/

http://www.scilogs.com/

http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/

http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/category/science-blogs/

http://scienceblogs.com/

http://scientopia.org/blogs/

Of course, there are quite a few other science hacks like myself that are just running their own blogs. Once you start looking into groups that you normally keep up with (maybe your local school district, university departments, non-profit organizations), you will be surprised how many of these people are using online social media tools and blogs to spread useful new content.

Now, your homework assignment* is to click on some of these links** and bookmark your favorite (or two or three or more!) and/or sign up for their updates via your favorite social media outlet. Get connected to the latest happenings in the wider world of science!

Johnna

*No, I won’t be grading, but you should take 5-10 minutes out of your day to learn something new about the world around you.

**Well, the footnote above isn’t entirely true. The folks at WordPress keep up with a variety of statistics for me about my blog (what scientist is going to resist clicking on the stats link?). So I do know how many people have viewed my blog on any given day and which embedded links they clicked on. Creepy, right? Don’t worry you are still anonymous, but I do expect to see some clicking today people!

Plant resource links

Today I wanted to pass along a couple of useful websites that curate a ton of information on plant sciences. (Thanks to the folks in my Twitter feed for the links for these.) You can check them out from their links in this post and the permanent links on the Resources page.

Knowplants.org This site has tons of links to plant science resources including education and outreach material for learners of all ages, plant species databases as well as advanced education and career opportunities links in the plant sciences. The multimedia gallery with lots of plant images, microscopy pictures and time-lapse videos of plants. There is even a tab to find ‘plant science near you’ so you can find these elusive scientists I’ve been telling you to get to know. (Of course, you should get to know more than just plant scientists, but they are a great place to start.)

iPlant Collaborative This one’s for scientists. In the spirit of connecting the specific dots within the larger grand challenges in plant biology, the iPlant Collaborative is creating cyber-infrastructure to allow scientists to work better together. I’ve mentioned before how it takes scientists across numerous disciplines to solve the problems of sustainable agriculture and bioenergy production, but more than that- it takes these different scientists working together to make progress on these challenges. Eventually the piecemeal results of individual lab groups must be synthesized into a cohesive strategy for change. It’s a way to help standardize ‘big data’ analysis and make it accessible to all research groups. Instead of each group having its own programmers/analysts writing unique applications, researchers can use the cyber-infrastructure of the iPlant Collaborative to mine through large datasets and test models.

Johnna