How Undergraduate Journals Foster Scientific Communication

Illustration by Yoo Jung Kim

“Too often, people ignore that a key part of being a scientific leader is being a communicator,” says Peter Kalugin, a senior at Johns Hopkins University.

But how can students start fostering the skills to communicate scientific concepts? National and institutional undergraduate science journals offer platforms in which participants can engage in science writing for students, by students. Many undergraduate journals publish original student research papers as well as science news and review articles that condense complex ideas into a written piece that–ideally–readers without an extensive science background can easily digest.

According to Kalugin, who is also the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Young Investigators (JYI), “Most of JYI’s readers are undergraduates, often from abroad, and interacting with our journal makes it easier for them to join the international scientific community. I think that the geographical and disciplinary breadth of the scientific dialogue in JYI makes it a unique way for young scientists from around the world to make lasting connections while exchanging their research.”

Cover of the Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science. Source: Wikipedia

1) Undergraduate Science Journals help students to summarize complex concepts

Students can also take advantage of the number of opportunities offered by undergraduate science journals to gain professional skills. First, writing articles pushes students to translate complex scientific concepts into a concise article that can describe the nature of and the importance of scientific findings to a wider audience. This process provides an opportunity for students to delve into their topic of interest and allows them to reinforce what they have learned.

By participating in a student-run research journal, Andy Zureick, a medical student at the University of Michigan and a former Editor-in-Chief of the Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science (DUJS), learned “how to report research findings in the form of a science news article and how to write a scientific review article and synthesize information from primary literature, news articles, textbooks, and other sources into a paper accessible to an audience with limited exposure to a particular field.” Zureick was able to pick up a number of useful skills in science communication.

2) Undergraduate Science Journals provide an opportunity for students to hone their writing skills

Moreover, students who participate in undergraduate science journals can also improve their writing skills in a supportive and low-risk environment and acquaint themselves in practices common in science journals and journalism in general, such as conducting peer-reviews and undertaking performing fact-checks to ensure that an article is as accurate as possible.

“It’s through journals like JYI that students can learn to write and talk comfortably in a scientific context,” says Kalugin. Proficiency in verbal communication is a valued skill in any field. Working closely with a peer editor who can pinpoint problems in a written piece can can help student writers to learn critical skills like avoiding grammar errors and organizing their ideas effectively.

Zureick credits the DUJS’s emphasis on training and education for guiding him through the–at first, daunting–writing process by pairing him up with more experienced upperclassmen editors. “ I was initially intimidated when initially faced with the challenge of writing an article on a specific area of science in which I was nowhere near an expert, but with the mentorship and guidance of upperclassmen running the DUJS at the time, I learned how to effectively communicate key findings and takeaways in otherwise dense articles or science lectures.”

“I’ve already used what I learned from my experiences with the DUJS in various scholarly endeavors in medical school, and I’m grateful to have had the formative experience I did as an undergraduate science journalist and editor.” The skills that Andy picked up at Dartmouth have come in handy, now that he finds himself training for a career as a clinician-investigator.

3) Undergraduate Science Journals introduces students to the world of academic articles

Noor Al-Alusi, the Co-Editor-in-Chief of the UCLA Undergraduate Science Journal, also points out the skills that students can gain by taking on the leadership of these publications, which can often be complex. “I’ve had to develop the ability to evaluate research in fields other than my own specialty. By reviewing and editing articles, I have also learned how to quickly spot critical characteristics of strong or weak research articles.”

This sentiment is echoed by Kalugin, “Writing about science is an indispensable part of every academic career, and I feel that my work with JYI has prepared me well for this task. In addition, I have learned how to better manage a large group of my peers, a skill that will be critical when I start my own lab in the future.” Kalugin is also confident that the skills that he is learning on the job will help him in his own path in becoming a physician-scientist.

Thanks to the Internet, students are getting a taste for scientific writing by contributing to and organizing a host of undergraduate science journals, thereby creating a new generation of scientists who are ready to communicate their findings to the general public.

Category: Higher Ed, Informal Science Education, Public understanding of science, Science communication | Leave a comment

Guest Post: The Nobel’s Might-Have-Beens

Our contributor and illustrator Yoo Jung Kim is already back with more!


Illustration by Yoo Jung Kim

Last week, James Watson, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, auctioned his Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for $4.7 million, only days before the 2014 Nobel Ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden. In an interview with the Financial Times, Watson said in an that one of the reasons for selling his award was because he was being shunned by the scientific community as a “non-person”–ostensibly for Watson’s racist and sexist remarks. His high-profile stunt revived a host of charges that had been leveled against him for years, the chief of which was failing to credit Rosalind Franklin–a chemist who had been studying X-ray diffraction images that eventually allowed Watson and Francis Crick to be the first to unlock the structure of the DNA.

Rosalind Franklin passed away in 1958 of ovarian cancer–thereby precluding her from sharing the 1962 Nobel Prize. Even Watson wrote in DNA: The Secret of Life, that had Franklin been alive, the committee would have ideally given Franklin and her collaborator Maurice Wilkins, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry along with Watson and Crick’s original award for Physiology or Medicine [1].

Here are some of other scientists who history is convinced was snubbed of the Nobel:

  • Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) was an American engineer famous for his numerous idiosyncrasies and inventions, such as his contribution to the development of the Alternating Current (A.C.). History also remembers Tesla for his famous feud with Thomas Edison, who also never received a Nobel Prize. Interestingly, in 1915, the Literary Digest and The Electrical World of New York reported that the Nobel Prize in Physics would be shared by Tesla and Edison. Later, however, a Reuter’s dispatch from Sweden noted that the year’s Nobel Prize would actually be awarded to William Henry Bragg and his son [2]. Although no official explanation has ever been given for this mix-up, historians have suggested that Tesla and Edison’s animosity toward each other may have cost both men the Nobel Prize in Physics, as the two had each refused share the award or to accept the award if the other had won it before he had [3].
  • Dmitri Ivanovitch Mendeleev (1834-1907) was a Russian chemist who is to credit for the periodic table of elements that looms over students in science classrooms. In 1906, Mendeleev had been recommended by the Nobel Committee for Chemistry and the Chemistry Section of the Swedish Academy, with the expectation that the greater Swedish Academy would approve. However, the nomination was thwarted by Svante Arrhenius. Arrhenius was not an official part of the decision-making process, but he had nursed a grudge against Mendeleev, who had–incorrectly–criticized Arrhenius’s ionic dissociation theory. Arrhenius used his influence to prevent Mendeleev from receiving the Nobel, which instead went to the French chemist Henri Moissan for isolating the pure form of Fluorine. In 1907, committee members made another attempt to give Mendeleev the award, only to be thwarted again by Arrhenius. Unfortunately, Mendeleev died in 1907, thereby disqualifying him from future considerations for the Nobel Prize.
  • Lise Meitner (1878-1968) was an Austrian Jewish physicist who was the first to discover nuclear fission with Otto Hahn, a German chemist. The two had worked together in Berlin as part of a European scientific race to see whether it was possible to create an element heavier than uranium. By the 1930s, due to the rise of Nazi Germany, Meitner was forced to resign from her post and later fled Germany, eventually taking a research position in Stockholm. Meitner continued to correspond with Hahn, and in 1939, Hahn published the result of their collaboration without crediting Meitner a co-author, a decision she understood to be a result of the rampant anti-semitism of Nazi Germany. By the end of the war, Hahn had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1944. However, later in his career, Hahn began to discount the importance of Meitner’s contributions, stating that his experiments had not been guided by her findings [5]. Historians have also suggested that Meitner’s contributions were minimized and overlooked during the nomination process because of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry’s “haste” and “disciplinary bias” [6].

Do you have a favorite scientist missing from the Nobel (or from our missed Nobel) list?



[1] Beckwith, Jon. “Double Take on the Double Helix.” (2003): 354-358.

[2] “Controversy about This Year’s Nobel Prize in Medicine.” Tesla Memorial Society of New York. January 1, 2003. Accessed December 9, 2014.

[3] Stewart, Daniel Blair. Tesla: the modern sorcerer. Frog Books, 1999.

[4] Friedman, Robert Marc. The politics of excellence. Times Books, 2001.

[5] Sime, Ruth. “The Woman Behind the Bomb.” The Washington Post, March 17, 1996. Accessed December 8, 2014.

[6] Crawford, Elisabeth, Ruth Lewin Sime, and Mark Walker. “A Nobel tale of postwar injustice.” Physics Today 50, no. 9 (2008): 26-32.

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Guest post: Summer research programs offer a window to academic careers

To remove the cobwebs on this Sci-Ed blog, we welcome new poster Yoo Jung Kim, a recent Biology graduate of Dartmouth College and a post-baccalaureate research fellow at NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute. In addition to being a scientist and a science writer, Yoo Jung is also a cartoonist and author of the illustration below.

Illustration by Yoo Jung Kim

A laboratory researcher dreams of becoming a PhD scientist. Illustration by Yoo Jung Kim

Scientific research is a laborious process, and many unsuspecting doctoral students may end up failing to complete their degrees. How can a student find out in advance if the realities of a science Ph.D. career is in line with their interests and future goals?

We believe getting students exposed to scientific research early on is a great help. And while many successful applicants manage to squeeze in significant research experience during the school year, their focus is often split by the academic and social demands of student life. Fortunately, a number of research institutions offer students–and in some cases, recent graduates–an opportunity to take the summer to conduct full-time research through programs called Research Experience for Students (REU), Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP), or a variation thereof. These programs pair students with a principal investigator who also serve as a mentor, allowing participants to experience the day-to-day realities of STEM research.

Sarah Hammer, a current senior at Dartmouth College, was selected to participate in the 2014 Summer Research Opportunity Program (SROP) at the University of Michigan.

According to Sarah, “My goal was to engineer Escherichia coli for efficient cellulosic isobutanol production in co-culture with the fungus Trichoderma reesei. The project gave me the opportunity to learn techniques such as isolating and purifying DNA and RNA, genetic transformation and transduction, PCR, gel electrophoresis, and spectrophotometry. Overall, the feeling of being part of a scientific research group was rewarding and inspiring.”

Programs like SROP provide students free rooming and board, a modest stipend, and workshops to help participants apply to graduate schools. For instance, SROP arranged weekly seminars on topics such as personal and academic statements for graduate school applications, resumés and CVs, external funding, and networking. SROP also provided complimentary GRE preparation course, an opportunity for participants give oral presentations summarizing their research to the public, and a culminating poster symposium.

Sarah credits the University of Michigan SROP with helping her understand what a future in research would entail. “The program exposed me to a research environment typical of graduate school, confirming my desire to continue my education and pursue a Ph.D.”

While most summer research programs like SROP target current undergraduates, a few structured research programs provide research opportunities for recent graduates in addition to students from graduate and professional schools. For instance, Adam Lipson had been working as a clinical coordinator for two years and had already been accepted to Temple University School of Medicine when he began his stint on the Summer Internship Program (SIP), sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Adam wanted to “get a feel for the NIH and to see how and to see where some of the world’s foremost medical research was conducted.”

As an undergraduate at Boston University, Adam had been fascinated by the complexity of brain sciences and the possibilities of clinical research, and he had always hoped to combine these dual interests into fulfilling career. Adam thought that he would take advantage of the new Masters in Clinical Translational Research program offered by Temple University. However, following his summer stint at the NIH and upon completing his first semester of medical school, Adam found that he wanted a more substantive research experience and applied internally into Temple’s M.D.-Ph.D. program, which would allow him to conduct research and earn a Ph.D. from Temple’s Biomedical Sciences Graduate Program in the middle of his medical training.

According to Adam, “I had always toyed with the idea of pursuing an M.D.-Ph.D–I knew that research was more than just a hobby, though I never really intended on becoming, solely, a bench researcher. This end, I suppose, was inspired–in part–by my time at the NIH–I saw how my mentor incorporated her research into her clinical practice, and attending advising programs and seminars hosted by NINDS highlighting the pursuits of physician-scientists helped to push me in my current direction.”

University of Michigan’s SROP and NIH’s SIP allowed Sarah and Adam to confirm the importance of STEM within the context of their future careers, and SROP and SIP are just two of the many organized summer research programs throughout the country. For many, these programs serve as a gateway to a lifetime of scientific discoveries, exposing students and recent graduates to the realities of STEM research–from the frustrations of failed experiments to the satisfaction contributing newly-uncovered knowledge to the scientific community and everything inbetween.

Related programs:

University of Michigan Summer Research Opportunity Program (SROP):

National Institutes of Health Summer Internship Program (SIP):

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Book Review: An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth

Commander Chris Hadfield captured the world’s imagination last year, when, from 13 March to 13 May 2013, he was the first Canadian Commander of the International Space Station. While aboard the ISS, Commander Hadfield did a series of “experiments,” both for scientists, but, perhaps most importantly, for youth. This included genuinely interesting questions like “How do you cry in space? (video above)” and “How do you cut your nails?” and the always important “How do you go to the bathroom?” His amicable nature and genuinely infectious enthusiasm brought science to the masses, and helped inspire thousands of youth.

Commander Hadfield performed at the 2013 Canada Day celebrations in Ottawa, ON | Picture courtesy David Johnson, click for more info

Commander Hadfield performed at the 2013 Canada Day celebrations in Ottawa, ON | Picture courtesy David Johnson, click for more info

Recently, Chris Hadfield released his book – “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth.” My sister waited in line for 3 hours at our local Costco to get me a signed copy for my birthday, and I finally got around to reading it for this review. The book follows the life of Chris Hadfield as he becomes the commander of Expedition 35, detailing his attitude and the path he took to become the first Canadian Commander of the ISS. The book is split into three broad sections leading up to Expedition 35 titled “Pre-Launch,” “Liftoff” and “Coming Down to Earth,” with several chapters within each section.

The book was fascinating to me – Hadfield is a hybrid pilot-engineer-scientist-lab rat. His expertise is in engineering and as a test pilot, but throughout the book he references how his work is interdisciplinary, and he has to have a broad understanding of several domains in order to be effective. In addition to his role as an astronaut and Commander, he is also a fully fledged lab rat, and people on the ground will ask him questions about how he’s feeling, take samples while he’s in space and after he returns, as well as measure how quickly he recovers to life back on Earth in order to further our understanding about how life in space impacts the human body. Since, at some point, we hope to explore the stars, any data we can get on how astronauts respond to life in space is valuable.

One of my favourite parts of the book was how it didn’t just focus on the mundane, it relished them. He spends pages describing the drills he went through, and how important have a strong grasp of the fundamentals was for his success. I found this refreshing – too often in science we glorify the achievements but ignore all the hard work that got them there. A breakthrough in the lab might take months or even years of work before things go right, and having some acknowledge that, not only do things not work (often), them not working is not the end of the world. This was a refreshing take on the scientific method, and really highlighted the value in “the grind” of slowly perfecting your skills.

Click the book cover for purchasing options!

Click the book cover for purchasing options!

He also has a certain brand of “folksy wisdom” that is inspiring in it’s own way. It’s not inspirational in the nauseating sense that these things are often written in, but more practical. He states the importance of reading the team dynamic before getting involved for example, or how important it is to really understand the nuts and bolts of what you’re doing, but at no point does that feel patronizing or “hey, look at me, I’m an astronaut!” For many budding scientists, the idea of trudging through another page of equations, or washing beakers, or just doing the mundane, less exciting parts of science makes you apathetic and bored. Hadfield takes this moments and stresses just how important it is to learn from them, as well as ensure that you know exactly why they are important. I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in STEM careers, and especially those early in their careers.

To purchase, check out Chris Hadfield’s official website.

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Sci-Ed: Guest Post Policy

One of our favourite things to do here at PLOS Blogs Sci-Ed is to get guest posts from other science communicators. They provide us with perspectives and views we otherwise wouldn’t be able to cover, and they have been very well received by our audience. Given this we have decided to open the process.

As we recently did over on Public Health Perspectives, in the interests of transparency, we have developed a series of guidelines for anyone interested in posting with us, as well as an outline of how we approach guest posts. If you have any other questions, don’t hesitate to contact us at the email below.

We have three basic guidelines for those interested:

  1. No self-promotion. While we appreciate that people will post about issues they are passionate about, we will not accept posts promoting your business, fundraising, or publicizing an event you’re organizing. However, if you have done an event or published recently and want to discuss or reflect on it, that is okay.
  2. All posts must have scientific backing. Commentaries and opinion pieces can be considered, however, they have to be backed up with evidence. Sensationalist language and fear-mongering are unacceptable. The exception is for posts about novel teaching methods that you have used and have been successful.
  3. Posts must be written for a generalist audience. We have a diverse reader base, and so we will be looking specifically for pieces that explain ideas and concepts clearly to non-specialists in the field.

What we suggest is that anyone interested in posting with us send us an email with a 1-2 paragraph outline of your piece. We will provide feedback, and let you know if there are any red flags that come up. Assuming everything is fine, we’ll then send it back to you to write up into a 600-1000 word blog post. We’ll provide input on the final document, and if we still think it’s a good fit, we’ll schedule it for publication. If not, the piece is yours, so you’re welcome to submit it anywhere else that accepts guest posts.

If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to let us know!

Cristina, John and Atif


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Guest post: Interpreting Lemurs

Chris Smith was one of the first people I met in Raleigh. He showed up at the hotel in a big van, carrying a clipboard with a list of 20 names.  

Chris and I had been talking before. We had discussed Sci-Ed projects via email. We chatted over a Southern breakfast of biscuits and gravy. I even made pushy requests (e.g., can I follow you around with a camera and microphone?), to which he consented with shy enthusiasm.

 That clipboard list of 20 names included mine. Chris took the group of 19 and I to a tour of the Duke Lemur Center. But it was on the tour that I witnessed a transformation in our host. Something about his tone of voice, posture, and eye contact had changed. Chris had morphed into a confident, lemur-authority science interpreter. 

Atop the tallest pine tree, Kizzy sat poised and tense. Then, like a skydiver jumping from a plane, she leapt from the branches. Arms and legs outstretched, she crashed through the tangle and landed with a big bear hug onto a small limb below. Black and white ruffed lemurs are not the most graceful of lemurs.

If you read Sci-Ed regularly, then we’ve met. I was the guide and narrator of Cristina’s Lemur Week videos (Part I and Part II). I work at the Duke Lemur Center, the world’s largest collection of lemurs outside of their native Madagascar. The Center houses over 250 animals on 70 acres in Durham, NC. I serve as the education specialist, and it’s my job to introduce people to the world of lemurs. I take small groups of visitors on guided tours of the facilities. Our goal is to get them close to the lemurs so they can see why lemurs are so special.


Kizzy, the black and white lemur, leaping through the forest. Photo courtesy of Duke Lemur Center/David Haring.

That morning, the tour group and I had been in the forested free-range enclosures for only a few minutes before the lemurs descended. As we watched Kizzy and her four sons come crashing down, I talked to the group about the lemurs who roam free in the forest. Lemurs are primates – the most ancient primates on Earth, in fact. Evolved more than 60 million years ago, lemurs found themselves in isolated Madagascar and over time adapted into more than 80 unique species, with characteristics and behaviors all their own. Today, lemurs are considered the most endangered group of mammals on the planet. More than 90% of all species are threatened with extinction. Some could disappear in as few a ten years.  Now surrounding us, the lemurs furiously clamored for their treats as the keeper tossed crunchy chow around. I took the opportunity to talk about the diet, foraging behavior and social interactions between lemurs. The visitors smiled, laughed and gasped while these ruffed lemurs ate, jumped, and squabbled over food.

A science interpreter facilitates learning

The role of an interpreter (that’s me) is to reveal the “awesome.” Interpretation in museums or zoos goes beyond reciting facts. It’s about building an emotional connection with the audience. Interpretation done well meets the audience intellectually and provokes their own curiosity. It’s a way of communicating that involves connecting the visitor to the resource through the experience. The goal is to promote action on the part of the participant: to learn more, share what they’ve learned with others or take action directly on the issue.

At the Lemur Center, I try to get visitors as close to the animals as possible while highlighting the different aspects of lemurs’ lives, research and conservation. When the blue-eyed black lemur stares at visitors, guests often comment on the beauty of the lemur’s blazing blue eyes. I can use that as a perfect opportunity. Only 4 primate species have individuals with blue eyes (one of them is humans), but only in blue-eyed black lemurs do each individual possess this trait. They’re also critically endangered, and their unique genetic distinction could disappear forever due to habitat loss. The Duke Lemur Center houses the only two breeding females in captivity.

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A black blue-eyed lemur. Photo courtesy of Duke Lemur Center/David Haring.

The combination of fluffy, bright-eyed animals and a knowledgeable guide is magic for guest experience and education. Ballantyne et al. (2007) studied the impacts of different animal exhibits and interpretation schemes at zoos and found that when guests can see an active animal and they have someone to easily explain what they’re seeing, guests learn more. Interpretive programs have been shown to positively influence environmental awareness and conservation action in visitors to natural heritage sites (Zeppell 2008). These effects were discussed in Sci-Ed previously, here, here and here.

I conducted my own little research project at the Lemur Center and asked a few people about their experiences on the forest tour. Why did they visit? What did they like? What do they remember most? In the course of my conversations, no one would really own up to having learned anything. Still, they were able to tell me many lemur stories, including ring-tailed lemur stink fights, aye-ayes with rodent-like incisors, or a ruffed lemur’s loud, barking call. Guests were receiving information, but the emotional response to seeing the animals up close made them receptive to the information.

Kizzy and her family withdrew to the treetops to sunbathe. As I lead the guests out of the forest, they continue to ask me questions and talk about the experience. We still have more lemurs to meet, and I have more information to share. I’ll see their pictures on Instagram later in the afternoon – a sure sign:  they’ll be lemur lovers for life.

Chris Smith talks about Madagascar to his tour group. Photo by Cristina Russo.

Chris Smith talks about Madagascar to his tour group. Photo by Cristina Russo.


  1. Conservation learning in wildlife tourism settings: lessons from research in zoos and aquariums. R. Ballantyne, J. Packer, K. Hughes, L. Dierking. Environmental Education Research, Vol. 13, Iss. 3, 2007

  2. Education and Conservation Benefits of Marine Wildlife Tours: Developing Free-Choice Learning Experiences. Heather Zeppel, The Journal of Environmental Education. Vol. 39, Iss. 3, 2008

Category: Guest Posts, Informal Science Education, Public understanding of science, Science communication, Science education research | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Thank You Charles – an evolutionary biologist’s journey.

In 2009 my wife Aqila wanted to go to England to see Blur play a concert in Hyde Park.  I was in, under one condition, we take a day for me to go to Darwin’s home in Kent and pay homage to a man who suffered so I could understand.

I love Blur, and seeing them in Hyde Park with 80,000 people was an epic experience. But Blur aside it was time to make my pilgrimage and pay my respects to one of the most influential men in my life.

My Darwin journey started at Westminster Abbey. This is Darwin’s final resting place. I expected to find an ornate monument, but was greeted by a modest stone that simple says “CHARLES ROBERT DARWIN BORN 12 FEBRUARY 1809. DIED 19 APRIL 1882.” It was a fitting grave for a man who preferred to be in his study rather than in the spotlight.

I just sort of stood for awhile, looking for some sort of emotional response, but nothing of significance came forth.  It was just a stone, there were crowds of people, crying children, and little atmosphere for reflection.

The next day we took a train, two buses, and walked 30 minutes down a narrow road with no sidewalks to Down House. We took the tour of the house with a small group and I began to feel a tinge of emotion. As we toured from room to room seeing the actual spot Darwin worked I started to get a surreal feeling. The reality of where I was, the significance of this spot to me personally, began to set in.  My whole life has been guided by work that was penned in this very spot.

I finally started to feel the twinges of emotion I was looking for when I stepped onto Darwin’s walking path. This is the famous sand path around the property that Darwin would walk each day, losing himself in thought as he slowly walked the length of his expansive country home. He often stated it was during these walks that he was able to put together the pieces of his theory. It calmed his ailing stomach and let his mind go free.

A section of the sand path Darwin would walk each day.

A section of the sand path Darwin would walk each day.

I began to walk the path. I felt an initial giddiness but as I moved further from the house and other people I began to feel it. Soon I had left the crowds behind and I was alone in the woods.  As I walked the path my mind began to wander, I thought of Darwin walking this path as I am now. I thought of natural selection, the origin of humans, and the greatness of his theory…..but then my mind wandered and the world around me slipped away….

…I was in my Catholic school training classes (CCD), in the sixth grade, a nun was scorning me for talking about evolution during class….

…8th grade forced to sit alone in CCD to reflect why I shouldn’t ask the nun how God created us when we evolved from primates…

…I saw myself stomping through local ponds in my hometown collecting anything living and placing them in a coffee can. Marveling at the variety of nature, to young to articulate the beautiful words of Darwin “…from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved…”

The present world slipped away and I was watching the film of my life play before me. There I was entering college to pursue a career in science…

…sitting in the Smithsonian studying Komodo dragon behavior…

…teaching evolution to seniors in a class I designed as the head of science at a private school….

…and here I am in England….my life, my whole life guided by a theory that was born right here….I became completely overwhelmed…I thought of Darwin walking this path, suffering intense physical and mental pain as his mind penned the words of his life’s work.

I wanted so badly to tell Darwin thank you, that his work answered the question that no one could answer for me during my young life. I knew it could never be. Sadly I kicked a stone on the path on my final lap. Then it hit me. I remembered a snippet I read about Darwin.  He would put a small pile of stones down and would kick them aside as he walked so he didn’t have to be bothered mentally to remember what lap he was on….. and it came full circle……there I was kicking stones on the sand path at Down House….and for a moment….I was as close to Darwin as I could be.  I picked up the rock I kicked and held it, the only tangible connection I would ever have and kept it.

So as I sit here at my desk as Cosmos plays in the background.  My wife occasionally asks me what I am so intensely focused on…

I guess I was just trying to find a way to simply say…

….Thank you Charles, I am eternally grateful. Your suffering put mine to rest.


[This is an excerpt from a previous blog most modified for PLoS]

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Say Hello to the Nation’s T-rex

“Anyone here doesn’t like T-rex?”

No hands were raised, but the packed auditorium welcomed Jack Horner with laughter and enthusiasm. The paleontologist climbed into the Smithsonian stage, and with flailing arms declared: “I’m going to talk about a very special T-rex”.


A replica of a T-rex skull with human size comparison.

The special Tyrannosaurus traveled via Fedex truck.

It was packed inside wood crates.

This famous dinosaur has a stage name: Wankel T-rex. An arm fossil bone was first uncovered by Kathy Wankel (pronounced WON-kal) in 1988, and later rescued by Horner’s team of paleontologists and graduate students.


Jack Horner. Photo by the author.

The Wankel T-rex was the largest and most complete specimen found at the time (and still stands as one of the most complete ever found, right after Sue). Last week, the dinosaur made it’s trip to Washington DC, to reside at the Natural History museum. It was received by director Kirk Johnson and the press with great fanfare. Photographers fought to get a close-up shot of the locked crates. One box, of a size that could house a widescreen TV, was labeled “WOW”. It contained a piece of the T-rex mandible, cheekbones, and banana-sized teeth.

A few days later, the community got a chance to to get involved. I joined in as the crowd filled the Smithsonian auditorium to hear from Horner, Johnson, and curator Matt Carrano. We were even introduced to Ms. Wankel, who recounted her discovery tale.

“Wait a minute, I found something out here”, said Ms. Wankel’s husband Tom. “I think I found something bigger out here”, said Ms. Wankel referring to an old and porous dinosaur arm bone.


Kirk Johnson. Photo by the author.

“I wonder if it’s real.”

I’d risk saying that’s the most frequent question museum visitors ask. They have to hear from the museum staff, that yes – those bones belonged to a tyrant dinosaur over 60 million years ago.

Visitors to the Smithsonian will get an affirmative answer to that question, and hopefully marvel at that titanic creature. Hopefully that celebrity T-rex will attract many new people to the science museum.

After all, there’s not a person who dislikes T-rex.

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Judging science fairs: 10/10 Privilege, 0/10 Ability

Every year, I make a point of rounding up students in my department and encouraging them to volunteer one evening judging our local science fair. This year, the fair was held at the start of April, and featured over 200 judges and hundreds of projects from young scientists in grades 5 through to 12, with the winners going on to the National Championships.

President Obama welcomes some young scientists to the White House | Photo via USDAGov

President Obama welcomes some young scientists to the White House | Photo via USDAGov

Perhaps the most rewarding part of volunteering your time, and the reason why I encourage colleagues to participate is when you see just how excited the youth are for their projects. It doesn’t matter what the project is, most of the students are thrilled to be there. Add to that how A Real Life Scientist (TM) wants to talk to them about their project? It’s a highlight for many of the students. As a graduate student, the desire to do science for science’s sake is something that gets drilled out of you quickly as you follow the Williams Sonoma/Jamie Oliver Chemistry 101 Cookbook, where you add 50 g Chemical A to 50 of Chemical B and record what colour the mixture turns. Being around  excitement based purely on the pursuit of science is refreshing.

However, the aspect of judging science fairs that I struggle most with is how to deal with the wide range of projects. How do you judge two projects on the same criteria where one used university resources (labs, mass spectrometers, centrifuges etc) and the other looked at how high balls bounce when you drop them. It becomes incredibly difficult as a judge to remain objective when one project is closer in scope to an undergraduate research project and the other is more your typical kitchen cabinet/garage equipment project. Even within two students who do the same project, there is variability depending on whether or not they have someone who can help them at home, or access to facilities through their school or parents social network.

As the title suggests, this is an issue of privilege. Having people at home who can help, either directly by providing guidance and helping do the project, or indirectly by providing access to resources, gives these kids a huge leg up over their peers. As Erin pointed out in her piece last year:

A 2009 study of the Canada-Wide Science Fair found that found that fair participants were elite not just in their understanding of science, but in their finances and social network. The study looked at participants and winners from the 2002-2008 Fairs, and found that the students were more likely to come from advantaged middle to upper class families and had access to equipment in universities or laboratories through their social connections (emphasis mine).

So the youth who are getting to these fairs are definitely qualified to be there – they know the project, and they understand the scientific method. They’re explaining advanced concepts clearly and understand the material. The problem becomes how does one objectively deal with this? You can’t punish the student because they used the resources available to them, especially if they show mastery of the concepts. But can you really evaluate them on the same stage and using the same criteria as their peers without access to those resources, especially when part of the criteria includes the scientific merit of the project?

The fair, to their credit, took a very proactive approach to this concern, which was especially prudent given the makeup of this area where some kids have opportunities and others simply don’t. Their advice was to judge the projects independently, and judge the kids on the strength of their presentation and understanding. But again, there’s an element of privilege behind this. The kids who have parents and mentors who can coach them and prepare them for how to answer questions, or even just give them an opportunity/push them to practice their talk, will obviously do better.

The science fair acts as a microcosm for our entire academic system, from undergrad into graduate and professional school and into later careers. The students who can afford to volunteer in labs over the summer during undergrad are more likely to make it into highly competitive graduate programs as they have “relevant experience,” while their peers who have to work minimum wage positions to pay tuition or student loans are going to be left behind. The system is structured to reward privilege – when was the last time an undergrad or graduate scholarship considered “work history” as opposed to “relevant work experience?” Most ask for a resume or curriculum vitae, where one could theoretically include that experience, but if the ranking criteria look for “relevant” work experience, which working at Starbucks doesn’t include, how do those students compete for the same scholarships? This is despite how working any job does help you develop various transferable skills including time management and conflict resolution. And that doesn’t even begin to consider the negative stigma many professors hold for this type of employment.

The question thus is: Are we okay with this? Are we okay with a system where, based purely on luck, some kids are given opportunities, while others aren’t? And if not, how do we start tackling it?




Disclaimer: I’ve focused on economic privilege here, but privilege comes in many different forms. I’m not going to wade into the other forms, but for some excellent reads, take a read of this, this and this.

Category: Equity in science education, Higher Ed, Informal Science Education, Open science, Public understanding of science, Science communication, Science teaching | Tagged , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Why Don’t You Love What I Love?

There is an unexplainable phenomenon in the zoo world.  People will pass by an exhibit with an incredibly unique animal in it and  barely give it a glance. Put a human in there, even just cleaning the glass with a squeegee and the next thing you know there is a crowd watching intently to see what the human will do next.  Now imagine this, in front of the komodo dragon cage at the reptile house you have two scientists in chairs roped off so people cannot get too close. A  third is in the cage interacting with a dragon. This is the five alarm fire of the zoo world. People desperately trying to see what is going on, literally  rubbernecking a scientific experiment.  Invariably someone would always ask, “So what are you guys doing?”  I would go into the detailed explanation of the experiment, because they were there and they asked and I presumed they really wanted to know. Plus I loved Komodo dragons and wanted everyone to love them like I did.  It was here I discovered the different degrees of  “wanting to know”.

Author (on left) with Trooper Walsh in a Komodo Dragon enclosure at the NZP. Humans in enclosures always draw a crowd.

Author (on left) with Trooper Walsh in a Komodo Dragon enclosure. Humans in enclosures always draw a crowd.

I found that the majority of the time I was diluting this impressive animal to an understandable set of basic behaviors because the complexity was lost on the general public and they didn’t care about the specific jargon I was using. They wanted the simple bread and butter version of the answer, not the entree.

None of my friends are really that into reptiles, and none of them really care about how many tongue flicks or claw rakes we recorded that day. Believe me, I wanted them to, I desperately wanted them to ask me and genuinely care about my answer. I mean this was a study to see if Komodo dragons exhibited play behavior. Something that is on the more interesting spectrum of the reptile research scale.

Believe me, this sucks. I often couldn’t figure out why everyone didn’t love Komodo dragons as much as I loved them. But 11 years ago I made a conscious decision to change that. I left research to become a high school science teacher because for me it was about getting the awareness out to young people and to champion for an underappreciated group of animals.

So after a decade in a classroom and many, many, many mistakes I feel I have found a decent balance as a science communicator.  I admit I have an unfair advantage, I have real time metrics in front of me on a daily basis. I get to utilize various forms of explanations and see how they are received by my audience. I get to see what works and what doesn’t and then refine them two or three more times that day until I have them perfected.  Not only that but my audience often replies back with brutal and blunt honesty.  High school students will let you know if you are coming across in a condescending manner. A lot of people, and myself included , are unaware that their methods of explanation often have a condescending tone to them. It is not purposeful, but sometimes unavoidable when the person is in the position of explainer. It takes a while to pick up on your own cues and attempt to avoid them.

If you really wanted to get offended, try discussing something you passionately love and put a lot of work into what you think is a great lesson only to be met with yawns, blank stares, glances at the clock, and snoring. It takes a lot of strength to not take it personal, even when it is.

So where does this all fit? Well the one thing a teacher has to know before they begin a lesson is “what is my end goal? What do I want to achieve with my communication? Do I want to explain? Do I want to inform? Do I want to infect? Do I want to extrapolate?” All these come with much different methods of communicating.

In science education I can’t avoid the jargon, but I need to know when to drop it into play. If I throw complex words right out from the get go and say “memorize the words” then I lost them. If I come up with a great analogy or metaphor that the students can relate to and then slide the word in there I have them hooked. I need to sell them on cell division before I introduce mitosis. I need to make them feel like they were asking me if there was a specific word for what I was describing instead of telling them the word and describing what it means.

A subtle trick I use to hook my students is to discuss the material is to pretend I am searching for the right word and let them fill in the blank for me.  This makes them feel like they are contributing to the explanation process and lets me know they are getting it.

My end goal with my students is to get them interested in science.  At this point as juniors in high school it is not important to me that they understand every detail of biology, but that they have an interest in understanding it.  I have seen this with freshman students taking a conceptual physics course. The students are  begging their teacher to learn trigonometry so they can better understand what is happening when they launch a projective off their desk.

Yes, begging to learn trigonometry. Why? Because they were hooked by the bread and butter and  are now hungry for the main course. This is why the first thing I do in Chemistry is drop a gummy bear into molten potassium chlorate. Hook the students with a dazzling example of candy becoming bright light and make them want to learn more.

I truly believe that the role of the scientist is changing. With the advent of blogging, twitter, and social media scientists are becoming accessible to the general public, and we want to be accessible because we love our science and want people to love it as much as we do.  But we need to realize if they did love it as much as us we would be talking to a fellow scientist, not a layperson.

Follow John Romano on Twitter at @paleoromano

[This is an excerpt from a longer blog I wrote on my personal site. It has been edited to reflect the audience of PLoS]

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