A Science Journalist Ventures Into the Lab

Guest Post by Zachary Vasile

It can be difficult to record exactly how a writer thinks. This is not to mystify the brain of a writer, but to say that we often reason in incredibly convoluted and abstract ways, leaping from one thing to another, working in undisciplined bursts when the spirit takes us.

And herein lies the problem with science writing. Scholarly scientific articles should be, by all logical reckoning, the exact opposite of the artistic, writerly sensibility. Writing about science for non-scientists — unless it is going to be an unbearably dense and indecipherably technical tome — should be a paradox in terms. How can the deductive and detective rigidities of the scientific code be ordered in the shambled, distracted brain of the work-a-day wordsmith?

The solution to this problem — at least as far as I can see — is in a double dose of discomfort. For one, the scientists and academics of this world must be able to scale back their experience and remove the “blinders” that their immense knowledge has given them. They might not realize that the terms and processes they are familiar with are largely unknown to the world outside of their labs. They need to recognize that the average American knows no more of science than the most basic of terms and formulas, if that. The second dose of discomfort is to be swallowed by the writers: we need to do our homework. It is, quite simply, immature and lazy for reporters and writers, no matter their stripe, to not educate themselves before stepping into a story. There’s no reason to cram in five years of annotated med school, but we need to come to the party prepared with the basic language.

The Geiger Group at Northwestern University, who hosted my foray into nanoscience.   image source


When I was dispatched to the Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology at Northwestern University last fall, I was fortunate enough to encounter a group of scientists and researchers who understood that there is much work to be done when it comes to communicating scientific ideas to the general public. All in all, I can assuredly say that the tireless people I came into contact with were able to pull themselves out of their roles as scientists in order to connect with me on a far more unlearned level, and, for that, I am incredibly grateful.

But it did not start out that way.

Prior to traveling to the sprawling Evanston, Illinois campus, I had done what I considered to be a fairly extensive survey of the field of nanotechnology. I skimmed the relevant journals, scoured the Internet for diagrams, and poured over the research that had been published by the group within the past year. By the time I finally stepped into an early morning meeting of the larger nanotechnology group, I felt sure that there would be nothing on the table that I couldn’t handle.

It took about 16 seconds for that illusion of commensurate knowledge to collapse. Once the room had quieted down, one of the female graduate students took to the front of the room and began an exploration of the inconclusive results of an experiment dealing with second harmonic generation microscopy. Yes, 16 seconds  into the day and the main topic of this graduate student’s months-long experiment had literally never come up in any of my readings. And this was far from the only term that was foreign to me. It was not an auspicious start.

Dr. Franz Geiger, the thoughtful, fresh-faced professor-leader of the CSN project at Northwestern, sat in a chair off to my left, slightly behind me. With the precision of a razor, he detected every conceivable loose end and contingency in the proposals of his students. The detail of the discussions amazed me and made me reevaluate my mission in total. My previous assignments had included studying up and reporting on galactic goings-on at the Adler Planetarium in downtown Chicago, not exactly for slouches. But this immersive experience was  a whole different ballgame. As the conversation grew in voices and technicality, I felt increasingly like an ill-equipped Great War soldier in a muddy foxhole, watching, helplessly, as the fiery mortars and glowing tracers of scientific terminology whizzed back and forth, forever overhead. I was waiting for that theatrical moment when either Dr. Geiger or one of his students would turn to me and ask, in total earnestness, “Did you get all of that?”

Fortunately, my education came more easily than that. Over the course of three days, Dr. Geiger and the graduate students walked me through every detail of their experiments, zooming out to what must have seemed like an incredibly unsophisticated and macroscopic view of theories and ideas that are as tightly configured and precise as Swiss clockwork.

Alicia McGeachy, one of the graduate students, was my primary intermediary with the group. She quickly discovered that the best way to explain anything of real complexity was to boil it down to comparisons. Take something technical and complex and relate it into a process or thing that I am familiar with. Maybe it was just me, but this technique truly primed the neural pathways and brought me closer to what I was really researching.

For instance, when the CSN group talks about running experiments with a synthetic cell membrane, I envision the membrane as a literal wall around the cell. Of course, this isn’t in any way biologically correct. Animals cells do not have cell walls; plant and fungus cells do. But instead of delving into the complexities of what exactly constitutes a cell membrane, I can think about it like a wall so that I don’t bog myself down with semantics before I even get to the really challenging stuff. Yes, it is a compromise, but it is a needed one if I’m going to turn in a story on time.

A useful analogy for the cell membrane.   image source
A useful analogy for thinking about cell membranes.      image source

Of course, the fact that I wasn’t understanding most of what I was seeing on a purely and directly scientific level wasn’t just about being in a hurry; it isn’t really my job. My job is to figure out how to communicate. That is, how am I going to package this for the people who pick up my article? The real trick, I discovered, was to get as close as I could while tacitly acknowledging that my understanding is ultimately asymptotic. Like the math equation that traces bending lines closer and closer to but never touches the x or y axes, I can’t get all the way there — that would mean having the formal education of the people I’m writing about. But every little piece of the puzzle explained gets me a little closer.

One way to understand the experiments run by the CSN is to think of them as various iterations of a single underlying procedure. Essentially, nanoparticles are run across the surface of a silica-supported lipid bilayer, a lab-constructed synthetic cell membrane that is designed to function like the outside of an actual human cell. (See last week’s blog post for more details!)

Artist’s rendering of the lipid bilayer surrounding a typical human cell.            image source

A special high-powered laser records how the nanoparticles interact with the bilayer, if the two interact at all. Thus far, the project has focused primarily on four different types of widely used and researched nanoparticles: nano-gold, oxidized carbon nanotubes, nano-diamond, and lithium cobalt oxide. The ultimate goal is to discern which nanoparticles are safe and sustainable for commercial use.

The problem in dealing with an experiment of this scale is that it is one tiny piece of a very large puzzle. All in all, the experiments currently being run at Northwestern aren’t going to definitively tell us whether nano-gold, for instance, is safe to use. They will add to the growing body of scientific literature detailing the interactions between nanoparticles and biological materials, but they will not state anything conclusively. For journalists wishing to sell their discovery as the Next Big Thing, this is problematic. Science is notoriously reluctant to make big, brassy statements, and journalism more or less thrives on them. If the story isn’t going to have a big impact, the reasoning goes, why on Earth are you writing about it? Journalism as a field has not developed the literary maturity to deal with the cautious micro-steps that ultimately constitute forward advancement in science. This could be put down to a problem with the public and its consumption of media. After all, which headline is “sexier”?

 Scientists close in on cancer cure


 Researchers find promising bone marrow mutation that seems to limit tumor size
in 22% of tested individuals in early medical trials

Then again, which one is ultimately more truthful? Almost every week, it seems, a magazine or newspaper title screams about the impending cure for AIDS or another horrific disease, only for the article itself to reveal a technology or medicine in the very beginning stages of its development. If journalists really want the help of the scientific community, they need to understand the nuance and caution involved in the scientific process.

I personally feel that my article, which was posted to the Medill Reports website about a month after my meetings with the Geiger group, did a good job of hedging the promise of Northwestern’s discoveries. The public needs to realize that what that group is doing is significant, though not for reasons they may immediately understand. I’m not saying the article is a shining exemplar of science writing — like anything, it could have used more time and some increased polish- but with enough comparisons and metaphors, the piece works more often than it doesn’t. If I did my job, readers will finish the article with a better understanding of the methods and the importance of nanoscience than they had when they started.

At any rate, the lesson about improving science communication by getting uncomfortable is the same. If science writing is to get better, scientists must be willing to descend through the clouds to the world of mortals, and writers must be increasingly willing to take the elevator higher up than they’ve been before.