The 2016 Lorne Trottier Public Science Symposium

The 2016 Lorne Trottier Public Science Symposium took place in Montreal on October 17 and 18. This year’s event, entitled Science and the Media: The challenge of reporting science responsibly, offered public lectures from four prominent science journalists. The talks all focused on one main theme: the role of the media in interpreting science and communicating its ideas to the public. Scientific papers often include technical jargon, making them rather inaccessible to the general public. As such, journalists become the interface between the scientific community and the wider population.

DAY 1

The first guest speaker was Julia Belluz, the senior health correspondent for the news website Vox. She brought the issue to light by highlighting the degree to which misinformation permeates the media, and the responsibility that science journalists carry. To report science responsibly, she outlined a five-step plan that she abbreviates as ISCES (not the terrorist group, she assured).

  1. Infiltrate. Ms. Belluz’s first recommendation was to “avoid preaching to the converted,” and to reach out to audiences that normally wouldn’t be reached. She suggested that journalists use YouTube and social media as outlets to reach wider and atypical audiences.
  2. Shame. Her second recommendation was to hold people accountable for poor scientific journalism. In addition to the journalists responsible for misleading articles, the publishers should be penalized for enabling irresponsible reporting.
  3. Contextualize. When reporting on quackery, Ms. Belluz asserted that the context must be taken into account. Pseudoscientific books that aren’t prominent in the public consciousness might not be worth reporting on, when more influential forms of irresponsible science communication can be debunked.
  4. Educate. From a young age, children must be taught critical thinking skills, or, as Ms. Belluz put it, to “detect bullshit when bullshit is presented to them.”
  5. Sympathize. Her final recommendation was to have sympathy when considering peoples’ misinterpretations of science. She discussed the case of an unvaccinated Amish community in Ohio, which was the site of the largest measles outbreak in recent US history. When she contacted them, they explained that it wasn’t vaccine denial or their religion that founded their distrust of vaccination. Instead, it was an alleged instance in which a member of their community had been harmed by a vaccine. This had founded generational fear, which had been difficult to surmount.

The second speaker was Erica Johnson, a Canadian journalist and host of the TV series Marketplace on CBC. Her talk focused on the increasing use of alternative medicine, and the role of the media in scrutinizing claims made about such products. She shared her experience in reporting on homeopathy, a form of medication where substances that normally cause certain symptoms are diluted to minute amounts in order to “treat” illnesses that cause those same symptoms. In her investigations, she found that some of these pills contained only sugar. In some instances, companies that were pressed for the scientific basis of their products presented improperly conducted studies. Ms. Johnson went on to critique Health Canada, which has issued licences for thousands of alternative treatments that have little scientific backing. Such treatments, even if innocuous in themselves, can be highly dangerous due to the false sense of security that they foster. In the belief that an alternative medicine is sufficient treatment, people may neglect proper medical care for life-threatening conditions.

DAY 2

The first speaker on the second day of the conference was Trevor Butterworth, the founding director of the non-profit Sense About Science USA, and the editor of STATS.org. He discussed inadequacies within scientific journalism throughout the 20th century, with poor reporting on prominent scientific advances such as the telegraph, Sputnik, and the atomic bomb. The public was often more interested in the image of the absent-minded professor than in the science itself. A foolish story about Albert Einstein miscounting his change was of more interest to the public than his theories about the universe. Even other types of media propagated this negative view of science, with prominent films such as The Thing and Dr. Frankenstein presenting science as an obsession with knowledge, coupled with amorality. With the popular ideas of the absent-minded professor and the dangers of science, it is unsurprising that in the late 1950s it was thought that only 12% of people understood what science truly entails. Mr. Butterworth then turned towards issues that still permeate modern science today. For example, the use of the term Frankenfoods as a popularized word for genetically modified foods demonstrates that it is still taboo to interfere with nature. On a separate note, Mr. Butterworth also discussed the issue of poorly conducted science. The lack of repeatability in research is an issue, and, as he put it, some researchers are doing “too much trusting and not enough verifying.” To close, Mr. Butterworth showed that the public grasp of science has somewhat improved, with 29% now estimated to understand its conduct. However, he advised both scientists and journalists to carefully frame their facts, lest they become actors in the wrong stories.

The final speaker was Joel Achenback, an author and staff writer for The Washington Post. His talk focused on the role of science in not only debunking quackery, but also in enforcing more rigour within science itself. Citing examples from his career as a journalist, he illustrated that even good scientists can make mistakes, and that peer-review is essential in correcting these mistakes. Mr. Achenback suggested reasons for why the public may sometimes find it challenging to accept scientifically supported ideas. For example, he discussed the way in which our beliefs can often become tied to our identity. When elaborating, he apologetically brought up the 2016 US Election and Donald Trump’s views on science. According to Mr. Achenback, when Trump voices his opinions on climate change, he is not simply making a statement about science, but is identifying as a member of a community of people who don’t believe in climate change. Mr. Achenback argued that people often live within specific spheres of influence, citing his interaction with a Trump supporter at one of Trump’s rallies, in which she claimed to know no supporters of Hillary Clinton. The media we choose to watch and the people we choose to spend time with are usually those that share similar views. This can lead to ideological isolation, which acts as a barrier to the broadening of perspectives and the spread of information. In the final minutes of his talk, Mr. Achenback explained that science does not simply provide a series of absolute truths, but helps us get closer to the truth over time.

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RAD 2015: Biochemistry Research Awareness Day

As per tradition, this year’s Research Awareness Day, organized by the Biochemistry Undergraduate Society, was kicked off with coffee, treats, and a few presentations by its faculty. 

(The day would turn out to be a long but eventful one, involving networking opportunities, more food, poster presentations, tours, and closing off with a wine and cheese.)

The full list of presenters, with a brief introduction to their research, is as follows: 

 

Sidong Huang

 

Prof. Huang’s research at the Goodman involves functional genomics as a guide to cancer therapy, with methods including chemotherapeutics, genetic tools, and high throughput barcode screening to downregulate, kill, and identify various genes in accordance to their drug resistance, thus identifying novel genes and cancer-dependent pathways.

 

Thomas Duchaine

 

Dr. Duchaine’s lab focuses its study on RNAi regulatory functions in the onset and development of cancer, in a setting that fosters passion and creativity. His work spans several levels of study, from molecular to physiological—including biogenesis, dsRNA silencing, and microprocessing, and multiple approaches including systems experimentation, bioinformatics, and genetics.

 

Kalle Gehring

 

Dr. Gehring’s research is focused mainly on structural biology, utilizing NMR spectroscopy in its study of proteins and nucleic acids, combining approaches from chemistry, biology, and bioinformatics. Undergraduate research is highly encouraged in the Gehring lab, and the annual GRASP symposium is an event where students interested in structural biology will be able to learn more about this field of study.

 

Vincent Giguere

 

Also located in the Goodman building, Prof. Giguere’s lab studies approaches to fighting diseases by reprogramming metabolism, and the role of nuclear receptors in cancer, with an integrated approach involving transgenics and functional genomics.

 

Albert Berghuis:

Dr. Berghuis is pursuing the answer to antibiotic resistant bacteria using structural biology.One area that his work focuses on is next-generation antibiotics which prevent enzymatic degradation of antibiotics.

 

Bhushan Nagar:

Dr. Nagar uses structural biology to gain insight into the structures of molecules involved in the human innate immune system. One application for his research involves the creation of potential therapies against infectious diseases and autoimmune disorders.

 

Joe Teodoro:

The focus of Dr. Teodoro’s research is tumor angiogenesis and apoptosis. By using viruses to attack blood vessel formation, Dr. Teodoro hopes to gain insight into specific destruction of cancer cells.

 

Jason Young:

Dr. Young’s lab is investigating the mechanisms of molecular chaperones in regulating protein folding and the roles of co-chaperones in determining the function of these regulatory enzymes. Dr. Young and his team aim to use their knowledge of chaperones to better understand neurological diseases caused by protein misfolding and aggregation.

 

Martin Schmeing:

Using X-ray crystallography and electron microscopy, Dr. Schmeing’s lab is exploring the architecture of large enzymes in order to better understand how they perform their functions. During the presentation, Dr. Schmeing played a very detailed animation of a ribosome during translation, coupled with a compilation of pop music to explain each step in the process. These animations and more can be found at Dr. Schmeing’s website

 

We also interviewed a few attending personalities, and what they were hoping to get out of RAD 2015. The response was overwhelmingly positive, with a few excited grins eager to learn the works of research at McGill. Here’s a few of them. 

 

Jean Luo:

Jean Luo is a U1 Biochemistry student currently working in Dr. Gehring’s laboratory. She is helping with purification and crystallization of a protein called LPG0195, and is attending today’s event to learn about new research being done in biochemistry.

 

Maria Levshina:

Maria is a U2 student in honours biochemistry, as well as a first timer at RAD. She is attending to learn more about the research being done at McGill, as well as the plethora of personalities amongst our professors, which she feels is something that she is not exposed to much in classes. She finds the event refreshing.

 

Jessica Del Castillo:

Jessica is an exchange student from Mexico, currently completing a dual program in biology and biochemistry. She is working in Dr. Schmeing’s lab, and is attending RAD to learn more about other labs at McGill, as well as to learn more about the skills she can develop both as a student and a potential future researcher.

 

To get involved with RAD 2016, keep an eye out for posters and announcements from BUGS.

Undergraduate Research 101 with MSURJ: A Fond Recap

Just this past week, on a somewhat blustery but clear night, our research journal team did something groundbreaking—we did a workshop on how to get involved with research.

And so, with members and participants huddled up on couches and on the floor of ECOLE’s living room, MSURJ held its first, unexpectedly cozy undergraduate research 101 event. It was a resounding success, for a number of reasons which we would like to believe were absolutely not limited to the number of sofas in that room.

Being an event on a relatively small scale, it began with a number of introductions and hellos, as the team scrambled to set up projectors and speakers, propped up on a stack of journals. Meng, one of our co-Editors-in-Chief, then gave a detailed three-part presentation, citing examples of dos and don’ts when contacting professors, and how to create a strong profile as a candidate for a lab position.

A number of other editors on the board then introduced themselves, their programs and research interests, and the group broke into smaller circles accordingly. Riveting conversations were held, questions were asked and answered, and advice was doled out on a range of topics including cover letters and CVs, research awards, resources and timelines, and tips for general communication.

Closed off with a free-for-all journal and pastry selection, the evening was one that was wholly exciting for us, and hopefully informative, if not also fun and engaging for all present. We would like to thank everyone who showed up, and encourage further engagement with MSURJ.

We will be holding more events of this nature in the future. (Psst—what’s that I hear, an editing workshop in the makings?) If you’d like to learn more, like our Facebook Page and stay tuned for updates.