You are currently browsing the monthly archive for January 2011.

Oiled Brown Pelican upon intake May 20, 2010 at Fort Jackson, Louisiana Oiled Wildlife Center (source: International Bird Research Rescue Center).

It’s been nearly seven months since the Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. Although coverage of the resulting oil spill has waned, discussion and finger-pointing remain.

This week, the University of Georgia (Go Dawgs!) held an Oil Spill Symposium, where some of the nation’s leaders — working for government agencies, academia and the media — shared their thoughts on how the oil spill was handled and what lies ahead.

From the comfort of my Madison apartment, I watched the symposium streamed live online. Naturally, the session on how the media covered the spill piqued my interest. From the panels of journalists, including correspondents from CNN, NPR and The New York Times, one theme stood out: How can media professionals streamline information to the public when agencies and researchers may not have the most up-to-date or correct information?

During national crises, there’s no time for peer-reviewed science. In the case of the oil spill, researchers estimated the impacts of the spill as best they could at the time. It’s no wonder that sources of information were brutally attacked.

But let’s remember — as J-School professor and Knight Chair Patricia Thomas points out — that the media isn’t a monolith. Sure, there’s a spectrum of coverage — good, mediocre and bad. But blaming “the media” for negative public perceptions is inexcusable. We should know this by now.

Among the exceptional (in my opinion) journalists covering the spill, NPR’s Richard Harris detailed his experience while working on a story that challenged government and BP estimates of leaking oil each day. Harris consulted three scientific experts, who independently gave him estimates significantly higher than what was being reported. After airing a series of stories on the issue, the government formed a task group that would measure the rate of oil being released. (See, journalism is still powerful!)

Another participant, Justin Gillis from the Times, emphasized the need for a ready-to-go scientific response plan in which the government can tap into experts as quickly as possible. He found it baffling that the people most familiar with the ecology of the Gulf were on the outside of the conversation trying to correct misinformation disseminated by the government.

I found this an intriguing point as well. But I also thought about the experts who don’t want to be “tapped into” — the ones unwilling to comment on the event. Often, industry ties or fear of being criticized by the scientific community were to blame.

Which brings me to the point: If more scientists would communicate with journalists and the public, there’s no doubt coverage of science and the environment would benefit. Yet, my definition of preparedness requires more than collaboration between scientists and government agencies. Ultimately, it will demand less censored relationships between scientists and journalists, which take time and practice.

For now, we’ll have to settle on hoping nothing of this magnitude happens again anytime soon.

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Before blogging about other things (UGA’s Oil Spill Symposium and Seth Mnookin at UW, for starters), I want to step back and talk more about Age-related Macular Degeneration (see my first post on the topic). Let’s just say the BIMR conference in Irvine gave new meaning to the term “interdisciplinary” — to me, at least.

Simply put, the task group discussions played out as beefed up lab meetings, where scientists chatted about developments in the field. Covering these highly specialized researchers seemed daunting at first, especially since they knew one another and referenced research and studies unfamiliar to me. Though this made it hard for me to know what was going on at times (sadly, I don’t know many AMD researchers by first name), I think it was necessary nonetheless.  To move forward with the limited time the group was given, people had to be straight to the point.

In mixed meetings, experts from my group sat in on other group sessions and provided input. In my opinion, the mixed sessions made the conference a large success. My group consisted of imaging experts — researchers studying ways to detect signs of AMD with tomography techniques and other scanning methods (e.g., MRI). I found the discussions particularly interesting because I was uneducated about the importance of imaging to stage and monitor the progress of AMD, or any other eye disease for that matter. In addition to covering the imaging task group, I covered two other sessions: one on stem cell research and another on cell death.

Though I can’t comment too much on the specifics — since my report is currently embargoed for a later date, I can discuss common knowledge issues that stand in the way of studying and developing therapies for AMD.

For those of you with little knowledge of eye anatomy (i.e., me before the conference), it’s important to understand that AMD affects the portion of the retina called the macula. The lens of the eye projects light to the retinal surface toward the back of the eye, where photoreceptor cells convert that light into electrical signals to be interpreted by the brain (via the optic nerve). Light must pass through the macula to reach the optic nerve (and thus, the brain). Specifically, the macula allows you to focus on the contents of this post with your central vision.

Kudos to the macula, right?!

Here’s a nice illustration of the eye that shows some of this anatomy (from John Moran Eye Center, University of Utah).

For comparison, below are images of eyes diseased with AMD (from Eye; Sato et al.). Note the darker areas and spots in the middle of the eye. Read on for an explanation.

For patients living with AMD, quite a few things go wrong in the macula. In some patients, these yellowish deposits called drusen accumulate at a pigmented portion of the retina (more specifically, at a spot called the “retinal pigment epithelium,” or RPE). These deposits overtake the macula and can limit the amount of light reaching the back of the eye, causing central vision loss. Multiple researchers reiterated the point that not all drusen are the same. In fact, it was suggested a few times in public presentations that different drusen may be the manifestations of different diseases. Some even speculated that AMD comprises several unique diseases altogether.

That said, attendees still focused on the types of disease thoroughly studied. AMD generally comes in two forms: “wet” and “dry.” Drusen and geographic atrophy — the breakdown of photoreceptor cells — are associated with “dry” AMD. Other patients may be diagnosed with “wet” AMD (or neovascular AMD), where the blood vessels on the outer portion of the retina invade the macula and leak. The latter is less common than the former, which is why the conference focused on the dry form.

Geographic atrophy received much attention at the conference. Scientists know that AMD causes photoreceptor cells — rods and cones — to die, but they don’t completely understand why. This is where cell death experts and neuroprotection researchers chime in. Researchers and clinicians expressed interest in a more preventative approach that would make intervention possible before these cells die. Imaging the eye is particularly useful in developing an approach to geographic atrophy as well. In order to stage the disease in the long-term, researchers need to pinpoint specific biomarkers or signals that indicate cell stress before AMD actually takes hold. I thought this session was particularly interesting because it seems as if doctors are open to screening people who have a family history of AMD before they show signs of the disease.

Another idea that was particularly intriguing was using stem cell transplants to treat patients with AMD. In a general sense, transplanted stem cells can be programmed to emit signals to indicate cell health. Since the body may reject the transplant, monitoring cells with imaging techniques would help identify whether the transplant was successful at the cellular level. This may be years in the future, I don’t know…

These are just a few highlights from a science writer’s perspective — I plan to link to my report when it’s published later this spring. I will be able to comment more once the reports are public.

Overall, I had a blast at this conference. I met some really great scientists who believe in the power of science communication (music to my ears!). I also had the unique opportunity to work with science writing guru Barbara Culliton and several talented science journalism grad students I hope to stay in touch with in the future. My only complaint would be not dipping my feet into the Pacific — I’ll have to make another trip to California for that one.

So before I write about my experiences from Irvine this weekend, I want to share an interesting story from my travels back to the frigid state of Wisconsin.

Well, it actually happened in the Denver, Colo., airport as I devoured a sandwich while waiting at the terminal for my flight.

An older man with a baseball cap approached me and asked whether someone was sitting next to me. Hoping nothing was in my teeth, I managed to grunt, “Nope.”

So he sat down and told me he was en route to Tucson, Ariz.

“Were you on vacation or a business trip of some sort?” I inquired.

“I wouldn’t call it that,” he said.

The man then told me the unexpected. His adventure to South Dakota wasn’t an average trip. Rather, he was traveling to interview with local and national news organizations.

I was sitting next to a national hero.

His name is Bill Badger, the 74-year-old bystander who helped tackle the gunman accused of shooting Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, killing six people and injuring several others outside of a grocery store in Arizona earlier this month.

Bill Badger (source: ABCNews)

I tried to prevent my jaw from dropping to the floor.

Is this guy serious?

I glared at the name on the plane ticket resting in his hands. Badger, indeed. Tucson — check.

All of a sudden, my journalistic instinct took over. In a fury of Q&As, I gathered that Bill was quite resilient and humble about his actions. After hearing the initial gunshots and dropping to the ground, Bill got back up to find himself standing next to the gunman.

He and another man managed to pin down and disarm the shooter, who was attempting to reload his gun at the time. It all happened so fast — too fast.

From those intense moments, lives were unfairly and unjustly lost. Blood and tears, tragically shed.

During the shooting, Bill was covered in blood. He didn’t know that much of it was his own, he told me.

“Want to see where I got shot in the head?” he asked, as if showing me may speed up healing.

Baffling at the foreign arrangement of those words, I nodded. He took off his cap to show me where a bullet had grazed the posterior portion of his head. A four-inch fleshy gash remained. The shot had skimmed his balding scalp and skull horizontally. The bullet seemed masterfully placed — not by the gunman, but by some other presence looking down on Bill. The injury left him in the ER for four hours or so.

Speechless, I managed a smile. I was glad Bill survived to tell me his story. I told him how courageous his actions were, but he insisted it was simply the right thing to do.

Then, a loud voice boomed over the intercom, announcing the final boarding call for my flight. Blocking out voices other than Bill’s up until that point, I knew my time was up — I had to go. And just like that, our paths uncrossed and realigned.

I’m not sure what to make of today’s events. People cross paths for a reason, and I believe Bill approached me with purpose. With twenty-some odd chairs unfilled nearby, the seat immediately next to me was where he wanted to sit.

Somehow, I think talking about the shooting to a complete stranger helped Bill. It helped me, too.

I needed to believe there can be heroes in us all.

When it comes to losing one’s senses, I think about Cat Stevens’ poetic melancholy in his hit “Moonshadow.” Losing your vision isn’t that bad if you “won’t have to cry no more,” he sings.

It’s a great song, but I like my senses very much. And so does everyone else, I think.

In fact, losing sensory perception can be a terrifying thought, especially if one’s vision is at stake.

I remind myself of such things as I gear up to attend a conference on Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD) sponsored by the Beckman Initiative for Macular Research this week in Irvine, Calif.

AMD is a leading cause of central vision loss and blindness in adults 60 years and older. Researchers have yet to figure out what causes the disease or how to stop it. The disease affects the macula portion of the retina; the retina is a light-sensitive lining near the back of the eye. Without the retina and a healthy macula, it would be difficult for the eye to turn light into electrical signals for the brain, resulting in gaps in vision seen below.

These photos contrast a healthy macula with one with AMD [photos: National Eye Institute]:


 

AMD is likely to become a larger issue over time, considering its prevalence among people over the age of 60 and America’s aging Baby Boomer population. That said, I read about a recent study (from UW) that states that rates of AMD have actually decreased in recent years. While this is good news, I’m interested to hear what other researchers think about it.

As a science writer attendee (along with other fellow graduate science writers), I’ll cover the work of leading researchers looking to develop better diagnostic tools and treatment for patients living with AMD. My task group will tackle pairing imaging modalities and potential biomarker candidates for AMD. Essentially, scientists in my group will discuss what types of structural and/or metabolic changes researchers should monitor as the disease progresses. They’ll also look at current imaging technology and brainstorm which types will yield the most clinically translatable results.

There’s so much to learn about this topic, and I feel I’ve only begun to skim the surface. With that in mind, I’m going to use my blog to post things I’ve learned from the conference.

Go check out AMD yourself — the BIMR’s tutorials are very helpful…

More to come soon!

Photo by Allison Klein, USGS

A couple of weeks ago, people in Arkansas and Louisiana watched as hundreds of birds came falling from the sky, motionless and dead.

One bird kill occurred on New Year’s Eve, which was readily accepted as a bad omen for some.  Even I can admit: a showering of dead birds isn’t the best way to welcome a new year.

As conspiracy theories and apocalyptic fears amassed, reports revealed that the birds died of impact trauma, perhaps from hitting power lines or another large object.

But, ultimately, we were missing context.  Sure, we look to wildlife as an indicator of the general health of the environment, but this news story reminded me of something else: how little I knew about the world around me.

For most — myself included — relationships between local environmental agencies and the public  are often trying, especially when the two meet to discuss land and privilege compromises. As someone who communicates science and is studying how to do so effectively, I was reminded of this lacking relationship.

I wondered: We’re constantly learning about exotic and endangered species in tropical rain forests and mountains, but what about the happenings in our own backyards?

The reality is that these die-offs were hardly different from any others, yet they received hefty coverage because they happened on the last night of the year or shortly after. (By the way, James Gorman wrote an interesting piece in The New York Times, highlighting our tendency to hope for the supernatural).

Dead birds aside, it was a wakeup call for me to slow down and learn about what’s happening in my surroundings. I also think it demonstrates the need to fund and support more public outreach — for both children and adults — from the public agencies that work with natural resources.

Personally, I’m still surprised by the ubiquity of these events in the first place. They happen relatively often without the average person keeping track. Am I not keeping up with my community well enough — to know what’s normal ecologically, at least? Is it our responsibility to seek information or expect others to provide it?

I certainly don’t know how to achieve this balance, but think it’s crucial to think about.

If you’re interested in looking at bird kill data, here’s a link from the USGS Wildlife Health Center in Madison.

This is a piece I wrote earlier this semester.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a place to publish it, and well, its shelf life waned.  I think this is a fascinating study, by the way.

***

Women More Likely To Believe In Climate Change Than Men

By Marianne English

Political ideology and religion aren’t the only influences that affect public opinion on global warming. A recent Michigan State University study suggests gender should also be included in the demographic medley of factors that shapes personal beliefs on climate change.

The study — one of the first of its kind to explore gender and public opinion on this contentious issue — highlights the need to consider the general public as diverse individuals when relaying scientific information. Although the research reinforces the idea that social influences guide each gender’s involvement in science, climate change groups say they don’t give much thought to the male-female divide when creating strategic messages for the public.

“Gender differences are more subtle — men and women have different trusts in science,” said Aaron McCright, an associate professor of sociology at Michigan State University and author of the study. “We need to understand that average men and women hear the same message differently. You can’t assume that everyone is the same — the American public isn’t monolithic.”

Using Gallup Poll data from 2001 to 2008, McCright examined scientific beliefs and levels of concern surrounding global warming for both genders in the United States. Each year’s sample size ranged from 1,000 to 1,060 people.

From the data, McCright found that women are not only more likely than men to agree with scientists that climate change exists, but they also possess the scientific knowledge to back it up, too.

Men, on the other hand, express greater confidence in their knowledge of science, but didn’t agree with scientists as much as women did. During the time both groups were polled, men were less likely to agree that global warming was happening and less likely to agree that human activities were to blame.

McCright thinks a larger phenomenon is at play —  a concept called gender socialization. Read the rest of this entry »

After a lengthy tutorial with WordPress and GoDaddy.com, I finally established a new home for my blog, which will undoubtedly be used more often.

Also, if you’re interested, check out my new site marianneenglish.com.

Up next: the strange animal deaths that helped bring in the New Year…

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Marianne is a science communicator working in Madison, Wis.

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