Tag Archives: Nature


Speaking to… Kevin Davies

“It’s not a one way track where you’re sort of closed off. It can really lead you to some other exciting careers down the road.”

Kevin-Davies-science-communicationThis feature podcast is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Kevin Davies

Kevin Davies took the leap from the lab bench to the writing desk, was the founder of the first Nature sister journal Nature Genetics, and is now a publisher at the American Chemical Society.

Kevin Davies is definitely not the only person to become disgruntled with life at the lab bench. In this podcast we discuss his transition from lab-bench to writing desk, and the challenges, highs and lows in between.

20 years ago, Kevin got the feeling that genetics and molecular biology research weren’t for him. His colleagues were landing great Cell papers, but he wasn’t. He didn’t know what was going wrong. It wasnt the fault of his supervisors or colleagues, it was something that wasnt clicking for him.

To get validation that he wasn’t terrible at science, he started writing. His first big breakthrough was when he had started freelance writing for the New Scientist in 1989, when he had a front row seat to the race to identify the gene for cystic fibrosis. And he never looked back.

Kevin’s belief though, was that this was the only option for him. He had spent the previous years training as a scientist, and hadn’t done anything else. His only choice was to remain involved with science…but in some other way.

I ask him if this is the only option for scientists who are loosing their passion for research. Obviously it isn’t. For Kevin, he couldn’t see beyond science. But it was 20 years ago when he joined Nature. Things are completely different now. There are many more options, and much more support for people now. Although he has found publishing to be a great springboard into other things.

As someone who took the leap, Kevin has some advice for those in limbo. From what he’s seen in the USA, the graduate students are much more open to sharing their challenges, compared to when he was younger. There is a lot more debate, discussion and sharing, which is good.

“It shouldn’t be a prison sentence.”

There is no disgrace in a change of heart. But be careful how, and to whom you share your issues!

After this little sidetrack, Kevin and I delve back into what he’s been up to: writing books and working in the movies.

His first book was about the race to find the breast cancer gene BRCA1. Together with Michael White, he wrote Breakthrough, telling not only the scientific saga with Mary-Claire King and Myriad, but also the broader perspective of the politics behind it all.

His second book, Sequence (UK), (Cracking the Genome (US)) which talks about the mapping of the human genome project.

His most recent book is about personal genomics, The $1000 Genome.

And in the future… there are plans to work on a few chapters for James Watson’s second edition of DNA.

His first book however, got spotted by a movie director. He was asked to provide technical direction on Decoding Annie Parker, a true story about a Canadian woman, one of the first women to take breast cancer gene testing in the late 1980’s. The film also explores Mary-Claire King’s (Helen Hunt) adventures in how the breast cancer gene was mapped.

We talk about how difficult or easy it is for a scientist to provide advice to films, and whether or not it is difficult to see that not all the science ends up being exactly how it should be. Especially if a major oscar nominated actress plays a female scientist, this will attract scientists from around the world. But then it should be noted that the point of the film is not about getting the science exactly right. The point of this particular film is to raise awareness of breast cancer. So if the science isn’t perfect, scientists dont be too disgruntled.

We finish the podcast with some golden tips from Kevin for all those other scientists that are in limbo when it comes to decided whether to stay in science or not.

His advice: if the bench isn’t for you, follow your heart and see where it takes you.

PS: apologies if you can hear the washing machine noise in the background…

You can follow Kevin Davies on Twitter at @KevinADavies


Speaking to… Laura Wheeler

“Rather ironically, if the tools and software that are available now, if they had been available to me when i was making those decisions, then perhaps I would have, actually gone down a different path”

Laura-Wheeler-Science-CommunicationThis feature podcast is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Laura Wheeler

Laura Wheeler is the new community manager at Digital Science, and is currently getting ready for the SpotOn Conference, which she co-organises with Lou Woodly and Martin Fenner.

In this episode, Laura and I discuss what a community manager really is, how she got into this role, and the dilemma she faced when deciding to leave the world of academia for one of science communication.

“If communicating about your science was what got you into science communication, why not stay as a scientist and communicate your own science?”

This dilemma seems to be a frequent one, and for Laura, it wasn’t easy. She looks back at her younger self and feels that if there had been more digital, software based support for scientists, she may have made a different decision…could this be why she has gone to work with Digital Science? To help those in her position make this decision easier?

For those interested in SpotOn, it starts on the evening of Thursday 7th with a Fringe Event – The Story Collider, hosted by Brian Wecht. The Conference is happening all weekend, and if you couldn’t get tickets no worries, you can watch all of the sessions live and the video archives will remain on the SpotOn site afterwards. You can also follow the Twitter hashtag #solo13 to join in the online conversation.

You can follow Laura on Twitter at @laurawheelers 

Katherine Harmon

Speaking to… Katherine Harmon

“Again, basically all of the above. It is also amazing to get to spend so much of my days learning about new things and always needing to deepen my understanding of others.”


Katherine Harmon

This is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Katherine Harmon


Katherine Harmon

Where are you based?

Longmont, Colorado

Who do you work for?

I’m freelance–as of just five months ago. I’m currently a contributing editor for Scientific American, where I was an associate editor before going full-time freelance. I also write for WIRED, Gourmet, Nature, and others. I recently finished my first book, which will be out this October. It’s a nonfiction book about octopuses called Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature in the Sea (Current/Penguin).

What type of science communication do you do?


Who is your main audience?

Generally the science-interested. Although I always hope that my work will also reach folks who didn’t think they were interested in science, health or a particular field and turn them on to it–even if just a little bit (even if just for the duration of the story).

How did you get into it?

I’ve always hoped to write as a career, but I didn’t consider journalism until a couple years out of college. I wound up (happily) in science journalism by getting an internship at SciAm in the last semester of my master’s program (at the Missouri School of Journalism). As I was going through J school, I knew I was interested in “explanatory” journalism–and for that I figured either science or business journalism would be a good fit. Most of my family was much more into science than I was when I was growing up, which helped give me a comfort level with the subject even if I didn’t have the formal academic training. Although now I do wish I had taken more science and statistics in school.

Why do you do it?

Aside from always loving a challenge (switching gears from learning about how a new vaccine works to brushing up on the latest early human ancestor controversy in one day keeps one on their toes), I think there is a lot of good to be done by helping to bring more science and health information to more people. Huge issues of our day, such as global climate change and the current health crisis in the U.S., are at stake, and if people aren’t well informed about these issues, our future is going to be even more challenging. The hope is that by covering these topics responsibly, we can help create a better-informed public discussion and hopefully better policy. Additionally, being able to convey the “wow cool!” in a new scientific discovery, be it a crazy new species of spider or a new insight into how to study earthquakes, to readers is an absolute joy and huge honor.

Why do you think science communication is important?

See above. Also, I hope that it will help more people see that “Science” isn’t just some mysterious back-lab process but a way of looking at the world that we can each use (regardless of training) to better understand our world (from what to buy at the grocery store to what’s “out there” in the night sky).

What do you love about science communication?

Again, basically all of the above. It is also amazing to get to spend so much of my days learning about new things and always needing to deepen my understanding of others. And once the writing, editing and revision process comes along, I look at it as, essentially, problem solving, which helps even when I’m feeling uninspired to turn a project into a fun puzzle.

What has been your favourite project?

This is a tough one. I tend to get excited about just about every story germ that crosses my path (which means I have a hard time taking it easy). Of course my book was a huge, engaging and challenging project (especially since I had nine months to research and write the darn thing–while working full time as an editor at SciAm). I also will always have a special place in my heart for a newspaper feature I wrote in graduate school called “Murky Waters” about management challenges along the Missouri River. I was flattered that my editor gave me a Sunday front-page feature for a story about sediment (okay, it was a relatively small town). Plus I actually got a few awards for it, which was surprising and really nice.

Do you have any new science communication projects coming up?

There is my book, Octopus! coming out October 31, 2013 (from Current/Penguin). And I am working on a couple related pieces for national magazines that I’m excited about. I am also starting a small side project about the microbiome for another national outlet. And I’m hoping to be able to start on another book proposal soon!

Any tips for those wanting to get into science communication?

Take some stats classes! Read as much good writing as you can. But also save time for quiet, creative reflection of your own–I’m not great at always doing this, but it never fails to offer fresh perspectives for a story (whether that’s a better analogy or a better structure altogether).

You can follow Katherine on Twitter at @katherineharmon or see what she’s up to on her website

Rosemary Mosco

Speaking to… Rosemary Mosco: science and comics

Rosemary Mosco

“I’m a lifelong nerd. I grew up reading funny daily comics like Bloom County, and filling notebooks with my own awful versions.”

This is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Rosemary Mosco.

What is your scientific background?

I have an MS from the University of Vermont’s Field Naturalist Program, with a focus on online climate change outreach. I’ve also absorbed a lot of material through work with wildlife surveys and nonprofits. I try to get out and experience a lot of fieldwork, from hunting mudpuppies in the winter to chasing snakes in the summer.

Why do you think science communication is important?

Because every day, scientists are discovering the most incredible and vital facts about our world, and it’s absolutely important that the rest of us know what’s going on. Also, because my pet issue is climate change, and if we don’t all understand why it’s urgent, the animals and plants I love (not to mention the people) will suffer.

What type of science communication do you do?

I feel like I’ve tried almost everything! I’ve done podcasts, video games, writing, comics, workshops and field walks… and I’m sure there’s more I’m forgetting. It’s been really fun.

Have you always been into comics?

Oh yes — I’m a lifelong nerd. I grew up reading funny daily comics like Bloom County, and filling notebooks with my own awful versions. Books like Jeff Smith’s Bone have had a huge impact on me.

Do you find them a useful medium for communicating science, and why?

Science comics can be a quick read (like xkcd), or a long engrossing multi-page work (like Jay Hosler’s Clan Apis). In both cases, they can blend writing and diagrams in a way that’s not too intimidating. The only trouble is that it’s so hard to squeeze a concept into a strip without adding novel-length footnotes explaining the science. For your own sanity, you have to strive for balance in that respect.

What is it that comics do for sci-comm that media such as journalism, TV and Radio cannot offer?

Oh, I love science TV, and I worked in radio. I think that comics can work in concert with them. Short comic strips have the advantage that they be easily distributed through Tumblr or Facebook, and people can read them quickly. Also. it’s hard to print out an episode of Radiolab to put on your study room door.

Why do you think they aren’t as popular as other forms of sci-comm?

I’m not sure! I feel like I’m totally biased because I read a lot of science comics. What really surprises me is how few biology comics exist (I couldn’t say why… maybe it has to do with gender differences in science, but that’s such a complicated issue).

Can you give some examples of comics used for science communication that people may come across in the mainstream media?

There are a lot of science webcomics, like Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal and PhD Comics. In terms of print stuff, Jim Ottaviani’s been putting out AMAZING books about Feynman and Cope and Marsh and all sorts of scientists. They’ve gotten a lot of great press.

What are the limitations of using comics in communicating science?

Like I said above, I feel like there’s not always the space to explain all of my choices. Also, it’s so nice to hear directly from a scientist through videos or radio — putting a voice to a journal paper is nice.

How do you come up with the ideas for your comics?

I do a lot of hiking and reading. I shell out a lot of money on field books. Also, I have really brilliant biologist friends who send me information and laugh along with me.

What has been your favourite comic?

I really liked Science vs. Art (see below). I’d been doing a bunch of reading about their long and complicated relationship, and I needed to blow off some steam and express how much I love them both.

Science vs Art Rosemary Mosco
Science vs Art
Rosemary Mosco

Do you write comics on all sciences, or do you focus mostly on the nature/wild life side of it?

I pretty much focus on things like botany and wildlife. It’s what I studied in school, and I wouldn’t feel comfortable making jokes about, say, oncogenes. It’s hard to get started in a part of biology without a little bit of help from mentors.

What messages do you try to focus on in your comics?

Hmm. 1. Nature is infinitely complicated. 2. But that doesn’t mean that it can’t also be funny and heartwarming. 3. So we should take care of it.

Who is your main audience?

Anyone who’s interested :)

Do you have any tips for those who want to become science communicators?

Study some science. Be tenacious and creative, and cherish relationships with professors who encourage your creativity. Be aware that there isn’t a defined career path, so you may have to cobble together 5 different jobs, but that can be fun, too!

Have a look at what Rosemary is up to on her website or have a look at some of her comics on Bird and Moon. You can also follow her on Twitter at @RosemaryMosco

Professor John Hutchinson

Speaking to… Professor John Hutchinson

Professor John Hutchinson

“Don’t over-analyze your plans- just go for it! Take risks; make mistakes; be human; give your communication a personal spin.”

This is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Professor John Hutchinson


Professor John R. Hutchinson

Where are you based?

The Royal Veterinary College, University of London, UK

Who do you work for?

Same as above (in Department of Comparative Biomedical Sciences)

What type of science communication do you do?

General science communication (especially anatomy, evolution, biomechanics, zoology, palaeontology) but also communicating the research my team does (in those fields); online mainly but also in other formats including in person.

Who is your main audience?

People interested in nature.

How did you get into it?

I maintained an interest in biology since childhood; I followed in my father’s footsteps in terms of going into an academic, scientific career; I suppose just because it felt right and excited me most.

Why do you think science communication is important?

Science communication is important because without it, science gets overlooked even though it is probably the greatest human endeavour. Scientists tend to be too quiet and too reluctant to explain their technical work to the “outside world.” Yet our funding, our jobs, and our humanity depend on bringing the wonder of science to the rest of society.

What do you love about science communication?

Fun people, a change of pace from my normal research activities, and exciting new ways to test and refine my skills as a scientist and science lover.

What has been your favourite project?

In science communication, it would have to be my first experience explaining my work to the media – I published a paper in Nature in 2002 on T. rex and it was a huge media bonanza for over 2 weeks almost nonstop, and this ended up largely establishing my career. So I owe a lot to that experience, and learned immensely about communicating science from it.

Do you have any new science communication projects coming up?

Tons! My team is on a roll lately, generating some of our best work since the early 2000’s. We have new, exciting papers being published this year and will be pushing hard to make them accessible to the public and sharing the joy of our research.

Any tips for those wanting to get into science communication?

Start immediately! Don’t over-analyze your plans- just go for it! Take risks; make mistakes; be human; give your communication a personal spin. Get connected online (Twitter, and start a blog; minimally these things) and get involved, and figure the rest out as you go along. Listen a lot to the experts- there is a massive amount of helpful tips online. Read even more  obsessively and broadly to diversify and deepen your knowledge.

You can follow John on Twitter at @JohnRHutchinson and read all about his work on his blog What’s in John’s Freezer?


Guest post by Martha Henson: Games and Science

Martha Henson is a science communicator who explores the use of technology and games in science, public engagement and learning. She is now venturing into the freelance world after working at the Wellcome Trust; here she shares some of her experiences in games and science communication. 


In August 2010, an unusual paper was published in Nature. It was on the subject of protein structure prediction, an important area of science that represents, as the authors describe it “a formidable computational challenge”. Rather than use computer power alone, though, this team were testing whether humans were better at solving the problem. Recognising the motivating power of a good game, they built FoldIt, a multiplayer online game in which players collaborate and compete to push and push a protein into the optimum possible shape. Their instincts were right: humans were better at solving the structures, the game was a huge success, and their results were impressive.

On the 10th December this year Sebastian Seung, a computational neuroscientist at MIT, announced the official launch of Eyewire. Perhaps inspired by FoldIt, this project also aims to harness the power of the game-playing crowd, in this case to map a retinal neuron and its connections. Clearly some scientists have recognised that games have the potential to be a powerful force for good in their research.

Until I left to go freelance just a few weeks ago, I was the Multimedia Producer at the Wellcome Trust. The Trust also recognises the potential of games, and has recently been working to encourage applications from games makers to its public engagement awards and running projects such as Gamify Your PhD, and Games Jams on a scientific theme in conjunction with ExPlay.

Together with my colleague, Danny Birchall, we were also commissioning our own games for Wellcome Collection. Our first big success was with High Tea, a game about the history of the Opium Wars which was inspired by our High Society exhibition on drugs. The game reached millions of players, and produced some very interesting and encouraging results in terms of learning and engagement (see our extensive evaluation, here). For example, over 50% of players said that they were inspired by the game to go on and do their own research into the subject, and there was extensive discussion of the history and debate around the issues on the games portals, blogs, forums and in all kinds of unexpected places.

To create High Tea, we worked with Preloaded, an award-winning game studio, but also collaborated closely with the exhibition curators. This was also our approach for the next game, but this was on a rather different subject. The exhibition this time was Brains, and we brought in a neuroscientist, Richard Wingate for a day of brainstorming (forgive the pun) with us and Preloaded. What we were looking for in particular were rules in the science that we could turn into rules of the game. It was crucial for us that the factual elements (the learning, if you like) were embedded into the gameplay rather than tacked awkwardly onto it.

The result was Axon. Within the game, on the “Science” pages, you can see the video that was perhaps the greatest inspiration for the game. It was created by Richard Wingate, and shows neurons developing in a foetal chicken brain. We were struck by the aesthetic, the bright neurons against a dark background, but also by the mechanics. The neurons are growing towards protein targets, and they are essentially competition with each other to form the strongest connections. If they don’t, they will die out.

Once we heard that, we knew we had the rules of a game. So, in Axon, you must click rapidly on available protein targets to grow your neuron, and do so before the rival neuron. The game was a hit. Last time I checked we had over 4 million plays, and the early evaluation results were again very positive. Players liked the game, liked that it was based on fact, and learnt something from playing it. Here’s a short video of how it works:

The potential for games with a scientific basis is huge, and largely untapped. All kinds of areas of science would be absolutely ripe for mining for game rules. Maybe chemical bonding, electricity and magnetism, larger systems such as weather patterns or all kinds of cell behaviour. As FoldIt demonstrates, the feel for a subject that games can give you makes it less abstract and easier to understand and this is why many are using games in both formal and informal education.

I would urge all science communicators to think about using games as part of their approach. The future of games about science is bright.

Other scientific games:

Routes: this was a Channel 4 game about genes, evolution and genetic testing

Fate of the World – climate science

Wolfquest – wolf ecology

Vanished (Smithsonian and MIT) collaboration with real scientists, learning scientific techniques, collecting data etc.

Launchball: A physics game from the Science Museum.

Wondermind: Alice in Wonderland and Neuroscience from the Tate

If anyone has come across any other interesting scientific games, please feel free to leave comments below.

You can follow Martha on Twitter at @marthasadie, and read her blog here.