Being Mindful of Color when Making Figures

“A picture is worth a thousand words.”

     Communication in the written form is frequently accompanied by helpful graphics or attractive pictures. They help the writer explain a point or keep the audience interested. Dissemination of scientific information relies heavily on the use of illustrations to “be a graphical interface between people and data.” If someone is quickly reviewing an article, they may only skim the abstract and examine the figures. Often, these figures  incorporate colors to enhance visual contrast and increase appeal. However, about 5% of the population has limited color vision, commonly known as color blindness. This condition limits a person’s ability to discern certain colors, effectively reducing their visual contrast in certain circumstances.

     Red-green color blindness is by far the most common type of color vision deficiency and is usually found in males. It follows an X-linked pattern of genetic inheritance, meaning that the DNA responsible for encoding this trait is located on the X-chromosome. Males have one X-chromosome and one Y-chromosome, whereas females have two X-chromosomes. About 8% of females are “carriers” because they have one X-chromosome encoding for color blindness, but their other chromosome allows them to have non-affected vision. Red-green color blindness arises from defects in one of the three variants of cone-shaped cells (cone cells) in the eye’s retina. Cone cells contain photopigments that are responsible for our ability to distinguish different wavelengths of light, or different colors (red, green, and blue). Faults in the cone cells responsible for red and green color detection lead to loss of color information and conditions known as protanomaly and deuteranomaly, respectively.  These conditions affect everyday activities, like selecting ripe fruit, choosing a color-coordinated outfit, locating the presenter’s laser pointer dot, or deciphering a journal article.

Caddy Hobbs -  made using Adobe Illustrator's "Proof Setup" options.

Three color wheels (top) and pictures (bottom) displaying the differences in color perception for people with unaffected vision and those with protanopia and deuteranopia.

When communicating information with figures, it is important to remember that some individuals have difficulty discriminating between red and green. This handy blog post is full of tips such as recommended color palettes (blue and orange or magenta and turquoise) and combinations to avoid (green with red, brown, blue, or black). Another way to enhance the accessibility of graphics is to use textures (e.g. dashed lines and patterned fill) as opposed to colors. Adobe Illustrator, available for UNC students, allows you to preview your design as it appears to a person with color vision deficiency. Additionally, apps are available for Android and Apple devices to help with this problem. These apps name colors on your screen and use a “daltonize” algorithm to alter the colors in a given image for optimal visualization. So, next time you are making a figure for a paper, presentation, or flyer, take a look through someone else’s eyes.

Peer edited by Nicole Tackmann.

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Talking Science with Grandma: How to Communicate Science to the Public

Before we know it, it will be summer.  That means sunny days, flowers, barbecues, beach trips, and family reunions.  With family reunions comes having to explain to every cousin, aunt, uncle, and grandparent what it is that you actually do while you’re conducting research.

Family reunions at the park can often lead to confusing explanations of your research!

At one of these family functions, my grandma asks “So how’s your research going?”  

I tell her that my research is going well and I am writing a paper for publication in a scientific journal.  She responds with “That’s fantastic sweetie! What is the paper about?”

I tell my grandma that my article is about germanium nanowires with unique electronic and phononic properties that have generated new interest in their use for electronics and space technologies. My work investigates how energy is converted to coherent acoustic phonon propagation within germanium nanowires using ultrafast pump-probe microscopy.  

Grandma politely nods as I talk and then says “those bugs sound interesting.”  Where did the “bugs” come from? Nanowires are not bugs.  Clearly, there was a disconnect somewhere.  

Why is effective science communication important?

Publishing is essential in order for a scientist to have a successful career.  But publishing comes in many forms: scientific journal articles, news releases, social media posts, etc.  At the center of this is being able to communicate our research to others.  As scientists, we need to focus on engaging our audience, and before that, take the time to consider who is in the audience.  Are we talking to other scientists in our niche field, scientists in another area, or the public (like Grandma)?  By leading my research summary with the details of my experimental methods, the audience gets overwhelmed with jargon and details.  What the general public really wants to know is the main result and why they should care.

How to Communicate Science to the Public:

  1. Determine the goal for communication: are you trying to influence decision-makers, humanize scientists, build trust between the public and scientists, etc?
  2. Engage the audience: with whom are you communicating and what motivates the audience? Tell a story, ask a question, find commonalities.
  3. Determine the message: think about the most important result that you want the audience take away from your talk.  Quality before quantity.

I should have explained my science like this:

I went to my first country concert in Raleigh, NC and saw Lady Antebellum, Hunter Hayes and Sam Hunt.  The way the bands played their guitars was beautiful. You could feel the passion and sound waves rolling through the Amphitheatre.  

In my research, we basically build and play “nano-guitars”.  Germanium nanowires, wires that are about 60,000 times thinner than a single human hair,  are suspended over tiny trenches, similar to the strings across an acoustic guitar.  I use a laser, like a musician uses a guitar pick, to make vibrations (sound waves) in the nanowires and watch them travel along the wire. In guitars, the frequency or pitch of the sound wave is determined by the thickness, length, elasticity, and tension of the strings. The same thing happens with the germanium nanowires, changing the diameter of the nanowire changes the frequency of the vibration.

Image created by Kelsey Brereton

Photons hit the nanowires and launching vibrations. Essentially, this is a nanoscale acoustic guitar!

By studying the vibrations and how they travel through a nanowire, we learn how elastic (flexible or resilient) materials are as they shrink to the nanoscale. With this information, we could design new electronics that use vibrations to learn more about the world and universe we live in.

Want to develop the skills to communicate science to a general audience? Check out these upcoming workshops at UNC!  

Creatively Engaged Conversations – Methods of Communicating Your Research to Different Audiences will be held on  Monday April 24, 2017 at 11:00 am – 1:30 pm at Wilson Library Room 504 (on 1st floor of library near grand entrance) Register:

SWAC Writing Workshop: The writing workshop is the final event in the SWAC seminar series and the opportunity for you to workshop your own science piece for general audiences. Whether you’ve started a blog post and want a chance to polish it or are interested in writing but are not sure where to start, you are invited to come get feedback from peers and science communication experts from around the Triangle.

Writing Workshop Part 2, Thursday, April 27, 2017 3-5 pm:

Peer edited by Tom Gilliss.

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On News and Noise

Fake news can’t be real… really. News by definition is “newly received or noteworthy information, especially about recent or important events.” If it doesn’t describe real events, then it isn’t news, but rather propaganda, misinformation, or gossip, right? Still, use of the term has ballooned since the 2016 presidential election and has since been carelessly tossed around to describe, oh, just about anything.

This is troublesome, because while most of us consider ourselves reasonably intelligent and morally fit, we are all susceptible to mistakes and naiveté. Knowing what we believe and why we believe it are two different things, and our human brains are often wired to prioritize feelings over reality, especially at highly stressful or emotional times. For example, a recent Pipettepen post describes how quick we are to see “others” who aren’t part of our group as different or wrong, rather than treating them with empathy and seeking to understand them. Even scientific experts often perform poorly at recognizing their own biases and decision-making heuristics. As rigorous discoverers of truths, how can we as academics best discern where bias ends and reality begins? How can we encourage others to do the same?

First, we can avoid being sucked in by fake news. This can be difficult because headlines often appeal to pre-existing beliefs (i.e., telling you what you want to hear). Or a headline may sound so ridiculous and mindlessly entertaining that it insidiously beckons to us as a much needed break from piles of homework and research proposals. Giving in to the temptation to click on links or read questionable material can lead any of us down a slippery slope, though; Stanford researchers found that students across all grade levels are easily duped by less-than-credible online content.

Second, if we cannot steer clear of fake news (admittedly it’s becoming increasingly difficult to unplug these days), training ourselves to discern the factual merit of the material might be beneficial. North Carolina State University researchers recently conducted an experiment and found that developing critical thinking skills reduced students’ beliefs in pseudoscience. Bonus! These skills also happen to be oh-so-important in the research process. Yet educational approaches may only be part of the answer, since we are also faced with a widening divide among Americans (including North Carolinians) of different educational backgrounds.

Unfortunately, it seems that taking the high road and pooh-poohing fake news may not be enough to halt its consequences, which can be quite hurtful to others (just ask Marie Antoinette, who literally lost her head in part due to a phrase she never muttered… brioche anyone?). The social dynamics that give rise to fake news also cannot be ignored. During the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, contrived pro-Trump and anti-Clinton news articles put a small town in Macedonia on the map, where computer-savvy youngsters took advantage of America’s thirst for election news and recouped a tidy profit from Facebook for their efforts. To make matters worse, the mayor reported a sense of pride in the shady enterprise. Clearly, forestalling harm from fake news will require a concerted group effort with attention to both ethics and social determinants (e.g., the ability to meet basic needs).

Still, each of us has an impact, whether it is writing for classes, for journal articles, or for our friends on Facebook. After watching countless letters pour into local newspapers in the aftermath of the election that contained strong ideological viewpoints backed by no or weak facts, I turned to the UNC Writing Center, which offers plenty of pointers for avoiding fallacies in one’s writing. In short, they suggest using good premises, making sure your premises support your conclusion (and not some other conclusion or no conclusion at all), focusing your premises and conclusions on the issue at hand, and not making overly strong or sweeping claims. These words of wisdom offer timely advice for both UNC affiliates and the global community as we think, communicate, and move forward.

Peer edited by Salma Azam.

When 2+2 Does NOT Equal 4: Dangers in Reducing Nutrition to the Sum of Its Parts

Modified from Wikipedia images and

Is dinner becoming a subset of chemicals instead of real food?

A researcher is looking at preliminary data from the CARET study when he does a double-take.  He thinks: that can’t be right- people who supplemented with vitamin A have higher frequency of lung cancer and death than people not supplementing with vitamin A. But the data were correct! People taking vitamin A were getting lung cancer more frequently. How could this happen when previous studies had suggested that vitamin A would reduce the risk of lung cancer?

The Carotene and Retinol Efficacy Trial (CARET) and a similar trial (the Alpha-Tocopherol, Beta-Carotene Cancer Prevention (ATBC) Study) were conducted because observational studies had suggested that people who consumed more food containing vitamin A had lower rates of lung cancer and death. The CARET and ATBC research groups designed rigorous, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials to investigate if supplementation of one’s diet with vitamin A would reduce the risk of lung cancer in high risk groups such as smokers. However, both trials ended early when it became clear that vitamin A supplementation did not reduce the risk of lung cancer, but in fact may have increased the risk.

The CARET and ATBC studies raised awareness in the nutrition community that individual food components do not necessarily have the same health benefits as whole foods. These trials exemplify the concept of nutrition reductionism, which is the idea that a complicated system of food is simply the sum of its nutrient parts. Unfortunately, we still have not learned from the reductionist studies from the 1990s, and reductionist thinking is still quite common. For example, any person who relies heavily on supplements while consuming a limited diet is using reductionism instead of considering food as a whole entity.  Even when people do not consciously restrict their diet or use large amounts of supplements, they still try to meet guidelines for “good” nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin C, dietary fiber, and others, while trying to minimize “unhealthy” nutrients such as cholesterol, salt, and saturated fats.

Modified from:

If we take these individual components and mix them together, do we have a strawberry? Can we condense a strawberry into a pill, and will that pill have the same health benefits as a strawberry?

Is thinking about food as simple individual nutrients actually a problem? If we get all the required nutrients, does it matter in what form we consume them? Many food scientists and some nutritionists would say that the nutrients’ sources do not matter as long as they are consumed in appropriate amounts. However, there are issues with this pattern of thought. One problem is that science has not yet identified each component of all foods. For example, scientists agree that there are between 800 and 1000 different compounds in red wine.   Not all of these compounds have been precisely identified, and the compounds in each wine vary, which creates taste differences and diverse nutrient profiles. Some research studies investigate only one compound from red wine, such as resveratrol, and this reduction from hundreds of components into one component results in conflicting research outcomes. While some research shows that resveratrol benefits health by improving metabolic processes associated with aging in mice, other research finds that resveratrol has no impact on human health. And this theme is repeated many times in research, with some studies showing that individual nutrients affect health, and other studies demonstrating that the same nutrients have no health effect. Much of the resulting confusion in the nutrition sciences may result from neglecting to consider the impact of an entire food on human health.  After all, rarely are nutrients consumed in isolation, so perhaps they should not be studied solely as individual components.

In order to escape from nutrition reductionism, two things need to change- how we do nutrition science and how we view nutrition science.

Within nutrition science research, the first issue to address is research design. Research should consider turning from reductionist to “holism,” which considers the whole as a dynamic interaction of its parts and acknowledges that the system has features not contained in the individual parts. Expanding nutrition research from a nutrient-only focus to a broader view of food will require an interdisciplinary approach with integration of fields from computing to food science to public health to epidemiology and many others.

So how can we change our individual view of nutrition while still taking advantage of nutrition research? First, we can recognize that the food industry rarely produces “food,” and instead creates “food products” that are combinations of carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, antioxidants, and other components. Second, we can avoid these food products and instead choose to eat “real food” that naturally contains these components. Third, we should view nutrition research as imperfect and often too focused and understand that research frequently uses individual nutrients to declare a food “good” or “bad” without considering its properties as a whole. And finally, we can decide what to eat from this motto by popular food journalist and activist Michael Pollan, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”  While this sounds like an overly simplified solution, it at least begins to answer the question of “What should I eat for dinner?”  The answer: not isolated nutrients, but whole foods such as carrots, broccoli, peas, brown rice, and chicken that will provide both a delicious stir fry and many essential nutrients.

Peer edited by Laurel Kartchner and Mikayla Armstrong.

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