A Scientist’s View of Animal Research

One of the most controversial aspects of biomedical research is the use of animals to benefit humans. Scientists use animals to test new treatments for human diseases and to understand human biology. Many groups have protested the use of animals for research. The most well-known and influential of these groups has been People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). These groups have successfully raised concerns about using animals for research, and they have brought about changes such as closing down some research labs and decreasing the number of airlines that will transport animals destined for research. People perceive the benefits and detriments of these actions differently depending on whether they support or condemn animal use in research.

I am not writing this article from an entirely unbiased position because I work with animals to understand basic human biology and to discover treatments for human diseases. Since many articles about the negative aspects of animal research have been published, I intend to provide a more positive perspective on animal research from a scientist’s point of view.

The goal of using animals for research is to save human lives and improve human health.  Scientists do not use animals because it is fun, and they do not use animals when there are better alternatives (e.g. using humans, cell culture, or computer models). Scientists use animals for research because animal research can provide information to eliminate human diseases, improve health, and ultimately save human lives. Animal research has saved millions of human lives and has improved the health of billions more. Animals have played an important role in discovering cures for deadly diseases such as polio, smallpox, and hepatitis C. Animal research has also discovered treatments for Type 1 diabetes, malaria, cystic fibrosis, and thousands of other diseases.

Animal research improves animal health and finds cures for animal diseases. Animals contract many of the same diseases as humans do, such as heart failure and diabetes. Research in animals has saved the lives of millions of pets by providing vaccines, pacemakers, artificial joints, and chemotherapy for pets. Animal research has also improved our understanding of endangered species so that we can prevent their extinction.

Research in humans has limitations that can be overcome by using animals. Scientists and animal activists may ask why we cannot conduct all research in humans so that we can avoid the ethical dilemma of animal research. First, many studies are conducted in humans (over 100,000 people participate in clinical trials every year, and this number does not include the thousands more people involved studies that are not considered clinical trials). However, many studies are not feasible to perform  in humans. For example, studies involving diets or food components require subjects to be very compliant (follow the diet exactly) so that scientists can definitively answer their research questions (such as whether a vitamin or mineral is necessary for health). However, people are not usually very compliant with their diets, leading to confusing data and sometimes wrong answers to research questions. In animal studies, diets can be carefully controlled, which ensures that the data obtained is accurate. This allows scientists to answer very specific research questions about diet effects. Using animals for research also optimizes research funds by ensuring that research does not need to be repeated due to non-compliant human research subjects. Furthermore, research in humans is substantially more expensive than animal research, due to compensation for the research subjects and extra costs of research monitoring. Finally, humans have much longer lifespans than most animals, meaning that a single study could require 1-50X longer to complete in humans than in animals. This both raises research costs and increases the time required to make scientific discoveries.

Scientists prioritize animal health and minimize animal pain. When alternative methods of study, such as those in humans, are not an option, scientists use animals. Scientists undergo substantial training so that they know how to conduct research with animals in an ethical manner. Furthermore, before any animal research takes place, scientists must get approval for their planned study from the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC). This committee  includes at least one veterinarian, who ensures that the animals in the study are healthy and well. The committee also includes at least one person from the community who is not associated with the research institution. This ensures that animals used in experiments receive the maximum amount of care without interfering with the experiment. Every scientist must consider 3 words before they start working with animals: Replacement, Reduction, and Refinement. First, can the scientist replace animals with some other model? (For example, cells isolated from humans or animals or computer models). Second, can the scientist reduce the number of animals so that as few as possible are harmed? And third, can the scientist refine their experiments so that animals suffer as little as possible? All three questions must be addressed before research can begin.

While scientists may enjoy working with animals, they do not like causing pain for animals. Researchers ensure that the animals in their care are healthy and well for the research study. Many scientists are animal activists and whole-heartedly care for the animals they work with.

Science has a small impact on animals in comparison to animals harmed by other factors. Scientists in the United States used 12-27 million animals in 2010. Although this sounds like a large

A monument to the laboratory mouse in Novosibirsk, Russia

number, 99% of these animals are rats, mice, birds, or fish.  People in the U.S. consume more than 340 chickens for every 1 animal that is studied in a research facility. Furthermore, for every animal involved in research, another 14 animals are killed on roads.

Scientists and those who benefit from the science appreciate what animal research has accomplished. Scientists appreciate all that animals have done to benefit scientific advances and human health. A town in Russia raised enough money to erect a statue to pay tribute to all of the sacrifices that animals, namely the laboratory mouse, have paid to save human lives (see picture). This statue reflects the attitudes that scientists have for their laboratory animals, and it thanks them for what they have done to save millions of human lives.

Peer-reviewed by Caitlyn Molloy and Elise Hickman.

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Science Behind the Dance – Autobiography by Wayne McGregor

Auto-Bio-Graphy = Self-Life-Writing or how your body and life look as told through choreography.  This is what Wayne McGregor imagined as he began working on Autobiography with the McGregor Company Dancers.  The Science Writing and Communication club (SWAC) and Carolina Performing Arts recently sat down with the dancers to discuss how science and dance intersect.

SWAC learned that McGregor has been collaborating with scientists for many years regarding different facets of dance.  For example, his dancers have worked with Professor David Kirsh at the University of California, San Diego, where he studied creative cognition with the dancers and how dance content is created and remembered between dancers and choreographer.

Photo by Andrej Uspenski

Company Wayne McGregor dancers perform Autobiography. Photo by Andrej Uspenski.

When McGregor began working on Autobiography, inspired by having his DNA sequenced, he gave his dancers ideas, or what they call tasks, to demonstrate different concepts with their bodies through dance.  For example, at the beginning of creating Autobiography, the dancers were paired into groups of 4 and given the letters A,T,G, or C.  He then asked them to create choreography together.  Then McGregor and the dancers visited The Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridge UK, a world leader in genome research, and learned what the letters A,T,G,C meant biologically as the building blocks of DNA. After visiting the sequencing facility, McGregor asked the dancers to repeat their choreography tasks.  During our conversation, the dancers said that with their new understanding of DNA biology, the choreography tasks took on a new meaning.

The dance Autobiography is broken down into 23 different choreographed segments that are assigned an order randomly by an algorithm to mimic the randomness of DNA recombination.  This aspect of the choreography is complicated for the dancers, who don’t know the order of the segments until a couple days before the performance.  This meant that sometimes they would be dancing for long periods of time, whereas other times their performances would be broken up into smaller segments throughout the night.  Sometimes the dance segments flow into the next piece of choreography seamlessly, and sometimes they end quite abruptly.  In our conversation, the dancers said they envisioned this re-ordering and occasional abrupt stopping as being very similar to the chaos of life.

An interesting moment from our conversation evolved as both dancers and scientists alike realized that we both strive to achieve communication through our bodies.  It is easy to imagine how dancers do this, but not as easy to imagine how scientists communicate with body movement.  As scientists, we realized that we attempt to communicate concepts visually through use of our bodies, whether it be through gesturing with our hands to emphasize points during a presentation, or through mimicking with our bodies what we believe is happening, invisible to us, inside a cell during DNA damage, repair, or replication.  Another moment in our conversation where science connected easily to dance was when the scientists and dancers discussed how both published scientific findings and performed choreography are both put into the ether for others to interpret using their personal lenses.  We all interpret data differently based on our own experiences, and as scientists and as dancers we hope that people find use in our work and can apply it to their own lives.

Peer edited by Adrienne Cox.

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Golden Medicine: Use of Plasmons for Cancer Therapy

Cancer is an immensely complex disease to treat. The number of mutations and combinations of mutations that can lead to its development make each “cure” more of a patch to a few specific cases. Couple that with the increasing rate of mutation within cancer cells, and it becomes difficult to even diagnose the issue. Plasmon therapy offers the potential for a broadly applicable treatment, and because it couples well with the bodies immune response, offers a therapy that could decrease the chance for metastatic tumor development.

Before we discuss this topic with greater specificity, a few terms should be defined. Plasmons, from the word plasma, are a material that has electrons that flow back and forth in a wave when light shines on them. Plasmas are just gaseous ions, like lightning or neon signs, and in the case of a plasmon, this plasma is confined to the surface of a nanoparticle. You can read more about plasmon theory here.

Nanoparticles abound in modern technologies and are defined by one dimension, the so called “critical dimension”, which is around two hundred nanometers. For reference, that’s roughly one hundred thousand times smaller than a human hair. This size can afford a variety of unique properties to a molecule: distinct colors, uncharacteristic electronic activities, and even the ability to move through a cellular membrane. All these attributes will come into play in how these molecules interact with cancer cells, so they’re important to keep in mind.  Plasmons are nanoparticles that are so small, that the plasma on the surface can be manipulated by light. This rapid movement of plasma gives rise to heat as it collides with surface particles just as your hands generate heat rubbing together. The type of light that does this can be visible or even radio waves, meaning that very low-energy and harmless beams can be used to generate this rapid heat.

The second bit of background knowledge necessary for this discussion is: how is cancer treated in the first place? Many current cancer therapies come from small molecules roughly the size of glucose. Whether they use metals or strictly carbon, small molecule cancer therapies usually rely on interrupting one or a few cellular pathways, like DNA replication or a checkpoint before mitosis (cell splitting). One of the first nanoparticles approved for cancer therapy have been gold nanorods, which are thousands of times larger than a small molecule and have used physical rather than chemical mechanisms for therapy. To clarify, instead of changing some pathway in a cell, these nanorods can selectively heat cancer cells until the cell dies. If you were to think about this in terms of pest control, nanoparticle therapy is like burning a nest of cockroaches. In that same case, using small molecules like cisplatin would be like spraying the cockroaches with the latest bugkiller.

Extending this analogy, it’s fairly obvious that setting a fire inside someone’s body is not a good medicinal practice, so it would be fair to question how plasmon therapy might be helpful. There are two strategies for plasmon cancer therapy: precision lasers and radio waves which can pass through a body. The earliest use of plasmon cancer therapy used a fiber optic that was inserted under the skin to a location near the tumor. Then, beams of light would hit only the tumor. This has the advantage of targeted dosing, but can still be considered fairly invasive. Others have begun using plasmons that generate that intense heat with radio waves so that no procedure is necessary: simply an injection or ingestion of nanoparticles and then stepping into a radio transmitter This can be impractical if the tumor is not in a confined space. Common gold plasmonic nanoparticles would go inside all cells so healthy cells would be damaged just as easily as cancerous ones. Recent work shows that the surface of the nanoparticle can be changed so that the majority of uptake occurs by cancer cells. Cancer cell metabolism makes the charge of cancer cell membranes different from the charge of normal cell membranes, so these nanoparticles can exploit that difference to target only cancer cells.

With this targeted dosing, plasmons show promise as a noninvasive form of therapy that do not harm the patient and would be applicable to most forms of cancer. Even though the safest and most effective nanoparticles will use gold, treatment costs are currently around  $1000, thereby promising a treatment that will not be prohibitively expensive for the future.

Peer edited by Kasey Skinner.

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A picture is worth a thousand words…or more


“Use a picture. It’s worth a thousand words.” This timeless expression first appeared in a 1911 Syracuse Post Standard newspaper article. If you ask Mohamad Elgendi, he’ll say it’s more like 10000 words, based on how fast our mind processes words vs. images. Although true for almost everything, this phrase is becoming even more important in the sciences where data visualization is a necessity for clearly communicating complex and large data sets.

The concept of data visualization is simple: it is the representation of data in a graphical or pictorial format. Creating effective data visualizations, however, is quite difficult. Scientists are often tasked with this challenge every day, whether by presenting their work to peers or to the general public through written and oral forms of communication. Data visualizations play a huge role in all of these outputs, so scientists should be pretty good at it, right?

Most scientists would probably say they are decent at preparing figures and graphics for someone that is within their field of study. Beyond just the typical representations of data like bar plots, scatter plots, pie charts, and line graphs, different fields within the life sciences have created various types of plots for representing certain data. For example, protein sequence conservation is sometimes depicted in “sequence logo plots”. But these field specific data representations may not be appropriate for all audiences and branching out to create something that is both visually appealing and effective at conveying the proper message to the right audience is tough.

There are multiple possible explanations for the gap in scientists’ ability to make effective data visualizations. The first is that we simply are not trained in art or graphic design. Additionally, scientists do not always have access to someone, such as a graphic designer, to collaborate with for making figures. Although there are efforts being made, such as this one at the University of Washington, that work to forge collaborations between science and design students. Another factor that introduces a hurdle to scientists making good data visualizations is time. First, a good figure requires a complete and thorough understanding of the data which can take a tremendous amount of time, particularly in the days of big data, where data sets are extremely vast and complex. Finally, it also takes time to create a figure. Creating a beautiful data visualization requires hours of training and working with unfamiliar software, such as Adobe Illustrator, that takes patience and persistence to master.

So scientists need to improve their data visualization skills but it is often difficult to find the time to practice some of these skills. Some helpful beginners tips for data visualization are shown below because the goal is always the same.

Goal of data visualization: To create a story from a set of data in a clear manner

How to get there:

  1.   https://stock.adobe.com/Figure out your narrative, or the story that you want to tell with the data. This requires a comprehensive understanding of the dataset you aim to represent along with the an understanding of your audience.
  2.   Determine the best way to represent the data. This sounds easier than it actually is and could take some time making and comparing multiple different types of figures. Again remember the story and the audience.
  3.   Learn a little bit about how the brain perceives images, color, and depth. Learning the core principles of design, such as color choice, negative space, and typography, can have an immediate impact on
    the visual appearance of the graphic. This
    document highlights data visualization specifically for the life sciences and Nature has compiled a collection of articles related to design.
  4.   Get feedback from everybody. Before finalizing a data visualization make sure to get feedback from multiple people with different backgrounds. Ensure they all interpret the data as you aimed to present it. And, as most things are not perfect the first time, refine and remake until you create your ideal data visualization.

Nearly every scientist hopes to turn the ideas in their head into a beautiful work of art, similar to this process of going from sketch to infographic. It takes time, patience, and practice to develop these skills. If you are a scientist looking to enhance your data visualization skills consider taking an online course, reading up on data visualization, practice making figures from some largely accessible datasets or for your colleagues, entering a contest such as the NSF Vizzies Challenge, or attending a conference or workshop.

Peer edited by Alex Mullins.

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Science communication drives away my graduate anxiety

I did not know graduate depression was a thing almost a decade ago when I studied for my Master’s degree. I experienced a period of depression symptoms but I did not confide in or consult with anyone. I felt ashamed to talk about my problems. “Didn’t everyone survive and eventually graduate?” I thought to myself; it must be my poor ability that stopped me from making progress. Now I am halfway into my Ph.D program and I realize an essential element to motivate myself: the exercise in science communication.

When I finished my undergraduate, the transition to advanced research did not come easily despite continuing in the same research lab. At the beginning of the first year, I started to suffer from insomnia. Every night in bed, my brain would not stop emulating the worst scenario. I could get humiliated in public or get kicked out of the program for poor performance. Often I felt my anxiety so intensely that I jumped out of bed in the middle of the night. I screamed, silently, so that I would not perturb my roommates. I cried to myself, declaring my desire to quit. However, I did not dare to talk about it and acted normal the next day. I also avoided contact with my advisor. I would sneak out of the office when he came in, pretending to go for a walk so I wouldn’t have to talk about my research progress which was nonexistent.

My lack of motivation continued for a semester until I returned from a week-long holiday. During the break, I revisited a couple of critical journals relevant to my research which I had a hard time fathoming. I tried turning numbers into schematics and summarizing their work with my own words. My advisor was impressed that I was able to convey the project after a short period. He did not know what happened to me during the break, and neither did I. Without knowing it, I was learning to communicate science to a broad audience. Only, at first, that audience was me. With better communication with my advisor, my anxiety disappeared. I graduated in the expected period and began to climb the career ladder in my field.

Looking back, I did not know I was experiencing mental depression. I was not even aware that I fixed my crisis through science communication practice. Years later, I decided to accomplish a bigger goal: to earn a doctoral degree. What I have feared the most, is that the graduate anxiety which once hit me would not just resolve itself, even though I now felt more mentally mature. Doing my graduate work and living in a new country, the social and language barriers frustrate me in many ways. I felt the need to find a community where I can get support and also advocate for myself and others in my situation. I wanted to have a supporting network to protect me before the graduate depression had its chance to strike me again. I started searching for an opportunity to reach out, and that was when I met the Pipettepen and began my journey of science communication training.

To get my feet wet, I made a start on editing work. And then my first article discussing the effects of the nanomaterials on our daily life was published, a topic inspired by my research project. I remember I worried about failing to meet the expectations and any tough judgment. Thanks to the good and helpful suggestions from the Pipettepen editors along the way, my confidence in writing built up since the first attempt.

I am particularly fond of writing regarding effective communication. Science writing fuels me with the energy to keep on the track of graduate life. Not only is writing an independent activity which suits my personality, but the process also provides me with a safe place to develop my voice. The process of organizing an article also helps my professional work. It makes me less fearful of starting a longer and denser manuscript. More than that, I have begun to explore science and science communication in many aspects. I attended the regional ComSciCon workshop in Triangle this spring, an event that I would have been afraid to even think about if not with writing experiences in the Pipettepen. I set up my Twitter account and get to glimpse another side of scientific expression and events that I did not even know existed!


Graduate life has its ups and downs. We all have our very own struggles. Keep looking for a place to develop your voice.


Graduate life can be very stressful. Sometimes I am in limbo and doubt my decision to earn a Ph.D., and still don’t know what I want. The truth is, I always know what I want, and that is to be happy and live my life to the fullest. Pursuing a Ph.D. degree is one of the life goals set in my early research years. I am approaching this goal while acknowledging the mental health crisis among graduates. By doing things I am good at and enjoy, along with the main work of research, the wheels of my graduate life can keep turning.

You might not find writing as enjoyable but remember, there are many channels to reach out and express your voices. Most importantly, it is to build a supportive network where you can transform your frustration or anxiety into something positive.

Peer edited by Gabrielle Budziszewski.

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My Experience Writing for a Trade Magazine

During my last year of graduate study in physics, I attended the 2015 ComSciCon Triangle workshop and learned that I could make a career out of science writing. So I began writing for the Pipettepen and applied for the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship in 2016 as I finished writing my dissertation. I was accepted and ended up at Voice of America in Washington, D.C. for 10 weeks. I had three really great editors who not only showed me the ropes of being a science journalist, they also worked with me on producing radio and TV pieces. It was fun and I learned a lot, but I still didn’t feel ready to put all my eggs in the science writer basket.

I worked as a part-time adjunct faculty and applied for full time jobs. I applied to a few writing jobs here and there but didn’t have much luck for a year and a half. Then one day a job popped up in one of my many email alerts. It was for an associate editor position at a magazine that had something to do with the healthcare industry. The job description was pretty vague, and they just wanted writing experience so I applied.

The next morning, after I dropped my kids off at daycare, I received a phone call from the Editor in Chief of the magazine. After we spoke for a while he said he was intrigued and wanted me to come in for an interview. When I arrived at the office a few days later it was eerily quiet except for a single pair of hands typing on a keyboard. The office had eight cubicles in the middle of the room with high walls so you couldn’t see over them, but I could tell 7 out of 8 of them weren’t occupied. Around the perimeter were offices that were all occupied. I chatted with the Editor in Chief and he told me about what they did there. They were a trade magazine aimed at administrators of outpatient surgery centers. If you’re not familiar (I wasn’t) these are places where people go to have surgical procedures in under 24 hours. Cataract surgery, total knee and hip replacements, and many ENT (ears, nose and throat) procedures are all done in under 24 hours.

The job entailed interviewing nurses, surgeons and administrators that worked at outpatient facilities each month about topics such as multimodal pain management and how to pass an accreditation survey. Articles with a single source were ghostwritten by the editors, meaning that the editor wrote the piece but the source would be the author when the article went to print. Articles with two or more sources would be authored by the editor. Sounded fun and easy enough. After doing a test write, where I interviewed an administrator and wrote up a short essay about a space-saving idea she implemented at her facility, they hired me. They also gave me the salary I asked for. I totally low-balled myself but I didn’t care. I finally had full-time work writing!

This magazine put out new issues monthly and editors were assigned their topics the first Monday of each month. Usually assignments consisted of 2 to 3 feature articles and 2 departments. Departments are two-page articles that run every month covering current issues affecting anesthesia providers or infection preventionists for example. Feature topics varied month to month and were actually decided well in advance so the publication could solicit advertisers to buy ad space. Some months we were assigned 2 additional features for a supplement issue. It wasn’t unheard of for an editor to have 4 to 5 features and 2 or 3 departments during months when a supplement issue ran.

It sounds like a lot. But it’s not all. Every Tuesday we had to write up short summaries of current news we found that affected outpatient surgery centers to send out to our readers in a weekly email blast. I was also put in charge of our daily emails. Every weekday we sent out the feature articles from the previous month reimagined as a “Tip of the Day”. The headlines and email subjects had to be catchy and clickbaity. This was probably my least favorite thing to do. I did my best to be as truthful as possible and still make them interesting enough to click on.

This brings me to the editing process. The other two associate editors I worked with were seasoned journalists. At both the Pipettepen and Voice of America, my editors usually helped me reword things if they weren’t clear and maybe changed the lede of my article if it wasn’t engaging enough. If things were really unacceptable, they’d ask me to rewrite. For the most part they left my voice and my stories alone though. My co-workers said that had been their experiences too.

This magazine, however, had established a certain voice. The magazine wanted their readers to feel like they were having a candid conversation with another professional. So the more senior editors took a very heavy hand when editing anything we submitted. No matter how early we turned in our pieces, we usually didn’t see the articles again until they were posted to the website or we proofed them before going to print in the magazine. So we didn’t have much of a say in the final published article. It took me a while to get used to the process. Actually, I’m not sure I ever fully accepted it.

Proofing was another interesting experience that differed from other experiences I had. At both the Pipettepen and Voice of America, only one or two additional eyes would look over my pieces before they were published. Since this was a print publication, mistakes can’t be corrected, so every piece had at least four sets of eyes that looked over it. As described above, after an editor submitted their piece, the senior editors made their changes. Then the senior editors copied and pasted the article into the magazine layout and adjusted it to fit between the images and ads. Once it looked right, I had to print out the article and proof it. Then I passed my corrections to the Executive Editor. He updated the piece and proofed it again. Then the other associate editor proofed it and gave it to the Editor in Chief to do one final proofing. Now when I say proofing I mean grammatical corrections or checking the numbering in lists. We rarely pointed out issues that would need significant re-writes due to time constraints.

Since we were only assigned our pieces at the beginning of the month, the last week of the month seemed hectic and stressful for the more senior editors. They not only had to write their own pieces but also edit ours. The tensions and nerves of the more senior editors were usually high that last week of the month and it made for a very unpleasant work environment.

And then, after we went to print, a new month would begin and everything would be calm and pleasant. I started to realize why there was only one set of hands typing on the keyboard that day I interviewed. Most associate editors quit after a few months of the crazy schedule and tense, unpredictable atmosphere. When I started, there was one other associate editor who had been there for three months. She left a month and a half after I started. A new associate editor started right after she left. But he left after two and a half months. After watching two friends quit in 5 months, I decided to leave too.

Despite the end of the month craziness, I absolutely loved the writing. Being assigned topics I knew nothing about was exciting for me. Everyone I interviewed was friendly and more than happy to explain things I didn’t know. I really enjoyed the process up until I had to turn in my work. Would I do it again? For another outlet, absolutely! The only reason I left was because of an unwelcoming environment that made it difficult for me to write. So I’ll leave you with a list of things you should be aware of if you’re going into the magazine business that I’m definitely keeping in mind going forward.

  • Read the room – How many other editors/writers are working there currently? Ask how long people stay. I asked during my interview and got a carefully worded answer. Something along the lines of: “It varies. Some stay for 15 years others stay for a few months.” The truth was that only the more senior staff had been there that long. I heard from other employees that the longest anyone else stayed was 5 years.
  • Editor style – It might be a good idea to ask what the editing process is like before you start. Some editors may heavily rewrite your work and not give chances for rewrites while others may send your pieces back to you with comments and suggestions.
  • Know your worth – Ask for a range in salary, not a single number. Glassdoor will give you an average salary range for any position. Use that as a starting point. If you have an advanced degree, you can use that to justify a higher range.
  • Alerts – Set up Google Alerts for topics. Google alerts are actually a great way to find topics to write about if you don’t have access to the AAAS website for embargoed journal articles — EurekAlert. It also lets you see how authors are approaching a story, so you can come up with a different angle. You can even set the time of day you get the alerts. I always found that mornings allowed me to get the freshest news.
  • Forums – Join the forums of the professional societies where your readers are members. You’ll be able to keep up with current topics of interest and find sources to interview for those topics.
  • Passive voice – Academia often overlooks the use of passive voice. So just be aware of this and know that your editors will call you out on it. I found this article helpful in identifying passive voice in my writing.
  • Start early – Research and reach out to sources as soon as you get your assignments. Potential sources are very busy but most likely want to talk to you. The earlier you contact them the more time and flexibility you have to schedule interviews.
  • Keep track – Have a running to-do list of what your next goal is for each article. I always updated mine at the end of the day so the next morning I knew exactly where I was with each feature. The different stages usually looked like
    • Find sources – If you don’t hear from them after one or two days, follow-up
    • Interview source
    • Outline article – Ask source follow-up questions
    • Write article – Ask source follow-up questions
    • Send draft to source for review

    It always helped me to have the process written out so I could see each task I had to accomplish and how long I had to do it.

As a graduate student who made the leap into science writing, I had a ton of skills that made me a successful trade magazine editor. My ability to research topics thoroughly and quickly allowed me to get up to speed on the topics I had to write about. There are also lots of similarities between earning a Ph.D and earning a certification in healthcare or a medical degree! So it was easy for me to make connections with sources. Writing for the Pipettepen allowed me to hone my writing skills and amass a library of writing samples (a.k.a. clips) to use for any job or fellowship applications. The AAAS Mass Media Fellowship threw me into science journalism and forced me to learn how to find and interview sources on a deadline.

Reflecting on my experience working at a trade magazine, I learned that the time I spent in graduate school and science writing made me a successful editor. But I also learned the signs of a tense, unpredictable work environment and that I’m not comfortable with certain editing styles. Trade magazines, especially in an unfamiliar field, can be a great way for non-journalism students to get their feet wet in the sea of journalism, as long as the editors provide a supportive and respectful space. If you have the clips go for it!

Peer edited by Amanda Tapia.

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Science Communication, Advocacy and the Federal Budget


Scientific societies, such as ASBMB, provide opportunities for trainees to travel to Washington, D.C. and meet with policymakers.

Recently, the federal budget for the fiscal year (FY) 2019 (beginning October 1st, 2018) was released. Shockingly, the initial plan called for brutal cuts to basic research funding agencies—slashing the budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) by 27% and 29%, respectively. While Congress subsequently lifted spending caps to compensate for these losses, the budgets of both the NIH and NSF will now remain stagnant at levels for FY2017.

Although catastrophic funding losses have been avoided, these flat budgets are still worrisome. When adjusted for inflation, a stable budget equates to a decrease in funding.  Furthermore, three health research institutes currently located in the Agency of Healthcare and Human Services and the CDC will be terminated and their successors will be created within the NIH. The relocation of these institutes without an increase in NIH funding will further strain the budget.

Numerous scientific societies have responded with criticism to the federal government’s budget proposal. A statement from The Society for Neuroscience (SfN) highlighted the public’s support for scientific research funding and emphasized that adequate funding is critical to combat devastating diseases, such as Alzheimer’s. Likewise, a press release from the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) expressed concern regarding America’s ability to lead in science and innovation amidst stagnant funding.

Educating elected officials on the importance of scientific research is a key focus of scientific societies. ASBMB sponsors an opportunity for graduate students and postdocs to travel to the capital and meet with Congress through their annual Hill Day. Societies also encourage local action. For example, the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) compiles an advocacy toolkit to guide members through the process of contacting local representatives, scheduling meetings and organizing lab tours. On the UNC campus, the Science Policy Advocacy Group (SPAG) is a resource for graduate students and postdocs to gain skills in science communication and advocacy through outreach events, workshops and seminars.     

At the core of science advocacy is the ability to communicate why science is necessary. While the significance of developing new cancer therapies is clear, the importance of basic science research is still often misunderstood. Basic science research is often described as “curiosity-driven” and asks fundamental questions such as: “How do cells move?” This basic research provides a thorough understanding of cellular processes that is critical for later medical innovations. In the 1990s, Yoshinori Ohsumi observed an unusual structure in yeast cells when he starved them. His work in yeast was essential for uncovering the mechanism behind autophagy, a recycling pathway in the cell. Today, researchers know that defects in autophagy result in cancer, Parkinson’s Disease and Type 2 Diabetes, and Ohsumi was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2016.

Ohsumi’s story demonstrates that breakthroughs in basic science are critical for breakthroughs in medicine. Yet, proper funding must be secured before further innovations in either field can occur. As a result, it is critical to create a culture that both understands and values scientific research.

Peer edited by Kelsey Miller.

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Can We Make Tastier Tomatoes?

They can be eaten raw, made into countless stews and sauces, and add a tasty addition to nearly any dish. Tomatoes are practically indispensable in any modern kitchen and are one the highest monetary valued fruits. However, they were not always the big and meaty fruit we know today.


Tomatoes were not always the big and meaty fruit we know today.

Throughout history, humans have domesticated and improved plants, selectively breeding them till they bear little resemblance to their wild counterparts. Wild tomatoes are thought to have arisen from the Andean region of South America and were small, resembling cherry tomatoes. In fact, cherry tomatoes are thought to be the ancestor of the larger varieties. Conquistadors then brought tomatoes from South America to Europe in the sixteenth century, and the continued migration and selective breeding has massively changed tomato genetics. Some of these changes are responsible for tomatoes that are ~100 times larger than their ancestors, while others have produced the unique pink coloration of tomatoes popular in China and Japan. However, much less is known on how the tomato metabolome, or its collection of small molecules (metabolites) such as amino acids, vitamins, and sugars, has changed throughout domestication and later improvement of the fruit.

The metabolites in tomatoes not only affect their development but also play key roles in human health and are responsible for their nutrition and taste. Today, the breeding of tomatoes has largely focused on increasing shelf life, yield, and disease resistance. Yet these changes may sometimes have negative impacts on the quality of tomatoes. Understanding how the metabolites in modern tomatoes has changed through selective breeding will help us to understand how best to breed and design tomatoes in the future to maximize their nutrition and taste. In a recent study, Guangtao Zhu et al. identified the metabolites in a variety of tomato samples spanning the domestication and improvement stages in the species. Interestingly, the greatest amount of change in metabolites happened not during domestication but during the later improvement stage.

A notable change during the development of the modern tomato is the selection against steroidal glycoalkaloid (SGA), responsible for the bitter taste in early tomatoes and common in the nightshade family of plants to which it belongs. Presumably, humans selected this without any knowledge of SGAs, instead breeding tomatoes that were less bitter than others. In addition to SGAs, other metabolites in modern tomatoes are very different from their ancestors. The authors also explored why the pink tomatoes popular in Asian countries are considered so much more flavorful from their red counterparts. The peel of red tomatoes contain a compound called naringenin chalcone that gives a yellow-hue to the peels, and the absence of this compound in pink tomatoes results in their pink coloring. Yet, why pink tomatoes are considered more delicious is unknown. This paper identified many metabolites that are different between red and pink tomatoes. This finding will lay the foundation for further studies to determine which of these metabolites give pink tomatoes their unique, sweet taste and that may be incorporated into red tomatoes to make them more flavorful.

One question in the design of modern tomatoes is whether we can design equally large tomatoes that are both more flavorful and nutritious. This paper suggests that through metabolomic changes in the tomato we can. The authors propose that the changes in metabolites were likely not due directly to the genes responsible for fruit weight that produced larger tomatoes, but rather genes that were “linked” to these fruit weight genes. Essentially these genes hitched a ride with the fruit weight genes to be passed on unintentionally. Nowadays, we have the capabilities of making more precise changes in DNA and ensuring that only the genes of interest are changed and not related genes or “linked” genes. Using these modern genetic approaches, such as Crispr-Cas, we can now increase the nutritional value and improve taste in tomatoes while avoiding the “linked” genes that likely brought about some negative changes in the modern tomato. So yes, we may be eating bigger, tastier, and healthier tomatoes in the future!

Peer edited by Laetitia Meyrueix.

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Cinnamon, Bam!

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:001-Cinnamon.jpg Photo Credit: https://www.kjokkenutstyr.net/

Many of us associate the holiday seasons with the smells of cinnamon.

Well the holiday season is upon us. Our calendars and days are now filled with shopping, travel, and social gatherings with friends, family, and loved ones. As the temperature outside turns cold, we turn to many of our favorite treats to fill our bellies and help keep us warm. Our mouths water as we think about all of the delectable items that line our kitchens and tables. I can picture it now… a warm fire keeping the room nice and toasty, glass of wine in hand, friends and relatives conversing and catching up and of course, avoiding awkward conversations with Uncle Gary. All while hovering around various piles of unknown cheeses, meats, and delicious stacks of sweets. And If you’re lucky, you may even find a warm, sticky stack of homemade cinnamon buns. As it turns out, these may be just the thing to reach for to help burn off some of that unwanted extra “padding” that comes with all of those holiday favorites.

What’s that you say? Cinnamon buns burn fat? Well before you go eating the whole tray, it’s not really the cinnamon buns themselves that may help burn fat, but the cinnamon for which they are named. It tastes great, you can use it in all sorts of dishes, and it accelerates fat loss. I’m a fan of all of those things. Now, you probably find yourself asking, where can I learn more about this awesome spice? Well, look no further my friend, I am about to lay enough cinnamon-spiced knowledge on you to guarantee that you can bore your friends and family to tears with your cinnamon information stream at your holiday gathering. You’ll be less popular than Uncle Gary.

Cinnamon contains a compound known as cinnamaldehyde. Cinnamaldehyde is a naturally occurring chemical found in the bark of cinnamon trees that gives cinnamon both its characteristic flavor and odor. A recent study shows that cinnamaldehyde can even help burn fat by increasing metabolism and your body’s ability to breakdown fat! I know, it’s pretty magical. Now before you go running around stabbing cinnamon trees with a spout, there’s a few things you should know. Primarily that you have to fly to Sri Lanka, which is expensive but totally worth it since it’s a beautiful tropical island in the Indian Ocean. And you can even stay at a place called Cinnamon Bey, which looks like this picture I found of it on the interweb. Pretty sweet, huh? (See what I did there!)


Sri Lanka is located off the southeast coast of India.

Anyway, the purest source of cinnamon-derived cinnamaldehyde is the Ceylon Cinnamon tree (say that several times fast while jamming a sticky bun in your face!). Also known as, the “True” Cinnamon tree, which is named after the historical moniker of its native country, Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon). The country still produces and exports up to 90% of the world’s true cinnamon. The other 10% comes from Seychelle and Madagascar, which are equally far and equally awesome as travel destinations. However, there are six species of cinnamon sold commercially around the world. So If you prefer the regular stuff found cheaply at most grocery stores, then you will have to head to China or Southeast Asia for the most common variant, cassia, which is considered to be less, um, “Top-Shelf”.

The cassia variant is cultivated on a larger scale and is coarser than ceylon cinnamon. It also has a higher oil content and contains more cinnamaldehyde, which gives it a harsher, stronger, spicier flavor than Ceylon cinnamon. Huh? Wait, you thought more cinnamaldehyde might equal more fat loss? You are correct my friend, but before you book that ticket to Guangdong and attempt the cinnamon challenge for the thirtieth time, you should know that the Cassia variety also contains coumarin, which is not found in the Ceylon variety. Coumarin is a naturally occurring blood thinner that can cause damage to the liver in high doses. So, take your pick, though if you really want that good, pure cinnamaldehyde, the “True” kind, then you better hustle it to Sri Lanka.

However, getting there is only part of the story. Isolating cinnamaldehyde from the bark of the Cinnamon tree is a slightly tricky process that involves some rather unsavory chemicals, the potential of explosions, and a few fancy science machines (namely a mass spectrometer) for pulling the oil out of the bark, to leave you with that tasty, cinnamoney goodness. What? You thought you could just grab a tree and squeeze really hard? No, no, no. That might work for your lemongrasses, aloes and coconuts, but not cinnamon.

Actually, I’m guessing from your weird tree-squeezing thoughts that you take Cinnamon for granted. I mean…your cinnamon disrespect is understandable, since you can buy it pretty much everywhere and it’s almost as prolific as pumpkin spice, but this wasn’t always the case. In fact, until recently true cinnamon was extremely rare, since there were no planes or cars…or Amazon, well the internet really…and it only came from one relatively small island in the Indian Ocean. As such, until the 1500’s cinnamon was highly valued and was given to kings and as tribute to gods. Eventually, during the colonial period, the East India Company (the original Amazon) began distributing the spice to the rest of the world and cultivating it on a large scale.

So, cinnamon has been around forever, you say, since remote antiquity and what-not. Great. But what about this cinnamon burns fat thing? First off, settle down. We have arrived, so here’s the details. A recent study from Jun Wu at the University of Michigan Life Sciences Institute showed that cinnamaldehyde increases thermogenesis, which is the process the body uses to create heat. Thermogenesis can burn a lot of calories and accelerate metabolism, and that results in the breakdown of fat. In addition, cinnamaldehyde can decrease and stabilize fasting blood sugar. What’s even more interesting is that chronic treatment with cinnamaldehyde can reprogram your body’s metabolism, which may serve as protection from diet induced obesity.


Cinnamon is used in a variety of holiday treats including cinnamon rolls and apple pies.

So, cinnamon can burn fat and protect you from gaining it back! Now that is a magical spice. Well, there you go. I’m pretty sure that should be just enough information to cause awkward emotional discomfort to those within ear shot at your holiday festivities. Your shining personality may keep you from being the next Uncle Gary, but at least your cinnamon tales will have him running for the eggnog, which contains cinnamon. Bam! Take that Uncle Gary. No one cares about the length of your ear hair!

And while you’re enjoying your holidays, eating those cinnamon packed delicacies, remember the reason for the season! Be good to each other and have some fun, safe, and cinnamon filled holidays! Cheers!


Peer edited by David Abraham.

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