Starting my science writing career

Two weeks of my internship completed at The Scientist. I am loving it; I’m doing real work. They tossed me in at the deep end which suits me; I’m writing plenty for the website, working on magazine assignments, and they gave me the reigns to the social media (well, sort of, but that’s another story). Here’s a few musings so far.

Cancer is really, really complicated.

For my first news assignment, I got a cancer story. A little child inside went “waahhhh, not cancer for the first one!”. I covered a cancer researcher at the University of Alberta for both the student newspaper and the alumni association and, as much as I hate to admit it, it’s one of the few stories where I honestly didn’t really understand what I was writing. Or what the guy was saying in the first place.

You should always have pictures within text to catch people’s eye, so here’s a pretty one of mitochondria lit up in a cell.
THE CELL

Lots of people study cancer, lots and lots and lots. That’s because everywhere cancer can be found, it’s a different disease. A cure for cancer is often talked about, and new potential cures pop up in the popular media all the time. Cancer cures even seem to suffer from the same fatigue as climate change reporting: it’s so often in the news it just passes people by. Is the media to blame for constantly hyping the next cure? Sort of. The problem is, every time we discover something new about a particular type of cancer, it proposes some new possibility for therapy, treatment or prevention. Therapies are the most common component of this, attacks on cancer already making way in someone’s body, like chemotherapy. Chemotherapy currently helps many people go into remission, but we don’t call it a cure, because the cancer can come back. But it also doesn’t come back. People talk all the time about a cure for cancer in general, or a cure for this or that type, but they forget all the progress that’s been made to ease the route.

But most often, when something gets discovered and reported it’s just a proposal for a possibility, things not even close to being tested. And again, they’re only on that one kind of cancer! Hard work is being done at every stage of the cancer battle, from basic research to cell and animal models up to human trials, but be patient, this stuff is complicated.

What is disease?

Cancer is a collection of things that go wrong in the body, and we call it a disease. Diabetes (type 1) is when the pancreas messes up, and that’s a disease too. So is it a disease when bacteria invade, or viruses, or when the immune system goes wild in response to a harmless invader and we call it allergies – and that’s also a disease. So is it a disease when our brains cause our emotions to shift unpredictability, or direct us to forget our families as grey matter degrades. A few times, when writing articles I’ve had to stop and ask myself if I can call this thing or the other a disease. But every time, it is, because a disease is anything that affects the normal functioning of our bodies in any way. With so many possibilities, it seems hard to ever be without disease!

Dumbing up

Those that study that complicated, complex stuff we call the disease cancer have some pretty expert knowledge. It’s deep, and highly specialized. That’s another reason I was a little reluctant to take on cancer as my first news story: it can be a more difficult interpretive task than many other science topics when the researchers talk at such a level of jargon.

Which is why a Nature “funny” piece caught a few science journalists off-guard, and raised a little defense. Science-journo heavyweight Deborah Blum (yes, we have our own celebrities too!) wrote a thoughtful critique of the article asking whether scientists will ever get science writing? The original article had some genuinely funny stabs at the tension between the two worlds, but that one that cut a little too deep was the comment about dumbing down: “Don’t think of what you’re doing as dumbing down science. It is, but don’t think of it that way.”

This one of E. coli is pretty nice too
ROCKY MOUNTAIN LABORATORIES, NIAID, NIH

At the start of this little section I called writing my news story an interpretive task, and that’s how many of us in science journalism specialties are trained to think of it (and do think of it). Of course we can’t use all the jargon the cancer scientists do – who the hell is going to understand it? And of course we have to make analogies that people understand, if we didn’t how would we help anyone care about your science? Scientists can think all they like that they don’t need the public to care, but that attitude is dying out (as it should be) as researchers realise that helping everyone to care and know about science benefits all involved. This is, after all, part of the goal of the move toward Open Access, where anyone can read the science they ultimately pay for.

But, The Scientist is a strange magazine in that it rests in a niche between popular science and a publication for the life sciences professional. Thus, when I wrote an over-simplified description of an HIV therapy, my editor added some jargon that was common enough in the discipline to be easily understood by our audience. My writing had to be “dumbed-up” to fit the people who were going to read it. See? We don’t always make your science dumb, we just make it so people can understand, and more than that, feel something more about it than “that’s smart.”

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