Thursday 28 August 2014

The microbiome of death

Sadly, my Media Fellowship placement at New Scientist has come to an end. But, I rather feel like I have 'gone out with a bang', as my latest article for them is a double-page spread! (Not the same as a centre-fold, to my husband's disappointment!)

You can read it here.

I was very pleased to be able to write about something (a) I know quite a bit about, (b) I'm really interested in and (c) I'm passionate about. A lot of the time, I gather, journalists don't get to chose what they write about, so I was very lucky.

The microbes that colonise cadavers is just up my street, and it was great to interview Professor Peter Noble about his research - although I did have to disturb him during his Caribbean holiday [alright for some!]. He and his team looked at how microbes spread out from the gut and colonised different internal organs of several cadavers, as a function of time. They found that the microbe populations differed more between individuals than between organs, suggesting that colonising microbes may be used to identify people. Then talking to Sibyl Bucheli was really fascinating too, especially as some her research is very closely aligned with mine, and that of the Burial Research Consortium. She voiced certain caveats to the research that I was thinking but couldn't put in without an external reference, so it was very helpful to talk to her. I hope that we may be able to work together on similar projects in the future. And of course, it was wonderful to get some choice comments from BRC's very own Professor John Cassella, an expert in this field.

I really enjoyed seeing all the processes that go into transforming a spark of an idea into a full-blown article, and watch it being tweaked and polished by editors, sub-editors and back to editors again. It was great to see how pictures were chosen, or rejected as the case may be, and how my writing turned into a 'proper' article for New Scientist. I'm absolutely delighted!

Friday 15 August 2014

From the trading room floor

Well, I am now into my penultimate week at New Scientist. The time has zipped past, in a blur of commuting on the tube, interviewing scientists on the phone, meeting deadlines and lots of writing and rewriting. I have begun to get the hang of things a little, and, if nothing else, learned how everybody likes their tea! So far, I have had eight pieces published, and hopefully have more to come. These have varied from short ‘reaction’ pieces to bizarre photos, to slightly longer, news-fuelled articles. I have also had a chance to get my teeth into one longer story so far, that is more forensic based than the others.

Here they are:

Actually, I have already learned more than I ever expected to. I now have insight into the dynamic between reporters, sub-editors and editors, and seen how stories get chosen or pitched to be articles for the magazine or online platforms. I am beginning to see the world through a journalist’s eye – examining ‘ordinary’ events for extraordinary angles, or trying to think of something that no-one else has thought of. It has made me appreciate how science gets published, blogged about and retweeted – it doesn't seem to be so much about the quality of the science – although that has to be sound – but it is more about whether the ordinary person can relate to it, and whether people want to chat about it down the pub. I have gathered that there is a clear correlation between the catchiness of a journal paper title and the chances of it being picked up by popular science journalism. So, if you want a journalist to do a feature on your research, you need to make it clear, easy to understand and emphasise how it affects real people. Basically, meeting the science writer half way will make the whole process much easier for both sides.

Facts are different beasts these days too. I have learned that they are a commodity to be traded, but the exchange rate is very steep. Scientists, or the fact ‘makers’, cherish the few true facts that they might be lucky enough to generate over the course of their careers. I, personally, have spent my academic career being careful not to accidently make incorrect ‘facts’, by avoiding making sweeping statements or jumping to conclusions, by being sceptical and reluctant to exclaim causal links between phenomena. Journalists are fact-hungry. They will procure several precious facts from a handful of different scientists before breakfast. Facts are – quite rightly – the bones of the article on which to hang the meat.

So, at first, my impression was that it felt a little unfair – that the fruit of the scientists’ labour is snapped up and guzzled very quickly. But actually, on closer inspection, it seems to be a more reasonable trade, as scientists relish the recognition of their work, and try hard to produce the sort of facts that people, and journalists, want to consume. Scientists just need to learn to take advantage of this, and start working more closely with journalists. And that, my friends, is just what the Media Fellowship is all about.