Bummerfish

kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings

Stephen King, On Writing

“Memories…of my days in the sun, err, bowl.”

Today, one of my darlings got dumped out of a fishbowl. I watched it flop around on the counter until its little blue tail slapped its final splashy beat. With the click of the “Refresh” button, my darling was gone, along with the air from my lungs.

You’re probably wondering what I’m talking about.

You see, I’m an amateur fiction writer who went to school for journalism and came out a professional science writer. That evolution amounted to having the purple prose red-penned from my copies. Along the way, I found something more meaningful than metaphor, more precious than parallel structure: my voice. It’s clever and cultivated and a little off-kilter.

I’ve done some good work with this voice, truth be told. I opened a fairy-tale themed story on stem cells with a variation of a nursery rhyme:

This little stem cell became heart cells, this little stem cell made bone, this little stem cell had mutant genes, this little stem cell had none…

I executed a double entendre on aspiring athletes at risk for head injuries:

Their dreams need not be dashed, nor their brains for that matter.

I added a little flare to a boring, bad-news story on health disparities:

While Jasper in Pickens County boasts two parks and four grocery stores in its town center, 3rd Avenue runs through the middle of Chatsworth in Murray County like cholesterol through an artery.

So my weirdness hasn’t been entirely ill-received. On the other hand, some of my mind-nuggets have been nipped in the…nugget-bud, as it were.

There was the evisceration of my rhyming headline on Alzheimer’s research, for instance. A suggested subheading of mine on multiple organ dysfunction syndrome– “Insides Out-of-Whack”–was deemed insensitive. UGA’s news service didn’t think “Like Farmer, Like Son” was a good enough headline to describe research on kid’s emulation of parents when operating farm equipment.

It’s never fun, but I moved on.* But today’s edit stung a little because it happened post-publication.

There I was, sharing links to a story I was proud of with a headline I’d crafted with care. The story was about how zebrafish make for an excellent model organism–allowing scientists to observe life processes while they’re happening and apply their findings to human health. As it was originally published, the title of the story was “Fishing for Complements: Zebrafish as a Model Organism.”

That’s complements, not compliments, mind you. Complements. Meaning counterparts. Like what model organisms are to people.

Don’t get it? Neither did some people in my office. So, 24 hours after seeing the light of day, my story now faces the world as follows:

But… but… OK. I mean, what else is there to say?**

The big takeaway for me is this: Not everyone is going to like everything I come up with. Not everything I come up with is actually that great. But as long as I have breath in my lungs and fingers on the keys, I’m keeping my voice. It’s easier for editors to pull me back than to pry creativity out, I suppose. And if it weren’t for the things that make me special as a writer, I’d just be another fish in the C. I mean, the sea.

…Even I’ll admit that last one was just bad. Progress!

*And blogged my revenge that no one sees. Go first amendment!

**Other than the fact that, as it stands, this teaser gives no indication that this story is actually about zebrafish? Considering I start a new job in 6 days, I’m really not about to make a stink…so I’ll just leave it to fester…like, y’know, a dead fish.

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How the lowly intern uncovered a widespread non-truth

How’s this for careful wording? Click to view the video.

Working in communications, I’ve learned one basic lesson: Nothing is ever simple or easy.*

One tricky aspect of my current job is producing videos to run with the Institute’s monthly e-newsletter. The communications office generally picks the findings to cover a week before publication. Add in clearance from the researchers, program directors and institute director, and the actual work–recording the sound and editing video–happens on a tight timeline.

That’s why this month, we decided to start very early with the video. We picked a splashy finding–Common Antifungal Drug Slows Tumor Growth and Shows Promise as Cancer Therapy–with lots of visual appeal a month before the publication date. I wrote a script that everyone loved, and all that was left to do was piece it all together.

…or so I thought. Because the story was about a common, FDA approved antifungal drug and its unexpected cancer treatment applications, I wanted a shot of said drug for my video. So I called the NIH pharmacy to see if I could get a shot of it. I explained my situation, and everything was going fine until I said what the drug, thiabendazole, was purported to be. The head pharmacist’s response left me a might befuddled:

“Thiabendazole, you say? That’s no longer available on the US market, and when it was, it was prescribed to treat roundworms, not fungal infections.”

Um, what?

So why does Oncology Nurse Advisor claim that a Well-known antifungal drug shows promise against cancer? And what would possess Medical News Today to run the headline Antifungal Drug Thiabendazole Offers Inexpensive Cancer Therapy Alternative? And why would PLoS Biology publish a paper whose title is Evolutionarily Repurposed Networks Reveal the Well-Known Antifungal Drug Thiabendazole to Be a Novel Vascular Disrupting Agent if that “well-known antifungal” part was not actually true?

As it turns out, the researchers acquired the compound thiabendazole from a laboratory supplier. In extensive tests in their lab, they showed that it could kill fungus.** And just because it is no longer FDA-approved doesn’t mean it’s ineffective. There are just better drugs out there for killing fungus.

But how come I’m the only person who seems to have picked up on this? Short answer: I’m not. The New York Times actually ran a story on this finding and utilized some pretty crafty wording:

The drug that excited the scientists most was a compound known as thiabendazole. It was thrilling in its familiarity: Thiabendazole was approved by the Food and Drug Administration for fighting fungal infections back in 1967. One of the biggest worries in the search for drugs is that a promising compound will turn out to have toxic side effects. Thiabendazole’s long track record made it unlikely that Dr. Marcotte and his colleagues would get such an unpleasant surprise.

Achem. So the drug WAS approved in 1967, and it has a long track record. Never mind that it’s no longer on the market and its chief purpose was killing parasites. This wording wouldn’t fly in my office. Believe it or not, government institutions–at least the one with which I’m involved–are intent on telling taxpayers the actual truth.

Suffice it to say, I had a challenge re-tooling my script. I had an even bigger challenge going back to the involved parties and basically saying “The title of your paper is misleading,” without offending anyone. By then, the cast of characters in this story had expanded to include me, my editor, several concerned parties in my office, the researchers, the researchers’ NIH program director, the Institute’s acting director, NIH’s head pharmacist, and several editors of other scientific publications who had also weighed in along the way.***

The wording with which we could all agree was clunky, but true: “thiabendazole, an antiparasitic agent with antifungal activity.”

Of all the principles in publishing, truth is key. It’s also a bit of a pain in the butt. But at least, when it comes to reporting the facts, I know my butt is safe.

*Maybe that’s why I’m attracted to abstruse subject matter. I figure if the topic is initially comprehensible, there are bound to be considerable complications elsewhere in the publishing process to balance it out.

**Which is important, because the whole wow-factor of the finding was about genes in yeast that have different functions in people.

***One of these only contacted the researchers for clarification after her publication’s readers had written in that thiabendazole was not actually a common antifungal drug.


The uninsured aren’t always who you think

Sure they care first… about their bottom line.

I’m about to admit something embarrassing. I shouldn’t be embarrassed about this because I haven’t done anything wrong. But, as someone who writes about health, I might even use the word ironic* in admitting the following: I don’t have health insurance.

It’s not because I don’t work full-time. I do work full-time; I work more than full time, actually. Currently, I work 40 hours a week contracting as a science writer, teach a GRE class for two hours a week and freelance for a non-profit organization for four hours a week. Because my contract for the first appointment is temporary, my employer pays me an extra $3.50 an hour for the sake of healthcare instead of providing me benefits.

Therein lies the rub. I intended to use that extra income to buy private health insurance. I’ve attempted to do so three times, and have just received my third rejection letter. Here’s what it says:

Upon review of the Individual Health Evaluation Questionnaire and medical information obtained, we learned that you have been treated, or are currently being treated for the following conditions(s): Conditions related to the use of medication: Zoloft. Also, physician’s medical report indicates a history of Asthma and Mild Sinus Dysrhythmia. Therefore, based upon your medical underwriting criteria and the information provided, we are unable to approve the coverage for which you applied at this time.

It’s true. I took half the smallest dose of an antidepressant for six months after my friend passed away and until the end of my divorce. And I’m not immune to Georgia pollen. That last thing? It’s because I had an EKG once for what turned out to be a school-related anxiety attack. I know. I should be ashamed for even wasting the underwriters’ time by applying for coverage. What was I thinking?

For the record, I’m aware of alternative ways of getting covered, and I’m looking into them.** This post isn’t about that. It’s about the utter ridiculousness of the existing insurance model.***

Insurance is supposed to be a safety net, in case something goes wrong. When you set it up as a way for middlemen to profit, they will do whatever they can to make sure they don’t have to pay anything, should something go wrong. That doesn’t mean stuff isn’t going wrong; it’s just going wrong among the uninsured. And then you get to pick up the tab via crazy high hospital bills and local taxes.

That’s what health care reform is about. It’s about limiting the power of said middlemen to deny responsible people like myself the ability to give them money. That’s all I want to do! I want to hand them my money so, should something catastrophic happen, I won’t be a giant liability to everyone else.

If you get rid of  denials based on pre-existing conditions, then the onus is no longer on the public to take care of me in the event that something bad happens. It comes from my premiums and from the insurance company’s coffers. And something bad is way less likely to happen if I have access to preventative care. But, if everyone can get insurance, won’t they just apply for it when they need it? That’s what the mandate is about. If everyone is paying in, the system is more effective in doing what it’s supposed to do.

Believe it or not, the purpose of insurance companies was not initially to make money. It was to insure people.

In this election year, I know healthcare reform is a hot issue. If your vote is largely influenced by a desire to repeal Obamacare, I urge you to reconsider. It’s not perfect, I’ll concede that, but a repeal would leave people like me in the dust.

We’re good people. We’re healthy people. We’re responsible people. We’re people who do things you care about–writing, music, non-profit work. Should we quit doing those things and work full-time at a fast-food joint instead so our lifestyle fits more neatly into the insurance program that currently exists?

The uninsured aren’t a nefarious mob trying to scam you. We’re people. People who happen to be human and suffer from mild depression and asthma sometimes.People who want to participate in the enterprise of staying healthy.

Is that too much to ask?

 
*My GRE students know how I feel about this word. If you use it in essay, you’re most likely doing it wrong. If you’re singing along to Alanis, you’re also doing it wrong.

**I’m also up for some work that would come with insane benefits. Am knocking wood as we speak.

***I don’t call it “healthcare,” because they’re not providing health. They’re really not providing anything, if you think about it, other than a bill.


Newspaper should have proofread for it, grammar nerd says

You know what’s even better than jargon? Grammar.

My resume will tell you that I have a BA in linguistics. Many people wrongly assume that my undergraduate degree signifies that 1) I’m a translator, and 2) that I speak/understand every language. The fact that I’ve taken seven foreign languages notwithstanding, my studying linguistics means that I’m interested in the theory of language itself–why humans have it, what role it plays in our culture, what the structure of our language says about our minds. What I’m trying to tell you here is that I spent my early twenties diagramming sentences.

Image

Of all the sentences you can diagram, this might be the most important.

This is the sort of thing that makes people’s eyes glaze over, I’m aware.* But grammar is actually really important.

Not only does the structure of a culture’s communication reveal the mores of said culture**, but it also provides a framework in which we can work to get ideas across.

That seems like a “duh.” However, it’s amazing how often vetted institutions*** mess up grammatically, and how those sorts of gaffes constitute their instantaneous discrediting.

Take this recent article from the Washington Post. It covers a controversial news item that came out of the NIH last week.

Superbugs. Human subjects. Public health policy. What better way to package a negative opinion on the NIH’s treatment of these issues than with a grammatically nonsensical headline?

NIH should have notified it of superbug outbreak, Montgomery County official says

Excuse my non-French, but what the effing H?

The first glaring no-no is that the impersonal pronoun “it” appears without being preceded by a referent. One shouldn’t use “it” unless “it” refers back to a prior-mentioned noun phrase.

Enter problem two. When I read the article, I figured out that the author was trying to say that the NIH should have reported the superbug outbreak to Montgomery County. While that phrase does appear in the headline–albeit after the impersonal pronoun–it doesn’t appear as a noun phrase. It’s a modifier, or adjective phrase, for “official.”

Suffice it to say, I went into the article with an eyebrow raised. Perhaps it was the heedless headline that set me off to one of the more telling sentences in the story: “Berliner said he did not have enough details to know whether it would have been appropriate for the county to inform the public about the outbreak, which began last August and continued through January.”

So basically this is an article about someone who didn’t know what he was talking about, headlined by someone who didn’t know how to talk. What that tells me about this article is–oddly enough–a grammatically incorrect saying I stole from a meticulous mentor: “There’s just no there there.”

* Most everything in which I’m interested has this effect. People perk up when they hear that I’m a singer and immediately slouch when they find out I sing classical music. They get all interested when they find out I’m a writer and lose said interest when they find out I write about science. Somebody has to love the boring stuff, y’all.

**De-glaze your eyes now. I’m about to say something semi-interesting.

***Is our children learning?


Speaking: It’s easier done than said

I love jargon. I love it. I do.

 

It’s in the name of my blog, after all. I know people are easily offended when “big words” challenge their intelligence, but hear me out.

Follow the mellifluous sounds of my sultry voice to jargon town.

I’ve developed this argument about scientists that helps me get through the day (which usually consists of reading papers and looking up all the words and concepts I don’t understand so I can write about them.)

The argument is this: It’s okay that we don’t always know what scientists are talking about. When they make a new discovery, they’re the only ones who know what they’re talking about. Plus, they’ve studied one topic for years, whereas the institute for whom I write covers 50 topic areas, most of which I’ve covered in the two months I’ve been here.

As for the jargon, well, they’ve delved into the same topic for years. They can’t very well call something an immune cell, when it’s their job to differentiate between phagocytes and killer cells and t-lymphocytes. They’re not using jargon to offend you; they use it because they have to.*

So, yes, I love writing about jargon. It’s nuanced, it’s beautiful. But it doesn’t exactly roll off the tip of the tongue, now does it?

I recently produced the video linked above for NIGMS’s e-newsletter, Biomedical Beat. And I have to pat myself on the back for how good the voice-over turned out.

Because if I didn’t pat myself on the back, I would cry. I’ll let the next video speak for itself. Give me 20 seconds before hitting “play”. I have to go hide.

 

*For which I am glad. If they didn’t, I would be out of a job.


Like farmer, like son

It’s all fun and games until someone gets squished.

Although I’m currently working in the D.C.-area, I somehow still have publications with my byline coming out of UGA. The latest addition was a story on research to improve farm safety in kids.

If I learned anything from reporting on this story, it was this: DON’T GIVE ANYBODY A RIDE ON A TRACTOR. Just don’t do it. There are other ways to bond with your kids, such as picking apples, or playing the game Apples to Apples.*

What’s wrong with this picture? 1) This tractor does not have ROPS, aka the protective roof that will keep father and son from being crushed should the tractor flip. 2) The boy is not seated on an actual seat, leaving him vulnerable to slipping off the tractor and under that gigantic wheel right next to his hand. 3) The father isn’t looking where he’s going, putting him and his son at risk for hitting something and causing the son to slip off the tractor and underneath said wheel.

These and other hazards plague the one million American children who live on farms. Unlike at other jobs a kid could work** a kid continues to be surrounded by work-related hazards on the farm long after he’s off the clock. And you don’t see that many OSHA officials running around with clipboards making sure the standards in which farm kids are working are up to code.

Farmwork is their families’ livelihood, after all. It’s a family business, and I’m not about to argue with that.

What I will say is that families working on farms need to be very careful about teaching their kids safety before they allow them to start working. And I’ve always believed that if a parent tells a kid to do something, the kid will do exactly the opposite.

Turns out I’m wrong. In this study, the researchers developed a farm safety curriculum. Kids either got no instruction and received the curriculum after the study; or they were taught by trained program staff; or they were taught by their fathers, who were trained by program staff.

The group taught directly by their fathers was by far the safest when all was said and done. That’s because the fathers who had not only learned the curriculum but also had to teach the curriculum took the lessons to heart. Not only did they say they’d stop giving their kids rides on tractors; they actually stopped giving their kids rides on tractors.

It just goes to show that you can teach an old farmer new tricks. Also, it shows how being a research subject is not always about being poked and prodded. They’re here to help, people.

In closing, don’t give anyone a ride on a tractor, and never accept a ride on a tractor. Just don’t do it, OK?

*My favorite. Basically, it’s a game testing how well you know the people you’re playing with. Some people will always choose the most ridiculous card on the table to exemplify the adjective in question. Others will choose the most literal pairing. After playing this game with my family about a million times, I know one thing for sure: “Helen Keller” always wins. Ex. Classy Helen Keller. Brave Helen Keller. Historic Helen Keller. And–a pairing that actually happened, and won–Crunchy Helen Keller.

**If you have a work permit, you can be legally employed as early as 15. I know this because that’s when I started my glamorous burrito-rolling career.


The Evolution of an Intro

I just had my very first article published as part of my internship.* It’s short and snappy, and it needed an intro to match. Here’s what we came up with:

Click on the image to view the full story.**

Two sentences and a colon. Must have taken two seconds to write, right?

Wrong.

Without further ado, may I present The Evolution of an Intro…

1) [Outline]  Human genome mapped, NIH scientists always learning more about human genes, still a lot to discover, there are some of the numbers we know (so far)…

2) Folklore tells us that we start as a twinkle in our fathers’ eyes. Scientific developments have shown that most of who we come to be—from how much our eyes twinkle to how susceptible we are to certain diseases—is determined by our parents’ genetic information.

Now that scientists are able to study many genes at a time, they’re learning just how much genetic information each of us carries around with the purpose of copying it all and passing it on to our offspring. They’re also finding out that some of our genetic material has purposes we didn’t know about before.

For instance, Rachel Green, a geneticist at Johns Hopkins University, discovered that the chief function of the nucleotides in our RNA isn’t assembling proteins, as was previously thought. Rather, they help growing proteins to break free from the ribosomes once they’re finished forming.

Other than the function of our genes, DNA, and RNA, scientists have developed a more refined understanding of how many of each genetic building block we have. Here are some of the numbers they know so far:

3) On April 25th, 2003, scientists at the National Institutes of Health completed the Human Genome Project when they sequenced the very last letter in the very long list of human DNA. In order to compile that list of letters, a person would have to type 60 words per minute, eight hours a day, for around 50 years!

Almost ten years later, scientists continute to learn more about the specific information we inherit from our parents in all its different forms. Here are the numbers they know so far:

4) Our understanding of genetics as we know it began with an Austrian monk breeding peas. In 1866, Gregor Mendel laid out a method of predicting hte color of a pea plant’s bloom and the smoothness of the peas inside, providing the first quantitative rule for the inheritance of traits. Firming up the details took quite some time, though. Researchers did not understand exactly how traits were passed to the next generation until the middle of the 20th century.

That’s when they realized that our genes are made up of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), and that DNA takes the shape of a double helix. They learned that the two connexted strands–winding together like handrails on a spiral staircase–unwind to create new strands to pass on our genetic information. But scientists now know that genes themselves don’t do the actual work. Rather, they serve as instruction books for making functional molecules such as ribonucleic acid (RNA) and proteins, which perform the chemical reactions in our bodeis that dictate much of who we become.

The work of the human genome is much more complex than bloom color or pea smoothness. To list the sequence of our nucleic acids, a person would have to type 60 words per minute, 8 hours a day, for around 50 years. Here are some other numbers scientists know (or have approximated) about our genome so far:

5) For more than 100 years, scientists have known that the traits we display–from our hair color to our height–depend largely on the genetic information we inherit from our parents. What they didn’t initially know was just how much genetic information we have; to list all the letters of the human genome, a person would have to type 60 words per minute, 8 hours a day, for around 50 years!

All that information controls much more than our outward appearances. Researchers are discovering more and more genetic diseases, and learning that even our susceptibility to diseases like breast cancer can be inherited. The more scientists learn about the way our genes work, the more advances they can make for the sake of our health.

Here are some of the numbers they know (or have approximated) so far:

6) Scientists began to understand how we inherit the traits we display–from our hair color to our height–more than 150 years ago. Since then, they’ve discovered that humans have a wealth of genetic information, and that provides codes for much more than our hair and our height. To list the sequence of the nucleic acids that make up our DNA, a person would have to type 60 words per minute, 8 hours a day, for around 50 years! The discoveries yet to be made from our genetic information are virutally limitless, but here are some of the numbers that scientitsts know (or have approximated) so far:

7) Scientists have been studying modern genetics since the mid-19th century, but even today they continue to make surprising discoveries about genes and inheritance. Here are some stats they know so far:

I show you this not to compare myself to a writer whose 50th or 60th draft won a Pulitzer Prize. I maintain no delusions that I will win a Pulitzer Prize. The point I wanted to illustrate is that simple is not easy.

For the intro, I was told “write something simple illustrating the following…” (see the outline in #1). As it turns out, there are about a million ways to say the same thing, and none of them is as effective as not really saying anything. After all, an intro is an intro. It’s meant to pique the reader’s interest so that he or she will continue reading the body of the story (you know, the part that actually matters).

As for the editing process, it’s natural selection by way of red pen.

*To be clear, I am not wasting tax-payer dollars by writing one story every three weeks. Getting an article cleared for publication is cumbersome in any public relations context, but especially so for a government institution. Much more to come.

**You’ll notice that the story is hosted on Live Science, a site supported by the National Science Foundation. You’re not simply confused; I do in fact write for the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, part of the National Institutes of Health. My office contributes content to Live Science, in addition to posting it on the NIGMS site.