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My year with the real wonks: how academia enriches journalism

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I stepped out of a chemistry lab to receive a shiny doctorate a little more than two years ago. Then, against the wisdom of many, I decided to become a journalist. That decision was made not because I despised academia, but because it seemed to me that journalism was where my strengths would give me the best chance to succeed.

In doing so, I was leaving behind a world that I had tremendous respect for. Dedicating one’s life to pursuing hard questions in a narrow field of knowledge enriches the world in countless ways. That enrichment is the result of two things: production of new knowledge and new knowledge-bearers (ie students). What you read in popular press about universities is mostly what new research has found about the world. A less talked about, and perhaps greater, contribution that universities make is in educating new students.

Teaching the same course year after year sounds boring to me, but I’ve been assured by many that it is one of the reasons they enjoy being academics. This yearly practice of coming up with new and better ways of explaining fundamental concepts combined with the struggles on the edge of knowledge in a particular field gives these academics the power of conveying the meaning of complex concepts in simple and powerful ways.

A new experiment

If I were asked to give one reason for choosing science journalism, it would be that I get to learn new things about the world all the time. Hardly a days goes by when there isn’t something awesome in science news to read and write about. That is why when I was offered, a year ago today, to be the launch editor for the science and technology section of The Conversation’s UK edition, I wasn’t going to let the job go.

But there was another reason why the job appealed to me: the idea was to get academics to write for the public. The hope was that, with their expertise and skills at explaining ideas, they would help put news in broader context and convey the “meaning” of events to help improve public dialogue on important topics.

While the scientist in me was dancing with joy, the journalist was sceptical. What academics usually write is meant for fellow academics. Their use of passive tense and jargon can put off even the most interested non-experts. They also work on vastly different timescales. Journal articles can take from months to years to get published. News articles usually take only few hours or days to get to the reader.

Marrying the two professions for a public service project was a great idea, but would it work? Could the third major contribution of universities be educating the public (not just a promise, but a reality)?

Is there demand?

“Professors, we need you!” said Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times. The Conversation Media Group, founded in 2011 in Australia, got to work before Kristof made the public demand. By the time it launched in the UK in May 2013, it had shown that the Australian public had an appetite for this experiment.

The success down under was swift for one more reason—The Conversation represented a “third choice”. Until 2011, most newspapers and online news websites were owned by either Fairfax or News Corp, which allowed The Conversation to tap into a readership eagerly looking for alternatives.

The UK was different. It had (and still has) some of the most respected publications in the world. There was plenty of choice for an average reader across the political divide. Yet, it seemed that The Conversation stood a chance. Many of the best publications were under financial constraints, cutting staff, especially specialist reporters in science, environment and health. There was scope for explaining news better, and bringing new stories that journalists missed or didn’t have the time to cover.

Readership figures show that the experiment has been successful so far. For the last few months, which is less than a year since launch, the UK edition alone has been reaching more than 2 million readers, and that number is growing quickly. All this with a small team (seven editors at launch, then 14 since February) and no marketing budget.

As a Creative Commons publisher, The Conversation’s authors and their articles have featured in some of the top publications worldwide, which have different aims and leanings—The Guardian, Washington Post, New York Times, The Independent, The Hindu, Daily Mail, New Statesman, The Week, The Atlantic, Quartz, Business Insider, Scientific American, Popular Science, Discover Magazine, Ars Technica and Slate, among others.

Much of my scepticism about this job was reasonable. But, right from the start, I was pleasantly surprised at the both the quality and the speed of writing. When given a brief and a deadline, academics usually delivered. Sure first-time authors needed (and still need) lots of help, but most of them were also prepared to learn and improve in this form of communication. What surprised me the most was their enthusiasm. Whoever thinks academics don’t like to engage with the public should spend just one day in our office.

For the first few months, about four in five stories were those where I had to approach an academic with an idea and commissioned them to write an article. But as The Conversation’s name started spreading, I started getting in more pitches. This was what I was waiting for. Academics who understand what The Conversation does, who get what the public reads, and who were willing to spend the time to write such articles. These academics were bringing through new stories or new angles to old stories, all of which journalists had missed. Here, I realised, were the true wonks.

What is true wonkery?

Recently Felix Salmon of Reuters asked, “Is there a wonk bubble?” In answering that question, he mainly referred to the launch of two websites Vox.com, which wants to “explain the news”, and FiveThirtyEight.com, which wants to use data to tell news stories. I agree with Salmon that both these experiments are great for journalism, but I don’t think that they represent “wonkery” in the true sense.

The new publications are being built on the back of the wonkery of its Editors-in-Chief: Ezra Klein (politics and economics wonk) and Nate Silver (data wonk). The rest of the editorial staff, while quite capable and of high calibre, can’t all be classed in the same category as wonks, definitely not in Salmon’s narrow definition of journalists who know their subject really well and built their reputation through blogging (mostly about policy and politics).

Wonk’s definition as “a person who is obsessively interested in a specified subject” is actually much more accurate for academics (or even PhD students). That is why I class them as the true wonks. Being able to tap into this wonkery, or expertise (as most people would call it), can bring through stories that journalists would just not find on their own.

Economists such as Tyler Cowen, Paul KrugmanSimon Wren-Lewis and David Blanchflower command large audiences already. Scientists have had a long tradition of popularising science, be it Carl Sagan or Brian Cox. Now, beyond promoting the good work of already engaged academics, what The Conversation provides is a platform for new and diverse voices with fresh ideas, which would have otherwise remained in the ivory towers. More than 11,000 academics from over 700 institutions have already contributed to this new conversation.

To give you a flavour of what I mean, I have selected some of my favourite science stories on The Conversation from the past year. My favourites have been split into four categories: the first is explanatory (The Contextual) and the other three are stories that journalists missed or couldn’t dig up  (The Newsworthy, The Amazing and The Strange). I trust you can judge for yourself whether the experiment is worth it.

The Contextual

The Newsworthy

The Amazing

The Strange

Image credit: Lucas Warren

Education, breastfeeding and gender affect the microbes on our bodies

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Trillions of microbes live in and on our body. We don’t yet fully understand how these microbial ecosystems develop or the full extent to which they influence our health. Some provide essential nutrients, while others cause disease. A new study now provides some unexpected influences on the contents of these communities, as scientists have found that life history, including level of education, can affect the sorts of microbes that flourish. They think this could help in the diagnosis and treatment of disease.

A healthy human provides a home for about 100 trillion bacteria and other microbes. These microbes are known as the microbiome, and normally they live on the body in communities, with specialised populations on different organs.

Evolution has assured that both humans and bacteria benefit from this relationship. In exchange for somewhere to live, bacteria protect their hosts from harmful pathogens. Past analysis of the gut microbiome has shown that, when this beneficial relationship breaks down, it can lead to illnesses such as Crohn’s disease, a chronic digestive disorder.

You’ve been swabbed

One of the largest research projects looking at the delicate connection between humans and their resident microbes is called the Human Microbiome Project (HMP). As part of the project, hundreds of individuals are being sampled for microbes on various parts of their bodies, with the hope that the data will reveal interesting relationships.

In the new study, published in Nature, Patrick Schloss at the University of Michigan and his colleagues set out to use data from the HMP to investigate whether events in a person’s life could influence their microbiome.

Their data came from 300 healthy individuals, with men and women equally represented, ranging in age between 18 and 40. Life history events, such as level of education, country of birth, diet, and recent use of antibiotics were among 160 data pieces were recorded. Finally, samples were swabbed from 18 places across the body to analyse their microbiome communities at two different time intervals, 12 to 18 months apart.

Those swabs underwent genomic analysis. A select group of four bacterial communities were selected to test what proportion of each was found on different body parts. That data was then compared with life history events. Only three life history events out of about 160 tested could be associated with a specific microbial community. These were: gender, level of education, and whether or not the subject was breastfed as a child.

This complicated issue may help diagnosis and treatment of illnesses. “If a certain community of bacteria is associated with a specific life history trait,” Schloss said, “it is not such a stretch to imagine that there may be microbiome communities associated with illnesses such as cancer.”

To be sure, these associations are only correlations. Neither Schloss nor hundreds of other scientists working on microbiome data can be sure why certain communities end up on certain body parts of only certain individuals. “We really don’t have a good idea for what determines the type of community you’ll have at any given body site,” Schloss said.

Lack of such knowledge means that Schloss cannot explain odd correlations, such as why women with a baccalaureate degree have specific communities in their vaginal microbiome. Because level of education is also associated with a range of other factors such as wealth and social status – we can’t know that it is only education affecting the vaginal microbiome. Janneke Van de Wijgert at the University of Liverpool said, “I think that it is impossible to tease out the individual effects of education, sexual behaviour, vaginal hygiene behaviour, ethnicity, and social status.”

Van de Wijgert believes the data has other limitations. “The study population of a mere 300 was homogenous and healthy – young, white women and men from Houston and St Louis – which likely means that much additional microbiome variation has been missed.”

With better tools, genomic data analysis has substantially improved since the project launched in 2008. Van de Wijgert thinks that future studies need to sample a lot more individuals and look for changes at shorter time intervals.

She is hopeful that microbiome data can be used to improve medicine, make it more tailored to individual. But before manipulations of the microbiome are used to treat illnesses, she said, it should be confirmed that the offending bacteria communities cause – and are not symptom of – disease. If the bacteria causes an illness, then efforts can be made – such as a change in diet or microbial transplant – to treat disease.The Conversation

Written with Declan Perry. First published on The Conversation. Image: NIAID

Scientists pinpoint when harmless bacteria became flesh-eating monsters

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Bacterial diseases cause millions of deaths every year. Most of these bacteria were benign at some point in their evolutionary past, and we don’t always understand what turned them into disease-causing pathogens. In a new study, researchers have tracked down when this switch happened in a flesh-eating bacteria. They think the knowledge might help predict future epidemics.

The flesh-eating culprit in question is called GAS, or Group A β-hemolytic streptococcus, a highly infective bacteria. Apart from causing flesh-eating disease, GAS is also responsible for a range of less harmful infections. It affects more than 600m people every year, and causes an estimated 500,000 deaths.

These bacteria appeared to have affected humans since the 1980s. Scientists think that GAS must have evolved from a less harmful streptococcus strain. The new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reconstructs that evolutionary history.

James Musser of the Methodist Hospital Research Institute and lead researcher of the study said, “This is the first time we have been able to pull back the curtain to reveal the mysterious processes that gives rise to a virulent pathogen.”

Genetic gymnastics

Musser’s work required analysis of the bacterial genetic data from across the world – a total of about 3,600 streptococcus strains were collected and their genomes recorded. It revealed that a series of distinct genetic events turned this bacteria rogue.

First, foreign DNA moved into the original harmless streptococcus by horizontal gene transfer – a phenomenon that is common among bacteria. Such DNA is often provided by bacteriophages, viruses that specifically target bacteria. Picking up foreign genes can be useful because it can improve the bacteria’s survival.

In this case, the foreign DNA that was incorporated in the host’s genome allowed the streptococcus cell to produce two harmful toxins. A further mutation to one of these toxin genes made it even more virulent.

According to Musser, another horizontal gene transfer event made a good disease-causing pathogen into a very good one. The additional set of genes allowed it to produce proteins that suppress the immune system of those infected, making the infection worse.

Marco Oggioni of the University of Leicester said, “Because this study used data of the entire genome, all the genetic change could be observed. This makes it possible to identify molecular events responsible for virulence, as you get the full picture.”

Musser could also accurately date the genetic changes in GAS by using statistical models to, as it were, turn back the clock on evolution. They say the last genetic change, which made GAS a highly virulent bacteria, must have occurred in 1983.

Continental drift

That timing makes a lot of sense. “The date we deduced coincided with numerous mentions of streptococcus epidemics in the literature,” Musser said. Since 1983, there have been several outbreaks of streptococcus infections across the world. For example, in the UK, streptococcus infections increased in number and severity between 1983 and 1985.

It is the same story for many other countries, with Sweden, Norway, Canada and Australia falling victim to what is now an inter-continental epidemic. The symptoms ranged from pharyngitis to the flesh-eating disease, necrotizing fasciitis.

“In the short term, this discovery will help us determine the pattern of genetic change within a bacteria, and may help us work out how often bacterial vaccines need to be updated,” Musser said. “In the long term, this technique may have an important predictive application – we may be able to nip epidemics in the bud before they even start.”

What Musser is suggesting is that if enough bacterial genomes are regularly recorded and monitored, there is a chance that mutations or gene transfers, such as those GAS experienced, could be found ahead of time.

But Oggioni is sceptical. “While making such predictions may not be possible, this research will have other applications,” he said. “Knowing which genetic changes happen when can help tailor drug discovery research in a certain direction.”

Oggioni added that Musser’s work with GAS is only a model. Using Musser’s methods to record the evolutionary histories of other pathogens could be quite useful to tackle the diseases they cause now and, perhaps, even those that they may cause in the future.The Conversation

Written with Declan Perry. First published on The Conversation. Image credit: Zappys Technology

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