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Climate change and health: the future isn’t what it used to be

Climate change could have far‐reaching consequences for human health across the 21st century. But there is at least some good news on how health systems are adapting.

‘It doesn’t take an extreme weather event to have an extreme health impact,’ said Professor Kristie Ebi, from the University of Washington, speaking at the Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic conference in Canberra in February 2017.

People have a narrow capacity to adapt to high temperatures, so increasing ambient temperatures and heatwaves will increase vulnerability to heat-stress. Another consequence of climate change includes more pollen, which could exacerbate asthma and other respiratory diseases.

Changes in water availability and agricultural productivity could increase undernutrition, particularly in parts of Asia and Africa. ‘The biggest health consequence of climate change will likely be undernutrition,’ she said.

Kris noted good news when it comes to adaptation to increasing health risks from climate change. ‘Health services are starting to use weather and other environmental data for forecast systems,’ she said. ‘For example, early warning systems of dengue outbreaks can help prevent transmission.’

You can read more about this work at https://connect.coastadapt.com.au/discussion/460/climate-change-and-health-the-future-isnt-what-it-used-to-be.

Scientell worked with the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF) on their online discussion about coastal adaptation, CoastExchange. You can read more feature articles about climate adaptation at https://connect.coastadapt.com.au/.

A safer, cleaner environmental future: the CRC CARE High School Essay Competition


Enter the CRC CARE High School Essay Competition with a 500- to 1000-word essay about contaminants in the environment (for a safer, cleaner environmental future) and you could win a great prize!

Choose from two categories:
* The Dr Roneal Naidu award for writing on chemical contamination and its effect on food quality and human health ($1000 prize)
* The CRC CARE award for writing on contamination of our planet: how can we ensure a clean and safe environment for future generations? ($500 prize)

Entries are open to students in Years 7 to 12. The best essay on each topic, judged on its writing quality, interest, newsworthiness, and scientific accuracy, will receive a cash prize and a trip to Melbourne for the CleanUp 2017 conference gala dinner (prize winners must be accompanied to the gala dinner by a parent/legal guardian, at their parent/guardian’s own expense).

CRC CARE (the Cooperative Research Centre for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment) does scientific research to help stop or clean up contamination of our soil, water and air. Your essay can help!

To enter, click on the link below for more information and to download the entry form.

Entries close 13 August 2017.

More information: http://www.cleanupconference.com/essay-competition
Email: simon@scientell.com.au

How to write a media release

Scientell prepared this summary for members of the Ecological Society of Australia, who have employed us to provide communication support and advice.

Despite the rise of social media, writing and distributing a media release is still a very effective way of communicating your research to the media and hence to a variety of audiences including the public.

Preparing a media release has lots of benefits. It will help you think through the essential elements of your story, and order your findings in a way that highlights the important points first. It ensures that your colleagues, manager, funders, supporters and employer will be aware of your work. It will represent an agreed, accurate and enduring record of your findings.

So, here is a step-by-step guide on how to write a media release.

First, please seek the assistance of a professional communicator or an experienced colleague to write your release. You may be too close to your work to find the news angle. Moreover, an experienced person can help write a release that grabs journalists’ attention. They will also have media contacts to increase the likelihood of your work receiving coverage. They also might suggest that a release is not going to be the most effective way of telling your story and might have some other communication options for you (e.g. pitching directly to online discussion sites such as The Conversation).

 

  • Summarise the main points of your story, with ideally one main take home message. These are probably going to be the three or four points you make at a barbecue or party, when someone with little or no knowledge of your field asks you what you’re working on and why. Order your points from most important to least important.

 

  • Identify what is the newsworthy angle or ‘hook’. Why is this relevant to everyday people now? Do your findings shed interesting new light on a topic? Does your work overturn current thinking? Is it new evidence of things getting worse or better? Will people talk about your insights at the pub?

 

  • The first paragraph of the release is critically important. It should contain the who, what, when, where, why (who cares), and how of your story. Here’s an example with the above elements identified:

 

Birds’ wings growing to help escape the heat?

The wing length [what & how] of Ringneck Parrots [who] in the south-west of Western Australia [where] has been increasing since the 1970s [when], coinciding with that region becoming hotter and drier. This is a possible rapid evolutionary response to changing climate [why/who cares].

 

  • Write in the ‘inverted pyramid style’. After the lead paragraph, each subsequent paragraph should be less important. The release should make complete sense if it is cut from the bottom up. That is, it needs to work if just the first paragraph is used, or pars 1 and 2, or pars 1, 2 and 3, etc.

 

  • Write in short sentences and short paragraphs, with simple language (no scientific jargon).

 

  • Keep it simple. You need to interest a journalist who is not a science or environment correspondent, writing for people who know nothing about your science.

 

  • Include quotations, attributed to a named person with their position and affiliation stated (most likely you, and possibly a senior person in your agency).

 

  •  Add a punchy headline. Most journalists will read only the headline and first sentence of your release.

 

  • Check to ensure that the release contains no typographical or grammatical errors and then have it approved by your manager, and ensure your communicator, agency, funders, colleagues and anyone else involved are aware of the release before it is made public.

 

  • Restrict the release length to one page, add ‘Media Release’ to the top, agency logo, the date (clearly noting any embargo), and contact details including mobile number at the end.

 

  • Good photos or videos will help ‘sell’ a release. State their availability.

 

  • Look for networks and linkages with other agencies such as universities, partner organisations and sponsors to help promote the release.

 

If you’d like advice or assistance in preparing a media release, please contact Scientell (www.scientell.com.au)

 

Everyone has a good story

I had the privilege of interviewing half a dozen of Australia’s newest ecologists this week, after more than $1 million in funds for students were announced by the Ecological Society of Australia.

In speaking with just six of the 100 students who will share the Holsworth Wildlife Research Endowment, I realised that every one of them had a fascinating story to tell about their research. I wish I had the time to write 100 stories.

For example, Mr Tom Botterill-James, from the University of Tasmania, is investigating how female promiscuity influences conflict in families of lizards, to solve a mystery of evolution – that is, why animals cooperate when cheating helps the fittest survive.

‘A key question in evolutionary biology is that if the strongest survive through the selection of the fittest genes, why do animals cooperate?’ Tom told me. He said helping family members, who share genes with relatives, helps the survival of their genetic material. ‘I hope to use these unique family-living lizards to boil down the basis of the evolution of family life, and find the initial triggers for the evolution of family living.’


A family of White’s skink lizards (photo by Geoff While)

More on this and other projects is available at https://www.ecolsoc.org.au/public-policy-media/media-releases.

In another project, Mr Matheus Mello-Athayde, from the University of Queensland, is investigating whether a resilient coral found at the Great Barrier Reef can give hope for marine ecosystems under future global warming and acidification.

‘We’re all concerned about the devastating effects that climate change is having on reefs,’ he said. ‘I’m looking at a common coral that is resilient and trying to work out what it is that helps it do better than other species in the same areas, in the hope that this insight will help us protect reefs in the future.’

Ms Victoria Austin, from the Western Sydney University, is investigating why female lyrebirds mimic other species, and why some are better at it than others. She said the Holsworth grant will allow her to purchase equipment – including taxidermic models of predators such as goshawks, goannas and foxes – to investigate the function of female lyrebirds’ mimicry.

Victoria’s results may challenge how we think about the evolution of song and other vocalisations in birds. ‘It has long been held that song in songbirds is a result of females selecting the best males. But as females don’t need to attract males, the evolutionary pathway for females appears to be different to that of males. If we can use this species as a model to see how vocal mimicry evolved, it will have implications for our understanding of other species around the world.’


A female lyrebird (photo by Justin Welbergen)

Ms Dana Cusano, from the University of Queensland, is studying what motivates whales to make social sounds, and whether it matters if the noise from increased shipping means they can’t hear each other.

‘We have no idea what whales are saying,’ said Dana. ‘I’m looking at motivational information to figure it out. If we can work out how whales use sounds, and how important their calls are, we’ll have a better idea about how shipping will affect them.’


Photo: Blue Planet Marine and CEAL

That’s just a taste of the amazing research that’s underway in the field of ecology, and enhanced thanks to the funding announced this week.

The Holsworth Wildlife Research Endowment has supported more than 850 students since it was established by renowned ecologist, wildlife biologist and philanthropist Dr Bill Holsworth and his wife Carol in 1989. It is managed through a partnership with the Ecological Society of Australia.

The media release announcing the Holsworth Wildlife Research Endowment winners is at https://www.ecolsoc.org.au/dolphins-devils-corals-cane-toads-million-dollar-endowment-funds-australia%E2%80%99s-newest-ecologists.


Photo: Blue Planet Marine and CEAL

Being a mentor can feel like being a mentee – in a good way.

Discussing the communication of scientific and technical information with the next generation, and influencing their thinking about it, is something I’d like to do for all students. As Director of the science communication company Scientell, I see it as vital that students have communication as part of their skill set.

So, when I was asked to be a mentor by the University of Melbourne, where I completed a PhD two decades ago, I jumped at the chance. But what surprised me was how much I learned.

Interactions with my mentee, Adam, were certainly two-way conversations. While I hope that he benefited from my mentor-like thoughts such as explanations of my career path, the opportunities for jobs in my area, and advice on specifics about science communication activities, I also benefited in talking with Adam about his plans – I was able to reflect on how his plans related to my own.
 
By going through a process of articulating my experiences and advice, I could reflect on my career, re-evaluate my own plans, and think about what my next steps are. So I was mentoring myself just as much as Adam.

There’s a video about my experience at https://mentoring.unimelb.edu.au/p/p9/about

The program was a great way to support the next generation, and learn something in the process. It was also a good networking opportunity to meet other mentors, and reconnect with the university. Also, the program enabled me to interact with some of the brightest young minds in the country, so you never know, I may be knocking on Adam’s door one day asking him for advice!

For more on mentoring at Melbourne, see https://mentoring.unimelb.edu.au/p/p9/about.

Rent, don’t buy?

When I was young, my parents always told me that if I wanted to buy something, I should save my money and pay for it outright. ‘Buy, don’t rent’, was their recommendation for procuring everything from a TV set to a house. The logic in this advice was that rent, or its equivalent in ongoing payments, represents ‘dead’ money.

We all used to apply my parents’ logic to software. We’d fork out several hundred dollars for the latest version of Microsoft Office and spend ages feeding the multiple CDs that stored the program into our computers. Then, when it became too annoying dealing with Word 7 when you had only version 6, you would upgrade.

A few years ago, the software industry woke up to the wisdom of my mum and dad – if you are on the supply side, far better financially to get the punters to rent, not buy.

So, Microsoft quietly, but forcefully, pushed their millions of users to a ‘rent’ model. It’s just a couple of dollars a week, they said. You’ll always have the very latest software on your computers, they told us. Say goodbye to version incompatibility.

That’s all fine, but what if you simply want to write stuff and don’t need to be able to import, rotate and link a Pivot table from Excel into Word? I know there are plenty of free programs that will just let you type. But then there’s the challenge in reading other people’s work that they email you in packages like Microsoft Word, with all its associated design elements.

So, we’re back to renting.

Let’s do a quick stocktake of all the software that our company Scientell rents. There’s the Microsoft Office subscription at $10 per month. We pay $60 per month for our accounting software. Delivering our public webinars and teleconferences incur a $12.50 monthly charge. Our web site and email host charges $15. We pay Google $4.58 for hosting documents. Dropbox subscriptions fees of $10.75 a month let us share files.

Take a deep breath and add up those subscriptions: the business subscriptions are $112.83 per month, which is $1,354 each year.

It all quickly adds up. Do we really need all this software and data? Good question – and one that is worth asking regularly. I’ll add a reoccurring note to my calendar to do a stocktake. I just have to ensure that my monthly Internet bill gets paid so that I see it.

 

 

On dinosaurs, widows and badly named pubs

By Sarah Holper, guest blogger 

The first dinosaur fossil ever found was named ‘Scrotum humanum’, owing to its resemblance to a petrified scrotum. Some thought it was a Roman war elephant’s thigh, or that of a biblical giant. It was, in fact, a Megalosaur’s femur.

Some cultural relativism ought to be applied to this laughable blunder. Before dinosaurs were known to science, giants and dragons were the natural explanations for impossibly hefty unearthed bones. Presumably with much eye rolling, biologist Richard Owen suggested that these bones belonged to an extinct group of reptiles. He coined the name ‘dinosaur’ in 1841, Latinised from the Greek ‘deinos’ meaning ‘terrible’ and ‘saurus’ meaning ‘lizard’. Incidentally, the word ‘dire’ stems from the same terrible root.

On terrible roots, let’s exhume some dismaying English artefacts. According to 1500s mindsets, a woman after her husband’s death became a dusty fossilised relict. Alas, our word ‘relict’ is from the Latin ‘relicta’ meaning ‘widow’. Further abandonment-flavoured words like ‘relinquish’ and ‘derelict’ derive from the Latin verb form ‘relinquere’ – to leave behind. Before deserting this etymological tangent, a dip into maritime lingo. ‘Derelict’, now synonymous with a state of neglect, technically refers to cargo irretrievably sunk at sea. Accidentally lost but still floating cargo is flotsam (both ‘f’ words are from the Germanic ‘floter’, meaning ‘to float’). Jetsam is cargo deliberately thrown (‘jettisoned’, from the same Old French root ‘getaison’, meaning ‘a throwing’) overboard to stabilise a ship in crisis. Hence ‘flotsam and jetsam’ has become a phrase to describe miscellaneous worthless trash (much like a widow in the 16th century, apparently).

Far from flotsam and jetsam is fossilised tree resin. Not only can it fossilise other creatures in a gloopy tomb, it can form a fossil per se: amber. Amber has a curious quality of acquiring an electric charge when rubbed with certain materials. Some 1640s amber-rubbing escapades led polymath Sir Thomas Browne to dub this attractive property ‘electric’. The leap from ‘amber’ to ‘electric’? Our old friend Latin, in which amber is called ‘electrum’.

Finally, an alphabetical fossil. Old English was written in runes. Christian missionaries arriving in the 9th century soon imposed not only their religion on the Anglo-Saxons, but the Latin alphabet too. The rune ‘thorn’, pronounced ‘th’, looked most similar to the Latin ‘Y’. Thus ‘Y’ took thorn’s place as the ‘th’-sounding symbol, while thorn was jettisoned into an alphabetical mass grave.

It follows then that pseudo-historical venues named ‘Ye Olde’ so-and-so ought to be pronounced ‘the old’, not ‘ye old’. A world-view flipping bombshell, I know. Now you know how the benighted masses felt when their ‘dragons and giants’ turned out to be dinosaurs.

On stones, mathematics and eschewing bad puns

By Sarah Holper, guest blogger 

Excluding patients with multiple titanium joint prostheses, the most common metal in the human body is calcium. This fact will assist in countless pub trivia competitions.

Chemist Humphry Davy first isolated pure calcium in 1808 by electrolysis of limestone. He named it ‘calcium’ from the Latin ‘calx’ meaning limestone. Fittingly, a decade prior he himself had become significantly stoned on nitrous oxide gas during a series of experiments to discern its chemical properties. (He concluded that it caused ‘a great disposition to laugh’, while noting in passing its soon-to-be groundbreaking anaesthetic effects).

The Latin word ‘calculus’ is the diminutive form of ‘calx’. A calculus described a little pebble used for counting. Strings of calculi on a frame formed an abacus. The verb ‘calculere’ literally meant ‘to use pebbles to perform arithmetic’ – to calculate, if you will. Leibnitz thus chose ‘calculus’ as the name for his newly invented system of calculating rates of change. Unfortunately, this etymology has encouraged puns based on ‘calculus rocks!’ and similar, which would not be funny even if under the influence of nitrous oxide.

Stones formed in various bodily organs are dubbed calculi, such as renal calculi and gallbladder calculi. Incidentally, urinating out a kidney stone is said to be the most painful thing a human can experience, including childbirth (this is based on a sample population of kidney-stone suffering mothers I have surveyed over the years).

Other stone-based etymologies pepper the human body. One of the skeleton’s densest bones is a rock-hard wedge of skull housing the middle and inner ear. It is named the petrous bone, from the Greek ‘petra’ meaning ‘rock’. Petroleum is thus ‘rock oil’ while to be petrified is to be turned to stone.

In a move of breathtaking unimaginativeness, Swedish chemist Arfvedson named a new element isolated from stone ‘lithium’, from another Greek word for stone: ‘lithos’. Earth’s uppermost mantle and stony crust is named the lithosphere. Printing using inscribed metal plates is still called lithography (‘stone drawing’), harking back to its origins of using stone slabs. The inner ear, behind its stony petrous bone, houses tiny calcium carbonate otoliths (‘ear stones’) to whose rattling you owe your sense of gravity and acceleration in space.

Finally, our English word ‘stone’ derives from the Proto-Germanic word ‘stainaz’. Germans morphed it to ‘Stein’, nowadays the common abbreviation of ‘Steinkrug’ (stone jug) for a drinking vessel. Before glass, steins were commonly made of stone or some sort of rock-based ceramic, hence the stony etymology. Albert Einstein’s surname, then, was literally ‘one stone’. This no doubt earned him some hefty schoolyard bullying. Let’s hope he wasn’t sporting a ‘calculus rocks!’ badge too.

 

Calculi being used to calculate on a counting board. (https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e0/Rechentisch.png)

 

 

A gallbladder filled with gallstones. Ironically, in a kidney dish. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gallstone#/media/File:Gallstones.JPG)

Writing with style

To communicate clearly and well, writing should be grammatical and consistent. Sloppy writing makes an audience work harder to understand the message; it is also likely to make them wonder whether the author should be relied upon in the first place.

No matter what your topic – from astronomy to zirconium – following writing conventions will help your communication.

Thankfully, the kind folk at Biotext (http://www.biotext.com.au ), a leading Australian science communication company, have devoted countless hours to compiling the Australian manual of scientific style (AMOSS). They describe it as a ‘key resource for the Australian scientific and communications community. It brings together a wealth of information on scientific writing, style and design, to support the presentation of clear and correct scientific communication.’

So here are AMOSS’s answers to 10 style and grammar questions frequently asked by writers.

  1. Ten or 10?

‘Use numerals (digits) to express all quantities – whether small or large – in running text.’

  1. Fertilize or fertilise, etc.?
    ‘In Australia, we use ise and yse endings, not ize or –yze’.
  1. Should I put a space between the number and the unit?
    ‘Separate an alphabetic symbol from a number with a space. A nonalphabetic symbol is usually closed up to the number.’ So, you write 4 g and 28 mm, but 25% and refer to an angle of 45°. You also write ‘25 °C’.
  1. ‘sulfur or sulphur?
    ‘The element name is sulfur (lower case, except when starting a sentence).’ Compounds of sulfur, such as sulfuric acid, take the ‘f’.
  1. How do I describe the time?
    12:01 pm, for example
  1. What about year spans?
    ‘1998–99, not 1998/99’
  1. e.g. or eg?
    ‘eg’, and thus ‘ie’ and ‘etc’
  1. When do I use a semi-colon?
    ‘To link two closely related clauses that could otherwise be separate sentences. We submitted the paper to Virology; this was more appropriate for the topic than Cell.’
  1. Single or double quotation marks?
    Single, ‘smart’ quotation marks (‘ ’) are used.
  1. Do I use a semi-colon to end each bullet point in a list that starts with a sentence?
    ‘Use lower case for the first word and punctuate only with a full stop at the end of the list.’

What are your style and grammar questions?

 

On erosion, explosions and gopher waffles

By Sarah Holper, guest blogger

Plurals need not end in ‘s’ as all schoolchildren with teeth (to cite two examples) know. What’s more, plenty of singular nouns are divisible: try replacing ‘freedom’ in the following quote by Ronald Reagan’s quote with ‘lemon tart’:

‘Freedom is indivisible – there is no “s” on the end of it. You can erode freedom, diminish it, but you cannot divide it and choose to keep “some freedoms” while giving up others.’

The sentiment behind Ronald Reagan’s speech perhaps excuses its non sequitur basis. Yet in an Administration where the Chief of Staff’s name – Donald Reagan – differed from the President’s by one letter, grammatical precision was surely more important than usual.

According to Reagan, freedom, like embankments, can be eroded. Erosion is the transportation of sand, soil or rock between locations due to surface processes. The Colorado River boasts the Grand Canyon for its eroding efforts. Bryce Canyon’s hoodoos wobble skywards thanks to wind stripping sandstone off a sturdy limestone skeleton. More abstractly, erosion can describe the undermining of any institution by insidious forces, such as the erosion of accurate grammar by politicians using flowery prose.

The Oxford English Dictionary cites a 1612 medical text as erosion’s debut: ‘This infirmitie proceedeth from gnawing and eroding humours’. It is unclear exactly what ‘infirmity’ is under discussion, though syphilis is always a safe bet for any historical deforming illness. ‘Erosion’ stems from the Latin ‘erodere’ meaning ‘to gnaw away, consume’. Divide the word further (a possibility, lo and behold, despite the word not ending in ‘s’) and the etymological roots are revealed: ‘ex-‘ means ‘away’; ‘rodere’ means ‘to gnaw’.

Rodents – gnawing mammals like mice and gophers with continuously growing teeth – are thusly dubbed from the same Latin origin. Gophers’ waffle-shaped burrows earned them their name from the French for waffle: ‘une gaufre’. Confusingly, the masculine form ‘un gaufre’ means ‘gopher’ in French. If ordering a gaufre fresh off the griddle iron, be sure to clarify with le garçon to avoid a disappointing meal of fried batter instead of juicy gopher meat. Or vice versa.

‘Ex-‘ as a suffix meaning ‘away’ or ‘out’ is rife in scientific parlance. Exothermic reactions are characterised by taking away heat. An exothermic reaction gone awry may involve an explosion – from the Latin ‘explaudere’ meaning to ‘drive off by clapping’. Rowdy Roman audiences would scornfully ‘out clap’ weak actors. Indeed, the actor would ‘go off with a bang’. From that Latin ‘plaudere’ we get our words ‘applaud’ and ‘plaudit’. A reasonable hypothesis may be considered ‘plausible’, literally meaning ‘acceptable, worthy of applause’.

Intensive agricultural practices have sparked an explosion of erosion. Over-grazed land stripped of soil-anchoring trees is a prime erosion target. Now exposed, quality topsoil is whisked away to leave salty, low-nutrient soil. Mulching, encouraging vegetation and reducing runoff with water tanks are all plausible solutions to combat erosion.

As a B-Grade actor in ‘King’s Row’, Reagan quipped: ‘Alright. I know. I’m always wrong. I always have been, ever since I can remember’. He may have been wrong about plurals, but he was right about the dangers of erosion.