Category

Communication

Lead influencing crime, Ice drug contaminating homes, and other highlights from CleanUp2017

700 scientists, engineers, regulators and other environmental professionals from more than 20 countries have been in Melbourne this week at the biennial CleanUp global forum.

CleanUp 2017, organised by the Cooperative Research Centre for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment (CRC CARE), ran in Melbourne from 11 to 13 September. Delegates discussed many of the most pressing environmental problems facing the world today, including chemical weapons, climate change, asbestos, and per-and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

For example, one paper that caught our eye described how children exposed to lead in soil are more likely to commit crime as young adults. Dr Mark Cave, from the British Geological Survey, compared lead levels in soil with socio-economic information about health, wealth, employment, housing and crime in England. He found a link between soil lead and criminal behaviour in Derby’s urban environment, and said results in Australia show a strong relationship between childhood lead exposure and subsequent rates of aggressive crime. You can hear more about his work in an Australian Science Media Centre online media briefing.

For more details on our involvement in the conference, see our post on LinkedIn here.

Winning, even if you don’t win (and we did)

Recently our company Scientell won the 2016–17 Monash Business Award in the Micro Business category. My co-Director, Simon Torok, said in his acceptance speech in front of a packed ballroom, ‘We were delighted to have been nominated for this award – and we nominated ourselves, so imagine how excited we are to have actually won.’

A business coach suggested that we enter the award. It was excellent advice, but not just because we won. The entire process of entering, being assessed and then attending the awards night was invaluable for us.

For starters, the nomination process helped us dispassionately assess our business, its activities and ambitions. We had to ask ourselves what our main focus was, what our objectives are, and how we can simply describe the business in a few sentences.

The judging process included making a short presentation at a lunch where we met other small business owners. This led to us catching up with a number of them over the ensuing weeks to share business ideas and look for opportunities to collaborate in future. As any small business owner knows, success comes from relationships. The Monash Business Awards introduced us to lots of people.

Of course, winning generates valuable publicity opportunities. It helped us highlight the value of communication of environmental, scientific and technical information. But even if we had known at the outset that we would not win, we would still have entered, such was the value of the process.

Sponsored by the City of Monash, the Monash Business Awards serve to ‘promote business success and excellence through the recognition of significant achievements and innovations’. The City of Monash, with almost 200,000 residents, is one of Victoria’s most populous municipalities. There are 18,000 businesses in the area.

 

MBA award to Scientell

Today Al Gore reminded me that when someone tells you something, do something

Ten years ago I saw the Al Gore film, An Inconvenient Truth. Driving home from the cinema that night, I passed a car with its headlights off – and flashed my headlights at them using the local language for ‘you’ve forgotten to turn on your lights’. What happened next is a metaphor for climate change denialism.

The driver didn’t turn on their headlights, didn’t pull over to investigate what may have been be wrong, nor thanked me for alerting them to their oversight. They honked their horn at me. And kept on driving in the dark.

Now, I don’t know about you, but if I’m provided with information about something that should inspire action, I’m grateful and try to immediately act on the new knowledge I have been given.

I don’t have anything against people driving at night with their headlights off: it’s an easy – albeit dangerous – mistake to make. But if they ignore a warning and keep driving, I’m inclined to judge them more harshly.

Listening to Al Gore speak today to the Ecocity conference in Melbourne, I was reminded of my experience a decade ago – and how that driver’s action was a lot like the denial of climate change.

I’ve been surrounded for years by scientists who have dedicated their lives to understanding how the climate is changing due to human activities. With most people I meet, once I provide information on how the planet is changing, they understand and may even act to change their behaviour to do something about the problem.

But every now and then, I speak to someone who doesn’t ‘believe’ the facts. Despite being furnished with information, they don’t believe it, and keep living the way they always have. They may even get angry. Just like the driver who honked their horn at me when I warned them about their headlights being off.

Today I was in the audience at the Ecocity 2017 conference as Al Gore asked, ‘must we change, can we change, and will we change?’ He started with what is now well-known information about the changing planet: we are releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere faster than at any time in the last 66 million years; that 16 of the world’s 17 hottest years have occurred since 2001. Indeed, he said we know global warming is happening because the hottest year on record now always seems to be the year we’re currently in.

Then things went very dark very quickly. Mr Gore explained that heatwaves in Australia are now five times more likely than in the past, and he showed videos from around the world of people, vehicles and aeroplanes stuck in melting tar as temperatures soared above 50 degrees Celsius. The audience was shocked by videos of disasters, near misses and dramatic rescues that brought to life the rise in extreme events due to human activities.

But hang on, he said, the hope is coming. We generate 16 times more wind energy than was expected a decade ago; 75 times more solar energy. In 2016, the UK generated more electricity from wind than from coal. Solar energy plus batteries will change the world, according to Mr Gore.

Unlike a decade ago, Al Gore is not just promoting the problem. He’s promoting the solution; he is promoting hope. He called for us to join those who use their voices, votes and choices to do something about climate change – in short, not to continue to drive around in the dark.

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 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.