This month, I’ve been working on several new poems for my Sugar Maple cycle. I was inspired to write again after my father and I took a trip around New York and happened to visit the memorial park where my grandmother, grandfather, great-grandmother, and great-grandfather all have their ashes buried. It was my first time visiting after my grandparents died a few years ago. The trip included tears.
As we approached the plaques set into the ground, my father remarked how it was hard to find the right nameplates because they’re all flat and slowly are covered by grass and leaves. “Mom – your grandma,” he told me, “Always liked this spot because it was easy to find. You find the garden, and they’re just under this large tree here. She always liked the tree.”
It turned out, upon closer inspection by this young ecologist, that the tree was a sugar maple. My recent fascination with this particular, though ubiquitous in the Northeastern US, tree species, felt like it had been given new breath and poetic meaning as we wound our way home through the back roads of rural New York.
I’ve also become fascinated by something my brother told me; Jack Daniels whiskey is actually mellowed over charcoal made from sugar maple timbers as part of production. It’s crazy how, once you’re attuned to something, you see it everywhere.
In addition to those poems, I’m in the midst of beta testing my Narborion Adventures game, The Burning Trees of Ormen Mau. As my first game development experience, I can easily say I’ve learned so much about the hard work game developers put into the process – especially when it comes to beta testing a choose-your-own-adventure game! Whew! I can also say that I can’t wait for another opportunity because working with Liber Primus on this fantasy-adventure, while not easy, has been very fun.
Just in time for my blog to start up, one of my favorite comedians, John Oliver, has decided to do a segment about science as presented to us in the media. I think the segment really speaks for itself, but I highlighted some key points below in case you’re interested – and then I offer my take.
1:32 “There are now so many studies being thrown around that they can seem to contradict one another.”
And in science, sometimes studies do contradict one another! Depending on the environmental conditions, experimenter bias, technology that exists at the time, events like speciation that were previously unknown, and other scientific advances, two studies can get vastly different results. That’s why replicating experiments over and over is so important; it decreases the likelihood that the results achieved are erroneous or biased. This relates to what Oliver says about science being a work in progress – our understanding, our experiments, our techniques are always getting better, collectively, as we continue to make progress!
4:19 “Even the best designed studies can get flukish results and the best safeguard science has against that is the replication study…replication studies are so under-appreciated…so you just have all of these exploratory studies out there that are taken as fact.” and 5:10 “Scientists themselves know not to attach too much significance to particular studies until they’re placed in the much larger context of all the work taking place in that field but too often a small study with nuanced, tentative findings gets blown out of all proportion when it’s presented to us, the lay public.”
If you ever look at the back of a published, credible scientific study, you’ll see a huge list of resources. Scientists know we can’t just accept one study’s word on the matter; there needs to be a considerable amount of work done in an area for us to accept it as ‘a working fact’. I use the term ‘a working fact’ because there are hardly any things in science we accept as 100% definitely true – most things we accept as highly statistically likely.
Even so, science is not glamorous like the news media (and often our books, TV shows, and movies) represent. Science is slow and frustrating; we take baby step after baby step, and all of these steps can take years of small, almost ‘insignificant’ advances before it finally all builds into something bigger. Some of the most glamorous recent advances in biology – for example the CRISPR system – were discovered the first time completely by accident. It was a baby step that led to a whole new field of really exciting work, still in its infancy almost thirty years later. Can we start presenting this process – the slow, steady, frustrating process of research – to a lay audience so that the time, effort, materials, dedication, philosophy, and background research that goes into each study can be more fully understood?
7:45 “And there’s no doubt some of this is on us, the viewing audience. We like fun, pop-y science that we can share like gossip.”
We need to be demanding accurate science from our media! Who is funding the science? Where is the bias? Sourcing and context or nada! More than that, we need to change how we chose to see and portray science. We need to give funding to replication studies to make sure the exploratory studies are accurate. We need to portray the whole process of science – from the background research to the Eureka! to the replication studies that back up our first ‘Eureka’ claims. We need to try to dig a little deeper into understanding those long, complex titles scientists submit to journals even though it’s not fun or pop-y and often the results seem minuscule.
Not only does science deserve more respect, but we need to respect ourselves, out intelligence, and our society more by putting in this work. We hurt ourselves when we choose not to vaccinate our children (or go around smelling farts all day) because of faulty science; we hurt ourselves when we don’t hold big oil, pharma, fishery, tobacco, etc. companies accountable for their actions because we feel we can’t trust the contradictory nature of science. We hurt ourselves when we are brainwashed into believing we, a lay audience, are not capable of understanding what science brings to the table.
A lot of this boils down to an essential point: look for consensus among several studies and scientists in order to determine the most likely truth in science. We’ll all be better off for it.
It seems that our society is growing more dependent on science even as we grow increasingly distrustful of the news media that are generally reporting the latest scientific advances. I can’t blame us – often the headlines we are fed make it seem like cancer is cured, all bees are going extinct, and the zombie virus is knocking on our doors. How do we communicate the small steps that make up real scientific progress accurately, but still engage our readers?
That’s my goal here; to communicate the beauty of science through poetry, plays, articles, and more. I want to make the boundary between the fields of STEM and creative writing more porous. I want to discuss the important ethical questions of science and writing, too. What is literary citizenship? Does the end justify the means? What is the line between fiction and nonfiction, and when is it appropriate to use one or the other? Are our scientific discoveries neutral? What is the moral responsibility of the scientist, and the writer, to society?
There’s a lot to unpack here. On this blog I’ll be writing about scientific advancements, literary citizenship, the writing process, other written works, and perhaps a few odds and ends like gaming and gin and cats. Who doesn’t love cats?
About the Writer:
I am currently earning my PhD in Biology at Drexel University in Philadelphia – I’ll be at that for a long while. I earned my B.S. in Biology and English/Creative Writing from the State University of New York at Geneseo, where I was a member of the Honors College. At Geneseo, I was a founding member of NeuWrite/Edu, the first undergraduate chapter of the international science-writing collaboration group. I was also inducted into Phi Beta Kappa in 2015, my junior year, and served as a writing intern for their online news site, The Key Reporter in the spring of 2016. I wrote for my school newspaper, The Lamron, serving as an assistant editor from 2012-2013.
I’ve completed three ecology studies so far while in undergrad. The first is my honors capstone in Biology: Effects of the Emerald Ash Borer on Nations Road Research Reserve; the other two are directed study research projects: Native Bee Diversity and Abundance at SUNY Geneseo and Determination of Colony Structure in Formica pergandei using Microsatellite Markers to Estimate Worker Relatedness. I have presented my research at regional and local conferences. I look forward to getting to do more research as I earn my PhD! I’ve also had the opportunity to teach undergraduate biology majors lab for three semesters, serve as the assistant instructor for a semester, and as a supplemental instructor for the freshman biology majors lecture for a semester. I can’t wait to keep teaching in my PhD program!
Lastly, I am an alumni member of Alpha Delta Epsilon regional sorority. I served as President, Vice President, Treasurer, New Member Educator, and Service Chair while an active member from Spring 2013 – Spring 2016. I owe so much to this group of my peers, who pushed me to be my best (and weirdest) self and consistently supported me in my writing and my research.