Culturing Science – biology as relevant to us earthly beings

Archive for the ‘My life’ Category

I have not abandoned you.

Making promises, breaking promises.  Zombie biology week is on standby — but for good reason! I have had lovely friends flying from around the country to stay with me over the past couple weeks (and the coming weekend). As much as I was tempted to tell them, “thanks for flying out here, but … I have to blog, so see ya later,” I resisted. (Just kidding, friends, I lurve you.)

My promises will be kept — they’re just on hiatus. Zombie biology, classical science, and a couple other ideas rumbling around in this little brain of mine will come to fruition, just not this month.

In the meantime, to get your Culturing Science fix, I have some ideas.

First, the 3Quarks Daily Science Blogging contest is open for nominations! The contest, honoring the “best writing in a blog or e-zine in the category of Science” with $$$ prizes, is judged by theoretical particle physicist and cosmologist Lisa Randall and any blog post written after May 22, 2010 can be nominated! All you have to do is paste the URL of the post into the comments here. A sentence of praise or two is welcome but not required.

So why not relive the memories, friends — here are some of my favorite posts from the past year (in chronological order) and, if you find them worthy, you can nominate me! Only one nomination per person so be sure to check out my blogroll and other blogs to make sure you’re making the best choice. Nominations close May 31, 2011.

If that’s not enough for you, I do writing places besides here… at The Scientist! Here’s some recent stuff I’ve written for them. I’m finding my mind expanded by being forced to write about disease, cancer, molecules … but more on that later.

That’s enough self-promotion for one day. See you next month!

Written by Hanner

May 25, 2011 at 3:38 pm

Posted in My life


There are many people in my life who think it’s strange that I like to meet up with my online friends in real life. “What if he/she is an axe murderer?” is a common remark. And it was very strange at first: The first time I met Bora I basically fled the scene because I couldn’t handle it. (Lucky for me, he stuck around for a second night so I had a chance to redeem myself.)

But it really is fun! I mean, we form these communities online of people that share very specific interests. Why wouldn’t you want to hang out with them?

I was lucky enough last weekend to get to spend an afternoon with Noam Ross (great ecology blogger, grad student, and awesome dude // @noamross) — and then last night a group of us got together at a bar in Manhattan and I had some great conversations with people I’ve known, as well as made new friends. (Awww.) I’ll shoot up a note next time we have one of these meetups in case any of y’all want to join in! We don’t bite… well, at least I don’t.

Anyway: I have the list of attendees and it is my duty to share. So here goes.

If I forgot you, i.e. you missed Krystal forcing my list into your face/beer, leave a comment and I’ll update.

Here’s to next month’s #nycscitweetup! See ya there, I hope

Written by Hanner

March 24, 2011 at 9:29 am

Transitioning into “real” science journalism

In which Hannah treats her blog like her livejournal circa 2003.  Livejournalism — reflections on being a blogger-turned-journalist.

Two-and-a-half weeks ago, I started interning at The Scientist magazine.  One day I was a scientist, and then decided to leave it all to try my hand at writing about science for a living.  I really didn’t know what to expect, but as the start of the internship crept toward me, I started to become afraid.

My only writing has been on the web, with unlimited space and freedom of form.  I knew that, writing professionally, I would no longer have the freedom to wax philosophical and provide pages of background, as I am wont to do.  Would I be forced to play into hype?  Bend or even break my principles?  Would I leave completely jaded, turned off from science writing altogether?

None of my fears have been confirmed thus far; in fact, the past weeks have been both amazing fun and full of learning.  In each story I’ve covered, I have been able to see the hype point but have always pushed it far, far away from me.  (And I even laugh a little when I see the story distorted elsewhere — that is, before I start crying for humanity.)

I’ve spent the last couple days researching a news story about a PLoS ONE paper about human contamination in databases of genomic sequences that went up tonight.  I was absolutely fascinated by the topic.  The second I spotted the paper, I contacted the scientist, Rachel O’Neill, to hear from her the story behind her research.

Let me tell you — once you start talking to scientists about their work, you can never go back.  There’s really nothing better than to hear what they care about, why they did the work, and, of course, to get the details of the methods explained without having to read wikipedia articles on various genetics tools just to get a sense of it.  It is the most fun part of the job (and also the part I was most afraid of).

After I talked to Rachel, I needed to get a second and even third source to read the paper and let me know what they think.  A scientist can’t help but give a biased account of her own work, after all.  I tried to contact a number of people who work in large-scale genomic sequencing, but no one was willing to give me an interview.  Maybe I picked people who were too big name and above puny me; or maybe the story seemed a bit too controversial and researchers didn’t want their names tied to it.  Either way, I was struggling, and I needed help.

“I have tons of scientist friends on the internet!” popped into my head.  It seemed strange, like I was crossing an illegal boundary between my life as a “real journalist” and a blogger.  This effect is particularly strong for me considering that I’m a huge idealist and can’t escape my view that the world is a meritocracy.  I need to make it as a journalist on my own, without my bloggy friends!  Right?

Nope.  I needed help so I contacted Jonathan Eisen of the Tree of Life, a big-shot genomicist, open access advocate, and evolutionary biologist.  (Did I mention that I might be his #1 fan in a creepy internet way?  Hi, Jonathan! What’s up?)  I learned a ton from him during our talk and it was such a joy to speak to him as he biked across campus (in the wind – what a champ!).  I felt a little strange about it, again like I was breaking some rule because he, like, retweeted me one time or something.  Was I being biased by talking to him? was the thought running through my mind.

When reading the news later it struck me that Monday’s news on a lateral gene transfer between humans and gonorrhea could just be an instance of contamination – an idea that was confirmed by Eisen.  I frantically emailed my boss (Literal: “This could be REAL SCIENCE JOURNALISM, gritty like in the movies!” to which she responded, “I’m confused.”  A little over-excitable, perhaps?)  I emailed Rachel O’Neill about it, but didn’t know how to proceed further.

So, with a sigh, I settled down to read my Research Blogging RSS feeds in the morning.  And what did I come across?  A blog post with the title: “Human DNA in bacterial genomes? Yes? No? Maybe?”  Could this be a dream come true?  I went to the blog and, sure enough, it was written by a genomicist, Mark Pallen.  I emailed him immediately, and later called him up to discuss whether the data in the gonorrhea paper definitively proved that there was no contamination in the database.

I wrote up the story, had a blast doing so, and now it’s on the front page of the website.

For all the fighting I’ve done with myself to avoid being biased in choosing my sources, maybe Jonathan and Mark deserve to be chosen.  They are active communicators, expressing their desire and ability to explain science on the web.  Is that really a bias?  Isn’t that really just.. a logical choice?

In which case… shouldn’t the science blogging community, and Research Blogs in particular, be a goldmine for journalists?  It’s basically a list of scientists (and others.. but many scientists) who want to talk about what they’re doing, make a point to keep in touch with what’s happening in their field (and others), and whose work you can evaluate before even speaking with them.  Is this biased reporting?  I don’t think so – unless they’re your friends, that is.


The second I posted my story, I looked at twitter and saw that Ed Yong had posted a similar story, gonorrhea and all.  But it wasn’t the same story – and that’s because, in the end, blogs do have a win over more mainstream journalism.  I mentioned word count on twitter, but really it’s the story format.

If you’re trying to directly communicate basic information about a new science article, you’ve gotta do it at the beginning — or at least that’s the current practice.  And I do understand the reasoning behind it: if people don’t have time to read the whole article, at least the kernel is provided up front so they can leave learning something.  It also is a good way to get the news out fast; the beginning is the hardest part to write, and by having a formula, most of the thinking is already one: summary of research, implications, outside source quote.  Then you can zoom out and back up.

But because of that, I can’t write the science like a story, or not with the same flow.  I can’t start out with an anecdote about how the scientists started studying the topic, a funny quote, a philosophical anecdote, or anything else.  Scientific research IS a story – as I’ve written elsewhere – a story of how the research progressed, the interests of a person who happens to be a scientist.  The best science writing plants curiosity and leads the reader to ask the same questions the scientists did.

But the news model persists because it’s modelled off of other fields, or sets an easy demarcation of what is worth covering.  “It’s new so we’d better write about it.”

I do believe that journalism and the media are changing for the better, and that a lot of it has to do with blogs and writing online.  Freedom of space and form lead to more interesting stories, better stories.  Right now science journalism tries to frame science to make it a story — let’s reveal this bias, or let’s talk about how xyz new finding has changed the world.

But science doesn’t need framing; it already is a story.

Even if right now I’m constrained by format, I’m not shaken – I still want to continue in science journalism more than anything.  Not only for the joy of it – but if you want to make change, you have to play the game for a little, as I learned from SLC Punk.  (Has this film guided anyone else’s worldview? Please say I’m not alone!)  Maybe one day I’ll edit a magazine and I’ll throw away the formula and get to test whether it’s successful.  But I need to get there first.

…in my dreams right?  Didn’t I say I’m an idealist?

Anyway, enough for tonight.  Here are the articles I’ve written for The Scientist so far if you want to check them out.

  • 3rd Feb 2011 – New mosquito identified: on a group of mosquitoes that hasn’t been targeted – or even identified – in the fight again malaria in sub-saharan africa
  • 10th Feb 2011 – Cellular chaos fights infection:  why disrupting RNA degradation could create antibiotics
  • 14th Feb 2011 –  The mouse is not enough: early development differs between mice, the standard model organism, and cows, further encouraging scientists to study multiple model organisms
  • 16th Feb 2011 – Contaminated genomes: human sequences have been found in over 20% of sequenced non-primate genomes in databases

(I know – I still can’t write a title for my life.  Sue me!)

Written by Hanner

February 16, 2011 at 11:57 pm

Posted in My life, Reflection

Tagged with

State of the Blog Address: January 2011

Last week, the selections for Open Lab, an annual collection of the best science writing on the web, were announced by this year’s editor, Jason Goldman of The Thoughtful Animal.  I’m ecstatic to announce that I somehow squirmed my way onto the list with my post on cormorants overfishing in Estonia.  Some of my favorite posts from the list include

There are 50 total, so go check them out!

This is a pretty crazy month for me!  I have only a week left at my current job, and only 2 weeks left in Philadelphia.  I’ve already begun mourning leaving my apartment, my friends, and this wonderful city, trying to appreciate that moving onto new, exciting things always means a bit of loss.

Next month, I’m trying my hand at professional science journalism through a 4-month internship!  So, moving to NYC and seeing what it would be like to write about science for a living.  I hope I make it out alive…

Tomorrow morning I’m heading down to North Carolina for the Science Online conference!  You can check out the program here: a great list of panels and workshops, including one I’m co-moderating.  I’m very excited!  If you want to keep up with how it’s going down, I’ll try to update my twitter (though I am old-school and don’t have a smartphone … text message tweeting ftw!) or you can follow the #scio11 twitter tag.  I will be live-blogging technically, but the blog I’m writing for will not be up till after the conference – but I’ll shoot out that link when it’s up in case you want to hear my delayed in-the-moment ramblings.


Written by Hanner

January 12, 2011 at 11:04 am

Posted in My life

Reflections on 2010: humans as biological machines and “love” (whatever!)

For most people, the new year is a time to look forward and think about how they will change their behavior in the coming year.  I certainly have goals for my own future – but I tend far more towards reflection than anything else.  So here, instead, I’ll present something that I’ve learned in the past year.

It all started with a blog post, obviously.  In March, I wrote about invasive salamanders and, with a traditional view of invasive species replacing the human-defined idea of “nature,” I ended the post, rather naively, with the line, “How can we save our planet?”  I got in a comment argument with Matt Chew about conservation, nativeness, and evolution, and while I still believe much of what I argued, the line of thinking in that thread (including my own obtuseness) set off a chain reaction that altered the way I viewed the world.

From then on, much of the focus of my mind has centered around the place of humans in the natural world.  I started shifting my view from a standard anthropocentric view to one in which we are just animals, arguing with myself and friends about whether we really are special, if our consciousness really elevates us above nature, and the factors in society that makes us believe we are the pinnacle of evolution.

For a concrete example, I have since had many conversations with my philosopher queen bestie, Erinrose, about altruism and selfishness.  I argued that we are all inherently selfish – that we feel warm and fuzzy when we help someone else because a gene that makes us feel that way has been preserved.  And it would only be preserved if it helped individuals survive, passing the gene along the line.

But despite these arguments I make to myself, there is one kicker that always fails my logic: my little brother, Jonah.

Jonah has Fragile X syndrome, a genetic mutation that can cause autism.  Jonah himself is not autistic; my mom’s analogy is that he is the opposite of autistic.  While a common feature of autism is an inability to detect emotion or differentiate between faces, Jonah has the opposite problem.  The world around him is so overwhelming that he cannot help but cower in the presence of most types of stimulation.  When he is excited about something, such as when we were riding the trolley around Memphis yesterday, he makes a lot of non-lingual noise as if to block out some of the stimulation and excitement from his joy of the ride.  The overstimulation spreads to his limbs, flapping and flopping as if he cannot hold all the energy inside of him but has to do something with it.  Let’s just say he draws a lot of attention to himself because he is so overwhelmed with emotion.

Jonah on the Memphis trolley. That little grin is actually emitting "eeeeeeeeeee," with his mouth clenched in an attempt to hold it in

The night before the trip, my family sat down to watch some old home movies that my dad had transferred to DVD.  (Most of the memories had, unfortunately, been taped over by my middle school-aged brother and his friends recording their slumber parties.  THANKS A TON, JACOB!)  Part of the film we saw was of three-year old Jonah working with his speech therapist.  He could not pronounce vowels at this point, but, working as hard as he could, would spit out the first consonant of a word, causing the therapist to erupt in applause.  This was after his teachers at school told us that he would never talk.  Now you can’t shut him up.

When my mom found out about his diagnosis, she wept because, as a book-lover with a PhD in english literature, she could not bear the thought that he would never find joy in reading.  But on our trip, he could not stop reading.  We went on a hike in old growth forest in Mississippi.  While he usually is strictly the leader on hikes, he was lagging hundreds of feet behind us, nose buried in a book, unable to keep up because he was so absorbed.

Slowpoking around in the Mississippi woods

Here he is, evolutionarily some useless runt who cannot take care of himself, who takes up far more resources than a normal person, for whom we were told life would be non-verbal and institutionalized.  In nature red in tooth and claw, he would be dead, with the 3 of us other siblings competing successfully for his resources and not worth the parental investment of my darling progenitors.  But look at him now!  I think he’s even smarter than we suspect.  He makes friends wherever he goes.  Sure, he still can’t tell a joke for his life, but our human society has allowed for him to survive and grow despite his relative incompetence.

I care about him more than anyone or anything in the world.  If you know me, you know this to be pure fact.  When I was fuming in the backseat of my parents’ van yesterday because the airline had lost my luggage, I watched him engaging my family about the trip and I started crying just to behold him.  I would do absolutely anything for him.  The worst thing you could do to me is to take him from me.  (Oh lordy, I’m crying again.)

This fact makes zero sense biologically.  Sure, he has half of my genes so I have an investment in his survival.  But, let’s face it – he’s unlikely to ever pass those genes on.  Nonetheless, I would give up 100% of my own genetic heritage to allow his 50% to dead end.

Surely this feeling – this “love” or whatever – has evolved to cause me to protect those close to me who, in turn, help me survive, whether they be family, friends, or potential caretakers of my potential children.  Maybe I feel so strongly because, while he is my brother, I also feel like he is my son in many ways.  I’m eight years older than  him, but emotionally and developmentally the gap is much wider.  So maybe I have double the chemical reactions going off when I look at him, part fraternal and part maternal.  Or maybe it’s just a mistake in the biological machinery that my knowledge and logic cannot penetrate.

Whatever the reason, he is the stymie in my thinking.  He is the puzzle piece that doesn’t fit into my newly-acquired worldview of people as inherently selfish machines.  We probably all have such a piece in our lives, something that escapes purely biological explanation or logic.

So this new year, think back on the people in your life that you care for, defying biological explanation.  At this point in my thinking, this is what makes us human.

And when Jonah will inevitably force the entire party to raise a toast to the new year as they gaze upon him with pure love, he’ll be toasting a bit to you.

Happy New Year.


PS: Don’t cry, Mom!!

UPDATE:  She cried.

"Waters never quit"

Written by Hanner

December 31, 2010 at 3:12 pm

Posted in My life, Reflection


Hello friends,

Things have been a bit quiet around here – and I think I finally figured out the problem last night.  I moved a couple months ago and there is a high correlation between this life change and my inability to write.  So I rearranged my apartment last night – hopefully having a more legit “desk” will help?  I’m pathetic, I know.  My space is important to me, ok!!

It occurred to me yesterday that while stressing out about my writer’s block, I totally missed my ONE-YEAR BLOGIVERSARY.  Culturing Science and I have been together for a whole year!  And while we’ve gotten in some arguments over time, mostly we’ve learned from one another.

I really do want to thank you guys for sticking it out with me this year.  I went to a lecture last month and, afterwards, realized that all the topics he covered I did not know a year ago, but now understood because of writing this blog.  So thank you for putting up with my learning and stumbling.

Which brings up my next question:  WHO ARE YOU? Some famous bloggers sometimes do a roll call to get to meet some of their readers who don’t comment.  I think it’s a nice idea, although I’m a little nervous that not even my dad will comment.  But I really am interested in learning a little about you … so … will you leave me a comment?  I’m nice and friendly, we can be internet friends? Yeah?

Recent news you might be interested in:

You may know that I am attending the Science Online conference, being held in the Science Triangle in January, for the first time!  Not only that, but I’m on a panel to moderate a discussion about amateur blogging!  (Full program here)

“But it’s just a blog!” – Hannah Waters, Psi Wavefunction, Eric Michael Johnson, Jason Goldman, Mike Lisieski and Lucas Brouwers
Many young people are eager to communicate science despite their lack of scientific and/or journalistic credentials. While all science communicators face challenges, this subgroup has their own set of challenges including cultivating a following of readers from scratch, and high levels of self-doubt, often referred to as “imposter syndrome.” What value does this rapidly-growing group of science communicators bring do the field? How can the science blogging community encourage and mentor young bloggers? How can we hold these individuals accountable to the high standards of science and journalism while simultaneously allowing them to make mistakes as part of the learning process? In addition, established and successful science communicators will be encouraged to share their tips and tricks with their newer colleagues.

I entered a blogging contest to win $750 of funding from NESCent to attend the conference.  To read my entry about the population-wide evolution of Atlantic cod, click here.

And, lastly, I’m an reviewer for the 2010 edition of Open Lab!  Open Lab is a yearly collection of the best science blog posts from the previous year, collected together into a physical book (!).  This year, Jason Goldman is the editor and faces the monstrous task for sorting through the 900 nominated entries!  So I’ll be helping out with some of the ecology posts.  It’s a great honor and I’m very happy to support this fine publication.

Pretty snazzy, eh?  If you want to learn more, you can buy the last four annual collections here, or read Prefaces and Introductions to older editions here.

Thanks for slugging through this poor excuse for a blog post.  Don’t forget to check in in the comments!  (Please, Dad, will you at least check in so I don’t feel like a total loser?)


Written by Hanner

December 7, 2010 at 9:50 am

Posted in My life, News

Post on the Scientific American guest blog!

Hello friends,

It’s time for me to self-promote.  It actually makes me really uncomfortable – but I know deep down that I’ve gotta do it.  Plus you might actually be interested in this!

I was invited to write a post for the Scientific American guest blog!  It went up this morning and is about some new research on the geometry of schools of fish.  I write about why fish school, some general theory, and then dive into the research and its implications.  It’s a pretty cool story and I invite you to check it out!  Comment, tweet, digg, stumble.  Whatever you think I deserve.

Now in 3-D: the shape of krill and fish schools

Thanks for reading!


Written by Hanner

November 10, 2010 at 10:56 am