We’re back!!!
We’ve had a crazy summer of travel, work, moving and all sort of other life events but we’ve finally gotten back into the groove of things. And that means new episodes!
This week we’ve got a conversation with science writer Abby Olena. She talks about her Ph.D. in Developmental Biology, zebrafish and how, for her, the pen is mightier than the microscope.
Take a listen and get inspired about science and how important science communication is!
United States


00:00:05I'm losing Cleveland and I moved to and you are listening to be on the microscope hi everyone welcome back to another episode of the on the microscope today's guest is Abby Olena she is a science writer heavy thank you for joining us thank you for having me so
00:00:23when I say science writer that means %HESITATION everything and nothing can you tell me a little bit about what that means to you and what you actually do yes %HESITATION my day today is a lot of writing about science that other people have done for audiences that are
00:00:39less technical than other scientists a particular category or is it all science is it just biology is it just chemistry do you focus on anything in particular I mostly write about life science is that because it's your favorite topic is that what how why why license so I
00:00:57have a PhD in biological sciences so when I made the transition from working at the bench to writing about science I stuck with things that were a little bit more familiar things that I knew a little bit about already so how did you make that transition sort of
00:01:15a tough transition I think if you're in academia which lots of people are and are very happy there it's hard if you're not happy and when I went to grad school a thought that I would be I thought that I would get my PC and then end up
00:01:33being a professor at a small liberal arts college because I went to a small liberal arts college and I left it and then as a sort of went through grad school and realize that that maybe wasn't the best fit for me I sort of with casting around for
00:01:47other things to do with this extensive training that I had and I realize that I really loved talking about science and that I was decent at writing about it too and so sorry to say decent yeah but I don't think that yeah I don't think that I have
00:02:03anything special I don't think I'm an amazing writer %HESITATION but what I figured out is that people are happily making jobs out of writing about and talking about science and so I thought well I'll give that a try and I got really great advice from a career counselor
00:02:22at a meeting that I went to any side you know I don't think you need another degree because I was sort of considering so they get a science communication certificate or so I got a master's degree in science journalism and he said no I think you just need
00:02:35to start walking the path and see how it goes so it's a very philosophical start walking the path yeah rice the path will appear right you make the path by walking so I joined the national association of science writers which you can do as a student really cheaply
00:02:53and I took a course I was still in grad school at Vanderbilt in Nashville and I took a course in science rating and then I also applied for the triple yes mass media fellowship which is this awesome program through the American Association for the advancement of science that
00:03:10puts science students so graduate students undergrads medical students in media outlet for ten weeks during the summer to basically just be reporters and write about science or produce science radio or science multimedia and so I did that for ten weeks in the summer of twenty thirteen at the
00:03:31Chicago Tribune and that was the turning point for me once I had that on my resume other people were willing to give me a shot as a writer and from there I've had a number of other science communication experiences but I just recently came back to freelancing which
00:03:51is what I'm doing now what I joke about this all the time about me being that the journalists of the two of us that that I often act as your translator did you do that or serve act that way without realizing it before you decide you want to
00:04:05write or did you come to that after B. like I want to write about science okay I got to translate people I think that I always was more on the translating side I I mean to be honest I was not a great scientist because I wasn't that into
00:04:22it so and it always felt like really to be successful in academic science it felt like I needed to be more dedicated to the science that I was doing but I was much more interested in things like journal club where I got to go and learn about science
00:04:42that other people were doing and talk about it with folks sort of at a less technical level and so I think that I was I think that I was doing that already and I think that's one reason why it was a pretty good fit when I started to
00:04:57make the transition and so when you made the transition or I guess can you talk a little bit about your experience %HESITATION writing at the Chicago Tribune he has so it was a once in a lifetime kind of opportunity you know you walk into the Tribune building on
00:05:15Michigan Avenue and you take the elevator up and it's this newsroom that looks like probably not that different from what it did in the sixties like newsrooms newspaper newsrooms that you've seen on movies and I was right next to this guy this amazing you know Pulitzer Prize nominated
00:05:33journalist who'd been he had written all these amazing things about problems with the death penalty and somebody had just been released from death row basically because of what he wrote I mean who is this really amazing very live atmosphere end at the same time it was also really
00:05:55tough because print journalism is not doing well and it wasn't that either so it was this really interesting balance of people doing amazing work and really feeling proud of their work and then also having a lot of anxiety about what is the future of our livelihood %HESITATION and
00:06:17you know in the midst of that hears me who has been paid padding things and pushing around zebrafish embryos for the previous five years and has really no idea what I'm doing so it was amazing and that I got really good mentorship and wrote some awesome stories but
00:06:33it was also a little bit overwhelming and so what kind of stories were you writing mostly Chicago focus stories that were science adjacent so my favorite story that I wrote while I was there was a longer piece about what the science says about percent encapsulation and consumption so
00:06:55have you guys heard about this well I I I have not so a lot of women after they have a baby can give their placenta that to a placenta in caps leader and that person tries it out in a food dehydrator and then grains it up and puts
00:07:10it in little capsules so that they can take it like vitamins wait why haven't heard no yeah so the theory behind it is that it helps with things like if you've had blood loss in the course of giving birth or the hormonal shifts that come from having had
00:07:34a placenta and a baby in your body and no longer having those things the ideas that it's supposed to smooth all those things out ends most mammals eat their placenta though you know mice are clearly not dehydrating and in caps leading them they're just eating them so it's
00:07:52really interesting because there hasn't been much science it's hard to do double blind placebo controlled placenta consumption studies that I mean the ethics around that and getting people's consent is really tricky and so there haven't been many studies if any but I got to talk to some scientists
00:08:12who looked at it from the animal perspective I got to talk to some scientists who were interested in studying this in humans and whether it actually made a difference in these sort of anecdotally reported ways that people are you know people report benefits and that's why they do
00:08:27it that's why other people do it but it's not clear the science really isn't clear about whether it's beneficial or even harmful %HESITATION you mentioned in passing and I know I know you've server happily moved on from from bench science but something about the zebrafish yes them can
00:08:42you tell us a little bit about what you were studying in in what that research was yes so I studied smaller nays maker names and how they influence retinal development in the zebrafish that was my PhD thesis okay what does that yeah a list so they're these little
00:09:02Arnie's so little nucleic acids that can I turn on or turn off genes that make proteins so I found a particular one of these little tiny pieces of irony that was having an influence on a protein that is involved in making zebrafish eyeballs basically that's crazy it's so
00:09:30it's amazing that you can like Taylor let's of down to such small little things this is just about eyeballs that's all we're talking about yeah that's that was basically it what did you do after that fellowship was over after that fellowship was over I was still writing my
00:09:46dissertation but we moved here %HESITATION my husband is also a scientist and he was starting a postdoc at UNC Chapel Hill so we moved to North Carolina and I was writing my dissertation and also I took %HESITATION also I took a virtual internship for a magazine called the
00:10:05scientists which also has an online news side and I was there writing in turn for six months which was another amazing experience I got tons of clips was really interesting because it's a virtual news room so I was able to work from my home but still we had
00:10:21editorial meetings on Skype ends I got to work with a lot of different editors and right for the internet and a magazine both of which I hadn't done before and then after that I finished up my dissertation and defended my PhD six or I finished up my dissertation
00:10:42and defended it successfully and then I took a nontraditional postdoc at Duke University so that was August of twenty fourteen and what I was doing there was helping teach and develop and evaluate science communication courses and workshops for scientists so graduate students postdocs and faculty at Duke I
00:11:08would I know I am sort of ask you this but like is there a certain topic that you fall into either researching and writing about that just captures your imagination is or do you are you more like a generalist in the sense of like all of this is
00:11:20so cool I want to write about it all yeah I love everything that I write about every time I write about something new I think that it's amazing so I just heard a story this week that's about how so it was a study in mice but basically what
00:11:36they showed as that some mouse mom's groom and lick and nurse there pops a lot and some don't and that's just natural variation and there are reasons for that that may be related to evolution or whatever but there's a natural difference there and what these scientists showed is
00:11:58that the mice the mouse pops whose moms are less attentive so do less of that care taking behavior with them have different genomes than the ones who get a lot of care from their moms so their genome structure is different so the idea that something that you experience
00:12:24you know when you're really let all can change the structure of your DNA and this is actually in the brain they were looking specific in a specific part of the brain was totally fascinating to me so that's what I like this week but yeah it changes all the
00:12:42time %HESITATION so when you so you mentioned that your you as a postdoc at Duke you were helping was it developed courses like communication %HESITATION what was the %HESITATION the hardest part about that %HESITATION with our most interesting her cancer talk a little bit about that experience yeah
00:13:03I left I love teaching scientists science communication because I think it's so helpful and important ends most of the people who ended up in our courses are in our workshops there were completely convinced that they needed it so they were these wonderful eager students and really wanted to
00:13:25learn you know how do why translate my science like you talked about earlier or how do I say right this letter to this finding organization who's not used to hearing from scientists so that I can get my research funded because it's really important to me and I I
00:13:45mean it was just a really amazing sort of intersection of the other things that I'd done so I had seen things from the science perspective having been a scientist having been a graduate student and then I'd seen things kind of from the other side so telling the science
00:14:00stories you know in a more public facing way and it felt like I was helping scientists to bridge that gap which was really awesome what's your having a whole bunch of willing students is a is a luxury I think sometimes but what yet how do you reach the
00:14:20next the next tear down the ones are like yeah I'm I should probably know that but I don't have time for that like what's the what's the advice for for anybody maybe move that like to get to the next level of scientists to say yeah I do need
00:14:34to be able to communicate so the people who don't buy an are tricky I think if you can get them in a room and record them talking about their science and then play it back to them that usually hits home because people who've been studying science for as
00:14:51long as most scientists in academia have don't even realize how in the weeds they get so fast and so sometimes all you need is a little bit of self awareness to kind of bring that in the other thing that really helps are pure examples so people who are
00:15:10communicating science on social media or have interacted with policy makers and felt that that's been successful having now I'm sort of testify to how that's been to people who are reluctant is another really good way to do it and have you noticed %HESITATION I guess certain common pratfalls
00:15:33or or mistake that that students will at it or have yes so I think the most common misconception about science communication and about public understanding of science in general is that people think that if the public only heard more science than they would like it and I understand
00:15:53that and want to find it and so on but that's something that we know from social scientists who study the science of science communication so we're getting kind a medic here but the idea is not that you know the public is this empty vessel that we just need
00:16:14to fill with science and then they'll love it the idea is the public has all these demands on their attention and all these demands on their time and so in order to get them to care about what you're doing you have to convince them and there are ways
00:16:30there are lots of ways to do that so telling stories as one way making personal connections as another way sometimes really cool science can like things about dinosaurs or outer space does that pretty well on its own but this idea that if we just gave people more information
00:16:53they would care more about it is completely false yeah you need context and you need relevancy right I mean not only do you need to like you know the facts means no why you should care absolutely I feel like I do that every day %HESITATION right world %HESITATION
00:17:12is there %HESITATION something that's the surprised you about sort of being in the in the communications fear of the science world is there something you didn't expect when you when you transition over I love how friendly it is I feel like you know science itself can be pretty
00:17:30competitive and I was lucky at Vanderbilt it's a really supportive place to be a graduate student and so I didn't experience I think sort of the cut throat side of science that many people do you I didn't experience a lot of discrimination as a woman which I think
00:17:44many people do ands science communication that world is just so amazing and so welcoming and you have people making it work for them and a lot of different kinds of ways so you have people writing full time you have people writing part time you have people producing audio
00:18:03part time and writing and also teaching workshops and so there are lots of models for being successful and at the same time people are welcoming you and willing to talk to you about their path willing to share what they did that works well or didn't work when they
00:18:18were starting out and so I maybe not surprised that it's friendly but I've been delighted that it is so where do you so you said right now your freelancing %HESITATION what's the if you had you know at %HESITATION your wish granted about what you wanted to do %HESITATION
00:18:39sort of your dream job yeah %HESITATION what would you want to do I love this question resumed all at once yeah so my dream job would be a combination of writing like what I'm doing now and then also giving workshops all over to all different kinds of scientists
00:18:59about how to communicate their science how to you know tell the stories of what they're doing in ways that help them connect with people beyond academia or beyond science and I get to do some of that now I'm really lucky in that I get to give some workshops
00:19:19and I get to do a lot of writing I think eventually I would like to do much more of the workshop peace but I am open to whatever that takes me so I have a question about your thoughts on social media %HESITATION I know you know there's this
00:19:38icon hashtag which is pretty popular and science has its own sort of world on Twitter and its own you know all sort of little pockets of things how do you feel like social media has fit into either helping or harming the this of science information world I think
00:19:58for the most part social media can be a really great positive tool to share science with audiences that you might not reach otherwise Ian to connect with other people doing what you're doing whether that's other people that are scientists studying what you're studying or something a J. sent
00:20:15or science communicators like part of that community that I was talking about that so friendly is on Twitter and you know connecting via social media at meetings and things like that I do think and this is not just science Twitter but the internet in general can be the
00:20:36wild wild west and so it's a scary place for people sort of starting out with that and I feel like things can sort of go off the rails really fast and one way to kind of mitigate those problems is to build an authentic network there so to connect
00:21:01with people you met in real life to run really have real conversations as much as it's possible on the internet and to support people and speak up when something happens that you know you don't agree with do you have a favorite at science communicator who that's a great
00:21:22question you have more than one yes yes and they don't have to be currently they could be written retired now we're just lately who's your favorite person yeah so Christie ash wind in is really amazing she is she was a freelance writer now she writes mostly for five
00:21:46thirty eight I am which is to rise no five thirty eight it yeah yeah yeah so and she is heading up the science section Virginia Hughes who heads up I am the science desk at buzzfeed news I think is also amazing there's just a lot of great folks
00:22:05out there talking about and doing science site com to what okay so one more question before I this is a little bit scattered required but %HESITATION what how do you come up with story ideas or do you just kind of up browse journals Sir or how does that
00:22:25sort of that work so most of the freelancing that I do is for the scientists and I actually have rather than being just a freelancer that's pitching all the time I have a contract with the scientists where I write for them a certain number of stories a month
00:22:42and most of those are assigned so my editor finds them and sends them to me so I'm not having to look for story ideas like that quite as frequently as other freelancers in that way I mean honestly I'm pretty spoiled that I don't have to but I am
00:22:59I also do you know I have some other freelance clients and one of them is a blog that's about a pregnancy and parenting and I and sort of from the science and evidence view points and so I think of a lot of my own ideas for that ends
00:23:14most of it is stressed you know stuff that I'm interested in or you know that I had questions when I was pregnant I have a two year old so that's not that far away that wasn't that long ago I also teach prenatal yoga so sometimes things come up
00:23:28in there that then all right about for that blog we're running list in your pocket right yeah totally on my phone actually so we have in my pocket alright well then Abby think so much for joining us yeah thanks for having me Hey you're still here thanks for
00:23:48sticking around the end of the show help other people find this podcast by giving us a reading on iTunes and don't forget to follow us on Twitter and Facebook at school podcast our theme music was composed by the car because

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