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May 18, 2012 / priscillalyf

Comics…powerful communication tool in the medical profession.

When I say graphic novels, what comes to mind?  Do you think of comics for children and teenagers solely for pleasure?  Have you ever thought of a comic being used for entertainment and in the medical field?


“doctors, nurses and patients are increasingly using graphic art to unpack their experience of medicine and disease.” [1]

They are also using graphic novels to train their students in the medical profession.

Who would have thought that reading comics like Archie, For better or worse or Snoopy as kids, we would also be able to learn and be entertained with medical comics such as “Mom’s Cancer.”

Brian Fies started the webcomic “Mom’s cancer” when

“his mother was diagnosed with lung cancer.” [1]

He started this comic because he wanted to share his story and wanted to educate other people on what to expect.  He thought that this way was the best way to tell a story, because it uses pictures with a few words and it told more than if it was just the pictures or words alone.  Fies uses metaphors, for example he uses her mother walking on a tightrope which signifies her balancing her medication.

Over a hundred years ago, comics were meant to be for adults, but somewhere along the way, people started writing for children and teenagers, therefore it stuck.  Through years of comic writers for adults had to battle the unfortunate stereotypes.  Now there are a large number of comics scholars where there are all forms of graphic novels for all ages.

What fascinates me the most is that teachers in the medical field are using comics to teach their students.  Some teachers use it because it helps students with doctor-patient relationship.  How to communicate with the patient regarding news, having consent and to help them experience what the patient is experiencing as well.  Czerwiec, who is a hospice nurse and has published “Comic Nurse” believes that comics help to engage both sides of the brain, words access one thing and images challenges you on another level, to use them both together is very powerful.

Others believe that “medical comics are a valuable resource for educating health care professionals.” [1]  These medical comics “illustrates and writes about an important aspect of the illness experience.” [1]

Some things to consider when writing for science graphic novel is to make sure readers will understand the jargon associated with the subject matter, in this case could be medical terms.  If not, they could illustrate it in a picture or explain it in a few words.  The pictures also help the reader, by having a good visual to accompany the words it makes the graphic novel more enjoyable.  Graphic novels are usually short compared to textbooks or novels therefore science graphic novels would have to get to the point and tend to be more direct with little or no explanation.  Compared to science textbooks where they would give pages of explanation on a chemical equation.  Science comic strips are more for entertainment and there are chances where you could learn things too.  Writing a science graphic novel most of the time is to both educate and entertain using metaphors, visuals and analogies.  In the case of “Mom’s Cancer,” he used personal stories so the reader could understand what he went through or could learn what to expect.


[1] O’Luanaigh, C. (2010, July 14). Comics put patients in the picture. Retrieved from

May 17, 2012 / mmaideni

A science conference in perspective, anything new or just the old story?

Conference review being a summary of the proceedings is a platform for sharing information and therefore should be interesting to the reader as well. Sunny Bains outlines the reasons for writing a conference review.  Firstly, the review is to direct the reader to what is new in a particular field. Secondly, is to consolidate loosely linked trends of issues discussed during the conference. Thirdly, the writer has to fulfil an obligation of providing feedback to the donor or as part of normal duty to anchor the publicity for own organisation and when it is the requirement for editor to have it. Bains makes an observation that in reviewing the conference the journalists sometimes are biased towards interesting stories and end up adding their own thought. Bains offers a caution to journalists about conference review; that not all are worth the trouble of the review as they tend to be multidisciplinary and at the same time uncommon. Bains says that a good conference review must be interesting and useful to the reader.  In meeting this declaration he further outlines five tips that he thinks make a conference review both interesting and useful to the reader.  Following are what makes a good conference review:

• Conference review must as much as possible avoid including the organisers, the venue and how the discussions or plenary progressed unless it is destined for a magazine or an institutional website;

• The writer must not be wasteful with information but instead be precise, simple and interesting. This helps the reader to absorb easily. To simplify an otherwise complex issue for the readers/audience the review must make a summary of convincing projects in order to bring impact. Then also include any obvious support or opposing views demonstrated by the presentations to the selected for the review and of course other projects which were not part of the presentation for comparison purposes;


• Carry out a check on any sequential alignment of the presentations and probably take it to be the theme of the review. Then come up with details to become the discussion points.

• The writer is to decide to make special emphasis on the emerging issues and probably give justification of their growing importance. This could be issues that were not popular or of concern in the past but suddenly they become largely of interest.

• Finally Sunny Bains reveals to the writer that a good science conference review should reflect all that was discussed so that even those who did not attend are able to follow up on issues of interest.

Reading Sunny Bains tips on writing a good science conference review you realise that there is need to gauge the target audience medium of dissemination and a sifting of what to say. This gives me an idea of what a good conference review is all about. An example is given a of conference report which may include the background of the workshop which also incorporates the objectives. Also included are the issues during paper presentations and plenary session outcomes.  Finally, the recommendations or resolutions made. For networking and reference purposes list of participants and what role they had in the conference may also be provided. This information may be presented electronically, giving web address.

Having followed what Sunny Bains says I am convinced a good conference review is possible, what do you think?

To read what Sunny Bains wrote please follow this link

May 14, 2012 / chimk

What’s Behind Statistics?

It is easier for accountants to agree than scientist, simply because science doesn’t have a one fit answers for a problem. The result depend on what was found to be true at that particular time, based on facts at that particular point in time. But what is it that science communicator has to do to have a better understanding of the research outcomes?

You don’t need to master nitty-gritties of statistics in order to understand and communicate scientific findings, however probing of the findings need to done to separate the truth from trash. Lewis Cope in his article “Understanding and using statistics”  is trying to give us the ways which will help in digging for more information behind the statics.

He starts by explaining more on “Probability, Power and large numbers” principle which takes care of results by chance. These results can be avoided simply by having a large sample size. The other thing to be considered here is the likelihood of a certain result to be obtained. He gave an example of cases  of ”lung cancer in smokers” , this is an obvious things, we all know that smoking causes lung cancer and it not strange to find a  smoker diagnosed with this type of cancer.

Check biasness of the conclusions of the study or explanations of the results. Failure to consider other researchers findings or explanations on similar topic shows unprofessionalism. In doing a research it is either a certain point of view is being verified to be true or not, so it is actually a revolving story from somewhere else, so the new discoveries has to be compared to other findings done in the same study area.

Another principle is that of trusting some studies based on impact or indication the findings will have.  As stated by Lewis Cope, epidemiological studies tend to study mites to find the effectiveness or dangers of some medicines, vaccines, or chemicals to human beings, so despite the sample being involved in these kinds of studies is small, the impact is great.

Peer review is another thing that also strengthens statistical findings, in every field of study there are professionals who can either agree or disagree with a research finding, find out if the researcher has considered other explanations from his peers and if there are any disagreements check the reasoning the differences.

Statistical distribution of the results needs to be considered as well, “how many samples are above or below average. This will give a good clue on the general outcome of the research.

Assess if correct sampling technique was used. All the above mentioned “principles” will hold if the sampling technique used was correct. Some researchers can deliberately choose a certain way of sampling just to get the result they want which cannot be a true reflection of realities.  As indicated earlier, that the larger the sample the better the result, but if that large sample was not randomly selected, the result will not a true representation .For instance using online survey to assess a general acceptance of something by a nation. Online survey will automatically screen out a population that does not have access to internet. Random sampling is always the best way of achieving a better result.

This article gave an insight of what to look for in research statistics to have a clear idea before communicating to the general public, do you agree?


Cope, L.  Understanding and using statistics. In Blum D, Knudson M & Henig RM (Eds), A field guide for science writers (pp 18-25).

May 12, 2012 / shannonjane93

Cultural Perspectives

Imagine, if you will, a stranger who looks very different to most people you’ve every seen. He saunters into your remote home and tells you he can fix your problems using methods you’ve never heard of or understand.

You’d be sceptical, right?

You would want to know how he’s going to fix your problem, and why. Similarly to the Fore people of Papua New Guinea in Anderson’s “The Collector of Lost Souls”, you would be hard pressed to not feel deeply suspicious. This is compounded if your ‘helper’ is not terribly forthcoming with the reasons for his charity, or how these strange tools work and left you to assume; in this case some sort of sorcery was the accepted explanation among the people.

Not so science communication friendly.

The problem detailed is clearly that of science and the hunger for knowledge being lost in translation- not between languages, but cultures. Dr. Gajdusek, the western doctor, was there trying to help to cure ‘kuru’, a nervous disease that had become an epidemic among these people. The problem is, in trying to categorise the disease and find out what was causing it he needed data. He needed blood samples, autopsies of people killed by the disease, things that people of a superstitious culture would naturally be wary of just handing over to a stranger.

Nonetheless, you would need a certain code of ethics to ensure not only that everybody feels they’ve achieved the best possible outcome, but we all know the dead are a sensitive issue. While autopsies are normalised for those of us who watch CSI 24/7, to other cultures this could seem unbelievable, a bizarre request that would need much justification. In the case of the Fore people Dr. Gajdusek was studying, they had their own method of disposing of dead bodies; this included limited cannibalism, which was actually how the disease was spread. When the doctors wanted the brains of the diseased, this confused the Fore as to their motivation:

“It was the autopsy that prompted the most discussion, in part because the white men seemed so anxious about it. Fore where familiar with examining the body for signs of sorcery, so maybe the ‘doktas’ were merely doing that, too. But these peculiar white men seemed obsessed with taking away brains. When they practised cannibalism, Fore did not esteem this organ.”

The ‘kuru’ epidemic amongst these people was a disease related to Creutzfeld-Jakob disease, the bovine version of which is commonly know as ‘Mad Cow disease’. It causes neurons in the brain to die, leaving the brain with a sponge-like appearance under a microscope. Gajdusek later earned a Nobel Prize for his research.

Nonetheless, ethical considerations must be made. According to the text, Gajdusek was trading money and goods for samples from living Fore and autopsies of bodies, which is a system in serious need of moderation. How was he to know whether he was offering culturally appropriate payment? How were the Fore to know whether to accept it?

If somebody wanted to cure your family of a disease, would you let them do autopsies and use your blood to try it? Even if you didn’t know how they expected to cure it, or what they were doing with it?

Anderson, W. (2008). The scientist and his magic. In The Collectors of Lost Souls (pp 91-100). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Post by Shannon Wylie

May 11, 2012 / JamieAlexandraGraves





n. a written account of another person’s life: John Nash, “A Beautiful Mind” a biography by Sylvia Nasar.

 Biographies are a unique and personal way to connect with extraordinary people. Often, you will be surprised to find that the most successful people of all time experienced similar struggles just like us. Einstein was divorced; Lincoln suffered from depression.

It is not only enlightening but also inspiring to know that such icons have walked down the same paths as us.

But what exactly is biographical writing?

Biographical writing is a specific form of writing that expresses the life of another individual using a myriad of techniques. Biographies can concentrate on forming personal histories, and analyse and explain social, historical, and/or political influences on an individual’s life. It can highlight an individual’s strengths, flaws, triumphs or defeats and situate them into a historical or social context. Biographies have the complete freedom to take a sympathetic or an unsympathetic point of view of an individual, or a subjective or objective view.

A biography could simply be the chronological account of an individual’s life or a deeply investigative statement explaining one’s actions or choices, motivations or flaws in a social or even psychoanalytical context.

In short, a biography is a unique and highly personal expression and exhibition of individual life.

The biography “A Beautiful Mind” by Sylvia Nasar exquisitely depicts the life and times of John Nash. Nash was a mathematical genius by the age of thirty who suffered from chronic paranoid schizophrenia for the most part of his life. In 1994 he went on to receive a Nobel Prize for his work in game theory. 


Nasar has written the biography of John Nash in such a way that really helps the reader relate to scientific (in this case mathematical) concepts while simultaneously retaining the nature of humanity of a humbled man suffering a severe mental illness through the use of numerous writing conventions.

Some common writing techniques used in biographies are:

  • Use of anecdotes
  • Humour
  • Use of personal, human emotion
  • Story-telling format
  • Use of facts
  • Use of characterisation

Nasar has employed many of these techniques effectively throughout the biography. Examples from the text include the use of anecdotes:

“Returning WWII veterans had flooded the job market and enrolments were falling because of the draft. In 2 years, there would be another crop of brilliant youngsters, clamouring for the handful of instructorships. His game theory thesis had been greeted with a mix of indifference and derision by the pure mathematicians, so his only hope of a good offer, he felt, was to finish his paper on algebraic manifolds.” 

This extract deconstructs Nash’s desperation and anxiety towards avoiding drafting into the war and highlights the upmost value that Nash placed upon mathematics and the degree to which mathematics was integrated into his life.

The portrayal of human emotion is a very powerful writing technique used to elicit emotions in the reader such that they can share and understand the characters experiences. A perfect example from “A Beautiful Mind” utilizes this writing technique strongly:

“The urgency of Nash’s efforts to avoid the draft suggests deeper fears than those related to career ambitions or personal convenience. His was a personality for which regimentation, loss of autonomy, and close contact with strangers were not merely unpleasant, but highly threatening.”

This reflects insights into Nash’s psyche in a manner that affords the reader an opportunity to better understand the mechanics of his mind.

The story-telling format implemented in “A Beautiful Mind” is used as a means to engage the interests of the reader and make the presentation of scientific (mathematical) information much more accessible and relatable to the audience.

It is the method of separating the maths from the man that makes biographies such a unique form of science communication. Biographies achieve this through the employment of a myriad of writing techniques that use human emotion to convey scientific detail thus establishing a unique relationship between the two.


  • Nasar, S. (1998). A Beautiful Mind: Simon and Schuster.

May 11, 2012 / ashfonty

Statistics Gone Wrong – But Where?

It’s the ugly duckling of the scientific world. Very few scientists find it attractive or appealing to begin, however with a bit of time and attention (not to mention a few gallons of coffee) the beauty of it shines through. What am I talking about you ask? STATISTICS of course!

Lets face it, when we signed up for our degree very few of us realised exactly how much time we would spend sitting at a computer. We pictured ourselves in the lab discovering a cure for cancer, saving the world from global warming and (if you’re me) soaking up the sun on the beach while tagging sea turtles! But alas, we have come to the realisation that any data we collect will need to be analysed and presented a results.

The harsh reality of science: What we thought we’d do VS what we do.

But whose responsibility is it to communicate the results to a greater audience in an accurate manner? When a journalist picks up a scientific paper, can we really expect them to understand the statistics? After all they can be incredibly complicated with so much room for error and misinterpretation.

Let’s look at some examples where statistics have been taken out of context from the Australia Science Media Centre (2011) :



The issue

4 in every 1,000 women will die of breast cancer. This new drug will reduce a women’s risk of breast cancer by 25% This new drug will reduce a women’s risk of breast cancer by 25% For every 1,000 women that take the drug, 3 (instead of 4) will die of breast cancer. In terms of a women’s overall risk – the drug gives a 0.1% reduction

In this example we can see that while the conclusion is correct, it is very misleading to the general population – especially if it were to be published without the initial statistic that 4 in 1,000 women will die from breast cancer. If you were to explain that the absolute risk would be reduced by 0.1% as opposed to the relative risk of 25%, I’d hazard a guess that fewer women would be willing to take the drug.

Another classic issue in reporting statistics, whether its a scientist or a journalist is framing of messages. Again, it isn’t incorrect or inaccurate, it just puts a spin on the statistics to make it look better than it is. For example the classic scenario from our friends at Grey’s Anatomy:

Young mother: ‘Doctor, if I have this surgery to remove my brain tumour, what are the chances I’ll survive?’

Surgeon: ‘there is a 50% chance of dying on the operating table.’ Umm, no thanks. However, if the surgeon says, ‘there is a 50% chance of you surviving ‘… well now you’re talking!

Giselle Bunchden famously put her foot in it when she made this statement.

I know your logical and scientific brains are really angry at these statements and so they should be. It’s the same statistic. She would have a 50% chance of dying or surviving, but how much better does ‘surviving’ sound?

Goldin (2011) highlights the issues in media reporting about breastfeeding as a solution to the obesity crisis amongst children (don’t worry I didn’t realise there was a crisis in kids this young either). Despite a study clearly concluding that babies were gaining weight due to eating bad foods such as sugar drinks and French fries, the media reported that mothers should be breastfeeding their babies instead of using formula (Giselle will be happy). The fact that they came to this conclusion is staggering as the study did not look at breastfeeding at all! The journalists totally missed quoted the science as they picked up on a sentence in the article which stated there was a correlation between formula use & obesity, however this was related to the lifestyle of the child as opposed to the lack of breast milk.

When/where have you seen some seriously misconstrued statistics or results? Do you think that it is more the responsibility of the scientist to make their findings clear or do the journalists need to work on their statistical understanding?

Read more…

May 10, 2012 / baileymoser

Blood? It’s Not Funny! Humour in Science Writing

“This will not be a funny book. I cannot tell jokes because I do not understand them.” (pp. 10)

In the novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, author Mark Haddon investigates the death of Wellington the poodle, a complex tale of lies and emotion, distrust and heartache, through the lens of Christopher’s school assignment.

Christopher John Francis Boone knows all the countries in the world and every prime number up to 7,507. In the opening paragraph, he addresses the dead dog in Mrs Shears’ front lawn, stabbed in the side with a garden fork, and the hit to a policeman that put him in jail. After all, this is a murder mystery novel.

Or is it? Consider this excerpt of Christopher’s time in jail:

 “At 1:28 a.m. a policeman opened the door of the cell and told me that there was someone to see me.

I stepped outside. Father was standing in the corridor. He held up his right hand and spread his fingers out in a fan. I held up my left hand and spread my fingers out in a fan and we made our fingers and thumbs touch each other. We do this because sometimes Father wants to give me a hug, but I do not like hugging people, so we do this instead, and it means that he loves me.

… [The policeman] was an inspector. I could tell because he wasn’t wearing a uniform. He also had a very hairy nose. It looked as if there were two very small mice hiding in his nostrils.

He said, ‘I have spoken to your father and he says that you didn’t mean to hit the policeman.’

I didn’t say anything because this wasn’t a question.

He said, ‘Did you mean to hit the policeman?’

I said, ‘Yes.’

He squeezed his face and said, ‘But you didn’t mean to hurt the policeman?’

I thought about this and said, ‘No. I didn’t mean to hurt the policeman. I just wanted him to stop touching me.’” (pp. 21-22)

This passage surely wasn’t solely intended to make the reader laugh—what is Haddon’s intention?

Well, we learn that Christopher’s reaction to the policeman’s forcefulness was due to symptoms of autism; he does not like to be touched by other people, even his own father.

Is humour used effectively to convey information about Christopher’s autism here? Imagine if the passage had been written in a dramatic murder-mystery fashion:

“In the dead of night, the inspector approached the cell alongside the detainee’s furious father. The door creaked opened, and father approached son with an emotionless, alien-like greeting. The inspector didn’t know what to expect from the young criminal. He showed no remorse and continued to resist authority—not responding to interrogation—yet carried himself in a placid, uncomfortable manner. What was he capable of?”

My James Patterson imitation is not nearly as affective.

Haddon has a knack for relaying information about psychology, mathematics, astronomy and more in a humorous way. In fact, on page 11 the reader comprehends Olber’s paradox without even knowing it! It is the subtleties of Haddon’s humour that make it so fun to learn.

How does he communicate science through humour in ways different than other medium, say comics like xkcd or the article @sthompson addressed last week? Let me know what you think!


Haddon, M. (2004). The curious incident of the dog in the night-time. Sydney: Random House Australia (Pty) Ltd.