Science Writers 2009 Conference

I recently attended the Science Writers 2009 conference in Austin, Texas, hosted by the National Association of Science Writers (NASW) and the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing (CASW). Since some of you may not know me, here’s a little bit about where I’m coming from — although I am a PhD graduate student in Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, I am also becoming a science writer – I have a blog on stem cells called All Things Stem Cell, did a few posts for Nature’s stem cell blog, “The Niche,” and recently started a column with the Santa Barbara Independent called “Biology Bytes.” With aspirations in mind, I traveled to Austin last weekend (Oct. 17th and 18th) for my first science writers’ convention. Below is coverage on the Saturday workshops and the Sunday morning CASW New Horizons in Science sessions. Yes, the coverage is rather detailed – I tried to give plenty of information for those of you who wanted to attend but could not. I’ve tried to highlight key terms to ease scanning down the story. I also created an amateur photo gallery of my trip. If you want to see more coverage, check NASW’s coverage website or the CASW website.


Since I am a “poor” graduate student, and am not in a writing program that could help fund me, I was really on the fence about attending this conference, as I had to pay for all of it myself. However, a few things helped with expenses. For one, I was able to find a great roommate through Facebook who not only helped me meet others (which was great since I am so new to this!) but also split the room costs (halving the $182.85 a night price) at the AT & T Executive Education and Conference Center, where the event was held. The other part that really helped cover costs was volunteering for the event – that took care of the $75 student registration fee, and was an interesting experience too.

My volunteer assignment for Science Writers 2009 was to help people sign up for the Power Pitch workshop Saturday morning. For those of you new to writing and journalism, we’re not talking baseball here, although both involve quite the adrenaline rush for participants. This workshop, titled “Power Pitch with Top Editors,” is where you get about 10 minutes with a senior editor of a highly respected science magazine or newspaper to convince them to accept your “pitch,” which is a concise, catching description of a story you want to write for their magazine. If the editor likes it and likes you, you get the job. Among others, editors from “The New York Times” Science Section, “Discover,” “Scientific American,” “Nature,” and “Wired” were all there. What my volunteer position entailed was getting to a conference room at 6:45AM (4:45AM in California, where I’m from, not that I’m complaining – it’s just an excuse for any zombie behavior on my part), waiting while interested pitchers filed in the room and took a number from a bag at 7AM until about 7:10AM, and then guarding the sign-up sheets as peoples’ numbers were called and they approached to write down which editor they wanted to pitch to. Basically, I had to make sure they only signed up in one spot for the first round and then, when we found there were enough empty spots for some people to sign up for two editors, I had to watch to make sure they didn’t “double-date” and sign up for the same time with two editors. It went off quite quickly and smoothly. Just about everyone got to sign up with two editors – with 8 editors and 10 spots, 80 spots were easily filled. I’d like to especially thank Tinsley Davis, the NASW executive director, for making the volunteer positions possible. It was a good first chance for me to chat with other writers at the conference.

After the sign-ups were taken care of, I grabbed some breakfast and checked out the NASW Business Meeting. Breakfast was a tasty continental buffet, mostly with pastries and some fruit – I resisted the former and grabbed some yogurt and granola with O. J. I went to the Business Meeting even though I was not sure it was for everyone – several others were not sure about this either, but wanted a place to sit and eat breakfast, and it was close to the buffet. The Meeting turned out to be for everyone, though relatively few sat down inside the salon. The Meeting covered changes in policy, petitions that required members’ signatures, internship programs, and other business details. It was mentioned that this year’s meeting had about 350 attendees, which is down from about 450 last year, which is thought to be due to the economy. The significant effect of the economy on science writers became a recurring theme for the day. Another comment of note is that there is a record of Freelance gigs on the members-only part of the NASW website – for those interested, it’s called “Words’ Worth” (but you need to be a NASW member to access it). Lastly, NASW awarded travel fellowships of $750 to 10 undergraduate students who attended the AAAS meeting in Chicago last February– mentees were paired with a mentor for a day. The 2010 AAAS meeting / NASW internship fair will be in San Diego.

After the Meeting, everyone headed to the morning plenary session, titled “Thriving in a Time of Change” and given by an entertaining speaker, Dan Gillmor — the auditorium was quickly packed. Gillmor is the director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University and has lots of social media-related experience. The “change” Gillmor focused on was, unsurprisingly, the exploding world of the socialized internet. He opened with a Tweet feed of The Mime on Twitter, which he said was his favorite “person” on Twitter. I don’t quite understand the appeal of “The Mime,” and think it is rather crazy that an account that only tweets “…” every few days has over 10,000 followers – what does this say about the beloved and often highly-touted Twitter? That it is overrated, I think (but not so much so that I don’t use it myself). He praised heightened interactions between collaborators and creators that the internet has made possible, such as is seen with Wikipedia, while warning that at the same time, when researching a topic, Wikipedia is “the best place to start, [but the] worst place to stop” – I definitely agree – one must always go to the references, if they’re there. Entering the world of internet media and information through the well-traveled corridor of Wikipedia, Gillmor continued this journey by trying to determine what “journalism” is and what it is not. He concluded that while journalism is clearly not what most people post on their personal blogs, nor is it random YouTube videos of people disco dancing, the line can become fuzzy. Although there are well-defined journalists and newspapers/magazines/news reports, etc. where journalism is reported by professionals, non-professionals can undertake, what he calls, an “act of journalism.” This is done by people with personal video cameras (that may just be part of a cell phone) who capture news-breaking events, such as a robbery or a tsunami, and share it on a world-wide information dispersing service, such as YouTube. This is all made possible by increasingly prevalent technology. After pointing this out, Gillmor started on the main topic for his talk – what social media tools we should be using to stay afloat as science writers when even the definition of “journalist” is changing.

Gillmor, probably expecting counterarguments, first defended the authenticity of internet journalism before highlighted what social media tools he thinks are key (out of the endless array available). Most journalism awards can now go to magazines that are online-only, showing much less bias for paper-based media, and Gillmor challenges even this acceptance to be broadened – he argues that even some blogs should be considered journalism (and linked to General Motors’ home for corporate blogs, GM Blogs). He’s clearly had his experience of journalism blogging, as he listed off several internet-based reporting companies he had that failed (including and – I’m not sure if this was the best follow-up to encourage people to do internet journalism. A more successful project he helped with was, which is a Twitter client. He also made the apt and insightful comment that Twitter is now an ecosystem (and within seconds I watched as the girl next to me tweeted this quote). (Side note: For those of you who are interested and unaware, Science Writes 2009 has had a ton of tweets tagged as #sciwri09 – at the end of the first day I tried to go through all of them, but it was too great a Herculean feat). After discussing his failed and successful internet ventures, Gillmor defined entrepreneurship as “ambiguity, focus, resourcefulness, ownership, innovation, [and] risk”. Basically, I’d paraphrase it by saying that it is a big, scary, unsure future out there in the ever-growing world of technology, and while there will most certainly be many failures in trying to adapt, you’ve got to keep learning and keep trying until you find something that works – adaptability is key. Yes, it is easier said that done. To help with the “doing” part, Gillmor listed several resources I’ll now list here:

  • * Global translation and interpretation company.
  • * Yahoo Pipes: Organizing content on the web.
  • * IBM’s Many Eyes: Shared data online with neat data visualizations.
  • * Dopplr: Helps with travel planning and coordinating meetings.
  • * Spread of Walmart since the 1960s by An example of visualization of data (really looks like the spreading of a plague, I think).
  • * Flickr: Great for getting stock photos.
  • * Flu Tracker: It was not actually this exact link that he had – what Gillmor showed emphasized how the public being constantly aware of H1N1 spreading may cause more panic than productivity.

Gillmor threw out a few more tips for internet survival, such as search engine optimization (which was covered in a later workshop that I did not attend) and “above all – follow your passion.” I personally would have liked some more concrete advice on how to make a “successful” blog/online magazine (if it is possible), but it is probably a difficult goal to reach with few easy paths. Someone from the audience asked about the specific case of the Rocky Mountain Times failing repeatedly – after the paper failed, the Times tried two internet-only versions only to have those both fail as well. Gillmor’s response was that the Times “only made sense as a monopoly” and that, for a major metropolitan area, it didn’t make sense anymore. Coming from Colorado myself, it is hard for me to see such a local legacy discarded like this – I like to think that there is some kind of middle ground that can be achieved, but, if it exists, it must be hard to reach as it does not seem that the Times has found it. Overall, the opening plenary tried to inspire hope and provide resources, and it did to some degree, but it’s impossible to ignore the problems the industry is clearly trying to cope with and it does not seem like there are many easy answers.

Before I dive into covering the workshops for the day, I want to state a few general observations about the demographic that makes up the science writers at the conference. What I noticed first, and what intimated me most as I’m in my mid-20s, is that the vast majority of the attendees are in their 30s to 50s, based on what I saw. I was a little taken aback at first, as many science writers I’ve met so far are around my age, but then I had the epiphany that these are professionals who have been, mostly, doing this as a career for a long time. I, on the other hand, work in a lab with graduate students and postdoctoral students almost exclusively in their 20s, and then attend science conferences with other such graduate students. No offense to any fellow ScienceWriter2009 attendees reading this – just wanted to let you know where some of us shyer, younger types are coming from! Don’t get me wrong – there were others around my age, but I definitely felt like an odd one out most of the time. Not to mention I only knew one person attending the conference (who I only met once before and didn’t bump into until dinner Saturday). The other demographic features I noticed were that the vast majority of attendees were Caucasian and female. The female majority was unsurprising, but it was striking that in the group of more senior attendees this majority switched to men. After some initial shock, I suppressed my naturally introverted nature and ended up talking to many interesting people and, hopefully, making some good connections.

After the opening plenary talk, the workshops started. Saturday was the day of workshops – for a full list of the workshops click here. The day from 10:30AM to 6:45PM (except for lunch) was divided up into three sessions of workshops, Sessions A, B, and C, each an hour and a half long, and during each session an attendee could pick one of four workshops to go to. A lot of them were very tough choices, as multiple workshops offered at the same time looked quite appealing. Here I’ll cover the ones I attended – there are lots of #sciwri09 tweets that discuss the others and coverage on the NASW website. Also, there was a day-long activity going on that all attendees could participate, called “Forecasting the Future of Science Writing” (and also explained at the conference here). I’m not going to go into detail on this, but from what I saw it mostly seemed to deteriorate into rather pessimistic (although probably also realistic to some degree) forecasts for the field.

For Session A (10:30AM to noon), I attended “Visual Science: Why Writers Should Embrace Cheap Video Cameras, YouTube, and Final Cut Pro.” I already have a blog so I didn’t attend some of the more basic workshops on internet social media, but this talk appealed to me because it seems that visuals online are becoming more and more important to telling stories, as they should be – visuals are what the internet is for now. (This is why I recently created a Visual Stem Cell Glossary.) This topic clearly interested many others, as the talk was pretty crowded. This session showed several professional videos, either done by the panelists or others covering science with video cameras, to try and explain why, when, and how to use video cameras. Coming into this session, there was a large projector screen behind the panelists playing some “professional” YouTube videos and a smaller projector screen in the front left of the room with a live person gazing back. The person was Andrew Revkin of the New York Times’ Science section, blogger of Dot Earth. Revkin was interviewed via Skype. In addition to his written blog, Revkin also has “Revkin’s Channel” on YouTube (also called “DotEarth with Andrew Revkin). Some basic tips from Revkin and the panelists for those new to using video cameras:

  • * Hold the video camera steady (common sense, but worth stating).
  • * Hold shots (don’t pan too quickly – you might even want to hold it while counting out a few seconds to yourself).
  • * Sound is very important (if you’re going to use it) (if people cannot understand the audio dialogue, they get frustrated. If the conditions demand it, you can hold the video camera microphone right up to the speaker for the audio, then lay the audio over other images later).
  • * Don’t use the video to tell the whole story – just what is neat to show. (There was some debate over this between panelists though – Marc Airhart, for example, sometimes covers an entire story in the video. This probably really depends on what you’re trying to accomplish.)
  • * Revkin also recommends taking a video camera everywhere in place of a notebook (it’s easy to find out exactly what someone said, or what color shirt they were wearing, or all those so-easy-to-forget details when you record it)

Craig Duff of Multimedia and showed some “cuter” video clips, such as a woman catching a wallaby in her backyard and dogs performing cognitive learning experiments (i.e. finding treats in cups). His point was that it is OK to use cute clips in videos, so long as it’s not the entire video and there’s more to it or more in the other videos you offer – you can basically use cute clips as lures. As the audience’s response showed, they’re almost always winners. After Duff, Kevin Coughlin of said, in so many words, that if the video is cool, showing cool things, people will watch it – you don’t need to spend a fortune on production. That was reassuring. After Coughlin, Marc Airhart, a science writer at the University of Texas, showed a video he did using professional nature photographs, slowly panning over them and occasionally zooming, with an overlaid dialogue. His advice was that, unlike what he had actually done in this “early” video of his, you should first lay out the photographs and then have the narrator look at the pictures while narrating, as it can help with pacing and natural reactions to the images. For those interested, he used Audacity for the audio. For finding inspiration for visual journalism, Airhart recommended visiting Brian Malow spoke after Airhart. Brian Malow is quite the kick – he is Earth’s premier science comedian and has a blog called Zero Gravity. He explained how he did a video for titled “Darwin & Lincoln: Birthdays & Evolution.” Basically, he had written out essays for the story and when the idea was accepted, he decided what to do on the camera and what to only narrate. As a comedian, Malow takes pleasure in taking a subject and finding the humor in it and sharing this while also imparting some knowledge. He had to clarify to the audience, after having a disappointed viewer comment on his website, that some of his skits are only “mildly humorous” as he is, after all, trying to explain science! (As a side note, in one of his videos about Galileo he had clips of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” singing “Galileo,” etc., and said it is OK to use such clips in a video as if you would reference pop culture in a written report – I was not aware that such video clip usage does not violate copyrights.) Lastly, the Princeton News showed a video called “Scanning Santorini,” about using computer programs to piece together ancient, broken frescos. Overall tips from the panelists were: have fun, pick something you’re really passionate about, and, lastly, engage the audience (because not everyone is excited about what you are excited about!). One audience member asked what the purpose is of embedding a video into a story when you could just link to the video on another website, to which a panelist replied that a video in your story, on your website, will draw a lot more traffic (than it would without said video). I haven’t seen evidence myself, and so would love to see some actual traffic figures. Another audience member asked about Final Cut Pro vs. iMovie for creating videos – a panelist recommended Final Cut Pro for finer applications, but said that iMovie is OK if you do not need that extra quality (and don’t have a pile of cash to burn). The panelists also said that you can get an adequate video camera for $500, or use a Canon G10 still camera that can also do video (though they encourage a real video camera and a plug-in external microphone).

After a great three-course lunch, for Session B (2:15PM to 3:45PM) I attended the panel on “Pitching Science to Non-Science Magazines.” The panel included editors from a range of magazines, and each basically talked about what they look for in a pitch. Although I wasn’t expecting it going in, this was one of the most informative talks I went to. The main reason for this is because Terence Samuel, deputy editor of “The Root,” helped me have some epiphanies and gave me some reassurance. When Samuel receives a pitch, he said he looks for two key things: 1) that the person can write and 2) that their topic is something “new.” He clarified “new” as not necessarily something actually new, but something “old” covered in a new, interesting perspective/view. In particular, a story interests him if it focuses on how something affects a large number of people and/or how these people live. Additionally, he says it is important to make your story reader/people-involved – talk about people doing what you’re talking about (i.e. discovering the gadget, etc.). Overall, know your audience and write for them. (As a side note, Samuel said he likes his pitches in approximately 850 word explanations, as a specialty story for the average reader.) The next panelist to talk was Jake Silverstein, senior editor of “Texas Monthly.” For Silverstein, a pitch should not just be a subject idea, but a narrative/story. For example, Silverstein looks for colorful representations of a person interviewed that make that person come alive on the page for the reader. James Gibney, deputy managing editor of “The Atlantic,” discussed how he looks for stories that are about something unusual or famous scientists. He stressed the importance of knowing what stories they’ve published before and not to duplicate preexisting ones. Also, apparently he receives many long pitches and said it’s important to include a short blurb of the pitch (I guess editors like having some free time too). Chris Sullentrop, senior editor of “The New York Times Magazine,” said that if you’re a good writer who can follow a deadline, you’ll do well. The moderator, Adam Rogers, senior editor of “Wired,” then asked the panelists what they generally pay writers per word – here are the responses:

  • * “The Root” at $0.5/word.
  • * “Texas Monthly” at $1/word.
  • * “The Atlantic” at $1.5/word (tops — they clarified that they’ll often pay $250 for a 1000-word online story).
  • * “The New York Times Magazine” at $2/word.

For Session C, I went to “…Entrepreneurial Skills for Science Writers,” as I have yet to make a real business out of my writing. The theme for the talk of the first speaker, freelancer Alan Brown, was that, as a freelance science writer trying to make a living, you need a plan. A lot of this might seem like common sense, but it can be easy to loose sight of the bigger picture sometimes. In particular, Brown stressed the importance of knowing where you currently stand, financially, and where you want to be in the future (i.e. have enough money to not only pay rent and have a little fun regularly, but to take vacations too!). Brown was full of useful lists, starting with several tips for how to get from point A to B:

  • * Figure out how much more money a month you want.
  • * Look at the highs and lows of each income source per month.
  • * Chart out how you spend your time daily (i.e. how much time is spent working vs. thinking vs. fun, etc.).
  • * Don’t depend on a single client (have a few solid clients) – this was seconded and thirded by the other speakers later.
  • * Diversify your income (try writing for magazines, newspapers, technical reports, corporate/press releases, market research reports, university communications, etc.) – again, this was later seconded and thirded.
  • * Be willing to take less money for a steady income (leads to less anxiety and more confidence).

Brown also gave a list of qualities that editors look for:

  • * Consistently good.
  • * Quick response to issues.
  • * Easy to work with.
  • * Exceed expectations.
  • * Style.
  • * “Oh wow” (impress and surprise them with things they did not know about.)

Brown also gave many networking tips that could be useful to those just starting out:

  • * Plan ahead (younger colleagues now may become senior editors one day).
  • * Only network with people you like.
  • * Include both editors and fellow writers in your network.
  • * Be kind to assistants.
  • * Find ways to stay in touch.
  • * Volunteer for boards/dirty work.

Brown also supplied a list of where he looks when trying to sell a pitch:

Once you find where to give your pitch, Brown gave several tips for pitch delivery:

  • * Know what they publish (again, don’t give them a duplicate story).
  • * Have a personality – be someone.
  • * Know their readers/audience.
  • * Give several topic ideas.
  • * Promise to give more details if interested.
  • * Don’t waste time trying to write the perfect pitch (if it’s a news story, it’s better to be fast than perfect).
  • * Follow up with calls and emails.

Other points of note were to take advantage of the NASW website and other NASW resources, it’s OK to ask for a raise, and to give back to the people who helped you.

After Brown, Maryn McKenna, blogger of Superbug and Tweet-user marynmck, opened her talk with a reference to an article titled “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable.” This article is from a blog called “Clay Shriky,” which is run by Mel Blake. The specific quote from the text she used was that “the old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place.” A lot of science writers, and others in the media business, are finding themselves in this position right now – the old is rapidly falling apart, and we find ourselves scrambling to figure out what new frameworks will function, only often to just grasp at straws. This rather anxiety-filled perspective made the basis for her rather anxiety-filled, though unfortunately quite realistic, talk. She gave a list of the responsibilities a freelancer, as his or her own business owner, must take on that are different from what full-time employed writers (and other full-time employees) deal with:

  • * Freelancers have to house their own business (i.e. pay their own business mortgage/rent and provide their own adequate work space).
  • * Freelancers must handle payroll and benefits.
  • * Freelancers must seek out and identify new clients.
  • * Freelancers must produce and distribute their own products

To help manage these many complications, McKenna recommended a website on Tools & Resources for Freelance and Web Workers. While she encourages people to spend their money on technology, she makes the good point that there are plenty of adequate free software programs out there for freelancers to take advantage of. Efficiency is key to survival in McKenna’s mind – she recommended several websites to help with being more productive:

  • * Regular tips on organizing your life – I’ve been a subscriber to their RSS feeds for some time now. (Apparently they also recently came out with a book: “Upgrade your Life.”)
  • * (which has now apparently become This appears to be more inspirational than perhaps useful.
  • * Freelance professionals that have created a website with all sorts of useful, relevant links.
  • * In particular from, the article on 46 Must-Read Productivity Tips for Freelancers is helpful.

Additionally, like Brown, McKenna touched upon the importance of diversifying your sources of income – it’s best to have some articles in prestigious magazines for name recognition, but also have a source that provides an easy, reliable income. While earnings are usually made per word, it’s important to translate this into dollars per hour – McKenna stressed that often pitches that earn more per word end up earning the writer as much as a job that pays less per word due to multiple revisions and lots of back-and-forth editing. Other parting tips from McKenna:

  • * One income source should be academic, as this gives you full access to the university library (she writes ¼ time for the University of Minnesota).
  • * Claim a niche and build/maintain networks around it.
  • * Market your name/reputation/brand on social media websites such as Digg, Reddit, and Twitter.

Last to present for the session, Emily Gertz focused on blogs and how to make money writing for them (if it’s possible). Her blog can be found at Emily, although she also does posts for, and she Tweets as ejertz. Gertz claims it is possible to make about $25 to $45 per blog post, and notes that most posts should be less than 500 words (something I really need to work on). However, I’m still unclear on how exactly this money is created – I’m assuming it’s not made on your personally-run blog, but done through blogging for a larger organization. Gertz also encouraged writers to pursue their passion. Going along with this notion, Gertz argues that it is OK to write for free, although only under certain conditions – here are the acceptable cases:

  • * If you’re doing it to generate clips for future work.
  • * If it’s only a smaller project, and not for a big company.
  • * If it may eventually become a book (of course, this is very difficult to determine).
  • * As long as it does not consume your life.


The first talks for the 47th Annual New Horizons in Science started Sunday morning (and continued until Tuesday) – this segment of the conference is hosted by the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing (CASW). CASW actually has a video stream of these talks available on their website here. On the broad topic of “Information Technology,” Harold “Skip” Garner, professor of biochemistry and internal medicine at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, gave a talk on “Mining Hidden Knowledge from Medline and DNA.” Garner’s team has develop over 40,000 web-based software programs that function as applied computational biology/bioinformatics tools, or, in other words, text data mining tools, which are linked on his website, Garnering Information — check out such programs as eTBLAST, FRISC, TRITE, RIC, ARGH, and IRIDESCENT. Garner focused his talk on how his group has used these tools to find plagiarism in academic papers. According to an NIH-funded survey Garner cited, 1.4% of researchers admitted to plagiarism and 4.7% to having multiple publications on the same data (and I’m sure many others did not admit such acts). Garner’s software program eTBLAST can help track down such illicit events. eTBLAST allows one to take text from a paper, such as its abstract, and see how similar it is to other texts from papers in a large publication database, such as Medline. Taking this approach, Garner’s team found many duplicated articles present in the literature. Over time Garner generated a database, called Deja Vu, which lists all the highly similar papers his team found. Overall, Garner’s searches estimate that there are 8 to 10 duplicate publications for every 1000 publications. Garner found 206 duplicates and investigated around half, contacting the authors of the original and duplicate publication. When asked about the duplicate, 93% of the original authors did not know it even existed. Of the authors of the duplicate article, 26% denied plagiarism, 35% of apologized and admitted their guilt, and some didn’t even know they were an author. When confronted, many of the editors of the journals that the duplicate articles were published in said it was the authors’ responsibility, not the editors’. Here are just a few of the astounding responses and cases that Garner mentioned:

  • * One “author” took papers from a small college, doubled the data (so it looked more significant), and then published the paper… a few times.
  • * An author on a duplicate paper said they did not know how they had copied the original, and then later admitted that they had in fact reviewed the original paper… and given it a very bad review.
  • * Another author on a duplicate paper said that publishing the duplicate paper was “a joke” – they must have thought it quite funny as they have six matches on Deja Vu (not to mention they are the vice president of the ethics committee in their country).
  • * Another author blamed their medical students in their laboratory for creating the duplicated data that was published, even though these students’ names were not on the paper.
  • * Three journals were found to have had a member of the editorial staff plagiarize papers.
  • * The countries that seemed to have a slightly above average number of duplicate articles published were China, India, and Japan.

(As a side note – aside from finding similar papers, this tool can also allow the user to find implied key words based on a text. For example, taking text from a “materials and methods” section, including purely experimental details, and running it through eTBLAST generates a list of keywords associated with these methods, based on other papers that have similar text in their methods section. Consequently, this tool can generate a list of keywords for a given text even though the specific key words may never actually appear in the given text.)

Concluding this segment of his talk, Garner suggests that perhaps there are too many journals and too many review articles – I personally don’t mind having a few extra review articles as some authors can catch pieces others miss. Garner has also created programs that help with grant submissions ( and creating microarrays (such as Nimblegen). This led into the final portion of Garner’s talk, which was on using microarrays to study microsatellites (repeating DNA units in the genome — they are used in, among other things, paternity testing). Using microsatellite probes, assays have been developed to detect viral infections in human blood, to determine taxonomic speciation of organisms, and, as recently discovered in Garner’s work, to potentially find and screen for biomarkers of specific types of cancer that are present in the blood of patients. The latter work should be published by Garner’s group quite soon.

John Hawks, a professor of anthropology from the University of Wisconsin (and weblogger of John Hawks Weblog), then presented an engaging talk on “Rapid Evolution: Can Mutations Explain Historical Events?”. This was the last talk I caught in its entirety before catching the bus to the airport, and luckily it was quite an intriguing note to end the conference on. Hawks focused on how humans have undergone a tremendous amount of evolution in the past 10,000 to 20,000 years, giving examples as well as possible explanations. One such example is some adult humans’ ability to drink milk – this trait is quite new, as it developed within the last 10,000 years. Blue eyes and albinism (caused by a mutation in the OCA2 gene) is also around 10,000 years old – no one had blue eyes before this. Resistance to malaria in Africa is more recent – sickle cell anemia, which is caused if a person is homozygous for malaria resistance (heterozygous individuals have malaria resistance without sickle cell anemia), developed around 5000 years ago. Human skulls have also rapidly changed over the last 10,000 years – they’ve been shrinking (though they were increasing in size right before that point), decreasing in thickness (not too surprising – I like to think we’re a little less physically brutal these days), and increasing their cranial index (this measures the skull’s breadth to length – they’re getting wider/shorter).

Hawks’ main research involves looking at genetic changes related to these phenotypic changes. Analyzing massive amounts of genetic data these days mostly entails going through databases on computers. The specific genetic data Hawks looks at are single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNP), which are DNA sequences with single DNA base pair differences between species. Looking at SNP data has allowed Hawks to understand, for example, that the early farmers of central Europe were a different group of people than the hunter/gatherers who previously lived in the area, and that the people who lived in this area sometime after the farmers were not actually descendents of the farmers. Basically, there were waves of migrations of people throughout these areas and they have undergone different selective pressures. The ones who moved in, or withstood the pressures, made up the next generation – for example, approximately 80% of Northern Europeans have lactase resistance (as adults) and this ability most likely originated from one individual around 8,000 years ago.

In summary, Hawks approximates that humans have undergone what is normally equivalent to three million years of evolution in only the last 20,000 years. What are the causes for this explosive evolution? One key driving factor is a significant increase in population, increasing the number of random mutations possible. As he paraphrased Darwin, “if you want to see rare things, you need to have a lot of them.” Some other central causes for the rapid evolution may be dispersal and a broadened diet, which can both contribute to increases in population as well as being under more selective pressures. Some body parts that Hawks’ group has noticed are evolving at an even greater rate relative to the rest of our bodies include our brains, parts involved in reproduction (particularly sperm), genes involved in hearing, and other genes that they’re not sure the function of yet. Lastly, Hawks emphasized that these evolutionary changes, or mutations, all initially occurred because of chance (and then may have been selected for through different pressures) – I find this is something students often overlook when learning about evolution, assuming that every evolutionary advantage was somehow planned, so I am glad this is the final point Hawks wanted to stress.

All in all… I think it was definitely worth my while to go to Science Writers 2009 in Austin, Texas. Although the science writing community has justified feelings of dismay and anxiety about the future of their field, there are many promising paths in the form of emerging technologies, such as social media. Along these lines, the recurring advice I heard most was “be adaptive” — don’t shun new technologies because they’re unfamiliar, but learn how to use them to suit your needs. Technologies aren’t going to go away — they’re only going to become more and more vital to understand and utilize in order to succeed.

4 Responses to “Science Writers 2009 Conference”

Many thanks for this; an excellent summary. I’m passing this on to my science writing students (at MIT), and am taking notes on it myself — being one of those older, pale males you mention above, this kind of report is most helpful, not least because it’s nice to know that my sense of uncertainty in the face of very rapid change is shared across generational lines.

I think I might have disagreed, or at least shifted emphasis with some of the video advice dispensed…but that’s for a later post.

Tom Levenson - October 24th, 2009 at 1:04 pm

Thank you for reading and for your comment! I’m honored to hear you’re passing the info on to your science writing students — I’m glad it’s getting some good use!

I’m very interested to hear your video advice. I don’t have any experience using video cameras for blogs, so I’d love to hear reflections from someone experienced (on how to use them as well as whether they’re really that useful). Please feel free to share your thoughts, or point me towards a source that reflects them.

Teisha - October 24th, 2009 at 8:05 pm

Hi Teisha,
Thank you for this terrific summary. You put a lot of work into this. I wanted to point out to you that while I am of the older group I am still a beginner freelancer. This year I made a point of meeting a lot of people from all groups, as you did, and it made for a terrific conference.
take care,

Cecile - October 25th, 2009 at 10:33 am

Thanks for the nice – and accurate – write-up on my session! Anyone interested in antibiotic resistance is welcome over on SUPERBUG.One minor point: Clay Shirky is a real person, AFAIK. Mel Blake is I think his agent, specifically for speaking engagements (i.e., not his book agent).

Maryn - October 25th, 2009 at 11:17 am

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