Archive | November 2012

Identifying Good Science Writing

     Physics Review Letter (PRL) is one of the most prestigious journals in physics field. It was established in 1958 by Editor Sam Goudsmit who was a Dutch-American physicist famous for jointly proposing the concept of electron spin with George Eugene Uhlenbeck in 1925, and implemented his vision of converting the letters section of Physical Review into a new standalone journal. Since then, it has been published by the American Physical Society as an outgrowth of Physical Review for 50 years.

     PRL features rapid publication of short reports of significant fundamental research in all fields of physics. The shortness of its articles (at most four pages long) and the fast communication of the most important development in physics are keys for PRL to have risen above the rest. Today’s PRL has became the world’s foremost physics letters journal with the impact factor hovering around 7 ( the impact factor is a measure indicating the average number of citations to articles published in science and social science journals, a little like Nielsen Ratings in TV). PRL is so successful with physicists throughout the world that it now publishes 3500 letters per year. Besides weekly coverage of major advances in physics, PRL also provides its diverse readership with cross disciplinary development. This can be found from its topical sections which do not only include all regular branches in physics, but also cover interdisciplinary areas, such as the section of “soft-matter, biological, and interdisciplinary physics”. The broad coverage of physics and physics-relating science should be another important reason for PRL’s outstanding status among other physics journals.

     Good science journals usually have good quality of science writing. The characteristics of the writing in PRL can be summarized as followings: First, the paper published in PRL does not exceed 4 pages, and the language is always concise, clear and objective. Second, most of the sentences are complex sentences. This does not mean they are wordy or complicated; it means sometimes they have one independent clause and one dependent clause, or one independent clause and more modifying parts. It is important to write complex sentences in those papers because they express a lot and can effectively describe a situation. Besides, the PRL paper is always using impersonal style. Although occasionally the authors use pronoun “we” to emphasize their work and make the writing approachable, still the passive voice is predominant in the whole paper and the third person or things rather than the first person or people are subjects of sentences. Furthermore, the organization of PRL paper follows logical transitions and usually includes abstract, introduction of background, and theoretical or experimental work, as well as summary and reference. Meanwhile, Tables, figures and diagrams are always used where they will save words or make the author’s argument clearer.

     In conclusion, PRL is one of the most outstanding Journals in physics area both because of its rapid and effective communication of significant physics development and good quality of writing and editing. That is also why physics people would feel very proud and excited if their paper could be accepted and published in PRL.

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“Blue Sky Girls”–The Story of Rett Syndrome

     October 13, 2012 is Madison first year’s participation of the international “Blue Sky Girls,” the annual event that raises the public’s awareness of Rett Syndrome and commemorates the strong will and determination that Rett Syndrome patients have shown to fight for the disease.

     Strongly moved by the optimistic attitude and strong will of Rett Syndrome patients and their family, I chose this topic as my second multimedia project, and made a video story about “Blue Sky Girls.”

“Blue Sky Girls” event held in Madison Capitol, Wisconsin (October 13, 2012)

     Rett Participants climbed up the steps of the Capitol building to show a symbolic meaning that “ no matter how difficult it is for them to walk with physical difficulty they have, but yet they move upward and forward.” Says Kelly Schoeller, the event coordinator, also mother of Mackenzie, a nine years-old girl living with Rett.

     Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker have recently signed a Rett Syndrome Awareness Month Proclamation for October. Madison firefighters (local 311 Firefighters Union) came to the event scene to assist Rett girls to complete their symbolic climbing up to the top.

     Rett syndrome was first described in 45 years ago and is a progressive neurodevelopmental disorder that is caused by mutations in X chromosome on a gene called MECP2, thus occurs almost always on girls. Rett Syndrome occurs in 1 of every 10,000 to 23,000 female births worldwide and can be found in all racial and ethinic groups.

     According to International Rett Syndrome foundation (IRSF), Rett syndrome is a developmental disorder and first recognized in infancy. Many Rett girls loses their milestones during their growth. Typically 12-18 month, they begin to lose their ability to walk, communicate and most of their hand functions. Symptoms also include:

• Loss of speech and motor control
• Functional hand use replaced by compulsive hand movements
• Disordered breathing
• Severe digestive problems
• Orthopedic abnormalities including scoliosis and fragile bones
• Disrupted sleep patterns
• Extreme anxiety
• Seizures
• Impaired cardiac and circulatory functions
• Parkinsonian tremors

     Most Rett girls are usually believed by their family members not to lose their ability to understand and are just “trapped” in their bodies that does not work. The “Blue Sky Girls” event also plays a role to remind people that “not equate inability to speak to inability to understand,” says Schoeller, “ especially with the new study coming out that their cognitive ablities are better than what they thought. Nobody likes the word ‘mental retardation,’ but that was when you read some of the older papers, it would say it was one of the common causes of metal retardation in girls. But honestly, they have’t been able to test the cognition in children who cannot speak and cannot point, so I think they underestimated it. Clearly, these girls are communicating, and clearly they have something to say.”

     According to IRSF, “in 2007, researchers heralded a major breakthrough by reversing RTT symptoms in mouse models. Rett syndrome is recognized as the ‘Rosetta Stone’ of other neurological disorders, with genetic links to other disorders like autism and schizophrenia.”

     Dr Qiang Chang, Rett Syndrome investigator in Waisman Center, UW-Madison, says, “The more research we do, obviously the more we know about this disease and find something. When I started ten years ago, and searched for this disease or this gene in the database, there are very few studies that have ever been done, maybe 20 or so, but just in the last these ten years, there are probably thousands of reports that have been published related to this gene and this disease. ” Although there is still distance from basic research to clinical drug, Chang says, “this indicates hope.”

     Dr. Chang also mentioned that one milestone study in 2007 gave RTT families and researchers hope that RTT is curable.  In that study, a research group led by Dr. Adrian Bird showed that RTT symptoms can be reversed in mouse if the normal MeCP2 product is produced after disease onset.”

     “Blue Sky Girls” has become a worldwide event since last year. This year, according to event organizers in Madison, about 24 states and seven countries celebrate the event simultaneously.

A Talk between a Journalist and a Scientist

   A few weeks ago, in one of my graduate class” Science Communication”, classmates discussed the topic about the communication barriers between scientists and science journalists. The debate sounds like an old and everlasting one, and the two sides seems not able to achieve good understanding with each other at all the time.  

   When I took apart in this discussion in class, my feelings were different from any other of my classmates, which is all due to my special background: I am a physicist in my past five years, and a science journalist since this year. “Is there such a huge disagreement between two sides?” I keep wondering this during the discussion.  Because from my own experience, I believe a good scientist should be able to simply his research work in clear sentences that general audience could get,  and similarly that a good journalist could be able to objectively transfer what the scientists say to the audiences without being questioned later by scientists. Why do scientists  think journalists cannot transfer what they said accurately?

Then, in the following week, I had a chance to go to a hospital to interview a medical expert for one of my project. When I met him, and after he knew I made this for a class and also may go to publication, he told me that, “If your work just go for a class, I propably could answer your questions and let you do the interview now. But if it is for publication, then I dont think you could interview me today, we have to find another time. I need time to think how to answer your question more properly, since I will take responsiblity to the public for my words.” After hearing this, I felt a little confused and asked him why he could not explain his research and answered my question properly on that day, since I believe he should be able to talk to a general audience about his work anytime since he has already done a long-time research on this area. “Are you worried that  I am not able to translate your meanings accurately to the public?” I asked, “well, journalists always cannot translate it well.” He answered.

At that moment, I suddenly realized what the barrier is between a journalist and a scientist in the class discussion: sometimes, just one side loses credibility in the other side. This is a real example. Then, I explained to the medical expert that I was used to be a scientist before too, and totally understood his concerns. But what I would like to know is just some general knewledge about his research, and I think it should be able to be concluded in simple and clear sentences. “If I were not a journalist, if I were just a patient family member, and ask you this question simply to get some general knowledge about this, then how could you answer me?” I asked, smiling. He silenced. “And, that is all what I wish to ask and show to the audiences in my interview.” I said.

Luckily, this interview was finally done on time after we had a further communication with each other and both had a better understanding with each other. This interview gave me a good example about the barrier between a journalist and a scientist. Although there are many reasons for this phenonemon, and solution is also not an easy one, yet mutal credibility and understanding seems very  important to some extent.

My Reflection on the Book “The Elements of Journalism”

 Book Cover: The Elements of Journalism
          As a person whose long-year previous training is in physics, and who is now a beginner to enter the field of journalism, I think this book plays a role of a helpful guide leading me to this field with simple language and approachable style of narrative. Here is some of my reflections on this book:    Based on large amount of empirical cases, deep investigation and thorough explanation, the book “The Elements of Journalism” by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel illustrates key principles leading to good journalism practice, reviews the evolution of media core values from historical perspective and discusses the challenge and dilemma modern journalists are facing. It is an effective guidebook that helps beginners to form a correct picture of how journalism should look like, understand the purpose and obligation of journalists and grab the skeleton of good journalism practice. The book summaries ten principles as the elements of journalism profession, in which the first nine principles are concepts and practice skills for journalists and the last one is to let citizens know what they should expect from news and their rights and responsibilities.     By reviewing the root of news and history of journalism, the author reveals that the primary purpose of journalism is relatively consistent through history, which is “to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing.” Journalists should focus on widest social communities—not just on special interests’ groups, such as expert elite or politicians. They should also represent the public, “voice for voiceless,” and be responsible for promoting democratic freedom. However, as the twenty-first century begins, new challenges, such as the rise of market-based journalism, have threatened the obligation of journalists. Deadline pressure and business pressure make media practitioners more driven by commercial interests rather than the original purpose of providing the truth for citizens.     The first principle mentioned in this book is journalists’ obligation of truth. The author explains there that the truth is not “in the absolute or philosophical sense,” but in a practical or functional form. The journalistic truth does not only mean journalists’ reporting correct names, places and events, but also mean that the publishing accounts should be “substantially true.” Besides, the interpretation of journalists in news reporting should also be true and avoid any kind of misleading or misinterpreting. The author also mentions that journalistic truth is a “sorting-out” process, which inspires me of applying this method in my reporting. Just like what the author explains, the first report of news stories may only “signal a new event or trend,” which may stay in the surface level of accuracy. Thus, further verification and follow-up stories are indispensible for gradually reaching the truth. I suppose that successive reporting can be an effective way in guaranteeing the truth of news.

     The second principle is about journalists’ loyalty to citizens. When journalists are doing reports, it is important that they should be independent from any non-citizen-concerned factors, such as media ownership influence or commercial interests. Their coverage should be straight and objective, avoiding “self-interested or slanted for friends” or people who buys an ad.

     Chapter four is the part that I am engaged in most during reading this book, and there are several practice skills that I suppose are very useful in journalistic practice. The chapter mainly talks about the third principle—“The essence of journalism is a discipline of verification.” The methodology of Verification is essential for journalists to build the credibility among citizens. The author also mentions that the frequently discussed terms like “bias,” “objectivity,” “fairness,” “balance,” should have new meanings. Different from the common opinions, the author suggests replacing the word “objectivity” with “thoroughness, accuracy, fairness and transparency.”  And the author also argues that it is hard to avoid bias, which is part of human nature. I especially agree with his thoughts that “Fairness” and “balance” are not aims, but means that assist us to achieve truth. As the author illustrates, some stories cannot be equally split or have an equal number of quotes from different sides.

     The fourth principles relates to maintaining independence from those journalists cover. This principle has been mentioned once when the author talks about the obligation of truth. In chapter five, the author expands the scope of journalists’ independence and discusses it in great detail. Journalists should be independent from commercial interests, media ownership and those people or events they cover. When they select stories, they should also be independent form bias of class or economic status.

      Besides, I have also enjoyed learning professional skills as a journalist from the book “The Element of Journalism.” For example, the author mentions in the first chapter, the primary purpose of journalism is relatively consistent through history, which is “to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing.” Journalists should focus on widest social communities—not just on special interests’ groups, such as expert elite or politicians. But deadline pressure and business pressure make media practitioners more driven by commercial interests rather than the original purpose of providing the truth for citizens. These phenomena make me realize that sometimes, we need to strive to keep the purpose of journalism in mind and keep the obligation of journalism in practice, no matter what kind of pressures are. Because informing citizens of truth is the root of journalism, which if we give up, journalism will lose its essence and is not able to positively contribute to the society.

     Also Chapter four is the part that I am engaged in most during reading this book, and the argument that author has made that it is hard to avoid bias, which is part of human nature is what I especially agree with. I also agree with his thoughts that “Fairness” and “balance” are not aims, but means that assist us to achieve truth. As the author illustrates, some stories cannot be equally split or have an equal number of quotes from different sides. I think these ideas can help me reasonably understanding the word “objectivity” and avoid pursuing it stiffly in my practice. Because, as the book states, sometimes balancing stories which cannot be balanced equally is not a true reflection of reality. Thus, when I do my reporting coverage, my balance will follow the nature situation of the stories and assign quotes from different sides in the proportion that best reflect the true pictures.