Posts Tagged ‘The Conversation’

Time to shake things up

In September 2016 on September 29, 2016 at 12:17 pm


Sarah: In April this year I wrote an off-the-cuff post about career pathways and dreams for my future.

Little did I know what was around the corner! I’m delighted to report that this month I will start a new role as Adelaide Life Sciences Editor with The Conversation Australia.

So what’s The Conversation? Taken from their website:

The Conversation is an independent source of news and views, sourced from the academic and research community and delivered direct to the public.

Our team of professional editors work with university, CSIRO and research institute experts to unlock their knowledge for use by the wider public.

My job will be to work with researchers to help them craft well-written, accessible and news-worthy articles that anyone can read for free.

It will be a busy, exciting and quite demanding role, so please bear with me as I settle in and work out my new modus operandi for blogging and social media.

Vive le changement!


Knock knock

In March 2014 on March 14, 2014 at 1:50 pm


Sarah: In his concluding comments after a harrowing episode of Four Corners on Monday night (which told the story of a young boy trained by his two male de-facto parents to participate in sexual activities with adults), Kerry O’Brien said the following:

“As a footnote to tonight’s story, it’s worth observing that it (i.e. the case presented) does not reflect on gay parenting, but on the actions of two individuals. It’s also worth remembering that most child sex offences relate to crimes against young girls, not young boys, and the predator is usually known to the family.”

I’m so glad he added that comment. Clearly he though that facts provided after a highly emotive story would be heard by viewers, processed in their minds and have an impact on their opinions. I hope he’s right. But I fear that people who deep down have a fear of gay parenting will use this story to back up their beliefs.

Facts notwithstanding, people believe what they want to believe. It’s complicated.

It’s a concept also seen in science, and which Rod Lamberts tackles beautifully in an article in today’s The Conversation. Dr Rod says,

“At best, presenting people with facts to counter their beliefs makes them ignore you; at worst, it drives them further away. How much more evidence do you need than the singular failure of scientific facts to convince deniers that humans are buggering up the climate?”

Recently I’ve been thinking about how people set up boundaries to protect a way of life.

I imagine the human brain to be a bit like a house. In the house, choice of colours, furnishings and artwork – budget allowing – reflect what you are comfortable and familiar with. You separate the outside world from your inner, created world by installing a solid door with a lock, bolted windows, a high fence and perhaps even a security system. Almost a bit of John Howard-esque,

“I will decide who comes to my house, and the circumstances in which they come!”

If someone unsavoury knocks on my door, I can chose not to let him or her in.

If a fact presents itself which contradicts the steady state that I have developed in my brain, I can also chose not to let it in.

Developing techniques which will convince people to drop their barriers just a little, to let little snippets of unfamiliar information into their minds is the task ahead.

This means scientists need to start working with experts who understand people and behaviour. Marketers. Psychologists. Political scientists. Sociologists. Media experts.

[photo thanks to Horia Varlan on flickr]

Day 323. Science and social media: a case study

In July 2013 on July 1, 2013 at 3:56 pm


More and more scientists are embracing social media.

Many are on twitter and Facebook, others write blogs and share images using Instagram and flickr.

But what value does this have? Are there any rewards or positive outcomes to be gained by scientists through delving into these relatively new and sometimes scary online platforms?

Dave Hawkes says yes. I’m delighted to present his guest post to explain a little further:

Science is a collaborative process. We meet other scientists through the labs we work in, or conferences, or even by making contact after reading some of their research. I have been fortunate to have a number of great collaborators both in Australia and overseas (which has meant trips to the UK, Spain and France to meet them in person).

Recently I formed a new collaboration through a slightly unusual means.

I am a virologist who now works in creating viral vectors to understand the anatomy and function of neurons associated with a neuropeptide system, relaxin-3. Outside of the lab I have been involved in trying to combat misinformation about vaccination for about the last four years. Through these activities I have become involved in a Facebook page called Stop the AVN. During a conversation with two other people associated with this page – an epidemiologist from Adelaide (Candice Lea) and a data modeller from Wollongong (Dr Matthew Berryman) – we agreed that there seemed to be a lot of people asking questions about the recently (2007) introduced vaccine against HPV.

We decided to write a paper answering some of the most common questions about this vaccine.

This paper has now been published and is freely available for anyone who wants to have a read. From experience we know that while people may be interested in a topic they might be intimidated by a paper in a scientific journal, so we produced a layman’s summary and a companion article about the paper.

Another advantage we have discovered is that by having active online networks – particularly those with a specific focus (in this case health) – we have been able to promote this paper through both twitter and Facebook to a much wider audience. We have also been very lucky that prominent health tweeters such as @DoctorKarl and @DoctorChristian have been supportive and retweeted our paper with strong recommendations.

I that this whole experience has taught me a number of things:

    • If you make collaborations with people who are passionate about a topic, things happen much faster;
    • People generally respond to tweets much faster than emails; and
    • The number of people who follow a particular tweeter is not necessarily a good measure of the impact these people can have.

I will finish with a recommendation to scientists: social media is a way to get your science out of the lab and into public forums which will result in more people reading and understanding your work.

Thanks to Dave for suggesting this post idea, and putting it together over the weekend.

Calling all scientists and non-scientists: if you’ve got an idea and would like to write a guest blog post for ScienceforLife.365, please let me know via @sciencesarah or

[image thanks to malias on flickr]

Day 215. Rethinking cancer

In March 2013 on March 15, 2013 at 2:22 pm


Cancer is in my family, and that’s not unusual.

My uncle  – oesophagus cancer. My maternal grandfather – lung and stomach cancer. My paternal grandmother – breast cancer.

By way of treatment, all of these family members had combinations of surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy, with varying degrees of success.

Now, new therapeutic options for cancer are slowly starting to open up. These stem from a change in the way that scientists understand and study cancers.

In the past it was all about knowing where the cancer started, and to which organs it spread. Now, although the tissue of origin is still important to know, it’s the actual details of which genes have gone wrong, and how they are controlling the abnormal growth of tumour cells that can be of greater importance for treatment.

As medical research continues, there’s a very strong possibility that new treatment options will even move cancer from being a ‘death-sentence disease’ to one which can be controlled and managed for the remainder of one’s life.

For an up-to-date explainer of what cancer is, and how we treat it now and in the future, see today’s Conversation article by Dr Darren Saunders.

[photo shows my father as a toddler with his extended family in Western Australia in 1946]

Day 90. Christmas Pageant

In November 2012 on November 10, 2012 at 10:09 pm

This morning at Adelaide’s annual Christmas Pageant I met a little girl called Gaia.

Gaia’s family recently emigrated from Milan in Italy, looking for new opportunities and an escape from a growing sense of pessimism in Europe.

Gaia – rhymes with ‘higher’ pronounced in an Australian accent, with no hard ‘r’ sound at the end – is also a name Jim Lovelock applied to his 1972 idea postulating that the earth and its components are actively shaped by the processes of evolving plant and animal life. Known as The Gaia Hypothesis, the concept has since been argued, rejected, modified, embraced, applied to models of global climate change and re-branded: see this 2012 The Conversation article (including comments) by Ian Enting for a full briefing.

The girl named Gaia was of course blissfuly unaware of all this conjecture this morning, as she watched giant koalas, clowns on bikes, dancing Christmas fairies, marching bands and the main man himself in Santa Claus parade through our city streets.

Welcome to Australia Gaia, and have a Merry Christmas.

[photo thanks to Tim Horton, posted on Twitter today]

Day 78. The role of fathers

In October 2012 on October 29, 2012 at 11:07 am

An article by Richard Fletcher in today’s The Conversation suggests that although the amount of time Australian fathers spend with their children hasn’t changed much over the past 10 year or so, Dads are increasingly aware of their important role in child-rearing.  It’s something psychologist Steve Biddulph has been saying for years.

My own husband often puts himself through an emotional and time-management wringer to ensure he’s home from work and available to meet the needs each of our 3 children as much as he humanely can. Getting the balance right is tough.

Over the weekend I watched a fascinating documentary which made me think about the role of fathers again. Gypsy Blood is a confronting, violent tale of men raising their sons in gypsy communities in the United Kingdom. The men and boys featured in the film spend their days together: hunting, fighting, talking about hunting, talking about fighting, watching rooster fights and looking after each other and their animals. Even the youngest of the children are trained to box, and are encouraged to fight other children beyond the point of exhaustion.  Apparently the men don’t work, and the boys don’t attend school.

Clearly it’s not a life I would choose for my family. And yet I was still struck by the strength of the bond between the fathers and sons featured in the story. What son wouldn’t love to have their father at home and coaching him through activities for the majority of his day, every day? And that’s the power and the danger of it, I guess. When your dad tells you that unless you win you’ll be letting down not just yourself but also your Dad, your Pa, your Uncles and your cousins, you’d be inclined to be your best.

Gypsy Blood, produced by my very talented cousin Robert Wilkins, is available on ABCTV iView until November 4th. Watch it without your children.

[image thanks to anyjazz65 on flickr]

Day 71. Pharmacies

In October 2012 on October 22, 2012 at 1:12 pm

My local pharmacies are stocked with all manner of products. Prescription-only and regulated medicines increasingly comprise only a small fraction of the total shelf space. This is ok on the whole; I understand they need to make a dollar. Nappies, tissues, health foods, make-up I can handle. In fact, I’ve purchased many of these extraneous products from a pharmacy myself in times of need (dammit, I need a geranium-pink nail polish and I want it now!).

But when a pharmacy staffer tries to forces items of ‘complementary medicine’ down my throat, I get a little testy.

This morning the lady at my local discount chemist was seriously offended when I didn’t want to chat with her at length, and indeed purchase, some ‘oral eczema prevention product’ for my son.

“Is it natropathy?”

I asked.


She answered a little hesitantly. Not convincing.

“So, what is the active ingredient?”

I demanded.

“Oh, it’s just a range of ingredients which will support your son’s skin”.

Enough said. I ignored her completely.

Regardless of my attitude, next she started hocking a ‘natural’ cream. I said I’d already tried the specific one she mentioned and that it hadn’t work for us.

“Well, you’d be the only person I’ve ever met who says it doesn’t work”.

she countered.

Judgemental, subjective, anecdotal rubbish.

A few grumpy hours later, I started wondering: are there actually any regulations guiding pharmacies about what they can sell, and how their staff sell it? Is it indeed ethical to sell products which have never been tested by clinical trial almost side by side with proven medicines?

I’ve discovered there is a Pharmaceutical Society of Australia Code of Ethics, but this appears to only address clinical practise, not issues around retail. Also in existence is a Guild Pharmacy Academy, which ‘is the leading provider of vocational and education training for pharmacy and dispensary assistants in Australia’, but again I could find no guidelines offering advice on what can be sold in a ‘chemist shop’, and what sort of information should accompany each sale.

Most interestingly, I did find an article by public health expert Ken Harvey describing a 2011 deal between the Pharmacy Guild of Australia and complementary medicine company Blackmores which featured the following quote:

“From October, pharmacists’ computer systems will prompt them to discuss a Blackmores Companion range product with patients picking up a prescription for one of four popular medications.”

Fortunately, the deal has now been revoked (see article in The Australian), but it does highlight the point I’m trying to make: there needs to be clarity about what pharmacies sell, which products are supported by an evidence base, and who can give advice when sales are made.

I don’t want to be buying medicines and related items from a person whose only training has come from the company sales rep.

Postscript: Since writing the article above, I’ve received advice from a pharmacist that there are no regulations guiding what can be sold in a pharmacy, as long as The Poisons Standard is not breached, and that all products claiming to have a health benefit are registered for an Aust R or an Aust L number. My issues still stands. 

[photo thanks to wrestlingentropy on flickr]

Day 44. Don’t panic!

In September 2012 on September 25, 2012 at 11:49 am

If you saw any news headlines this past week quoting a recently published research paper linking genetically-modified food or weed killers with an increased risk of cancer, my advice would be,


The paper, published in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology, contained statements suggesting that cancer in rats increased when they were fed genetically modified corn and/or water spiked with the herbicide Roundup.

Now I don’t have a subscription to that particular journal, and because the paper has been hidden behind a paywall ($31.50 for a single publication, you must be kidding me Elsevier! – for more on that see this Guardian article), I can’t do an analysis of the data myself. But  Australian cancer researcher Ashley Ng has, and he presents a compelling argument as to why the paper is close to useless from a scientific perspective.

His reasons can be summarised thus:

  • Inappropriate choice of study animals – the researchers worked with a strain of rats that is highly susceptible to cancer even under normal conditions;
  • Poor monitoring of and reporting about animals in the control group – you need to know what the health status is of animals which are not exposed to the test agent under analysis, so you have a baseline to compare with;
  • Failure to conduct statistical analysis of the data comparing number of deaths in the control groups to those in the groups eating the modified corn or drinking the spiked water. Statistics give data credibility – they allow scientists and independent observers to say with confidence the study conditions had an effect on numbers of deaths which was over and above that which may have occurred under normal conditions or by chance alone; and
  • Exclusion of some of the study data for argued reasons of space. You can’t just leave data out – the full story must be told. This begs the question why didn’t you show the full data set?

Unfortunately bad science sometimes sneaks through the peer-review process. It’s only via public, informed analysis of new publications that sensible conclusions can be drawn.

[photo thanks to Nate Steiner on flickr]

Day 26. Autism

In September 2012 on September 7, 2012 at 8:33 am

If you saw ‘The Autism Enigma’ (4 Corners on September 1st) you’ll know it covered the possible relationship between gut bacteria and autism disorders.

In a nutshell, the show presented evidence that bacteria living in the gut – and how these influence the huge neural network which surrounds it – could create changes in behaviour and even autism-like syndromes.

Online newspaper The Conversation has published an article in which two experts address the science relating to this idea (Can a gut bacteria imbalance really cause autism?). It’s well worth a read, and not too heavy on the sciencey jargon. Sections include How the gut works, The role of fatty acids and Blaming sugar.

Even though the preliminary evidence is tantalising, the bottom line is that,

Early intervention behavioural therapy is, for now, the only treatment scientifically shown to improve behavioural symptoms of autism.

[fantastic digestive system embroidery image thanks to Hey Paul Studios on flickr]