Exercise: Writing about others’ research

Like this post, this writing also comes from an exercise I did at a science communication seminar with Katherine Kornei. We were given resources pertaining to this study, which found that mice who are deaf at birth make the same vocalizations as mice who hear from birth. This means that in mice, unlike in humans, the ability to vocalize is innate.

This time, my intended publication was something very challenging: Highlights.


It was VERY challenging! Communicating science to kids is not my forte. But here it is!

Hearing Words

Ed the mouse cannot hear. He was born that way.

Gus the baby cannot hear. He was born that way. Ed and Gus are deaf.

Gus the baby drinks milk from his mom. Ed the mouse also drinks milk from his mom.

Gus the baby has brown hair like his dad. Ed the mouse also has brown hair like his dad.

“Say ‘momma’!” Gus’ mom says. Gus cannot hear her, and just smiles.

“Squeak!” Ed’s mom says. Ed cannot hear her.

“Squeak!” Ed says. He does not need to hear her to know how to squeak. He knew how to squeak when he was born.

Gus’ mom puts a hearing aid in Gus’ ear. The hearing aid lets Gus hear his mom! “Say ‘momma’!” Gus’ mom says. Gus hears her, and smiles.

“umma!” Gus says. He is almost right!

Exercise: Writing about your research

At a science communication seminar at OMSI on April 21st, I participated in several science writing exercises with science writer Katherine Kornei. This assignment was to write an article about our research with a particular publication in mind. This piece was written for Wired.

Audience [Wired]

Headline (an attention-grabbing statement): Bounce at Will

Subhead (expands on the headline; provides more detail): Computer simulations can use random chance to gain new insights into the quantum life of molecules

Lede (one sentence about the main result and its implications): Computational chemists are using random chance to their advantage in an algorithm called Quantum Monte Carlo to discover the secrets of enigmatic molecules.

Body paragraphs (what did the scientists do; what did they find; implications):

Scientists can recognize molecules through the patterns of light they absorb (or emit) in a process called spectroscopy. These patterns of light are determined by how the atoms in the molecule bounce and move relative to each other—but some molecules refuse to play by the rules.

CH5+, the chemical white whale of spectroscopy, is one of these molecules. Its atoms flop around each other in such strange ways, its pattern of light just looks like noise to spectroscopy equipment. Quantum Monte Carlo may be the answer.

Monte Carlo algorithms are, as you may expect, named after the famous Monte Carlo casino. These algorithms rely on random chance, and careful supervision, to calculate non-random information. Quantum Monte Carlo (QMC) is a breed of Monte Carlo that specifically focuses on quantum systems, such as molecules.

QMC isn’t tripped up by the strangeness of the molecule’s flops; its random number generator runs through them like a juggernaut.

I ended my writing here, since I don’t have any news-worthy results yet! But I enjoyed writing this little snippet about my research.

What does my knit sweater have in common with an avalanche?


Avalanches don’t just happen on mountains! Scientists use the concept of an “avalanche” to describe other phenomena that evolve in similar ways, such as forest fires, a stock market crash, or solar flares. In a recent paper released on arXiv, French physicists made the argument that knit fabrics also behave in this “avalanche” fashion. This makes them very useful for studying the properties of avalanche behavior, since a knit is much easier than a mountain to fit into a lab!

An important part of describing avalanches is the phrase “stick-slip.” Imagine you are trying to push a heavy box of antiques across the floor of your grandmother’s basement. You push it, but it is heavier than you expected, and it doesn’t move. As you push harder and harder, eventually the box slips, and you can now push it across the floor with less force than what was needed to make it move in the first place. The moment when the box stopped sticking and started slipping is called a stick-slip event. You could also describe the very beginning of an avalanche–the instant when the soil/snow/sand at the top of the mountain begins to slip–as a stick-slip event.

Knit fabrics are made of a network of threads; these physicists showed experimentally that stick-slip events happen at the intersections of these threads when the fabric is stretched. The threads can hold on to each other for a time, but eventually they slip; the first intersection to stretch causes the next intersection to stretch, and the knit network expands in an avalanche-like fashion. This is slightly unusual because avalanche behavior is not typically expected in things that are as neat and ordered as textile fabrics (think of how chaotic a landslide is!).

Hopefully this discovery helps improve our knowledge of avalanches, and systems that act like them!


Knits: an archetype of soft amorphous materials.  Samuel Poincloux, Mokhtar Adda-Bedia, Frédéric Lechenault

Photo by Dom J from Pexels 

Blood of Komodo dragons could provide antibiotic alternative

pexels-photo-42754(Note: I initially wrote this piece for a workshop at ComSciCon-PNW 2017)

In January of 2017, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a much more frightening Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report than usual: a woman in Nevada had perished from a bacterial infection that no antibiotic in America could fight. Doctors administered 26 different antibiotics to no avail.

“If we’re waiting for some sort of major signal that we need to attack this internationally, we need an aggressive program, both domestically and internationally to attack this problem, here’s one more signal that we need to do that,” Lance Price, the head of the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center at George Washington University, told STAT News.

Recently, researchers at George Mason University made a discovery that could add to science’s arsenal against antibiotic resistance: the presence of powerful antimicrobial chemical compounds in the blood of Komodo dragons. Continue reading “Blood of Komodo dragons could provide antibiotic alternative”