Linkage 1/21: Science Online, Kinect Surgery, & More


Last weekend, I was one of the fortunate 300 who gathered in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina for the 2011 edition of Science Online. The simplest way to describe Science Online is as a science blogging conference, but the real topic on the table was the broad future of science communication, be it through blogs, podcasts, ebooks, twitter, or plain old paper. Through “unconference” sessions led by panels but driven by audience discussion, workshops, field trips to labs and museums, and good old-fashioned bar conversation, scientists, journalists, and scientist-journalists dissected how science can be best defended and explained in a time where mass media coverage is increasingly scant or poor.

I could spill literally thousands of words on what I learned and discovered at Science Online, but for the sake of my audience, I’ll restrict myself to three subjects most relevant to an academic medical center in the new media environment. For more coverage, see the Columbia Journalism Review’s 30,000-foot view, Ed Yong of Not Exactly Rocket Science on the science-blog echo chamber, and Chris Rowan at geology blog Highly Allochthonous on the elephants of the conference. Or you can wade through the over 10,000 tweets sent from and about the conference.

1) Patients Can Blog Too

The majority of the bloggers who attended Science Online cover science through the lens of peer-reviewed research, government policy, or media criticism. Many of these blogs deal with the long-term picture: how will this laboratory study impact medical treatment in 10 years, or how will climate change policy affect our planet’s future. But a corner of the science-writing world is written by people particularly engaged in what science can do for them immediately: patients fighting serious disease.

As a session on “Patient Blogging as Therapy” proved, social media is a natural fit for patients to share information and support. Dave deBronkart, known on the web as e-Patient Dave, called in via Skype to talk about how his own fight against advanced kidney cancer exposed him to the online world of patient engagement, including the technically-primitive but still-functioning listservs of ACOR. Now, having beat his cancer, he’s the hub of an electronic patient advocacy community that includes other panelists like David Seidman (blogging about his kidney disease and need for a transplant) and Alberto Rocca, who started a website for families of children with the rare lung cancer pleuropulmonary blastoma. deBronkart’s motto of “potent information simply portrayed empowers people” was an inspiring reminder of a different way people use blogs or any other media at their disposal to seek knowledge and truth, and the opportunity for online conversations about health that are two-way streets.

2) A Calm Voice in a Shouting Match

But where will patients, of the blogging or non-blogging sort, receive that potent information? The internet is all about easy access to info on virtually any topic, but the quality of that information often leaves much to be desired. Like the search engine TV commercial, a simple search can be easily drowned out by nonsense and falsities – often, in the case of medical advice, dangerous ones. The magnitude of this problem could be read from the beleaguered company accurate medical information kept in the “Defending Science Online” session: evolution and climate change, two other areas where misinformation very noisily tries to shout down evidence-based knowledge.

After hearing about efforts to correct influential editorial writers on climate change and the fight over evolution-questioning passages in Texas textbooks, Val Jones of the BetterHealth network spoke about educating patients on how to get reliable medical information off the web. Choosing to show rather than tell, Jones recreated a “pecha kucha” style presentation she gave to a patient conference that employed limericks to tell the story of two patients who found medical advice of vastly different quality on the internet. The content may have been below the target for a room full of PhDs, but it was a very effective way of reaching a less medically literate audience, pointing them towards the skill of telling a legitimate source from a disreputable one. Later, Jones talked about the role of academic medical centers in adding sober, accurate information to the “shouting match” of medical discussions on the internet, a mission this blog and the Medical Center website definitely takes to heart.

3) Blogging from the Tenure Track

For a scientist with their eye on an academic career, writing a blog can be a risky endeavor. Candid thoughts about science and criticism of research within one’s field can have serious consequences offline, even if the blogger conducts themselves in an professional and accurate manner. As such, many bloggers with scientific careers use a pseudonym and avoid discussing their writing with colleagues and superiors who may have misconceptions about blogs.

But that wasn’t the case in the “Blogging on the Career Path” session, where Janet Stemwedel, Greg Gbur, and John Hawks all talked about how their online writing helped, rather than hindered, their tenure pursuit. The trick was in how they portrayed their blog in their tenure process, highlighting how it improved their standing the field, fostered collaboration with scientists at other universities and in other countries, and fulfilled the school’s mission of outreach to the community. Even if their superiors didn’t quite “get” the idea of a blog, the concept of expanding beyond the insular world of academia is a benefit that most any reasonable department would support. Hopefully, the example set by these three scientists will help encourage more academics to write for the public – and if any UChicago faculty want to get start blogging, you know where to find me.


University of Washington students find a way to use my favorite present this year, the motion-sensing Xbox Kinect, to give surgeons feedback during robotically-assisted procedures. The researchers describe how the device can be used to place “force fields” around organs and blood vessels that the surgeon does not want to accidentally harm during the procedure. But does it still allow you to play table tennis? [Found via Medgadget]

The big celebrity health news of the week was Steve Jobs’ leave of absence from Apple, due to what has been speculated are complications from a liver transplant. J. Michael Millis, surgeon and medical director of transplant services at the University of Chicago Medical Center, did an excellent job at Scientific American of talking about potential health issues without knowing much about Jobs’ specifics.

A recent paper in Nature Neuroscience confirmed the theory that the pleasurable “chills” experienced during music listening are due to dopamine release, a neurotransmitter signal also seen with addictive drugs and sex. Jonah Lehrer unpacks the new evidence and adds some historical context at his Frontal Cortex blog.

About Rob Mitchum (525 Articles)
Rob Mitchum is communications manager at the Computation Institute, a joint initiative between The University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory.
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