Correctly using your story arc–an article analysis

6 11 2012

This week’s assignment was to analyze an article from the New York Times’ Science Times section. Specifically focusing on the components of the story arc and what elements make the story intriguing.

I focused on “Scientists Move Closer to a Lasting Flu Vaccine,” by Carl Zimmer. While the article is fairly lengthy, the format really keeps the readers interest. It presents the current conundrum, why we have to keep getting flu shots every year, and what direction researchers are taking to come up with a better, longer lasting solution. There isn’t a character being focused on in this story, but I feel that with flu season coming, most of the readers will be very interested in the how, why, where, and what’s next in the development of flu vaccines. The flu is not a fun virus to obtain, I can speak from experience, so I’m sure any information on prevention and development of an improved system would be well received.

The 3rd paragraph sums up the whole article, we’ve been stalled in terms of vaccine development for the flu since the 1950’s, but with the onset of several new research studies, at long last it looks like we may see long-lasting vaccines in our future. The first few paragraphs give the reader a jumping off point, knowing why the flu is so unique and how current immunological information has allowed us to begin developing new types of vaccines that target the virus in new and different ways that may provide solutions for not only the flu, but other viral diseases like HIV.

Moving on to the second page of the article, Zimmer continues to describe how our immune system can take advantage of the vaccine and contribute to enhanced immunological memory and a strengthened secondary response when attacked by the virus. I think that overall it is a reliable, understandable description, though I do take issue with his statement that scientists have to “guess which strains will be dominant.” I assure you that this is not merely a guess, but backed up with historical data and trends, along with information on the current evolution of the virus, and a statistical analysis to determine which strains to include.

The conflict created to keep the readers interest up to the climax is the fact that flu vaccines have been made and re-made every year since the 1950’s battling to keep up with the ever evolving flu. This vaccine is one of the only vaccines that needs this much upkeep and attention year to year, and the effectiveness really relies on researchers ability to predict its evolution and frequency within a population. The climax is reached about half way through the second page, when Zimmer introduces the researchers working on new ways to tackle the flu virus.

Specifically, he focuses on Dr. Gilbert, a researcher at Oxford that is focusing on a vaccine that targets T cells, rather than the traditional B cells. The other is a researcher at Scripps, Dr. Wilson that is focusing on creating antibodies against multiple flu strains, rather than just one. This technique is evolved from original research in Japan from 1993. This new researcher provides hope to the readers that in the future, a yearly flu vaccine may not be necessary and that they will be better protected over time, rather than having the chance of catching the flu strain that was not included in the shot (which was how I ended up with the flu a few years back). The quote obtained by Zimmer from Dr. Wilson creates a nice, cheery resolution, “The whole field is invigorated.”

While there is much hope to be had from current research, the last two paragraphs also bring this hope into perspective. Without stating directly that much more research needs to be done, he alludes to that fact by mentioning an issue that researchers have to overcome for some of this new technology to be implemented. That is, getting the immune system of each individual to produce enough of the newly created antibody to be effective in battling an onslaught of any strain of flu virus.

Though the article is quite science/information heavy, it provides information that is critical to understanding the current state of flu research in an easy to read and understand format, using a traditional story arc with conflict, climax, and resolution.


Running barefoot without actually running barefoot

23 10 2012

The latest and greatest trend in running in the past few years has been barefoot running.  The spark behind this trend was research on our ancestors and some current native populations that run faster, better, longer without shoes.  I’ve been interested in this topic along with the Tarahumara people, ever since watching a documentary on running and ultramarathons a few years ago, however I haven’t been able to find the link to the exact video.  I know it was on a cable science/history channel, but I can’t remember which one.

Recent research has delved into why this is the case and how runners today can gain that benefit.  Some runners choose to run fully barefoot, but I’ll have to admit that makes me a little squeamish.  What about stepping on/in something that could damage/contaminate your feet?  I’m sure this sentiment is why there is a whole market of shoes that mimic the barefoot feel, while still providing some protection, and peace of mind.  One barefoot running shoe website I found via Google search offers 15+ brands with hundreds of style and color options.  I recently went with my Dad to pick out some new walking shoes, as he wanted to try some of these lightweight, non-shoes, so I’ve seen firsthand the extensive variety and marketing associated with this new type of shoe.

As runners have now had a chance to try out these shoes or lack of shoes, there have been some mixed results as to the benefit of this technique, so delving further into the scientific results helped to shed light on the subject.

A recent story in the New York Times, “Myths of Running: Forefoot, Barefoot and Otherwise” by Gina Kolata, highlighted several recent studies, and helped my interest in delving further into the subject.  The story talks about who uses which style of running, how much energy is used with/without shoes, and if we all ran in the same style, would running with or without cushioning be better.

The story never really goes into defining what all the styles actually mean, so I’ll give it a shot:

Heel striking:  The heel is planted first, followed by the forefoot, in sort of a rolling motion, like a wave.

Midfoot striking:  Both the ball and heel of the foot land at the same time.

Forefoot striking: The ball of the foot is planted first, followed by the toes and heel. (This is different than the forefoot strike that sprinters use, when they run, their heels hardly ever touch the ground.)

It turns out that there isn’t really one style that is better than any other, research actually suggests that running in your natural style is the most productive and energy efficient.  Your body knows what’s best for you.  The research reported in the article also suggests that complimenting your style with the most appropriate footwear is the combination for the best results.

Research behind the results of traditional running shoes suggests that approximately 75% of people that wear these shoes convert into heal strikers, leading researchers to hypothesize that this is behind repetitive stress injuries seen in the running population every year.  With the sole of a traditional running shoe being so think at the heel, no wonder most people turn to heal striking, its where there is the most cushion and comfort.  However, this divergence from a natural stride, which is hypothesized to have been comprised of a mostly forefoot strike population in one Harvard lab, has been the driving force behind getting back to nature and the “barefoot” experience.  There is no sound evidence that heel striking is inherently bad though, Dr. Hunter’s results, summarized in the NYT article, indicate that many distance athletes actually fall into the heel striking population.

So if there is a wide variety of acceptable styles, that are equally effective, depending on your natural stride, then what is actually more efficient, running with some cushioning or without?  The interesting results based on a study to answer this question are also summarized in the NYT article, only looking at midfoot and forefoot strikers, 10 millimeters of padding actually allowed runners to expend less energy than their barefoot partners.   This is an extremely interesting finding as previous research indicated that barefoot runners expended less energy than people running in traditional shoes, which is pretty logical as they’re toting around less weight, but some cushioning, according to Dr. Kram, does provide benefits.  So in the case of barefoot running I guess a little does go a long way.

So what’s better for you? Barefoot running? Traditional shoes? Minimal shoes?  Forefoot striking? Heel striking?

The answers at this point are all “it depends.”  As with much science today, there are many qualifiers, what is your natural gait? What surface are you running on?  Are you trying to switch gaits?

There isn’t a “correct” universal method, you have to do what is best for your body and use what you were given the most efficient way possible, which probably involves consulting a doctor and athletic shoe fitting specialist if you are serious about getting into running or trying to change your running equipment and/or style.

Building a Career: From bugs to belly buttons – Guest Speaker Dr. Holly Menninger

30 09 2012

If you want an example of a person using multiple life experiences (aka jobs), all of which were not “perfect,” to lead you to a great job/career that makes it all worth it, then Dr. Holly Menninger is the example for you.  She was invited as a guest speaker on Tuesday, September 25th, 2012 to our ENG 520 class as the Director of Public Science for the Your Wild Life project.  As part of her job as director, she gets to enthusiastically engage the public, introducing them to glorious scientific knowledge, write, record podcasts, and play with bugs, all of which are passions developed over the beginnings of her career.

What at glance would seem a haphazard transition from Ph.D. in entomology, appearances on CNN (as a bug publicist), to work in science policy, to creating a weekend science radio show/podcast (on a volunteer basis), all have their purpose in allowing Dr. Holly to succeed in her current role as Director of Public Science.  She exudes a passion for bugs, which began early, as she would tell it, but 17-year and 13-year cicadas emerging from the ground to “do their thing” is what launched the transition from pure interest in studying these creatures, to interest in public education of scientific phenomena.  Creating a buzz (pardon the pun) around the emergence of “giant bugs” that make a lot of racket and that could be perceived as the beginning of the apocalypse, if the public was not educated about the natural life cycle of these bugs, was invigorating.  Her excitement about the topic, vicinity to major news outlets, and the fact that her PI was doing Good Morning America the same morning, allowed her to be the perfect “bug guru” for 6 episodes on CNN.  This first major exposure to public, mainstream education was trial by fire for Dr. Holly and from her comments, it seems that this is how she learned the most about how to be the interviewer and interviewee.  A relatively brief stent as a science policy liaison with a side project as a science radio show host showed her that absolutely wanted to follow her passion, educating the public, rather than dealing with the paperwork mess of policy for a career.   Thus the transition into the Your Wild Life project, where she can play with bugs, create podcasts, educate the public, and use the information she gleaned from the science policy job to really influence the lives of the public around Raleigh, and the rest of the country, investigating microbiomes that are a little closer to home than we’d like to imagine, bugs in our homes, bacteria in our belly buttons, and not to mention what lives in our armpits!

She and her comrades strive to make bugs a little less yucky and a lot more educational and exciting for young scientists and other inquiring minds.  The projects they are working on engage citizen scientists to investigate and sample for themselves and contribute to the pool of samples from urban and suburban local areas.  The Your Wild Life team strives to “Explore the biodiversity that lives on us, in us and around us,” so if your game, the participation information is on the groups’ website,

The theme of class was interviewing skills for the interviewer and interviewee, as our class is a mix of scientists in the making and Technical Communications students, so we will all probably be on both sides of the coin at one point in our careers or another.  To address this theme, along with telling her wonderfully inspiring story, she gave us tips about being both the interviewer and the interviewee, which I will summarize below:

For the interviewee:

  • Focus on the 5 P’s: Prior Practice Prevents Poor Performance

Think about your main message when approached about an interview, take five minutes to organize your thoughts and get your talking points together.  If you know ahead of time that your story or research is likely to make headlines, do a little preparation to be sure you deftly cover appropriate issues and give the most factual information possible.

  • Stick to no more than three talking points, which emphasize your main message.

Too much information can oftentimes detract and distract from the message that you really want to convey.  The “triangle method” was how Dr. Holly presented graphically the 3 points and a main message mantra.

  • Ask the “Why me?” question.

Knowing why you are a person of interest to be interviewed and what spurred interest in the subject can give you a great head start into knowing what information will be relevant to the interviewer and what may allow you to make the most positive and pertinent press about the issue.

  • Get your facts straight.

Probably the most important tip for the interviewee, this is the way to gain good exposure as an expert, if you misspeak or fudge information because you don’t know the answer, the journalist may not come to you again, because you’re not a reliable source.  The best policy would be to say you don’t know (if you don’t), look up the information, and get back to the interviewer later.  I’m sure most scientists and science writers value accurate reporting of facts at a later time, rather than a quick, inaccurate quotation.  Good punchy facts can also potentially make powerful quotes, so doing your homework and being prepared can make a big difference in getting your message across.

  • Take journalists into the field, it can add ambiance to a story.

There is nothing better than firsthand experience to lend a little spark to a story, not to mention providing photo ops or sound clips.  Dr. Holly’s example of taking a journalist literally into the field, a field of cicadas, surely contributed to later reporting.  She described what the cicadas were like at their time of emergence and that the researchers and journalist were literally shouting at each other to be heard over the din of the bugs chorusing.  What kind of journalist wouldn’t mention that in a story?

  •  Misquotation will happen, just roll with it.

Take the instances of misquotation, which inevitably happen in the transfer of information (think about the childhood game of telephone), something might be misheard or misinterpreted, as a learning experience.  Think about how you could have described it so that the interviewer, next time will fully understand.

You can also use your resources to correct or explain the misquote, linking to the story in your personal blog allows you space to fully explain a statement and communicate why it was wrong or out of context.

We also discussed the fact that if you do get interviewed, it is likely that at some points a quote you provide will not make it past the cutting room floor, don’t take it as a slight; there are absolutely word limits to be made.  Also, it may have been your information that provided the appropriate background to make the story come alive, so use interviews as times to educate, rather than expect big quotations to come out of it.  Being polite and approachable regardless of whether you get a quote or not, may lead to journalists coming back in the future or referring colleagues just because you are a good source.

For the interviewer:

  • There is a fine line between knowing enough to ask intelligent, relevant questions and knowing too much, where questions are too in-depth and you lose the audience.

Most of the time, writing stories and interviewing on subjects that are foreign to you can be easier than subjects that you are intimate with.  Taking a broad base view is more appealing to people who know nothing about a topic, they’re more likely to be able to understand the story if you get at the big picture; whereas,  if you’re already an expert in the field, you make hone in on questions and details that fly way over the head of a lay audience.

  • Send questions ahead of time.

This tip definitely comes with caveats, if you’re trying to catch time sensitive information or get off the cuff comments about a controversial topic, then spontaneous interview is probably the better bet.  However, if you have the freedom to send them ahead of time, then you can have an interviewee that is prepared with great facts and potential quotes.

  • Have more questions prepared than you know you’ll be able to ask.

Nothing is worse than running out of material before the interview is supposed to be over, so being over prepared is key.  Also, feel free to go off script and ask questions that delve in deeper to answers that the interviewee has given, it can give depth to a story and take it somewhere you hadn’t expected.  It also shows you’re listening, which moves us into the next tip.

  •  Listen to the guest.

Is the answer interesting?  Are there any follow-up questions that would be great to fill out your story? Do you need clarification?  Did they actually answer the questions?  These are all questions that couldn’t be answered on the spot if you aren’t actively listening and engaged in what they are saying.  You may also get more passion from the interviewee if you listen rather than robotically go through your list of questions.

  • If the interview doesn’t work out, go to idea #2.

Some people just aren’t naturally enthusiastic or willing to answer questions in an open format, so if you get an interviewee that is a dud, be polite, but don’t be afraid to scrap the material.

Sometimes, you can bring people out of their shells to open up if you ask things unrelated to the core of your interview, ask them about a picture on your desk, or art on the wall, or what their interests are; getting them to loosened up and more comfortable with a more neutral topic can make the flow of the interview better.  And hey, you may learn something fun about the person to throw into your story.

  • Embrace the long, extended, pause.

If there is a lull in conversation or a question than stumps the interviewee, don’t feel the need to fill the void.  Oftentimes, people become uncomfortable with this pause and begin to talk freely just to end it.  This may lead to unsolicited, interesting stories, as well as tidbits of information that the interviewee might have not meant to reveal.


I really feel blessed to have been able to be present in class during these guest lectures.  The science writing community is so open and willing to share great advice and life lessons with newcomers, which you don’t find in many other fields.  I’m sure this information will be of great use in the future, especially when it comes to writing our first formal pieces, which will require extensive interviews.  I also am glad Dr. Holly shared the information about being an interviewee; I will be more than prepared to give an interview, if my research ever sparks a news frenzy.