Amy Harmon’s “Navigating Love and Autism”
Dec26

Amy Harmon’s “Navigating Love and Autism”

I can’t gush enough about today’s page one story by Amy Harmon in The New York Times. As part of her continuing series, Love on the Spectrum, Amy follows a college couple who are emblematic of the relationship and intimacy challenges of young adults with Asperger syndrome or other forms of autism. I thought that CENtral Science readers would be interested in both Kirsten Lindsmith and Jack Robison, the latter having an intense interest and facility in chemistry. The article leads with a warm and well-edited, five-minute video of the couple (by Sean Patrick Farrell) but I’d encourage you to read the whole piece first, as I did. But when you do watch it, pay attention to Kirsten’s closing statement on the definition of love. I left the story seeing glimpses of myself and my own relationships, although I’ve not been diagnosed with any spectrum syndromes. In fact, I’d venture to say that many readers here might see some commonalities with Kirsten and Jack. I absolutely loved these two kids and seeing the video has me cheering that they do indeed successfully navigate the challenges we all face between our scientific passions and personal relationships. While Harmon’s article isn’t open to comments at the NYT, I’d welcome any thoughts here that folks might have after reading her brilliant piece. Source: Harmon, Amy. Navigating Love and Autism. The New York Times, 26 December 2011. Twitter: Amy Harmon @amy_harmon Sean Patrick Farrell @spatrickfarrell...

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Bryostatins: Panacea?
Oct24

Bryostatins: Panacea?

I just had the delightful pleasure of participating in the C&EN Advisory Board meeting late last week. Among the outstanding C&EN writers and editors at the DC headquarters, I got to meet several others who are stationed around the US and the world. One of these new friends based in New Jersey, Bethany Halford, has this week’s C&EN cover story on the marine natural products, the bryostatins. These complex compounds were originally studied for anticancer activities but, as Bethany tells us, are now showing promise in animal models of Alzheimer’s disease. And while Bethany tells us that the first bryozoan source of these compounds was collected in 1968 from Gulf Specimen Co., she resisted the urge to tell us that the company is in Panacea, Florida. (Here’s a definition and etymology of panacea.) Go forth and read. References: Halford, Bethany. Chemical & Engineering News 89(43): 10-17 (24 October 2011) Cover story – The Bryostatins’ Tale Profile on George (Bob) Pettit – Pioneer: Undersea Treasure Hunter Natural product drug development – Drug Development: Taking the Long...

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On journalists copy-checking with scientist sources
Oct12

On journalists copy-checking with scientist sources

Should science journalists solicit scientist sources to fact-check article content prior to publication? Or do scientists have no more right to do so than, say, politicians previewing the latest criticism of their policies. I have to admit that I had not quite anticipated the magnitude of interest in these questions when I first wrote about the topic in late September at my Take As Directed blog on the PLoS Blogs network. The backstory: I had been watching an episode of Vincent Racaniello’s excellent netcast, This Week in Virology (TWiV), from the the International Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy (ICAAC) in mid-September. The first 35 minutes saw Vincent and Rich Condit turn the tables to interview Chicago Tribune science and medical reporter, Trine Tsouderos. Trine is perhaps best-known of late for her coverage of the faulty link between XMRV and chronic fatigue syndrome as well as the suspension of Dr. Mark Geier, a physician using a chemical castration drug to treat people with autism. Trine mentioned in the interview that she often runs passages of complex science from her articles past the scientists she had interviewed for the piece. She doesn’t do so for approval or in any way to affect the tone of her writing but rather to be sure that she has interpreted the scientific findings accurate (my words, not hers). The post was tweeted over 100 times and accumulated 110 comments from some of the top names in science journalism. A follow-up post asking for scientist’s to comment on their experiences brought further widespread interest. By and large, most journalists agreed that very cautious pre-publication consultation with scientist sources was acceptable and often necessary, but with the ground rules well-articulated in advance. Others held that fact-checking is best done by interviewing a third-party not involved in the study being reported, a practice I see often, particularly for embargoes articles that give the writer enough advance time to conduct the interviews. A vocal minority held that a journalist should never ever run any content past a scientist interview subject. The Guardian discussions Shortly thereafter, the science desk at the Guardian hosted an op-ed by chief online editor for Nature, Ananyo Bhattacharya, who strongly supported this minority viewpoint. Aptly entitled, Scientists should not be allowed to copy-check stories about their work, Ananyo suggests that the story suffers particularly in the case of highly controversial topics. Guardian writer and blogger Martin Robbins pointed out in the comments that scientists can often be as ego- and spin-driven as political figures. Yesterday, the Guardian hosted a counterpoint view from Drs. Petroc Sumner, Frederic Boy, and Chris Chambers from the School of Psychology...

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Most important lessons learned from a teacher
Oct08

Most important lessons learned from a teacher

In the current US political climate, teaching as a profession is taking a beating. I don’t quite understand how one of the most important jobs in this country, particularly at the K-12 level, is somehow perceived at the heart of our economic woes. Over at his NeuroTribes blog (mind, science, culture) at PLoS Blogs, science journalist Steve Silberman has a superb collection of science writer reflections on the most important lessons some of us have learned from teachers. I’m honored to have been invited to be in such lofty company – thanks, Steve! By the way, consider following Steve on Twitter @stevesilberman – his tweets are some of the most interesting and content-rich of any out there. All of the passages are wonderful in their own way but my favorite stories are by David Dobbs on his adulthood violin teacher and Sarah Fallon on her AP chemistry teacher. Go read and pick your favorite. My entry begins with my oft-told tale of growing up in northern New Jersey: As a gangly Polish kid in an Irish Catholic high school, I was a perennial target for physical humiliation. Being good in school didn’t help matters. But I had two science teachers whose kindness and support stay with me 30 years later. Thomas Hannan was a tall, handsome baseball coach who was also our 10th grade biology teacher. I good-naturedly taunted him by scoring a 100 on any test he could throw at us. After class one day, he offered to formalize the challenge: every time I got a 100 thereafter, he would buy a Pepsi and award it to me in class. If I didn’t, I owed him a Pepsi. I thought this was madness. I didn’t need another reason to be pushed around by the jocks. But as the baseball coach, Hannan’s endorsement became an inoculation against the thrashings that typically befell a smart kid. Good biology grades became an “in” thing. My chemistry and physics teacher, Neil Bender, was the opposite of Hannan in physical appearance — disheveled, mismatched clothes — and had a penchant for diverging into his other passion during class: movie reviews. After our first submission of chemistry lab reports, he commended us on our work but announced that one student’s work stood head and shoulders above the rest. He refused to say who until all of the cool kids badgered him for the student’s identity. As I sat in the back at the lab bench for the other outcasts, I was shocked when he revealed that I was the one with the propensity for chemistry. I was not the only one singled out by...

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Synthetic marijuana interview by Dirk Hanson, The Chemical Carousel
Sep23

Synthetic marijuana interview by Dirk Hanson, The Chemical Carousel

A hearty welcome to readers arriving via referrals from Dr. Vaughan Bell at Mind Hacks and Andrew Sullivan at The Daily Beast. We’ve been writing about synthetic marijuana science and regulation for almost two years and have been impressed by the widespread interest. For more information, click here for a handy compilation of our writing on the subject.   I’m always tickled to death to be asked to talk about natural products pharmacology and chemistry whether anyone wants to hear about it or not. So, when I was approached for an interview by science writer and author, Dirk Hanson, I couldn’t help but say, “YES!” Dirk is perhaps best known as author of the outstanding book on substance dependence, The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. I’ve come to know him through the blogosphere at his blog, The Addiction Inbox. As readers here know, working in natural products invariably brings one to the topic of drugs of abuse since many such compounds are used recreationally for their activity in the central nervous system. Dirk has also been doing a terrific job as writer and editor for a new webzine directed toward the recovery community called The Fix (“Addiction and Recovery, Straight Up”). He’s been wonderfully kind to list us here at Terra Sig on their bloglist as a source of nonjudgmental, scientifically-based information on substances of potential abuse. I was honored to be selected as Dirk’s second subject after his interview with the internationally-recognized clinical psychologist and researcher from King’s College London, Vaughan Bell. So when he asked me, I said that I’d definitely do it (but sadly put it off due to grant-writing). So without further adieu, here’s my interview with Dirk Hanson at The Addition...

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News & Observer tweet-up: my newspaper groks it
Jul13

News & Observer tweet-up: my newspaper groks it

For those of you social media butterflies, how does your local newspaper interact with you? Call me a dinosaur but I love my local newspaper. We at Terra Sig World Headquarters still get the dead-tree version on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and you’ll occasionally see me blog here and elsewhere about pharma stories I first learn from the News & Observer of Raleigh, North Carolina. Part of the reason is because it is the main newspaper of the Research Triangle region. (The Durham Herald-Sun is another, with about 1/5th the circulation, and few people know that almost all of Research Triangle Park is located within Durham County.) I like the smell and feel of a newspaper and I immensely respect those of my friends who write for the paper. As much as I get excited on days when we get over 500 visitors here, the N&O has a print circulation of 134,470 daily and 190,514 on Sunday. But in these latest numbers from May, a new print/web metric was reported by the auditing firm who compiles these numbers. The N&O reaches a combined number of 797,346 unduplicated readers as determined from the last seven days of print and last 30 days of the online version. Like most papers around the world, the online readership far outnumbers those who access the paper in print. Last night, I had the pleasure of attending the second “tweet-up” sponsored by the N&O at Sitti Lebanese Restaurant in downtown Raleigh. The paper has been committed to engaging the online community and this two-hour gathering of local Twitter users was one of those activities. Writers, editors, and advertising folks from the paper were in attendance together with some of the best-known (and not-so-known) local voices in social media. We gathered around some fabulous Sitti Middle Eastern food provided by the N&O (the chicken kabobs, falafel, and hummus were to die for) and a cash bar in the restaurant courtyard, although most folks were sucking down the ice water provided by the waitstaff in the 100F heat. I had the pleasure of talking with Senior Editor Dan Barkin and “Interactive Retail Sales Manager” Kara Bloomer about the revenue challenges of online advertising relative to print – my interpretation of our discussion is that the fragmentation of eyes online significantly reduces rates per eyeball relative to print, thereby driving down revenue from print advertising since merchant budgets are now split across the media. Regular readers may also recognize Dan Barkin’s name – he wrote a profile a few years ago on Anton Zuiker, the co-founder of what is now the international ScienceOnline science communicators conference. Dan’s tagline...

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