This week, we are going to look at the topic of science communication. If you’ve tuned in to my Research Roundup series, which can get quite science-heavy at times, you may find that it can be tough to follow along with the medical terms and jargon. Honestly, it can also be challenging for me to break down these complicated topics and make them accessible for people who have different levels of background science knowledge.
When thinking about the ‘art and science’ of communication, with science you might need to go even more towards the art - to try and bridge the gap between research and public understanding. This has always been a pain point. With the inescapable rise of social media and the big uptick in numbers of scientists and influencers in health and performance who are taking to Twitter to share their findings and thoughts, science communication has changed a lot in the last few years. It will surely continue to evolve.
I explore this hefty topic with Dr. Paige Jarreau, whose research focuses on the intersection of science communication, journalism, and new media. Along with teaching at LSU, she works at LifeOmic, a telemedicine app that aids in precision health interventions such as intermittent fasting.
Hi Paige, thank you so much for coming on the podcast today, it's really great to have you.
Yeah, thanks for having me.
No, so I'm really looking forward to our conversation. Perhaps a really good place to start would be, how did you get into science?
That's a good question. So I always loved science from when I was a little kid, although actually, one of the first things I wanted to be was writer, which was kind of telling. So I said I was going to be a writer, and then I grew up a little bit and decided I was going to be a doctor, and then my dad always read science fiction books to us when we were kids, and then I started to love science fiction, I read all of Ray Bradbury's books, and so I got into science through that fictional thinking about, I mean really the science writing side of science. But ended up studying and loving biology, and went to school for biological engineering actually, and that's really how I got into science.
So you were doing a doctoral research in biomedical engineering, is that correct? What were you researching as part of your doctoral studies?
Yeah, so I actually did start a PhD in biomedical engineering, but backed down and got a masters in it, and I was studying whether we could functionalize or put DNA like drugs onto nano particles. So very nano materials and nano drug type of research, to see if we could change gene expression through these labeled nano particles that we put DNA drugs onto.
So this is obviously a super complicated topic. How, if you sat down next to someone for a drink in the evening, how was your 30 second elevator pitch? Could you sum up that in 30 seconds for us? Then, was that part of what led you to wanting to be in science communication a little bit more?
Sure. So, for the science side I would say one really cool thing I ended up working on was the silver nano particles, and silver is obviously a metal, that if you imagine shining light on silver it does special things with the light, especially when there's a really, really small piece of it. So the special things that happened with light on a tiny silver sphere, we can use that to change drugs into being active or inactive.
So I was working on trying to put DNA drugs onto these silver nano particles and hitting them with light in a special way, that would do special things to the drugs.
Yeah, so that was kind of the elevator pitch on that. Then, as far as what got me into science communication, I was working in a masters program, actually working in a PhD program in biomedical engineering, and I missed having the big picture. I was working on tiny little pieces of a puzzle, and I really love the picture of thinking about why does this matter, and what's the next steps, and so in missing that I decided I was going to start a science blog, and really the rest is history. So I started a science blog with what was then Nature's blogging network and I was writing all about the science of science fiction films, so hearkening back to my original love of science and science fiction.
What's something that you think our listeners might be interested in, like one of the weirdest science fiction real science that you found when you were writing that blog?
I know that I started with writing about Gattaca, because that was really cool-
That's a cool movie.
Yeah, it's really cool, and it's coming back to being something that we think about now, with CRISPR and all that kind of stuff. But yeah, I think that that and the 2001: A Space Odyssey are probably the most famous examples of really good science in movies, ended up kind of predicting what would actually happen in science and tech.
Yeah, I think it's an interesting, just to spend a few minutes, so for our listeners who might not have seen the movie Gattaca, it is about this dystopian future where everyone's been gene edited, and there is this group of people that were not gene edited and they're inferior, and so it's all about finding a match with good genes, and so as Paige said, now we're at a stage where we can gene edit with this technique called CRISPR. So, do you think we'll ever get to this dystopian future like Gattaca? How good is the CRISPR technology in comparison with what we saw in that movie? And especially with the recent CRISPR baby, right?
Right. I'm not an expert on that, so I don't know if I can say as far as where we are on that, being able to do that, but I think Gattaca is a really cool movie because it goes to more than the science, it goes to the ethical and moral considerations that we have to have. So I think that is very relevant today, deciding what are our guidelines and where are the moral boundaries for this.
I guess, taking another funny little step back, I think when I came into this conversation I was thinking a lot about how as scientists we can communicate out to people who don't do science, but then what you've just said made me think, scientists don't necessarily do a good job of integrating social ethics back into their research, because this guy who recently did the first ever gene edited CRISPR babies, he stood up, it was this big controversy, and maybe he was pushing the boundaries, it didn't occur to him that people might not want this. So how, I think we'll get into this more through the conversation, but there's got to be this two way street of communication between policy makers and scientists, as well as scientists, and policy makers, and the general public as well. So it's definitely a complicated thing to try and unpick. So, when you moved, you started your science communication program. What does studying science communication look like?
Yeah. So I actually went into a program that was a mass communication PhD. So I was pretty much just started doing media and mass communication type of research and learning, but I applied it to science always. So, of course, as a mass communication PhD we had a bunch of classes where everybody always had to write blogs, where we always had to write papers, whether it was journalism class or a PR class, and I would always apply that to science through my own blog site that I was maintaining at the time. So, yeah. So I always studied how these communication principles that I was learning about, and communication theories, how could they apply to how to best communicate about science?
So do you think that nowadays so much of the science reporting is done by people who may or may not have a scientific background. What do you think should be the prerequisites for being allowed to be a science journalist and deliver that kind of message out to the population?
Yeah. I actually believe ... Being trained in mass communication and journalism, I think there's a lot of skills there that really if you do it right and you're trained in the correct way, you should be able to write about anything. So I think any journalist, even without a science background, I don't think having a science background is a requirement at all to write about science and communicate about it. I think you have to want the truth and you have to search out evidence and data. So whether that's triangulating and talking to many different scientists, relying on other experts, but in a way that you question and get different sources to give you input, with proper interviewing skills I think actually anyone can write about science, it's just being ... really wanting to get to the core of the truth of what's happening.
So you said a couple of interesting things that I'd like to go into a bit more detail. First thing is this idea of truth, and I wonder what your take is on how much nowadays want to convey the truth, or people want to get clicks, and people want to drive traffic to their articles, because nowadays every study seems to have some sensational headline that's meant to make us click on this newspaper's website, and then we're seeing their advertise ... it's like the attention market. So do you think that that's corrupting science communication, and what can we do about that?
There's a couple of things there. One is the idea that today's media landscape, I mean people aren't necessarily paying for, some people are, but largely we're not paying for hard hitting journalism. We tend to expect it for free, considering the social media landscape today, and so it's very difficult really for newspapers today to go out and do hard hitting science journalism because they're not able to pay a highly trained in science journalists to go out there and do that reporting, and they need to get views to make any kind of money for the newspaper, and so it turns into it's just what's created from the market.
So I think we all need to consider what we're paying for, and that we only get what we pay for when it comes to science journalism. I think that's why the landscape, it's become that science is trying to fill a gap. So now there's professional science communicators, and there's science outreach personnel at universities, and there's science faculty, and science researchers are taking to social media and to blogs because they see a gap and they're wanting to fill it with more evidence based information.
What do you think are the dangers of scientists having social media presences? Because I see myself that people say things on Twitter that they would never say, or never get through a peer reviewed journal, and so there's almost this higher level of science chat that goes on in journals, and then this open conversation that the public can peer in on that happens on social media, that's completely different in tone, and can sometimes be scathing, and nasty, and confusing. What's your take on the ideal way that scientists could use social media themselves?
Yeah. So, Dominique Brossard who's a science communication researcher has a good point on some of those conversations that happen in public, and for scientists to always ... I mean, the best rule of thumb is for anyone on social media, including a scientist, to realize that it's not just your peers watching what you do, even if they're the only ones following you on Twitter, that those tweets that you're writing about from your research or your methods, they actually have a much broader, I mean anyone could potentially see them. So it's really important to, in what you're saying, whether it's to another scientist or not, to think about how that could be interpreted by people who aren't your primary audience. That's basically the key factor in every social media crisis, is not considering the potential audience of what you're saying, instead of only thinking about the one person you think you're talking to or want to talk to.
For our listeners who, maybe not scientists themselves, but they're watching all of these exchanges go backwards and forwards between all the big personalities that they hear on podcasts, or that they see publish research, and they're watching, how do they unpick the difference between what people are saying on social media versus what's being said in the science and in the science literature?
Yeah, I think that's really hard and it's why it's so important, I think, for scientists to engage with the public. So going back to the question we had about do scientists consider the ethics of what they're doing? And you mentioned, or alluded to it, but is that active listening? So I'm really adamant about, I believe that scientists who are on social media should be willing to engage with anyone who asks them a sincere question. So, if there's a non scientist following you and they ask a question, I think scientists have an obligation to listen, and to engage in those conversations, not just with their peers on social media, because like you said, it's really hard when you're listening into a conversation between scientists on social media, and not understanding the context of that.
I just think it's important to have a group conversation and to communicate those, whether if you're talking about your research and research that you're doing that maybe hasn't been published yet, to have it come with caveats, and to add some context around it, even if takes a couple of different tweets. So that a lay audience, someone who's not a scientist who's following you can get the bigger picture.
It's certainly interesting to watch how it's changed over the years, how people use social media, and interesting to even reflect on how when Twitter changed their character limit, now I still see scientists that have tweets ... I read through this thread the other day, I think it was over 60 ... I didn't even read the whole thing, and was like, "Why are you not writing this on a blog? Twitter is not the medium for a 60 Tweet thing." So everyone's using it a little bit differently and trying to reach people. It definitely is challenging to try and respond to everyone that wants to weigh in on, especially a controversial topic and a thread like that, and it does seem, like with the news, with social media people try and provoke a reaction a little bit. So then you've got on the flip side the peer reviewed literature, which is much less accessible, not only in terms of the fact that a lot of it's behind a paywall, but also just the language and everything. It's not necessarily something that everyday people can engage with, but it's the more high end lofty method of science communication. So I think it might be useful if you and I could just get into a little bit of the background of peer review, and what happens when a scientist does an experiment, and how does that get into a journal. So, you've done your experiment, you've got your results, you've written a paper. What happens next?
Yeah, so, actually it varies today. I can give an example; myself and some colleagues have a paper that we're trying to get published right now, and so we did the experiment, we wrote it up, we did talk on social media about some of the general things we were finding and said, "Okay, we're going to submit this paper." And then when we did submit it, we did submit to one journal, it came back rejected. So then we changed it a little bit, and we actually put it on a pre print server, so it's a repository, or somewhere where you can go and find papers before they've been peer reviewed.
Does that effect the chance of publication? Sorry to interrupt, because I know that sometimes you have to have it be exclusive almost.
So, most journals, most journals today will accept a pre print on some of the standard pre print servers, especially ones like PLOS ONE, journals that have creative commons or more open access options, which is what we're going for. We want an open access journal. So we did publish a pre print before it has been peer reviewed, and now we're still waiting for peer review at another journal. So it means you submit to the journal, and you have other scientists basically in your field who are going to be contacted, and they're blind and so we don't know who they are, they usually don't know who we are, and then they're going to look at our paper and evaluate it and point out any errors that they want us to fix, and either accept it to the journal or reject it.
So what do you personally think of the peer review process, and you've obviously spoken to a lot of different scientists in a lot of different fields, what's the general feeling about this peer review process where other scientists look at other scientists work? Is it doing its job, is it working?
So, it's not perfect, I mean it's built on human system. It's not perfect, but it's really the best we have is getting a bunch of experts together and collectively deciding on whether a piece of research has been done correctly and not, and whether it deserves to be published or not. So I think it's super important, obviously, I don't think we can ever get away from peer review. I think that's a very, very, very important process to evaluating research that should be out there, and should be cited, and should be followed up on, but whether how we're doing it is right or not, I think there's a lot we could do to make it better. For one, scientists aren't paid or rewarded usually for doing peer review, meaning that I'm a scientist and I am asked to peer review papers, I'm not even a professor, I don't have tenure, I don't get any kind of reward for doing that.
So there's some question of how can we reward scientists for at least taking the time to do a good peer review or not, and yeah, and then now some models of open peer review. So you can ... there's even journals where you give your peer reviews and they go up like comments on a blog post. So everyone can see them, and it's called open or public peer review, and so that's another model where the question is, okay, when the authors of the paper that you're reviewing, if they know who you are, if you know who each other are and your comments are appearing where everyone can see them, maybe you take more time in developing your answers, or maybe you're a little bit kinder in how you say things and give more constructive feedback.
Yeah. I definitely agree with you that it's the best system to be working under right now, but there's definitely these flaws where you're doing it on the side, you may not be giving it enough time, you may not be an exact expert. Personally, sometimes I've been asked to review a paper and their using a technique that I'm not that familiar with, and I can't tell that easily if they've used the right technique and the right controls, and that kind of thing. So I think having a more open discussion and some accountability by having your name out there, that's probably helpful, but then also you get into this politics question about whether or not it's a competitor research group, or whether or not you personally agree with their ideas or their findings. So definitely the human factor is the challenge in what ideologically should be quite a good system.
So, you've got your paper published, it's undergone peer review, and it's in the journal, so then other scientists can find it. There's almost two questions here. Firstly, how do you make sure that other scientists find it, and read it, and cite it, and as a scientist how are you trying to optimize the science reach of your paper? And then, what about lay people? So is it then the time to get back to social media? Then should you be reaching out to science journalists? And how does sometimes a finding, especially when you look at some of these huge, huge clinical studies that show random associations between heart disease and some particular thing in the diet, and then it's this funny thing in the news the next day. How do we get from the science paper through to the message, both to scientists, and then also to the general population?
Yeah. So I think that some of those things blend together, right? There has been research that shows that with a scientists talks to, once their paper's published and they talk to a media professional about their research and they Tweet about it, that that paper then gets cited more than doing either one of those things alone.
So I think that just tells you that it's not just the regular public who's on social media. Scientists are on social media too. We see other people's papers because they Tweet about them. So social media is where we are all living, so if sharing your research on social media, or in a blog post, or talking to media professionals about it, it could reach both other scientists and non scientists alike. I think there's things that we can do to make it more accessible. I personally believe there's not really any reason to put out, say a blog post, or a lay aspect about your paper and not have it be at least accessible by scientists who aren't in your field. So there's a lot you can do to, when your paper does come out, to do the legwork and to communicate about that paper in very different mediums. So you could write a blog post about it, and going back to your point of whether you write 50 Tweets or a blog post, one of the things I tell researchers is, if you're worried that some piece of your research could be taken out of context, that's a good reason to maybe do a blog post because in that, you can write 500 words and yeah, people can read and stop reading. But it's, you could put in the context you want to put it in and at least there's some control there versus if it's a separate tweet, like the tweet could be shared and then taken out of context.
So going back to what you were just saying about ... so there scientists are seeing science through social media and I'm a scientist on Twitter, I follow a lot of scientists on Twitter and there's always paper titles and stuff. I mean it's a little bit overwhelming, trying to figure out what's actually interesting and then trying to prioritize in terms of how much time you spend reading an article. So I think, is there a danger that ... so I see someone who I kind of know and I follow and I like generally what they do. They post a paper, I click on it, I read the abstract or the conclusions or something and then I retweet it without having read the full paper.
I'm then guilty of perpetuating like, lower level of quality control and I'm just assuming that because this scientist did the work or has shared the work and that is been peer reviewed that the quality is kind of high. But do you think that bad science get more air time then it deserves because it's well promoted on social media versus good science that may not have a professor or an investigator that's really like ... Especially given, now we're in a global community, a lot of good research is coming out, outside of America or maybe even not in English as a first language, maybe from China or ... and sometimes I don't know whether you found this. You read a paper that's been written by a group in Asia and the English is really bad and that masks or clouds your perception of how good the work is. So how do you think we reconcile quality control with mass information distribution I guess is the question here?
Yeah. I think that's hard again. But I mean we know, and I'm talking to some researchers right now about doing a study on this. We know that, for example, if a research paper comes out. There's now journals are putting effort in making the author's write a layout strike, so it's not just significant abstract, just like a little accessible summary to go along with the paper. Some will even push authors to do a graphical abstract-
Yeah I love those.
To add with the paper. I believe now, after paying an artist to do an infographic about one of my papers came out and how much more that paper got shared. Now, if I have a budget, I always incorporate some amount of money to pay an artist to do an infographic when my study is finished, because I know that will help the paper get shared and get attention. So definitely, I mean investing in media and graphics, infographics, little video ... basically popular media around your research that's going to make it go further. And yeah, that's going to make go further whether it's good science or not. But at least you're getting it out there to where other people can start to evaluate it, that's why it's really important for scientist, as we're, like you said, to re-share something when you haven't read it, the best that we can do is make ourselves accountable to read the paper, really make sure that when we're sharing things that we've at least evaluated to where we think it's good science to share.
But it's really interesting, that thing you talked about with source credibility, I mean the person is everything. We follow journalist's now, that's why we follow bloggers who are scientists because we've come to trust that, well if they wrote about it, they probably did their legwork to do a good job. I know if I read an article by Ed Young, it probably had a lot of research behind it. I think that's such a bad thing, I mean source credibility, we can't get away from that, we evaluate the message by the messenger too.
No, I think that's a really, really good point. So just going to change slightly onto reading a science paper, because I think maybe you'd have some really good insights. So a lot of our listeners are not scientists, but may be interested in going on PubMed and trying to dig through some of the science literature that we might be sharing out, that kind of thing. So you click on PubMed and you get the abstract of the paper and you somehow manage to navigate your way and find the full text of the paper, there's no pay wall, you got your science paper, how would you advise someone who's not used to reading science papers to begin when they sit down with that science paper?
Yeah, good question. So if you're not a scientist, I think that a way to easily read the paper, the way I start is always by reading, try to get through the abstract and then get through maybe the first intro of the paper, usually gives background on some of the concepts that were stated in the abstract. So that introduction to the science paper is usually the most accessible and then sometimes I'll jump to the figures and the discussion. So often times, paper's will have figures that you can look and see, is there any data you can start to parse apart there. And in reading the discussion, you'll get a holistic picture. If you're not a scientist, it can be sometimes very difficult to read the method section of a paper, but that's where ... but it's important, even if you're not a scientist, there's things that could clue you in there about how much you can trust this paper.
So if you look at the methods, you should see if this is health related paper, was it done on mice, was it done on humans, is it the animal model, was it just in cells, in the cell lines in the lab. So you can start to see, at least, look for the methods for things you can understand, that tell you, what was this? Was this a clinical trial? Did it have 100 patients in it or five patients in it. Was it done in mice or humans. And those things can tell you a lot about, put context around, whether you should be ... if it's a paper about keto, whether you should be going at, following what the paper said or if it was done in an animal model and needs more research.
Yeah. One thing that I think, I mean I find overwhelming and I'm sure that just people who aren't even scientists must also find this overwhelming, is how many science papers there are around ... I mean a topic like keto is a perfect example because there's human studies with positive outcomes, animal studies with negative outcomes, there's so many different models, so many different flavors of the diet that he used, so many different durations and ultimately, you can, with some confirmation bias, you could just choose to look at the positive results. You could just choose to focus in on all the negative results. It's quite overwhelming. So the way I like to rationalize it to myself is think about bricks in a wall and you need to look and see how they're all stacking up. Where's the balance of the evidence going. But do you have any tips on how to form an opinion ... well I mean, and also as a scientist, it's almost dangerous to have a fixed opinion, you've always got to be open to changing as the evidence changes. But how do you form a stunt? So let's just say, your current thinking today is X on this topic, based on quite a lot of confusing literature. How do you prioritize sources?
And just real quick, I'm on the opinion issue. So this used to be a stance that journalists had, that like hey, we can totally remove bias and we can just say, what's the facts and we can not have an opinion on what we're writing about. It's pretty much impossible and scientists have opinions. I think it's just important to just acknowledge that and say yes, we're humans and we have opinions and we feel passionate about some of the research that we're doing. But we acknowledge that and we can set that aside when it comes to looking at data and if there's new data that comes to light, we're going to question our hypotheses and go back to the drawing board. But yeah, one thing that's really good to look for reviews. So systematic reviews, these are basically papers that someone has put together, where they look at lots of different papers in the field and they sum it up to this point. And those can be really helpful for a non-scientist because they're usually more accessibly written and that way, you get an idea of okay, 20 papers in the past found this finding, five found this and so you start to get maybe a path towards what's correct.
Another thing I didn't mention, I don't know I think it's free, but Altmetric has a little bookmark thing you can put in your browser and I love this because if you go to a science paper and you push this little button called altmetric that you put in your Google Chrome, it'll show you all of the news articles about that paper that have been written. And a good thing is to start browsing through all the headlines for those, because there are usually, let's see New York Times wrote something or the Atlantic wrote something about it. You could start to get like, okay there's other headlines here that are very different from each other on it. Start to source a bunch of different headlines around that and you can get a good idea of whether this is a controversial topic or whether everyone agrees with what's happening in the paper.
Yeah. That's a really, really great tip and something I definitely advise everyone to do and personally, I think altmetric also shows, I think it's altmetric, also shows who's been tweeting about it.
And so you can often ... so often I'll end up on there and I'll see, oh a really pro keto scientist has tweeted about it and said this and a really anti-keto scientist has tweeted about it and said that. So you can at least make sure that you read both people's comments and critiques on their article. It doesn't often help me get any closer to forming an opinion, but at least then you can tap in to make sure that you don't isolate yourself in just one school of though around a paper. So yeah, I think that's a really, really useful actionable tip that people could try to try and pass through science literature a bit more, which is definitely challenging. So yeah, we still ended up talking a little bit about keto and fasting. You're working on something really exciting in that field. Can you tell us a little bit more about it?
Yeah, so I recently became director of science communication in social media for Life Phonic. It's a health software company that's building Cloud tech solutions around precision medicine. So on one side, we're building really powerful platforms that can integrate all patient data into one place. So genomic data, electronic medical records, patient acquired data. So that researchers can basically do more precise and personalized medicine by putting all this data together and looking for trends. But as part of that, we also are building consumer facing apps. So we're building apps that people can track various different health behaviors and share that data with their physicians or with researchers. And one of the apps that we've built to kind of play around with making a health app really engaging, is an intermittent fasting app called Life Fasting Tracker.
Cool. So what does the app do? What does it look like?
Yeah. The app has really blown up, it's crazy how many ... it became much more popular than we thought it would. So it started pretty simple, with basically a timer that people can track their fasting and track their mood as their fasting. But we also incorporated what we think is really important for healthy behaviors, is we incorporated the social component. So there's a reason why people go to their social media outlets to have conversations with others because social connectedness is a really important part of our health. So we made our app social. So you can join your friends, you can create circles of people that you want to fast with. And that's been a really key part of our app is that ability to fast with friends, to share how you're doing, to give advice, to share in this experience together.
Wow, that's pretty cool. So how many users do you have right now on that app?
We have around 200,000 users of the Life Fasting Tracker, which is only in a couple months since it was launched. So it's really cool to see that and one thing that I'm doing as a science communicator, that I'm really passionate about, is building out the educational content in our app and making it very evidence based. So deciding scientific research studies, pulling in experts who have PHD's in these different areas, in metabolism and cancer research and having them write the content that goes into this app that is being used by people that definitely aren't scientists. And so I think that's a really important and innovative way that we're trying to get research out to people who are just interested in living healthier lives.
Wow, so when people are using the app you're able to update them with latest science research studies as they come out and really help them understand the benefits of what they're doing?
So we have really good open rates too when we send people out. We send them little notifications when there's a new article in our learning library. And we're producing articles that are posted at lifeapps.io. But it's all written by scientists and we sight scientific research. So we're really passionate about making that really rigorous information that's accessible. So it's definitely a balance to play there, but I think that it's really helping people that might have come to intermittent fasting through seeing a popular source that maybe wasn't so science backed. But really learning about okay, what's the science behind this. How does fasting impact my metabolism and my health.
I think that's a really interesting point. So nowadays on social media, there's a lot of people who profess, kind of give health advice, who aren't either scientists or clinicians but they have huge reach and huge following and so they're affecting what people do day to day. How important are they to the the health of our nation and how do you then start the reeducation of people who come at it from this less scientific approach?
Yeah. They're extremely important. So one of the things, I do research on the side as well, about trust in scientists. And what's really interesting I think and maybe not so much of a good thing is that scientists have a reputation for being very competent or very, we know that they're very smart, but we don't necessarily see them as extremely warm. Most people don't see them as extremely warm. It's really important when you think about a communicator, we trust communicators in our lives, so people that tell us messages, give us advice, we trust them because we think they're warm. So we think they have our values, we think they have our back, they understand what we're going through. And unfortunately, for most people scientists aren't those people.
But, they are people in their community, their neighbors, their local, maybe even local physician's, their health coaches that they've started following on social media. They trust those people. And so I think those people, whether they share good or bad information, makes a huge difference. So one of the things I think maybe we should think about as scientists is how can we reach out to those people that are having a big reach, like for example, on the fasting community and the keto community, just make sure we have open discussions with them about sharing with them the most updated science so that they can share with their followers. And coming from a stance of we really want to have a conversation with you, not that we're telling you you're doing something wrong. So instead, really having conversations.
Yes. It's a very interesting space, those two fields in particular, I spend a lot time thinking about it and recently, we were making a response video because someone had posted a YouTube video calling fasting a hoax and he was going after it in a click baity kind of way and so, we were trying to bring a bit more nuanced discussion in and around fasting. I mean, it's an interesting example, going back to what I was saying about looking at bricks in a wall. So what type of people do you think should be fasting? What's your evidence based stance on who is fasting really good for and who perhaps shouldn't be or where is there still evidence lacking? You mentioned that you've been creating a lot of content. What are you most bullish about, in terms of intimate and fasting?
Yeah, so I'm really new to the field of aging science and metabolism, so I definitely have relied on other experts that in interviews and in reading these scientific papers. So I definitely don't have all the answers, but one of the things I point out to people is just to make sure they look at, well really like human trials. So there's plenty of animal research around intermittent fasting and it's really interesting. But what has been done in clinical trials? So even most recently, yeah, and sharing some articles around prolonged fasting on our social media outlets, we've had some people say, "Oh well, we did the ProLon diet", actually recently with ProLon diet and you know it gives you some calories every day.
And people will say, "Well that's not fasting, you're eating something." But I go back to okay, in human clinical trials, if you look at any human trials and human studies around fasting, they usually and there's a reason for this because it's hard to get research participants to not eat anything for a period of time.
Almost all those studies incorporate some amount of calories per day. So alternate day fasting, it's been studied and it's usually under 500 calories a day. But if we look at how intermittent fasting has been studied in trials, it usually is some amount of calories at some portion of the day. And so I think it's just important to always go back to, what do we know about what works and what doesn't work in humans and what do we not know. So we know a lot about alternate day fasting and what fasting can do for lipid levels and some things like that. But there's other things where we have to do experiments in animals to look at underlying mechanisms of fasting. So I think it's just really important to, first of all, talk to a physician. Second of all, consider the safety of what you're doing and that goes back to what feels good for you. I think people should be doing fasting in ways that make them feel better, certainly not making them feel symptomatic in a negative way from fasting.
For sure. And do you think now you've got this really big user base in the app and you mentioned that you're going to be feeding that back into doctor's notes and also into research. Have you got any aspirations to run or be part of clinical trials of fasting yourself?
Not you personally, but you as the group in the app?
Oh yeah, I think that's one thing that we're super excited about. So one thing to just point out for people that are running our app now, the Life Fasting Tracker, we're super, super strict about personal health information and not showing people's data. So we're HIPAA compliant and Hydra certified on our Cloud platform side. So people's data is not shared if they don't want it to be. So right now we don't collect any data for research, but with our new app, Life Extend, that's coming very soon, people will be able to, when they join the app, they'll be able to say they want to be research participants. So they'll be able to say, yes, we want to share our data for research. And in that app what we're super excited about, we'll be tracking fasting too, about asking people to participate in some research studies where we can do maybe some observational studies ourselves about when people fast, what other health behaviors are changing, what outcomes are they reporting, their mood. You know, simple things like weight but also more complicated things like other health outcomes.
Especially if you have a platform that integrates all of those things at once, it's like super powerful. One of the studies that I enjoyed the reading the most over the last year or so is an app that had a little graphic on it that showed where you ... all you did was input if you were eating something. And so, they had, over the 24 hours, you could see everyone's eating incidences throughout the day and that for the first part of the study, it was just like mark whenever you eat. So people would just sort of like, eating in the night, eating really early in the morning, like eating all over the place. And then, the researchers put a little box on this graphic and they were like, only eat when it's in this eating window. So it's a way of compressing people's eating windows. And they, I think they did some health metrics before this stage, looked at when people are eating, confined their eating windows and then redid the health metrics and they could show really powerfully that people were pretty good at getting their eating windows in this little box and actually made some positive differences to their biomarkers. So I think, actually like telemedicine in figuring out ways to make it engaging could be really, really powerful because it brings power into people's own patterns and people can really take control of their health.
Yeah, that's one of the things that we're super passionate about, is giving that ... and it kind of goes back to health and science communication, is unfortunately, I think it's super unfortunate that a lot of people that participate in research and clinical trials, never get the results communicated back to them.
If they participate and then it's over and maybe they go something official, maybe they benefited in some way in terms of their health from participating in the research, but otherwise, it's doesn't come back full circle. And so, that's one thing we'll definitely be doing, is anyone who does research with us- So that's one thing we'll definitely be doing, is anyone who does research with us ... And I'll personally be helping ... I would love to help train scientists who are working with us in science communication, and helping them close that loop and communicate back with the patient, sharing graphs of how they're doing, communicating results of the overall trial when it's finished. Like you said, that piece of ... Thing, your meeting window into this little box, I mean, that's a very visual thing. Anything you can give back to the person who's using this app, that's engaging visual tool can help them better understand what you want from them and how they can better be helping themselves through their health. Then the outcomes of some kinda research they participated in.
Think a lot of these things probably feed into why people don't trust scientists. 'Cause reflecting on when I've run experiments myself and I mean I didn't run big clinical trials or anything like that but you're also pushed for them and then also once you finish the research, the analysis and the write up and the publication, all of this delays things. Then also there's ethics around whether or not you should be keeping people's contact details after the study. So I mean I guess in an ideal world like you're saying, you would finish the study and you would have a mail list, private mail list so people can see one another, but obviously you'd just send out the paper if it was published. But maybe not all research is published as well so there's problems there about really managing to close that loop up. So people signing up for clinical studies may or may not get the results at the end. Then also during the study there, you have to depersonalize things a little bit. People sometimes, they're blinded to the ... more often than not and for a good clinical trials people are blinded to the intervention that they're receiving. So you can see why people don't trust scientists 'cause they're like, here take this and I'm not gonna tell you ... it's all very clinical. That's the way it is mandated for the ethics board. So how do you think that we could work within good ethical guidelines for doing these experiments but engage the people who are doing the experiments better?
Yeah. That's a really good question. I mean obviously the safety of the research participants and their outcomes first and then securing their personal data. But I personally think there's great ways that we could, in no way move into the space of problematic issues with ethics and with people's contact information, but still close that loop. So even for example, if someone participates in a research study and maybe some of my research studies in social sciences is a bit easier, but you could maybe even have a newsletter at the end where they could sign up and it's a totally different contact form. They could just sign up for some kind of communications to come at the end of the study. It's really nice in the platform like what we have, at LifeOmic where we have an app connected to people's health information in a very secure network, is that we can very securely push other recommendations and information back to them at the end of the study while being constrained and being well within ethics requirements and that kinda stuff.
But so I think there's plenty of ways where scientists, whether it's like we have a blog to talk about what happens at the end of the study and we make sure people could sign up to follow it while they're signing up for the research study. I mean there's plenty of ways where if we think about, you have to think about the communication up front. That's the problem. So a lot of scientists and researchers, they're thinking about doing their research and at the end when it's published they're like, "Okay now what do we do to communicate about this?" I think that's the problem is needing to think about the communication part before you even do the research up front. How are we gonna close the loop and have this really help people?
Yes. A challenge and I hope, I think that the younger generation of scientists are starting to become more attuned to it. 'Cause I mean we grew up in this era where social media is now just the way that everyone communicates, the way that everyone lives. Like you said, at the very start. So maybe we'll start ... I mean I'm sure there's gonna be hits and misses in how this goes but hopefully it'll become increasingly a force for good in science communication. Sort of on that note, I'd love to give you a chance to talk a little bit more about the scientists whose selfie company you run.
I saw that. It looks really cool. Tell us about what sparked you to do it and what the outcomes were.
Yeah. So that was a really fun, super fun study because I came at it from I just wanted to do some research that involved Instagram because I did my whole dissertation around science blogging. So how science bloggers, what their practices are and I talked to a bunch of science bloggers. I was like, that's cool. I know tons about science blogging but I wanna research a really cool new medium. Let's do Instagram. So I thought about what could I research that involves Instagram and at the time when I was thinking about what could I do with Instagram for a social science study, I saw a video where Susan Fisch was talking about some of her research where she studies stereotypes very classically. But she had a particular study where she was looking at stereotypes of scientists and it was that stereotype I talked to you about, about scientists being perceived as very competent. So very intellectual, smart, capable of achieving their goals, but not necessarily very warm. That means not very friendly, not necessarily being seen as extremely moral. Not seen as having your back, sharing your values.
So I was like that's really interesting. Thinking about Instagram and thinking about visualizing science, what if you saw a friendly face on a scientist? I mean you don't normally see scientists' faces. We don't see them in the lab being human beings. So could putting a very friendly face on science make people change their stereotypes about who a scientist is, what a scientist does and the fact that a scientist might look like you and share your interests and your values? So what we did with the scientist's selfie project, we decided we were gonna do an experiment and definitively look at people's perceptions of what they saw scientists' selfie or their portraits on Instagram versus if they just saw the scientist sharing a picture of a microscope or a picture in their lab. And how that changed people's perception of scientists.
So did you have to concent people to take part in this research and that kinda thing? Was it like a full blown-
Yeah. Of course. So we did an experiment where it was very confined in the lab and then on an online survey experiment. So we got real scientists to help us take pictures and contribute to our experimental stimulus. Then we did the classic, IRB or institutional review board ethics committees to give us research participants. But yeah so then we were just basically bringing people into a lab or giving them a survey online and saying, hey look at these pictures of scientists that was either pictures of science itself, like microscopes and stuff, or pictures where you could see the scientist's face. Then tell us what you think about scientists in general. Do you think these people are very warm and competent? What are your perceptions of these people?
Wow. So what were the results? Did it make a difference?
Yeah. So both in the lab study and in the online survey experiment we actually had a US representative sample of people looking at those pictures, which is pretty good for social science research 'cause we had some good funding. We found that when people saw pictures of scientists' faces ... so the pictures were very controlled. Let's say it's a microscope and then you would see the part that it was the same exact picture but the scientist was now, you could see their face in the picture. When people did see those self portraits of scientists, they not only thought those people were more warm, more friendly and evaluated them more positively but it also transferred to the stereotypes of scientists in general. Some of them we asked them what do you think, are scientists generally warm or are they generally competent? We asked them a bunch of different words associated with scientists and people, these kinda positive views of the scientists in these portraits made people change their stereotypes about scientists.
So wonder whether alongside the graphical abstract people should also, you should also have to put a selfie in every time that you publish a science article. That would make it ... well I don't know. I feel like that would get me past the first page of a paper maybe a little bit. Draw faces on the ones you don't like.
I mean think about that, we should add in selfies to the abstract.
Well I know that I saw a paper recently where one of the investigators, I don't know I can't remember which journal it was, but they had profiled one of the scientists. 'Cause I think he was a young investigator. He'd won some award but as part of the publication it was a little mini profile picture and a few sentences about one of the researchers. It definitely, I don't know, it just humanized the paper. I don't know, just somehow it made it a little bit more accessible. And if that's for me as a scientists I feel like that would be quite a good bridge to continue to break down the walls between the people sitting in their research orgs and the people kind of at home on the internet trying to learn things for themselves.
Yeah. That's awesome. I would think ideally, that humanizing would help people think hey I'll reach out to this scientists. I'll ask them a question. I'll engage in conversation and tell them what I think about their research and start to close that loop of public participation research. And help people see, especially I think when the scientist shows their motivation. Like hey I'm doing this research 'cause I mean I care about humanity. I wanna help people live healthier. I think sharing our motivations for what we do is super important.
Yeah. I think so. I think the challenge is though how do you integrate all of the different questions. I agree with you that I want people to be able to reach out and ask questions but just like finding a certain scientist, and I don't know how it is always here in the US, but in the UK you might be running research, teaching. You might be doing a million different things and peer review as well, doing your community service there. Then trying to find time to respond to everyone's questions as well might be kind of challenging, and opinions. So I wonder if there'd be a way to integrate and, I don't know, maybe if there was almost a service for scientists where I could integrate all the questions that you get on Twitter and you could do .... Something that we do here is we put out a call sometimes for ask me anything and we'll pick the top sort of five of those. So maybe sort of trying to force people to communicate in a bit more of a set time window might make it something. 'Cause otherwise I think scientists can be kind of overwhelmed by all of the things that they're trying to do, especially when you're going grant, research grant. Research grant is not always a lot of stability and so you probably need to figure out ways to build in communication in ways that are doable for you as a scientist as well.
Yeah. That's a super good idea. I'm definitely not blind to this problem that scientists have way too much to do and we're asking them to do just more and more. So I think that's where we need to show support for scientists, whether that's every science lab should have funding to have a communications professional or a student who could do some communications for the lab. I mean there's ways to incorporate this into our grants and into what we do but it's gonna take some structure too.
I think that's a great idea. I think it would be so good if it was mandated in the same way that you have someone that manages your supplies and all of that. Or maybe that you have someone who's also responsible for maintaining good lines of communication about the research output of that lab. I mean maybe even for a whole department. But it'd be good if that person was quite woven into the fabric of the labs so they understood the scientists and how the research was happening and could give a good account of that. Because I think you're right. The scientists are stretched right now. You're gonna get bad research if we don't figure out ways to manage the load of expectation that there is on them. One thing, and this is kind of a little bit of a hop but kind of related, I wanna finish up by talking a little bit about women in science 'cause it's something that I think about a lot. Women in science, you've got all of these things that you're trying to do plus maybe also extra responsibilities around childcare and, I don't wanna go too much into women versus men childcare. But what do you think stops women from progressing too far down the tenure track or why are women still so underrepresented at the higher levels in terms of academics?
Yeah. This a really sticky problem and I wrote about some of this in, I wrote really a blog post on my own blog, on From the Lab Bench about being female in science. It's gotten a lot of views and a lot of really good feedback from women in science talking about how those things effect them. It's really about micro aggressions, the fact that today there's not explicit things that say you can't be a scientists, that's told to young women. That science isn't for them or I mean there's stories sometimes. But there's usually not very external things we can really grab ahold of in terms of discrimination. But it almost makes it harder because you can't, those things ... people know that they can't have explicit harassment and discrimination but then there's all kinds of things that come in that don't get the attention.
Like just small things that are said in the workplace or structural things that don't allow women to take enough time off that they need and that hurts them when it comes to getting tenure in a short window when they might be trying to have families. So yeah, there's all kinds of stuff. The problem is it's all the way along. So in some fields there's less women going into science and then if they do go into it there's discrimination that happens along the way that kind of at each stage, especially up to the leadership, women get less and less well represented. So especially at the leadership level, because if you don't have these women leaders advocating for to help women get along that pathway, like along the pipeline, it really breaks down. So I think we need more women in leadership positions in science so that we can change some of the policies that we don't realize are holding women back because it's not giving them things they need in their early careers to make it all the way through into leadership positions.
One thing that you said throughout the podcast that's really striking is that people don't see scientists as warm. Do you think if there were more female scientists that that might shift a little bit? 'Cause I don't wanna go too much into stereotypes but women stereotypically are really good, better communicators and warmer or maternal or some of these things that might make science as a whole profession a little bit less standoffish.
Yeah, no. 100%. So I mean that's one of the things we incorporated into our research is that we looked at female versus male scientists. Female scientists in these self portraits were by far perceived as most warm and most influenced stereotypes. So absolutely. But there's a bunch of problems there, even when it comes to even if women are equally represented in some field of science, maybe we say undergrads for biology students.
Yeah that's the classical example, isn't it?
There's still the leadership still, it doesn't go all the way up to let's say academically just in the institution. But even then their representation in the media. So even if there were equal numbers of women in science right now, they're not as well represented in the media. They're not quoted as often. They're not as visible. So that's a problem too when that comes to that trust in scientists. Yeah. It's a big problem.
Well I mean hopefully people like you and me getting out there and chatting to one another and doing good blog posts and good podcasts, hopefully people will continue to see more and more women out there doing really good sciences and hopefully that will feed back into the younger generation and people, young women, will be inspired to get into science and stay in science. And maybe if people felt like they could make a difference in science ... it was funny I think at the very start you were saying you were interested in doing medicine for a period of time. I actually started doing medicine myself. I think what's attractive about medicine is people wanna make a difference. So I think as science communication gets better and as there are more women in science, young women but also young people generally will see that you can make a difference in science and it's not just being up in this little ivory tower preparing away and working out abstract things. If there's clear paths from lab bench to translation in some way, then maybe more and more people will be inspired to get into and stay in science. And then the communication piece, just making it more accessible and will be a smoother pipeline.
Yeah. I know for the article I wrote about these, my progressions that women in science experience. One of the things I talked to quite a few grad students who talked about joining a specific lab, not just because the PI, the professor in their lab was a woman, but because she shared her kind of work/life balance. She shared what it's like to leave every day by 3:00 PM to get her kids or she shared the struggles and how she got to work/life balance. To these young female students, that was super important to them. They joined this lab because, I think most young women, we realize that these women who are superstars and they just seem like they're all career driven and just doing amazing things, they're not necessarily the most counter stereotypical examples. They're not necessarily the people who inspire us. Sometimes that can actually be intimidating. But then as women we feel this need to present ourselves as it's easy for us and we are superstars and we have it all figured out. I think admitting the struggles there actually is more inspiring to young women that like, hey look I don't have to be a genius. I can have a family, I can do all these things and still be a scientist.
Yeah I think that's really important. It's almost like I don't know whether you've heard of the imposter syndrome where people are kind of like, oh I'm just putting up this front but I'm not really that competent. But everyone on the outside is just seeing the front and it's sort of this circle that perpetuates where you need to achieve to prove to yourself that you're not an imposter and then you get there and there's a next thing and the next thing and the next thing. I think that women are particularly susceptible to this circle of feeling like an imposter. I think having more accessible and honest role models or being able to have those conversations where you can take your guard down and be like, hey I worked really hard to get here and it's not all been plain sailing. There are some days where I have 10 plates and then they all come crashing to the floor. That kind of honesty and humanity will definitely be an important part of convincing people to trust in themselves and commit to a career path that can seem maybe a little bit less certain and laid out for them than others. But it sounds like you have all of this really great info on your blog so as we're wrapping up, can you just tell listeners where to find you if they wanna read some more about what you've been up to?
Yeah. So on the science communications side I have a blog called From the Lab Bench, 'cause I went from the lab bench to communication. That is where you can find all of my blogging around science communication. Then nowadays I'm blogging mostly at lifeapps.io. That's where I do all the blogging around fasting and metabolism and all kinds of science stuff.
Gonna finish up now. Thank you so much for giving us your time. I could've talked to you for like at least another couple of hours. Hopefully we'll be in touch more as you're bringing out these exciting telemedicine apps. It's really fascinating. So have a lovely afternoon. Speak to you again.
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