Science, alone, cannot resolve the Ebola crisis

22 Sep

When I first set out to write this article, I was hoping to write about the science – the science behind potential treatments, research going from bench to bedside, the importance of clinical trials.

But, this is not what this post will be about.

At the time this article is written, Ebola is raging through West Africa. So far, 4872 cases have been reported, and 2445 have died because of Ebola.

Ebola epidemic is the largest, and most severe, and most complex we have ever seen in the nearly 40-year history of this disease…No one, even outbreak responders, (has) ever seen anything like it.

– Margaret Chen, WHO Director General

Now, much of the early attention has been on the science. What is Ebola – and why isn’t there a cure? What kind of potential treatments are available? All great, because people should learn about Ebola. But little has been discussed about how it got to the point it is right now.

So if this is not about science, what is it about?

I could only imagine how I would feel in that situation, watching others get sick and die, wondering if I would be next. Then I considered the deplorable conditions — no visitors were allowed, and a bucket served as a bathroom — and how I, wearing my protective ‘spacesuit’, must have looked to the curled man. The idea of becoming sick with Ebola in Sierra Leone frightened me.

– Daniel Kelly, wrote about his experience interacting with Ebola patients

It is about the long-term distrust between the developing and developed worlds, the uneven distribution of wealth and resources, the unsettle political situations in parts of Africa, the lack of local research and healthcare infrastructure.

It is about not even receiving the basic supportive care, which could make a significant difference in the outcome of an infection.

It is about assuming that everyone in this world “should have known better” but forgetting that not everyone has the same access to resources, information, health care, and education that we in developed countries do.

It is about the developed world profit from the natural resources and cheap labours in Africa, and then say “hey, this crisis is not scary until it hits our homes.” Because, until then, it is their problems, not ours.

We clearly have the power to care. The #IceBucketChallenge raised hundreds of millions for ALS research. The iPhone launch had people lining up outside of the Apple Stores for days. Yet, the Ebola crisis seems to have taken a back seat in most news coverage since the very beginning.

I am hoping that the tide is changing. Starting from more people calling for international actions. Starting from developed countries realizing that everyone is affected by this. Starting from WHO and UN taking a real leadership role in this crisis because it needs to be done. Starting from more first-hand stories from those in the middle of this outbreak, like this, this, this, and this PBS documentary.

But more importantly, I hope we will start to change. That we will start to think about crises like this as crises for all; we are simply lucky enough to be born in the developed world, to have access to health care, to have years of education – privileges that not everyone in this world gets to enjoy. And that sooner or later, this crisis is going to affect us all – not just public health-wise, but also politically and economically – no matter where we are. I just hope that more people won’t have to die for it.

Science, alone, cannot resolve the Ebola crisis. But with humanity, we can.


Please take a moment to donate to Doctors without Borders: US link; Canada link (Note that the donations might not be earmarked specifically for the Ebola crisis. This is simply so that they can spend the money for effectively at where it is needed, including but not limited to the Ebola crisis. I am okay with that – they are probably drained by Ebola and could need funding for other important, life-saving initiatives. They also spend 80+% of their money in the field.)

Here are a few great articles I’ve come across:

This week WHO said it needs $1-billion for its Ebola work. That’s nothing more than punk change if the world cared. Canada, for example, found it could afford an average of $1-billion-plus each year of the 12-year war against the Taliban. Yet unconscionably, it’s taken until this week for the world to begin anything like a serious response to the epidemic. But in the words of Dr. Joanne Liu, international president of Medecíns Sans Frontiérès – and where would we be without MSF? – these latest contributions are “absolutely not enough.”

As if proving her point, the Harper government just announced Canada’s latest contribution to this massive emergency: $2.5-million in personal protective equipment for medical staff working in the affected areas. Maybe this was a typo. Or maybe it just doesn’t fit with the Conservatives’ pre-election strategy.

As human beings, we all hope that if we were in need of superior health care, our country and its top doctors would help us get better. We can either let our actions be guided by misunderstandings, fear and self-interest, or we can lead by knowledge, science and compassion. We can fear, or we can care.

If you have more time, check out the following collections of articles on ebola

Introducing “The Lab” – a YouTube comedy series about grad students working in a science lab

10 Sep

What can four busy graduates from the Banff Science Communications Program come up with during a random night of dinner and chats?

This. Introducing “The Lab” – a YouTube comedy series about grad students working in a science lab.

We first came up with this concept about a year ago. After the Banff program, we have all gotten really busy with our lives, jobs, or school work, but the desire to do a project together never left us. That’s when this idea came up. “How about a show like, ‘the office,’ except it is about a lab and the grad students working in the lab?”

All four of us – Suraaj, Agatha, Pam, and I – have experience working in research labs. And if you have met any of us, you would know that the idea of doing a YouTube series totally makes sense. So it started. Script writing meetings, google hangouts, edits, rewrites, …

Those who spend much of their time doing science communication know this – outside of science communication, most of us have other things going on. May it be that PhD thesis, the Post-doc fellowship, a (real?) full-time job, and maybe others. After we finished working on the script of the first few episodes, people got busy, and we all moved on.

But at some point, Suraaj continued – huge kudos to her. By the time that we got another email about this from her, it was a year later, and the scripts for a few more episodes had been written. In fact, she had started looking for actors and actresses for the show.

Unfortunately, Agatha is now all the way in Washington DC for a fellowship program. Pam and I managed to drop by and help out a little, with Suraaj (“the director”) driving the show. And this, is what we got.

So you see, this is not simply a comedy series. This show is about our passion for science communication. This show is about moving on to better things. This show is about sticking to your guns to make something happen. This show is about, on a random night when the 4 of us got together, catching up and talking about science communication. This is what it is about.

Okay, I think I am romanticizing this too much. You can watch the first episode below. Make sure to subscribe to the YouTube channel, to “like” it on Facebook, or to follow it on Twitter. New episodes come out on Wednesdays until Halloween.

(By the way, I will have a little cameo in the show. Make sure to watch all the episodes to find me! Feel free to let us know what you think of the show. And, *screams* man does it feel good to see my name on the screen! :D)

From IFLScience to Vaccination

9 Sep

Recently, an article in the Columbia Journalism Review about “I F*cking Love Science” (IFLS) founder Elise Andrew (@Elise_Andrew) stirred up some controversies (see postscript). In the article by Alexis Sobel Fitts (@fittsofalexis), Andrew was praised for being one of “journalism’s self-made digital-era brands.”

If she isn’t already, Andrew is poised to be a new type of media superstar.

I will admit that I am not a fan of IFLS. I started out as one though – I enjoyed the quick wits by Elise Andrew and by the page’s followers, the interesting bite-size science, and some incredible photos as well as funny comics portraying the lives of scientists. I was also very impressed by how fast the number of followers increased. Despite some criticism about people loving pretty pictures and not actually science, I do think that science could start out from an inspiration – a photo, a quote, a story. And, for once, science get to ride to social media wave to reach a larger crowd.

The love faded very quickly though. More than once when I thought about sharing the images, I noticed that some of the images don’t have their sources listed. As a blogger, this is not the standard that I would have allowed on my own blog. I thought that perhaps I was just being too cautious myself, but later on this was rightly pointed out by a few fellow science artists; Alex Wild in particular wrote on his blog, “Facebook’s “I F*cking Love Science” does not f*cking love artists.” The attention caught on, some images were then credited (although this is far from the end of the story – see here and here).

With the strong number of followers, IFLS started a website; writers were recruited, and they began curating articles for the site and for sharing on the Facebook page. Although, occasionally, the titles of some articles would hit a (bad) nerve for me, like:

But, what frustrates me more about IFLS is probably the following – its handling of the vaccination topic.

(Full disclaimer: I get my flu vaccine every year, I was vaccinated per schedule thanks to my parents, and when I travel to a foreign country I make sure to get the appropriate vaccines. If I have kids in the future, they WILL be vaccinated. So you know my stance. And this is what I think of Jenny McCarthy)

There is no denial that vaccination is a tricky topic – one of those that can backfire very easily if thoughts are not put into its communication. In 2012, a study by Cornelia Betsch and Katharina Sachse showed that telling parents “there is no risk” instead of “there are some risks” actually works against parents’ intent to vaccinate their children. Another study published earlier this year (original scientific article here is paywalled, but you can find the pre-print here) by political scientist Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College with colleagues showed that the common tactics used by US CDC (and also in many discussions about the importance of vaccination) – including providing information about the lack of evidence connecting MMR and autism, explaining the risks involved in not vaccinating one’s children, showing an image of a very sick child, or supplying a dramatic narrative – actually are rather useless in convincing parents to vaccinate their children. What’s more, some of these interventions backfired.

Likewise, while Disease images did not have a significant effect on MMR side effects, it did increase beliefs that vaccines cause autism (AOR=1.47, 95% CI: 1.02 to 2.13), though the effect was not distinct from the other risk interventions (F(2, 1734) = 0.96, n.s.).

In addition, our results demonstrate the importance of measuring beliefs and behavioral intent when assessing health interventions. Corrective information about the disproven vaccine-autism link significantly reduced misperceptions, but also reduced intention to vaccinate among parents with the least favorable vaccine attitudes. If we had not measured intent, we might have missed a potentially dangerous backfire effect.

(By the way, this article in Journalist’s Resources covers the study very well, with additional readings as to why this is happening)

Most news coverage painted a rather gloomy and negative picture (here, here, and here), although I would really like to think that it simply means we need to find other ways to communicate the issue – such as the one suggested by Alyssa Rosenberg at Washington Post, “How can we convince parents to vaccinate? Acknowledge their fears” (which is supported by this small qualitative study). Or maybe we should enforce the message with positive imagery as suggested by Glendon Mellow (@FlyingTrilobite). And, there are some preliminary results suggesting that a different way of framing the issue might actually be helpful. Anyways, there are many interesting questions here, and I hope to see a major study in the future.

Now, back to IFLS.

Everytime it comes to the topic of vaccination, it comes out as a sarcastic talk down to the so-called anti-vaxxers (btw a term that I don’t like – you can ask me why in the comments). While I agree that it is frustrating to have heard from some of those who are against vaccinating their children, in the end some are actually parents who are concerned about their children’s health – and genuine concerns are not something I feel we should make fun of.


Images of sick kids


Articles with sarcastic titles, such as this one (by the way, the same CDC press release mentioned in this article was covered in May already by IFLS except its title did not have “Thanks to Anti-Vaxxers”).


And posting articles telling parents that they are lied to (back to what we talked about regarding “corrective information…”)

My point is, if doing all these will make those who decide not to vaccinate their children change their minds, then fine. But this is obviously not working – as Elise herself (or the poster) commented on the Facebook page,

Every time I post about vaccines, I receive hundreds of comments and emails accusing me of being paid by pharmaceutical companies.

Worse yet, based on the available research, it might be turning parents away from vaccinating their children.

I will admit that IFLS is not the only site/person communicating the issues around vaccination in such a negative, condemning way. But, its ability to reach a large crowd is something that is more concerning than two people fighting about this in a bar. The fact that IFLS has a reach to a large following of general science enthusiasts (who might hold diverse thoughts about vaccination), and the fact that it positions itself as a page about “science”, means that it has a responsibility to treat the communication of issues around vaccination with care. IFLS or Elise Andrew could have a very strong stance regarding vaccination, or think ill of the anti-vaxxers, but ultimately yelling, sarcasm, talking down, or scaring the hell out of parents will not achieve the goal of getting more children vaccinated. It simply pushes those parents who do have genuine concerns about vaccines away, and removes the opportunity for a conversation (I quite like what Ben Anderson says in his post, “A tale of two Facebooks” – excellent quick read).

Perhaps, some suggestions from Brian Martin in his post, “Why do some controversies persist despite the evidence?” (originally posted in the Conversation, and interestingly, re-posted by IFLS themselves), could shine some lights:

If new evidence seldom makes a difference in a controversy, what does?

Rather than trying to convince die-hard opponents, it is usually better to take the argument to those whose views are less set. Some people are open-minded and willing to listen. It is also important to speak to people’s values rather than assume that facts speak for themselves.

Behaving in an honourable way can be important. Making derogatory comments about opponents may seem justified and effective, but it can create an image of nastiness and intolerance.

Observers may respond to behaviours, such as debating style, as much as to the arguments. Challengers to orthodoxy need to appear sensible and credible and defenders of orthodoxy need to appear tolerant and fair.

Sometimes, when debates are interminable, it is worth thinking about alternative options. If fluoridation of public water supplies is perpetually debated, then it might be better to sidestep the debate and advocate voluntary measures such as fluoride toothpaste and mouthwashes.

Not every debate has such alternatives, however.

It is wise then to better understand what is driving those on the other side, and to treat them as thinking, caring individuals with a different set of values and a different way of looking at the world.

Indeed, if you are not already involved as a partisan, it might be worthwhile trying to arrange a friendly discussion. Rather than castigating opponents, it is possible to learn about them and from them.


Postscript: This is not exactly on topic for this post so I didn’t elaborate on this earlier, but here are some great reads regarding the controversy about Elise being the cover story of Columbia Journalism Review.

Columbia Journalism Review posted Alexis’ response to the criticism, which in my opinion made things worse. Read the comment by Jenny Morber (@JRMorber), which really resonates with me.

Everyday Science: How to know if your batteries are dead or alive

8 Sep

Running an outreach program, one of the tasks that I get to ask my student assistant to do is to clean up the outreach lab after we run a month of summer camp activities. This involves putting supplies back to their boxes, updating the inventory list so that I can find things around, sharpening all the colour pencils, and…checking whether the batteries are dead of alive. We order batteries in bulk for many of our hands-on electronics activities, and at any given time we probably have 100+ batteries in storage…

Obviously, our go-to is the multimeter (given that it is a physics lab…) and we go by the voltage of each battery, one by one. However, a friend of mine (Thanks Jone!) sent me the following video – a easy way to check batteries, and a bit of science (dare I say physics?) behind it.

(it’s an old video from 2013, but was recently picked up by Lifehacker)

Well, guess this will be a standard video that I will use as part of my student assistant training…!

Within and Beyond Academia – Science Communications Intro for Graduate Students

22 Aug

Natasha and I had often chatted about me running a science communication workshop/presentation for graduate students in the department. A few months ago this became a reality – and it worked quite well since there had been some interests among the students to learn about career paths alternative to an academic one.

I put together a fairly short presentation for this purpose. The idea is to talk about the changing landscape of science communication, and to bring a little bit of social sciences into the picture, as the study of science communication often falls into social sciences – and not easily within the reach for science students.

You can go through the slides below via SlideShare. Alternatively, you can also download the high quality pdf through UBC cIRcle (thanks for UBC cIRcle for hosting the presentation!).


I was quite relieved to see many graduate students in the room (Apparently I was competing against an Astronomy talk that offered free pizzas!!). The presentation itself was only about 30 minutes, and we spent another 30 minutes having an open discussion about science communication. A few interesting questions were brought up. For example, some wonder if it was a smooth switch for me to go from graduate studies/research to science communication. The answer to that was no – you can read all about this in my earlier post. Another student asked if she needs to use Twitter, considering all the recent focus on social media and online communications. I personally don’t think everyone needs to use all channels, but it is important to try a few out and see what works for you. There are also a lot of in-person outreach opportunities that have been overlooked now because everyone is going online. In any case, it is useful to have a landing page/online profile where you can showcase what you have done.

Last but not the least, we chatted about whether it is easier to find a job in science communication. Just because it is an alternative to an academic career doesn’t mean that it will be easy. Some institutions don’t even have such positions, so it is up to you to pitch this to institutions and to convey why science communicators are needed. In the end though, it really comes down to whether you are passionate about it, and whether you are good at it – a lot of soft skills are involved here. Natasha also brought up another point – a good science communicator in physics and/or astronomy is likely higher in demand compared to one is other fields of science; I think it is mostly because some of the concepts in physics and astronomy are more abstract and more difficult to explain, so having that background is definitely a plus.

After the presentation, I was approached by a graduate student about the possibility of me starting a department blog. He was very interested in writing, but found the idea of maintaining a personal blog is just a bit too much for someone who is trying to wrap up PhD. I think a department or an institutional blog is a great idea, not just because it will showcase the work done by the department, but also provide an opportunity for students in the department to put together a “writing sample” for the future. Right now, I do have 3-4 graduate students interested in this, but I think it will take more people in the dept interested before I jump into this. I am also going through all the points mentioned by Matt Shipman in his article, Institutional Blogging: Do You Really Want to Do This?  I shall continue to contemplate what he discussed…to start an institutional blog or not…

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