Ross is a final year student of Biochemistry at Trinity College Dublin. Earlier this year he participated in the science communication competition "Famelab", placing 3rd in the National Final for his talk entitled, "What does it mean to be you?". This summer he completed an internship in the Asset Strategy and Sustainability section of Irish Water. Lablinn interviewed him about studying biochemistry, bringing science to the public and vaccine scares.
1. Why did you choose Biochemistry? What are your interests within it and outside science?
The strange thing is that I almost didn’t choose Biochemistry, I very nearly specialized in Plant Sciences or Environmental Sciences instead. I’ve always been interested in environmental issues and the negative impact we’re having on our world. It was a huge dilemma for me at the time, and I felt like two parts of my personality were pulling me in two different directions, whether to study things at a macro level or a micro level. Ultimately, I chose Biochemistry because it’s the foundation for molecular biology. It’s not too niche, and gives me plenty of options in case I do change my mind and would rather do something that looks at things at a more “high level”.
Biochemistry’s so broad that it encompasses many different fields and a lot of exciting research. Take gene editing and CRISPR for example. CRISPR is something that’s rapidly developing and improving, its clinical applications could be paradigm shifting and it’s making the idea of a “designer baby” into something very tangible and very possible. However, it brings with it so many moral and ethical conundrums, which makes it a really interesting time to be following its journey. In a similar vein because it’s still so new, cancer immunotherapy is a proving to be a really promising area. It feels like we’re finally on track to a specific treatment for cancer, rather than the “throw mud at the wall and see what sticks” approach. But it’s just not quite there yet, it doesn’t always work, it’s not always applicable and it’s incredibly expensive. So overall there’s a lot of cool concepts that are coming over the horizon and it’s a great time to be in a STEM field and watch their story unfold.
Outside of science I love reading, binging Netflix and taking care of my rapidly growing collection of plants (15 succulents and counting).
2. I spotted you at Famelab. Why did you decide to do Famelab and how was your experience?
In March of last year as part of a chemistry module, I had to present to a room full of Transition Year students about the chemistry behind mental illness. I hadn’t really done a lot of public speaking before, but the whole process of doing research, writing up a speech and getting to talk about a subject I cared about ended up being really fun. You spend so long sitting in a library, learning off lecture notes and trying to prepare for exams, that it was nice to be able to contextualize some of what I was studying. It’s all well and good learning off paragraphs from a text book, but unless you can take that, and apply it to something in the real world, then that knowledge is useless.
Admittedly, I hadn’t heard of Famelab before I got involved with it myself. I just got an email one day from DU Sci Soc, inviting me to an information evening. Having dipped my toe into science communication after the chemistry project, I went on a bit of a whim, but it ended up being one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I went through three rounds of the competition and ended up speaking in the Paccar Theatre in the Science Gallery. The first couple of heats were very relaxed, very low pressure and it was a great opportunity to see what the science communication community was like both within Trinity and in Ireland as a whole. We have a lot of passionate, talented people involved in STEM in Ireland, and competitions like Famelab give them a platform to show what they can do. It was genuinely an incredible experience, it’s a really fantastic competition and I’d strongly advise people to check it out, either to come along as an audience member, or to participate.
3. What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned about science communication?
I think the biggest thing I’ve seen in terms of science communication is that you get nowhere by being dismissive or patronising. There’s a lot of contentious issues in science media at the moment, for example homeopathy/“natural cures”, the anti-vaccination movement or climate change deniers. And while it may seem “obvious” to some people which side in each of these cases is right, taking a self-righteous “high and mighty” approach is never going to win anyone over. You can’t smugly
source a list of scientific journal articles to an anti-vaxxer and claim that you’ve won.
For a start, scientific journals are completely inaccessible and mean nothing to someone not already in a STEM field. But more importantly, the cold figures on a journal article are trying to compete with highly emotional and frightening anecdotal evidence, with a personal component that holds precedence over all else.
Despite being science communicators, we can’t just rely purely on scientific information if we want to get our message across. Yes, swapping anecdotes and personal opinions about scientific matters without hard evidence to back them up may seem naïve, but presenting papers and statistics without any empathy or willingness to connect with those on the opposite side is just as bad.
4. What do you think of the way science is portrayed in the media? Would you make any changes?
I think we live in a world of clickbait headlines, there’s no denying that. There’s a tendency nowadays to read a headline but not an article. We want to be able to receive and process our information quickly, and unfortunately this results in the loss of discussion and nuance. On Facebook every day there are headlines which say things like, “Does X food give you cancer?”. These articles condense a conclusion from a study down into a provocative headline so that they generate page clicks. It’s unfortunate, but we’re in a position where any genuine science communication has to adapt to compete with this. Yes, there are cases where a general audience is willing to embrace longer-format scientific media (Planet Earth II springs to mind). But in a lot of cases these are already-established brands or are trying to appeal to an audience already invested in STEM matters.
Science media is facing a problem where audiences want an overview of a topic in short snippets of information, but this can prove challenging for larger, more complex issues. However, non-traditional avenues such as YouTube have given creators a new platform to get their message across. Channels such as TED, SciShow, Kurzgesgat – In a Nutshell or CGP Grey produce consistently high-quality videos on informative and relevant scientific matters on a regular basis. Their production qualities are always impressive, yet the videos are short enough to be easily digestible. While a modern audience might not be willing to sit and watch an hour-long episode of an unknown science television show, they will watch a five/six minute video. In an age where information must be quick and digestible, YouTube videos allow science concepts to be explained in an accurate, yet accessible format. While in the past, trusted science communicators such as David Attenborough, Bill Nye or Carl Sagan won the respect of the general public through television, perhaps moving forward, more focus and funding needs to be channelled into creating online content instead.
5. What do you think causes anti-science sentiment as is seen in the anti-vaccination movement, not just across the Atlantic but in Europe and in Ireland?
The anti-vaccination movement is something that’s ridiculed among the scientific community, but as I’ve said earlier, this ridicule only worsens the problem. You can’t underestimate the emotional component that comes with concerns over vaccines. If you’re a parent whose child has been diagnosed with autism, it is understandable that you may be confused, or wonder if there’s something you could have done to prevent it. However, while there seem to be both genetic and environmental components involved, the unfortunate truth is that at present, we don’t fully
understand what causes autism. An absence of answers from the medical and scientific community leads to anger and frustration. A quick Google search yields a myriad of parents in similar situations, angry at their child's diagnosis*, with the blame focused on the most recent major medical change in their child’s life, vaccination. Anecdotal and personal stories about how vaccines allegedly affected
the lives of young children prey on the fears of new parents. We don’t see diseases like measles talked about on a regular basis, yet the rate of autism diagnoses and public awareness of the condition is on the rise. The decision to vaccinate or not then appears to be a choice between preventing against a something that may happen, or possibly “causing” a condition that appears to be becoming more and more common.
I’m not trying to legitimize these claims, but we have to acknowledge the thought process behind them. If someone believes that science has failed them, showing them scientific papers about vaccines is not going to change their mind. The anti-vaccination movement is a huge issue which could endanger lives, but fighting it with sneering and derision only worsens the already damaged public perception of science.
Around the internet, the controversy around vaccines is firmly centred on America, but we have a very real anti-vax movement in Ireland relating to the HPV vaccine. According to statistics available in a report on the HSPC website, in the 2015/16 academic year, national uptake of HPV stage 2 was 72.3%, compared to 86.9% in the 2014/15 academic year. Every year, 300 Irish women are diagnosed with cervical cancer and 90 women die from it. Vaccination is not only crucial to protect
individual lives, but only through mass uptake of the vaccine will we attain a “herd immunity” effect, where enough of the population have received the vaccine that there is less opportunity for an outbreak and so even those who are not immunized have a level of protection against the disease.
It might seem straight-forward then that we need to vaccinate, but we can’t disregard the fears of those who choose not to, because their actions affect us all. Ireland is a very small country, built from close-knit communities. We thrive on scandal and hearsay. Stories of girls apparently affected by side-effects can be very powerful in influencing public perception at a local level. If one person within a community claims to be affected, the story soon spreads and brings with it mistrust. The HPV Vaccine was only recently introduced, but we have to do better at delivering clear and accurate information about it before it becomes too late and its reputation is tarnished forever.
6. Lots of current science outreach is just preaching to the choir, to people who are already friendly towards science. Do you have any ideas for reaching people who won’t actively come looking for science?
I would agree, a lot of science communication is geared towards people already in a STEM field. And while this is great for furthering the progression and knowledge of people within these fields, it doesn’t do much to educate the general public on scientific issues. Whether we like it or not, there’s a disconnect between science and the public. Science has traditionally been a very academic field, in the past it’s been quite hard for people to get into unless they had prior connections, though I think
that’s more or less changed these days. It means however, that there’s a generation of individuals for whom science has always been inaccessible. It can be easy to feel “locked out” of STEM-based issues if you don’t have much involvement with the sector.
Because of this, I feel STEM news and STEM-based events need to be normalized. Seeing a university professor on the news shouldn’t be a novelty, it should be a regular occurrence. Researchers need to get out there and appear on chat shows, talk to radio hosts and be visible in the public eye. Universities and research institutes shouldn’t be seen as “ivory towers”, and the people who work there shouldn’t be seen as these “mad scientists” locked away doing work that no regular working-class person could understand. There’s a lot of work to be done at a community level to show the role that STEM fields play in our everyday life, but that work has to start from within. There’s a perception that the STEM sector has a
brick wall around it that’s very hard to get in, but it’s up to the people inside it to reach out and show that that’s not the case.
7. What would you say to people who dismiss vaccines and a lot of other medical research because they're funded by pharmaceutical companies/"big pharma"?
I think in Ireland especially, these days we have a hard time trusting establishments larger than ourselves. We’ve had clerical abuse scandals and political corruption and you only have to turn on the news to see some kind of shady dealings happening in big bodies. And yes, there are a lot of systematic problems with “big pharma”. However, dismissing vaccines because of them is all part of cognitive bias. One of the primary rebuttals to the anti-vax movement is to mention the peer-reviewed papers which state there is no evidence to link vaccines and autism. If someone from the
anti-vax movement already has a bias against the scientific and medical communities, it’s very easy to make the leap from there to dismissing these papers as falsified and meaningless.
Ironically however, the Andrew Wakefield paper which first claimed a link between the MMR vaccine and autism, and has been the basis for all anti-vax arguments since, has since been withdrawn due to ethics breaches. Wakefield used contaminated samples, failed to include data which contradicted his
conclusions, and failed to disclose that he himself had filed a patent for a vaccine that would compete with MMR. When an issue is as personal as the life of your child, it’s very easy to ignore critical thinking and follow a logical path that suits your narrative. You can’t pick and choose which research to believe based on what you want to be true. The bottom line is that people are scared and people feel like they’ve been wronged and are being lied to by the medical community. Vaccination is a highly sensitive issue. At the end of the day, a parent just wants to make sure their child is safe, and that nothing they do will bring it harm. If they feel a vaccine even has some chance of causing side-effects, they’re going to question it. And we can look at the anti-vaccination movement with ridicule and disdain, but really, if there’s been a lack of clarity around vaccines and misinformation has been spread, then that’s a failure on behalf of the scientific and medical communities, not the general public.
One of the reasons Lablinn was created is that we think, while charlatans and cons are responsible for a lot of the anti-vaccination movement, we can't just ask people to trust scientists blindly - we should get out of ivory towers and equip them see what science and scientists are really like.
*We would also like to say that autism, apart from not being caused by vaccines, is not a curse and definitely not a reason to expose your child to life-threatening diseases, and to remind you that you may know an autistic person who hasn't told you they're autistic -- so be nice. Autistic people are cool too.)