Popular Science Books on My Reading List

When I first started this blog (2 years ago, can you believe it?!), I wrote a blog post about 5 popular science books that I recommend to anyone who dares to ask me about the subject. That post had a really good response, and since then I’ve been reviewing books on this blog individually after I’ve read them. I’ve been reading lots recently, but more fiction than non-fiction, which has left me with a pile of popular science books that I still need to get to. I’m not sure which I want to tackle first – I just want to read them all, so I figured I’d list them here, and then if any of you have read and enjoyed them you can let me know.

Invisible women: exposing data bias in a world designed for men by Caroline Criado Perez

From the inside cover:
“Imagine a world where your phone is too big for your hand, where your doctor prescribes a drug that is wrong for your body, where in a car accident you are 47% more likely to be seriously injured, where every week the countless hours of work you do are not recognised or valued. If any of this sounds familiar, chances are that you’re a woman.”

This. Sounds. Incredible.

(and rage inducing)

I preordered this book a few months ago and totally forgot about it. When it landed on my doorstop I did a little squeal of excitement, but now I’ve seen eeeeeeeveryone talking about it on Twitter and I’m nervous that it’s not going to live up to my expectations. Does anyone else get that?

The only woman in the room: why science is still a boys’ club by Eileen Pollack

This is another book that looks like it’s going to make me rage – there’s a theme beginning to form here..

I bought this book when I went to Powell’s City of Books in Portland last year, and despite carrying it all the way across the Atlantic Ocean, it’s been tucked away on my bookshelf since then. It looks like a book I’ll love (and again, rage as a result of), and I’m excited to get to this one. It was named one of the notable non-fiction books of 2015 by the Washington Post, and it focusses on Eileen Pollack’s quest to find out why, even now, relatively few women pursue careers in what she calls ‘the hard sciences’. I really dislike that dichotomy of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ sciences, because it implies that there’s a difference in quality, rigour and as a result, respect for and value of. To be clear, I don’t think that there is; so-called soft sciences should be equally as valued as so-called hard sciences – both can be done badly, and both can be done well. Poor phrasing won’t stop me reading this though – I’ll just be mindful of Pollack’s potential biases when I’m reading it.

The war on science: who’s waging it, why it matters, what we can do about it by Shawn Otto

This is another book I carted home with me from Portland, and at 514 pages it’s not the lightest.. I think it’s size is the reason why I haven’t read it yet – it weighs a tonne and the quotes on the back emphasis how ‘well researched’ it is, which is a good thing, but it’s making me hesitate to pick it up in case it’s really dry and full of jargon. Given the subject matter, I really hope that’s not the case!

I’ve never seen anyone talk about this book either. It doesn’t have many reviews on Amazon or GoodReads, but the reviews that are there seem good.
Have any of you read it? I think I need someone to rave about it to finally convince me to start reading.

A guide to making science matter: Escape from the ivory tower by Nancy Baron

I ordered this book after speaking to Jim Handman; science journalist, Executive Director of the Science Media Centre in Canada and former senior producer of science radio show Quirks and Quarks. Jim is kind of a big deal when it comes to science journalism, so when he recommended this book I bought it straight away.
Nancy Baron is a communications coach with an incredible track record, and I am SO excited to read this. From the back, “No one understands scientists the way Nancy Baron does. This book helps connect the worlds of science, journalism, and policy in very entertaining and insightful ways. If you care about linking science with action, this is the book to read.” (Pam Matson, Scientific Director of the Leopold Leadership Program, Woods Institute for the Environment and Dean of the School of Earth Sciences Stanford University).

I already feel like I’m recommending this book before I’ve read it. This is on my April reading pile so expect a review relatively soon.

The state of medicine by Margaret McCartney

Another of Margaret McCartney’s books, ‘The Patient Paradox: Why Sexed Up Medicine is Bad for Your Health’ was included in the 5 science books blog post I mentioned earlier, and this is McCartney’s newest book. Released in 2016, this looks at the NHS – in my opinion, the best thing about the UK.
The back of the book claims that ‘the NHS is the closest thing the UK has to a national religion’, the reason behind that being that it unites people across social and class divides. This book isn’t an ode to the NHS though, it’s about the financial strain that the service is under, and the political decisions that have led to the situation we now find ourselves in.
I love Margaret McCartney, I’ve fangirled about her on this blog before, and I know this book will not disappoint.

If there are any of these books that you’d like to see me review, let me know and I’ll try to make those a priority!

Why Clinical Trials Should Be At The Forefront of Public Science Knowledge

I originally wrote this post as a guest feature on ‘An Anxious Scientist‘. The piece was originally published at the beginning of August, and I’ve republished it here with permission from Rebecca who runs An Anxious Scientist. Make sure you take a look at her blog for brilliant posts explaining complex science concepts in engaging ways, showcasing scientists in all fields, and of course some of Rebecca’s own PhD experiences too.


Public engagement with science is not a new concept, but with the rise in social media usage and pressure on scientists to prove the impact of their work, the world of science communication is advancing at a rapid rate. Many early career researchers now contribute to online blogs, Instagram and Twitter profiles with the aim of disseminating their research, breaking down stereotypes, and ultimately getting the public excited about science. The opportunities that science communication opens up for both academics and public audiences is huge. It’s difficult to see a downside; academics work to improve the way they communicate, and the public finds out more about the research that’s going on around, or in some cases with them.

The diversity of fields covered by science communicators is vast; but is there room for everyone?

I’ll say up front that I think good quality science communication from any field of research is a good thing; but as a clinical trials methodologist, clinical trials in the public sphere of scientific knowledge hold a different level of importance for me. That’s not to say that other types of science are not important, just that trials are a topic I really feel the public could benefit from knowing about.

My work focusses on improving the way we do clinical trials – in particular, how we recruit participants into clinical trials in an efficient way. Efficiency here could mean lots of things; cheaper, faster, less patient burden, less administrative work, etc – I’m interested in making the process better, whatever ‘better’ means.

Each trial has statisticians that process the huge amount of data that comes from trials, but way before results start coming in, these statisticians are charged with the task of calculating how many people need to take part in the trial for the results to be robust. This is important because if trials recruit too few participants then the results of those trials could actually be showing us unreliable data. Estimates currently show that ~45% of trials globally don’t recruit enough people.

Clinical trials are the types of studies that we want our healthcare system to be based on. Trials are able to differentiate between an intervention causing an outcome, and an intervention being correlated with an outcome. In simple terms, they can answer questions like ‘does taking a paracetamol get rid of my headache, or would my headache have disappeared without it?’

Understanding the strengths and limitations of trials, and being able to unravel what features differentiate a reliable trial from an unreliable one, would empower the public.

Take the example of the Alzheimer’s drug LTMX that caused these headlines in July 2016:

With those headlines in mind, take a look at these articles that are about that exact same drug, LMTX:

In this case, newspapers with high readership figures and easy access to the public told of a drug that would halt Alzheimer’s disease – and the public could be forgiven for thinking that the problem of Alzheimer’s was now solved. Scientific media, and news outlets with smaller readerships provided a more balanced view of the trial that tested LMTX.

Surely this means newspapers should be reporting better, rather than putting the onus on the public?

News outlets like The Sun, The Daily Mail and The Times are not scientific experts; their reporting on health research could be discussed in another article entirely! What I do think is important, is that the public feel equipped to critique these sensationalised pieces in order to get to the root of the story – the facts.

All of the articles state that 891 people were enrolled in the trial, the majority were also taking treatments that have already been approved to help relieve Alzheimer’s symptoms. 15% (144) of the 891 people were only taking the trial drug (LMTX), or a placebo. In this group the researchers noticed a difference. All of the articles provide that information – it’s the headline that is swaying the public’s thoughts on the results.

Given what I mentioned earlier about the importance of recruiting the correct number of participants, the results of this work are immediately put in doubt. If the trial’s statisticians calculated that 891 people were needed to find a clinical difference between patients taking the experimental drug and those taking other drugs, then why does it matter that a difference was found in a group of 144 patients? Put bluntly, it doesn’t. These trial results do not offer a definitive answer to the question of whether LMTX could prevent cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s patients.

As we can’t control what headlines are plastered over the front page, it’s important that we empower, educate, and answer questions from the public about trials so that they can make these judgements themselves.

So, what’s the solution? Whilst the science communication world advances, I feel like we are focussing too much on the discoveries themselves, over the methods we use to discover. The addition of a level of transparency and openness about the flaws in scientific methods would go further to empower the public. It would begin to break down barriers years of science has built between scientists and the public – science may have the answers, but we need to be open and honest about the methods we use to get those answers.

If you’re a science communicator, why not challenge yourself to explain the limitations of your work rather than simply strengths?

Women in STEM: Events, Challenges – and Why?

I haven’t touched on any political or religious topics on this blog, I haven’t spoken about money or what I think of Donald Trump, and largely I think people believe that feminism belongs in that same pile of topics you-just-don’t-talk-about. I don’t agree.

Feminism is important, and the process of explaining my views, beliefs and actions to help support other women, especially in the scientific community, is necessary. So this week’s blog post is going to be a bit of a brain dump of thoughts inspired by events and conversations over the past week – the week of International Women’s Day. I hope it ends up being a cohesive piece about why supporting women in STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) is a positive and useful thing to do, rather than the feminist rant that’s in my head.

Let’s start with some nice news:

This week I was told I’ve been accepted to take part in Soapbox Science‘s Edinburgh event this July. In their own words: “Soapbox Science is a novel public outreach platform for promoting women scientists and the science they do. Our events transform public areas into an arena for public learning and scientific debate; they follow the format of London Hyde Park’s Speaker’s Corner, which is historically an arena for public debate. With Soapbox Science, we want to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to enjoy, learn from, heckle, question, probe, interact with and be inspired by some of our leading scientists. No middle man, no powerpoint slide, no amphitheater – just remarkable women in science who are there to amaze you with their latest discoveries, and to answer the science questions you have been burning to ask.

I’m going to be talking about clinical trials – why take part in a trial, how participation might be beneficial, and what happens if not enough people take part in clinical trials. It’s not designed to be a propaganda piece, or a talk to try and get people to take part in trials; just an opportunity for me to talk about the work I do and the reasons why I think it’s important, and a chance for members of the public to ask questions and take part in a discussion. There’ll be 11 other women scientists there talking about their own work, and I’m really looking forward to learning about what they do too.

And an online engagement activity for women in STEM:

This month, The STEM Squad are running a photo a day challenge on Instagram – take a look at their Instagram account here. In their own words, they are “An inclusive community of femme-identifying STEM professionals and enthusiasts“. The challenge involves people posting a photograph each day for the whole of March (including #WEARESTEMSQUAD), with the aim of showing the many sides of women in STEM. As I write this it’s currently day 10 and I’ve managed to keep up, I’ve really enjoyed seeing everyone’s posts and following what they get up to each day. It’s so cool to see what every does, how different each career is, and what we all like to do outside of the labs/offices/fields that we’re in day-to-day.

The themes covered in the Instagram challenge are in the picture above, so take a look at the hashtag and join in if you haven’t already!

I was talking to a friend earlier on in the week about the Soapbox Science event and The STEM Squad challenge, and she (very innocently) said, ‘Why is it just for women though? That seems a bit unfair.’

My initial response was to be a bit stroppy – why does every event that involves only women get the whole ‘why not men?’ argument thrown back at it, why can’t we just do stuff as a group of women supporting each other?! The more I thought about it, the more I calmed down. Maybe women in STEM get this weird backlash because people don’t understand the point of why we’re doing these events, these public engagement activities and challenges online. I figured this was a good place to talk about it (Twitter was out because of that time I tweeted about a BBC Three documentary called Men At War and got trolled for at least a fortnight ).

Women are not represented equally in the STEM workforce, in fact the percentage of women in science professional occupations dropped from 50% in 2015 to 41% in 2016. That gives a slightly skewed picture though; 41% isn’t so bad, right? Perhaps, but that 41% isn’t consistent across the board:

  • Only 18% of people in ICT professional occupations are women
  • Only 8% of people in Engineering professional occupations are women
  • Only 14% of people in management positions in Science, Engineering and Technology are women

Being a woman in STEM is not easy – personally I’ve people who are shocked when I say I’m doing a PhD, ‘but you’re blonde!’ like, really? I’m pretty sure that my hair colour has no relationship with my intelligence (feel free to correct me with a methodologically-outstanding randomised trial). Largely though, I haven’t experienced any sort of discrimination at all, just a whole host of supportive and brilliant colleagues with a view weird comments thrown in.

For others though, being a woman in STEM is really tough, and the comments and discrimination women receive puts them off being in STEM altogether, there’s a genuine gender wage gap, and there’s even research to show that women who work in male-dominated workplaces experience heighted levels of interpersonal, workplace stressors.

It’s important to even this gender imbalance out and create equal opportunities for both men and women. Doing events and drawing attention to the problem is one way to try and push that process forward. Creating a positive and welcoming environment for people to learn, ask questions, and actually see what women in STEM look like (see also #actuallivingscientist and #dresslikeawoman), can make a real difference for the next generation of STEM workers.

Doing a PhD in Health Services Research

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As last week’s post explained, my PhD is in the field of Health Services Research and looks at the process of participant recruitment to clinical trials. My undergraduate degree was based in lab science, and as far as I know I’m the only person from my graduating cohort to leave the lab but remain in academic science. I tend to get a lot of questions about what I do now that I don’t work in a lab anymore, so this week I wanted to take some time to explain what it’s like to do a PhD in this field; the questions I get and how it’s changed the way I look at science more generally.

Why did you decide to leave ‘proper’ science?
This is one of the best things to ask me if you want to see me bite my tongue so much that it bleeds. I’m still struggling to work out whether ‘proper’ science is intended to suggest that health services research isn’t worthwhile, or if my questioner simply isn’t aware that science can, and does, take place outside of a laboratory. I’m hoping it’s the latter.

I decided to leave lab science because I didn’t feel like the work I was doing was close enough to patients. To be clear, I’m not saying lab science is not a useful or worthwhile career path, just that I work best when I’m not too many steps away from the end result.

How do interviews help your work, surely you want data and evidence?
Yes, this a real question that someone asked me a few months ago.

To explain a bit of the background – undergraduate lab science degrees don’t pay much wpid-photo-aug-12-2013-805-pmattention to qualitative research whatsoever, or at least mine didn’t. I think in first year the words ‘qualitative data’ were mentioned once, and only when explaining that everything we would do going forward would involve the opposite. The PhD very quickly taught me that evidence comes in all shapes and sizes, and interviewing people to find out about their experiences and views on specific topics is just as useful as percentages and p values – it just depends on what you want to know.

We don’t know lots of things, and the NHS isn’t always right
I’m showing my naivety here so bear with me. Before starting PhD study, I thought that if something – whether that’s a type of surgery or a new drug – is put into practice within the NHS, then there was good equality evidence to support that decision. Turns out, I was wrong. I won’t say much more on this – Margaret McCartney’s books are a good starting point if you want to find out more.

Science in the media
The biggest change I’ve noticed in myself since starting the PhD is the way I consume media reporting of scientific stories. Previously I would be cautious of ‘bad science’, understanding that some news outlets will happily sensationalise content to improve readership figures. Now though, I find myself reading stories and picking holes in them as I am reading – thinking ‘well that’s not true because…’ or ‘the data you’ve provided does not show that result…’. I’ve stopped reading health/medicine stories on certain websites, and now stick to a few that I feel comfortable relying on. Vox and The Conversation are now my go-to news sites, and I try to follow specific reporters on Twitter too. I’d recommend both Julia Belluz and Kathryn Schulz, I saw Julia give a talk at last year’s Evidence Live conference and it was clear she really cares about accurate reporting – you can see her talk on YouTube here.