I’m on the Writers’ Rough Drafts Podcast!

Writers’ Rough Drafts is a podcast hosted by Elisa Doucette, Founder and Executive Editor of Craft Your Content; a business that aims to do the unthinkable – make writing a less lonely process. They offer group courses, as well as one-to-one support on writing and editing projects from website copy to novels. The Craft Your Content website is also a wonderful resource in itself. As a frequent visitor to the Craft Your Content website, and an avid listener of the Writers’ Rough Drafts podcast, I jumped at the chance to talk all things writing and creativity when Elisa approached me a few months ago.

Listen to our podcast episode here.

Elisa’s incredibly flattering introduction:

Heidi Gardner is a scientist, researcher, blogger, entrepreneur, and activist. While her “full-time gig” is as a research fellow at the Health Services Research Unit at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, after receiving her bachelor’s degree in pharmacology and her doctorate in participant recruitment, she has a lot more going on besides her fascination and love affair with science and improving participant trial experience.

This year, Heidi embarked on an international odyssey as a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust fellow—visiting art installations, chatting to professors and female scientists, and reading tomes upon tomes worth of articles and literature in North America, Europe, and Asia—to find interesting and unique ways that people share scientific research and results so it is more accessible to, and engaging for, the general public. A regular blogger herself, she updates her site with posts not only about her work and pursuits, but also her life as a woman in science and as a human on planet Earth. Which is part of her “side hustle,” an Etsy store and ecommerce brand called “Science on a Postcard,” a fun project that helps to see science in a new light.

From the show notes:

What You’ll Learn About Writing:

  • Why you need confidence to break writing rules
  • The importance of finding gatekeepers and peers who are “on your team”
  • How blogs can serve as a great place for a “brain dump”
  • Why we should tap into our creativity and retrain our brain to think more creatively, even if you think you’re a “noncreative” person
  • How you should find specific sources, information, and experiences to share that no one has written about before
  • Why not only being creative but being able to explain parts of that creativity to others often bring you more collaboration and readers
  • How we, as writers, can try to write more humanly and less pretentiously no matter what industry we’re in

Mentioned in This Episode (Links and Resources!):

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!

Are Clinical Trials a Waste of Time?

I wrote this article for the 23rd issue of Lateral Magazine. The piece was originally published at the beginning of the month, and I’ve republished it here under Creative Commons licence 4.0. Hope you enjoy!

Changing how clinical trials are designed and reported could save billions of dollars.

Every year, we spend $200 billion globally on health and medical research, more than the annual GDP of New Zealand. Yet up to 85% of this money is wasted on research that asks the wrong questions, is badly designed, not published or poorly reported. In addition, a 2005 study by John Ioannadis showed that claimed research findings are more likely to be false than true — that is, they will be proven incorrect when better quality research is conducted later down the line.

So is clinical research a waste of time, and therefore money? As a researcher myself, I’m inclined, as you might expect, to say no. Let me explain why clinical trials are so expensive, and how we can make these expenses count.

Clinical trials are a necessary step for approving new medical treatments. Hal Gatewood/Unsplash (CC0 1.0)

Clinical trials are affectionately termed the ‘gold standard’ method of evaluation in a healthcare setting, and were necessary for marketing approval for everything from the paracetamol you take to ease your hangover to treatments for cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. But they also require a huge amount of resources. Trials can take years to complete and often involve thousands of people from various countries to ensure that research questions are answered satisfactorily.At the core of high-quality medical research are randomised controlled trials. In these trials, participants are randomly allocated to one of two or more treatment groups (referred to as arms) that the trial is looking at. Most people think of trials involving drugs, but interventions might also include surgical procedures, medical devices, and lifestyle interventions such as exercise or diet modification.  The randomisation of participants ensures that any outside biases, such as sex, age, or educational status, are distributed throughout the treatment groups, effectively negating the bias these outside influences may have.

Randomised trials must also be ‘controlled’; that is, one of the treatment arms acts as a control group to which the treatments are compared. In most cases, this control group will be given the standard treatment option for their condition or disease. This allows us to see if the new treatment we’re testing is better than what is already available to patients.

Clinical trials are the ‘gold standard’ of evaluating healthcare outcomes. Sanofi Pasteur/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In a recent study, researchers looked at trials funded by Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council between 2008 and 2010. These 77 studies required a total of A$59 million in public funding. Most people would consider this an acceptable price to pay for improved survival rates, but what if most of that $59 million was wasted due to correctable problems?The estimate that 85% of all health research is being avoidably “wasted” is shocking. As an optimist I’m looking to the ‘avoidably’ part of that sentence; we have a lot of work to do, but it’s all work ready to be done, rather than issues we hope to solve at some point in the distant future.

The problem of research waste has been a central focus of the health services research and evidence-based medicine communities since the publication of Ioannidis’ paper “Why most published research findings are false”, and there is a clear push to prevent research being wasted.

As a PhD student in the Health Services Research Unit at the University of Aberdeen, I am working to improve the efficiency of trials. There is a bizarre contradiction in the trials world; we do trials to generate good quality evidence, but the way we carry out certain aspects of trials is not remotely evidence-based.

Here’s an example. Recruiting participants for trials is a notoriously difficult process that wastes time, effort and money, but there is limited evidence that the methods we currently use to improve recruitment are particularly efficient. For example, many trial teams approach patients via existing healthcare infrastructure, but these systems are already overstretched without the addition of research tasks, and it may be that there’s a better way to find patients without the need to involve physicians. If recruitment fails to successfully reach the trial’s target, the results of the trial as a whole can be at risk.

Many countries have introduced publicly accessible websites that allow people to search for trials currently in the process of recruiting. Patients can find trials that are relevant to their disease state, meaning the healthcare system does not need to be directly involved with recruitment. As yet we don’t have evidence to support or refute the effectiveness of these websites, so they are often used in conjunction with other recruitment strategies.

Finding suitable subjects for clinical trials is an inefficient process, but there are avenues from improvement. Queen’s University/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.)

Other research groups are working to alleviate research waste by tackling poor reporting of experimental methods. “Most of us have probably tried to recreate a meal we enjoyed in a restaurant,” wrote epidemiologist Tammy Hoffmann in a recent article. “But would you attempt it without a recipe? And if you have to guess most of the ingredients, how confident would you be about the end result?”

It makes sense; for health research to be picked up and implemented in a clinical setting, we need to give clinicians the full recipe. Interventions used in trials might involve drugs or non-drug treatments like exercise, psychosocial or dietary advice, and giving partial details is a sure-fire way to ensure research doesn’t make its way to patients. Crucial details, such as the materials needed to carry out interventions, are lacking in up to 60% of trials of non-drug interventions, and the problem occurs in drug studies, too. These articles focus on published trial reports, and don’t discriminate against public- or industry-funded trials; full recipes are lacking across both of these research areas.

Research is an imperfect process, and with research funds getting increasingly scarce worldwide, it’s important that we make a concerted effort to reduce the intrinsic inefficiency of trials. At the very minimum, we must work to ensure trial results are published in a timely manner.

On a wider, and perhaps more optimistic scale, it’s clear that researchers need to take responsibility for disseminating results of the projects they are involved in. It’s no longer acceptable for results to be presented only at specialist conferences that few clinicians are privy to. Trials are conducted with the explicit aim of improving human health, and it’s down to both researchers to ensure results are circulated and the public to hold researchers accountable.

Edited by Andrew Katsis and Sara Paradowski

ABSW Science Journalism Summer School 2017

Recently I’ve been really trying to up my sci-comm game. To improve my writing, I think it’s important to write lots, and read lots, but sometimes networking and more structured training just can’t be beaten. I joined the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW) last month, which was perfect timing for their summer school. I booked the day off work and signed up straight away.

On Wednesday 5th July I got flew from Aberdeen to London on the red-eye flight, and got to the Wellcome Trust building just after the first session so I didn’t miss too much after a 5am alarm! I know lots followed along on Twitter (#abswss17), so I’ve compiled my huge pile of notes for those of you who couldn’t make it.

ABSW delegate bags

Session 1: New media trends
Where are our audiences? The latest insights about digital news consumption from the Digital News Report 2017

Nic Newman, research associate, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and lead author of the digital news report
Moderator: Martin Ince, Treasurer, ABSW board and freelance science writer

As I said, I missed this session – I was somewhere between London City Airport and Euston Street so I followed along on Twitter for this one too. A few highlights:

Session 2: The role of critical science journalism in the fake news world

Alok Jha, Science Correspondent, ITV
Moderator: Pallab Ghosh, Honorary President, ABSW and science correspondent for BBC

This was a brilliant session drawing attention to the rise of fake news, and discussing solutions that journalists can use to combat false information. What I particularly enjoyed was Alok’s personal experience and learnings over the course of his career; “Fake news isn’t new in science journalism – it’s the speed of the tidal wave in recent times that’s shocking“. Alok explained that when he started his career he truly believed that producing and spreading high quality, accurate journalism was enough to combat so-called fake news. Now an experienced journalist, he calls his past-self ‘naive’ and the spread of good news vs bad ‘not helpful’. So what can we do? People are not stupid, but the world is not always logical and rational, so reporters need to stop giving ‘the view from nowhere’ and provide critique and advocacy for good science.

Panel 1: Pitching skills – how and where to sell you story ideas

Helen Thomson, freelance science journalist and consultant for New Scientist
Inga Vesper, freelance science journalist
Aisling Irwin, acting editor, SciDev.Net
Joshua Howgego, features editor at New Scientist
Laura Greenhalgh, assistant policy editor, Politico
Moderator: Mico Tatalovic, Chair, ABSW board and Environment and Life Sciences News Editor, New Scientist

At first I didn’t really think this session was particularly relevant to me, but after listening to the speakers the idea of pitching articles to editors actually sounded like something I might be able to do in the future.

Tips I picked up from the session:

  • General topics are not good pitches – you need a clear story with developed characters
  • It needs to be new – check the archive of magazines and Google news
  • It should have moved science on – small steps happen in science every day, why is this step so special?
  • Does it make you go ‘WOW!’? – surprise is always good
  • It needs to be relevant – how is this story relevant to readers? That could be application or interest
  • Would you tell your friends down the pub? – the ‘pub test’ is tried and tested, if you’d tell your friends it’s likely to get commissioned
  • You need to be an expert – don’t pitch an article that you haven’t done a significant amount of research for
  • Don’t patronise the Editor, but do write in accessible language

Panel 2: Investigative science reporting

‘Why investigative journalism matters, with examples from science’ by Rachel Oldroyd, managing editor of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism
‘How we uncovered Google Deep Mind’s secret NHS data grab’ by Hal Hodson, technology reporter at the Economist (previously New Scientist), and Will Douglas Heaven, freelance (previously chief technology editor at New Scientist and editor of BBC Future Now).
Moderator: Jack Serle, Vice-Chair, ABSW board and reporter Bureau of Investigative Journalism

I found this session the most intriguing. Investigative reporting has never been something I thought I’d do, but hearing about it was so interesting, and if I ever do stumble across a story worthy of substantial investigation it’s now something I might think about exploring. Hearing from Hal Hudson and Will Douglas Heaven was a good case study for this; from stumbling across a story right through to breaking it and ultimately becoming a part of the story through further developments. There was one aspect of this subject that was missing; how do you fund investigative journalism? In usual cases of journalism writers are paid a set amount per word, or per article. If that was the case with investigative pieces then journalists would be bankrupt – it’s a process that can take months, and it requires a huge time investment to uncover genuine stories that are relevant to the public interest.

Session 3: Data journalism skills

Jonathan Stoneman, Freelance trainer in Open Data
Moderator: Wendy Grossman, ABSW board member and freelance journalist

Data is something lots of people find intimidating – especially when there’s lots of it. With this talk, Jonathan Stoneman somehow made ‘having a chat’ with your data a thing I feel like I could do – amazing! He described data as ‘just another source’ that you need to dig through, interview, chat to, and play around with in order to find the best stories. You need to ask it questions and really think about what it is telling you. Some resources that Jonathan mentioned:

Side note:

Session 4: EurekAlert!’s science news service and media survey results

Brian Lin, director of editorial content strategy at EurekAlert!
Moderator: Mico Tatalovic, Chair, ABSW board and Environment and Life Sciences News Editor, New Scientist

EurekAlert! is an online, global news service operated by AAAS, the science society. EurekAlert! provides a central place through which universities, medical centers, journals, government agencies, corporations and other organizations engaged in research can bring their news to the media. Brian Lin explained more about how EurekAlert! has grown over the years, what the service can offer, and why journalists really should be signed up to it. Brian also unveiled the results of EurekAlert!’s 2017 reporter survey.

I don’t qualify to be signed up to EurekAlert! just yet – more journalism experience required! Once I start writing professionally, I’ll definitely be signing up though. It sounds like a brilliant platform for finding out about fresh science.

Panel 3: Successful freelancing

Mark Peplow, freelance science journalist
Max Glaskin, an award-winning journalist and the author of Cycling Science
Inga Vesper, freelance science journalist
Moderator: Jack Serle, Vice-Chair, ABSW board and reporter Bureau of Investigative Journalism

I had to rush out at the beginning of this session to go and catch my flight back to Aberdeen, so again I was following along on Twitter with everyone else. I’d recommend getting in touch with the journalists who presented in this session if you’re looking for advice on freelancing; all day these guys were giving advice and encouragement to those of us at the very beginning of our journalism careers, so I’m sure they’d be happy to answer questions. Mark: www.markpeplow.com, Max: twitter.com/CyclingScience1, Inga: twitter.com/Keeping_Cool.

Didn’t make it to #abswss17 and still want to know more? Check out a storify of the event here. I’d totally recommend signing up for membership with ABSW whether you’re looking to begin a science journalism career, you want to learn more about the journalism industry, or you’re a pro. They’re a wonderfully friendly and supportive group, and their events attract people with a wealth of knowledge – it’s a brilliant networking opportunity.

I also met up with Mary who is running The STEM Squad’s Instagram page this week – I love it when contacts stop being online profile and start being real-life people. Definitely follow The STEM Squad if you’re a woman in science looking for support and inspiration.

After a super full and tiring day, I left feeling inspired and driven to push myself to do more. Science communication isn’t something that a lot of early career researchers get the chance to be involved with, but I’m going to make a conscious effort to communicate my research, and the process of getting to research findings, as best I can. Do keep an eye on the ABSW events page if you’re looking for events like this in the future!