What…exactly…do you do? How 12 year olds helped me learn how to talk about science

Jackie Ward in her lab at UC San Diego

Jackie Ward in her lab at UC San Diego

Jackie Ward is a graduate student at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), and received a training grant from CIRM while studying for her PhD. At UCSD Jackie uses stem cells as a model to study rare neurodegenerative diseases in the lab of Albert La Spada. Her work as a PhD student focuses on a rare form of inherited neurodegeneration called spinocerebellar ataxia. From time to time Jackie shares her experiences with us. Here’s her latest.

One of the many questions I get over my annual trek home during the holidays is “What…exactly…do you do?” This is usually couched somewhere between “have you learned to surf yet?” and “how’s the weather?” In the past, I preferred to talk about my surfing skills (very minimal) and the sunshine (always amazing, thanks San Diego), more than what I do every day. It’s amazing how this seemingly innocuous question can be the most difficult to answer. Because we’re used to presenting our work in lecture formats or lengthy scientific papers, summing it up in three sentences of non-jargon can be difficult. A similar thought was outlined recently at UCSD, by the actor and science advocate Alan Alda. The title of his presentation, “Getting the Public Past a Blind Date with Science,” highlighted the uncomfortable feelings many people have towards science. Like any relationship, sustained communication and trust is necessary for success. Unfortunately, on many scientific issues, that relationship has suffered. As a PhD student, I am constantly surrounded by my peers—other scientists who know exactly what I mean when I use terms like “reprogramming” or “retinal photoreceptor.” While these scientist-to-scientist conversations are vital to our work, we often forget that it is equally, or perhaps more, important to have conversations with people who have no idea what we do. As any CIRM- or NIH-funded lab is well aware, a significant portion of our funding comes from taxpayer dollars. It’s these “investors” to whom we ultimately report back. This conversation is challenging. Not only do we have to change our language, we have to remember what it was like to not know everything we do now. The best practice I’ve gotten in this regard is talking to kids. Seventh graders seem to be less afraid to ask you questions or call you out on something that doesn’t make sense to them. (Now that I think about it, it might be beneficial to include some 13-year-olds on our grant review panels.) My graduate program allows students to fulfill their teaching requirement by doing science outreach activities. I chose to do this with the Salk Institute’s mobile science lab, where real scientists are connected to local middle schools to discuss their jobs and lead hands-on science labs. I didn’t realize how valuable this experience was until it started to become easier for me to answer the “what do you do” question. I changed the words I use. I replaced the word “reprogram” with “rewind” and “retinal photoreceptor” with “eye cell.” Unexpectedly, I think this practice helped me become a better communicator when I talk to other scientists now too. I try not to assume a certain level of knowledge with anybody. While I still love talking about pretending to surf and gloating about the weather, I’ve become more fond of the “what do you do” question. I hope to only improve with time. It’ll be my small contribution for getting science to that second date.

Stem Cell Stories that Caught our Eye: Parkinson’s, Multiple Sclerosis and the Art of Science

Here are some stem cell stories that caught our eye this past week. Some are groundbreaking science, others are of personal interest to us, and still others are just fun.

The technique for removing the nucleus from an egg [Courtesy Oregon Health Sciences University ]

The technique for removing the nucleus from an egg [Courtesy Oregon Health Sciences University ]

Three parent embryos called safe. A scientific review panel in the United Kingdom has issued a report saying that a controversial fertility treatment that uses three parents is likely to be safe. The in vitro fertilization technique is being developed to help women who carry rare genetic mutations have healthy children. While we inherit most of our DNA from the chromosomes in the nucleus of mom’s egg and dad’s sperm, a small organelle outside the nucleus, called the mitochondria, also carries a few genes. Those we inherit only from mom, since her egg hosts those at the point of fertilization. This technique puts mom’s nucleus into the egg of a healthy donor that has had its nucleus removed but still has the healthy mitochondria. Gretchen Vogel, who worked with me as an intern several years ago, did a nice job explaining the process in Science Insider.

Embryonic cells show promise in multiple sclerosis. The vast majority of stem cell clinical trials registered at clinicaltrials.gov use a type of stem cell found in bone marrow, fat and cord blood called mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs). But many in the field believe that sometimes those cells are a little too mature to get the job done well. They suggest that in some situations these cells are often only minimally effective at the goals for their use: reducing inflammation and secreting factors that stimulate natural healing. So several groups have started maturing embryonic stem cells into early stage MSCs hoping their youth would make them more robust in these functions. Now, a team from the company ImStem Biotechnology and the University of Connecticut has shown that this is indeed the case—at least in the model in this study. They published in Stem Cell Reports that embryonic-derived MSCs were better at reducing the damage of multiple sclerosis in mice. The company’s press release was picked up at SFGate.

You can read about CIRM-funded work in the field on our multiple sclerosis fact sheet.

Transplanted cells survive 14 years in Parkinson’s. A Parkinson’s pioneer I wrote about often at Harvard has published important data showing transplanted nerves can survive and continue producing the dopamine needed in Parkinson’s for many years. Ole Isacson, of Harvard-affiliate McLean Hospital, reported that five patients who had nerves transplanted as much as 14 years before, all showed evidence that those nerves where still functioning at the time of their death. Those deaths, by the way, were unrelated to their Parkinson’s. As many teams are preparing to transplant nerve cells from much more readily available stem cells, the fact that these cells can persist is definitely good news. HEALTHCANAL ran the institution’s press release.

CIRM gathered most of the world leaders in the field last year to discuss next steps and we produced this white paper “Cell Therapies for Parkinson’s Disease from Discovery to Clinic.”

Adult stem cells alert to damage. I often find myself explaining adult stem cells to patients and family members calling CIRM seeking some clarity for an admittedly confusing field. In explaining that we have tissue-specific stem cells in most parts of our bodies all the time, I end up talking about those cells waiting around for a signal to respond to damage or inflammation. A longevity researcher at Stanford, Thomas Rando, has given a name to this in a new paper published in Natiure last week. He calls it the “alert” state. Krista Conger provides a good explanation of his findings in the school of medicine’s blog Scope.

Science as art takes to the runways. I have always had a bit of a bully pulpit about wanting to tear down the wall between C.P. Snow’s two cultures: science and humanities. So, I love the fact that more and more groups are seeing that contemporary imaging technologies in the lab often naturally bridge the gap between art and science. Two of the nation’s airports this week opened new exhibits featuring the art of science. Dulles airport outside of our nation’s capital teamed up with the National Institutes of Health for an exhibit described in the NIH blog. And the Southern California biotech trade association BioCom created a display in the San Diego airport timed to the BIO International Convention scheduled to convene there June 24. This display incudes an image from CIRM that a Salk Institute researcher had submitted to the imaging contest we ran my first year here in 2008. All those contest images are available free for educational uses at our Flickr site.

Stem Cell Stories that Caught our Eye: Parkinson’s, Multiple Sclerosis and the Art of Science

Here are some stem cell stories that caught our eye this past week. Some are groundbreaking science, others are of personal interest to us, and still others are just fun.

The technique for removing the nucleus from an egg [Courtesy Oregon Health Sciences University ]

The technique for removing the nucleus from an egg [Courtesy Oregon Health Sciences University ]

Three parent embryos called safe. A scientific review panel in the United Kingdom has issued a report saying that a controversial fertility treatment that uses three parents is likely to be safe. The in vitro fertilization technique is being developed to help women who carry rare genetic mutations have healthy children. While we inherit most of our DNA from the chromosomes in the nucleus of mom’s egg and dad’s sperm, a small organelle outside the nucleus, called the mitochondria, also carries a few genes. Those we inherit only from mom, since her egg hosts those at the point of fertilization. This technique puts mom’s nucleus into the egg of a healthy donor that has had its nucleus removed but still has the healthy mitochondria. Gretchen Vogel, who worked with me as an intern several years ago, did a nice job explaining the process in Science Insider.

Embryonic cells show promise in multiple sclerosis. The vast majority of stem cell clinical trials registered at clinicaltrials.gov use a type of stem cell found in bone marrow, fat and cord blood called mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs). But many in the field believe that sometimes those cells are a little too mature to get the job done well. They suggest that in some situations these cells are often only minimally effective at the goals for their use: reducing inflammation and secreting factors that stimulate natural healing. So several groups have started maturing embryonic stem cells into early stage MSCs hoping their youth would make them more robust in these functions. Now, a team from the company ImStem Biotechnology and the University of Connecticut has shown that this is indeed the case—at least in the model in this study. They published in Stem Cell Reports that embryonic-derived MSCs were better at reducing the damage of multiple sclerosis in mice. The company’s press release was picked up at SFGate.

You can read about CIRM-funded work in the field on our multiple sclerosis fact sheet.

Transplanted cells survive 14 years in Parkinson’s. A Parkinson’s pioneer I wrote about often at Harvard has published important data showing transplanted nerves can survive and continue producing the dopamine needed in Parkinson’s for many years. Ole Isacson, of Harvard-affiliate McLean Hospital, reported that five patients who had nerves transplanted as much as 14 years before, all showed evidence that those nerves where still functioning at the time of their death. Those deaths, by the way, were unrelated to their Parkinson’s. As many teams are preparing to transplant nerve cells from much more readily available stem cells, the fact that these cells can persist is definitely good news. HEALTHCANAL ran the institution’s press release.

CIRM gathered most of the world leaders in the field last year to discuss next steps and we produced this white paper “Cell Therapies for Parkinson’s Disease from Discovery to Clinic.”

Adult stem cells alert to damage. I often find myself explaining adult stem cells to patients and family members calling CIRM seeking some clarity for an admittedly confusing field. In explaining that we have tissue-specific stem cells in most parts of our bodies all the time, I end up talking about those cells waiting around for a signal to respond to damage or inflammation. A longevity researcher at Stanford, Thomas Rando, has given a name to this in a new paper published in Natiure last week. He calls it the “alert” state. Krista Conger provides a good explanation of his findings in the school of medicine’s blog Scope.

Science as art takes to the runways. I have always had a bit of a bully pulpit about wanting to tear down the wall between C.P. Snow’s two cultures: science and humanities. So, I love the fact that more and more groups are seeing that contemporary imaging technologies in the lab often naturally bridge the gap between art and science. Two of the nation’s airports this week opened new exhibits featuring the art of science. Dulles airport outside of our nation’s capital teamed up with the National Institutes of Health for an exhibit described in the NIH blog. And the Southern California biotech trade association BioCom created a display in the San Diego airport timed to the BIO International Convention scheduled to convene there June 24. This display incudes an image from CIRM that a Salk Institute researcher had submitted to the imaging contest we ran my first year here in 2008. All those contest images are available free for educational uses at our Flickr site.