This week we have another collaborative post from guest blogger Namrata Sengupta. She’ll be introducing the concept of risk communication in environmental science and toxicology. Next week we’ll be following up on her introduction with a more detailed look at ways of approaching risk communication approaches and a review of a recent webinar hosted by NOAA. Enjoy!
“It is ironic to think that man might determine his own future by something so seemingly trivial as the choice of an insect spray.” – Rachel Carson, Silent Spring
In 1962, the American conservation biologist Rachel Carson published a book called ‘Silent Spring’. She described the effects of man-made contaminants and their potential of harming wildlife. The book detailed a study on thirty five bird species which were nearing extinction caused by these contaminants entering water bodies, and the story facilitated the ban on DDT in 1972. The book is considered as the scientific foundation for modern environmentalism in America, including the establishment of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) in 1970 as well as the Clean Air Act (CAA) and Clean Water Act (CWA) later that same decade.
Carson was an early pioneer of the field of risk communication. Her book powerfully displayed the combined intellect and thoughtfulness of a person who was a scientist, poet, nature-lover and activist all in one. She inspired a generation of people to become well-informed and to realize the importance of getting involved in environmental health research.
In the modern age of chemical industrialization, the existence of the CWA and CAA has played a major role in protecting both wildlife and human health.
Even 50 years since the publication of Carson’s novel, environmental science and toxicology continues to grow. From decoding manmade chemicals, understanding the complexities of cancer, or using advanced statistical techniques to explaining ecosystem dynamics, our field has expanded not just to labs and journals but also to applications and implications in public health policy and decision-making. Environmental scientists and toxicologists now realize the relevance of their work in policy making but are also constantly critiqued by industry, government, and policy makers who are using their work.
The US EPA developed guidance and structure for characterizing the hazards associated with exposure to environmental contaminants to both wildlife and a human population, which is called risk assessment. The purpose of a risk assessment is to evaluate the potential for exposure to a chemical in the environment as well as the potential impact of these chemicals.
The process of characterizing the potential for chemicals to harm humans or wildlife through risk assessment is an important component of policy making. It provides scientific support for decision making and limits the pervasive social and governmental influences. But regulatory science is not always clear, neither to the government nor to the public. Because of this lack of clarity, the EPA is working to develop better strategies not only for risk assessments but also for communicating the implications of risk to the general public.
What is Risk Communication?
Risk communication is the interaction between environmental risk assessment scientists, managers, policy makers, and public stakeholders. For effective risk communication to occur, all impacted stakeholders for a particular setting should be a part of the communication process from the beginning. It is extremely important to identify relevant stakeholders (generally done as a part of risk management strategy) and to develop communication streams to fit their needs. It is also crucial to engage in two-way communication, where stakeholders are able to voice their perspectives, questions, and opinions directly to scientists.
One of the biggest challenges of risk communication is that it is generally the most overlooked aspect of risk assessment and management. Scientists often forget the importance of being able to communicate effectively about their research and scientific opinions when working with a diverse audience. This lack of effective communication has occasionally challenged the ability of industry and government officials to interpret the scientific evidence which can inform regulatory affairs.
Another challenge is how much information should be shared directly with the general audience. In today’s world of the Internet and mass media playing critical roles in science communication, scientists need to be cautious about the interpretation of their data. Strategic training, information sharing sessions, and orientation with the public should be planned by both scientists and policy makers when discussing topics which affect wildlife and human populations.
Why is Risk Communication important?
Our environment, food, and personal health are threatened by exposure to environmental pollutants and bacterial hazards on a daily basis. While there are research and quality control safeguards towards protecting us and our ecosystems, there are times when we may encounter an additional crisis event, such as an oil spill. The communication associated with both daily and event-based risks needs to be a continual and evolving process and not just for a one-time crisis management initiative.
The topics widely covered under the umbrella of risk communication are generally:
1. The levels of risk (environmental/health)
2. The significance of the particular risk
3. The regulations, decisions, and policies in place to deal with these risks
Previously, risk communication was often thought of as a “linear process”, but now experts and all concerned stakeholders understand that it is a “cyclic process”.
In next week’s post, we’ll go into more detail on methods for how to use the cyclic process of risk communication. A big thanks to Namrata for introducing us to risk assessment and communication! For more of her writings, be sure to check out her science and outreach blog.
I’m taking a break from the blog both this and next week to focus on some other writing projects, but in the meantime I thought I’d delve into the archives of my personal blog I kept while a graduate student. This one was one of my early attempts at science communication and focused on a restored lake which was in the middle of the University of Florida campus. Nice to have a bit of a walk down memory lane to remember the good times in The Gator Nation. Enjoy!
“The Story of Lake Alice: Finding the right balance between nature, administration, and aesthetics”
Originally published on "A toxicologist's tale", 11 Sept 2012
5pm rolls around and you’re more than ready for the end of the day. Whether your day is spent in class, at work, teaching, or doing research, we all need a place to unwind after a busy day here at UF. Many of us seek out natural areas to cleanse our minds and bring perspective to the tumultuous moments we go through each week. For many students and staff, the hallmark oasis of these natural areas on campus is Lake Alice. It’s a place for relaxing walk with friends to look for alligators and soft shell turtles, for a vigorous jog through the winding trees near the Baughman center, or for waiting patiently at the bat house for dusk to fall. Lake Alice provides us with so many easily accessible and engaging ways to enjoy the many pleasantries of nature.
But perhaps on occasion you’ve noticed things that made you wonder just how pleasant these natural areas on campus really are. Maybe a powerful smell as you jog along the north shore, the extremely turbid waters in the creek at Gale Lemerand and Museum Road as you walk downhill to the commuter lot, or the incidences when the whole lake turns bright green. You’ve likely asked yourself what these events mean for our lake, if our lake is as clean and healthy as it should be, and if you should be concerned about any of it. But before jumping into conclusions about how healthy our lake really is, we need to take a step back and understand how the quality of water bodies is defined and the numerous roles our treasured Lake Alice holds for our campus.
Lake Alice has a rich and varied history since the lake and the land around it was purchased by UF in 1925. At that time, the only sources of water input into Lake Alice were rain, storm water runoff, and untreated sewage. As UF continued to expand, the direct input of sewage into the lake was no longer seen as a sustainable option, so treated effluent was discharged starting in the 1960’s. In 1994 the Water Reclamation Plant was built, and now the treated effluent is no longer discharged directly to the lake but is piped to one of Lake Alice’s discharge wells. Lake Alice currently receives water from stormwater and irrigation runoff that enters from the connecting creeks.
Lake Alice is not here only to serve as a oasis for us: Lake Alice and the other lakes on campus are also the official storm water retention ponds for UF. These on-campus lakes are under the regulation of the federal government as part of a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit that the university holds. Holders of these permits are required to identify and prevent non-point sources of pollution, which includes things like irrigation chemicals and contaminated runoff from roads near the lake and connecting creeks. As part of the broader plan for waters on campus, UF also wants to help Lake Alice reach Class 3 water quality standards for the state of Florida. Meeting these criteria would mean that the lake is suitable for “fish consumption, recreation, propagation and maintenance of a healthy, well-balanced population of fish and wildlife.” Lake Alice is also a recognized conservation area (so no fishing or swimming allowed, even if the lake does meet Class 3 standards) and it serves as home to over 75 plant species and 60 animal species—including our university’s mascot the American Alligator.
With all of these different functions and regulations—storm water retention area to the federal government, a potential Class 3 water body for Florida, and a wildlife conservation area—how is UF keeping up with the array of unique demands from administration and nature alike? One approach to monitoring if these demands are met was by the establishment of the Clean Water campaign in 2003. Dr. Mark Clark, one of the founding members of the campaign and a professor of the Department of Soil and Water Science here at UF, is currently overseeing the outreach and public awareness efforts of this group. These activities include installing drain markers to inform people that campus drains flow into Lake Alice, volunteer clean-up efforts, and educating the public on water quality issues.
Another major facet of the Clean Water campaign is monthly water quality sampling events that have taken place since 2003 at 20 locations all over campus. Some of the locations include the creek near the New Engineering Building, Hume Creek in Graham woods, and the Baughman Center bridge. Based on the water quality data collected so far, there are two main chemicals that have the potential to cause problems for the competing regulations imposed by administration and the natural requirements for having a healthy lake: nitrogen and phosphorus. Both of these chemicals can cause algal blooms and plant overgrowth as well as decreased oxygen levels. Decreased oxygen can cause fish deaths and lead to an imbalance in the different types of wildlife that live at the lake.
In addition to the work by the Clean Water campaign, students of Drs. Dan Canfield and Chuck Cichra have been collecting water quality and fish population data as part of the Introduction to Fisheries Science (FAS 4305C) and Fish and Limnology (FAS 6932) courses for over 30 years. In lectures and hands-on field work, students learn how to collect and interpret water quality readings and how to estimate fish population structure and size. One of the lessons these students learned when the course was first offered is that an aesthetically-pleasing lake is not always the best lake for fish. In previous years when the lake was bright green—before the treated effluent was re-routed—Dr. Canfield and Dr. Cichra’s students were amazed at the large size of bass and other sports fish they caught. “They had been taught for years that a green lake was a dead lake. It didn’t take them long to realize that wasn’t the case for many of these fish species,” said Dr. Canfield.
Over the years as the lake has become clearer, data collected by Dr. Canfield’s class indicate that fish populations have declined both in size and number, and there are also fewer ospreys than in years past. Some fish kills have occurred, but Dr. Canfield indicated that these were caused by severe low temperatures and invasive species such as tilapia. Dr. Canfield also stated that “Water quality has become very focused on issues of phosphorus and nitrogen, while ignoring other important issues like bacteria.” Fish living immediately at the discharge site previously had a high rate of infections and fish in the lake still experience these problems, which demonstrate the need for a water quality plan that also looks beyond chemical measurements alone.
So what is the future of Lake Alice and other natural areas on campus? “The next phase is for the university to decide what steps to take to balance the dual roles of having an aesthetically-pleasing lake and an area appropriate for conservation goals,” said Clark. This means incorporating what we know about the watershed from the water quality data that the Clean Water campaign collected into the future goals of our university and identifying the roles it wants Lake Alice to continue to serve.
What does this mean for the rest of us that don’t have a direct impact on the decisions made by the university? While we may not be able to reduce irrigation run-off or help larger fish come back to the lake, there is a lot that we as members of the Gator Nation can do to take ownership of the health and well-being of the waters on our campus. For more information on the Clean Water campaign, visit http://campuswaterquality.ifas.ufl.edu to learn about events and activities. You can also become a part of UF’s wetlands club and participate in volunteer clean-up efforts around campus and in the Gainesville area. To learn first-hand about lakes, fisheries, and water quality issues, sign up for Dr. Canfield’s and Dr. Cichra’s course, taught each Spring and open to any junior or senior-level students with an interest in the subject.
Our lake has undergone numerous transformations during the changes in water inputs and usage over the years, and the lake will likely not remain in its current state forever. The future of the water bodies on campus hinges on finding the correct balance between nature, administration, and the future expansion of our university. And while you may not be able to have a direct impact on decisions made by our university, you can do your part to help protect these important natural areas by becoming aware of the issues and history of our lake and becoming active in clean-up or educational efforts.
A common theme in this blog is science communication: whether it’s advice on how to talk about your research at holiday get-togethers or how you can present your research findings to a scientific audience, I certainly enjoy writing about how to communicate, and I’m not the only blogger who does. But as the old saying goes, “those who can’t do, teach,” and perhaps I’ve been guilty of not following my own advice, even advice from my own blog posts.
At family get-togethers I tend to be the wallflower that greatly enjoys hearing about what my family is up to but the one who hates talking for more than a minute or two about what I’m up to apart from “Oh, you know, busy in the lab.” When meeting new people, scientists or not, I tend to give the same 5-second reply of “I’m a biologist” or “I do research” and move on to the next question or topic as quickly as possible. I feel guilty for this, realizing that I’m not doing as I preach in my blog, but in the moment of meeting someone or talking to my aunts and uncles about my work, I panic and resort to the easiest and shortest way out of the topic.
Lately, I’ve been thinking of how to become a better doer as well as a teacher in the realm of science communication. This has been spurred by being involved with outreach activities through my University, taking public engagement training courses, and, most recently, reading ‘Modern Poisons’ and seeing how my undergrad professor Dr. Kolok talks about toxicology. This week’s post is an attempt to layout my thoughts from the past few weeks on how to talk about my research in a way that will strike a chord with more people than just my fellow toxicologists, using an analogy that connects my research to another hobby of mine: public transportation systems.
There are a lot of joys you can experience while travelling: seeing new cultures, meeting new people, trying new foods, and feeling the vibe of a new city. For me, there’s yet another joy of travelling: maps. That excitement of getting a city guide that lists all of the key sightseeing points, but what’s even more exciting for me are the big underground railway and mass transit maps, displaying all the colorful connections throughout the city, the stops you can explore, and the numerous neighborhoods that are all within your reach.
The same excitement I get while looking over a new city’s mass transit map is the same type of excitement I got when first learning about molecular biology. I remember my fascination while sitting in the front row (yes, I was that person) of junior year molecular biology class at my alma mater, the University of Nebraska at Omaha, taught by the Biology department Chair and enthusiastic instructor Dr. Tapprich. I was mesmerized by the intricacies of the biochemical pathways, how feedback loops between one enzyme to another in the same pathway kept every process related to metabolism under tight control, and how a system as complex as a human body could be interconnected through these pathways that are invisible to the naked eye. Perhaps my fascination between the two seemingly unrelated topics, mass transit and molecular biology, is due to their similarities. Public transportation connects a city of diverse neighborhoods and helps it function on a daily basis by moving people around, similar to how the intricately linked biochemical pathways control everything from our metabolism, immune system responses, organ function, and, in general, keep us functioning on a daily (and lifelong) basis.
But as we know in the real world of public transportation, a daily commute doesn’t always run smoothly. Somewhere along the line, a signal is down, a train gets backed up, or a train car has too many passengers getting on and off and ends up late to its next destination. A small snag can sometimes fix itself, maybe a late train makes up some time at the next stop, or a signal is fixed in a hurry. But when things don’t get fixed or when broken signals are combined with other malfunctions, the problems can grow even worse, causing delays that spill over and affect other lines, delays that seem to make the whole city come to a standstill. This is especially true in mega cities like London (see tube map below), a huge amalgam of interconnected lines, zones, and the inevitable delays on a regular basis, all while moving some 8.5 million people across the city.
This is where toxicology comes into my transportation analogy: if molecular biology and biochemistry are the study of the lines and stops that interconnect a city, toxicology is the study of what a transit system can do when things go wrong and what happens when things can’t be fixed quickly enough to keep the city from devolving into disorder, chaos, and in extreme circumstances, complete shut-down.
But while you can study a map of the London underground on your own and fairly easily figure out how to get from Amersham to Oxford Circus, toxicologists learn more about the system by breaking it down into pieces, seeing how different train lines intersect, and seeing what happens in zone 6 when a train breaks down in zone 2. You’ll learn a lot in Dr. Kolok’s book about pesticides, which generally kill pests by over-stimulating an enzyme involved in transmitting neural signals. This would be like a broken signal at Ravenscourt Park which results in trains leaving the station every 30 seconds instead of every 5 minutes. At some point the trains will start colliding with one another, which is an transit-ified simplification of what happens in the neurological system after pesticide exposure: too many neural signal firings means muscles won’t be able relax, with a constant firing eventually resulting in a complete failure of the system.
For my PhD project, I worked with endocrine disrupting chemicals. The endocrine system is in charge of quite a few important functions in our body, but the most notorious are their control of sex hormones such as testosterone and estrogen. Chemicals that disrupt the endocrine system can create cross-overs and confusions in regards to hormone levels and normal development. Think about if you booked tickets to go to South Ealing but ended up arriving at Goldhawk Road instead. In my dissertation I studied a population of fish exposed to chemicals downstream from a paper mill. In this group of fish, the females had a growth on one of their fins that normally males only have-think of a situation where you happen upon a group of women living in a remote area who all have thick moustaches and beards.
Using the publication transportation as a model for toxicology, you can start to imagine the connections between different body systems as well as how things can go wrong at any point along the map. Toxicologists need to understand what happens at the stations, the rail lines, and all the interconnections between places and routes in order to address questions like why a signal failure in Kings Cross can delay trains in West Brompton. In general, toxicologists study very specific trends: what happens when this enzyme doesn’t work or works too well, why a synthetic chemical can cause endocrine disruption, etc. It’s also a way that we classify toxic chemicals based on what lines they impact the most, what stations they hit, or how easy they are to clean up afterwards.
But what if the problem wasn’t at a specific line or station? How would you study the system if instead of something specific like a signal failure, there was an earthquake? In theory, just about any part of the system could be damaged, ranging from a minor delay due to a small magnitude quake or catastrophic destruction in the event of a large magnitude event. But as countries who live in earthquake-ridden locations know best, there are generally particular areas that get hit the most that can be reinforced to withstand a full-blown earthquake, weak points in a city’s infrastructure that tend to feel the brunt of even a small earthquake more so than others. But how do you find out what these weak points are without waiting to see what a big, potentially damaging earthquake can do firsthand?
The earthquake within this ‘toxicology in transit’ model is called narcosis, and it’s what I’ve been studying for the past 2 and a half years of my post-doc. Narcosis as a field of toxicology has been around for a while, but exactly how narcosis works (i.e. what stations and lines get hit the worst during an earthquake) is still uncertain. We know that narcotic compounds target biological membranes, the master gatekeepers and regulators of what goes in and out of a cell. Cell membranes are like the ticket gates at the station entrance: you can only get in (or out) if you have the right ticket. Membranes have to be good at controlling what is allowed in and out to make sure your cells have the right balance of ions and proteins so the cell can keep running normally. Narcotics break down this barrier and change the properties of the cell membrane, effectively letting anyone in (and out) instead of keeping things tightly regulated.
But the problem is that we don’t know exactly what happens when membranes go wild. Think back to the transit example with an earthquake: Do all the train signals stop working, or just a select or key few? Are there delays on all the lines, or are there a few key lines that once they get out of whack cause the whole city to be in disarray? While my project is still ongoing, it looks like it’s the latter that can explain what we see in narcosis. Narcotic chemicals tend to impact neurological signaling, and in my project we’ve found that biochemical pathways related to neuronal function tend to be more impacted than others. While the narcosis earthquake is still a random event in that any membrane in a cell can be impacted, the ones related to sensation and body movement tend to get hit more than others. This allows us to take a closer look at the stations and rail lines impacted by an earthquake, and to better understand more precisely how narcosis happens and why.
So that’s my post-doc career in a nutshell: studying cellular earthquakes and transitioning my love of travel maps into a career in science. While I came up with the idea on a bit of a whim, I’ve found that getting started with actually putting thoughts into words and concrete ideas is the hardest step, and perhaps also the scariest: you feel like you’ll get something wrong, or that you won’t be able to write something as clear as you see it in your head, or that you’ll go through all the trouble and still have no one who understands it. My only advice here from the ‘teacher’ side is to just give it a try. If something doesn’t come out perfectly, you can always try again and learn from what did and didn’t work the first time around.
During the rest of the summer I’ll continue putting my science communication skills into the ‘doing’ stage and will also have some additional posts on science communication approaches and techniques. Next week we’ll revisit our Heroes of Science series, and we also look forward to some upcoming collaborations with the Ecotox blog and the EuroScientists blog. Until next week, we wish you a summer of delay-free commutes (if there is such a thing!).
We’ve talked in previous posts about many of the additional jobs required of scientists besides research. Science communication is at the top of the list, and the importance of strong communication skills for scientists has become clearer now than ever before. In some of our previous posts, we’ve focused on ways you can communicate your science when asked the dreaded question of ‘So, how’s research?’ at a get-together with family or friends or how you can adopt the use of a narrative approach to set up your scientific story. It’s also important for us to think beyond our own research and consider sharing the concepts, findings, and ideas of an entire field of study. Are there ways that we can better communicate the wider scope of our scientific research to an even broader audience?
At the SETAC meeting last autumn in Salt Lake City, I had a chance to catch up with my undergrad thesis advisor Dr. Alan Kolok, who set out to do just that for toxicology. I spoke with him over the phone this winter about his project of writing Modern Poisons and his perspectives on undertaking the endeavor of translating toxicology for a lay audience. I also had a chance to read the newly-minted e-book version this spring, which you can pick up on Amazon or directly from the Island Press website.
You might find the book a surprisingly short read, something you can get through in a week or so of easy reading, and there’s a reason for that. Kolok was initially inspired by the paperback Why big fierce animals are rare, a book written by the late Paul Colinvaix, an ecology professor who worked at The Ohio State University and later at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. The book is dense in basic ecology but uses short, 5-minute chapters to get the message across. Kolok was inspired by the book as an undergraduate student and the way in which these complex concepts in ecology could be conveyed in short, easy-to-read sections for a broad audience. Kolok wanted to do something similar for the field of toxicology: a book that could be read by anyone, from accountant to zoologist, and a book that would enable them to have a better understanding of the concepts and common misconceptions within toxicology.
As researchers we work primarily in a single field and with the occasional jaunt into interdisciplinary territory. It’s easy to forget how specialized we are even compared to scientists working in other fields, even ones that might seem similar at first. Kolok was initially surprised by comments on a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation about why PCBS aren’t metabolized but PAHs are and why EDCs impact fish differently than humans. To the toxicologist, these concepts (and acronyms) seem like common knowledge, but for someone who’s an epidemiologist or an electrophysiologist won’t understand concepts like biotransformation as much as a toxicologist will. After seeing these comments, Kolok realized that even for a field as large as toxicology, there was really only one major textbook dedicated to the principles of the field. While this is a great textbook, it’s not exactly pocket-sized, and certainly not a light read or for those who simply want to pique their interest on the topic.
Three years ago, Kolok set out to write Modern Poisons as a short and easy-to-digest book on the basics of toxicology. While the book is currently available as an undergraduate textbook, it was initially meant to be a short book for lay readers, including advanced high school students, who are interested in toxicology. In order to reach this broad audience, Kolok’s approach was to use the power of metaphors. Kolok is a firm believer of the value of anecdotes as a way of explaining complex concepts to people who don’t come from a scientific background. This approach is used to tackle topics ranging from the geographical distribution of pollutants to emerging questions on topics including nanomaterials and personal care products. This approach enables readers to understand the gist of the problem but leaves the in-depth details for another story.
What became more of a struggle for Kolok during the writing process was achieving the balance between sufficient complexity with understandability. In the past 17 years of teaching toxicology for senior undergraduates at UNO, Kolok has found that a good portion of the course ended up being the study of biochemical pathways. While this isn’t the core of toxicology per se, it was still something that all students needed to understand so that concepts such as enzyme induction by dioxins and pesticides binding to the acetylcholine receptor could be better understood. The book subsequently follows in parallel to how Kolok teaches, not only in the specifics of the enzymes and pathways discussed but in general in the sense of how the system works as a whole and how different pieces can end up in disarray during a chemical onslaught.
Kolok used Modern Poisons as a textbook in his toxicology course last autumn, where he provided the book as an overview and then used the course to go into greater details. While this required Kolok to re-think his course and revamp his presentation style, he was also able to get feedback on the book before it went to publication. His students really enjoyed the book and were able to read each chapter and make specific comments on what worked and what didn’t. After four years of droll textbooks for classes, Kolok’s senior-level toxicology course enjoyed a book with a more conversational and informal tone and approach, and Kolok plans to use Modern Poisons again in the upcoming semester.
While the book did take three years to write, it wasn’t evenly spread over all 20 chapters. Kolok found that some ideas or concepts came easier and were written faster, while for others he needed to either think about how to go into detail while still being clear, and other concepts required him to go back to the literature. The amount of time spent during that year also varied, as Kolok was still teaching and doing research, but on some occasions spent nearly 20 hours a week at writing. Thanks to a quarterly series of articles he had written for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Kolok did have some starting material from 16 lay person articles of around 800 words, each focused on a topic within toxicology.
Even with some starting material, however, the process was still not always an easy one. “When you’re writing a review paper, your input is scientific material and your output is more scientific material. It’s harder when you’re taking scientific materials and translating them into something else. You have to read a lot in order to understand and then translate without losing the complexity,” Kolok commented. Kolok admitted that he wasn’t always the most efficient at this: some concepts ended up ‘translating’ rather easily but others were more difficult, and some ideas and chapters had to be completely redone. Kolok reinforced the need for good self-critique during the writing process and admitting when you need to restart something completely. While this was a challenge throughout the writing process, Kolok admits that “When you feel like you finally got it right, it’s really satisfying.”
While the first edition of the book is done and in print (or e-book, if you prefer a digital format), Kolok is already thinking about what the next version will look like, but after some time off from book writing, since Kolok emphasized that part of being productive also involves taking a break now and again. The next edition is likely to include some figures and a few changes in sections that Kolok feel could be improved, especially as new research comes out and new stories become prominent in the news, and to go into more detail on certain topics that could only be covered broadly in the first iteration.
“I’d never thought of myself as a writer until finishing this book,” Kolok remarked, and said that by writing this book he activated a more creative part of his brain than normal science writing. “This type of writing feels like a creative challenge compared to scientific writing. I got to expand my creativity and the horizon of my writing, I got to use more creative words and tell short stories instead of journal articles.” Kolok even went so far as to say that writing more creatively felt like learning a new lab technique, and that while in research and as a professor he was and is still writing, he now has a new perspective on it. Kolok even said that the amount of scientific writing he’s done has increased, and he’s now more motivated to write and finish papers, in addition to thinking about continuing his career in writing after retiring from research as a second career.
I greatly enjoyed reading Modern Poisons, and even having background knowledge in toxicology the book didn’t feel like anything was too glossed over or watered down. One student commented that “Dr. K writes like he talks, very conversationally, and I mean that in a good way,” and I certainly agree with that sentiment. Reading this book felt like being in Kolok’s undergraduate toxicology course all over again, a reminder of why I began my PhD in toxicology in the first place: the fascination I felt while learning about what happens when good biological plans and infrastructure go awry. It also spurred my own thoughts on how I could talk about my own research better, which was one of the topics not mentioned in Kolok’s book: narcosis. I agree with Kolok that toxicology should be understood by more than toxicologists, especially since a lot of what we do impacts what chemicals we use in our homes, on our foods, and in our drugs. I’ve already passed along the book to science-oriented friends and non-science-oriented family members who have asked me time and time again to tell them about what I’m doing at work. Thanks to Dr. K, I can just send them the link to the Amazon page and avoid a lengthy discussion on biological membranes over Christmas dinner!
It’s not just toxicology that benefits from books like this: scientists are trained to become specialized in their own fields, and a person that hasn’t been in a science class since high school may have forgotten what the inside of a cell looks like or from what direction the moon rises from. While it may not be an easy endeavor to bring every research concept to the lay person, now is the time to start thinking how you can translate science into a story that people can connect and relate to. I’m thankful for Dr. Kolok’s inspiration in telling the story of toxicology for everyone, and am hopeful that more science-oriented books like this in the future will grace the bedside tables of many curious readers to come.