Nathalie Jonsson

Science Writer 

  1. DNA Is The Gift That Keeps On Giving

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    I love science.

    Perhaps, a more descriptive way to put it would be:
    I love learning new things and I tend to find science at the core of everything. What I find most satisfying is making connections between my personal everyday experiences and scientific discoveries. But before I started looking for science in my everyday life, I was absolutely fascinated by DNA. I still am. DNA is awesome, here are two reasons why:

    Last week, Karolinska Institutet in Sweden published their findings in people who undergo gastric bypass surgery and have part of their gut removed to combat obesity. As a consequence of the surgery people lose weight, but until recently it was unknown why the surgery made many lose their type 2 diabetes as well. The new research shows that the way DNA in obese people works makes their bodies unsuccessful at breaking down sugar, leading to type 2 diabetes. When the person loses weight from surgery, the function of the DNA is normalised and breakdown of sugar starts again. So, the DNA is not this rigid big molecule that sits at the nucleus of all cells and dictates how the body works, it is actually affected by what happens in the rest of the body. And as seen here, when we lose control of our body the DNA can lose control of itself as well.

    In addition, the Science news website Phys.org published a story on the size of squirrel offspring today. Apparently, researchers from Michigan State University in the US and the University of Guelph in Canada have found that female squirrels can make their offspring grow faster if there is overcrowding. The mothers increase their own stress hormone levels during the pregnancy and once outside the babies grow bigger, faster. Maybe I don’t need to add that it is the first evidence of animals being able to respond to social overcrowding cues (rather than availability of food) and within the matter of one generation impact on the survival of their offspring.
    Exactly how the mothers are able to control the size of their babies is still unknown, but what is sure is that the DNA holds possibilities that apparently can be manipulated to appear at very short notice.

    It’s not an overstatement to call DNA one of the most significant scientific discoveries of the last century, since we are still learning about it in this century. DNA is a never-ending source of surprises. Prepare to keep on being amazed.

  2. To Clean Or Not To Clean

    Today, The Wellcome Trust published a reassuring post on why it is natural that your desk always is a mess.

    Then what does it mean when my desk is always really tidy?

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  3. 'Endangered' Could Be The Step Before Certain Extinction

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    Stefan Dullinger, Head of the Department of Conservation Biology, Vegetation Ecology and Landscape Ecology at the of the University of Vienna, Austria, has been digging into our past to predict the future and all he can see is extinction debt.

    According to extinction debt ‘endangered’ species are dying out not because of what we do to the environment today, but what we did in the past. In a recent study Dullinger found that the European countries with the most recent extinctions also put the most pressure on the environment way back in 1900. The relationship was there even when taking recent environmental effort into account.

    Like Dullinger says himself in a New Scientist post:

    “Biodiversity takes its time to respond to socio-economic pressures”

    This means that we are not to blame for the endangered species of today, so relax, our time to feel bad won’t come in another 100 years. It could, however, mean that today’s endangered animals already have their fate sealed and have started a slow journey towards certain extinction.

  4. The Second Coming Of Bird Flu

    “Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen.” – Revelation 1:7

    Just like the Bible predicted an old friend has resurrected over the past two weeks.

    In 2006 avian flu spread across the world and became our first flu pandemic in modern time. Now, bird flu is back and has been winning ground as it has spread through parts of China.

    Jeremy Farrar, director of the Oxford University Clinical Research Unit in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam thinks we need to be “very, very concerned” about these latest developments.

  5. The Greatest Human Accomplishment?

    - “This is pretty good. If you got to pick a species, being human is pretty good. I mean, we got out of the food chain. Something that is the bane of all other existence.”

    declares american comedian Loius C.K. at the O2 Arena in the outskirts of London on a cold March evening in 2013.

    We agreed. Do you?

  6. The Future of Science Reports: The Finkbeiner Test

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    “Woman must be focused inwards where her children are, where her home is”, the Russian Orthodox bishop Kirill proclaimed yesterday.

    He added that he is not opposed to women having a career, but went on to describe women as “the guardians of the family fire, the centre of family life” and that they should prioritise accordingly.

    Unlike the mighty Kirill, the rest of us have moved on from such delusions.

    We think.

    Looking at reports of female scientist in the media, the stories most often revolve around her gender, her children and how she fits her research around her family. I know this is ver much an ‘all women in media’ kind of problem and not unique to women in science. Stories about women sooner or later reach the topic of their fertility. Sometimes that is crucial information because it is the point of the piece. But something that you would expect from a science story is that it focuses on research and possibly discoveries.

    Someone that grew tired of this was science writer Ann Finkbeiner, who back in January this year vowed in a blog post to keep the focus for her next piece on a woman only on science.
    She had recently spent much time interviewing many female physicists and astronomers and got insight into how the very few women in these predominantly male fields were treated differently. In light of that, she wanted to move past changing the society and pretend gender didn’t matter and thus just deal with the science.

    Finkbeiner’s colleague Christie Aschwanden provided more insight into what lead up to this decision:
    “I asked her [Finkbeiner] if there was a particular story that epitomized the problem, and she pointed me to this two page profile of Vera Rubin, published in Science in 2002. (Full text is behind a paywall, sorry.) Twelve of the story’s 24 paragraphs mention Rubin’s sex or gender roles. “Four paragraphs on her science, and she was the one who found dark matter,” Finkbeiner says.”

    Aschwanden’s own conclusion is:
    “It’s time to stop this nonsense. We don’t write “Redheads in Science” articles, so why do we keep writing about scientists in the context of their gonads? Sexism exists, and we should call it out when we see it. But treating female scientists as special cases only perpetuates the idea that there’s something extraordinary about a woman doing science.”

    And in the spirit of cartoonist and author Alison Bechdel who created ‘the Bechdel Test’ to measure gender bias in film, Aschwanden has proposed a Finkbeiner test for science writing.

    To pass the Finkbeiner test, the story cannot mention

    • The fact that she’s a woman
    • Her husband’s job
    • Her child care arrangements
    • How she nurtures her underlings
    • How she was taken aback by the competitiveness in her field
    • How she’s such a role model for other women
    • How she’s the “first woman to…”

    Luckily, according to Aschwanden there are stories out there that do pass the test. So, hopefully the next time you read a profile on a researcher that happens to be a woman, you apply the Finkbeiner Test and it will pass.

  7. The Search for Female Science Writers

    I present to you: a nice post on the fate of female scientists in the public eye.

    But finding this post wasn’t as straight forward as finding things online usually is.

    When you Google female science writer on science writing the first result is a to a post where a male science writer picks his favourite female writers in honour of some celebratory day.

    The second is a man giving some tips on how to be a good science writer.

    The third results is a post from the Association of Science Writers redirecting to the first celebratory post.

    The fourth is finally a post trying to address the lack of well-known female science writers. Unfortunately, this is a horrendous attempt at starting a debate (not only because the female author apologises for her text within the first 10 lines). The first reason for male bias in science writing is that men have more time than women. Naturally, we are all part-time house wives and don’t have time for twitter like our male counterparts. In the end, there does not seem to be any interest in change. These are some thrown-together reasons for why women can’t be science writers on the same basis as men – now base all your future discussions on that and go out and face the world, woman!

    The fifth is a piece written by a woman about how the Canadian’s a losing touch with local environmental research.

    The sixth result is finally something that I would expect to find having done a search on female science writers. But like so many times before, in my random search for somethings interesting to read, I have stumbled upon something much bigger than that. Next I will look into the Finkbeiner test.

  8. Creating Without An Audience In Mind

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    As part of her job as a judge, my mother provided the legal perspective on cases where offenders with mental illness wanted to be released from mental care. One of these people was an inventor, who had patented and prototyped a tool to wedge key rings open. It was an unexpectedly useful little piece of plastic. My mother and I were both confused by this one individual who had invented a solution to an everyday problem, but also obsessively drew the wolves that he was sure would eat him alive in his dreams.

    Today I find myself thinking: Why not? Just because many of the synapses in this man’s brain got it wrong, does not necessarily mean that they never got it right.

    With this story in mind, I entered the Wellcome Collection’s latest exhibition ‘Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan’, displaying art made by people diagnosed with mental conditions. Until 30 June, outsider art made by 46 untrained artists in mental care is on display after being hidden until recent years.

    It is easy to fall for the temptation of finding traces of mental illness throughout this exhibition. Some of the works were produced through ritual. Komei Bekki’s numerous clay faces were produced in the nude at the same time every day. This could be a part of artistic expression, but due to the circumstances it is easy to attribute it to mental health. It also made me more prone to label other works obsessive, like Norimitsu Kokubo’s impressive cityscapes of places he has never visited. I spent some time reflecting over how obsessive behaviours can be difficult to break since they in many cases provide a sense of control.

    Many of the artists in the exhibition experience difficulty to communicate verbally and have discovered freedom in producing visual art. This is not necessarily unique for these artists, but must be more frustrating than for other artists. Not only if the illness itself makes it hard to put words on feelings, but the fact that treatment often revolves around talking must make these artists feel inadequate and like they are fighting an eternal battle.

    Something that is unique for these artists are the materials used in their works, like Masado Obata’s works on cardboard collected from the care facility he lives in; or Koichi Fujino who can only complete work by saving a quota of ink from an atelier he attends. These both make me think of what materials are at the disposal of the artist, but also the limitation in supplies that are imposed on them due to their particular situation.

    Ironically, for art described as ‘created without an audience in mind’, these works do speak to the viewer and tell compelling stories of these artists. They show the limitations of living with a mental illness, everyday details of a life in care and in a few cases the dark thoughts and fears that haunt them. But, I left with the feeling that humans are truly creative, no matter their mental state and perhaps that producing art, in any way you enjoy, is really good therapy.