These are the stories of DNA stories

My OU’s course, “Communicating Science in the Information Age”, has been going for 2 weeks now! Although the course does not include a blogging component, I have decided to include some of the course activity ‘reflection’ on this blog as it roughly fits with what I’d imagined may be its ultimate shape. Also – I’d hate for the fascinating stories I am uncovering to get lost for posterity in my notebook scribbles;)

This week we have examined some examples of science communication based around the discovery of the structure of DNA. We were asked to find three different “examples of scientific communication that involves DNA”, preferably from different genres. These are their stories..

Radiolab’s show on inheritance

Radiolab is a an US-based audio show aimed at general public audience and published via an online podcast, as well as broadcast via over 300 stations US-wide (see map here). As it is supported by the National Science Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation it is safe to say that they are at least partly aimed at “enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world”.

I have come across it about three years ago when one of my regular listening delights, the Science Show on Radio National, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, featured some of the Radiolab’s episodes.

In their own words:

“Radiolab is a show about curiosity. Where sound illuminates ideas, and the boundaries blur between science, philosophy, and human experience.”

What they fail to mention is the quite phenomenal use of sound effects, music, editing tricks on the interview material and the banter between the two lead presenters, Jad and Robert to create an unbelievably palpable, truly multidimensional representation of concepts and experiences they cover. And its all done with a great sense of humor to boot. As you can see I am quite a fan.

Last November they run a show about Inheritance, focusing on the question of nature versus nurture, with the emphasis on a currently quite a sexy area of scientific research – epigenetics (no small thanks to the stem-cell/regeneration hype – all nicely outlined in Nessa Carey’s recent book). This has been revealing, contrary to the established dogma, that the environmental effects can be inherited across generations, alongside the traits encoded in the genes themselves. This was no news to me, as in my usual contrary fashion, I had chosen to write about epigenetics in my Honours essay which was supposed to discuss the said neo-Darwinian genetic inheritance dogma, around 15 years ago, when the evidence was still very thin on the ground. I have been keeping an eye on it since.

The inheritance episode includes a description of the research on the mechanism by which the environmental effects can affect the inheritance of parenting skills in rats (starts at about 17 min in segment 1 of the show). This uses the “authentic scientist” voices of Michael Meaney and Frances Champagne, who conducted this research, alongside the usual dynamic and rather cooky introduction and interview banter from Robert and Jad.

The part that blew me away (even more than usual) was the bit where they illustrate the scientist’s descriptions of “how a mother’s tongue can reach all the way down to their babies DNA” via a cascade of biochemical events and how this results in marks being left on the DNA molecules to form the second layer of inheritance (at 20 min mark). I never thought that processes at the level of DNA could be so accurately and emotively portrayed using audio effects – a sense of diving into an organism to the DNA level giving you an idea of a change in scale, movement and interaction between the molecules, the nature of the cell’s ‘sloshy’ environment…

Analogies also help here – methylation groups bonding to DNA to make individual genes inaccessible for transcription are likened to barnacles or globs of peanut butter, the aggregation of transcription factors around the activated sites – to a dance party.

The brief mention of the oft-untold story of the tedium of the data collection process – drifting into “the territory of shopping channel” did not escape my attention either 😉

Overall, a great 7 min of science radio!!

The next two are not as exciting so I will try to be brief (I did I did!!)

DNA structure self-guided tutorial

I am also interested in “teaching and learning”, especially using web-based resources, so I thought I might try to find something which fits this genre of science communication. I went to one of the better known learning object repositories – MERLOT – and searched for ‘DNA structure’.

One of the top search results was this web-based self-guided tutorial on DNA structure, designed to accompany an introduction to DNA in textbooks, developed by Eric Mantz at the University of Massachusetts. It’s intended for an audience of biology, molecular biology or biochemistry students, at high school or introductory university level. The tutorial uses Jmol software to provide scientifically accurate, interactive, animated, 3D visualisations of 4 different important features of the DNA molecules. Students can explore them by rotating the structures and highlighting their elements etc.

This is accompanied with links to introductory materials on other websites, a set of materials containing questions for students as well as lesson plans for teachers, and links to further online resources. An offline version of the tutorial can also be obtained.

Interestingly the material is provided under a creative commons license, which allows the reuse and modification by others, provided that they share their results under the same license conditions.

The greatest show on Earth – a music video about evolution (Symphony of Science)

Symphony of Science was another of my serendipitous discoveries – one day my brother shared the Quantum World video with me, I watched it again and again – and I could not stop smiling.

Like many of the Facebook encounters, I forgot about it until last week while watching one of the course videos, Brian Cox’s TED introduction to the CERN project, I realised that I have heard some of his words somewhere before – the video was sampled in the Quantum World!

“The Symphony of Science is a musical project created by John D Boswell [aka melodysheep], designed to deliver scientific knowledge and philosophy in musical form.”

Although the creator himself is not a scientist but a professional musician and producer, he has a clear passion for scientific view of the world and wants to convey its wonders and power to the general public, including those who would not otherwise think of engaging with this material directly. He remixes existing science program or presentation footage (e.g. “the classic PBS Series Cosmos, by Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan, and Steve Soter”) with added images and footage and overlays it with music to the effect that the scientists, popularisers of science and science educators sing the songs of science themselves, with highly entertaining and compelling effect, while not losing the scientific accuracy. The videos are shared on his website, available for download or via YouTube.

The attention paid to the phenomenon by many more traditional and established media outlets, such as NPR in the US, lends this effort much credibility.

I thought this was a great example of science communication bordering on pop culture with many of the hallmarks of the ‘digital age’ (remixing, digital media, sampling, social media distribution/embedding, ‘public’ not only consuming science communication but participating in it/producing it, ‘open’ distribution). So I was set on including it as one of my examples – even if it only featured one single microsecond glimpse of DNA.

Thankfully, ‘The greatest show on Earth’ did have a whole 10-20 seconds of it! This video features Bill Nye, The Science Guy, ‘singing’ about the DNA as a common molecule of inheritance for life on Earth, accompanied by the animations of its 3D molecular structure, followed by Richard Dawkins and David Attenborough expounding further upon the wonders of evolution and diversity, accompanied by a kaleidoscope of images trying to capture ‘the most beautiful, most wonderful’ ‘show on Earth’. The molecule of DNA is portrayed as the source of connection between all these living things, including us, humans, and the drive to pass on the genes is the ultimate goal of life, driving all this diversity.

The important part of the communication here is the passion and a sense of wonder visible on the scientist’s faces and in their body language, not just their evocative words. The music amplifies this. It is a very powerful message of the beauty of the scientific view of the world indeed.

For me there is one flaw in the video – the lack of female scientist’s voices…

You will these all on my SH804 Pinterest board – alongside other visual inspirations related to the course.

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