I ask most of the scientists I interview each day for Morning Rounds the same question: “How would you explain this to a reader who doesn’t have a background in science?”
As it turns out, that’s quite tricky to do.
I’ve been writing Morning Rounds for a year today. I’ve found that writing about science in short form is a constant balancing act.
Medicine is a field that’s at once incredibly nuanced and incredibly broad. The newsletter touches on everything from e-cigarette regulations and E. coli outbreaks to ancient dental plaque and lab-grown kidneys.
Too simple an explanation of antibiotic resistance, and I’ll lose readers. Too in the weeds on differences between microRNA and non-coding long RNA, and I’ll lose myself. I strive to hit a sweet spot — useful, engaging, and short enough to read while waiting for a cup of coffee to brew.
That means condensing the news, the relevant background, and the caveats into a quick, coherent 150 words. Sometimes I succeed. Sometimes I don’t.
Sometimes, I find myself asking that same question — how will this make sense to readers who don’t work in the field? — over and over again.
But in a year of newsletters and more than 100 “Lab Chats,” I’ve seen how many scientists are willing to go the extra mile to make sure the public can understand their work. Back in January, for instance, I did a Lab Chat with biochemist Martin Schmeing of McGill University about his work on the megaenzymes used to develop antibiotics. He developed an imaging technique to understand how those megaenzymes moved.
Schmeing’s explanation: The megaenzymes dance a cellular “YMCA.” Schmeing and his colleagues trapped them as they threw up their hands for a Y and snapped a picture, then did the same for the molecular equivalent of the M, the C, and the A.
I’ve tried to push for explanations like this, because they give both me and readers something to grasp onto. I’ve learned to cover the negative results that emerge when a study doesn’t find the associations the researchers had expected. The failures in science matter, too. I’ve also discovered that captions are the perfect place to squeeze in a pop culture reference.
And with every 5 a.m. wake-up, I’m reminded how relevant science is to every facet of our lives — and how strange our bodies are, from the neurons in our brains to our toenail clippings.
Morning Rounds comes out every morning with the help of great editors, a coffee pot, and a lot of snacks. But it also comes out thanks to my readers, who always share thoughtful insights, flag stories worth covering — and point out every one of my typos. Never change.
I’m excited to keep delivering your daily dose of medicine news bright and early each morning. Cheers to a year of newsletters!