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A blog investigating science communication. Linking linguistics to Synthetic Biology

Sci Com Seminars

October 4, 2017

Breaking down the barriers

As a culmination of our research into science communication we complied a set of guidelines to advise on communicating synthetic biology to the public. We hope this will help address the problem of how language can be used most effectively to bridge a gap which can result between scientists and the public.

Our guidelines go through the process of communication, from the more broad level of ensuring a full understanding of the intended genre, audience and purpose you are reaching for, to the more specific aspects of word choice, informed by linguistic research.

Sharing at Seminars

To talk to scientists about our research, we organised some seminars with research groups. In these, we presented our research into science communication, talked about our guidelines, then opened up for discussion.

The information was received with interest, and we got loads of really enthusiastic and interesting discussions going. There were debates around the nature of synthetic biology and how definitions can be important to people to help them understand what they are reading about.

The scientists also shared their own experiences of science communication. Something which we found particularly interesting was learning that when submitting work for an academic journal, it is becoming more frequent to be asked to write an abstract specifically for the public, summarising your work in an understandable way. We thought this was an area where our guidelines could be useful!

It was great to get to share the research with people more directly involved in the field, and fantastic to experience the enthusiasm they conveyed in the discussions!

Corpus Pocus

September 2, 2017

Corpus Linguistics...Just like magic

For advancements in science to have an impact, it is important that they are communicated in a way that the largest possible audience can access and engage with. That is where the thought of using corpora to investigate science communication stemmed from- corpus linguistics is an efficient method of investigating large bodies of text to draw summaries.

I like to think corpus linguistics can be related to a kind of magic– enter your search, and quick as the wave of a wand, the corresponding words are pulled out of the corpus. See some screenshots below from the BYU corpora collection, created by Mark Davies ( for a look behind the magic curtain. Corpora from this collection were used in the research which will be discussed!

For the corpus research, I determined four key terms to search: synthetic biology, genetic engineering, GMO and biosensor. I then started the corpus research with some questions in mind. Firstly, how much is synthetic biology actually talked about in publicly accessible publications? Secondly, how is language used in discussing these subjects, and how does the language use reflect attitudes towards the subjects?

Frequency is your friend

COCA– the Corpus of Contemporary American English- is a large corpus of English and American English, comprising of texts from a number of genres. It contains more than 520 million words of text, from 1990-2015.

The corpus is really useful for organising results based on frequency– the number of times your search occurs in the corpus, per million words. COCA has been used to compare how much synthetic biology features across different years. On the graph below, the frequency of genetic engineering and genetic modification in the corpus are also shown. This provides a reference so the significance of the frequency of synthetic biology across the years is clearer.

Collocates are close neighbours

Another thing which a corpus can show you is the top collocates of your search term. Collocates are words which frequently occur around each other. The News on the Web (NOW) corpus features texts from web based newspapers and magazines, and this corpus was used to identify collocates. By looking at the adjectives which collocate with each of the search terms, insight was gained into how these terms are frequently discussed in the media.

So after discovering the collocates of each search term (the top 20 for genetic engineering and synthetic biology are shown above), I looked further at how these words were used, using the articles which the corpus identified they had featured in. Full details of this can be read in my report- A Corpus Based Investigation into Science Communication. Overall, here is a taste of some of the key conclusions!

In discussion of synthetic biology, genetic engineering, and GMOs, both positive and negative attitudes are displayed. By acknowledging these attitudes, they can be used to help aid how and where you communicate. Regulation came up again and again- many of the collocates related to discussions of issues and concerns surrounding regulation. Clearly, safety and control are key pubic concerns with synthetic biology, genetic engineering, GMOs, and biosensors. This can also be said of science and new technologies in general, and these concerns must be addressed when communicating science. Transparency in language use when communicating science is key to gain trust and understanding. To address this, we’re creating some guidelines for communication in science, many of which will focus on transparency!

It doesn't end there

From a click of a button on a corpus, you can discover so much. What’s even better is that there is still so much work which can be done in the future, as these corpora grow with time! Keep searching…

Having a blast at Big Bang!

August 24, 2017

Friday 14th July saw the North East Big Bang fair, a science fair hosted by Northumbria Uni, arrive in Newcastle. Thousands of local primary and secondary school pupils and teachers attended- it was a fantastic event to get children engaging with STEM outside of lessons, inspiring them about how the things they learn in the classroom work in the world, and how they can be involved in this.

Spreading Synthetic Biology
As Newcastle iGEM team, we attended Big Bang with a few aims. Primarily, we wanted to spread knowledge of synthetic biology and get younger students excited about the field! Alongside this, we saw the opportunity to discover how much is known about synthetic biology and the impact it can have on the world, from the perspective of the scientists of the future. This involved learning more about how the current curriculum tackles synthetic biology, how science is taught in schools, and discovering how students actively participate in science and the conversation surrounding it.

Build your own Biosensor
As an interactive activity for the students, we had a make your own biosensor station. By choosing any input, and any output they desired, we got younger children to engage with our project on a basic level, and found this to be an effective way of explaining what a biosensor was. Things that students chose to sense included food, happiness, and pain!

Picture this
We had loads of fun and interesting conversations, with both students and teachers. After we got some discussion and debates started, we got the students and teachers to write down their thoughts and draw some doodles… As is obvious, there was a huge range of different responses for each question. There were responses that were creative, cute and amusing– someone suggesting synthetic biology could be used to make smaller elephants a personal highlight! It was also so great to see students making use of the knowledge they already had to inform them to engage with a more alien area. One student was interested in artificial organs, and they talked about how synthetic biology could be applied to this! On the whole, it was quite disheartening to learn that barely anyone had even heard of synthetic biology, let alone thought they knew what it was. Mostly, once the prompt ‘well, have you heard of genetic engineering?’ was given, there was a light bulb moment and the comments would be more free flowing. We were glad to spread awareness of synthetic biology with the discussions we initiated!

Science isn’t just for the Classroom
While it may not be with synthetic biology specifically, it was clear that students actively engaged with science outside of the classroom, and enjoyed doing this. Seeing how the children were engaging with other areas of science gives some ideas of where synthetic biology coverage should target. The pupils said talked about reading news articles, watching TV programmes, taking an interest in adverts, attending after school clubs…the list goes on! It was great to see a few children had even investigated further on issues they had seen and taken an interest in- one girl told me about coming across a story about nuclear bombs, before finding out some more videos to watch on the subject herself because she was so interested!

Always listen to your Teachers
The teachers were all really happy to speak to us about how science is taught in schools, and gave lots of interesting comments. What came out most was that teaching can be too focused on reaching targets, or teaching set things to reach certain grades in exams. This leaves little time for independently led learning from the students, or developing their own ideas, or investigating further a topic they have been particularly interested in. We established some contacts that were really keen for us to go and visit them to get the pupils interested in science in a more applied context- they loved how we were focusing on a real world problem and wanted to share our work with all generations.

Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?

August 19, 2017

Newcastle University has an excellent school of Language, Communication and Education Sciences, with loads of fantastic staff working in applied linguistics. I’ve been fortunate enough to speak with Dr Spencer Hazel, a Senior Lecturer in Applied Linguistics & Communication. Dr Hazel had loads of different advice about his experiences of science communication, and made me think about aspects that had never come to my mind!

Science and the Media
I was really eager to speak to Spencer about his British Science Association Media Fellowship. With the support of the British Science Association, Spencer spent a month in 2016 working as a science writer for the Times. By hearing about this first-hand experience of working in science journalism, I learnt about the process involved in publishing a story about science, which I was pretty ignorant to beforehand.
I was surprised to learn that the science department at the Times was made up of only two main people, neither of which has a background specifically in a science based subject. When writing, information is first received in the form of a press release– the key points condensed into a summary. The job of a science journalist is to then turn this into an interesting, engaging story that people want to read! Spencer talked about using a structure that people will follow being key to science communication- make sure your writing answers questions in a logical order… Who did it? What did they do? Why does it matter?

Multimedia Inspiration
Talking with Spencer was also really useful for making me aware off all the different methods we can, and should, use for engaging the public with science- not just written communication. Events such as the British Science Festival are great for more interactive engagement, were people can see how science is impacting their world in a more physical environment. As the Newcastle University iGEM team, made use of this interactive inspiration when we visited the Big Bang fair.
I also really enjoyed seeing a video of Dr Mark Lewney performing a version of Bohemian Rhapsody, with his own lyrics that taught the audience about physics. By communicating in a fun way, that lots of people can relate to, an audience which may before have been disengaged can be reached.

Engagement is the Key
One of the most important things I took away from speaking to Spencer was that it is not just communication between scientists and the public that influences engagement, but also a more deeply embedded relationship. Sometimes, an image of disparity can exist between new technologies and the public– the people these technologies will ultimately effect. It’s completely understandable to be disengaged with new technology, even distrustful of it, if you feel like it is being controlled in a way you do not understand, or developed in a process you have no involvement in. Thus, increasing and encouraging engagement with a project from the people it will affect, from its start to end stages, is vital for its success. This advice has influenced our iGEM project- we are having discussions with stakeholders and end users throughout the design and development process, and completing public engagement activities.

Thank you for the great conversation and the inspiration, Spencer!.

Dissecting the Dialogue

A barrier between Science and the public? August 11, 2017

After learning about the gap between biosensor production and actual biosensor use, my thoughts jumped to language. Could a deficiency in communication between developers and users of biosensors could be a contributing factor to the lack of commercial success? Also, on a more general level, how is science communicated with the public?
This summer, while most of the iGEM team members work on transformation with DNA in the lab, I’ll be in the library focusing on how science is transformed from the petri dish to paper. As the cells that are cultured are undergoing the process of translation to make their proteins, I’ll be investigating what it takes to translate a science project into a commercial success.
Science communication is a really broad and interesting field- over the next few weeks I’m going to use techniques such as discourse analysis and corpus linguistics to study it, and discuss the research here. By exploring the field of science communication, we hope to achieve a better understanding of how synthetic biology, and projects born from it, can impact the world!

Making Sense of Biosensors

The focus of team Newcastle in 2017, August 11, 2017

For this year’s iGEM competition, team Newcastle are focusing on biosensor development, by creating sensynova: a modular and multicellular biosensor toolkit. Biosensors are used as detection devices, reacting to certain environments and producing an output to indicate the presence of a substance. However, developing biosensors takes a lot of time and resources, and most do not make it to commercial use. By creating a toolkit, where devices can be combined and reused to make your own biosensor, Newcastle iGEM team aim to ameliorate these issues.

“The limits of my language means the limits of my world” -Ludwig Wittgenstein

Quote of the Day, August 10, 2017

Humans’ ability to use language to communicate is arguably one of our most important defining characteristics. As an English Language and Literature student, I love investigating how and why we adapt language to different situations. When offered the chance to join Newcastle University’s 2017 iGEM team, I saw the opportunity to explore language use in a context I had yet to properly consider- in the world of science.


iGEM: International Genetically Engineered Machine, August 9, 2017

iGEM is a worldwide competition where teams from university, high school, and community labs use synthetic biology to address a real-world challenge (synthetic biology being an area of science where engineering principles are applied to biology, making new systems). Alongside lab work, where team members use genetic engineering techniques to create a biological system, it is also important to consider whether the project is ‘good for the world’, thinking of it in a social context. Ethics, safety, sustainability… in short, how does the project transfer from the lab to life? This area of iGEM is called Human Practises, also concerned with how the public engages with the project, and with synthetic biology as a field.
It’s easy to think of science and humanities as wholly disparate disciplines, but iGEM, and in particular the questions raised in Human Practises, provides the perfect opportunity to show how important it is for them to interact, and exhibit the benefits of a multidisciplinary approach. Our Newcastle iGEM team is made of students with really diverse backgrounds- biological sciences, computer science, agriculture… to name a few! As an English student, I can hopefully offer another new perspective.

Zoe Wilson

Third Year Undergraduate English Language and Literature student at Newcastle University, who has joined the iGEM team to investigate the linguistics used in science communication.


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