January 9, 2018
by dave
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How to stop talking—and writing—like a scientist

From left: David Jiang, Tony Liu, Kellen Bean, Professor Tom Near, David Grimm, Chunyang Ding, and Sonia Wang

From left: David Jiang, Tony Liu, Kellen Bean, Professor Tom Near, David Grimm, Chunyang Ding, and Sonia Wang

One of the most stressful and important times in a scientist’s career isn’t always awaiting the results of a new experiment—it’s a call from a journalist. Should you agree to the interview? What should you say? And how can you possibly distill months—or years—of research into a few minutes on the phone?

And for journalists just starting out as science writers, the challenges are equally great. How do you write about a scientist’s work so that average readers can understand it, while still being accurate?

In September, I was honored to give a Poynter talk at Yale University on these very topics. The presentation was culled from my years of experience as a journalist at Science Magazine and my role as a professor of science communication at Johns Hopkins University. But it also drew from my own time as a scientist, earning a PhD at the very university I was speaking at. I hope the following tips will be useful for scientists and science writers—not just for news stories, but for grants, cover letters, and even conversations at parties.

First, take (or make) that phone call

In a world where scientific facts are disputed, mangled, and politicized, it’s important that scientists and journalists talk to each other. Scientists, you owe it to the public to explain the importance of your research, especially if it’s supported by tax dollars. And journalists, you owe it to your readers to communicate this research clearly and accurately. So how do you do this?

Speak simply and clearly

This may seem like obvious advice, but even when given it, scientists tend to fall back on the way they’re used to talking. They say “olfaction” instead of “smell”. They write that an object “experienced difficulty maintaining a vertical orientation” instead of “it fell down”. And they generally use words and phrases that sound like they came from a textbook—not a human being. Journalists fall into these traps too, especially if they trained as a scientist.

The solution? Envision a friend or relative with an interest in science, but no scientific background. I like to think of my grandmother. She’s interested in new discoveries, but it’s been decades since she learned any science in school. How would I explain a complex scientific concept to her without losing her in jargon and academic speak? If I can communicate clearly and effectively to her, I can communicate with anyone.

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November 20, 2017
by dave
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Ancient rock art provides window into early human-dog relationship

Dog art found in Shuwaymis, Saudi Arabia may date back more than 8,000 years. (Credit: M.Guagnin et al., Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 2017)

Dog art found in Shuwaymis, Saudi Arabia may date back more than 8,000 years. (Credit: M.Guagnin et al., Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 2017)

Humans domesticated dogs somewhere between 15,000 and 30,000 years ago. But although today’s dogs are family members, service animals, and war vets, we know little about man’s early relationship with canines. Now a new finding is providing a window into these bygone days.

Researchers have discovered images of dogs carved into rocks in the Saudi Arabian desert. An analysis suggests that the art may date back more than 8,000 years, which would make these the oldest depictions of dogs in the archaeological record. All of the canines are medium-sized and resemble the Canaan dog—a breed built for the desert—suggesting that humans may have bred these animals for the climate. All also appear to be hunting dogs, taking down ibex and gazelle, and even facing off against wild donkeys. And, perhaps most significantly, many seem to be tethered to the waists of human hunters by leashes.

All of this suggests that these early desert dogs were important hunting companions for humans who lived in this arid region thousands of years ago. They may have been so important, in fact—able to take down or corral animals too fast or too strong for humans—that people may not have been able to survive in this place without the aid of canines. And the leashes suggest that hunters may not have only used these dogs, but found a way to train them. (The leashes are also the oldest depicted on record, perhaps by 3,000 years or more.)

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September 3, 2017
by dave
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Pet rescue during Hurricane Harvey learns lessons from Katrina

A soldier with the Texas Army National Guard rescues a family's pet during Hurricane Harvey. (U.S. Army photo by 1st Lt. Zachary West)(A Texas Army National Guard soldier rescues a family’s pet during Hurricane Harvey. Credit: U.S. Army photo by 1st Lt. Zachary West)

Hurricane Katrina was one of the most devastating natural disasters to strike the United States. But it was also a transformative moment in our relationship with cats and dogs. For the first time, society as a whole recognized how important these animals were to us–and that we would do anything to save them. Now those lessons are being applied in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

I’ve written extensively about pet rescue efforts during Katrina. Approximately 250,000 animals were left behind–in some cases, because people thought they would be able to quickly return to their homes, in others because rescuers and human shelters wouldn’t take cats and dogs, so families were forced to abandon them. But not everyone left their animals–almost half of the people who stayed behind during the storm and its aftermath stayed because of their pets. And many of them died.

In 2006, the federal government passed the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act, which impels rescue agencies to save pets as well as people. Since then, more than 30 states have adopted their own versions of the act, which have been implemented in everything from tornadoes to wildfires. This includes Texas, which requires state officials to help draft plans “for the humane evacuation, transport and temporary sheltering of service animals and household pets in a disaster.”

And now Harvey has seen that plan put into action.

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June 20, 2017
by dave
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Ancient Egypt back in the limelight as epicenter for cat domestication

(Credit: Jon Bodsworth / Wikimedia Commons)

(Credit: Jon Bodsworth / Wikimedia Commons)

If you think cats came from Egypt, you’re both about a decade out of touch as well as eerily prescient. For years, historians believed that cats were domesticated in ancient Egypt. The thinking made sense: The felines are omnipresent in this ancient civilization, from tomb paintings to sculptures to mummies. The Egyptians adored their cats, so much so that they came to consider them gods. But archaeologists burst this bubble in 2004, when they reported finding the grave of a human buried with a cat on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus dating back 9500 years—thousands of years before Egypt existed.

Now, a new study has put Egypt back on the map. By analyzing the remains of more than 200 ancient felines, scientists have discovered that there may have been two epicenters of cat domestication: One in Turkey (notably close to Cyprus) around 10,000 years ago, and one in Egypt thousands of years later. At the very least, it appears that by breeding cats on a massive scale, the ancient Egyptians further tamed the cat, transforming it from a territorial and antisocial feline into today’s couch potato. Whether they further refined cats that originally came from Turkey or domesticated their own cats from a local population of wildcats is unclear. Scientists hope to answer this with further research.

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June 1, 2017
by dave
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Were humans breeding dogs 9,000 years ago?

A Siberian Husky sled dog. (Credit: AWeith / Wikimedia Commons)

A Siberian Husky sled dog. (Credit: AWeith / Wikimedia Commons)

Scientists still haven’t figured out when–or even where–dogs were domesticated, but they’re getting a bit closer to understanding why they were domesticated in the first place. A new study published this month in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports suggests that humans were breeding dogs for sledding as early as 9,000 years ago. The find, based on dog bones recovered from the remote Siberian island of Zhokhov, is the earliest evidence for dog breeding in the archaeological record. (The next closest example is herding dogs in the Near East, which were bred about 7000 years ago.)

The hunter-gatherers who lived on this island tracked reindeer across vast, frozen plains, and they needed a way to get around quickly. Researchers had previously found dog bones on the island, as well as the remains of wooden sleds, suggesting that the ancient Zhokhovians bred dogs for sledding. But the new study firms up the connection. And because some experts believe dogs first appeared about 15,000 years ago, the research also suggests that we may have initially domesticated these animals to work for us. In the Zhokhovians case, it was for sledding, but other peoples may have bred early dogs to help them hunt down small game or even to guard their campsite. (The people of Zhokhov also appear to have bred dogs to hunt polar bears).

What’s most fascinating is that the work may help explain why we have pet dogs today instead of pet foxes or badgers. Those other animals likely hung around early human campsites (just as wolves did), but we never found a use for them. A similar story may apply to cats. I have written before about the 10,000-year-old village of Shillourokambos on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, where archaeologists found what may be the world’s oldest cat. The thinking is that the Shillourokambians brought in cats to help control their rodent problem–but they also did the same thing with foxes. The reason we don’t have pet foxes today, some speculate, is that they weren’t as useful (or friendly, or tamable, or perhaps cute) as cats.

And thus, cats and dogs may be with us today because a long time ago we took a look at them and realized they could be useful to us. And now, perhaps, it is we who are useful to them.

December 22, 2016
by dave
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Is your pet a piece of property?

Butter knives. (Credit: KillerChihuahua / Wikimedia Commons)

Butter knives. (Credit: KillerChihuahua / Wikimedia Commons)

One of the biggest surprises I discovered while researching my book, Citizen Canine, was that pets are considered property, at least in the eyes of the law. This probably comes as a shock to most pet owners too. In America alone, we spend more than $60 billion a year on food, care, and comfort for our furry companions; we let our pets sleep in our beds; we risk our lives for them. More than 90% of owners consider their cats and dogs members of the family; a mere 1% regard them them as pieces of property. Yet the law, as it has for more than a century, classifies pets no different than a couch or a toaster.

To see how this plays out in court, one need look no further than a recent ruling by a Canadian judge in a divorce case. The wife argued for custody of the couple’s three dogs, with some visitation rights for her future ex-husband. In essence, she wanted the judge to treat their pets like children. The judge would have none of it, according to a story that appeared yesterday in The Washington Post. In a 15-page ruling, he stated that while dogs were “wonderful creatures”, they are not the same as kids. “A dog is a dog,” he wrote. “At law it is property, a domesticated animal that is owned. At law it enjoys no familial rights.” Granting visitation rights to a dog’s owner, he said, would be akin to granting visitation for butter knives.

The problem is, most owners don’t view their pets like butter knives, as is clear from this video the Post produced.

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September 22, 2016
by dave
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Did ancient dogs really help us hunt?

Ancient Roman hunting scene (Credit: Ad Meskens / Wikimedia Commons)

Ancient Roman hunting scene (Credit: Ad Meskens / Wikimedia Commons)

One of the most common assumptions about early dogs is that they were our hunting companions. Soon after they were domesticated–or perhaps the very reason they were domesticated in the first place–dogs helped us survive by tracking down and attacking everything from deer to woolly mammoths. There is very little evidence to support this assumption, however. Once people began making art that depicted hunting dogs (such as the Roman mosaic above) and writing about these activities, we knew for sure that dogs helped us hunt. But everything before that? Pure supposition.

That may be starting to change, thanks to a new study published last week about the Jomon hunter-gatherers of ancient Japan. The Jomon, who lived from about 16,000 to 2500 years ago, had dogs for this entire time–but they only revered these animals (burying them with the same pomp and circumstance they typically reserved for each other) for a fraction of this period. Significantly, this reverence coincided with a changing world that brought small game like deer and wild boar, which the dogs would have been ideally suited to hunt down. What’s more, the buried dogs appear to have hunting injuries, like broken teeth and bones. Thus, the study provides some of the first compelling evidence that ancient dogs were indeed our hunting companions.

So is this the smoking gun? Not quite. But more studies like this may help solidify the case that one of the primary roles of early dogs was to help us hunt, and thereby survive.

September 6, 2016
by dave
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Who let the cats out?

Jasper in the great outdoors (Credit: David Grimm)

Jasper in the great outdoors (Credit: David Grimm)

Last week, I contributed an essay to an article in the Washington Post on whether cats should be allowed outdoors. Given the controversial subject nature, I was surprised to see that all of the experts the Post contacted agreed with me: Cats, if at all possible, should have access to the outdoors. Below, is my essay in full (which was abridged in the Post version). To my readers, I want to make one thing clear: Even though I let my own cats out, I fully understand the reasons for keeping cats indoors, and it is not my intent to shame or disparage those who do so. I am merely offering my perspective on the matter. I should also note that I supervise my cats when I let them out, both for their own protection and for the protection of wildlife.

What do you do with your own cats and why? Please let me know in the comments!

When my wife and I first snapped a harness on our cat Jasper in 2005, we didn’t quite realize the ethical quandary we were getting ourselves into. We had just adopted him and his sister Jezebel from a shelter, and we felt they should have access to the great outdoors, even though we lived in Baltimore City. So we did what any crazy cat owners would do: We bought two harnesses made for tiny dogs and strapped them on our kittens.

Jasper and Jezebel didn’t take kindly to their “outfits”, as we called them. As soon as we put them on, the cats froze, then fell on their sides, as though they had been hit by a stun gun. It took a week—and lots of treats—just to get them to stand upright. Walking them was even harder: Cats, as you might expect, don’t take to a leash like dogs. You can’t follow or lead them; you just need to let them do their thing and hope for the best. Sometimes they’ll take a few steps, and you can actually pretend you’re on a walk. But more often they’ll stand next to a tree for ten minutes to chatter at a bird, or slip under a car or through a fence, forcing you to perform some pretty extreme yoga to get them back. I’m not sure if other people found our cat walks amusing or insane, but someone stopped us almost every day to chat or take a picture. If nothing else, it was a great way to meet our neighbors.

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August 12, 2016
by dave
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Clinical trials in cats and dogs could help people too

Frankie the dachshund participates in a melanoma clinical trial at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia

Frankie the dachshund participates in a melanoma clinical trial at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia (Credit: David Grimm)

We all know about clinical trials in people. Faced with a complicated health issue or desperate for a new type of therapy, some of us will enroll in an experimental study at a hospital or university. It turns out that dogs and cats have their own clinical trials. For the past decade, veterinarians and scientists have conducted hundreds of studies on pets in order to develop new therapies, not just for people, but for dogs and cats themselves.

In my latest story for Science, I explore the growing field of pet clinical trials. Dogs and cats live in the same world we do–and they get many of the same diseases–so they may be a better model than lab rodents for developing new blockbuster drugs for society. But there are also challenges in working with pets, and some question whether such trials will ever really benefit human health. At the very least though, they’re likely to help an important member of our families: our companion animals.

June 2, 2016
by dave
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Was the domestication of cats and dogs inevitable?

It’s one of the greatest mysteries of domestication: Where exactly did dogs come from? As unbelievable as it may seem, scientists still aren’t sure what part of the world ancient wolves took those first tentative steps on the path to becoming man’s oldest friend.

Last year, I wrote about a huge new effort to solve the mystery of canine domestication once and for all. Now, it appears that this effort is starting to pay dividends. In an article I wrote this week for Science, researchers are reporting that the two most popular theories of where dogs originated–Asia and Europe–may both be correct. Dogs, it seems, may have evolved in Asia more than 14,000 years ago, and then a subset of these animals migrated west (likely with people), where they met dogs that had already evolved in Europe, perhaps longer than 16,000 years ago.

The findings are preliminary, but if they turn out to be true, they would go a long way in resolving a debate that has roiled the canine origins community for years. But what I find most fascinating is that work comes on the heels of study published in January that suggested that cats too were domesticated twice. We tend to think of domestication–especially early domestication–as a fluke event that was so improbable that it only happened once for each species in early human history. But these new studies suggest that perhaps these domestication events weren’t such a fluke after all.

Perhaps the rise of mankind was destined to give rise to certain domesticated animals. Hunter-gatherers needed a hunting companion that could also protect their campsite at night–and perhaps help them out-compete their Neandertal neighbors–and the dog was born. Early farmers needed a hunter to take care of their rodent problem–and a companion that could pretty much take care of itself–and the cat was born.

Sure, this is all probably a bit simplistic. Evolution, and domestication in particular, tends to be a lot more messy than we’d like to believe. But I do like the idea that we were somehow destined to end up with cats and dogs. Who knows? Maybe dogs and cats were domesticated lots of times, and just one or two of those times stuck. But we kept trying–and they kept trying–because some way, some how, we always knew that we’d be better off with them.