Media workshop report

The First International EURASNET Conference on Alternative Splicing (21st - 23rd May 2008 in Krakow, Poland) featured a Media Workshop as well as Media Writing Contest. The main aim of this workshop was to raise the ability of scientists to communicate with the media and the general public. It was designed to show how best to talk to both journalists and the general public. Activities included lectures and interactive exercises for the scientists.

The second focus of the activity was to bring the scientific message across to the media in a press release. Therefore the participating scientists were invited to send in a press release describing their scientific work in layman's terms. The three best contributions which were sent in prior to the event were awarded in Krakow and the writers gave a short scientific presentation about their research.

Invited speakers for the Media Workshop were Elisabeth Waigmann, who moderated the workshop, Phil Taylor and Andrew Moore who completed the excellent team of speakers in the Media Workshop.


14.30-14.35 INTRODUCTION
Elisabeth Waigmann

14.35-15.30 ROLE PLAY/LECTURE “How to get the message across to the public?”
Andrew Moore


16.00-16.30 LECTURE “How to get the message across to the media?”
Phil Taylor

16.30-17.00 LECTURE “A successful example – The Vienna Open Lab”
Elisabeth Waigmann


17.15-18.00 AWARD CEREMONY for Media Writing Contest
Elisabeth Waigmann


After a short introduction on the topic of science communication by Elisabeth Waigmann; Andrew Moore talked about how scientists are supposed to interact with the media and what kind of mistakes they should try to omit. Andrew is the Manager of the EMBO Programme Science and Society. He lightened his lecture with numerous interactive questioning. Small prizes, like CDs and videos as the reward for knowledge were distributed.

Andrew introduced several interesting findings of a recent study of European life scientists by the Science and Society Programme (2007), showing that only a small number of scientists are active in science communication. However, a huge number are complaining about how science is shown in the media. Another take home message was that the ability to  communicate with the media should be gained as soon as possible since they might not have the time to learn if they need it later.

The highlight of Andrew’s part of the workshop was a role play performed by Andrew Moore and Monika Heiner (in the role of Dianne Cephalon); the author: Andrew Moore. This play provided a useful way to show the mistakes a scientist can make when giving an interview to a journalist. Both the audience and the actors enjoyed the scene. Finally, a training interview with one participant was shown and commented.

The next question was “How to get the message across to the media? Or…the Strange Case of the Farting Cows!” and should be answered by a media professional - Phil Taylor. Phil does not have a scientific background; rather he is the expert from the media guard. After many years of employment at the BBC, he is now Head of Communications and Information Services of the Scottish Crop Research Institute (SCRI). He gave an exhilarating overview about the dos and don’ts of writing press releases and interacting with the media.

Additionally he presented a number of examples how to pack indigestible scientific information into a text that attracts the man from the street. He introduced a key lesson – the K.I.S.S. principle: Keep it simple, stupid! As a wonderful example he presented an article published recently in Scotland’s tabloid newspaper – The Scottish Sun. This was the result of SCRI  collaboration with a Scottish Government media event. The work being done by SCRI was supposed to be communicated to the Scottish media.

Elisabeth Waigmann is an expert in talking to a lay audience about science, since she is the Executive Director of a science communication platform called dialog<>gentechnik in Vienna. In her talk she introduced the Vienna Open Lab as a successful example in hands-on science communication for everybody. The Vienna Open Lab provides the visitor with the opportunity to work in a real laboratory, performing their own experiment. Interaction between laymen and scientists has advantages for both sides: the public gets access to the scientific world and the scientists improve their skills in science communication.

Award Ceremony and Winners of the Media Writing Contest

The second major aim of the Media Workshop was to show how to write a press release about a scientific topic - either your own work or the research your laboratory. The participants were instructed how to write a press release in advance of the conference and received “writing guidelines” via the conference webpage. Ten press releases were submitted for the contest with contributions from five different countries: Israel, Germany, Spain, Switzerland and Poland. A jury consisting of three members voted for the winners.

The winner of the Media Writing Contest is Schraga Schwartz from Gil Ast’s group at the University of Tel Aviv, Israel. He handed in a text about “Biological Hollywood: How do Cells Produce Their Movies?” For his journalistic work he received the sum of 500. - Euro. The second prize was awarded to Monika Heiner from Albrecht Bindereif’s laboratory at the University of Giessen, Germany. The topic of her press release was “The value of junk – How CACA can change a protein”. The third prize went to Spain. Nuria Majos Oro from Juan Valcarcel’s group in Barcelona sent in a text with the title “Switching cell fate from death to life”. The places two and three were awarded with 300. - and 100. - Euro.

After receiving their certificates and cheques, the young scientists gave a short presentation about their scientific work showing a few slides and read out their press release.

Abstracts of the speakers

Embroidery or Embryology – the choice is yours: a talk and interactive exercises on communicating with the media
Andrew Moore

What we read in the newspapers and see on television is partly a result of what we put there ourselves. If scientists don’t understand the workings of the media and try to contribute actively, media coverage of topics is determined by others. The majority of scientists are unhappy with the quality of media reporting of scientific topics. Unfortunately the majority also do very little or nothing in an active sense to remedy the perceived failings: those who complain are no more active than those who don’t. This is one observation from a study of European life scientists conducted by the EMBO Science and Society Programme in 2007. Another is the positive correlation between communication training and proactivity towards the media.

Taking initiatives in media communication demands the highest degree of professionalism and practice of any communication outside peer circles. Young scientists may not be able to be proactive now, but when they need to be, chances are they won’t have time to learn how to communicate well with the media; journalists invariably want to speak to scientists personally. In the meantime, it is useful to develop a proactive attitude to the media, learn how they work and practice simple communication. As a young scientist you would not be expected (or allowed!) to call a journalist; rather, being proactive means taking the initiative to get communication training, instead of waiting to be told that you need it. Your supervisor surely has other priorities for your complementary skills training.

A role-play dialogue is a useful way to address the skills and tricks needed to communicate effectively not only with the media, but with members of the public too. We will enact a dialogue that – in an entertaining way – provides some concrete topics for discussion thereafter. Members of the audience can suggest how they would have responded in the situation and made a better job of being interviewed by the journalist.

“How to get the message across to the media? Or…the Strange Case of the Farting Cows!”
Phil Taylor

Phil Taylor is Head of Communications for Scotland’s leading crop research institute – SCRI. In this session he discusses some of the difficulties facing science communicators…and some of the potential answers.

What’s the top line? What’s the peg? These are the two questions most often asked in today’s 24/7 news rooms across the world. So how can you interest the general news media in your peer-reviewed, 5000 word paper on Genus Arabidopsis? It may not be as difficult as you think.

The news media is in the middle of a fundamental restructuring. The digital revolution has seen exponential growth in “new media”; news websites, blogs, online user-groups, online broadcasters, digital editions of centuries-old newspapers and web interfaces for the global news providers such as the BBC, MSNBC, CNN and Fox.

The economics of the new media means much of this is being done within existing resources…or reducing resources. Content is king and that means if you think carefully about your message, version it for different outlets and inject a little creativity, you’ll have them begging for more.

If your contribution is well prepared, you WILL be published. Is the work you wish to publicise controversial? Does it have far-reaching implications for society? Is it perhaps just a “curiosity”? Do you care about it…will other people? The areas where your work may impact on ordinary people’s lives are the most suited for publicity.

The next key lesson is the K.I.S.S. principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid! Avoid as much scientific jargon as you can - but that doesn’t mean you have to dumb your science down. People like to learn (or like to be reminded of what they learned a long time ago and have forgotten!) Science is good…but do your best to keep it straightforward and in a context that your audience can relate to.

Good images are essential. SCRI has an artist-in-residence. He’s not a scientist, but finds intensely beautiful many of images relating to cell biology and genetic interpretation. The public do too; think of the extraordinary images provided by the Hubble telescope.

Which leads us on to the farting cows. SCRI recently collaborated with a Scottish Government media event. The idea was to communicate to the Scottish media the work being done by our research institutes on climate change and food security. The result? Widespread coverage in the media AND the front page splash on Scotland’s biggest selling, daily tabloid – The Scottish Sun. The headline: “Udder Genius: Scottish boffins tackle the problem of farting cows.”

It might not be our first choice as a way of explaining methane emissions from livestock…but it reached a huge audience we would not normally touch. Being a “boffin” isn’t such a bad thing, is it?

“A successful example – The Vienna Open Lab”
Elisabeth Waigmann

The Vienna Open Lab is a hands-on laboratory run by the scientific non-profit society dialog<>gentechnik, an organisation founded by scientists with the aim to enter into a dialogue on research and its applications with the public.

The Vienna Open Lab offers access to practical work in life sciences for everybody. Visitors have the opportunity to perform various hands-on experiments in molecular biology. Young scientists advise them during courses and act as scientific role models. The Vienna Open Lab was launched in 2006 and is the first and, at present, only one of its kind in Austria. In 2007, 2800 visitors experienced the fascination of science in 196 courses.

Its mission is to provide the public with access to the fascinating world of science, but also to educate and sensitize scientists for the importance of science communication.

Media Writing Contest Winners

Biological Hollywood: How do cells produce their movies?

Imagine a long spool of film containing a great number of randomly assembled scenes. Such a film is meaningless, but a talented editor may be capable of deleting certain scenes and joining others, thereby creating a powerful movie. Israeli scientists have recently made progress in understanding an analogous process in cells that has long been a mystery.

In order for cells to produce proteins, which are vital for all forms of life, they must precisely join together short patches from within incomparably greater masses of material available to them, a process termed “splicing”. But how are cells able to pick out the meaningful from the meaningless? This mystery was tackled by Schraga Schwartz and co-workers at Tel Aviv University, in a study that shed much light on the nuts and bolts of this remarkable process. Their findings, they hope, will bring us closer to understanding such diseases as cystic fibrosis and certain forms of cancer that result from cells’ failure to recognise the right patches.

The idea was simple: meaningful patches, termed exons, were compared to highly similar but meaningless patches, termed pseudo-exons. If two patches are highly similar but cells consider only one of them meaningful, comparison of the two can point out the characteristics by which they differ and which allow cells to discriminate between them. Employing such an approach, the study was able to uncover fifteen features that characterise exons – but not pseudo-exons. These features include the content, length, and environment of the patches as well as the three-dimensional structure they acquire within cells. In a complex interplay whose nature remains to be fully understood, these features enable cells to correctly identify exons.

According to Alfred Hitchcock, “Drama is life with the dull bits cut out”. However, life needs no lessons in cutting out its own dull parts – and we are gradually learning how this is achieved.

Schraga Schwartz is an MD/PhD student at Tel Aviv University, supervised by Professor Gil Ast. His research focuses on bioinformatic analysis of splicing. Email:

The value of junk: How CACA can change a protein

After mapping of the human genome, it seemed to include a lot of useless material. Nevertheless, Giessen scientists found sense even in this apparent senselessness.

Genes supply the cell with the necessary instructions to make proteins. A, T, C, and G are the building blocks of genes whose sequence contains the information like letters in a book. However, the information has to be edited. Most genes consist not only of “exons”, the units of a gene including the information for making proteins, but also of “introns”. Excision of introns and accurate joining of exons ensures generating the correct message.

This is not the whole story, though. A comparatively low number of genes can produce a high number of proteins by alternative combination of exons. In theory, a single gene can thereby produce more than one million proteins. In order to retrieve the correct information from a gene, this process needs stringent controlling. Achievement of this control is the key question since defects during this event cause many diseases.

Scientists at the University of Giessen searched the human genome for repeats of the letters C and A. They are very common in the genome and frequently reside in introns. Since they serve no obvious purpose, one tends to call them “junk”. Nevertheless, they are not at all useless. A protein docking to CA sequences helps to include or exclude the nearby exon. The machinery of the cell has to identify an exon in order to include it into the message.

With this recognition process, the CACA docking protein is interfering. While the protein is sitting on the intron close to the recognition site of the exon, there is no space left for docking of the necessary identification factors. Exclusion of the affected exon leads to a dramatic change in the information generated. Therefore, for our comprehension of diseases linked to editing mistakes it is vital to understand the workings of this CACA docking protein.

Monika Heiner, PhD student at the Justus-Liebig-University of Giessen, Institute of Biochemistry

Switching cell fate from death to life

Researchers have designed small molecules that target RNA to come closer to the understanding of how the information contained in the DNA code is selected.

Researchers from the CRG in Barcelona have shed new light this month onto the still diffuse picture of how the cell manages to sort, from all the sequences of information contained in the genome, the ones that will codify proteins, the molecules that build up our body and are responsible for most of its function and behaviour.

Striking was to note from the publication of the blueprint of the human genome in 2001, that we only account about 30,000 genes, or sequences that have the potential to code for proteins, only a slightly larger number than the worm C.elegans has. Researchers, now able to look directly at this window enter an interpretation phase, taking as a new frontier to understand how the cell discerns the key words from all this genetic information; in other words, how the code is deciphered to give rise, from a similar amount of genetic information as a worm may have, to evolved human beings.

Researchers at CRG have designed small proteins that are able to interfere with the editing of the message that is transcribed from the genes in form of pre-mRNA. These molecules are able to exclude a key word in the final message before the edited messenger RNA is translated into proteins; key for it can change the structure of the protein in such a way that a cell programmed to die, will instead survive.

These small molecules can be easily targeted to the pre-mRNA transcripts and silence a delimited part of the message. On top of modifying the code and cell fate, understanding how they work helps researchers to understand how the cell machinery reads the correct words from the code.

Over 4000 illnesses are caused by faults in single genes, and this recent work opens the door for tailor-made treatments to rescue from mutations that include a wrong word, and thus a genetic disorder.

Nuria Majós Oró