Science in Writing: Animal Physiology

 

In Kenyon biology, students learn not only how to perform scientific inquiry but how to communicate their science clearly and effectively. Dr. Christopher Gillen has a passion for understanding how animals work, and his research specializes in salt and water balance physiology, most recently examining salt absorption and secretion in the Aedes aegypti mosquito. His course Biology 243: Animal Physiology is one of the most popular in the department, and students compare complex physiological processes across different organisms under Dr. Gillen’s enthusiastic instruction. In addition to his passion for understanding how animals work, Dr. Gillen is passionate about making scientific research understandable and enaging for all audiences and he is the faculty director of the Kenyon Institute in Biomedical and Scientific Writing. This semester, he launched Kenyon’s first science writing seminar course with Professor Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky of the English department, where students read and discuss a wide variety of literature with a scientific focus, write voraciously on their own scientific fascinations, and experiment with the many techniques and nuances of the science writing genre.

Dr. Gillen stresses the importance of communicating science in all of his classes, particularly how to write about science for a variety of audiences:

“Pitching complicated research to a general audience is hard. Students must understand the science deeply and frame it with compelling writing and storytelling. And the skills they learn writing for a general audience transform them into better scientific writers.”

In Animal Physiology, students were asked to complete a News and Views assignment where they write two essays on the same scientific research article: one essay that makes an argument about the research to an audience of scientists and another essay that explains the research to a broader audience of non-scientists. Here is one such article for a general audience, written by junior neuroscience major John Wilhelm:

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Celebrating Darwin’s 208th Birthday!

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A beautiful birthday cake, courtesy of The 8 Sister’s Bakery

Every few weeks the biology department gathers in Fischman 103 for Biojournal club, an informal gathering of faculty and students. Student leaders mine recent journal publications for exciting research papers, and we carefully select an intriguing study to discuss as a department. We gather at 12 for pizza and beverages to accompany delving into deep scientific literature. At the small discussion tables, students and faculty alike delve into the texts of the papers, deciphering statistics, interpreting graphs, and raising questions about methods and conclusions. Every meeting yields a new discussion with topics ranging from plant physiology in seed dispersal mechanisms to rapid-scale bacterial evolution to editting the human genome.

In joint celebration of Charles Darwin’s 208th birthday and Valentines Day, our paper focused on sexual selection and the sex-driven ornamentation driving speciation of finches. Discussion was lively, and all involved felt the love for evolution, Darwin, and biology. The discussion ended with Dr. Slonczewski showing pictures from her trip to the Natural History Museum in London, England, which is proclaimed as a temple of sorts to Darwin and his revolutionary theories of evolution.

The paper discussion ended early so attendees could sing ‘happy birthday’ to our dear friend, Chucky D, and enjoy his delicious chocolate-vanilla layered birthday cake. We may have temporarily lowered our fitness by consuming all of this sugary cake, but rest assured that the long-term benefits of celebrating Darwin as a department outweighed any costs.