An Interpreter of Interesting Research

320px-Meat_eater_ant_feeding_on_honeyNo news story has written itself for me, thus far. This is not a complaint, it is a boast. As a science journalist, I work hard to file good articles, or copy as we say in the business.

I translate jargon into narrative for a living.  I have to coax intelligible sentences out of some very smart scientists, so I, in turn, can make sense to my readers. Even in a short news item, I hope to convey: why the research is being done, what this discovery adds to the current body of knowledge, and how this new finding can impact our lives. Researchers often provide a succinct abstract in a peer-reviewed paper. Wikipedia is at hand if one is stumped by technical terms. So it is all pretty straightforward, you’d think.

Picture Credit: “Fir0002/Flagstaffotos”

Well, take this recent Science paper titled “Tracking Individuals Shows Spatial Fidelity Is a Key Regulator of Ant Social Organization”. I happen to like ants but the abstract with its “spatial” and “temporal” did little to pique my interest. Then I came upon this article by Ed Yong which told me what the paper  was all about: Ant Careers. In a colony, an ant’s job changes with age. Different kinds of workers inhabit different parts of the colony and each group sticks to its own kind.  Nurses take care of the brood and are younger than cleaners. Both nurses and cleaners are homebodies and each group constitutes a third each of the population. The rest, the oldest, are foragers, the most visible members of the colony. Yong says this is what the researchers did:

The team reared six colonies of carpenter ants in the lab and tagged each worker with paper containing a unique barcode-like symbol. The colonies — each comprising more than 100 ants — lived in flat enclosures filmed by overhead cameras. A computer automatically recognized the tags and recorded each individual’s position twice per second. Over 41 days, the researchers collected more than 2.4 billion readings and documented 9.4 million interactions between the workers.

Will this paper on ants  impact our daily lives? Probably not. But the fact that we can do surveillance and observe the private lives of tiny insects, 24/7, is of interest. This is just one instance of how Big Data is going to help in making scientific discoveries in this century. Before, we did not have these many data points to draw correlations from. Heck, we didn’t have a thousandth of these numbers when I was plotting Excel graphs  in grad school!

Sometimes, we journalists attend conferences or just call scientists or talk to them in person — there is no published paper at hand. Occasionally, we find someone who is so cogent, we can just put quotes around whatever they had to say and call it a day. Such folks are rare. There are more scientists who are completely unintelligible to people outside their field. I wish I could admonish such folks with “Stop speaking gibberish please.” But I can’t. So I reframe the questions, break them down so I understand what they are trying to say. If I appear dumb, so be it.

We really like to do the translation, but there are many challenges along the way. As I said, no good science news story writes itself.