Saturday, April 12, 2008

It’s TOXICANTS stupid

Whenever I have the opportunity to teach, I quickly learn how little I know. Maybe that’s what draws me towards the classroom. Besides the opportunity for human contact – especially contact with students who are so eager to learn about how we’ve managed to muck things up and what we can do about it.

A few months ago, I took on two challenges 1) introducing students at Mount Holyoke College to the fascinating world of toxicants, which, as they all now know– it’s toxi-c-a-n-t-s – unless of course it's a biologically produced toxin (and each time I reminded them of this, I was reminded of my graduate school advisor, the one we called “the pedant,” and shudder,) and 2) asking them to write about toxicants (and in one case, a toxin) for publication in the very public Encyclopedia of Earth or EOE ( (And write they did - articles ranging from PBDEs to Atrazine to Synthetic musks - something I hadn't know even existed!)

For some it was a slog. As one student wrote, and I’m sure more than a few students thought, “I never realized writing for the EOE would be so tedious.” For others it seemed a breeze. For me it was nerve-wracking. Particularly after I had the brilliant idea that each student should send her article out for review to whatever expert on her topic she felt most appropriate.
When they sent their work out for expert review, writing letters of introduction, attaching their articles and sending a small part of themselves out into the unknown – I warned them,

“Don’t be surprised if you don’t hear back.”

But then something amazing happened. Scientists wrote back. Scientists - many who are respected in their field, who are pressed for time, who let reviews for prestigious journals sit on their desk until pinged for the tenth time by the journal editor - these scientists took the time to review articles written by undergraduates struggling to comprehend and communicate their research.

It was frightening.

“I didn’t open the response for a day,” said one student about her “expert review.” Another found a sea of red marks – comments, corrections, and No! Wrong! Wrong again – followed by helpful suggestions and further reading.
I wondered if I’d thrown my students to the wolves. Though I’d commented, edited and corrected as best I could before review, the fact is – I could never claim expertise on the breadth of topics covered by this group of young women. This was the lesson I'd learned. I hadn't planned for that level of expert review - but when the drafts came rolling in, I knew I was over my head. Without reading each and every reference - there was no way I could truly comment on the accuracy of what they'd written.

So was it worth the ego-bruising effort? (And I'm not referring just to the students here.) I had asked my students to write not only for the highest level of review, but also in the end, to put themselves out there in a way that many scientists haven’t dared, communicating a highly technical topic - one which they'd just learned about virtually on their own, to the public and in plain language. 

It’s something that I never felt comfortable with until I was out of the lab. Until I felt I had nothing to lose. But these days it is often necessary for scientists to communicate not just with each other but with the public, and it is my hope that that’s the lesson that sticks.

Maybe the difference between “toxicant” and “toxin” is pedantic. But sometimes you’ve just got to get it right. I think they did.
Check out their articles on the Encyclopedia of Earth:

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