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Communication is a science, as much as the experiment making the news

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Learning to write about their work in an understandable way is now an essential part of a scientist's education and a science communication award, from The Age's Education section and Monash University, recognises its importance.


Type the words “information overload” into Google, and up flashes well over 16 million entries. With the web awash with so much information, it’s important to be able to sort the wheat from the chaff polluting the realm of cyberspace.
In science, this process is regulated largely by the peer-review process, whereby experts review the work of other scientists before it can be published.
“Despite its various shortcomings, peer review is still the best way to weed out error, fraud and just plain bad science,” says Ros Gleadow, the co-ordinator of Monash University’s science communication program. “What’s more, scientists do it for free.”
The problem, Associate Professor Gleadow points out, is that scientific articles are written primarily for the benefit of other scientists rather than for the general public. As a result, the language used and ideas communicated may appear to be complex, not to say downright convoluted sometimes, to outsiders.
The task of science communicators is to try to translate such complex and unwieldy information into a form that is more readily accessible – and, if possible, entertaining and fun to read.
“At Monash, all our undergraduate science students take a subject in scientific practice and communication where they learn how to critically evaluate scientific information – and how to repackage it for different sorts of audiences,” Professor Gleadow says. “This is a very important skill in today’s world. There is a lot of crazy stuff out there on the web, and it is essential that our students are given the tools needed to assess its validity.”
In one recent Monash assignment, students were asked to find a recent report of a scientific discovery reported by the general media and then to trace it back to the original paper published in an academic journal. After comparing the two versions, the students had to write a new piece suitable for publication in a mainstream newspaper, such as The Age.
For the past two years, the Education section of The Age has awarded a science communication prize to the team that produced the best article, based on its engagement with the audience as well as accuracy and style.
After much deliberation, this semester’s group winner was chosen: it turned out to be on the health risks associated with high-protein diets.
“What I really like about this article,” says lecturer Dr Tricia Wevill, “is that the students pointed out the hype in the original media release, where eating protein was likened to the risks associated with smoking, which is clearly not the case.”
The winning piece is published here, largely unedited.
Protein: The middle-age killer?
by Adam Hudson, Heidi Hrycyszyn, Josh Birnie and Tommy Lim.
Here’s some bad news for those on the Paleo and Atkins diet. Diets relatively high in protein might raise your risk of contracting some serious diseases, concludes a recent study by the University of Southern California. That is if you’re aged between 50 and 65 – at which point the trend seems to reverse.
In older people, protein was found to have a protective effect against total mortality. Researchers used data from the NHANES III epidemiological study, considered the gold standard of biomedical research in the United States.
A total of 6381 participants, aged over 50, were included in this study, and were placed in one of three groups depending on their protein intake. The study found a positive association between protein consumption and diabetes-related mortality, with participants in the high-protein-intake group having a 74 per cent higher risk of succumbing.
While a high-protein diet seems to have a negative effect on health for some, it might benefit those who are older. If you are under 65 and have a high-protein diet, you may be four times more likely to die. The study shows the opposite seems to be true for those over the age of 65.
The authors controlled for both animal and plant proteins, with results suggesting that animal proteins are responsible for most of the trends observed in this study.
The research also investigated a hormone, known as IGF-1, which regulates cell growth. It was found that for every 10ng/ml (nanograms per litre) increase in the hormone, participants would have a 9 per cent greater risk of mortality if they consumed a high-protein diet.
This finding was supported by an experiment on mice which found that those on low-protein diets had, on average, 35 per cent lower levels of IGF-1, a 20 per cent lower chance of contracting cancer and a 78 per cent smaller tumour size compared to mice on a high-protein diet.
Also considered were the molecular influences of amino acids on health and longevity, with results suggesting there is a negative relationship between high amino-acid intake and life expectancy.
It appears that amino acids can interact with certain metabolic pathways, causing reduced lifespan and an increase in mutation frequency, with a study on yeast showing that the spontaneous mutation rate increases threefold when the availability of amino acid doubles. This suggests that, even in unicellular animals, amino acids promote genomic instability and cell ageing.
Despite its apparent downside, IGF-1 is a natural molecule that signals cells to grow. This applies equally to a range of cell types.
The original media release from the University of Southern California caused a wave of paranoia when it compared diets high in protein to smoking. This, needless to say, cast some doubt on the study. All the same, despite the negative publicity, the researchers have drawn some interesting conclusions.
The discovery of the effects of protein on different age groups has gone some way towards resolving a dilemma that has long perplexed scientists. It has also opened a novel window on this area of research, although researchers emphasise that further study is needed.

Links
The original scientific article was published in March this year in the journal, Cell Metabolism, at:
www.cell.com/cell-metabolism/abstract/S1550-4131(14)00062-X
A popular version of the research was reported on the webpages of ScienceDaily at: www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/03/140304125639.htm
Learn about high-protein diets at: www.bodytrim.com.au/protein/high-protein-diet
Explore the relationship between diet and health at: www.uptodate.com/contents/diet-and-health-beyond-the-basics
VCAA links
VCE Biology: www.vcaa.vic.edu.au/Documents/vce/biology/BiologySD-2013.pdf
AusVELS Science: Biological sciences: ausvels.vcaa.vic.edu.au/Science/Curriculum/F-10
 

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