Sarah-Jane O'Connor

Dr Sarah-Jane O'Connor trained in journalism after finishing a PhD in Ecology then worked for The Press for two years. She is a senior media advisor with the Science Media Centre, editor of Sciblogs and a part-time teaching fellow in science communication at Victoria University of Wellington.

Tuhia ki te rangi: a new space for student science communication - Tuhia ki te rangi

Sep 09, 2020

Nau mai, haere mai – welcome to our newest addition to Sciblogs: Tuhia ki te rangi. Over the eleven years Sciblogs has been operating, the face of science communication has changed dramatically. Where a decade ago there was a burgeoning number of scientists and other experts looking to stretch their wings in science blogging, now there is a growing establishment of science communication as a career path independent from research. The University of Otago’s Centre for Science Communication offers a Masters in Science Communication in which students can specialise in creative nonfiction writing or science and natural history filmmaking. At Victoria University of Wellington’s Centre for Science in Society students can minor in science communication or take Masters-level courses. From 2020, students can now opt to undertake a Bachelor of Communications or Bachelor of Science with a major in science … Read More

A bump in the night - Lately, In Science

Sep 04, 2020

On the third of September, 2010, I – like many Cantabrians – went to sleep safe in the assumption that Christchurch ‘didn’t have earthquakes’. It was something I took quiet reassurance in: growing up in the Wellington region, where earthquake drills and talk of ‘the Big One’ were omnipresent, it was something of a novelty to live somewhere with “no quakes”. Of course, you know how this story goes. Along with the rest of the city, I woke up at 4.35am to the most intense shaking I’ve experienced. I watched my cat dart under the bed and all my Wellingtonian training kicked into action. “Get up and get to the doorway,” I thought: well, that’s easier said than done when a magnitude 7.1 earthquake is in full flight. Rather, I crawled to the doorway and wedged myself in: back against … Read More

When debunking is just so tempting - Lately, In Science

Aug 13, 2020

As New Zealand holds its breath waiting to find out the extent of the latest cases of COVID-19 community transmission, it’s hard to avoid the growing amount of mis- and dis-information online. It’s a very natural instinct to want to debunk this misinformation, but unfortunately, science communication theory shows that not only does this not work, it can be harmful. The go-to text on this topic is The Debunking Handbook, freely available online from Australian experts John Cook and Stephen Lewandowsky. It’s very readable and easy-to-understand, but I thought it might also be useful to highlight and emphasise some of those key points. Interested readers may like to take a look at the related full academic article. Avoid repeating the myth When we hear something often, it starts feeling familiar to us and can trigger the so-called ‘familiarity bias’; … Read More

Highlights from Bauer Media’s science-related reporting - Lately, In Science

Apr 02, 2020

Today has felt surreal. I was all set to touch base online with my science communication students when a colleague shared the news that Bauer Media would be shutting down its publications immediately. The first link I saw implied it was Woman’s Weekly affected, and even that shocked me. But when I realised it was everything – The Listener, North & South, Metro – I wanted to vomit. Or cry. Maybe both. It’s not like it was entirely unexpected. The night before last I relistened to Duncan Greive’s latest podcast on possible impacts on media during the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown. When I first listened last week I couldn’t quite comprehend the scale Duncan was pointing to. Then Radio Sport shut down. Media outlets have been cancelling their paid columnists. There is talk of … Read More

News coverage drove Zika interest - Lately, In Science

Mar 14, 2020

At a time when our news headlines are saturated with COVID-19, it could be helpful to look back at a previous disease outbreak for hints of what’s happening now. Back in 2016, the infectious disease of the hour was Zika. Remember the Rio Olympics and fears that Olympians would be infected (there wound up being no cases linked to the Olympics). The terrifying news that in some cases the virus appeared to cause microcephaly in babies whose mothers were infected during pregnancy. Now, a few years down the track, researchers have published a study looking at what drove people in the US to seek out more information about Zika. Published yesterday in PLOS Computational Biology, the Italian authors used geo-located Wikipedia data to look at trends across states, matching up Zika-related searches with news coverage and … Read More

When jargon makes you feel like you don’t belong - Lately, In Science

Mar 06, 2020

It’s the cruellest Catch-22 in science: you spend years learning intricate jargon about your specific area, then this jargon makes it nearly impossible for ‘outsiders’ to understand what you’re on about. Anyone who has submitted a blog to Sciblogs in the past few years has probably received an email back from me pleading for them to remove or explain jargon. What I really want them to do is remove it, but to buffer the blow I suggest it at least be defined. Telling a researcher not to use the short-hand jargon they’ve spent years learning, that enables them to communicate accurately with their colleagues and displays the depth of their knowledge: it’s cruel, bordering on sadistic. But now I’ve got science on my side. In a study published in January, US researchers argued that using specialised jargon when communicating … Read More

What’s in a name? Why the coronavirus needed its own - Lately, In Science

Feb 12, 2020

As of today, the novel coronavirus spreading in China is called COVID-19. Why does it matter? Around the office, we’ve had several conversations over the past few weeks about how 2019-nCoV needed its own name. First, it was getting annoying calling it by the above designation, and ‘novel coronavirus’ doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue either. And it was a definite no-no to call it anything that referenced the city it first emerged because such a name can be stigmatising and potentially dangerous. It’s not often we get a new disease with this much international attention – let’s hope there isn’t another one for many years – so I thought it would be interesting to discuss why its name was approached with caution. When names go wrong There’s often been a trend to naming a disease after a location or … Read More

Grammar for scientists - Lately, In Science

Feb 05, 2020

I’m about to start teaching science communication to tertiary students, which is equally hilarious and terrifying to me. (Hi to my students who have Googled me and found this post.) I loved English at high school, but we spent most of our time reading The Outsiders, discussing the differences between metaphors and similes, and pondering the thematic meaning of King Lear. But what we didn’t learn, was grammar. Anecdotally, I’ve heard from other people my (undisclosed) age that we seem to have been caught in a period where the focus wasn’t on grammar. So I could talk about the themes in To Kill a Mockingbird and understand the cultural reference “Steeeelllllaaaaa!”, but beyond that, I was stumped*. As a science writer – soon to be teacher of science communication – I’m mortified to admit that it wasn’t until mid-way through my … Read More

COVID-19 coverage - News

Feb 04, 2020

Our Scibloggers have been providing updates on the ongoing coronavirus outbreak. This page will be updated as more posts are published. As of 11 February 2020, the virus has been officially named COVID-19. 12 March 2020 Wellington, we have a problem… Now that the WHO has declared a pandemic, what next? Sarb Johal The Psychology Report What’s the difference between pandemic, epidemic and outbreak? The World Health Organization has declared COVID-19 a pandemic. This is a landmark event, but what does it mean? Rebecca S.B. Fischer Guest Work 11 March 2020 Delays in feedback: Learning to drive, brain waves and COVID-19 How can China get back to work without taking too many risks? Marcus Wilson Physics Stop 9 March 2020 The three phases of Covid-19 – and how we can … Read More

Coronavirus ‘infodemic’ - Lately, In Science

Feb 03, 2020

Lately, my morning routine includes opening up our work email and checking the latest World Health Organization coronavirus situation report. It’s sobering to see the numbers increasing so rapidly – about 2,500 new confirmed cases every day and about 45 reported deaths. But I’m also reminded of the stark contrast between this outbreak and previous situations in terms of how rapidly information reaches us. SARS I was in my first year of university during the 2003 SARS outbreak and had very little information available to me. This was pre mobile data-enabled cell phones*, I didn’t have a laptop so used the university computer labs when I needed to work on assignments and Stuff was a website that was still only updated a few times a day – if that. Being an introvert meant I rarely watched the TV news in … Read More