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.

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

Yes, koalas are cute – but should we bring them to NZ? Errm, no - Lately, In Science

Jan 14, 2020

It’s been hard to miss the extreme fires raging across Australia and the tragic plight of the animals – human and otherwise – affected by the fires’ insatiable spread. I know I’ve been captivated and concerned by the tales of how Australia’s famous wildlife has been coping. Koalas approaching cyclists to beg a drink of water, kangaroos seeking sanctuary on golf courses, and wombats apparently sharing – deliberately or otherwise – their burrows with other creatures. These stories and images have, of course, spurred huge amounts of fundraising and donation. But among the weirder attempts to help was a petition to introduce koalas to New Zealand’s eucalypt plantations, which currently has over 8,000 signatures. Look, I love koalas as much as the next person – but this is a terrible idea, and New Zealand knows it … Read More

In science communication, words matter - Lately, In Science

Jun 21, 2019

Being a grammar nerd isn’t always the best way to win friends and influence people, but today I’m yet again reminded why it’s important to get our words right. Yesterday, the Environmental Protection Authority released its annual HSNO Monitoring report, which includes data on hazardous substances and new organisms managed under the HSNO Act. This year, they’ve expanded their report by investigating data related to harm to people, such as poisoning. This all sounds like good, important data to collate and communicate. Which is why it’s unfortunate that the EPA’s press release included this line: “The HSNO Monitoring Report 2018 covers the period from 2006 to 2016, and includes data on hospitalisations and deaths from hazardous substances, aerial application of 1080, through to environmental pollution.” Hospitalisations and deaths from hazardous substances and aerial application of 1080? You’d be … Read More

A new pre-print server and media access to research - Lately, In Science

Jun 06, 2019

A few years ago I was talking to a physicist at a work function when he told me about arXiv (I made him spell it out for me so I could look it up the next day). You mean, people put their research papers up online for free, for people to read them before they’re peer reviewed and you don’t have to wait for the journal publication that will probably be locked behind a login? *Head explode emoji* Now that I’m no longer at a university, I’m fortunate to have access to journal articles through work, but if I was a regular Jo Citizen much of the research I’m interested in would be locked away where I can’t access it. That’s not good for scientific literacy as a whole, nor would it be very easy to keep up to date … Read More