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 teaching fellow in science communication at Victoria University of Wellington, editor of Sciblogs, and a former senior media advisor with the Science Media Centre.

2015 hottest year on record - News

Jan 21, 2016

It was signposted all year, but North American agencies have confirmed: 2015 was the hottest year since records began in 1880. NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) analysis showed that global surface air temperatures continued a long trend upward: 15 of the 16 warmest years on record have occurred since 2001. Globally-averaged temperatures in 2015 surpassed the previous record set in 2014 by 0.13 Celsius. In a statement, NASA and NOAA said the only time the previous record had been beaten by such a margin was 1998. 2014 was the first year global average temperature were 1 degree Celsius or more above the 1880-1899 baseline. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said climate change was the “challenge of our generation”. “Today’s announcement not only underscores how critical NASA’s Earth observation program is, it is a key … Read More

Calls for tighter reins on Japanese whaling - News

Jan 21, 2016

With Japanese whalers back in the Southern Ocean and minke whales in their sights, scientists are calling for tighter reviews on the supposed scientific basis for the hunts. In a correspondence piece written to Nature, a group of representatives from the International Whaling Commission (IWC) called the science behind Japan’s hunts into question. Japanese whalers have a target of 333 minke whales this season, which would bring the total minke whale kill to 10,712 since 1987 – the first year after the moratorium on commercial whaling. Andrew Brierley and Phillip Clapham, backed by 30 colleagues, note in their Nature correspondence that Japan ignored an expert review of the science justifying its latest whaling programme. The previous programme was shut down by the International Court of Justice in 2014. Brierley and Clapham argue that part of the IWC’s reviewing procedure is … Read More

Caught on camera: animal ‘selfies’ show forest protection works - News

Jan 20, 2016

They might not know they’re on candid camera, and they certainly don’t smile, but wildlife caught on camera are helping scientists confirm their existence and prove forest protection works. Leopard (Panthera pardus) in Nouabale Ndoki National Park, Republic of Congo. Camera traps have become more commonly used to find out what wild animals do while no-one’s watching, but a study spanning tropical regions in Centra and South America, South-East Asia and Africa has put the pictures to work establishing the worth of forest reserves. The study, published today in PLOS Biology, monitored 244 ground-dwelling species across 15 protected areas. From over 1000 cameras, more than 2.5 million photos were analysed which showed that 22% of populations decreased, 17% increased and 22% remained constant (the remainder were seen too infrequently to draw conclusions on any population change). Based on three … Read More

Responses to *that* PhD thesis - News

Jan 19, 2016

Several Sciblogs writers have discussed Judy Wilyman’s PhD thesis on vaccination policy, through the University of Wollongong. – A PhD by Stealth, Helen Petousis-Harris, Diplomatic Immunity. – Unsound vaccine thesis or how to review a PhD, Grant Jacobs, Code for life. – Freedom of opinion has its place, but this PhD thesis goes too far, Alison Campbell, BioBlog. – Wilyman’s ‘thesis’ from a relativistic viewpoint?, Helen Petousis-Harris, Diplomatic Immunity. – Wollongong thesis has this to say on smallpox, Alison Campbell, BioBlog. – The Wilyman thesis on how smallpox is transmitted, Alison Campbell, BioBlog. – Critiquing another thesis on vaccination, Alison Campbell, BioBlog. – Wilyman anti-vaccine thesis not in Wollongong thesis review, Grant Jacobs, Code for life.   Featured image: Flickr CC,  … Read More

Stillbirth risk remains high for disadvantaged women - News

Jan 19, 2016

Women from lower socioeconomic backgrounds face twice the risk of stillbirths as their wealthier counterparts, a new study has detailed. Addressing the inequalities would require across-the-board improvements, including treating infections during pregnancy and improving family planning services. The Australian-led study, published today in The Lancet, suggested nearly 20,000 stillbirths could have been prevented in 2015. Though maternal and child deaths have halved globally, stillbirth remains a global epidemic with an estimated 2.6 million deaths per year. The article was one of a five-part series on ending preventable stillbirths, which coincided with The Lancet launching a campaign to draw attention to the issue. New Zealand’s rate of 2.3 stillbirths (occurring after 28 weeks of pregnancy) per 1000 births in 2015 fares better than other countries, including Australia (2.7 per 1000 births) and has reduced in recent years. Read More

Book review: Why science is sexist - Scibooks

Jan 14, 2016

Two people apply for a job managing a science lab: a male and a female. Who’s more likely to be hired and who will be deemed most worthy of a higher starting salary? You might already know the answer to this question (spoilers: the bloke) but what’s behind the answer is what Dr Nicola Gaston has tackled in her book, Why Science is Sexist. Dr Gaston, Victoria University – soon to be University of Auckland – theoretical physicist and past president of the NZ Association of Scientists goes beyond the anecdote of individuals and sifts through research showing that yes, science is sexist to discuss how that’s come to be. Part of the Bridget Williams Books series of BWB Texts (“short books on big subjects”), Why Science is Sexist should be a quick read, except if you’re … Read More

Distinct diets of extinct moa - News

Jan 13, 2016

Extinct moa co-existed in pre-human New Zealand because they had a diverse range of diets and feeding strategies, New Zealand and Australian researchers have found. New research, published today in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, London, combining CT and MRI scans and software used after the Canterbury earthquakes has detailed the likely diet and feeding strategy of five of the nine known species of moa. 3D model of a moa skull. The extinct megafauna ranged in size from the upland moa – about the size of a sheep – to the South Island giant moa which clocked in at up to 240 kilograms. But the study’s authors concluded that differences in the structure and strength of each species’ bill drove differences in diet and foraging, rather than overall size. Canterbury Museum senior natural history curator Professor Paul Scofield said the … Read More

Great science journalism from 2015 - Guest Work

Dec 31, 2015

Another year end, another “best of” list. For your reading pleasure, I’ve pulled together what I consider some of the best pieces of science journalism or science writing from this year. The really big one The New Yorker, Kathryn Schulz From the first word, this piece is captivating. Make a cuppa and settle in for a good read as Schulz describes what is known about the United States’ tectonic makeup – and what it might mean for the US West Coast. The Crispr quandary The New York Times, Jennifer Kahn Crispr is the new black of gene editing – expect to hear much more about it in the coming year – and Kahn’s piece weaves a fascinating human and science story together about the research team who pioneered the method. That … Read More

Santa skepticism in line with understanding of the world - News

Dec 21, 2015

Spoiler warning: Kids’ willingness to believe in Santa Claus diminishes as they become more knowledgeable about the world and the physical implausibility of Santa’s magical acts. Researchers from Los Angeles’ Occidental College tested children’s willingness to accept on trust the story of Santa Claus and his miraculous one-night round-the-world trip. Much of what we know comes from the testimony of others, the authors say. “Few adults have dissected a human body or performed astronomical calculations, yet most still know that the liver is in the abdomen and that the Earth orbits the sun.” Crucial, though, is that the information comes from someone we trust. For kids, it’s simple: they trust their parents. But when it comes to Santa Claus, the testimony is not only false (so say the researchers) but also highly implausible. Santa’s actions break many physical … Read More

Two species of little blue penguins - News

Dec 15, 2015

We call them little blue penguins, Australians call them fairy penguins – it turns out they are different species. A new study, published in PLOS One, compared trans-Tasman populations of little penguins and found they were different enough to be considered separate species. Researchers from the University of Otago collaborated with those from the University of Tasmania to compare their respective local populations of little penguins. Dr Stefanie Grosser worked on the study as part of her PhD at the University of Otago. She said the New Zealand population had its own distinctive genetic group that was clearly different to the Australian penguins. The differences don’t end there: the Aussie and Kiwi species also appear to have their own “accents”. Previous research has found calls differ between penguins on either side of the Tasman and females tend to prefer males … Read More