Category Archives: Media

How “Hidden Figures” Can Help Inspire a STEM Generation

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Hidden Figures film poster and images ©2016 20th Century Fox, all rights reserved.

History abounds with examples of unsung science heroes, researchers and visionaries whose tireless efforts led to enormous breakthroughs and advances, often without credit or lasting widespread esteem. This is particularly true for women and minorities, who have historically been under-represented in STEM-related fields. English mathematician Ada Lovelace is broadly considered the first great tech and computing visionary — she pioneered computer programming language and helped construct what is considered the first computing machine (the Babbage Analytical Engine) in the mid-1800s. Physical chemist Dr. Rosalind Franklin performed essential X-ray crystallography work that ultimately revealed the double-helix shape of DNA (Photograph 51 is one of the most important images in the history of science). Her work was shown (without her permission) to rival King’s College biology duo Watson and Crick, who used the indispensable information to elucidate and publish the molecular structure of DNA, for which they would win a Nobel Prize. Dr. Percy Julian, a grandson of slaves and the first African-American chemist ever elected to the National Academy of Sciences, ingeniously pioneered the synthesis of hormones and other medicinal compounds from plants and soybeans. New movie Hidden Figures, based on the exhaustively researched book by Margot Lee Shetterley, tells the story of three such hitherto obscure heroes: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson, standouts in a cohort of African-American mathematicians that helped NASA launch key missions during the tense 19060s Cold War “space race.” More importantly, Hidden Figures is a significant prototype for purpose-driven popular science communication — a narrative and vehicle for integrated multi-media platforms to encourage STEM diversity and scientific achievement.
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Profile: ‘ER’ TV Writer/Advisor Channels Storytelling Towards Social Activism

Television writer, producer, activist and practicing pediatrician Neal Baer, MD.
Television writer, producer, activist and practicing pediatrician Neal Baer, MD.

It has become compulsory for modern medical (or scientifically-relevant) shows to rely on a team of advisors and experts for maximal technical accuracy and verisimilitude on screen. Many of these shows have become so culturally embedded that they’ve changed people’s perceptions and influenced policy. Even the Gates Foundation has partnered with popular television shows to embed important storyline messages pertinent to public health, HIV prevention and infectious diseases. But this was not always the case. When Neal Baer joined ER as a young writer and simultaneous medical student, he became the first technical expert to be subsumed as an official part of a production team. His subsequent canon of work has reshaped the integration of socially relevant issues in television content, but has also ushered in an age of public health awareness in Hollywood, and outreach beyond it. Dr. Baer sat down with ScriptPhD to discuss how lessons from ER have fueled his public health efforts as a professor and founder of UCLA’s Global Media Center For Social Impact, including storytelling through public health metrics and leveraging digital technology for propelling action.
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Searching For The Next “MacGyver” (On TV And On Campus)

MacGyver creator Lee Zlotoff, a judge, mentor and sponsor of The Next MacGyver STEM competition in LA. ©2015 Paley Center For Media.
MacGyver creator Lee Zlotoff, a judge, mentor and sponsor of The Next MacGyver STEM competition in LA. ©2015 Paley Center For Media.

Engineering has an unfortunate image problem. With a seemingly endless array of socioeconomic, technological and large-scale problems to address, and with STEM fields set to comprise the most lucrative 21st Century careers, studying engineering should be a no-brainer. Unfortunately, attracting a wide array of students — or even appreciating engineers as cool — remains difficult, most noticeably among women. When Google Research found out that the #2 reason girls avoid studying STEM fields is perception and stereotypes on screen, they decided to work with Hollywood to change that. Recently, they partnered with the National Academy of Sciences and USC’s prestigious Viterbi School of Engineering to proactively seek out ideas for creating a television program that would showcase a female engineering hero to inspire a new generation of female engineers. The project, entitled “The Next MacGyver,” came to fruition last week in Los Angeles at a star-studded event. ScriptPhD.com was extremely fortunate to receive an invite and have the opportunity to interact with the leaders, scientists and Hollywood representatives that collaborated to make it all possible. Read our full comprehensive coverage below.
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“The Panic Virus” and the Origins of the Anti-Vaccine Movement

The Panic Virus paperback version ©2012, Simon & Schuster, all rights reserved.

On February 28, 1998, the revered British medical journal The Lancet published a brief paper by then-high profile but controversial gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield that claimed to have linked the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine with regressive autism and inflammation of the colon in a small case number of children. A subsequent paper published four years later claimed to have isolated the strain of attenuated measles virus used in the MMR vaccine in the colons of autistic children through a polymerase chain reaction (PCR amplification). The effect on vaccination rates in the UK was immediate, with MMR vaccinations reaching a record low in 2003/2004, and parts of London losing herd immunity with vaccination rates of 62%. 15 American states currently have immunization rates below the recommended 90% threshold. Wakefield was eventually exposed as a scientific fraud and an opportunist trying to cash in on people’s fears with ‘alternative clinics’ and pre-planned a ‘safe’ vaccine of his own before the Lancet paper was ever published. Even the 12 children in his study turned out to have been selectively referred by parents convinced of a link between the MMR vaccine and their children’s autism. The original Lancet paper was retracted and Wakefield was stripped of his medical license. By that point, irreparable damage had been done that may take decades to reverse.

How could a single fraudulent scientific paper, unable to be replicated or validated by the medical community, cause such widespread panic? How could it influence legions of otherwise rational parents to not vaccinate their children against devastating, preventable diseases, at a cost of millions of dollars in treatment and worse yet, unnecessary child fatalities? And why, despite all evidence to the contrary, have people remained adamant in their beliefs that vaccines are responsible for harming otherwise healthy children, whether through autism or other insidious side effects? In his brilliant, timely, meticulously-researched book The Panic Virus, author Seth Mnookin disseminates the aggregate effect of media coverage, echo chamber information exchange, cognitive biases and the desperate anguish of autism parents as fuel for the recent anti-vaccine movement. In doing so, he retraces the triumphs and missteps in the history of vaccines, examines the social impact of rejecting the scientific method in a more broad perspective, and ways that this current utterly preventable public health crisis can be avoided in future scenarios. A review of The Panic Virus, an enthusiastic ScriptPhD.com Editor’s Selection, follows below.
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Oscar-nominated Documentary a Landmark for Science

How To Survive a Plague film poster and stills ©2013 Public Square Films, all rights reserved.

The history of science movies nominated for Oscars is not a very long one. Aside from the technical achievement awards or an occasional nomination for acting merits, the Best Picture category has historically not opened its doors to scientific content, save for notable nominees “A Clockwork Orange,” “District 9,” “Inception” and “Avatar.” A documentary about science has never been nominated for the Best Documentary category, until this year, with How To Survive a Plague, Director David France’s stunning account of the brave activists that brought the AIDS epidemic to the attention of the government and science community in the disease’s darkest early days. “Plague” set history last weekend by becoming the first “Best Documentary” nominee with an almost entirely scientific/biomedical narrative. More importantly, it also established a standard by which future science documentaries should use emotional storytelling to captivate audiences and inspire action. ScriptPhD review and discussion under the “continue reading” cut.
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It’s Not Easy Being Green: Water, Our Next Endangered Resource (And Innovation Opportunity)

“The wars of the 21st Century will be fought over water.” —Ismail Serageldin, World Bank

Last Call at the Oasis film poster ©2012, Participant Media, all rights reserved.

Watching the devastation and havoc caused by Hurricane Sandy and several recent water-related natural disasters, it’s hard to imagine that global water shortages represent an environmental crisis on par with climate change. But if current water usage habits do not abate, or if major technological advances to help recycle clean water are not implemented, this is precisely the scenario we are facing—a majority of 21st Century conflicts being fought over water. From the producers of socially-conscious films An Inconvenient Truth and Food, Inc., Last Call at the Oasis is a timely documentary that chronicles current challenges in worldwide water supply, outlines the variables that contribute to chronic shortages and interviews leading environmental scientists and activists about the ramifications of chemical contamination in drinking water. More than just an environmental polemic, Last Call is a stirring call to action for engineering and technology solutions to a decidedly solvable problem. A ScriptPhD.com review under the “continue reading” cut.
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REVIEW: Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture

Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture ©2012 McGraw Hill Professional, all rights reserved.

This past weekend, over 130,000 people descended on the San Diego Convention Center to take part in Comic-Con 2012. Each year, a growing amalgamation of costumed super heroes, comics geeks, sci-fi enthusiasts and die-hard fans of more mainstream entertainment pop culture mix together to celebrate and share the popular arts. Some are there to observe, some to find future employment and others to do business, as beautifully depicted in this year’s Morgan Spurlock documentary Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope. But Comic-Con San Diego is more than just a convention or a pop culture phenomenon. It is a symbol of the big business that comics and transmedia pop culture has become. It is a harbinger of future profits in the entertainment industry, which often uses Comic-Con to gauge buzz about releases and spot emerging trends. And it is also a cautionary tale for anyone working at the intersection of television, film, video games and publishing about the meteoric rise of an industry and the uncertainty of where it goes next. We review Rob Salkowitz’s new book Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture, an engaging insider perspective on the convergence of geekdom and big business.
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Selling Science Smartly: ‘Pink Ribbons, Inc.’ and Breast Cancer as a Profit Industry

Earlier this year, the Susan G. Komen Foundation made headlines around the world after their politically-charged decision to cut funding for breast cancer screening at Planned Parenthood caused outrage and negatively impacted donations. Despite reversing the decision and apologizing, many people in the health care and fund raising community feel that the aftermath of the controversy still dogs the foundation. Indeed, Advertising Age literally referred to it as a PR crisis. If all of this sounds more like spin for a brand rather than a charity working towards the cure of a devastating illness, it’s not far from the truth. Susan G. Komen For the Cure, Avon Walk For Breast Cancer and the Revlon Run/Walk For Women represent a triumvirate hegemony in the “pink ribbon” fundraising domain. Over time, their initial breast cancer awareness movement (and everything the pink ribbon stood for symbolically) has moved from activism to pure consumerism. The new documentary Pink Ribbons, Inc. deftly and devastatingly examines the rise of corporate culture in breast cancer fundraising. Who is really profiting from these pink ribbon campaigns, brands or people with the disease? How has the positional messaging of these “pink ribbon” events impacted the women who are actually facing the illness? And finally, has motivation for profit driven the very same companies whose products cause cancer to benefit from the disease? ScriptPhD.com’s Selling Science Smartly advertising series continues with a review of Pink Ribbons, Inc..
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Go Red For Valentine’s Day

The Go Red For Women logo ©2012 American Heart Association, all rights reserved.

In years past, Valentine’s Day has been a fun chance to explore the more lighthearted aspects of science, as pertains to matters of the heart (such as our post on the neurobiology of love and dating). This year, we use Valentine’s Day as an opportunity to talk about a different, more serious matter pertaining to our hearts — keeping them healthy. And while blogs, magazines and popular media provide men with no shortage of ideas about what to shower the many women in their lives with on Valentine’s Day, they provide little coverage of the biggest silent killer and danger to women every day: heart disease. So this year, join us in Going Red For Women and learning more about an issue truly close to our hearts. For more, click “continue reading.”
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Editor’s Selection: Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists and Cinema

Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists and Cinema book cover ©2011 MIT Press, all rights reserved

Read through any archive of science fiction movies, and you quickly realize that the merger of pop culture and science dates as far back as the dawn of cinema in the early 1920s. Even more surprising than the enduring prevalence of science in film is that the relationship between film directors, scribes and the science advisors that have influenced their works is equally as rich and timeless. Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists, and Cinema (2011, MIT Press), one of the most in-depth books on the intersection of science and Hollywood to date, serves as the backdrop for recounting the history of science and technology in film, how it influenced real-world research and the scientists that contributed their ideas to improve the cinematic realism of science and scientists. For a full ScriptPhD.com review and in-depth extended discussion of science advising in the film industry, please click the “continue reading” cut.

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