Our first seminar to train grad students to communicate science and risk beyond academia (#TOX607) ) is coming to an end. Next week is our very last class. This multidisciplinary seminar included 48 grad students from 14 different departments.

The students gained knowledge in key areas that are mostly overlooked in graduate programs.

  • Describing research in plain language
  • Using tools in Microsoft Word to assess for readability and grade level.
  • Distilling the message and bottom line of your research
  • Re-framing questions about safety using the risk framework
  • Utilizing active listening techniques and the importance of listening
  • Writing for the web
  • Understanding the role and importance of social media tools and platforms to communication science

Today students got a taste of Twitter, and here is a story about it.

A very powerful and sensitive instrument used to study trace amounts of chemicals is a gas chromatograph connected to a mass spectrometer, or GCMS. GCMS is especially useful for air samples, but it is also used to detect, quantify, and identify chemicals in water, soil, plant and animal tissue, and many other substances.

The GCMS can detect chemicals in amounts as small as a picogram. That is 0.000000000001 gram. One picogram is the equivalent of one drop of detergent in enough dishwater to fill a trainload of railroad tank cars ten miles long. Many of the pollutants found in air are present at concentrations lower than one picogram in a cubic meter of air. It is important for an the instrument to be able to detect these low concentrations.

The GCMS instrument is made up of two parts.

  1. The gas chromatography (GC) portion separates the chemical mixture into pulses of pure chemicals
  2. The mass spectrometer (MS) identifies and quantifies the chemicals.

The GC separates chemicals based on their volatility, or ease with which they evaporate into a gas. It is similar to a running race where a group of people begin at the starting line, but as the race proceeds, the runners separate based on their speed. The chemicals in the mixture separate based on their volatility. In general, small molecules travel more quickly than larger molecules.

The MS is used to identify chemicals based on their structure. Let’s say after completing a puzzle, you accidentally drop it on the floor. Some parts of the puzzle remain attached together and some individual pieces break off completely. By looking at these various pieces, you are still able to get an idea of what the original puzzle looked like. This is very similar to the way that the mass spectrometer works.

Gas chromatography (GC)

  • Injection port – One microliter (1 µl, or 0.000001 L) of solvent containing the mixture of molecules is injected into the GC and the sample is carried by inert (non-reactive) gas through the instrument, usually helium. The inject port is heated to 300° C to cause the chemicals to become gases.
  • Oven – The outer part of the GC is a very specialized oven. The column is heated to move the molecules through the column. Typical oven temperatures range from 40° C to 320° C.
  • Column – Inside the oven is the column which is a 30 meter thin tube with a special polymer coating on the inside. Chemical mixtures are separated based on their votality and are carried through the column by helium. Chemicals with high volatility travel through the column more quickly than chemicals with low volatility.

Mass Spectrometer (MS)

  • Ion Source – After passing through the GC, the chemical pulses continue to the MS. The molecules are blasted with electrons, which cause them to break into pieces and turn into positively charged particles called ions. This is important because the particles must be charged to pass through the filter.
  • Filter – As the ions continue through the MS, they travel through an electromagnetic field that filters the ions based on mass. The scientist using the instrument chooses what range of masses should be allowed through the filter. The filter continuously scans through the range of masses as the stream of ions come from the ion source.
  • Detector – A detector counts the number of ions with a specific mass. This information is sent to a computer and a mass spectrum is created. The mass spectrum is a graph of the number of ions with different masses that traveled through the filter.


The data from the mass spectrometer is sent to a computer and plotted on a graph called a mass spectrum.

Credit: Unsolved Mysteries of Human Health

The Unsolved Mysteries of Human Health web site was developed by the Environmental Health Sciences Center, another NIEHS-funded Center at OSU.  The GCMS section of the web site was developed in collaboration with Dr. Staci Simonich, Superfund Center Project 5 leader.  The interactive image above received about 37,000 pageviews this past year (up about 10,000 from the previous year). It is the most popular page coming out of our Centers.

Unfortunately, the interactive image does not currently work on an iPhone or iPad.

Dr. Paul Slovic
Dr. Paul Slovic

On Oct. 16th, Dr. Paul Slovic visited Oregon State University to share and discuss issues related to risk communication with graduate students enrolled in the TOX 507/607 seminar.  This term the seminar is co-lead by the Superfund Research Center’s Research Translation Core and Training Core.

Dr. Slovic, a founder and President of Decision Research, studies human judgment, decision making, and risk analysis.  His research and expertise fit nicely with this term’s seminar focus on training students to communicate science and risk effectively to audiences outside of academia.

Some key points came out of the Q and A session with Dr. Slovic.


 1)  The importance of message framing.

(Reference: Know Your Audience, NWABR)
(Reference: Know Your Audience, NWABR)

After you publish a scientific paper, focus on how you will frame that information to the public.  How can you help your audience conceptualize the bottom line of the research? The facts never speak for themselves, which is why scientists need to “frame” their messages to the public.

All information is conveyed with a frame. Framing in science and risk communication can be viewed as positive or negative depending on who the audience is and what kind of information is

being presented. There is rarely neutral framing.  For that reason, it is important to have a clear message thoughtfully framed to invoke a desirable response by your audience.

Create messages that resonate with your audience.    

2)  The role of emotions and uncertainty.

Understand that risk perception comes from our gut feelings.  How you share information makes a difference, creates an image, and impacts a person’s perception of risk.

Our emotions are often tied to our motivation, positive or negative. Information will lack meaning if it does not invoke emotion.

If something is uncertain, people can interpret it the way that they want. (Example: When scientists began sharing studies that cigarette smoking caused cancer, the tobacco industry wanted to cultivate doubt, so they could keep their profits.). With certain topics, industry and others want to emphasize the unknowns and cast doubt.

When research studies are not definitive, help the public understand the strengths and limitations of that study. Frame the information so it is not biased, focusing on what the science predicts and the implications of that prediction.

 Be sure to present the data the best you can if you think people are distorting the data.

3)  Visuals make research real and relevant. 

Visual images are more powerful than statistics. Visuals help the mind process information. Make your research real and relevant by using visuals that invoke emotion and foster scientific understanding.

Discussion with Dr. Paul Slovic in the TOX 507/607 seminar on Oct. 16, 2013

Find and share this seminar’s highlights and related articles on Twitter with hashtag #TOX607


NIEHS-funded Centers are experimenting and beginning to leverage social media platforms to promote research and activities, expand networks and partnerships, improve relationships with stakeholders, and foster community engagement.  [Here is a list of individuals and groups tied to NIEHS on Twitter.]the-perfect-length-of-a-tweet-is-70-110-characters-150x150

We’ve come a long way in the last couple of years.

The OSU Superfund Research Center began social media efforts on Facebook and Twitter in August of 2011.  In November of 2011, Naomi Hirsch, Research Translation Coordinator, headed to the American Public Health Association Annual Meeting and Expo to facilitate a roundtable discussion on how our Centers’ can harness web technologies and social media. The discussions led to a desire to gather resources, case studies, and articles that would help move our scientists and social media efforts forward.  The Web and Emerging Tech Resources for Scientists and Partners page began.

2012 was a year of internal education as we grew our network and supported our colleagues at other NIEHS Centers.  We facilitated a web and social media session at the NIEHS PEPH Meeting in March, presented an NIEHS SRP CEC/RTC webinar in July, and later that year, a social media overview presentation for administrators at the SRP Annual Meeting in October.

The momentum increased in 2013.  We led a movement at Oregon State University by supporting a ScienceOnline Watch Party, which led to a new group, the OSU Science Communicators. The Web and Emerging Tech Resources for Scientists and Partners page grew and was cited as an excellent starting place for scientists in blog articles and the Plos Biology paper: An Introduction to Social Media for Scientists.

We recently hosted and tweeted the 2013 International Symposium on Polycyclic Aromatic Compounds (#ISPAC13). Although 75 tweets came from just 10 people during the conference of about 150 total people, it was still worthwhile and brought exposure to PAHs, the organization, OSU, the research, and the individual researchers. It starts small, but it must start somewhere and become part of the culture.

Now the education is turning to grad students. We are excited to contribute to and co-instruct a Grad Seminar on Science and Risk Communication, which will include using social media tools.  In addition, at the end of the term in December, Naomi Hirsch will host a Twitter Basics webinar designed for scientists, grad students, and professionals communicating science.

There are now papers (and numerous articles) presenting a case for more scientists to engage with one another and the public through social media like Twitter. Several studies have shown that tweeting and blogging about scientific findings can increase their impact (“It’s Time for Scientists to Tweet“).

So, what is ahead for us in 2014? So much! Stay connected so you can find out.

From “It’s Time for Scientists to Tweet” [photo credit: www.katiephd.com]