Ask a Scientist

by Meghan D. Rosen

Askascientist Each year, the Science Communication program at the University of California, Santa Cruz accepts 10 students and, for nine writing-intensive months, teaches them how to become better science journalists. This year, I am happy to say that I am one of the 10. My nine fellow classmates come from a wide variety of scientific backgrounds (from marine biology to mechanical engineering to neuroscience). We have a self-proclaimed ‘fish guts scientist,’ a potato pathologist, a reality TV star with survival skills (from the Discovery Channel’s, ‘The Colony’), a raptor surveyor (aka ‘hawk lady’), and an agricultural writer who grew up on a dairy farm.

It’s a diverse bunch of people, with a broad set of experiences, and the best part is: they all like to talk about science. I think I’m in heaven.

One of our recent assignments was to answer a classmate’s question that was about (or loosely connected to) our field of study. The constraints: we couldn’t use any jargon in the answer, it had to be clear to a non-scientist, and we had to do it in 200 words or less. Here are some of the question ideas we kicked around: Why does a golf ball have dimples? How does a submarine judge depth? Why do tarantulas migrate? How does the brain form memories?

I liked the challenge – answer a could-be complicated question with clarity–, and the idea of directly connecting scientists with people looking for answers to life’s curiosities.

So, this month, I’m trying an experiment for the readers of 3QD. Do you have any burning science-based questions that you’d like answered? Do you want to know how something works? Is there anything that you wish was just explained more clearly? If so, leave a question in the comments. I’ll solicit answers from my classmates, and get back to you next month. To help us get us started, I’ve included my own question and answer below (and yes, I stuck to the word limit –I even had two words to spare!).

Question: Why are doctors now recommending fewer screenings for breast cancer?

The idea behind breast cancer screening is simple: the sooner you find a lump, the sooner you can fight it. Until two years ago, the standard for care was frequent screenings and aggressive treatment. We were constantly on guard (yearly mammograms) and ever ready to wage surgical war (lump or breast removal). Intuitively, it made sense – root out the cancerous seed before it sprouts. Early detection should save lives, right? Not necessarily.

In 2009, an independent panel of experts appointed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that mammograms didn’t actually cut the breast cancer death rate by much: only about 15 percent. But we were screening more women than ever. So why were so many people still dying?

The problem isn’t detection: mammograms are pretty good at pinpointing the location of an abnormal cell cluster in the breast. But not all abnormal cells are cancerous, and mammograms can’t tell the harmless ones from the dangerous ones. In other words, a lump is not a lump is not a lump.

Today, doctors are divided. Some think excessive screening forces thousands of women to undergo unnecessary surgeries. Others think one life saved is worth the cost.