This is a story I’ve been wanting to write for a long time. I’m pleased that the Bulletin editors were interested in the idea and let me write about it for our readers.
The phone rang yesterday while I was finishing my lunch. I almost didn’t answer it because I wasn’t near a phone with caller ID. But I was glad I did. The caller was Arlington County Board Chair Jay Fisette, and he was calling to follow up on a complaint I’d submitted via the county website about the towing incident I wrote about here back in February, when my car was towed while I was at the DMV getting my driver’s license renewed.
Fisette, who has been a board member since January 1998, told me that my e-mail was forward to him because he’s been dealing with towing issues in Arlington County for several years. He said that he was aware of the situation at the DMV, and we talked about the details of my experience there. Although some people park in one of the privately owned spaces where I parked because there’s not enough room in the DMV lot during particularly busy times, I had parked there because I didn’t see the sign indicating that section of the lot belonged to an adjacent service station.
Fisette also told me that the towing situation in Arlington was much more of a “rogue” situation 7 or 8 years ago, when these types of predatory operations were more common in locations across the county. In some cases, he said, a parking space was marked on the pavement as being only for patrons of a particular business, so if a driver wasn’t paying attention she could easily park on top of the painted notice and not see it. In at least one case that problem was solved by posting a sign at the end of each parking space, and I suggested that the same thing should be done for the spaces near the DMV.
I must admit, I was pleasantly surprised that Fisette called me after I’d given up all hope of speaking to an elected official or anyone else official about the problem. Finally, he asked if I’d be willing to serve as the citizen representative on a committee that meets once a year to discuss towing issues, and although I didn’t exactly jump at the opportunity I said I would consider it. That committee meets near the end of the year, so I have some time to mull it over. My main reason for hesitating is that I’m afraid I might be too timid or nervous to speak up when the time comes, particularly since the group includes representatives from the police department and (if I remember correctly) the towing companies. Then again, I’ve noticed that lately I’m not as shy as I once was when it comes to speaking out in public.
As before, stay tuned for further possible developments.
The hubby and I went to Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia a few weekends ago. It’s about 20 miles from Washington, DC, and a world apart. The refuge is on a spit of land (the Mason Neck peninsula) along the Potomac River, and was established in 1969 specifically to protect bald eagles, which were then, but are no longer, an endangered species in the U.S. We return there periodically to get away from suburbia, stretch our legs, admire nature and – if we’re lucky – see some bald eagles.
We hiked through the woods to a point along the river where you can sit in a small wooden blind and look out over the water. The trees on the opposite side of the river there are tall, making it prime real estate for nesting eagles. It was late afternoon by the time we got to the blind, maybe an hour before sunset, so we didn’t have a lot of time to sit and wait. At first all we saw was groups of ducks flying by, but all of a sudden my husband called out, “What’s that?” and I saw a huge, dark bird winging silently along the river. Before we could get a good look, the bird disappeared beyond our sight. It didn’t have the characteristic white head and tail feathers of a bald eagle, but by all other measures it looked like an eagle.
In fact, as I confirmed in my Audubon Society field guide to birds when I got home, it was an immature bald eagle. Over the next 5 or 10 minutes, we saw a few more immature eagles fly back and forth along the river. No matter how many times I see these birds, they always make me gasp. Unfortunately I didn’t get any photos of the eagles. But I did take some other photos on our hike, and I’ve posted some of them in the slide show below.
It’s Ada Lovelace Day – a day for blogging about women in science. Rather than blogging about a woman scientist, per se, I thought I’d take some artistic license and write about two women who got me interested in science when I was young. The first was Mrs. Evelyn Meyers (I think that’s the correct spelling), the fourth-grade teacher at Taukomas Elementary School on Long Island, New York, who organized our school rocket club. Mrs. Meyers loved science, and learning in general. I recall being enthralled when she read books aloud to our class, including Charlotte’s Web and James and the Giant Peach.
I don’t remember how many girls were in the rocket club, but I was one of them. All of the kids in the club built an Estes model rocket with help and encouragement from Mrs. Meyers. On the last day of our club meetings we all launched our rockets from the schoolyard. What fun! I can’t remember whether my rocket had a hugely successful flight. The main thing I remember about the rocket, I’m embarrassed to admit, is the colors that I painted it: fluorescent pink and orange, which were mod colors indeed in that era. That was just around the time that humans first walked on the moon.
The second scientific woman who inspired me was Mrs. Howard, my high school chemistry teacher. She was quite strict, fairly no nonsense, but did have a sense of humor (though not so much when two boys in my class raided the chemistry storeroom and used the chemicals to make TNT, which they exploded on the school tennis courts). Mrs. Howard somehow made introductory chemistry interesting, and encouraged my interest in science.
That positive experience with chemistry in high school led me to decide to combine my two scientific interests at the time and major in biochemistry at university. I didn’t know exactly what biochemistry was, but I did end up enjoying it, despite having to memorize every step in the Krebs cycle. One thing that impressed me about that introductory biochemistry course was having a professor tell the class that he couldn’t believe he was getting paid to do science. The course was taught by a team of professors. Not one of them was female.
That biochemistry class led in turn to several chats in the office of one of my professors, Dr. John Fain, a southerner with a deep drawl who had a reputation for intensely disliking pre-med students – which I was not. Dr. Fain was also the advisor for biochemistry majors including myself. And although he could be intimidating (his wife reportedly would phone his lab and warn the people working there on mornings when he was in a particularly foul mood), he was nothing but encouraging of my desire to be a scientist. He was the one who helped me get a summer fellowship working in the pharmacology department at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. My two summers in that lab, working with Dr. Craig Malbon, helped convince me that I wanted to pursue graduate work in pharmacology.
Although I didn’t end up as a working scientist, and instead entered the world of science publishing as a writer and editor when I was two years into a three-year postdoctoral fellowship, I have never regretted finishing my graduate work in science. After all, once a scientist, always a scientist.
Bora Zivkovic, on his A Blog Around the Clock, recently wrote a post on the new science journalism ecosystem: new inter-species interactions, new niches. Bora’s thought-provoking post was written in response to an opinion piece that appeared in Nature last June, Science journalism: Toppling the priesthood (behind a paywall, unfortunately), in which Toby Murcott argued that science journalists need to delve deeper and be more critical in their reporting of scientific findings. Bora intended his post “to provoke discussion,” and it has. It certainly pushed some buttons for me.
Among other things, Bora suggests that the distinction many people (particularly journalists) draw between public information officers (PIOs) and professional journalists is an artificial one, and that “PIOs, many of whom have science degrees, are actually doing the brunt of science journalism these days.” In this context Bora defines science journalism as “reporting and explaining science.” He argues further that investigative science journalism is not “real” science journalism. In his book it is “just investigative journalism in which the people under scrutiny just happen accidentally to be scientists,” and as such, he says, that type of journalism does not require that the reporter understand science.
As someone who has been a scientist, a PIO, and a journalist, I must beg to differ. First, I think there is a distinction between a PIO and a science journalist. And second, I don’t think we can or should exclude or set apart investigative journalism from the broader category of science journalism.
I should note that I do agree with Bora that “we need to eliminate [the] antagonism between newsroom journalists and institutional journalists (formerly known as PIOs).” That historical antagonism, in which journalists sometimes disrespectfully refer to PIOs as flacks, is not only unkind but hypocritical, since plenty of journalists who look down their noses at PIOs get story ideas from those same (or other) PIOs in the form of news releases or story pitches.
Nevertheless, there is a difference between a science journalist and a PIO who covers science or medicine – though both may be science writers. True, the boundaries have become somewhat blurred, as some PIOs write news releases that are at least as good as a newspaper article (and certainly most television reports) in terms of explaining the science and telling a story. That’s in part because many science writers who once wrote for newspapers and other mainstream media outlets have crossed the aisle and taken jobs as PIOs, thanks to job cuts and buyouts in the MSM.
But a PIO’s main job is to represent her institution and get publicity/coverage for that institution’s research, get its message out, and get the institution’s name (or “brand” as it may be called these days) in front of the public in a positive way. A PIO may also have to help with crisis communications – for example, if something goes wrong with a clinical trial that a scientist at her institution is conducting. Whereas a science journalist covering that story would have a different goal, namely uncovering and reporting the full story, which may put the institution involved in a bad light. I’m sure that science journalists and PIOs out there could (and I hope you will) come up with other examples.
So on to my second point: Is the aforementioned journalist automatically an “investigative journalist” and not a “science journalist” because she is reporting something unpleasant that occurred in the world of research? I would say no, because that same journalist may also write more straightforward “wow, that’s neat” science stories. And an understanding of the underlying science is certainly helpful in reporting the “something smells fishy” stories as well as the “wow, that’s neat” stories. I maintain that one person can and may do both types of science reporting, so it doesn’t make sense to separate “investigative journalism” from “science journalism.”
That distinction may become even more artificial when considering science feature writing as opposed to shorter science stories on a single finding. After all, isn’t it common to discover differing opinions and even controversies when delving more deeply into a particular area of scientific research and talking to several scientists in the field? I’ve often found such controversies even though I wasn’t looking for them, simply by asking good questions. And couldn’t writing about those controversies or opinions be considered a form of investigative journalism?
Dan Ferber made some excellent points about the role of investigative journalism in reporting on science in a comment here, in a discussion thread spurred by David Dobbs’s post about the then-impending Rebooting Science Journalism session at the ScienceOnline2010 meeting that took place in January. John Timmer also made some good points about this in his thoughts on Rebooting Science Journalism.
That type of investigative science journalism is also perhaps where the line between a PIO and a science journalist becomes more distinct, as a PIO is in most cases not likely to point out that the finding described in a news release is controversial among scientists in the field. Nor will a PIO be likely to point out the weaknesses in a scientific study, whereas a journalist may interview and quote another researcher in the field who provides that perspective while still affirming the value or intriguing nature of the finding.
In the case of more in-depth, hard-hitting investigative journalism on topics involving science or medicine (e.g., the recent New York Times series on problems with radiation therapy), a science or medical journalist may very well work together with an investigative journalist on a story, since science journalists are often not trained to do hard-core investigative reporting, whereas an investigative journalist usually won’t understand the scientific nuances of the story. (I’m not sure a science reporter was involved in the NY Times series on radiation, but there are other examples out there.)
Finally, getting back to the distinction between PIOs and journalists, of course there are good PIOs and bad PIOs, including those who hype the findings, just as there are good and bad journalists. Different institutions, too, have different expectations of their PIOs. But the bottom line is that, whether we like it or not, the job descriptions for these two fields differ in some notable ways, although there is certainly overlap as well.
Tonight I was listening to an album by Steve Goodman, the folk singer-songwriter from Chicago who died of leukemia in 1984, when all of a sudden the words to one song permeated my consciousness. The song was “Lincoln Park Pirates,” and the lyrics started off like this:
“In Chicago where I live, there’s a… there’s a outfit that’ll tow just almost anything off the streets but they deal mostly in automobile. And we call ‘em the Lincoln Park pirates.”
I couldn’t believe it! Here was the perfect song to go with my last blog post, which relates how my car was towed while I was getting my driver’s license renewed at the DMV. So I thought I’d share it with you. The full lyrics are here, and you can listen to the song (free) here.
You probably wouldn’t be surprised if I told you this animal is a predator.
But how about this beast?
A couple of weeks ago I learned that the tow truck, too, is a predatory species. That afternoon, I drove to my local Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) office in Arlington to renew my driver’s license. An hour and a half later, I emerged from the building and found that my car was not in the parking space where I’d left it. At first I thought maybe I’d forgotten where I left my car (it happens), but my car wasn’t anywhere in the lot. A feeling of panic set in. I went back into the DMV office and told the nearest security guard, “My car was stolen while I was in here getting my license renewed!” She looked shocked. Then a woman’s voice called out from the nearby information desk: “Your car wasn’t stolen. It must have been towed. There’s a sign in the lot with a phone number to call for the towing company.”
It turns out that I’d parked in a section of the parking lot that looked for all the world like it was part of the DMV lot, but in fact belonged to the Chevron gas station and mini mart that fronted the main road. The DMV is set off from the main road, so the parking lot I’d parked in was behind the gas station and in front of the DMV building (sorry, no photos to illustrate this). Sure enough, when I looked around I saw a smallish sign near the entrance to the lot that said, “CUSTOMER PARKING WHILE ON PREMISES FOR MOBIL MARKET PLACE / CHICKEN & SEAFOOD / DOLLAR STORE / NO DMV PARKING.” And below that, in larger print, “TOWING AT OWNER’S EXPENSE. 24 hrs,” followed by the name of the towing company and a telephone number. The sign was out of date, since the gas station with market was now a Chevron, not a Mobil. I’m not sure the other businesses listed are even there anymore.
I called the number on the sign and, with barely contained rage, told the man who answered that I believed they had my car. He asked what kind of car it was, I told him, and he confirmed that they had the vehicle. “How much is it going to cost me to get my car back?” I asked. “$115,” came the reply. I can’t recall my exact response, but I know I indicated that they had a good scheme going. No response. (No doubt they’re used to verbal abuse much worse than my relatively tame utterances.)
The towing company’s impoundment lot was on the other side of town from the DMV. I called my husband at work, explained the situation, and asked if he could come pick me up and take me to retrieve my car. Sweet man that he is, he said he’d come as soon as possible. And luckily, his office isn’t terribly far from where I was stuck.
Meanwhile, I went into the Chevron station and demanded to speak to the manager. I asked if she had called the towing company, and she eventually told me (in accented English I didn’t fully follow) that she didn’t have time for such things, that the towing company was responsible. Still fuming, I blurted out: “I’m a journalist, and I’m going to write about this!” She was unimpressed. I left to wait outside for my husband.
When we’d found our way to the towing company’s lot, in a dingy and crowded back alley, I went into the small office to claim my car. I asked the young man behind the window who had alerted them about my car. In a matter-of-fact tone, he told me that the tow-truck drivers patrol that parking lot, wait for someone to park there and go into the DMV, and then nab the car. “It’s predatory,” he said. “Just like when a cop sets up a speed trap on the side of a road and catches you for speeding.” I handed over my credit card, expressed my disgust about the scheme they had going, and reclaimed my car. Again, my complaints did not elicit a reaction.
At home, still boiling mad, I checked our county’s website and found information about towing regulations. The towing company had in fact charged me the maximum fee allowable for towing my car. The website also noted that the towing company must report each car they tow to the police. Aha! I called the county police department, hoping to catch the towing company in violation of the law. But no, the officer I spoke to confirmed that the towing company had reported the towing of my car. I told the officer of the circumstances, and he knew immediately about the operation the towing company had going at the DMV. He told me the setup was completely legal, but admitted it was “sheisty” (coining a new term for unscrupulousness that I assume was derived from shyster). I told him it would make a good newspaper story, and he agreed.
I haven’t decided what my next step will be, but I intend to pursue this further, as the whole deal seems incredibly shady. Why doesn’t the DMV post a prominent sign in that parking lot, warning patrons that it’s not part of the DMV lot? If they can’t post the sign there because it’s private property, they could post the sign somewhere else noticeable, such as in the adjacent row of parking that does belong to the DMV. Or they might at least post a notice on the entrance to the building.
Stay tuned to see if I indeed follow through on this. A friend to whom I mentioned the idea of getting a story about this in the paper told me that he remembered seeing an item about this in the Washington Post many years ago. If that’s the case, the story obviously didn’t do much good.
Photo of tiger and blesbuck from Save China’s Tiger, http://english.savechinastigers.org/.
Would you be surprised to learn that I took the photos below not far from the strip malls and suburban sprawl of Northern Virginia? The first time I visited Huntley Meadows Park in Alexandria I was stunned and delighted by what I found. As my husband and I walked along a wooded path leading from the small parking lot, we suddenly emerged from the trees to see an open area of wetland stretching before us. A wooden boardwalk wound through the freshwater wetland, crowned by an observation platform that overlooks a large wetland pool. We learned that the park is a haven for bird-watchers and other nature lovers, and is widely known in birding circles for the variety of feathered species that may be spotted there.
The history of Huntley Meadows is fascinating. Before the federal government donated the land to Fairfax County in 1975, to be used “exclusively for public park or public recreation purposes in perpetuity,” the U.S. Navy built an antenna field there, which was used to conduct classified research in radio communication. Around 1970 the Navy declared the land as surplus. In 1978, a colony of beavers moved in and dammed up Barnyard Run, creating a wetland area. (Find a brochure with more about the site succession here.)
In 2005, a drought led the beavers to relocate to find a new food source. The wetland dried up. I remember visiting the park around that time, which also happened to be a low point in my life, and feeling great dismay when I saw that the wetland pools had disappeared. Much to my relief, some of the beavers moved back to the central wetland area when the drought ended in 2006, restoring some of the wetland pools. By then my life, too, was on the upswing. Now the park is implementing an ambitious restoration project that will manage the wetland, preserve this valuable area of natural biodiversity, and maintain the area as a haven for wildlife – and for those of us who enjoy visiting the park in all seasons to enjoy its natural beauty and recharge our spiritual batteries.
Photos and text copyright Elia Ben-Ari, 2010
Last weekend at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, I learned a new meaning of flipping the bird. (For those not familiar with this quaint colloquialism, it usually refers to a hand motion in which you wave your middle finger in someone’s direction.)
A group of 20 or so who were attending the ScienceOnline2010 conference in the Research Triangle went on a guided tour of the ten-year-old building, which – unlike many older natural history museums – organizes its permanent exhibits by natural habitats rather than taxonomic groupings. Exhibit Director Roy Campbell took us on a whirlwind tour of the museum’s four floors of exhibits, starting with a striking central hall featuring North Carolina’s natural treasures (the carnivorous Venus flytrap plant, the bobcat aka mountain lion, etc.).
As Roy enthusiastically described some of the highlights, we traveled through coastal North Carolina, various forest habitats, and more, including a section on the museum’s history. We stopped to ogle a giant blue whale skeleton hanging overhead, and heard how the museum’s builders had to add extra structural supports at the last minute to accommodate the weight of the water in a 20-foot waterfall whose faux rocks artisans had carved from concrete.
The best part of the tour, at least for me, was the behind-the-scenes, belowground view of the museum’s research and collections section. We split into two smaller groups, and Roy introduced us first to Becky Desjardins, collections manager of birds at the museum. In the short time available, Becky gave us a peek at a few of the museum’s 20,000 bird specimens, which are kept in special cabinets that protect them from light and humidity.
Becky pulled out a shallow cabinet drawer, revealing neat rows of kestrels. She took out one specimen and asked if anyone wanted to hold it. Though I have a bit of a phobia when it comes to being near live birds (as a teen I once freaked out when a friend’s pet parakeet escaped from its cage), I found myself eager to hold this beautiful and unthreatening dead one. The kestrel, which like all the bird specimens was stuffed with cotton, was amazingly light.
As we passed the kestrel specimen around, Becky explained more about the museum’s storage and preservation methods. The birds are fumigated initially to kill parasites and other organisms that could degrade the feathers or skin, hence the slightly acrid, sulfurous smell that emanated from the open cabinets. And, she said, once a year the collections staff pulls out every drawer and flips each bird over to check for signs of damage. Suddenly, flipping the bird acquired an entirely new meaning for me.
In addition to the kestrels, Becky showed us drawers of hummingbirds with iridescent feathers of various hues, and honeycreepers with delicate curved bills.
Roy tore us away from Becky and the birds and handed us off to Lisa Gatens, Curator of Mammals. Lisa struggled to choose which specimens to show us from her obviously beloved collection. She settled first on jumping mice, which can leap three feet in the air or six feet horizontally thanks to their powerful hind limbs. We moved on to bats, and finally to the skeleton of a right whale. Along the way Lisa pointed out the various bones in the animals’ limbs, demonstrating the homology between the humerus of the jumping mouse, which is much larger in the rear than in front, the needle-thin bat humerus, and the massive whale humerus.
Our last stop was the paleontology lab, where historian of science Paul Brinkman and Curator of Paleontology Vince Schneider described how they remove rock from fossils collected in the field, using tools ranging from sandblasters to implements you’ve seen in your dentist’s office (ouch!). Paul and Vince have unearthed fossils from several locales in North Carolina, which are more challenging to work in than the exposed rock beds found in the western U.S.
Our tour ended there, leaving me wanting more. Maybe some of us will return after the museum’s Nature Research Center, scheduled to open in 2011, is complete. This 80,000-square-foot addition to the museum, whose skeleton we admired from the museum windows, will focus on engaging the public in understanding scientific research – just as many participants in ScienceOnline2010 aim to do.
NOTE: To see more photos from the museum tour, view my album on Picasa.
I’ve finally decided to take the plunge and start blogging, after attending a most stimulating, cool, and fun conference (actually, an “un-conference”), ScienceOnline2010, in North Carolina this past weekend. The meeting, which began four years ago with a group of science bloggers from the Research Triangle area, has grown to include sessions on a range of topics related to communicating science online, including journalism, education, and scientific research.
The title of this blog, To Be Determined, may or may not change. I came up with it as I was drifting off to sleep last night, and thought initially that I would just use it as a placeholder until I came up with something terribly clever and creative. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought the title might be fitting. “To be determined” alludes in a way to science and the scientific process, which seeks to expand existing knowledge about the world we live in and worlds beyond, and, if done well, often leads to more questions. It also refers to personal determination (aka stubbornness), a trait that has enabled me to complete a PhD in pharmacology, transition to a career in science writing and editing, and overcome some obstacles that life has thrown in my path. And finally, “to be determined” suggests the possibilities that life offers and the surprises – both pleasant and unpleasant – that come up along the way. What does it mean to you?
I plan to blog about science and other subjects – probably whatever strikes my fancy, which covers the waterfront. I also hope to use this blog as a way to sharpen my writing skills and explore new forms of writing, as well as show off my photography (the header photo is mine). I look forward to hearing your comments, thoughts, encouraging words, polite critiques, etc.
Note added: After writing this post I discovered another blog with the same title but completely different type of content. If anyone has advice on whether I should change mine, for professional or other reasons, I’m all ears. I find I’ve already grown attached to it.