on October 14th, 2013 No Comments
It’s no secret that Stanford structural biologist Michael Levitt, PhD, won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Chemistry last week for his contributions to the understanding, via computational simulation and molecular modeling, of the immense molecules that we carbon-based lifeforms are made of. This is tremendously valuable work.
But if you’re ever so slightly prone to glazing over at terms such as “computational simulation and molecular modeling,” then I have a real secret to share with you.
I received an e-mail earlier this year from Levitt, with whom I hadn’t met during my five years as a science writer here. He’d just had a paper accepted in the journal Structure and was wondering whether our office might want to publicize it via a news release. “This is my best work since 1976,” he wrote.
Like many studies that pass before my eyes, this was a work of first-rate science. Levitt and his associates had solved the structure of the most complex members of an important class of proteins called chaperonins.
But trying to explain the significance of this finding, let alone Levitt’s math- and computation-heavy methodology, to lay readers via an 800-word news release was a nonstarter. I replied with what I hoped was a respectful explanation of why I couldn’t write a release on the study: The fact that a scientific work is noteworthy doesn’t necessarily make it newsworthy. The working press, we have learned, often require evidence of a direct, easily understood connection between breaking research and its implications for readers in the here-and-now. While understandable, this can make basic research a tough sell.
“Clearly this is a huge methodological advance,” I wrote. “But… it necessarily contains a nested sequence of concepts and references to key molecules. Any of these, alone, would be tough to explain… The attention span of the hyperkinetic, overworked editors and reporters who serve as surrogate readers for [our target nonscientific audience] is simply too short for us to pull that off…”
My message far exceeded the word-count limit of any release I might have scratched together.
Levitt’s response was gracious, serene and practically immediate: “Hi, Bruce. Your note was terrific and oh so helpful. [I have] some trial elevator-pitch paragraphs to try on you, more from the interest of the exercise than for any real desire to get publicity.” And sure enough, there followed two concise, if still somewhat terminologically freighted, paragraphs on his new work and its implications.
I responded: “Hi, Michael. I very much appreciate your efforts.” And, with the sincerest of good intentions, I proceeded to rewrite his paragraphs, substituting my snappy constructions for his honest, earnest explications. I suggested he could consider either concentrating on his new findings or focus on the methods he’d devised to get them. Maybe he’ll find himself in an elevator with a grantor or donor someday, I thought, and here I am helping him find les mots justes for that occasion.
He didn’t write back, but from this parched soil grew a beautiful flower.