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'Modern Poisons' and how to write a book about science for non-scientists

This post originally appeared on the blog 'Science with Style' and is reposted with permission. 

We’ve talked in previous posts about many of the additional jobs required of scientists besides research. Science communication is at the top of the list, and the importance of strong communication skills for scientists has become clearer now than ever before. In some of our previous posts, we’ve focused on ways you can communicate your science when asked the dreaded question of ‘So, how’s research?’ at a get-together with family or friends or how you can adopt the use of a narrative approach to set up your scientific story. It’s also important for us to think beyond our own research and consider sharing the concepts, findings, and ideas of an entire field of study. Are there ways that we can better communicate the wider scope of our scientific research to an even broader audience?

At the SETAC meeting last autumn in Salt Lake City, I had a chance to catch up with my undergrad thesis advisor Dr. Alan Kolok, who set out to do just that for toxicology.  I spoke with him over the phone this winter about his project of writing Modern Poisons and his perspectives on undertaking the endeavor of translating toxicology for a lay audience. I also had a chance to read the newly-minted e-book version this spring, which you can pick up on Amazon or directly from the Island Press website.

You might find the book a surprisingly short read, something you can get through in a week or so of easy reading, and there’s a reason for that. Kolok was initially inspired by the paperback Why big fierce animals are rare, a book written by the late Paul Colinvaix, an ecology professor who worked at The Ohio State University and later at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. The book is dense in basic ecology but uses short, 5-minute chapters to get the message across. Kolok was inspired by the book as an undergraduate student and the way in which these complex concepts in ecology could be conveyed in short, easy-to-read sections for a broad audience. Kolok wanted to do something similar for the field of toxicology: a book that could be read by anyone, from accountant to zoologist, and a book that would enable them to have a better understanding of the concepts and common misconceptions within toxicology.

Modern Poisons by Alan S. Kolok | An Island Press book
Modern Poisons can be read by anyone, from an accountant to a zoologist.

As researchers we work primarily in a single field and with the occasional jaunt into interdisciplinary territory. It’s easy to forget how specialized we are even compared to scientists working in other fields, even ones that might seem similar at first. Kolok was initially surprised by comments on a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation about why PCBS aren’t metabolized but PAHs are and why EDCs impact fish differently than humans. To the toxicologist, these concepts (and acronyms) seem like common knowledge, but for someone who’s an epidemiologist or an electrophysiologist won’t understand concepts like biotransformation as much as a toxicologist will. After seeing these comments, Kolok realized that even for a field as large as toxicology, there was really only one major textbook dedicated to the principles of the field. While this is a great textbook, it’s not exactly pocket-sized, and certainly not a light read or for those who simply want to pique their interest on the topic.

Three years ago, Kolok set out to write Modern Poisons as a short and easy-to-digest book on the basics of toxicology. While the book is currently available as an undergraduate textbook, it was initially meant to be a short book for lay readers, including advanced high school students, who are interested in toxicology. In order to reach this broad audience, Kolok’s approach was to use the power of metaphors. Kolok is a firm believer of the value of anecdotes as a way of explaining complex concepts to people who don’t come from a scientific background. This approach is used to tackle topics ranging from the geographical distribution of pollutants to emerging questions on topics including nanomaterials and personal care products. This approach enables readers to understand the gist of the problem but leaves the in-depth details for another story.

What became more of a struggle for Kolok during the writing process was achieving the balance between sufficient complexity with understandability. In the past 17 years of teaching toxicology for senior undergraduates at UNO, Kolok has found that a good portion of the course ended up being the study of biochemical pathways. While this isn’t the core of toxicology per se, it was still something that all students needed to understand so that concepts such as enzyme induction by dioxins and pesticides binding to the acetylcholine receptor could be better understood. The book subsequently follows in parallel to how Kolok teaches, not only in the specifics of the enzymes and pathways discussed but in general in the sense of how the system works as a whole and how different pieces can end up in disarray during a chemical onslaught.

Kolok used Modern Poisons as a textbook in his toxicology course last autumn, where he provided the book as an overview and then used the course to go into greater details. While this required Kolok to re-think his course and revamp his presentation style, he was also able to get feedback on the book before it went to publication. His students really enjoyed the book and were able to read each chapter and make specific comments on what worked and what didn’t. After four years of droll textbooks for classes, Kolok’s senior-level toxicology course enjoyed a book with a more conversational and informal tone and approach, and Kolok plans to use Modern Poisons again in the upcoming semester.

"I'd never thought of myself as a writer until finishing this book," Kolok remarked.

While the book did take three years to write, it wasn’t evenly spread over all 20 chapters. Kolok found that some ideas or concepts came easier and were written faster, while for others he needed to either think about how to go into detail while still being clear, and other concepts required him to go back to the literature. The amount of time spent during that year also varied, as Kolok was still teaching and doing research, but on some occasions spent nearly 20 hours a week at writing. Thanks to a quarterly series of articles he had written for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Kolok did have some starting material from 16 lay person articles of around 800 words, each focused on a topic within toxicology.

Even with some starting material, however, the process was still not always an easy one. “When you’re writing a review paper, your input is scientific material and your output is more scientific material. It’s harder when you’re taking scientific materials and translating them into something else. You have to read a lot in order to understand and then translate without losing the complexity,” Kolok commented. Kolok admitted that he wasn’t always the most efficient at this: some concepts ended up ‘translating’ rather easily but others were more difficult, and some ideas and chapters had to be completely redone. Kolok reinforced the need for good self-critique during the writing process and admitting when you need to restart something completely. While this was a challenge throughout the writing process, Kolok admits that “When you feel like you finally got it right, it’s really satisfying.”

While the first edition of the book is done and in print (or e-book, if you prefer a digital format), Kolok is already thinking about what the next version will look like, but after some time off from book writing, since Kolok emphasized that part of being productive also involves taking a break now and again. The next edition is likely to include some figures and a few changes in sections that Kolok feel could be improved, especially as new research comes out and new stories become prominent in the news, and to go into more detail on certain topics that could only be covered broadly in the first iteration.

“I’d never thought of myself as a writer until finishing this book,” Kolok remarked, and said that by writing this book he activated a more creative part of his brain than normal science writing. “This type of writing feels like a creative challenge compared to scientific writing. I got to expand my creativity and the horizon of my writing, I got to use more creative words and tell short stories instead of journal articles.” Kolok even went so far as to say that writing more creatively felt like learning a new lab technique, and that while in research and as a professor he was and is still writing, he now has a new perspective on it. Kolok even said that the amount of scientific writing he’s done has increased, and he’s now more motivated to write and finish papers, in addition to thinking about continuing his career in writing after retiring from research as a second career.

I greatly enjoyed reading Modern Poisons, and even having background knowledge in toxicology the book didn’t feel like anything was too glossed over or watered down. One student commented that “Dr. K writes like he talks, very conversationally, and I mean that in a good way,” and I certainly agree with that sentiment. Reading this book felt like being in Kolok’s undergraduate toxicology course all over again, a reminder of why I began my PhD in toxicology in the first place: the fascination I felt while learning about what happens when good biological plans and infrastructure go awry. It also spurred my own thoughts on how I could talk about my own research better, which was one of the topics not mentioned in Kolok’s book: narcosis. I agree with Kolok that toxicology should be understood by more than toxicologists, especially since a lot of what we do impacts what chemicals we use in our homes, on our foods, and in our drugs.  I’ve already passed along the book to science-oriented friends and non-science-oriented family members who have asked me time and time again to tell them about what I’m doing at work. Thanks to Dr. K, I can just send them the link to the Amazon page and avoid a lengthy discussion on biological membranes over Christmas dinner!

It’s not just toxicology that benefits from books like this: scientists are trained to become specialized in their own fields, and a person that hasn’t been in a science class since high school may have forgotten what the inside of a cell looks like or from what direction the moon rises from. While it may not be an easy endeavor to bring every research concept to the lay person, now is the time to start thinking how you can translate science into a story that people can connect and relate to. I’m thankful for Dr. Kolok’s inspiration in telling the story of toxicology for everyone, and am hopeful that more science-oriented books like this in the future will grace the bedside tables of many curious readers to come.