Talking to Squid

Megan McGrath's Resume & Blog

Month: June, 2013

The wizard knows what he’s talking about

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn, “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then—to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.”

~ T. H. White, The Once and Future King


Scientists teach lemurs to steal food from undergrads, gain new understanding of the nature of intelligence on Earth

My newest radio piece for VOA News! Listen in here:

I would like to thank VOA reporter Steve Baragona for letting me steal the phrase “thieving lemurs.”

More information can be found in the accompanying web write-up for this story.

Way more information can be found in the publicly accessible PLOS ONE paper.

If you’re interested in animal thinking, that paper is worth a read. It touches on some really compelling debates within the field.

In some ways this story was really challenging to write, because animal cognition is my field. I had to leave out a lot of stuff that really fascinates me. For example, you may be wondering if researchers have come up with better ways to guess at intelligence by looking at physical aspects of the brain; well, they’re definitely trying. The findings with these lemurs corroborate something we’ve already been pretty sure of, which is that a bigger brain isn’t necessarily smarter or better at thinking. A sperm whale’s brain is bigger than your brain, and while the whale’s brain is almost certainly better at understanding echolocation, it is definitely not better than your brain at interpreting Shakespeare.

So what is a good physical metric of intelligence? Is there anything we can measure in the brains of animals that will tell us how smart they are? The jury is still out on this. There’s been some buzz about a new technique that lets scientists count the number of neurons in brain tissue accurately. Since neurons are the brain machinery that are doing the actual work of cognition—passing electrical signals around—more neurons might mean a faster or more nimble brain, and we can actually count neurons now. But nothing in science is simple and straightforward, and intelligence is complicated. Neuron counts may be a more nuanced measurement of cognitive strength, but there will be ways in which it is flawed.

Lemurs are better with John Cleese:

Happy Friday!


Meditation forbidding mourning

I am a bag of organs on stilts walking around a solid world. The only ways I have to peer out of the dense particulation of myself are my eyes to see photons, my ears to hear airborne vibration, my nose to sense airborne chemicals, my tongue to do nearly the same, and my skin to feel the electron pressures of matter. Pay attention to the only small windows you have to know something outside of yourself. Everything happens to you through them, and you are a signal in a sea of noise.

Patenting genetics! And GLBT health in South Africa.

My first two stories at VOA News are figuratively hot off the presses!

The first was an explanation of the Supreme Court’s recent decision to overturn patents on specific genes, which, unlike many court cases, had plaintiffs on both sides of the aisle walking away smiling.

The second is MY FIRST RADIO PIECE! Reporting on a new survey that ascertained levels of consensual homosexuality and male-male sexual violence in South Africa, and how the findings might relate to the fight against HIV in a social sense.

I feel like gloating a little: I owe a lot to the excellent mentoring environment here at VOA, because this radio piece is almost entirely mine from very start to very end. I found the upcoming story, pitched the story to amenable editors, taped interviews with Drs. Dunkle and Jewkes, edited soundbites from those interviews, wrote my narrative, spoke and recorded my narrative, stitched the whole shebang together using in-house audio editing software, and sent it off to be on radio. Given the nature of VOA, I have no idea where this will broadcast, but I know it won’t be the US. Most likely Africa.

Radio, guys! It’s really, really radio!

The ugly woman the scared boy the scowling man

On the train in front of me there are a woman and a young boy. The boy is plump and startled-looking, and the woman is fat and ugly and carries a carved walking stick. They do not smile.

They sit in front of me and suddenly they are deeply involved in some crisis; the woman looks very intensely at the boy, eyes boring into his cheek, which is turned to her; he is thudding his head sullenly against the window of the train. “He’s going to kill me,” she says to the little boy, so softly I can hardly hear her. The boy keeps looking back a few seats behind me, so I turn to look. There is a scowling man with shaggy grey hair and crags in his face and gnarled hands sitting rows removed from them. He does not look up. He seems altogether blurred. There is nothing to connect him to the woman and boy many rows ahead except for the boy’s furtive glances. After many moments, the woman turns to look back toward the man. “Marty,” she says. “I left my purse in that taxi.”

The man says nothing. I sneak looks at him. He has raised one hand to massage his forehead, eyes closed. Eloquent with disgust. Grim sternness rolls off him. The woman and boy face forward.

The tips of the boy’s ears are red. The woman gazes at the little boy, her face drawn. A young woman in a dandelion-yellow dress has overheard the ugly woman, and says loudly, busily, “If you call the cab company, they’ll keep it for you. If you remember what kind of cab it was.”

Both the ugly woman and her little boy glance back several rows at the scowling man in perfect cowering synchrony, then face forward again. If either of them had done it on their own it might have been inconspicuous. “I don’t remember the cab company,” the ugly woman says, too harshly. The young woman shrugs, snaps her gum, looks at her phone. The ugly woman fixes her eyes on the boy again, and collapses in on herself very slightly. They exchange hushed statements that I cannot hear. The boy glances back at the man much more often than he has to, eyes wide and lips parted slightly. He is all of twelve, and looks like he is strategizing. People file out of the train car, people file back in.

The man does not look at them once, does not speak, slouches in his seat several rows back with dark brooding eyes as if he is entirely alone. After a long period of silence, the little boy reaches around his ugly mother’s shoulders and hugs her to him. She rests her large head against his neck, leaning into him. He rubs her back slowly with his chubby freckled hand and looks out the window. When the train stops, the dark man rises laboriously from his seat and passes the woman and boy, stands at the door of the train. They rise after him and stand behind him. When the door opens, he strides out of the car, and they follow him, in a line, man, woman, and boy, not a word between them, and then they are gone.

Dear Mass Media Fellows,

Y’all are amazing, and I can’t overstate how useful it is hearing about how news works over at the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Sacramento Bee, and Wired. How about after this whole mess is over the fourteen of us start our own newsy business? “The Young Scientist’s Report,” we’ll call it. Or, “Modern Microscope.” Ew.

Today was my first day, and I think it’s the start of a good thang. VOA is ridiculous in a lot of great ways. The main newsroom is a lot like the one we saw at NPR, just without the vaulted grand ceilings: huge space, tons of desks, colorful knickknacks, everyone making jibes at each other over the dividers. But the building is huge, and the rest of it is departments for each of the 43 (!) languages they broadcast in, mostly staffed by folks from those regions (I popped into the East Africa/Swahili newsroom today long enough to say “Shikamoo!” to their head editor, which means literally “I hold your feet” and is a respectful greeting to superiors and is just about the only thing I remember how to say in Swahili). VOA was established with the intent of providing accurate, balanced news internationally during WWII, when citizens of Germany and Japan were receiving a lot of propaganda from their own governments. (Quote from the first VOA radio broadcast: “Here speaks a voice from America. Every day at this time we will bring you the news of the war. The news may be good. The news may be bad. We shall tell you the truth.” I can’t get over the histrionic period fabulousness of that statement. Can’t you just hear his old-timey radio annunciation?) Today, they don’t broadcast to Germany anymore because, as they see it, they have free access to balanced news; they focus on areas that don’t—which is a shocking lot of places according to the maps they showed us. VOA sends radio broadcasts towards Pyongyang, for instance, but their signals mostly get blocked. There’s some interesting subversion that happens.

So, we’re mostly dealing with Big Global News, reported and produced by the main newsroom to be picked up and disseminated in various media by the regional departments, mostly radio and TV. Understandably, there’s not too much emphasis on basic research, which is kind of sad but totally to be expected: the science staff is real real small. My favorite quote from today, though sad: “Just so you guys are aware, when Mandiba dies this place is going to go batshit insane.” Africa is the biggest regional consumer of VOA newsing, so they do a lot of Africa-relevant stories (and everybody refers to the African news division as “Africa,” as in, “Africa says they want that spot finished by tomorrow,” hysterical). My first story will be some health research from South Africa, and I’m deciding to be ambitious and make it a radio piece, which everyone around me says should be doable within a few days, which I find totally absurd. Someone should call me next week and see if I’m stuck in radio-announcer voice,”Here speaks a voice from America….” Also, there’s a woman here who does a ton of reporting on NASA’s shenanigans, because they live right down the street, so I’m gonna do whatever I can to be her sidekick. YES. Call me Astrogirl.

I’m sure I’ll have my share of struggles and such but I’m pretty jazzed right now. Keep writing, you people are the best group of writers I’ve corresponded with maybe ever and your stories are all so interesting and helpful.

~ Megan Astrogirl McGrath

The next bit

After several whirlwind weeks of typing and clicking out final exams, in which I got progressively squintier and paler; two days of packing my Brooklyn apartment, my houseplants, my trusty new bike, and my boyfriend into a U-Haul; four days of blissful dizzy rest in the wet green woods where I grew up, looking for baby owls; four more days of packing, moving, unpacking, this time to a bucolic ivy-covered college house in a DC suburb; and three long, rambunctious days orientating for my summer job, I think it’s time for a nap.

I was orientating specifically for the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship program—I myself am a fellow. AAAS stands for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and their Fellowship takes science students (like me!) and places them in venerable science newsrooms for the summer. I am particularly jealous of my fellow fellows who are stationed at the NPR Science Desk, Wired, and NOVA, but I gather that they have plenty of reasons to be jealous of me. Voice of America is a journalistic outlet that not many Americans have heard of because it’s not for them; rather, VOA is a governmental organization that translates their English news into 45 other languages for the rest of the world. I’ll be with them this summer covering science. I’ll be working on my radio voice. I wonder, once a person has developed that stilted baritone, do they have trouble switching out of it when they’re doing their laundry or shopping for groceries? I’ll let you know in a month.

The other fellows are a brilliant bunch. Theoretical mathematicians, climate scientists, cell biologists, neurobiologists, physicists, chemists, the whole rough palette of scientific exploration—and all fabulous communicators, which stands to reason given our vocation this summer. They have now shipped off to their respective newsy institutions, leaving me behind in DC to bide my time.

So, for these few days I am staying still. I am spending embarrassing amounts of time biking aimlessly around this forested neighborhood, and reading old ripped paperbacks on the porch swing out front. I get up to wrestle with passing dogs—yesterday I met a squirmy German Shepherd puppy named Freya, which is an excellent name for a German Shepherd—but otherwise, for now, I’m staying right where I am, in a spot of sunshine, yawning and listening to the robins.

At least until next week, when I’ll be off and running again.