Virtual “Boot Camp” Brings Together Scientists and Science Writers

12th annual event, hosted by the Johns Hopkins Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences, explores precision medicine.

Published in Fundamentals - Fundamentals August 2020 and Dome - Dome July/August 2020

No business cards were exchanged. No one shook hands. And the snacks were strictly the bring-your-own variety. But the 12th annual Johns Hopkins Science Writers Boot Camp had its largest-ever attendance.

More than 200 journalists, academics, bloggers and public information officers registered for this year’s boot camp, entitled “If the Medicine Fits: The Promise of Precision Medicine in Action.” Writers from media outlets such as USA Today, and US News & World Report, among many others, participated in the daylong Zoom teleconference on June 8, 2020.

Typically, the Science Writers Boot Camp takes place at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. Johns Hopkins researchers and clinicians spend the day giving mini lectures on their work and engaging in spirited discussions of science and media with journalists who specialize in reporting on medical science. The event allows writers to chat one-on-one with scientists working on tomorrow’s medical advances.

When the COVID-19 pandemic prevented gatherings of more than a few people, Johns Hopkins scientists and science communicators hosted a day-long webinar that featured 15-minute presentations from many of Johns Hopkins’ most prominent research scientists. This year’s theme, “If The Medicine Fits,” centered on precision medicine, the growing field of customized healthcare targeted at individual patients rather than whole populations.

The Johns Hopkins Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences hosts the annual event aimed at encouraging science writers to explore some of the groundbreaking research happening on the university and medical campuses. The institute’s director James Berger says he’s pleased by both this year’s turnout and presentations.

“We had record sign-ups and lots of good questions from participants,” says Berger. “The virtual program went smoothly, with no technical hitches.”

Seventeen Johns Hopkins basic scientists, working in fields such as oncology, radiology, neuroscience, brain physiology and biomedical engineering, gave short presentations of their research. They included:

  • Netz Arroyo, an assistant professor of pharmacology and molecular sciences, talked about developing tools other than weight, height and gender that can better measure metabolism and personalize drug dosage to maximize its therapeutic effects.
  • Neuroscientist Gul Dolen, who studies how the brain’s complex circuitry enables social behaviors, is also exploring ways that psychedelic drugs may help treat diseases like addiction and post-traumatic stress syndrome.
  • Namandje Bumpus, director of Pharmacology and Molecular Sciences studies ways that different ethnic groups respond to drugs. She discussed the need for drug trials that recognize those differences, particularly among African Americans.

“Science writing and journalism are bridges between highly important, but highly technical, discoveries and the general public,” says Berger.

“If the level of technical jargon that accompanies a published discovery is daunting and impenetrable to trained scientists – which it often is – then imagine how non-scientists must feel,” he says.

In addition to presenting breakthrough science related to precision medicine, Berger and event organizers made sure to include research updates on COVID-19. A panel of researchers and infectious disease specialists discussed how best to keep the coronavirus from spreading and their thoughts about developing vaccines. Johns Hopkins Hospital senior director of infection prevention Lisa Maragakis, pathologist Ben Larman and cell biologist Carolyn Machamer discussed how to expedite COVID-19 research from “bench to bedside.”