3 July 2017

Blogging about diseases – for science! (And fun.)

Posted by Shane Hanlon

By Shane M Hanlon

I’m a disease ecologist by training. As a graduate student I investigated how agricultural runoff, mainly in the form of pesticides, alters the effects of fungal disease in amphibians. I still collaborate on primarily disease-related projects with my peers. And, as an added bonus, I get to spend three weeks each summer teaching a disease ecology course at Pymatuning Laboratory of Ecology (- the place where my love of science blossomed as an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh.

There are certain perks of teaching a field course, mainly getting to spend at least part of every day in the field. So far we’ve caught salamanders and frogs and tested them for the amphibian chytrid fungus, wandered through the forest to learn about tree diseases from a forest biologists, seined for fish in Pymatuning reservoir, and watched learned (through demonstration) how USDA biologists test for rabies in raccoons. However, as much as I love the field, this is a course with requisite coursework – quizzes, tests, etc. I try to keep things interesting by having the students discuss current events in science and different case studies each day. I also assign them blogging assignments.

If you head on over to plediseaseecology.wordpress.com you’ll find blog posts from my students over the course of the past few years. Here’s part of the guide that I hand out:

Disease Ecology Blog Assignment


  • Learn and share information about wildlife diseases.
  • Learn to communicate effectively and efficiently through social media.

Assignment:  Write at least four blog entries from the following categories:

  1. Etiology/History Blog Entry: Detail the history of a wildlife disease. Provide a nationally/globally recognized example.
  2. Article review: Highlight a recent primary literature article on an interesting wildlife disease topic. Using your own words, describe the research, evaluate what this research adds to our understanding of wildlife diseases and comment on why this work is interesting or valuable. Include the author’s name(s) and the name of the journal in which the article appears. Also include a link to the source (preferably) or the article citation. The article you discuss should have been published within the last 2 years and must be on a different topic from your presentation.
  3. Wildlife Disease Myth Busting: Pick a wildlife disease misconception that you are interested in addressing and explore why the misconception may persist and provide available data that evaluates the myth. Include an example, if possible. 
  4. Wildlife Diseases in the News: Highlight wildlife disease research that has been in the news by summarizing the story in your own words, including your own commentary, and by evaluating the original research that is the newsworthy topic. Some good places to look might be BBC Science & Nature, the New York Times, National Public Radio, or other media outlets of your choice.
  5. Wildlife Diseases in Society and Culture: Highlight wildlife diseases used in art and literature, or by different cultures. You may provide links or copies of the work, but also provide your own analysis.  For instance, you might evaluate how a poem suggests an attitude toward a certain disease and how it may influence potential species conservation efforts. 

When I talk about this the first day it’s easy to count the number of eye rolls from my students. I imagine them asking, “Blogging? Seriously? Who does that?” Well, I do and so do many others. But that’s not the point. My goal isn’t to make them into professional bloggers (though some of the posts are quite good). My goals, stated at the top of the guide, are to [acquire] and share info about wildlife diseases AND to learn effective communication through social media. I’m aware that most of my students won’t be professional disease biologists but everyone needs to know how to communicate. And, honestly, I think that they really enjoy it. I really hope they do because I really enjoy reading their posts.

-Shane M Hanlon is a Senior Specialist in AGU’s Sharing Science program and instructor of Disease Ecology at the University of Pittsburgh’s Pymatuning Laboratory of Ecology