METM23 Chronicles: Maighread Gallagher-Gambarelli

The immune system: get your FACS straight

Those of us who work in scientific and technical writing very often do not have a scientific background. Everyday work involves text on laboratory techniques, and while an editor does not require a detailed knowledge of how such techniques work, some understanding of their functioning and purpose might enable us to identify areas overlooked or poorly expressed by authors. Consequently, attending workshops and presentations that describe the techniques and equipment we come across in our editing goes some way to removing part of the mystery resulting from our lack of technical knowledge.

The presentation given by Maighread Gallagher-Gambarelli covered fluorescence-activated cell sorting (FACS), a widely used technique in medicine in general, and immunology in particular. The terminology used to describe the technique has crossed into the discourse of many medical specialties.

Maighread set clear objectives, which were very clearly fulfilled. The mechanics of flow cytometry was presented, with explanations of key terms related to cell labelling and sorting, e.g., “event”, “output”, “scatter” (forward and side), “granularity”, and “buffy coat”, which are omnipresent in scientific reports involving a laboratory component.

Also important was the output provided by the technique and the need for minimum information requirements to ensure uniform reporting of results and reproducibility. Maighread explained cell division, the importance of the colours used in the displays generated by the technique, and determination of cell status depending on the position in the quadrants in the readout.

In terms of the direct relevance to editing, Maighread stressed the importance of labelling and the fact that reported values were relative, requiring the application of statistical methods to provide numerical values for the colours displayed in the output. Further language-related aspects associated with reporting results included the misuse of the term CD (cluster of differentiation), which plays a key role in identifying cell subsets. Authors often refer to “staining” with CD, when, in fact, staining is performed with the antibody that recognizes the protein, not the CD.

The presentation also stressed the need for scientists to include various items in their report, such as isotype controls, which are often unreported, and how to tell a primary antibody from a secondary antibody. Indeed, the descriptions provided by the working scientist are often superficial and omit useful – if not important – information.

Participants left Maighread’s talk with a better understanding of the technique and the many aspects associated with authors’ description of it. The information provided was sufficient for editors to identify poorly written sentences, which could then be brought to the attention of the author. Finally, Maighread recommended the manufacturers’ websites for further information.

This METM23 presentation was chronicled by Thomas O’Boyle

Featured photo by METM23 photographer Leonardo Rizzato.

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