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Useful Science: Medical Student Startup Improves Science Communication

Distilling lengthy science publications into short summaries is challenging. The pioneers at Useful Science have made it their mission to communicate evidence-based snippets of science to the general public.

Students who multitasked on a laptop during a lecture scored lower on a test compared to those who did not multitask, and students who were in direct view of a multitasking peer scored lower on a test compared to those who were not.

The optimal noise level for carrying out abstract thinking and creative tasks is 70 dB, which is the average noise level in a coffee shop.

Personal beliefs about obesity are predictors of actual body mass: Individuals who believe obesity is caused by a lack of exercise are more likely to be overweight than individuals who believe that obesity is caused by a poor diet.

Quoted above are examples of the website’s sentence-long summaries. They cover relatable topics like sleep or parenting that aim to help people improve their lives.

Useful Science was cofounded by Kyle Saikaley and Jaan Altosaar while both were undergraduate students at McGill University in Montreal. What began with Saikaley, Altosaar, and a few friends from McGill reading and summarizing scientific literature has grown to a site with over 70 contributors from across the globe. It has received over 700,000 page views from 203 countries. Useful Science has been tweeted about by Malcom Gladwell, John Maeda, and Sam Harris

Potential contributors are screened to ensure that they are graduate students or medical students. Contributors write one-sentence summaries of scientific articles or can suggest articles that may be of interest to other contributors. Any contributor or editor can peer-review the summaries before they are published on the website. Visitors can flag a summary as useful, which makes it more visible to other visitors. 

Saikaley is currently a first-year medical student at the University of Toronto and Altosaar is pursuing a PhD at Princeton.

New members have joined the team, including Peter Antkowiak, Director of Strategic Initiatives for Useful Science. Antkowiak is a third-year medical student at Albany Medical College. 

While balancing the rigorous academic demands of medical school with other projects can be challenging, Saikaley and Antkowiak advocate that entrepreneurship should play an important role in the field of medicine. They were able to provide insight into the challenges and benefits of maintaining a connection to interests outside of medicine.

“Behind my love for science and medicine, I’m really passionate about management and business,” said Antkowiak, whose background is in economics. He considered a career in management consulting before ultimately choosing medicine.

Antkowiak’s educational background meant he was able to offer a unique perspective to the group. He had met Altosaar while also studying at McGill, and reached out during the winter of 2014. 

Antkowiak was interested in getting involved in Useful Science to stay connected to his interests outside the field of medicine.

“It was a great idea, and I felt I could provide a different perspective to add to the mix,” said Ankowiak. 

Antkowiak felt that clerkship years would be an opportune time to increase his involvement in startup culture. He finds it easier to make time for Useful Science in clerkship than he did in the preclerkship years and anticipates this continuing into his residency.

Saikaley said it was difficult to put his best effort into both school and Useful Science during first year.

“I think combining the two is really hard but really important. Medicine alone can easily take up all of your time but I think it’s definitely necessary for the two to come together. I think it’s important for physicians to become involved in the startup world,” said Saikaley, speaking about the overlap between entrepreneurship and medicine. 

Saikaley admits being less involved in Useful Science since starting medical school this year. He finds it difficult to balance the demanding first year curriculum with the commitment needed to play as active a role in Useful Science as he once did. 

Saikaley’s role in Useful Science has changed over time. Initially, he spent full days sifting through peer-reviewed publications and writing summaries. Once the site became more popular, he was involved in recruiting graduate and medical students to contribute. As time went on, he began to take on other roles including meeting with sponsors, working on creative elements of Useful Science, and doing interviews with media. Even this year, he had the chance to meet with people interested in collaborating and feels he has been able to continue to participate in startup culture.

Like Antkowiak, Saikaley’s previous educational experiences gave him a unique perspective. He had taken masters-level courses at Johns Hopkins in science medical writing and gained exposure to the world of science journalism. He felt that it would be beneficial for more science journalism to be rooted in evidence.

“Even in things like Reddit’s r/science, there’s all this sensationalized, misquoted stuff just for the sake of grabbing people’s attention, not because it’s good science,” said Saikaley.

He began to notice similarities in the field of medicine, where evidence is not always used as effectively as it could be.

“I find there are some things in medicine that are not totally evidence-based; traditional stuff that’s been carried down but not necessarily scientifically accurate. Useful Science is good in that it’s purely evidence-based facts,” said Saikaley.

In this way, Antkowiak believes Useful Science is meeting an unmet need by communicating evidence-based science to a broad audience.

“We wanted to reach a broader audience than just people trying to read these journals. We really wanted to help people do that and bring quality science to a wider audience,” said Antkowiak.

Frustrated that facts are sometimes misinterpreted in science journalism, integrity of the science being communicated was a priority for Saikaley. 

“It’s graduate and medical students who are actually interpreting the literature, versus science journalism where the person doesn’t necessarily have a science background and they’re not necessarily reading it from the source, so it becomes this game of telephone,” explained Saikaley.

Antkowiak believes there is a market for this type of service.

“Three of the top ten most visited New York Times articles in 2013 were on science that affects how we live. People are interested in reading about science to some degree and we’re really trying to tap into that,” said Antkowiak.

At this point in time, Antkowiak feels user engagement is a main focus.

“We’re young, we’ve never done this before, we’re trying to be bold. It started with a heartfelt intention to just get science out there. We really want to continue to move that platform in a direction that helps reach a wider audience,” he said.

Saikaley agreed, suggesting accessibility is a principal goal.

“We tried to make it as accessible as possible to the entire general population and not just people with a science background. That’s sort of reflected in the language we use as well as in the posts. We aim to use high school level English,” he said.

They both feel that using small snippets of information is the best way to communicate science to the general population, especially in the context of modern communication.

“People are consumed by short, instantly gratifying things like Facebook or Twitter. If people are going to waste their time swallowing all this social media, we thought, why don’t we also make something short, instantly gratifying, but educational at the same time?” asked Saikaley.

“We want to stick to the mission which is an organic, student-run site that maintains quality. It’s easy to run astray from that in our world of snippets of information. We’re best at taking articles and writing summaries and making those summaries interesting,” said Antkowiak.

Saikaley also had shared some insight about future directions for Useful Science.

“When we had started up Useful Science it was very utilitarian: a website that is selflessly benefiting everyone, getting the education out there without making a profit on it. We don’t have any ads. We had a sponsor here or there so we could pay our developer. Now we’re sort of thinking to take a more entrepreneurial approach to it. Not to make as much money as we can but to use that money to expand and maybe make an app, advertise it, get the website out there,” said Saikaley.

“We’re always open to new ideas and to new medical or graduate students joining. You can put in as much time or commitment as you’d like so if anyone around the world is interested, they should get in touch with us. We have contributors everywhere and people who are translating it into different languages. We have people who have an undergrad in music or a masters in biophysics or they’re from Denmark or Saudi Arabia, so you’re getting research coming from everywhere so it’s really eclectic and wide ranged,” said Saikaley.

Kelly Aminian Kelly Aminian (5 Posts)


Faculty of Medicine of Memorial University of Newfoundland

Kelly Aminian is a first year medical student at Memorial University of Newfoundland. She holds a BSc in neuroscience from Carleton University and an MSc in clinical neuroscience from King’s College London. Her hobbies include playing harp and travelling.