Telling Stories about Science: My experiences as a science writer

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Could you be a freelance science writer? Read on to find out.

Many BCMB students have taken the elective course, taught by Jeremy Nathans, called Great Experiments in Biology. Year after year, students enjoy the class and recommend it to their peers. Why do we like it so well? Other than an appreciation and understanding for the great scientists who came before us, I think that we enjoy the class because Dr. Nathans focuses on the personal stories of the scientists: how they got interested in science, why they studied what they studied, how they reacted and felt and progressed along their path to these fantastic discoveries. In my experience, I always remember the science better when I understand the motivation behind the discovery; I loved discussing science with visiting lecturers and BCMB faculty not just for the academic part of the conversation, but also finding out the background and circuitous path they followed to get where they are today.

If you are finding yourself nodding and agreeing and connecting with what I just described, you might be interested in a career in science writing and communication. Here, I’ve “interviewed” myself; I hope this can stimulate some questions and discussion about our roles as scientists in the world of media and communication.

What is science communication?

This is not an easy question to answer because science communication takes many forms. We are familiar with editorial and science commentary articles from journals, news stories (print, radio, television), and science magazine such as Discover and Popular Science. These all qualify as science communication, but it also includes press releases, science blogging, YouTube videos, Twitter, Facebook, and much more. There is a distinct difference between academic communication (manuscripts, research talks, and grants) and communicating science to the lay public. Generally, I consider science communication to be any action that bridges these two worlds, taking what we learn in our research and interpreting those findings into something that is relevant and interesting to every day life.

Who are science writers?

They can be anybody, from a variety of backgrounds. They can be journalists, scientists, mass communication experts, editors, etc. The only qualifications one needs to become a science writer are a passion for science, a willingness to learn, and the ability to communicate well with a variety of audiences. The challenges facing science writers are different depending on their background. In my case, I started out on the science side and transitioned to the writing side, so my challenges are learning to translate my detailed knowledge into something that is relatable for non-scientists and navigating the language of the communications world. One of my clients is a communications expert, and her challenge is the opposite: detailed science experiments are difficult for her to grasp, so she struggles with understanding some of the people she interviews. Either way, the goal of science writing is to meet in the middle, so both of us can be successful by addressing our weaknesses and seeking out resources to help overcome them.

How does one get started in science writing?

I’ll use myself as a case study to answer this question. One day in the lab (a day filled with particularly slow-moving experiments), I decided to check out the resources on the Science Careers website. This was during my third year, and I had recently been struggling with my work because I felt lost; I couldn’t see where this path of going to grad school was taking me. I decided to explore options outside of academic science. Right away, I got excited by the information on science writing. I’ve always loved writing and playing around with words, and here was an opportunity to combine that love with my passion and knowledge and education in science! I proceeded to seek out any information I could. Some great resources I found were:

-the Effective Science Communication elective course (also helpful for academic writing)

Audrey Huang, Director of Marketing and Relations for Research and Education

Raj Mukhopadhyay, BCMB Alum and science writer (currently at ASBMB Today magazine)

-the National Association of Science Writers

-BCMB Career Development seminars (3rd years – ask Carolyn for more info)

-the annual NIH Career Symposium (coming up on May 16th)

(Aside: please contact me if you would like more information on any of these resources)

Using a combination of these, I was able to learn the basics of communicating to a lay audience, and from there I had to learn by trial and error. I did a ton of unpaid writing jobs – I volunteered for any and every opportunity that came my way. I think it’s typical to write for a few years as kind of an “apprentice” before you can start to see paid gigs coming your way. I still have a lot to learn, but just like in lab, learning by doing is the only way to move forward! One of the biggest things I learned is to keep writing, and to keep practicing your writing and interviewing skills ALL THE TIME. A great way to do this while you’re in grad school is to use resources like BCMB News!

If you want more details on what it’s like to be a science writer, check out some of the resources above, and don’t be shy to contact people and ask questions! You can also contact me with questions, and be sure to visit my website if you want to see the kind of topics I cover and articles I write.

Do you think you’d like a career in science communication? How important is it for scientists to be trained in connecting with a lay audience? Share your thoughts and comments below!

Still not sure if science communication is for you? Check out the previous post I wrote on using MyIDP as a career planning tool.

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