Reflections on my science communication course

This summer, as the end of my PhD started to actually feel as though it might someday approach, I sought guidance from a career pro at the Society for Developmental Biology meeting in Montreal. I told him I was pretty sure writing or communications would be a good fit for me, but asked if I need to go back to school and get a Master’s degree. At that point, I had looked into programs at Hopkins and UNC, the two places I will most likely be for the next step, and while they looked fascinating and helpful, I was (and still am) hesitant to commit to another year (or two) of school.

His answer was pragmatic: those programs are certainly an excellent way to learn science writing, but perhaps you could find another way to take that career path. Join the professional organization, he said, find some way to write pro bono, find a mentor, take a class, and all of these things will help you learn how the science writing world works and if it’s somewhere you really want to be.

With this advice in my pocket, I immediately joined NASW (such a great move!) and finished up the meeting. Getting back to lab meant getting back to work, and I didn’t think about his suggestions again for a couple of weeks. As the undergrads returned for the fall semester, though, it occurred to me that, since I had to be on campus, I should take advantage of any science writing-related class offerings.

When I found out that Communication of Science and Technology was being offered, I felt super-lucky, immediately emailed the professor to ask if I could audit, and received a positive response. On the first day, when Steve described the class as “practical,” I knew I was in the right place.

We covered basic news writing, as well as feature writing, podcasts, science videos, and blogging. As the only practicing scientist in the class, I had a lot to say about how science is actually performed, and a lot to hear from my undergraduate classmates about how and where they get their science news. Steve did an awesome job leading us through examples of science and science-related communication in the mass media. We read examples of great and not great writing and followed a few scicomm stories as they unfolded.

The best part of the course, though, was the personal realization of how important the work we began to learn is. One of my classmates, who had an especially long phone conversation with a scientist studying the long term effects of sports-related concussions, said, “That’s the reason we’re in this class, isn’t it? These people have a lot to say.” Scientists need to tell their stories to us, people who can hopefully communicate those stories clearly and well to everyone else. I am thankful that the advice I received this summer led me to the perfectly timed class, which helped me feel like the scicomm world is right where I want to be.

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