Audio teaser

I made an audio teaser to promote Periodic Tables (Durham’s Science Café). It’s my first adventure producing audio, and I can’t wait to do more!

#MMF2013 Midterm Report

I am in the thick of things at the Trib. After a slow start, I feel like I am finally hitting my stride. The learning curve has been very steep for me so far. I thought I was already good at thinking about why people should care about science, but I have a long way to go in terms of being able to consistently communicate those ideas in my writing!

By trying to do well as a reporter and write good stories, I am beginning to understand why science is often misrepresented to the public. Communicating science to a public who is reading the Tribune is a totally different beast than writing science for a public who is reading Wired or SciAm. It’s challenging to strike the right balance between the technical aspects of research and the why you should care parts. Even when I understand the science, I get too much in my scientist brain and think things are just inherently cool, which is dangerous! I often still feel like I am leaning too far either in the direction of science cheerleader or in too technical a direction, but I hope to get better at being in the middle.

From what I can tell, the Tribune has carved out a niche with longer-reported pieces that address an issue from multiple angles: health, science, consumer/individual, business. To be asked to report, research, and write stories in this way was a bit frustrating at first, but now I am thankful to get what feels like a experience beyond daily news.

Everyone is constantly telling me to think about why the reader should care about a story. I actually got some great advice today, which my mentor called “doping format.” I still have no idea what the name means, but the gist is that you ask yourself three questions:

  1. What is a possible headline for my story?
  2. What is the story about in one sentence?
  3. Why should readers be interested?

Answering those three questions instantly made the story I was working on feel clearer to me, so that I could make my writing more focused. It is a pretty basic exercise, but it felt like a revelation.

In closing, I want to give a shout out to my fellow fellows. We have an active Google Group where people share tools, tips, and crazy not-always-fellowship-related stories. If you want to learn more about these fantastic folks, check their profiles.

Jargon

Andy Fire visited Vanderbilt yesterday and spoke as part of the Discovery Lecture series. The grad students in our lab got to meet with him and take him through a data blitz, and then we heard his lecture. During the group meeting, I was struck by how quickly he followed our research and had ready, relevant questions. His sharpness was also obvious during his lecture, and when processing it afterwards with my labmates, the consensus was that the lecture was among the best we have heard.

Part of what made the talk great was Dr. Fire’s quiet passion for his science, present as an undertone throughout. The other part is that his presentation of the material was undeniably clear. He has mastered the delicate middle ground between overloading the listener with and not using enough jargon. Jargon can be dangerous for scientists and scientific communicators alike. Too much jargon and you quickly lose your audience, not enough and they may be insulted. How do we, as scientists and communicators, reach the perfect balance?

In this Nature column, Trevor Quirk urges science writers not to shy away from jargon, suggesting that important shades of meaning are lost when we do. Quirk underlines his belief in the importance of jargon thus:

When writers avoid jargon unquestioningly, readers start to think that it serves no purpose. The world increases in complexity every day, and we should not let shrink our capacity to describe it.

In contrast to the more absolute statements from Quirk’s piece, two amazing science writers, Ed Yong and Carl Zimmer, make great points about the need for balance when using jargon here and here. Says Yong,

Filling prose with jargon, and failing to consider the all-important audience, ensures that you lose the battle before you’ve even published a pixel. Nobody has ever felt obliged to read. Don’t give them reasons to stop.

So as I continue to teeter between the assumption that my audience can understand the language I use and pedantically explaining the heck out of the science, I will also continue to be thankful for hearing great examples of science communication like Dr. Fire’s Discovery Lecture.

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.

Joe Palca

One of the good things about still being in grad school is that I have access to the calendar of invited speakers.  Lucky for me, Joe Palca, NPR’s science correspondent, gave a Discovery Lecture at Vanderbilt on October 25.  I was interested to hear him speak, but also to see who turned up to fill the audience.  The entire biomedical community is invited to the Discovery Lecture Series, which means that I am just as likely to sit next to a white-haired and -coated oncologist as to another graduate student.  Joe Palca as invitee was slightly unorthodox, and I was uncertain whether any of my scientist colleagues would be interested enough to show up.  On occasion, I have encountered the belief on the part of scientists that journalists willfully get the story wrong and thus make the scientists look foolish.  I was, therefore, pleased to see the lecture hall fill up, and settled in for a fun talk.

The problem with reporting science, according to Joe, is twofold.  First, most science stories come with necessary vocabulary, in a way that very little other news does.  He used football as an example here and played a newscast of himself explaining Superbowl results with each tiny element defined, just as it would be in a science story.  Boring!  The second problem with reporting science news is that no one knows in advance which stories are going to be important, so timeliness is a true challenge.  Making an example of several Nobel Prizes, he illustrated how little coverage these discoveries (eventually considered by the Nobel committee to be really big deals) received initially.  Because news operates on (increasingly 24/7) news time rather than science time, which can drag on and on, initial discoveries that seem like a they might be a big deal are highlighted too soon and so much that the public loses interest; gene therapy is one example.  By the time science catches up with news, the next big science thing is already all over and no one wants to hear about something they initially heard about years ago.

Because of this twofold problem, the public’s current impression is that scientists are discovering awesome things daily, and while collectively we probably are, no one scientist is discovering something every single day.  What I do as a scientist is confirm what I think are discoveries, which actually involves bucket loads of troubleshooting, waiting, testing, and reevaluating what I think I know.  So rather than reporting news in leapfrog fashion, jumping from one breakthrough to another, and perpetuating the public’s misconception of how science works, Joe has a Big Idea.  He wants to tell stories about the process of science and the delight that comes with learning something that no one ever knew before.

When he started to talk about his Big Idea, the scientists in the audience got a little twitchy.  Joe spotted them twitching and said that he knows that scientists sometimes feel uncomfortable with making science about the people doing it rather than about the science itself (perhaps because here another chance exists to make scientists look foolish).  His answer to this discomfort is that his job as a communicator is to intrigue people enough with the stories of the scientific process and the scientists that his readers or listeners want to go forth and learn about the science themselves, shifting responsibility for understanding science to the public.  After Joe helped the audience that he wants the same thing that they want (people to care about their research), the room relaxed again.

Going forward, Joe’s Big Idea has serious merit, and as an aspiring communicator, I love the idea of telling a different kind of story.  Journalists and scientists could operate on the same time scale and work together to communicate engaging science in which everyone wants to take ownership.