Talking Science

The term “science communication” gets thrown around a lot in my world. It is most commonly used in one of two contexts: (1) during scientific training/education while stressing the importance of being able to communicate your research to individuals outside your field or (2) a potential career to pursue after finishing your degree. While use of “science communication” in these circumstances is perfectly valid, I think it undervalues the professional diversity of those who participate in science communication. Here, I present three distinct types of science communicators, their functions, their messages, and their backgrounds.

To start with, a common career path for scientists interested in communications is to become a science writer. Science writers frequently work for a media company (print, online, etc.) or are freelance journalists/authors who write about complex scientific concepts for a general non-scientific audience. I like to think of them as science translators.

Science writers tend to have some university-level background in science, but whose stand-out skill lies in their ability to boil down complex concepts into simple terms and analogies. They no longer perform original research but build and maintain networks of scientists about whose work they try to get the public excited and interested. Most impressively, science writers are uniquely tasked with coherently and accurately describing scientific fields in which they may have minimal to no background.

I find it more difficult to remember the names of specific science writers (unless they’ve authored a particularly noteworthy book), but they do well at leaving the reader with specific tidbits of information.

The most easily recognizable (i.e. widest audience) scientific communicator is the science presenter. These individuals are typically charismatic scientists who have been determined to have a marketable face and can make science sound interesting/fascinating to almost anyone. I like to think of these few individuals as science celebrities.

Science presenters have names you recognize, including Bill Nye, Professor Brian Cox, and Neil deGrasse Tyson (I know this last one has some scandal associated with it right now). While they are very good about getting non-scientific people excited about science, they aren’t known for educating the average person about specific scientific concepts/principles. They say something that makes you say “woah, that’s cool”, then instantly forget what was just said.

While science presenters ordinarily hold at least one position at a scientific institution, they aren’t best known for performing original research.

Science celebrities have the vital, difficult responsibility of getting the average Joe/Jane excited about science, with the aim that Joe/Jane ventures out to learn more for themselves.

The most populated type of science communicator is the scientist who can communicate. Their role is science communication is exactly how it sounds: their primary responsibility is to perform research in their niche scientific field, but they also have the invaluable skill of communicating their work to diverse audiences. I like to think of these amazing individuals as next-gen scientists, meaning that these are what science trainees should aim to become.

Earning a PhD confers expertise in a particular field, so these scientists predominantly hold terminal degrees from respected institutions and work as faculty at universities or federal organizations. Their names aren’t yet widely known outside specialty fields, but their popularity is growing due to their presence on social media (namely Twitter and Instagram).

While scientists who can communicate focus much of their communication on the field(s) that they actively work in, they can adapt their messages to the audience, narrowing in on the nitty-gritty details or presenting a 10,000 foot view of their field. This is the category of science communicators that I am most excited about because they allow members of the public direct access to the most cutting-edge science.

Excitingly, there are some impressive individuals who are blurring the lines between these types of communicators, resulting in all scientific fields becoming more accessible to the public. I only hope that members of the public trust us enough to believe what we say.

Which Words Don’t Matter?

Scientific writing is of paramount importance to any researcher looking to communicate, disseminate, seek funding for, and convey the importance of their work. The phrase “publish or perish” has become a mantra for a reason, though scientific writing extends far beyond publishing your research.

Writing is a process involving multiple chances to improve the writing and target the message for its intended audience, through edits. Scientific editing is a test of pride and ego for the author, one which I struggle with.

While most people, even outside scientific fields, are familiar with the concepts of publishing research and even applying for funding through grants, scientific writing can also include press releases, mass media articles, and blog posts. Each of these types of scientific writing involves different styles (e.g. informative, persuasive) and amounts of scientific jargon.

While I’ve worked on most types of writing mentioned, I’ve mainly been responsible for editing other people’s work. The fellowship applications I submitted this past fall were the first time I was fully responsible for writing a research proposal for a scientific audience. I allotted plenty of time in my application preparation to allow for multiple revisions, including edits by mentors and colleagues. Unfortunately, planning ahead didn’t help me when I had a 2.5 page research plan that was only allowed 2 pages of space.

In my quest to shorten the document, I met with a mentor who has been working in academic research for more than 20 years. She pointed out that as scientists, we like to think that all of our words are significant, but in editing, our challenge is to choose which words don’t matter or contribute nothing to the sentence’s purpose. She proceeded to go through one of my paragraphs and delete two or three words in each sentence, shortening the paragraph by two lines. I was baffled, insulted, and impressed at the same time.

In my editing work, I had thrown away other people’s words with such nonchalance, but never watched it happen to my words. Witnessing the destruction made me think back to how previous colleagues had reacted badly when I removed entire paragraphs of detail from their research proposals due to space constraints and consideration of the reviewer’s point of view.

As it turns out, I have absolutely no problem editing other people’s writing, but I struggle with editing my own. I find it incredibly difficult to decide which of my words contribute nothing, as each deletion seems to chip away at my pride. Writing is a struggle for me, it always has been, but I have gotten better at it through years of practice. I don’t like the idea that something I’ve struggled to write can be disposed of so easily.

As a potential pseudo-solution, I recently discovered that I tend to forget what I’ve written. I’m hoping that this will remove my ego from the editing process. If I write something far enough ahead of a deadline, I will allow myself enough time to forget what I’ve written and can then go back to the writing as if I was editing someone else’s work. I understand that this may require extensive planning ahead, but I’m willing to do so if it facilitates an objective assessment of my writing.

In time, I want to be able to edit my writing without tricking myself into thinking it’s another’s work. I expect that editing my work will become easier with more practice and with the ability to separate my ego from my work.