You may be wondering why I’m sending you regards from an unknown suburb of Chicago. Well, dear reader, that is because Lemont is home to America’s first national lab, Argonne National Laboratory (and, as it turns out, Diablo Cody, writer of the film Juno).
I have been here since June, interning as a science writer — which is why my blogging has been abysmal all summer (it’s much harder to want to write in your free time when you write for a living, I’ve discovered, which only makes me appreciate prolific bloggers like Carl Zimmer and Ed Yong so much more.)
This is really my first full-time gig as a writer, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. My job is write blog posts, internal newsletters and feature stories for the lab’s main website.
Working in a Department of Energy laboratory, I’m immersed in a culture of cutting-edge energy research. Having gotten to know scientists here from all sorts of disciplines, I am excited that our energy future is in capable and well-intentioned hands. The researchers I’ve met, on top of being brilliant, have been gracious and generally aware of the larger implications of their work.
I work with a small team of writers and media relations experts. They’ve taken me in as one of their own, and are always trying to ensure that I am getting what I want out of this experience. They are warm-spirited and full of gumption, and I could not have asked for a better or more colorful group of coworkers.
In no particular order, here are some take-aways that have been on my mind:
- Interviewing skills are difficult to perfect.
One of the first things I realized was that conducting interviews is harder than one might think.
It’s difficult to strike a balance between scribbling furiously and listening closely to what the interviewee is saying. I really try to synthesize what the interviewee is saying as she is saying it, so I don’t kick myself later for missing a good follow-up question. I record my interviews, but always end up paranoid that the one time I don’t take careful notes will be the one time my recorder malfunctions.
For my first couple of interviews, I went back, listened to the recording and wrote out an entire transcript of the interview. While the process was painstaking and arduous, it helped me jump right into the writing process. The stories emerged from the transcript.
I’ve slowly gotten better at taking notes in a more organized (albeit more illegible) form, which makes it easier to pick and choose the segments I want to go back and listen to. Even if I’m not transcribing the entire interview though, I find it useful to at least write out an outline of the interview afterwards. Outlining helps me frame and figure out the story I’m trying to tell.
Part of the problem is that every interview is different, so it’s hard to approach interviews with a formula for success. Some interviews feel like pulling teeth, while for others, I have to pull on the reins a bit to keep the conversation from straying too far off track.
Even after twelve weeks of interviewing, my notes remain filled with half-thoughts and sentence fragments leading to nowhere, and I often don’t think of questions that I should have asked until after the interview is over. Thankfully, most of the scientists I’ve talked with have been eager and willing to answer my questions post-interview.
Hopefully I’ll get closer to finding my interview groove before leaving here. Reader, do you have any good interviewing tips?
Media relations and science writing are two different beasts.
Because Argonne is my employer, my job is to paint the lab in a positive light. Now, it’s not exactly difficult to do that — in three months, I’ve become smitten with Argonne. Believing in the lab’s mission and purpose makes it pretty easy to write flattering pieces about the research that comes out of here.
Still, my job is different than that of, say, a freelance writer, who does not have to answer to the interests of an institution. As a result, I have less opportunity to do investigative journalism. My job is not necessarily to delve into a topic, but rather to showcase the newest and most noteworthy goings-on at Argonne.
One benefit of being tied to an institution, though, is having instant access to a seemingly endless supply of experts. Working on Argonne’s campus, I am surrounded by scientists and facilities right at my fingertips.
Another benefit is coming to intimately understand the type of research going on in that institution. After working here for years, my colleagues have become well-versed in the science of lithium-ion batteries, solar cells, supercomputers and using X-ray beams to conduct research. Having a home institution could allow a writer to become an expert on the dominant fields of research that happen there.
First and foremost, the audience.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the kind of audience for which I want to write. For most of the feature stories I write, I assume that I’m writing for educated readers that don’t necessarily have a background in science.
I recently spoke with two people who have very different views on how communicators should think about their audience. Both of their points make a lot of sense to me, and I’m still trying to decide how I feel. I think this is an instance where approach might have to vary on a case-by-case basis. Let me know what your thoughts are in the comments!
One of them, Monica Metzler, is the founder of the Illinois Science Council, a nonprofit organization based in Chicago that promotes science education for adults. She maintains that writers need to have a clear idea of exactly who their target audience is. There is no such thing as a “general” audience. Writing for children, versus politicians, versus an educated audience, versus corporations should change how the writer approaches his or her point. With each story, the writer should consider what is at stake, and identify the stakeholders he or she is trying to reach.
The other, Casey Dunn, is an assistant professor in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department at Brown University, and developer of the popular biology blog, Creature Cast. He believes that, with increased access to science through things like YouTube, science blogs and open access journals, the audience has become irrelevant. Now, when writers put their work out there, anybody could be reading it. As a result, they should focus on communicating science in a simple, clear way that anybody can understand. It doesn’t have to be about crafting the science in any specific way — just let the science speak for itself.
“Putting together a Creature Cast, or being able to concisely explain a complex scientific topic in such a way that someone sitting on the bar stool next to you can understand — I see that skill set as the same skill set you need when you walk into a conference and present your work to colleagues who are specialized in the same area as you,” said Dunn. “I think that by treating communication in a more cohesive way, there’s a lot of really fun, new ground to cover.”
Not all scientists see the point.
For the most part, the scientists I’ve interacted with have been genuinely appreciative, supportive or curious about science communication. Still, I have noticed that it’s often not a priority — sometimes scientists will take weeks to get back to me about a short interview, making it difficult to write about a time-sensitive topic.
In some ways, it’s hard to blame scientists for not jumping at the chance to have their work communicated through a third party. Science writers sometimes oversimplify for the sake of a compelling story, and other times they miss the mark altogether. In light of that, it makes sense that many of the researchers I interviewed took pains to mention every clarifying detail and caveat of their research; often they were insistent that I included a given point or worded their research in a specific way. As a writer, I sometimes found it difficult to strike a balance between crafting my own story (i.e. not letting scientists completely dictate the content of my pieces) and making sure that I was fact-checking and portraying the science in a nuanced, accurate way.
I also became more convinced than ever that we, as a society, need to institutionalize the value we place on science literacy. This entails rewarding and providing incentives to scientists for communicating their science to the public.
Is grad school worth it?
Given that I’m graduating in December, thoughts of life after college have been looming larger and larger in my mind. One question I keep come back to is whether or not to immediately apply to a graduate program in science writing.
Here are some pros/ cons I’ve been tossing around; let me know if you have any to add.
- It would challenge me. School is fast-paced and immersive. The tendency to devote oneself entirely to work is culturally acceptable when one is a student. A graduate program could push me out of my comfort zone, test my limits as a writer and force me to produce in ways that a job might not necessarily do.
- I should learn the craft of writing. Throughout college, my course load was extremely science-heavy. I haven’t had much formal writing training. It would be helpful to learn, at least stylistically, how to write more effectively.
- I want to expand my skill set beyond writing. I’m interested in conveying information through various media in addition to the written word. Many graduate programs have incorporated classes in radio, animation, documentary-making, infographics, data visualization and other forms of media into their curriculum. Compared to a job, a graduate program might provide more opportunities for me to creatively explore different types of communication and determine what I like or don’t like.
- An instant network + access to university resources. Graduate school comes with an instant network of professors, alumni, fellow students and all their connections. Being in a university setting also means being surrounded by scholarship and collaboration — brilliance feeding off other brilliance. I would have access to the research community at the university and other resources like access to scholarly journals, lectures, workshops, etc.
- Launchpad to a career. Many graduate programs in science writing include a mandatory internship, which could be a great gateway to a job. Having the extra letters of an advanced degree after my name would not hurt either!
- Getting burnt out. Going into a graduate program shortly after a grueling undergraduate career could be a recipe for burn out. School is not a trivial undertaking, and I tend to put the rest of life on hold when I am in school. It can be hard to juggle emotions, personal reflections and meaningful relationships with a heavy workload. This is a time when I feel that I have a lot of growing up to do, and I do want to have the time, space and energy to pay attention to that. And time to just hang out for a bit!
- Learning on the job vs. learning in the classroom. One could argue that writing might be best learned on the job, not in the classroom. A teacher can impart writing theory and tips, but ultimately people become better writers by writing, a lot — right?
- It’s expensive. Grad school is not cheap… and a writing career is not necessarily lucrative. Would I be guaranteed a career that would pay off the cost of tuition? Perhaps not. There are certainly opportunities for financial aid and scholarship. But even with financial assistance, I would be committing to at least a year of spending money instead of making it.
- It might be time for some real world experience. I’ve spent the past 18 years ensconced in the cozy structures of school. I have never held a full time job for longer than a few months, or been fully self-sufficient. It feels time to be a real person for a while.
- Diverse experiences! Getting a job, I could see a different side of things. Maybe I could work in the corporate world for a while and see how things work in a large company. Or I could work with a start-up and experience more of a DIY approach. Or I could try freelancing — see what it’s like to put myself out there in the big, scary world. Or any combination of those things and more. The point is, having diverse experiences, whether good or bad, could help me figure out what I want my career to look like. And if I do decide after working for a bit that grad school is for me, having had some different experiences could inform and frame my time at graduate school.
National laboratories are a nice medium between academia and industry.
I often hear of scientists struggling with whether to work in academia or the private industry. National labs are a neat in-between. The scientists here are conducting research that is meant to be applied (for instance, building batteries with greater storage capacities for electric cars), but their findings belong to the public domain, not a private entity. In this way, national labs play an important role in distributing knowledge and catalyzing research that benefits the global community.
Mixed feelings about the Oxford comma.
I came to Argonne a loyal, steadfast user of the Oxford comma. But working in a place reigned by AP Style, I’ve been forced to change my ways. I have to admit that, now, when I write out a series, inserting that extra comma before the conjunction makes the whole sentence just look kind of crowded. I never expected it to happen, but I have slowly come to scorn it — the serial, Harvard or Oxford comma.
So there you have it! Some tidibits that have been running through my mind these past few months. I’ll be majorly bummed to leave this cocoon soon — but I’m excited to keep building on the skills and realizations I’ve had here!
If you’re curious to read some of the writing I’ve been doing here, check out these stories: