The Oberlin Review
<< Front page News November 4, 2005

Becoming a science scribe

I love physics. Anyone who talks to me for more than five minutes can figure that out pretty easily. But I will not investigate the mysteries of the universe nor work tirelessly day and night to find evidence of antimatter, dark matter, or some other strange particle. Instead, I will write.

Why? Well, I have found that I love to talk science, but don’t really enjoy doing it. I’d rather learn a little about many areas of science than spend the rest of my career focused on a single, narrow field. I crave variety. I need to feel that I’ve accomplished something at the end of the day, and dream of getting published in a matter of weeks, days, even a few hours. I also have an inkling I’m not the only one who feels this way.

Professor Jan Cooper currently teaches a class in the rhetoric and composition department on science writing. The class covers many types of writing in science and for science.

“It has always been a mixture of people who are planning to go to graduate school in science and medical school with humanities majors who want to see what it’s like to write about science through nonfiction,” says Cooper. “There are so many critical issues to the public that involve scientific issues or information that we have to find ways of getting scientists to communicate to people who are affected by their science.”

It doesn’t have to be only scientists that help communicate these new ideas. “It can also be non-scientists who go through the trouble of understanding and learning how to understand the science,” says Cooper. As long as the passion is there, a person can change a lot in the world’s understanding of science through writing.

I decided to talk to a local science writer, Diana Steele, to gain perspective from someone who has traveled the same path I and many others at Oberlin wish to.

Steele, majoring in Chemistry at Colgate University, hadn’t given science writing very much thought. It was only when she was pursuing a Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins that she found that narrowing her focus in order to be a researcher was not what she wanted. With her interests being so broad, she got bored easily. A single class in the science-writing program at the school showed her another option. She rapidly discovered that she loved writing about science because it allowed her to investigate many things in the depth she wanted and then move on.

Steele explains, “The challenge of trying to explain science to the public is the most challenging thing. I’m always learning new ways to do this.”

So what helped Steele switch over to writing? Sure, she may have found her way in that one writing class at Johns Hopkins, but what can the rest of us do?

“Network, network, network, network,” Steele says. “Almost all of the work that I have done has been through meeting people in person and saying here’s what I do, or they’ve already heard of me and want me to do something for them.”

Steele worked at the University of Chicago and freelanced for the Dallas Morning News for six years. “Something that gave me a lot of credibility among scientists was that I knew enough science that I knew what I was talking about,” she said.

Oberlin College gives students the opportunity to do real research alongside professors. Many students may think that this is only for those students who know they want to go straight into research, but the experience of working in a lab, of learning the language of science, gives you a leg up when later attempting to report on science. It also helps you gain the trust of the scientist you try to interview.

“Get to know as much science as you can and get to know how science works,” Steele advises. “That has gotten me a long way.”

On the flip side, a great way to get the scientist to tell you what you need to know is to pretend to be ignorant of the science. This may be the way to go if you end up covering something very similar to the research you helped with at Oberlin. It can be hard when you know too much, so try to get the scientist to explain the basics to you.

Now that we know how to network, the question becomes, where? Simply by chance, Steele bumped into Richard Harris, the science reporter for National Public Radio, and he provided her with information about an American Astronomical Society-sponsored internship for graduate science students who are interested in science writing.

But now you might be wondering, “who actually needs science writers?” Lots of groups do. Most of the jobs are in public relations or public information. Nearly every university, medical center, hospital or institution that does research has its own staff of reporters that keeps tabs on the happenings at the institution. Public information officers write press releases that are distributed to the media, contribute to in-house publications and alumni magazines and serve as liaisons between reporters and the institution’s staff. Then there are museums, which need people to explain the exhibits in a way that a young child will understand and an adult will find interesting.

The job isn’t easy. You have to cover challenging topics, switching from breast cancer to cloning to particle physics. Deadlines and editors can be tough but you’ll go home knowing you’ve accomplished something. Most importantly you’ll be contributing to the advancement of science by letting the public know what’s going on, and hopefully inspiring the next generation of researchers.


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