Not all graduate students aspire to a career in academia. Instead, some turn their analytical skills to communicating science. However, careers in #scicomm are often “off-the-beaten-path”, and it can be hard for students to find specific training opportunities. Scientificanada contributor Francesco Zangari talks about attending ComSciCon-GTA and learning to write a scientific news story
By: Francesco Zangari
2019 marked the first Canadian science communication conference from the ComSciCon umbrella of workshops, known as ComSciConCAN. This brought together Canadian graduate students from across the country and focused on empowering aspiring science communicators to make their research accessible to broader communities. As is tradition after flagship workshops like ComSciConCAN, former participants often host local events across the country. One of these off-shoot conferences, ComSciCon-GTA, took place this year and was Toronto’s first-ever ComSciCon branded conference.
Being selected to attend ComSciCon-GTA was competitive. The application comprised three questions to gauge interest in science communication and the impacts of attending this conference to participants. They based selection of applicants on how their interests aligned with the goals of the conference. After receiving the exciting news that I would attend ComSciCon-GTA, the pre-workshop requirements were then shared with the attendees and I. Among minor surveys, the major task was participation in the Write-A-Thon, which involved developing a science communication piece. We would then discuss these pieces with an expert reviewer to improve them.
However, writing a news story was not completely new to me. I had recently come off a short internship with the National Association of Science Writers (NASW) where I took on crafting a science news story. However, this time I would do so without a mentor guiding me.
Several factors made this experience unique for me. I needed to consider that I would create a story over a longer period than most news stories, opening the possibility of other outlets covering a similar story. I also challenged myself by covering research from another field. Having a background in biochemistry and molecular biology, I also wanted to step outside my wheelhouse and use the Write-A-Thon as an opportunity to explore a new scientific field. After a deep literature dive and considering the constraints of the project, I chose a story centered on an academic publication surveying environmental pollution and microplastics in coastal regions.
After settling on a story, I progressed to finding and interviewing sources. This part of science writing was challenging for me during my NASW internship. I have struggled with keeping a balance between preparing questions and allowing natural conversation, however, this time was different and I felt I began getting a grasp of how to make the most out of an interview.
After speaking with the lead author, I began forming a story structure. This was the moment where my confidence grew and I felt I was learning how to better identify and capture narratives in scientific papers. Then began the arduous writing process.
One of the biggest learning experiences came from crafting my lede. The lede is the first sentence of an article and contains the key points of the story and hooks the reader. Re-writing my lede almost became a crash course on writing efficiently.
I often struggled with being a perfectionist in a first draft, but the open-ended nature of the Write-A-Thon gave me the flexibility to develop new writing strategies that would keep me from getting bogged down with details. One of these strategies was to just let the words flow and worry about cutting and rearranging later. My first draft ended up at over 1000 words and needed to be cut down significantly to get the piece in the right format for a news article. I ended up with about 700 words that I was excited to share with my expert reviewer.
The expert for my group was Stacey Johnson, the Director of Communications and Marketing at the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine (a leader in developing and commercializing regenerative medicine-based technologies). Stacey explained to us that in her work, she plays the role of communicator first, and relies on writers to bring their scientific expertise to their writing. This struck me as a unique opportunity to get feedback on my writing skills, not my science writing skills. Stacey provided me with in-depth feedback and editing, improving the flow of the piece, and pointed out some style improvements along the way.
While the piece is still in progress, I can confidently say the Write-A-Thon helped me grow as a writer. It was a rewarding experience being thrown into the fire of creating a communication piece. While it’s easy to be overwhelmed crafting a piece of science communication in such an open-ended process, you will grow from this. As someone new to science writing, I recommend attending the next local ComSciCon meeting in your area; if your experience is anything like mine, you will find the community of science writers to be very helpful and will assist you along the way.
If science communication is a career which interests you, there are many ways to start and learn. The biggest piece of advice I have is to get on Twitter and start building a network to learn from. Besides writing stories, I always read my timeline, looking for articles that inspire me to write and following what my favorite writers are up to. Importantly, be bold and take a chance. The community is supportive, so reach out to those around you and have fun with it because science is fun.