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URI Sci Comms Day with Bora Zivkovic

Yesterday AmasianV and I took a little jaunt down to the University of Rhode Island Bay Campus in Narragansett. It was a beautiful day, and after missing the turn off for the building we ended up at a little beach. For a brief second we considered a swim, but decided showing up bedraggled to Bora Zivkovic‘s science communication talk would be a little uncouth.

The purpose of the day was to give science grad students a crash course in online communications. And what a day it was! Sunshine Menezes from the Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting at the URI Graduate School of Oceanography had put together a wonderful program, starting with a public lecture by the Blogfather himself and ending with a panel discussion that included myself, Biochem Belle, and Dan Blustein.

As always, I went armed with a pad of paper and a box of markers and recorded the day sketchnote-style. So rather that recap the day in words, I shall do so in pictures!

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@Biochembelle and @AmasianV were also live-tweeting all day using the hashtag #riscweet, and I think there are plans to Storify all the tweets. I will keep you posted!

Science has a PR problem

Today sees the start of a series of blog posts on Nature.com’s Soapbox Science blog. Starting with a post by me about how scientists can begin to change the face of their industry, and hopefully rectify some of the damage that has been done over the last few years. Click on the doodle, have a read, and then get involved in the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #reachingoutsci.

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So you want to be a science writer? Pearls of wisdom from Carl Zimmer

Last Monday my lab-mate said, “are you going to the Carl Zimmer thing?”.

“Huh?” Said I. “What Carl Zimmer thing?”

“He’s doing a talk on Thursday evening. Oh and office hours in the afternoon.”

After scraping my jaw off the floor and berating myself for not reading the weekly email that would have informed me of this event, I did what any other wannabe science writer and soon-to-be destitute (i.e. qualified) grad student would do. I signed up for the event, set multiple calendar alerts on my phone, and sent out several overly excited tweets.

So when Thursday rolled around me and my fellow blogger @AmasianV strolled over to the Science Center to meet Carl Zimmer. After everyone awkwardly introduced themselves, the first question for CZ was of course “how did you get into science writing?”. In case you don’t know the answer to that one, he graduated from Yale University with an English degree and subsequently got a job copy editing at Discover. A self-professed terrible copy editor, he then moved into fact checking, and the rest, as they say, is history.

But then we started talking about what it means to be a GOOD science writer, which, given the upcoming Wellcome Trust/Guardian/Observer competition and the associated blog post by Ed Yong, seemed like some useful information to share with y’all.

The most important thing, it seems, is to remember to tell a story. There’s no point just dumping a load of information onto a page and expecting your reader to wade through it. So figure out what the point of your piece is. Perhaps you are making an argument. But whether it’s an 800 word blog post or a book you need direction. Then, once you’ve figured out your angle, you have to find a way to sneak the science-y bits in there. If you need to introduce a piece of scientific jargon, do so with care. Make sure to explain each and every term you use.

The next step is to start cutting. Carl made the point that while it’s sometimes painful to cut a paragraph that you might be especially proud of, remove it from the essay and ask if it’s worse for it. If you don’t need it, it shouldn’t be there. “Extra” information could result in the reader moving on to another article in the magazine, or putting your book down, meaning you never get to make your point. And, if you find yourself cutting to the point that there’s no essay left, perhaps you need to rethink what you were trying to achieve!

Carl also had some great tips about story selection. This is particularly important in this day and age, when information is so freely available on the web. When you’re looking for a topic to write about make sure it is relevant, that the work you’re covering has a clear point to it, and that YOU can turn that work into a story for someone to read. In a nutshell: If you don’t care about it, why should anyone else?

And then the conversation turned to blogging

I asked a question about the value of blogging to a potential employer, as this blog is intended to also form a kind of online portfolio for me. Carl made the excellent point the all the advantages of blogging (the software is generally easy to use, you can self-publish, and you are free to write in whatever style you choose) can also be construed as disadvantages by a magazine editor. After all, anyone can blog. That being said, if you use your blog well and accompany it with an engaging online presence, there are definite pros to writing about science on the web. (If you haven’t already, do check out Carl’s blog, The Loom.)

But then the room seemed to polarize, with a division appearing between the “writers” and “scientists” in the room. The debate was nothing new, with the writers accusing the scientists of being distant and uptight, and the scientists decrying the abundance of mis-representation in the press. However what really shocked me was a comment from the other end of the table:

“Why aren’t scientists just better writers? Why can’t all scientific communication come from within the academy, and not just in the form of blogs?”

I felt all the blood in my body rush to my face in pure rage. My initial thought was what on earth is wrong with blogging? The last couple of years have seen a huge increase in the value of online communication. A fantastic example of this, as Carl pointed out, was the #arseniclife debacle and the subsequent efforts by Rosie Redfield to repeat the controversial experiments. But then, as my blood pressure started to return to normal, I realized that I was more annoyed with this undergrad’s complete lack of understanding of what both scientists and journalists do. What he was asking was the equivalent of someone saying “why can’t teachers also run a restaurent?”, or “why aren’t policemen also doctors?”. Being a scientist and being a writer are separate and demanding careers in their own right. While some people may have the ability to do both at the same time, they are the minority. To do either profession well, you need to be focused, dedicated, and talented.

Deep breath.

Viruses and Whales: Adventures in Science Writing

The talk in the evening was fabulous, obviously, and rather than continue typing, I will leave you with my sketchnotes. Enjoy, and happy science writing!

First Blogiversary!

KatiePhD.com is one year old today. Not surprisingly, therefore, I am feeling rather reflective. It’s been an incredibly eventful year, both on the interwebs and off, and looking back it’s also been extremely educational. I’ve gone from having a vague idea of what I want to do, to proving that I am a good science writer, to having a job lined up for when I defend my PhD thesis in the spring. And along the way I’ve met some amazing people, become very familiar with social media and marketing, and above all, had fun. Let’s take a trip down memory lane…

The controversial GFAJ-1
The controversial GFAJ-1
December 5th, 2010

With some trepidation I posted my first ever blog entry. The final version had gone through several drafts and at least two external readings before it was finally published, and I waited with baited breath for feedback. But of course it was the first post on a brand new website by a completely unknown author. I don’t know why I thought it was suddenly going to get read a trillion times and provoke comment after thought-provoking comment, but I did, and I was mildly disappointed. I was however happy to see that I’d picked a controversial and newsworthy topic. In the following weeks #arseniclife was trending left and right, and remains a topic of conversation throughout the blogosphere.

If my first post taught me anything it was that I needed to figure out how to get people to read my work. Even though I had started the blog to build a portfolio of popular science essays to help me land a job, they really meant nothing if I didn’t know if they were interesting or good. I needed feed-back. I needed Twitter.

Building my following

If you’re reading this as an aspiring blogger/writer and you’re not on Twitter, stop reading and create your profile. What? You need a reason? I can give you several.

1. Twitter is a gateway into the minds of all sorts of people the world over. And you can and should make every effort to engage with all of them. If you want to say something to Carl Zimmer, or Barrack Obama, or Lady Gaga, you can. You may not always get a response, but that’s not the point. Unlike Facebook, Twitter gives you the freedom to interact with everyone and anyone.

2. Building a good following takes time, but it’s worth it. After a year of being on the site I have gathered over 1,000 followers. When I started out I would spend hours doing targeted sprees of following, hoping for at least a few follow-backs. That initial time-investment was totally worth it. Now when I post a blog I can advertise the article to those 1,000+ people and hopefully some of them will read it. Moreover, if they like it they might re-tweet it to all of THEIR followers.

3. Engaging with people is a fantastic way of networking. Don’t just say “hi”, say something meaningful. Get into conversations with people just as you would if you were to meet them in person. For me this is a lot less intimidating than trying to meet people at a real live “networking event”. Then, when you do get to meet them, you have already established a common ground on which to build a fun and memorable interaction.

4. YOU MIGHT GET A JOB! I have heard plenty of people say: “Oh I really fancy a career in such-and-such a field, but I never hear back after I apply”. Knowing a bunch of people in your chosen field will really help you in the current employment situation. Often the jobs you see posted on online bulletin boards are there because the company or university has to post them to fulfill a requirement, despite the fact that they already know who is going to fill the position. By making yourself an attractive candidate all the time, not just in an application, who knows who might headhunt you?

5. You know when other people post to their blogs. Yet another fantastic way of building your readership is to engage on other people’s blogs. Commenting and joining discussions not only stimulates your own intellectual curiosity, but also builds your reputation.

In an increasingly online-based world you have to make those most of social networking sites, like Twitter and the blogs it leads you to, because you can bet your bottom dollar everyone else is.

April 2011

By now I’d learned a lot about Twitter and the importance of self-promotion. My website had gone through its first major overhaul and was now looking pretty swanky, with professional photographs and cool graphics thanks to my talented boyfriend. I’d also started blogging for BenchFly.com, a start-up company developing support materials for life scientists, and had discovered ResearchBlogging.org, both of which were helping me improve my readership. Then a friend of mine from college alerted me to the Guardian/Wellcome Trust science-writing prize and suggested I enter. I happily procrastinated for a few weeks before buckling down and submitting an essay on the brain chemistry of love and rejection. I then promptly forgot about the competition.

By this point I was also noticing various science bloggers, who had started out at the same time as me, burning out. They stopped tweeting, they stopped posting, and often didn’t even respond to my emails regarding collaborations and guest blogs. It seemed to me that there were two burnout phenotypes: the bloggers who had only halfheartedly started their endeavor, and then those that had energetically posted every single day for a couple of months. I had tried to maintain a 1-2-posts-per-week kind of pace. Honestly I could’ve and should’ve done better at this, but hey, no one’s perfect. However, if you’re reading this for advice, try and maintain a regular posting schedule. This will help with your readership: People get bummed out if your page doesn’t change for a month. But don’t beat yourself up if you don’t keep to your schedule, life happens. Being driven to write is of course an important indication of whether you should pursue a writing career, but finding time a precious commodity to come by in the final throws of a PhD program (just an example I pulled out of thin air…) does not make you a failure.

And then in August…

I got an email from the Wellcome Trust telling me I’d been shortlisted. I was floored. That October I went to London and spent a fabulous day at the Guardian newspaper learning all sorts of tricks-of-the-freelance-science-writing trade. And then in the evening, after not winning, I had a couple of glasses of wine and introduced myself to all sorts of amazing people, including Ed Yong (super-prolific science writer), Alok Jha (science correspondent at the Guardian), and Professor Stephen Curry (UCL biochemist and blogger). All of these people and more I had already “met” on Twitter, which on the one hand made me comfortable, but on the other intensely star-struck. All in all it was a fantastic experience, and I would definitely recommend taking any similar opportunity that’s presented to you. Even without a trophy I came away feeling like a winner.

So what now?

Well, I’m still blogging. I’ve definitely improved immensely. I no longer read and re-read my posts before hitting “publish”. That’s not to say I don’t edit them, but I don’t get the insane butterflies that I used to. I also know that science writing and communications is where I belong. I have met some wonderful people already (Sciurious, Biochem Belle, Dr. Becca, and Kate Clancy, to name a few) and I’m going to Scio12 in January to meet more. I am constantly intrigued and engaged by the conversations happening across the blogsphere and throughout the twitterverse.

And in the real world? I finally have permission to write my thesis, and will be defending in early April. After that I will be working with BenchFly (remember that company I met through Twitter?) on their website, blogging away as always, and hopefully dipping a toe or two into the freelance science writing world.

I can’t wait!!