Cogito Conversation: Professional Science Writers

For some people, a career in science doesn’t mean doing science, but writing about it. Science writers cover some of the most exciting happenings in the world, and not through journal articles or white papers or other materials written for other scientists. As science journalists, they write about all kinds of science for scientists and non-scientists alike, in magazine articles, newspapers, press releases, and books, on websites and museum walls. They write about quarks, exoplanets, the human genome, acupuncture, bioethics, endangered species, fossils, viruses (human and machine). They write about everything under the sun, and everything in it, around and beyond it.

It’s an important job—translating science for the lay public. And it’s a creative one, because just as much as science writers are making tough scientific concepts understandable and relevant to people, they are also in the business of telling stories. They tell the tales of scientific discovery, of the lives of scientists, of the process of their research, of the years of work and struggle before a researcher has that one eureka moment, or when she doesn’t find what she’s been looking for, but by accident, discovers something different entirely that changes her career forever. And they write about the social and political context in which scientific discoveries are made, and the policy consequences that might result. That’s why science writing is such a human endeavor.

Jump to the Q&A


Marcus Woo

Marcus Woo

Marcus writes for Engineering & Science, the research magazine at the California Institute of Technology, where he has worked for 3 years. Alumni are the main readers, as well as the campus community, potential donors, and other institutions and interested people. “I now write about all of the cool stuff Caltech scientists are doing,” he says. “ I get to challenge myself by learning new things everyday and I get to talk to really interesting and smart people,” he says.

Marcus studied physics at Cornell in upstate New York and then went on to graduate school at the University of Maryland to study astronomy. He had wanted to be an astrophysicist. He says he realized he didn’t enjoy being a scientist as much as just learning about science, and so that’s why he became a science writer. He studied science writing at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He has written for the Salinas Californian and also been on radio when he was a AAAS Mass Media Fellow at WOSU-AM, the NPR affiliate in Columbus, OH (“I was there for just a couple months, but it was lots of fun,” he says). He also had internships at SLAC, the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, and at the UC-Santa Cruz news office.


 

Christie Aschwanden

Christie Aschwanden

Christie is a freelance writer and editor. She is a contributing editor for Health and a contributing editor for Runner’s World. Christie’s articles and essays have appeared in more than 50 different publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, O—the Oprah Magazine, Men’s Journal, National Wildlife, Backpacker, Reader’s Digest, Self, WebMD, Science, Cell and New Scientist. Christie has written and edited books and reports for the World Health Organization, the National Institutes of Health and other organizations. She has been interviewed about her work by the BBC and other media.

In 2007 she received a grant from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting to travel to Vietnam. Her report on Agent Orange’s legacy appeared on PBS and her New York Times article about an Agent Orange remediation project in Vietnam’s central highlands received the Arlene Award from the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA). She has also received an Outstanding Essay Award from the ASJA and an honorable mention for print journalism from the American Institute of Biological Sciences. She lives with her husband in western Colorado.


 

Emily Sohn

Emily Sohn

Emily Sohn covers health, science, the environment, and adventure for both kids and adults. She is a contributing writer for Discovery News, and she has written hundreds of news and feature stories for Science News for Kids. Her stories have also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, U.S. News & World Report, Smithsonian, Health, Self, Eating Well, Prevention, Men’s Journal, Science News, Backpacker, and other publications. She has written nearly a dozen books for young people, including graphic novels about skateboarding, Antarctica, and the digestive system.

Emily’s first real job as a journalist was as the science writer on an expedition team that traveled around the world and sent reports, videos, pictures, and interactive multimedia pieces to kids in classrooms across the globe. Among other places, her work travels have taken her to the Peruvian Amazon, Turkey, Cuba, Australia, Sweden, and the top of a mountain in Yellowstone National Park.

So why did you decide to become science writers? At least for Marcus, I saw at the link that you have a degree in Physics. Why did you decide that you wanted to write about science instead of actually doing the science?

 

Christie

I had originally intended to become a scientist (I have a degree in biology). I decided to take a few years off before graduate school, in part to figure out what to study for my PhD. I was having a difficult time narrowing my interests down to the kind of very narrow focus that one needs for a PhD. I was interested in ecology and evolution and genetics and cancer biology and physiology a half dozen other things and I wasn’t keen to pick just one.

As a journalist, I can write about any and all areas of science that interest me and that’s one of the things I like best. My father once remarked that my job seemed to him like “writing term papers for a living” and to an extent, that’s true. (Hint: if you hate term papers, science writing is probably not for you!) There is the deadline aspect and writing can be a difficult process.

One of the things I like best about my job is that I am constantly acquiring new knowledge.

But I love the learning that goes into those “term papers” and one of the things I like best about my job is that I am constantly acquiring new knowledge. I get paid to learn about the very latest, most interesting science. As a journalist, I can call up the world’s most prominent scientists and ask them to explain their research to me. I love being able to interview Nobel laureates and scientists doing exciting research.

Before I switched to writing, I spent a few years working in several different biology labs. I loved giving lab talks and presentations and I really liked talking about the research, but I found the actual doing of science to be very tedious and boring. When I worked in a genetics lab, I ran thousands of gels. There was a lot of thought that went into the experiments, but for me the planning and the data analysis was the interesting part. The data collection just wasn’t what drew me to science.

Marcus

My reason for becoming a science writer is very similar to Christie’s–and to most science writers, I think. I, too, had intended to be a scientist. I majored in physics, did research as an undergrad, and wanted to do astrophysics. I had been interested in astronomy since I was a little kid. After graduating from college, I entered a PhD program in astronomy. But I realized that my interests were far too general. These days, to be a scientist, you have to work in a very narrow field, and I didn’t feel like spending years of my life studying a tiny esoteric topic that maybe two dozen people in the world were really interested in. But I don’t want to discourage anyone from becoming a scientist–it’s really just a matter of personal interest.

I had always been drawn to science through its romanticism: looking at the night sky, the pretty pictures from Hubble, the crazy ideas behind relativity and quantum mechanics. And I got interested in science a lot through reading books and reading about the stories of scientists. I felt like I was losing that bigger picture in grad school. As a science writer, you always have that bigger context in mind.

As a science writer, you always have that bigger context in mind.

When I started science writing, I rediscovered my love for science. It was fantastic to jump from cosmology to marine biology to physics, and I basically got personal lessons from the experts themselves. For example, I once sat with a pretty big-deal cosmologist for an hour as he talked to me about the Big Bang. I felt I learned more about cosmology in that interview than in the class I took in school. In general, I get to experience the fun of learning about a topic without having to spend 10 years actually doing the experiments and analysis.

I’ve also always enjoyed writing, synthesizing ideas into coherent sentences and telling stories. I like having that feeling of producing something, of creating a product that hadn’t ever existed before.

Through science writing, I find intellectual stimulation, a career of continual learning, a sense of being involved in society and science (you’re not actually doing the science, but you “do” it vicariously through talking to scientists and writing about it as if you were the expert), and a feeling of creative accomplishment.

Finally, communicating science is something I believe in. Telling the stories of science is important, not only in informing people about things that affect them (e.g. climate change), but also in educating and inspiring them about the amazing universe we live in. Reading articles and books about astronomy and physics is what got me interested in science when I was younger. I can only hope that something I write will one day inspire a kid in the same way.

 

Also, do you have problems understanding what the scientists are doing in their research?

 

Christie

Very rarely. If I do, I simply ask more questions. The nice thing about being a journalist is that I can talk to the researcher and have her or him explain it to me. Sometimes I’ll ask them to explain it to me as if I was a non-scientist friend at a cocktail party. That usually works.

I’ve been doing this for over a decade now, so I’ve built up a fairly good understanding of the areas of the science that I cover most. If I’m writing about something I don’t know much about, I’ll do some background research before I talk to the scientist or I may ask the researcher to give me a quick lesson about why the research is important and what they’re hoping to learn.

Marcus

It’s always a challenge because the scientists are doing complicated stuff, and you definitely have to have the ability to learn quickly. My scientific background definitely helps–I’m already familiar with basic physics and astronomy ideas, so I don’t need a tutorial in those subjects. But just having studied science and having done research means I’m already familiar with how science works, with any math that’s involved, graphs, and just abstract thinking and problem solving that you’re trained to do when studying science and engineering. When I have to write about biology, I definitely have to ask more basic questions, since I haven’t taken a biology course since 11th grade. But scientists are usually very happy to explain things to you. Sometimes, the best questions are the simple ones, because they often are the ones that get to the heart of the story and the science.

Sometimes, the best questions are the simple ones, because they often are the ones that get to the heart of the story and the science.

 

What is the hardest part of your job as a science writer?

 

Christie

The hardest part is probably the writing itself. I love writing, but sometimes it’s a struggle to condense a huge field of research into a short article or even a longer feature. It seems that every professional writer I know has a procrastination routine that they use when trying to write that first draft. I love revising and editing my work, but the first draft is sometimes hard.

Marcus

As with Christie, the writing part is probably the hardest. It’s fun and easy to talk to scientists–you just rely on your natural curiosity. But after the interview, you have to go to your keyboard and start putting those ideas into not just coherent sentences, but sentences that are interesting, that will draw readers in.

 

It’s interesting that you prefer analyzing the data to collecting it. Do you think that’s true of most science writers?

 

Christie

Yes, at least among the ones I know.

Marcus

Yes, I think most science writers prefer talking about results rather than collecting data–otherwise, they’d probably be scientists.

 

Do you write only about topics related to your major, or do you prefer writing about those types of research?

 

Christie

I write about anything that interests me. I don’t really limit myself to any subject.

There are pluses and minuses to writing about science I’m already familiar with. One plus is that I already understand the basics and can quickly tease out what is new and what’s most interesting. But knowing a lot about a subject can be a disadvantage too, because it’s easier to overlook the basic questions that my readers might have.

Though it can sometimes be overwhelming to write about a subject I don’t know much about, it’s also an opportunity to learn something new. I love that aspect of the job.

Marcus

Depending on your job, you can write about anything and everything. Some with a background in biology stick with biological sciences, and the same for the physical sciences. As I said before, I’m more comfortable with physical sciences, but I’ve also written about biology, which is pretty interesting.

 

What is the process of science writing, exactly? Do you help other scientists analyze their research, or do they send you analysis to interpret for an article?

 

Christie

There are many different types of science writers. I am primarily a science journalist, and as a journalist I am a watchdog for science, not a cheerleader. I’m not a collaborator with the scientist. It’s my job to report on the science and to analyze and explain it for my audience. I listen to their interpretation of the data, but I also ask outside experts for their analysis and I try to take care to make sure that conclusions are backed by the evidence. If the scientist’s conclusion or analysis is controversial, I examine the differing views while helping my readers assess them.

As a journalist I am a watchdog for science, not a cheerleader.

Marcus

There are different types of science writing. One is science journalism, which is the kind that I think both Christie and I try to do. I find something interesting that a scientist is doing–maybe they just published a paper, or I just heard they’re doing something cool. I interview them and ask them about their research. I ask them what they’re doing, how they do their experiments or analysis, and most importantly, why their research matters. Then, I usually talk to a couple other people–their collaborators, other scientists in the field, their grad students, etc.–and then put together an article that’s not only informative, but interesting to read (which is the hardest part). No one’s going to read it if it’s boring. The articles have quotes from the scientists, and you try to tell a story in which the scientists are the characters.

Some science writers work for universities (like me), and they write press releases. They basically do the same thing as what I describe above, but they then write a piece that’s sent off to other journalists to see if they’re interested in writing about it for their respective newspapers, magazines, or websites.

Science writers write for the public. We write the articles that you read in newspapers, magazines, and online sources.

 

How do you decide how much scientific technicalities to use in an article intended for a layman to read? That is, do you ever oversimplify or even slightly alter the scientific research so that it will be comprehensible or connect-able to the readers?

 

Marcus

You have to know who your audience is, which depends on what publication you’re writing for. If you’re writing for a publication that has a broad audience, like a newspaper or magazine, you can’t be very technical at all. One of my writing teachers would always tell us, “why would your grandmother care?” And that’s sort of the mindset you have to have while writing for a really general audience. Think about how you would explain it to your neighbor, your grandma, or anyone who knows nothing about science.

One of my writing teachers would always tell us, “why would your grandmother care?” And that’s sort of the mindset you have to have while writing for a really general audience.

I my particular job, my audience is mainly Caltech alumni and the community. Most of them have studied science and engineering, some are professional scientists and engineers, and nearly all are interested in science. So, we can be a bit more technical and give more details in our magazine. That said, we still have to remember that we’re writing for people who might not have studied science in 30 years, or that they may be physicists but know nothing about biology.

We simplify but we don’t oversimplify (or at least we try not to). We simplify it enough so that it can be understood by our audience. And we never alter research. Accuracy is very important, and it’s our duty to be as accurate as possible. Obviously we can’t be as technically accurate about things; we do have to take some creative licenses (for example, if we’re talking about electrons and protons, we can say they “like” to be together, even though everyone knows they don’t have thoughts and feelings and don’t really “like” to be anything). So we can use metaphors or clever ways of explaining things, but in the end, it has to be right.

Christie

I think Marcus did a terrific job of answering this question and I don’t have much to add, except to echo what he said–I never ever alter the research. Instead I aim to explain it in language and terms that a lay person will understand. That could mean breaking it down to the bottom line: why does this matter? But I try very hard to avoid oversimplification. Accuracy matters.

 

To what extent are science journalists expected to evaluate whether the science is sound, and to what extent do they leave that to the scientist and their peers?

 

Marcus

I’d say science journalists are expected to evaluate science as it pertains to their audience. If it’s some big finding, then the journalist has to seek the opinion and expertise of scientists who did not do the research–and so are not biased–but are nevertheless experts in the field. They have to dig as deep as they can to find the most accurate portrayal of the research. If a scientist makes a big claim (e.g. cold fusion), then alarm bells should ring and you should try harder to find out how valid it is. As one of my journalism teachers said, “if your mother says she loves you, check it out.” This speaks to the healthy skepticism that’s necessary for both journalism and science. In both endeavors, you have to question and really find out if something is true or not as best as you can. Of course, journalists aren’t infallible and bad science often finds its way into the media. But in the ideal world, everyone does their homework.

In science, there’ll always be arguments over whether interpretations of data, whether these numbers mean this or that, whether these models are accurate or not, etc. Usually these technical debates are too detailed for a science writer to deal with, since most non-experts wouldn’t be interested.

Christie

I’ll second what Marcus said. His answer is pretty similar to mine.

It’s very important for writers to be skeptical. You can’t ever stop questioning. But we need other scientists’ help to evaluate the science. One part of the job is making sure that you’re talking to enough different people that you’re getting a full view.

It’s very important for writers to be skeptical. You can’t ever stop questioning.

 

How much of your work checking the research do you show in the final article?

 

Christie

I think it really depends on the article and the audience. If I’m writing for a technical audience, I will almost always go deeper into the data and the interpretation’s strengths and weaknesses. If I’m writing for a lay audience, I will cut to the bottom line.

Marcus

Just to add to Christie’s response: my job is slightly different because I write for a university. Everything we write has to be vetted by the researchers, so after I write an article about Prof. Z’s research, I send it back to Prof. Z to read it to make sure things are accurate. We don’t let them tinker too much–just to make sure we didn’t miss some subtle point or idea. But even if you do write for an independent press, I know some journalists like to send at least portions of their final story to their sources to check for scientific accuracy.

 

Do you typically work on one project at a time, or multiple?

 

Christie

Always multiple. Right now I’m working on 7 different projects, and that’s about average for me. I’m curious to see what Marcus says, because I’m guessing that freelancers like me probably do more multitasking than people on staff. But maybe not….I only know my experience.

Marcus

My publication is a quarterly, so we have long-term deadlines, and I probably just have 2-3 stories going on at once. I have one or two long features, and maybe some shorter things. Even though it’s probably a little more stressful, I sometimes wouldn’t mind having more things going on. The pressure motivates me to write and get things done. But overall, I’m sure I have less parallel processing than Christie.

 

How much do you think your work differs from people who write for experts?

 

Christie

Hmmm. Not sure exactly what you mean. Do you mean ghostwriters who write a book or article for a scientist? In that case, my work is different because I’m not a collaborator with the expert. I’m more of a watchdog or disinterested party. My job isn’t to tell the expert’s version of the story, but instead to evaluate what that person or people say and figure out what’s most important or interesting.

Sometimes the people I interview for a story don’t like what I write, because the scientist, let’s call him Dr. X, wants the story to be: “Dr. X just made a discovery about Factor Y that will change the world” when instead, I talk to Dr. X and interview some other people in the field and write a story that says, “Dr. X has made some important discoveries about Factor Y, but it’s too early yet to know if they’ll change the world and some of his colleagues have done research that suggests that Factor Z may actually be more important than Factor Y.”

Marcus

I’m guessing that writing for experts is writing an article about a specific field for experts? Like a review article or something in a scientific journal? In that case, our job is very different. Scientific writing tends to be technical, full of jargon, and almost incomprehensible to nonexperts. We try to write engaging stories to attract the interests of everyone.

Scientific writing tends to be technical, full of jargon, and almost incomprehensible to nonexperts. We try to write engaging stories to attract the interests of everyone.

 

(Emily’s entrance) If you have any comments to add to what’s already been said, Emily, go right ahead!

 

Emily

Thanks for letting me join in the discussion! It’s been fun to read what Marcus and Christie have to say. For me, becoming a science writer was the perfect fit for my personality: I really like to learn about a lot of different things. I also love to travel and meet new people, which I’ve been able to do with my work. I find that traveling to tell stories makes my writing better. And writing makes my traveling better because I end up in situations where I would never otherwise find myself.

I considered going into science (I majored in environmental biology in college), but I didn’t want to focus on one small detailed research question for many years. I far prefer getting the results when they happen, and sharing the cool news with the world.

I also really like writing about science for young people. It’s a whole different kind of challenge, and it’s fun to hear back from kids about what they think. I think kids are more honest about their opinions than adults are!

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