Contributor Saheli Sadanand
What is science communication? Turns out that it can be a number of things, as revealed by an afternoon panel at the Naturejobs Career Expo. Peter Thomson, Robin Lloyd and Sarah Guadagno — all of whom have made careers in different forms of science communications – described the paths that brought them to their current positions, and held forth on the challenges and rewarding features of their work.
Peter Thomson is the founding producer of “Living on Earth,” an award-winning environmental news program that has aired on the US public radio network (NPR) since 1991. He now serves as the environment editor for the Public Radio International program, “The World.” “There is something about the human voice that is so elemental. It’s the way we’ve always told stories,” Mr. Thomson said in describing the appeal of radio communication. “Radio is the most intimate medium.” Mr. Thomson pointed out that environment reporting involves more than just a science component; he and his team of journalists must address other perspectives in their pieces.
Robin Lloyd came to her position as online news editor for Scientific American via a circuitous route. She got her Ph.D. in sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara and after a few years in a tenure-track position, she realised research was not her passion. She then worked in a variety of different jobs (including a stint as a barista!) before becoming a locum editor at Scientific American. Her appointment ultimately evolved into a permanent position at the journal. Her job, as she puts it, is “to take the material that comes in from the writer and turn it into something compelling that the audience really wants to read.” In addition to planning and editing stories for publication, she manages the Scientific American home page. She emphasised that her job involves more than just presenting new and trendy scientific discoveries.
Sarah Guadagno is the senior director of Medical Scientific Communications at Aegerion Pharmaceuticals, a biopharmaceutical company that develops and markets therapies for rare diseases. She obtained a Ph.D. in pharmacology from Columbia University and then started a post-doctoral fellowship, but found that her heart was not in bench science. She left her post-doc and transitioned to industry, worked in technology transfer at a university before becoming involved in medical communications. Her job involves presenting data on the disease or therapeutic that Aegerion is working on and functioning as a liaison between clinical development and marketing. Guadagno expressed great enthusiasm for the role she now plays: “there’s really nothing more exciting than communicating scientific data,” she said.
While all three panelists said that they find their jobs to be very rewarding, they also made clear the challenges they face. Most notably, they highlighted the difficulty of keeping up with the rapid accumulation of scientific knowledge. “Data is a lot more readily available, we have to monitor all of our competitors, we have to monitor all of the data that get presented at various meetings and it becomes a little bit overwhelming,” said Guadagno. She added that drug development does not take as long as it used to and that this combined with evolving thinking about a disease can make succinct communication challenging.
Thompson acknowledged that the process of distilling complex science into an easy-to-follow radio story sometimes makes his sources unhappy. An audience member noted that reporting about science in the media often seems to have too little of the scientists themselves in the story. At this, Thomson and Lloyd both responded that their mission is not to serve as a cheerleader for scientists. “My job is to serve the reader,” said Lloyd. Lloyd and Thomson said that scientists have traditionally been weak communicators, which is why there has been a necessity for intermediates who can describe important scientific issues in a compelling way for broader audiences.
Researchers’ scientific knowledge may be restricted to a small subfield and this can lead to wariness about pursuing communications positions that will require quick acquisition of facts outside of their area of experience. But Lloyd said that scientists have some unique advantages as journalists. “They understand the language of science already – for example, what an impact factor is – and can identify weaknesses in a study,” she said. Reflecting on her own trajectory, she emphasised that it took time to build confidence when approaching fields she was less familiar with. “The way I gained that confidence was to realise that the curiosity I had, my reader had too and that the questions that I had initially were the same questions that my audience or reader would have and that it was valid to ask those questions,” Lloyd said.
At the close of the session, the panelists were asked to offer some tips for aspiring communicators. These included:
1) Read widely. Journalists do not just tell stories; they actively seek out stories. Broad awareness of a variety of topics will enhance your ability to identify interesting, but underreported issues.
2) Be aware of your audience. For example, technical audiences (researchers or clinicians) who subscribe to scientific journals will have more familiarity with scientific and medical terminology than the general audiences for newspapers, radio news programs, etc.
3) Avoid using buzzwords and clichés. These can discourage your audience from engaging fully in your story. Find ways of communicating scientific information without explicitly calling it science.
4) Join a professional science writing society. Both Thomson and Lloyd said that their involvement in the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers respectively had been hugely beneficial to their careers.
5) Start a blog – you will self-publish and therefore have more control over content and schedule.
Writing a blog is just one way of following the panelists’ most important piece of advice for honing communication skills: constant practice. As evidenced by their own career trajectories, there is no one path to a job in science communications.
Panel attendees found the discussion insightful, particularly in touching upon the variety of jobs within science communications. “I enjoyed hearing about the different fields within science communication – I didn’t realise how much it encompassed and assumed it was limited to writing,” said Maria Tokuyama, a post-doctoral fellow at Yale University.
Meghan Wagner, a post-doctoral fellow at Central Michigan University, agreed. “The messages were encouraging and opened up a new door for me,” she said.
#NJCEBoston journalist competition winner Saheli Sadanand recently defended her Ph.D. in the Department of Immunobiology at Yale University. She has written extensively for both scientific and non-scientific audiences on everything from the necessity of vaccines to the value of science education. In her spare time, she enjoys spending time with her family and friends, travelling, reading history books (both factual and fictional), eating chocolate chip cookies and trying to convince everyone around her that dinosaurs were the greatest animals of all time. She recommends following the escapee penguin’s lead and checking out Buenos Aires if you get a chance.