If You Want to Become a Science Writer, Then You Have to Write
As a Senior Science Writer for a Harvard chemistry research group, a big part of my day job consists of reading primary articles, discussing research projects with group members, and writing and editing manuscript drafts. In other words: I get to nerd out on science and then help students write about that science clearly.
This job is perfect for me. From the outside it may appear that I serendipitously stumbled upon just the right job at just the right time. Looking back, though, I can see that this was no accident. I brought myself here through a series of small, but purposeful, choices.
I gave myself permission to nerd out on all the things in college.
As an undergraduate college student, I knew that I was interested in both science and in the humanities. So I majored in neuroscience and minored in the humanities (granted, I chose the Medical and Scientific Humanities track). I absolutely loved it. In a typical week, I spent the morning learning about how brains form and prune synaptic connections and in the afternoons, I analyzed the many themes and lessons of Charles Dickens' Bleak House or debated the ethical issues surrounding medical and scientific research with my peers. "I didn't force myself down a single path. Rather, I gave myself permission to nerd out as hard as I wanted to in both disciplines.
As my college graduation date rolled nearer though, I started to feel the pressure to plan my next steps. What profession would possibly allow me to combine my love for science and for writing into one? Having explored both disciplines as an undergraduate, I realized that I valued both of them equally. Retrospectively, the answer seems obvious: become a science writer. But it wasn't quite that simple for me because I wanted to actually train as a researcher before attempting to write about it. This desire to train as a scientist is ultimately why I personally decided against Masters in Science Writing programs (these are absolutely the right choice for some people, but it wasn't for me). I figured that the best case scenario for me would be to train as a scientist and then learn to communicate and write about that science effectively after I felt sufficiently comfortable with the science itself.
There's no way I could have known that over a decade later I would be working full time as the Senior Science Writer for a research group at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.
I didn't immediately jump into a graduate training program.
After I graduated with my bachelor's degree in neuroscience, I decided to take some time to work at the bench to gain some more research experience (and also to give myself some more time to thoughtfully reflect on my career path before committing to a multi-year graduate or medical training program). I packed my bags and flew to Bethesda, Maryland for a job as a post-baccalaureate behavioral biologist at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).
I was surrounded by other young professionals at a similarly transient stage of their professional lives. I gave myself the time and space I needed to explore my interests more fully without committing to anything I wasn't whole-heartedly ready for. Instead, I embraced temporary career uncertainty in favor of getting to know myself, my mind and my interests a bit better.
And boy, did I get to know myself. The longer I worked in the lab, the clearer it became that I was more interested in the why and how of science (research) and less interested in the direct (clinical) application of our research findings. As a plus, I learned about "altac" careers; I learned that a PhD could be used for more than academic research. I met individuals who had PhDs and were working as consultants, writers and analysts. This built-in flexibility put me at ease. Ultimately, I chose to pursue my scientific interests and committed to graduate school, knowing that I wasn't shoehorning myself into any particular career by choosing this path.
I started building a writing portfolio, early on.
While at the NIH, I made time to volunteer as a writer for science organizations and publications, wherever and whenever possible. I didn't do this because I knew for sure that I wanted to do science writing (I didn't) but because I knew I was still potentially interested in exploring this path. And I knew one thing: those who are interested in making writing a full time career must. write. as much. as possible.
At first, I did a whole lot of volunteer (unpaid) writing. I worked as a volunteer writer for the Washington Wire - the digital publication for the Association of Women in Science and I worked as a volunteer correspondent at the NIH Radio. By the time I started my graduate studies in neuroscience at the University of California Davis, I already had a small but notable science communications portfolio to speak of. Volunteer writing isn't the only way to build a portfolio. If you're looking to start or add to your portfolio, I strongly encourage pitching to publications and connecting with companies who hire freelance talent.
I wrote even when it wasn't required of me.
While graduate school provided me with a somewhat fixed path to follow (develop a project, collect data, write, graduate), my forays into science writing were more unstructured. I didn't have a program to follow. I just did my best to write whenever I could, even when it wasn't mandatory. For instance, I wrote this post about a lecture I attended at the Behavioral Health Centers of Excellence (BHCOE) at UC Davis. My main goal in writing this post was to simply practice my science writing skills and revive my blog. I was pleasantly surprised when the BHCOE team took notice of my post and requested that I cover future events for them. I ended up hosting a Twitter chat for their daylong Science Informing Policy Symposia. Key stakeholders will be tuning in, they impressed upon me - including the director of NIMH himself. Had I not committed to simply writing more, this opportunity would have never presented itself to me. It was an early and valuable lesson in the importance of putting yourself out there as a writer. Then Society for Neuroscience (SfN) 2015 happened. I met with the founder of Maze Engineers at the vendor booths and introduced myself in person after we'd connected online. "So you write?" he asked, "it's about time someone paid you for writing." He was right. This was a turning point in my freelance science writing career. For a good year or so, I wrote for the Maze Engineers blog about rodent mazes, behavioral apparatuses and animal research. I did this while wrapping up my graduate studies. At the same time, I continued to blog on my own personal account.
I blogged about the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) Presidential Lecture by Nobel-prize winning scientist, May-Britt Moser. The blog post wasn't quite the New Yorker level caliber I wanted it to be - but it didn't matter. At that point, I was focused on simply writing more and more and more. A couple weeks later, May-Britt Moser emailed me (!!) to say that she had read and enjoyed my blog post. She then offered me the opportunity to write about their institute's research for the annual report (for pay!). Writing annual reports for the Kavli Institute of Systems Neuroscience was one of the most rewarding science writing experiences I've had to date. And it would have never happened if I had not taken the time to write and publish on my blog. If I hadn't forced myself to write and hit publish, I would have missed out on one of the most formative science writing experiences of my career.
I never stopped learning from other experts.
Last, but certainly not least, I have always made sure to take every single opportunity to learn from the experts. I've sat in on writing classes, workshops and training events every possible chance I got. Joining the National Association of Science Writers (NASW) has been a great way for me to connect with veterans in the industry across all sectors (ppst, they also have a jobs board for members). If you're curious about science writing as a career and/or simply want to improve your skills as a science communicator, I highly recommend the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop and the Alan Alda Communication trainings (and I would be happy to chat with you about either of these if you have any questions).
I was ready to jump.
A little over a year into my post-doc and nine months after my twins were born, I took a good long hard look at my professional goals. Rather than deciding to continue doing research at the bench and engaging with science writing on the side, I decided I was finally ready to jump into science writing as a full-time career. And I was equipped to do so. I had the experience, the writing samples, and the demonstrated drive and capabilities. When it comes to setting yourself up for a writing career, there's no way around it: you have to write. Often. I didn't end up in my current job as a science writer by accident. I ended up here because I practiced my skills consistently, over time, and had something to show for it. If you are thinking about writing in the future whether part-time or full-time, freelance or in-house there is only one thing you HAVE to do: write. as much. as possible.
It's been six years since Sarah Cooper graced us with her 10 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings. But how on earth can we appear smart in our new virtual world, in which for many of us, going to work is just sitting in one long series of probably-not-necessary Zoom meetings?
1. Dial in.<p>Dialing in rather than joining via the link instantly boosts your credibility. Who calls into Zoom meetings? People who are still busy and important enough to be leaving their houses! But you needn't actually be one of those people, or even more than a foot away from your computer to pull off this maneuver. (Remember, this article is called *seeming* smart, not being smart.)</p><p><strong></strong><em>Bonus: </em>If it's a large meeting at which attendance will be taken, the person running the meeting will inevitably ask, "Who's calling in from 443-322-2121?" That's when you raise your metaphorical hand, jump off mute, and say "[Your name] here. Really looking forward to hearing your perspective on [meeting topic]." And voila! You've stolen the meeting spotlight.</p>
2. Don't come on camera—ever.<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQ0ODU5OS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjMwNjI3OX0.4fLyq2CvkZAJ7n_03esZepY37mOdyGdDdTEUYt5XEU0/img.png?width=980" id="bc7e6" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="fbbf21cc5d8c863b30654ae6993b04f5" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" /><p><br></p><p>Much like the "dial in," this technique works because it makes you appear aloof. If <em>The Crown has </em>taught me anything, it's that the key to maintaining a sense of mystique and prestige is to keep people at arm's length—and if you absolutely <em>must</em> touch them, wear a glove.</p>
3. Only communicate via chat.<p>Once you've mastered the art of staying off camera, you can level up by communicating exclusively via the chat box. Don't come off mute at all, even if the speaker asks your opinion. You are the elusive chatter and you will not be forced into actually participating in said meeting.</p>
4. Ask to share your screen.<p>Being aloof is great, but it's all about balance. Sprinkling in some active participation will really shock and impress your colleagues if you catch them off guard, so save this technique for when you've strategically <em>not </em>participated in a string of meetings.</p><p>Spend a few minutes prior to the meeting prepping a few inspirational slides with words like "synergy," "optimization," and "redefining 'culture'", or spend a few minutes poking around in Google Analytics. </p><p>Then wait for the opportune moment to say, "Can I just share my screen for a moment? I have some really interesting data I'd like to share...." and BAM — brilliance established.</p>
5. Show off your Zoom-saviness.<p>Try saying, "You know you can mute people, right?" to the host when they beg whoever's got the lawn mower and crying baby in the background to put themselves on mute for the nth time.<br></p>
6. Create an alter ego.<p>This tactic requires commitment, but the pay off is certainly worth it. Join the Zoom meeting from your normal account + name, and then join it again on a second device from an alias. Have your alter-ego ask some probing or stat-based questions in the chat and have the answers ready ahead of time. It should work something like this:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><strong>Your alter ego Charlene</strong><strong>:</strong> "Does anyone know what percentage conversion rates increased by in Q2?"</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><strong>Real you</strong>: *doesn't miss a beat* "It looks like Charlene has a question in the chat. That would be 36%."</p><div>Never mind that no one on your team knows who Charlene is or why she's at this meeting, they'll be too blown away by your brilliance to notice. (Bonus points if you use this strategy in conjunction with techniques 1, 2, 3 or 4!)</div>
7. Place an obscure object in your background that exudes intelligence.<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQ0ODYxOC9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYwNzk5Njg2Mn0.V9_-3Ij3v_QndseqlrXRt5Nn39EJ97-itjls5zzYPf8/img.png?width=980" id="a369d" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="604a2f04b53c2e3bc801bfa5256f367b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" /><p><br></p><p>We're talking a telescope, or perhaps a hardcover copy of <em>War & Peace </em>(no one need know that its only purpose in your life is as a makeshift yoga block).</p><p>If you don't have any suitable props at your disposal, do not despair: download some screenshots of Sheldon's apartment from <em>Big Bang Theory </em>or the chalkboard in <em>Good Will Hunting </em>and use those as a virtual background.</p>
8. Ask "Is this really the best course of action given the current climate?"<p>Economic collapse, COVID, racism… No need to specify whether you're referring to one or all of the above; just sit back and watch your boss squirm amidst the ambiguity.</p><p>This strategy pairs very well with techniques 2 and 3. You can prep additional vague-but-probing questions ahead of time and pepper them into the chat box throughout the meeting:</p><ul><li>How will this scale?</li><li>Do we really have the bandwidth for this right now?</li><li>What's the value-add here?</li></ul>
9. Remind everyone that you have a paid Zoom account.<p>"Oh, it looks like we're getting the 40-minute warning. I have a paid account, do you want to switch to my room?" It's helpful, with just a touch of condescension. Everyone knows condescending people are smart. And everyone knows that people with paid Zoom accounts are super important.</p>
10. Tell everyone you have a hard stop.<p>When pressed for details, share your philosophy on "work-from-home" balance and how committed you are to getting up once an hour to walk to your refrigerator.</p>
11. Ask the screensharer/host to "pull something up" for everyone.<p>Ask the presenter to navigate to a screen that only you know how to navigate well. Laugh maniacally while they suffer from crippling performance anxiety. Let them struggle for as long as is tolerable before saying, "Oh you know what? I can just share my screen if you want. That would probably be easier." BAM you're the hero. Don't worry, no one will even pause to consider that you could have proposed this course of action from the start.</p>
12. Say Zoom fatigue as many times as possible.<p>If you're too tired to employ any of the other strategies, just say "I know everyone is experiencing a lot of Zoom fatigue, so we can keep this meeting short." Then hang up as quickly as possible. Meeting averted! </p><p>After all, there's no better way to demonstrate your intelligence in a virtual meeting than to demonstrate why it wasn't really necessary in the first place. </p>
A five-step framework for addressing systematic racism at work
The world has changed in the past few weeks.
We're watching corporations and organizations across the world come out in support of Black lives in droves. Many of those organizations are doing so for the first time in their history.
I sat in front of my CEO to discuss several complaints of racism. I was new to my role as a Culture Director. I was nervous about his reaction to the complaints. But I also knew he strongly supported developing this new department; I knew that he would take the right steps. So I was shocked when I heard him say sheepishly, "I don't know, Noelle...all of this stuff about racism. I just don't see it. I don't even see color. I'm pretty much color blind."
Living in the midst of a pandemic has brought about a whole host of changes and challenges for workplaces and employees. One of the most notable? Virtual interviewing. With most on-site interviews on hold for the foreseeable future, it's important that you be prepared to make a great first impression—virtually.