April 25, 2005

Communication Breakdown

The guest speaker at our November meeting was Dr. John Ashkenas, a science communicator. We advertised this event with posters asking the question, “Interested in Science Journalism?”, complete with an image of an eager, young journalist, pen poised to capture the sensational story unfolding before her eyes. The job of science journalist is often romanticized, much like that of a news journalist, as an exciting, hectic, career with the constant risk of being scooped and the rush of getting the story first. We were pretty excited as we put up our posters and I couldn’t help but fantasize a little about maybe living that exciting life myself, full of travel and meetings with interesting, high-profile scientists. But John was quick to point out that he is not really a science journalist, so much as a science writer, or more accurately, a science communicator. Oh, and all those posters! Did he see them? How embarrassing!

He was gracious about the mistake and proceeded to tell us about what he actually does do. Despite the lack of secret meetings with shady sources or eleventh-hour breaking news stories, it sounded like a very appealing career choice. You get to learn about a wide variety of scientific topics depending on the story you’re writing, and what magazine, newspaper or journal you’re writing it for. As the name of the position implies, you’re communicating some scientific topic to a broader audience. You could be the liaison between the cutting edge of scientific discovery and the general public. And it’s the type of career that allows you as much flexibility and autonomy as you’re comfortable with. You could work as a freelance science writer for such magazines as The Scientist, or work as an editor with a particular magazine or journal, such as the Journal of Clinical Investigation, both of which John has done.

As a student, John was drawn to scientific writing and found himself editing articles for fellow lab members. For people interested in pursuing this type of career, John suggested starting to write right now. There are lots of ways to practice and hone your skills. Ask your supervisor if you can write (or help write) a review article for a scientific journal. Also, there are several publications on campus that seek articles by students:

The Peer Review is a print magazine about graduate studies and academic life at U of T and they “accept unsolicited pitches for all sections, however, new writers are most likely to be accepted if they can present article idea(s) for either the Academentia or Research sections of the magazine. Pitches can be directed to editor@thepeerreview.ca.”

Hypothesis is a “peer-reviewed journal that focuses on the discussion of scientific research and ideas within the University of Toronto community.” The journal publishes “a broad range of scientific topics in the form of essays, reviews and research papers.” Send questions about the journal, and submission procedures to hypothesis.journal@utoronto.ca.

The Varsity is U of T’s student newspaper and has several sections, including a science section. About 75% of their stories are assigned by the section editors, but they’re willing to hear about story ideas from prospective writers. If you want to write for this section, contact the science editor at science@thevarsity.ca.

Science’s Next Wave is a “weekly online publication that covers scientific training, career development, and the science job market” that is read by “grad students, postdocs, scientists in industry, faculty members, and undergraduates.” If you have a story idea you can contact an editor on the staff page or contact me at susan@nomediakings.org and I can put you in touch with the U of T representative.

Remember, if you’re going to pitch an article to a magazine or newspaper, you should definitely read a few copies of it first to familiarize yourself with their content and style.

If you know about other U of T, or non-U of T publications willing to publish articles from students, or if you have any feedback regarding this posting, please feel free to communicate them in the comments section below.

Posted by Susan at April 25, 2005 04:26 PM
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