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Communicating Science - Collective Experiences from Everyday Physicists
Communicating Science - Collective Experiences from Everyday Physicists
by Julia Majors, Project Manager, AIP
In studying physics and learning about the universe, you learn to speak "Physicist." It’s a unique language, descended from the more classical tongue "Scientist," and delightfully embellished by mathematicians’ names and colorful portmanteaus like “qubit” and “heterostructure.” Dialects do vary between the numerous niche disciplines within physics, but all originate from the same core axioms.
Those who speak "Physicist" and "Scientist" are increasingly valuable, not just for their problem-solving skillset, but for their ability to translate and make accessible the cornucopia of emerging scientific discoveries. The field of science communication has evolved to earn a number of its own advanced degree programs, like UC Santa Barbara’s Master’s in Science Journalism, and even its own hashtag (#SciComm).
The demand for skilled, effective science communicators is at an all-time high. In fact, the endurance of scientific advancement has arguably never depended on it more than it does today. The ability to effectively communicate new findings is precisely what drives further progress.
But while most scientists who have publicly presented their research will agree that “good communication skills” have been valuable in their career, it is usually in the context of a community that already speaks their language (or dialect). Communicators who can explain science to a general audience are rare, and this has left science, and physics in particular, isolated from much of the general public.
Thankfully, the tide is starting to turn. There is more attention on the need for broader science communication, leading to training and outreach programs at major research conferences. There is now an ever-expanding array of opportunities to carve your own career or enhance the path you’re already traveling.
At its essence, the art of science communication is a unique form of storytelling that reveals secrets of the universe and new mysteries. These stories can be told in all sorts of ways, to all sorts of audiences.
After a lucky introduction through a professional society, while working on my dissertation research I was offered funding to attend a conference in exchange for writing daily news reports of presentations. This was my first experience writing physics stories for a large audience—in print no less—and I never would have guessed how much I would enjoy it. Four years and many, many more stories later, I have also discovered just how many facets of science communication exist.
Today, science communication takes myriad forms beyond traditional science journalism. Technical writers compose educational coursework and industrial white papers. Science editors help academics and professionals alike shape complex information for different audiences. And social media has led to an explosion of new demands for science content, creating the first podcast and YouTube stars with millions of fans.
If you are just as interested in how physics is discussed as the physics itself, you’re not alone. Whether you aspire to follow in the footsteps of Carl Sagan or are just looking for new ways to explore your love for physics, science communication offers a plethora of paths worth traveling. The stories below are just a few of the paths you could take.
Julia Majors is a Project Manager at the American Institute of Physics. She has a PhD in Physics from University of California, Irvine. You can contact her at jmajors [at] aip.org.
From the bench to the page:
One physicist’s path to a career in science journalism
by Yuen Yiu, Staff Writer, AIP
My journey to becoming a science writer is one with a humble beginning and a humble ending, albeit a tad bit unconventional compared to others.
To begin with, English is not my native language, and I didn’t study journalism in college. Growing up in Hong Kong, I was taught at a young age to be “practical.” I chose computer engineering as my major as I rode on the tail end of the dot-com boom. But after a few years away from my parents, I became more "unhinged," and like many unsupervised college kids, I wildly switched my major to physics. Soon after, I got my BS. Then graduate school became the obvious choice, and off I went.
It wasn’t until the fourth or fifth year into my doctoral studies that the thought of becoming a science writer took root. I was writing my first research paper, and my supervisor noted that my writing needed improving. He encouraged me to take some relevant classes to improve my science communication skills.
Since there weren’t many classes that specifically taught scientists how to write papers, I combed through all the class descriptions until I found one that came close. Of the classes I ended up taking, "Writing About Science" was the one in which, after some training, I discovered my ability to explain complex scientific concepts to a lay audience—perhaps not as well as a professional journalist, but definitely better than my fellow labmates, even as the only international student in the class. In the end, I got an A.
A couple of years later, I was debating between applying for a second postdoc or venturing into private industry. One afternoon I spotted a job posting that began with something like, “If you love science but feel that a career at the bench isn’t enough to sate your desire to learn more about the natural world, then a career in science writing might be good for you.”
That evening, I started a new Word document and titled it, “YuenYiu_CV_ScienceWriter.doc.” The rest is history!
Yuen Yiu is a Staff Writer at the American Institute of Physics. He has a PhD in physics from University of Tennessee and a bachelor's degree, also in physics, from University of Michigan.You can contact him at yyiu [at] aip.org.
Science communication is everywhere
by Emilie Lorditch, Assistant News Director, AIP
While earning my undergraduate degree, I was interested in so many different topics that I found it impossible to commit to a specialty. I really enjoyed talking to researchers about their passions, but I never had a burning desire to pursue my own research projects. A science writing class taught by a working journalist really opened my eyes to a career in science writing. Once I was a working science writer, I found that having a science degree helped me ask thought-provoking questions and earn the respect of wary experts. I discovered there are all types of science writing, from long, in-depth feature articles to attention-grabbing science news tweets. When I had the opportunity to write for science videos, I learned that writing wasn’t the only way to communicate science. For me, the perfect moments in our science videos are when the narration complements the animation on the screen, and the viewer gets it in just a few seconds. Whether it is a casual conversation with the person standing behind you in the checkout line, or a 30-minute presentation to your peers, it all counts as science communication.
After many years in a career focused on various forms of science communication, an important lesson I’ve learned is to know the technical level of your audience and choose your words carefully to make sure your message will be understood.
There are many ways to start developing your own science communication skills and prepare yourself for rewarding career opportunities: Take a writing class in your university’s journalism department; look for opportunities to write for your university and/or your department; pitch an article or blog idea to your favorite online science news source; get involved with professional organizations in your field (like AIP!), and keep your eyes and ears open for writing opportunities related to their events and members.
Emilie Lorditch is the Assistant News Director at the American Institute of Physics. She has a degree in physical/environmental geography from The Pennsylvania State University. Emilie’s articles have appeared in Scientific American and NBC News.com. You can contact her @EmilieLorditch or elorditc [at] aip.org.
by Nathan Sanders, Vice President, Legendary Pictures
Ask any scientist in any field how they spend their time and what skills are most vital to their career success, and I’m confident most will agree that communication is at least as much a part of their job as experimentation and analysis. But consider how much of your formal education has addressed skills in communication and how many opportunities are presented to you as a student to grow and practice these skills. It’s fairly easy to find students who feel significantly underserved in this way.
As a graduate student in astronomy at Harvard University in 2012, along with a number of my colleagues at MIT and the University of Colorado at Boulder, we recognized this gap in our own experience. We sought to create student-driven, entrepreneurial programs in science communication that would generate opportunities for students to communicate science.
My colleagues and I gained experience working on Astrobites (http://astrobites.org/) and Chembites (http://chembites.org/), graduate student writing collaboratives that produce daily digests of the research literature in astronomy and chemistry, respectively. Through these projects, we practiced synthesizing and interpreting research in our fields and adding context for undergraduates. We wanted to spur the creation of more opportunity-generating initiatives like these.
Our solution was to develop a workshop series on science communication, called ComSciCon, that would bring together young leaders in science communication from across the country. Over the course of our three-day ComSciCon workshops, we introduced these scientists to expert science communication professionals from a variety of fields, including journalism, education, media production, policymaking, and more—and to each other.
Through our “write-a-thon,” panel discussions, storytelling workshops, and other interactive sessions, these students are exposed to a wide range of methods and domains for applying science communication. They leave reporting greater confidence in communicating to broad and diverse audiences, and an intent to engage in outreach and communication.
We work with sponsors like the American Astronomical Society to make registration free of charge and fund travel for students to attend our Boston-based national workshop. We support our alums in founding ComSciCon-region-specific franchises that provide these opportunities nationwide.
Together with the American Institute of Physics’ Venture Partnership Fund program, we’re working with more AIP Member Societies such as The Optical Society (OSA) to bring ComSciCon programming to professional society meetings and to make the digital content captured at our workshop available to members online.
If you go on to attend graduate school and want to further your own experience in science communication, we welcome you to apply to join us at a future ComSciCon event! You can find details about our regional franchise programs on our website (http://comscicon.com/). //
Nathan Sanders is the Vice President of quantitative analytics at Legendary Pictures and one of the founding members of Astrobites and ComSciCon. https://www.cfa.harvard.edu/~nsanders/