By Anthea Lacchia (@AntheaLacchia), Press Officer at Nature
As Richard Dawkins reminds us in ‘Unweaving the Rainbow’, understanding the origin of the colours of the rainbow does not take away from its beauty or the awe it inspires. Communicating science as a career is all about inspiring those moments of wonder, from the eye-widening and jaw-dropping ones to the quieter, slow-burning variety.
These are some words of advice for those wishing to pursue a career in science communication, based solely on my experience (please note the sample size of 1!):
- Just do it! (on the side)
If you want to set off on this path, there are many ways to start. Whether it’s volunteering at your local science museum or science centre, helping out in science school fairs, writing a science article for your local newspaper or starting a blog, make sure you start gaining experience early on. I was always an avid writer but I first became interested in science communication at university, when I joined the science section of the student newspaper. I became more and more involved, progressing from staff writer, to deputy editor, to editor. I became an expert juggler, balancing PhD research with science writing. What I did on the side — which took up many an evening and weekend — was crucial to getting my first job as press officer at Nature. My advice is to start adding that all-important experience to your CV right now.
- Take advantage of university life
If you are based in a university, you are privy to a unique source of science stories. Meeting the scientists based at your university and finding out about their latest research will allow you to produce science articles, podcasts, videos, and blog posts. Contact your university press office as well: there might be opportunities to collaborate and learn from those already working in the field. Email people! Be heard! If you are studying science, why not try your hand at science communication competitions such as FameLab? Does your university have a science museum or an art-science space such as the Science Gallery where you might volunteer?
- Get involved everywhere you can
Volunteer at your local radio station, travel to conferences such as ESOF (European Science Open Forum) and AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) and interview the scientists and policymakers there. Observe professional journalists at these events. What kinds of questions do they ask? What kinds of stories are they looking for? Pitch your story ideas to magazines, and attend courses and seminars. Don’t be put off if you are not instantly successful. Opportunities to learn writing skills include science-writing clubs, such as Earthzine’s writing club.
- Stay on top of things
The latest opportunities in science communication, in terms of jobs, internships and volunteer positions, are often posted on mailing lists such as UK’s PSCI-COM and STEMPRA. Although these are UK-centric, they can also offer inspiration and ideas to those outside the UK as well.
- Do your research
There are so many different elements of science communication, from public engagement, to science policy, to freelance writing etc. Do you want to produce TV shows about science? Do you want to travel to different schools teaching children about chemistry? Do you want to be a science writer, or a press officer? Science comedian? Photographer? Documentary maker? It’s a good idea to read about and familiarize yourself with the areas you are most interested in. Narrowing down your choice can help you tailor your time to the demands of those scary future job applications. Have I mentioned it’s a good idea to look at job descriptions early? Your CV will thank you later. You may also try entering the business through placements such as the BBC’s journalism trainee scheme.
- Listen to the naysayers (but move on)
One thing is guaranteed: there will be plenty of negative voices along the way, probably starting from the nagging ones inside your head! Some will tell you that it is best to stay in academia and communicate science in your spare time. This works very well for many scientists, who are passionate about communicating their research, but such opinions should not discourage you if your heart is set on a career in science communication. Although a career in research and academia offers much, part of the thrill of communicating science lies in working with different topics from one week to the next. There is always something new and interesting to learn as you write each story — from the discovery of a new drug to the realization that fly poo can contaminate crime scenes by planting human DNA.
- Be aware of your story (and own it)
Whatever area you choose to specialise in within the broader field of science communication, you must learn to tell a story. Finding your story and choosing your angle are key skills to practice early on. Remember that being aware of one’s audience is key, and that telling a story that is clear is always better than telling a story that involves too many narratives.
- Ask for and share information
I have found that people working in science communication are generally very pleased to share information and advice with those starting out. Whether it’s a scientist giving you a heads-up on a discovery or a science editor that lets you know of a job opening in their magazine or newspaper, people are happy to help. But you have to ask them first!
- Get thee to the Twittersphere
Science communication has a prominent home on Twitter. Following your #scicomm idols will allow you to stay on top of the latest debates in the community, as well as be aware of what is happening at conferences. You might even spot an embargo break! Twitter is also a great platform to share your latest articles and blog posts. Opportunities such as the Naturejobs Career Expo journalism competition or the Economist’s Richard Casement internship, which offer a way into science journalism, are often posted on Twitter.
- Enjoy it
The path that leads to science communication is fraught with… fun! I am a firm believer in doing something you love. So I would advise you to persevere, work hard, and don’t be afraid to gravitate towards the fun.
About Anthea Lacchia
Anthea Lacchia has just completed her PhD in Geology at Trinity College Dublin and is currently working as Press Officer at Nature. Her research is focused on biostratigraphy and involves the collection and study of goniatite fossils, extinct relatives of squid and cuttlefish.
A winner of the 2015 Boston Naturejobs Career Expo journalism competition and recipient of the Science Journalist of the Year Award at the Student Media Awards (SMEDIAS), she has experience both in science writing and editing. She has covered diverse topics ranging from the DNA of lager yeast, to new cures for inflammatory diseases, to the role of science communication in academia. She loves talking to scientists about their research and is always on the look out for new stories.
In her spare time, she enjoys hiking, swimming, creative writing and looking after her rescue cat, Pedro. You can follow her on Twitter @AntheaLacchia.