Diary of a British Scientist, Part 5: Back In School


The course in science communications has opened up an entirely new world for me. It has been my release from laboratory blues and something positive to focus on while scouring the job vacancies. That is not to say that it is all been easy going--coping with part-time study as well as a full-time job requires careful planning and major time management skills. I keep telling myself that it's all good practice for a future career in publishing.

The tutors have given us a huge variety of material to cover in the first year of the course. The writing skill program, taught by an excellent experienced science writer, has been completely invaluable. I have been trained in news, features, and profile writing for a variety of different audiences--with "target audience, target audience, target audience" becoming my new anthem. I now feel confident in what makes news "news," but the formulaic nature of writing news articles is not as simple as it seems--as many of the students in the course will testify. Writing news articles covering many branches of science, including paleontology and astronomy, felt quite alien to start with, and I confess to preferring the security of medical science topics. When I read the national press I get more satisfaction than before, almost as if I have been promoted to "insider" status. Call me smug!

I am now more confident in communicating the work I do to varied audiences, which helps the way I work in the lab and encourages me to extract from other scientists the essence of their research. Cold calling scientists on the other side of the Pacific to interview them about their recent publications and inviting them to speak in clear simple language no longer sends a shiver down my spine. But I still find translating science into "lay" terms a difficult task, since inventing alternatives to common science terms such as "protein" and "cell" is challenging to say the least. It's amazing how far a metaphor can stretch!

The issue of the public's understanding of science has been an ongoing theme for debate throughout the coursework. We seem to be constantly reevaluating it in light of recent science communication disasters such as BSE and genetically modified foods--a particular favorite of mine. But I feel that this constant evolving area parallels science in many aspects--more questions are raised rather than answered the deeper we delve. Even so, the group has had some great discussions--some fairly heated--which I have enjoyed reenacting back in the lab.

Two dominant features have enabled us, a group of novice science communicators, to gel. Firstly, assignments. Living with the constant threat of deadlines and a strict marking regimen has set me back about 10 years to my undergraduate days. However, it is a powerful tool for focusing the mind. The joys of modern technology play a huge part in the learning process. Comparing notes electronically with other students has been essential to effective distance learning and has given us all an excuse to overuse e-mail! Secondly, "Summer School" has been an experience. We spent a fantastic intensive week locked away in the beautiful Kent countryside with nothing to do or think about except communicating science. Experts such as managing editors of well-respected science publications, Web science writers, and scientists from different backgrounds, in addition to our faithful tutors, were wheeled in at every opportunity for us to work with. By the end of the week we were confidently devising plays and soap operas (!) to highlight scientific "hot topics." Of course the quiet country pubs were a welcome relief from the hard toil!

With a firm grasp of the writing skills I've developed, I'm now anxious to get thrown into the deep end wherever possible. This means back to the old story of volunteering my services everywhere and anywhere. Luckily some of the work I've taken on is rewarded with real cash--I hope to get very used to that! Looking further ahead, next year brings the focus of the science communication program to television and radio broadcasting--so roll on, 2000.

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