Feeding the Media


I have the admissions committees at American medical schools to thank for my unexpected detour into science public relations. Like many others with an interest in science and limited awareness of the job market, I originally planned to go to medical school. I even went through the application and interviewing process (twice) around the high-water mark for medical school applications in the mid-1990s. Given the dissatisfaction of so many in the medical profession today--and the fact that science public relations has grown into a rewarding and enjoyable career for me--I now tell people that not getting into medical school was one of the best things that has ever happened to me.

Today I am the University of Pennsylvania's news officer for science and engineering, responsible for spreading word of major research findings from a sizable swath of this sizable university: the schools of Engineering and Applied Science, Veterinary Medicine, and the scientific part of Arts and Sciences. I also coordinate a Web site called Research at Penn, which highlights research developments from across Penn's 12 schools. This site lets us target research news directly to key university audiences: alumni, students, faculty and staff, donors, government officials, and funding agencies.

I often describe my role here at Penn as that of a translator. I turn research papers, normally dense and impenetrable, into write-ups intended to interest and entice educated lay readers--specifically, science journalists. I'm the conduit that links Penn scientists with media organizations ranging from the smallest trade publication to the largest international wire service. Although many science journalists might prefer not to admit it, science publicists at universities and other institutions play a crucial (if behind-the-scenes) role in shaping media coverage of science. There's no way the relatively small corps of American science journalists could adequately track goings-on in the much larger research community without input from those of us who can more closely monitor individual studies at individual institutions. For this reason, most media coverage of science and medicine carries the fingerprints of science publicists.

I've been fortunate in that a number of those fingerprints have been mine! During my 3 years at Penn I've managed media coverage of two Nobel Prize awards as well as many research findings that have made headlines around the world. Of course, it's not always easy mediating between researchers who see their work as highly nuanced and reporters who are sometimes looking for nothing more than a catchy sound bite. The relationship between scientists and journalists is often thorny, but when things go right the resulting media coverage illuminates Penn research and helps to advance public understanding and appreciation of science.

Like many science writers, I work in a broad range of disciplines--fields as disparate as astrophysics, psychology, reproductive biology, nanotechnology, veterinary medicine, and paleontology. In terms of subject area, I am unabashedly jack of all trades, master of none. My job involves an equally wide array of activities. On an average day I might meet with faculty members to learn about recent research; develop strategies to communicate major research news or respond to breaking news; draft, edit, or distribute news releases; match reporters with relevant Penn experts; cultivate relationships with journalists; and read mainstream and science-specific publications to keep up to date on developments in the fields I cover.

My own career trajectory has been unusual in that I entered science public relations immediately after college. I was news editor of the University of Rochester Campus Times during two of my years as an undergraduate. I double-majored in biology and English--although not because I ever expected to merge the two into a single career. As a prospective physician, I saw my biology courses as the foundation of my future career and my literature courses as an important balance to the hours spent in laboratories and giant lecture halls.

I was able to make the transition from student editor to science writer because staffers in Rochester's public relations office admired my work as a Campus Times editor. When I graduated without medical school acceptance letter in hand, my interest in finding employment and their interest in adding a second science writer to their staff came together in the form of a job offer as public relations assistant, responsible for publicity in the engineering school and most other scientific disciplines outside the medical school.

I worked in Rochester for a couple of years, fortunate to be able to soak up the insights of a real pro, longtime Rochester science writer Tom Rickey. From Rochester I moved on to work in a larger media market with a post at Brandeis University in suburban Boston. While at Brandeis I expanded the university's science communications efforts beyond news releases with the establishment of the Brandeis Catalyst, a biannual newsletter highlighting science research. After several years at Brandeis, I was hired in 2000 by Penn, charged with reestablishing a long-dormant communications effort in the basic and technical sciences.

Not surprisingly, I would identify the two most essential skills to working in science public relations as writing ability--specifically, the ability to explain complex work relatively succinctly--and a basic understanding of science. I say "basic" because truthfully, my experience has been that a science writer can know too much about his or her subject matter. When I was first starting out as a science writer, the ink not yet dry on my biology diploma, I found that the hardest topic for me to write about was, in fact, biology. The reason? I had been so immersed in the field that I had lost sight of the knowledge base of the average reader. I assumed that everyone knew what RNA, PCR, and ATP were, and often failed to weed jargon from my writing and communicate effectively to an audience of nonscientists.

I've never hired a science writer myself, but my understanding is that such positions draw an incredible variety of applicants, including a large number of disillusioned scientists. I've heard anecdotally that an advanced degree can be an impediment, since such candidates can be dismissed as "overqualified." I'm only now working on a master's, so obviously a graduate degree is not necessarily a job requirement.

As such, my advice to those trying to transition from scientist to science writer would be to play down any advanced degrees and play up your general understanding of science concepts and how the research process works. To avoid falling into the trap of jargon-laden writing, you might seek positions that have the least relevance to your previous area of study. If you're a geologist, look into writing about technology. If you're now in engineering, consider writing about medicine. Clinical researchers might look into writing about basic science, and basic scientists might consider starting in an applied medical arena.

The unique talent of the science communicator is the ability to see things from both the scientist's perspective and that of the layman. So for the effective science writer, a little bit of ignorance and a little bit of knowledge, side by side, go a long way.

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