As I sit down to type this article, one of my first as a freelance science journalist, it's interesting to reflect on the road I've travelled. I started off with a passion for basic research, so why am I now trying to communicate science to the masses?
It was the early 1990s. The developing world was being ravaged by AIDS, and new medical understanding and cures were in demand. I wanted to understand the biological key of life. Therefore, I enrolled in Biological Sciences at Bonn University, focusing on courses in medical and molecular microbiology (as well as marine biology).
With an Erasmus grant from the European Union I later spent a year at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK. I undertook a 10-week research project, studying maize streak virus and its interaction with the cell at the nearby John Innes Centre for plant research. I learned technical skills and how to produce useful results with the distributed responsibility of a working team.
And at the same time I was also learning to write. For class work I had to write science essays--something that is not common in Germany. And I enjoyed it; in fact I enjoyed it a lot. I decided I wanted to write more and took a course in academic writing. My teacher swept away any pretence of writers' block. He simply made me hand in a short essay at the end of each class, without any regard to my mood or performance. That helped a lot.
The Lab--A Room With No View
For my diploma thesis I tortured soil bacteria with pesticides over 365 long days in an underground bunker. It was not in the Middle East but in the KFA Jülich (now Forschungszentrum Jülich) of the Helmholtz Association of National Research Centres.
Following pure scientific curiosity, I designed a series of experiments and spent the first 3 months learning that negative results are results too. My first bacterial friends grew too fast, the second tribe was too robust. We went up the scale. Ever increasing concentrations of pesticide were barely toxic and only seemed to tickle my species of Pseudomonas. Finally, we turned to the ultimate chemical weapon, a killer of renown: a disinfectant. Emerging after 12 months of labour in the underworld, I was not able to answer the fundamental question: "Why do none of the German labs I worked in have any windows?" The research on the other hand was rewarded with a certificate as "Diplom-Biologin".
Still blinking in the sunlight, I approached the crossroads: What to do next? My research supervisor in Norwich had advised me to do my PhD in the United States. Another 5 years in a lab--and abroad? Well, scientists have to travel, just like my Dad, other diplomats, and their families. But I was really looking for a job I could happily do in my home country and not to become a modern work nomad. To reach the status of group leader in science there seemed to be a stretch of international Odyssey. While certainly able to force myself to appreciate this, I wondered whether this was strictly necessary.
Well, at some point during my studies I had discovered that there are people outside the immediate constituency of biologists. People who had not learned about the DNA helix at school. People who could not estimate the impact of the rapid developments in biology on their own lives and those of their children. I also discovered that I enjoyed explaining new technologies and liked the idea of facilitating public relations for science.
In the end, it was a coincidence. I was actually trying to help my mother find a job. We asked the lady at the student job centre at Bonn University, who had always found me interesting student jobs, whether she could also place my mum. The lady could not help my mother, but she insisted on offering me a summer job. She produced a 1-week employment within the environmental section of a communications agency. That was exactly what I wanted to do!
The week turned into an entire summer, analysing the media response to the press work of a recycling company, as well as carrying out research for an environmental report for Mercedes Benz. I learnt a lot about report writing for clients and creative skills such as moderation and brainstorming techniques (as well as about trash and luxury cars). I was fascinated by the open atmosphere among colleagues and enjoyed working in a bright, nicely renovated villa in the city centre.
"I do not have to do the big science myself", I thought. Later I was asked to start my professional career at communication agency Kohtes Klewes. I joined the International Team as a Junior Consultant at the Frankfurt office. Among my clients were medical technology companies, a food industry association, and international media. I learnt to write press releases under time pressure and to co-ordinate PR agencies in England, France, Italy, and Spain to promote new technologies across Europe. The UK-based weekly magazine, The Economist, had not been successful in transferring its advertising campaign to Germany and had asked us to find a more adequate way of promotion in Germany. Working closely with the writers I organised a series of debates.
I learnt to communicate in crisis situations within the limits of scientific certainty while working with the gelatin manufacturers during the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) affair. The complete spectrum of information tools was in demand: brochures, films, education material for schools, a telephone hotline. ...
After three and a half years at the market leader Kohtes Klewes, I changed to BSMG (later taken over by the world market leader Weber Shandwick). There, I focussed on science communication on the Web. Among my clients was the speciality chemicals company Degussa, as well as Lufthansa.
Changeover and More PR
I wanted to get deeper into science subjects and was curious what work was like on the other side of the pressroom. I applied for a job in the communications unit of the largest German science organisation, the Helmholtz Association of National Research Centres. The organisation had just undergone a reform process, and the new president clearly viewed public relations as having an important role to play. I got the job and soon started working from the Berlin office.
I was in charge of the relaunch of the Web site, among many other small and larger jobs, which was a special challenge, with 15 science centres to be represented by one new corporate home page. I found myself dedicating more time than I had expected to internal communication procedures and travelling to visit my colleagues in Bonn. And as it turned out, the science centres themselves took responsibility for the scientific content, which I had been urging them to get to grips with.
So, finding myself slightly disappointed with my new role, it was easier to move on to the adventure of freelance journalism.
Now working as a science journalist, I enjoy staying at the cutting edge of a limited number of today's science topics. My choice of a topic to write about is an asset for me as I feel independent of the economic factors which hold so much sway over clients, and therefore topics, in the PR office.
Looking back, I am still thankful to that writing teacher in Norwich. Looking forward, I have been accepted onto the master's course in Science Communication at Imperial College, London, and am looking forward to learning about the British approach to science communications. Imperial College also co-operates closely with the Science Museum, an aspect I find extremely interesting, as reading is good, but viewing and feeling science may be even better.
Perhaps pure science is not useless. But it would be, if we didn't have journalists and PR people to communicate it.