Experimenting With Science Writing

A white envelope with a green maple leaf in the corner arrived in my mailbox. Under the maple leaf logo were the letters CIHR. I tore open the envelope. In bold, black print was the message "Congratulations"--I was a winner of the CIHR Undergraduate Science Writer Scholarship! I was elated. What an opportunity!

CIHR, or the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, is a federal funding agency. Thirteen institutes constitute the CIHR and fund the work of researchers in diverse areas of study, such as cancer, musculoskeletal health, and nutrition. But they do more than that.

I first heard about the CIHR scholarship in my third year of undergraduate studies at the University of Toronto (U of T). I majored in psychology and took minors in writing and philosophy. Although the psychology program prepared me for analyzing scientific data presented by various researchers in the field, I did not consider myself a formal science student. I became interested in writing for science when I took a science-writing course offered by the Writing and Communications Program at the U of T Erindale campus.

During the course, students were asked to write seven articles on one topic dealing with a particular area of science. The main objective of the course was to find ways to translate science into informative and engaging reading material for the public. I chose to write about a rare condition called Devic's disease. At the time, my aunt suffered from the disease, which bears similarities to multiple sclerosis. Little research had focused on Devic's.

Midway through the writing course, my professor, Guy Allen, informed the class of the CIHR Undergraduate Science Writer Scholarships. Along with a CA$5000 tuition award, winners were also eligible for a 4-month internship with a CIHR institute of their choice. The award was the first of its kind to be offered to science students in Canada, and I was encouraged by the fact that CIHR recognizes the need for translating scientific materials into articles that inform and educate the public. I eagerly submitted two of my Devic's articles for consideration.

On 4 October 2002, during my fourth and last year of studies at U of T, I received a letter from CIHR notifying me that I had won the scholarship. I felt surprised and ecstatic! My hard work on the Devic's disease articles had paid off.

After considering the many interesting CIHR institutes based in Toronto, I finally decided to pursue my internship at the Institute of Human Development, Child and Youth Health (IHDCYH). At the time, the area of human development appealed to me, and I thought that it was a field where my psychology skills might be useful. For optimal growth, children and adolescents depend not only on healthy physical development but also on healthy cognitive development and self-esteem.

I have worked at IHDCYH for a month now, and my experiences have been very positive. All who work in the institute have welcomed me and made me feel like an important member of the team. One element I like about working for IHDCYH is the way my writing skills have been fully utilized for institute projects. So far, I have written various promotional pieces for the institute's participation in the London International Children's Festival. I have also written articles about the institute for various newsletters.

Recently, I had the chance to visit the CIHR Central Office in Ottawa. That experience helped me learn more about the organization and the people who contribute to its commendable work. As well, it was a great way to network with individuals who work in the communications field.

Over the last month, I truly feel that I have grown as an individual. In travelling around to different places, my sense of independence has flourished. Since my graduation ceremony on 16 June, I've been able not only to see the completion of one chapter of my life, but also to look toward career opportunities in the future. The CIHR internship is a great place to start!

Writing for CIHR is expanding my skills as a writer, but it also has its challenges. Although my main responsibilities entail writing articles that engage the public, I also have a duty to write for the various stakeholders in the scientific and political community. Because the reading audience I target can be very diverse and broad, I must constantly focus on how to assemble a clear and succinct piece of writing that captivates the reader but still maintains a high standard of scientific quality. I believe that I can face this challenge and become a better writer because of it.

Writing is one of my passions. Good expression and clear communication links the writer to the reader. A science writer can develop a personal bond with the reader through his or her own unique expression while also being a resource to educate the reader. I know I will incorporate writing in any field I choose to pursue. In the near future, however, I plan to do more research into Devic's disease and perhaps write more articles or a booklet on the topic. I feel my aunt has a story to tell about living with the condition, and the work I do for CIHR is equipping me to tell that story from not only a personal but also a scientific viewpoint.

For now, I am happily focused on working at IHDCYH, and I hope to make the most out of the internship by learning as much as I can from this experience. Who knows? There may be future opportunities with CIHR after my internship is completed, but whatever the case, I will have grown as a writer and as an individual.

Much thanks to CIHR for giving me the opportunity to write for it as I enter this new stage in my life.

CIHR is a supporter of Next Wave Canada.

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