The Write Initiative

How a bunch of budding science communicators, some canny team work and a failed half-marathon training plan helped get a science magazine off the ground.

Many early career scientists would like to communicate science to a broader audience but aren't sure where to start; sometimes, the best place is right where you are. BlueSci , Cambridge University's new popular science magazine, was launched as an outlet for University members who want give science writing a go, or gain experience in magazine editing or production. According to Helen Stimpson, who edited the first issue of the magazine, "I was looking for something different to do outside of my Ph.D., and I wanted to give writing a try."

BlueSci, which celebrates its first birthday this October, aims to make scientific research accessible to both scientists and curious non-scientists. The 30-page glossy colour magazine is published three times a year--once each academic term--and distributed free within the University. Written and produced entirely by a team of undergraduate, postgraduate, and postdoc volunteers, its main purpose is to train scientists to communicate science and provide work experience for aspiring professional science communicators.

BlueSci grew out of Cambridge University Science Productions (CUSP), a University society dedicated to communicating science to the public. "CUSP originally did radio and some film making," says Björn Haßler, current CUSP chairman, "However, it turned out that a lot of people who came to CUSP wanted to write, and it became clear that we had to do something." At a CUSP meeting in early 2004, one member, Rachel Mundy, suggested that they produce a magazine.

The project gained momentum rapidly as a team of about 12, comprising CUSP members and some new recruits, got the project off the ground. The different sections of the magazine were agreed on quite early: feature articles are complemented by sections on news, science history, local science initiatives, and science jobs. Importance was placed on balancing biological and physical sciences within each section.

BlueSci's production is led by an editor who changes with each new issue and a managing editor who changes yearly. The submissions editor and the section editors continue from issue to issue, switching sections only if they want to try their hand at something different or switch focus from editing to production. As people finish their degrees, or leave to pursue other commitments, new members are recruited to the team.

BlueSci's first editor, ended up abandoning her half-marathon ambitions when she started working on Issue 1. "I got sucked in and never finished the training," she says.

Requests for submissions are sent out by e-mail across the University. Stimpson recalls the relief after the nerve-wracking wait for the first issue's submissions, "We got about 30 submissions, and there were some really good articles," she says. After each submission deadline, the team meets once a week over a 2-month period to discuss ideas, make plans, and work toward meeting the production deadlines.

Most of the work for BlueSci can be done from home. All material is stored on an online shared file system (Wiki) as team members edit and then copy edit each others work. The system is also used to exchange ideas, organise meetings, and keep lists of contacts.

Even though the members of the BlueSci team are volunteers, revenue was needed to pay the production costs. So BlueSci approached one of the Cambridge University student newspapers-- Varsity--to act as publisher and help attract advertising revenue. "The idea was really well received by them, and they were very keen for us to go ahead," says Stimpson. Trying to persuade companies to advertise in a new publication was a challenge, but the business manager at Varsity , Eve Williams, managed to attract both local and national advertisers.

Over the summer of 2004, the embryonic first issue evolved like the most inspiring of scientific experiments, almost taking on a life of its own. With the use computer facilities in the Varsity offices, Issue 1 of BlueSci went into production in August and continued through September, in preparation for a mid-October launch. Production of that first issue was like an early-stage experiment, trying various things and seeing what worked. "You get a better understanding of how long things take, and where to set your expectations of what you can achieve in a reasonable amount of time," says Tom Walters, who managed production for the first three issues.

The BlueSci team have acquired lots of valuable--and career relevant--skills to use both at and away from the bench. "Balancing academic work and work on the magazine can be hard," admits Jon Zwart, who worked on production for Issues 1 and 2 and edited Issue 3, "but I think my Ph.D. work has benefited from [the] skills [I] learned. I've learned how to delegate, as well as how to work in and run a team." For Stimpson, the benefits of the experience were similar. "Time management and organisational skills were some of the most valuable things I learned." Stimpson also feels that working as an editor has made her "look at my own writing more critically, working out how to make an impact and be more concise." Nerissa Hannink, who has worked on all the issues produced so far believes, "it has helped [me] in communicating my work to a wider audience, not just my immediate research community."

CUSP's Haßler sees the magazine as a training ground. "One of the most important things about BlueSci is that it provides training for people--it gives them a chance to make mistakes as you learn on the job." But this kind of experience doesn't just prepare the participants for jobs in science communications; it can also help them get hired. "When I'm looking at CVs," says Kathryn Phillips, News and Views Editor for the Journal of Experimental Biology, "the first thing I look for is evidence of commitment to writing," she explains. "Writing for BlueSci is exactly the sort of experience that will get the determined young writer off to a good start."

Some of the project's payoffs are immediate. One major highlight is seeing the final product. Stimpson recalls the buzz on her first sight of Issue 1 in print. "I remember when I went to see the printer's proofs--they were on a massive sheet, printed on really nice photographic paper--and I remember thinking 'Wow!'" But, as good as that feeling was, the feedback from readers was the ultimate test. For all three issues, says Stimpson, it has been very positive--from both students and staff alike.

Working on BlueSci, says Stimpson, "totally surpassed all my expectations." Other things, however, have been put on hold. "My next mission is to get back on the track and start running again!"

All the current issues of BlueSci are available to view online at:

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