This is a series of Q&As with young and up-and-coming science, health and environmental writers and reporters. They - at least some of them - have recently hatched in the Incubators (science writing programs at schools of journalism), have even more recently fledged (graduated), and are now making their mark as wonderful new voices explaining science to the public.
Hello, welcome to The SA Incubator. Let’s start from the beginning: where are you originally from?
Hi, I was born in London (United Kingdom). For the last seven years I’ve been spending most of my time in Oxford, where I did my undergraduate degree and am now finishing my doctorate.
How did you get into science and how did you get into writing? And how did these two trajectories fuse into becoming a science writer?
It was a real advantage growing up in London with access to so many excellent museums and universities. As a teenager I did a lot of volunteering and summer projects trying out different areas of biology before going on to study Biological Sciences at university. I’ve always done a lot of writing and my degree was heavily essay-based - I loved researching and discussing a new topic from scratch every week.
As a PhD student I missed thinking about broader topics that were unrelated to my own research and writing about them in an accessible way. I started writing for some Oxford-based magazines and blogs and I enjoyed doing this so much that I built up from there to professional freelancing.
Which graduate program are you attending? Why go for a science degree and not a journalism degree?
I’m doing a DPhil (Oxford’s equivalent of a PhD) in plant development and genetics. When I finished my undergraduate degree I didn’t really feel ready to stop studying science. I’d become very interested in plant evolution and development and I wanted to get more experience of doing research, so I stayed on in Oxford.
There are some big advantages to spending four years as a working scientist – you get a real feel for how science works, you scrutinise so many original research papers that you’ll never again balk at reading one, and you get a lot of practice in communicating and debating with senior scientists. All valuable experience for writing news articles based on newly published papers or interviewing expert professors for a feature.
What professional experience have you had so far – publications, internships, jobs? Feel free to include a bunch of links here! What is your current job?
I’ve been doing professional freelancing for just over a year. My most recent work includes nanotechnology features for The Guardian (this one, for example) and careers features for New Scientist (for example). I do a range of other freelance work too, including reporting on science news for BBC Focus Magazine, Cosmos and Oxford Today.
I’ve also had work placements at the Nature News & Comment section and at the national newspapers The Times and The Sunday Telegraph. A real highlight for me came in October 2011 when I won the scientists’ category of the inaugural Guardian & Observer/Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize with my article on the Nocebo Effect. There are links to some of my other pieces on the portfolio page of my blog.
After finishing my thesis, I’m hoping to go into journalism full-time, either by taking on more freelance work or by finding a staffer job somewhere.
Do you write a personal or science blog? How much do you use social media networks, e.g., Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, Tumblr, Pinterest, Flickr, YouTube etc., to promote your own and your friends’ work, to learn and to connect?
I do have a blog, life=science+k. When I get the time I write original posts for it, often about research culture, lab life or science policy, but recently I’ve mostly been using it to collect together my professional work online. Twitter is definitely my first choice social network for sharing and finding science journalism, media and sci-comm-related topics (I tweet as @PennySarchet). YouTube, Tumblr, Flickr etc are all useful tools but I tend to follow friends’ and others’ activities via Twitter – it’s an essential one-stop-shop for what the people you’re interested in have been putting on the internet.
Apart from writing, do you also do other aspects of science communication, e.g., podcasts, video, art/illustration, photography, infographics, or do you do any coding, web design and programming?
Last year a friend and I put together a weekly science news bulletin for Oxford student radio, and we also podcasted it online. We wrote, presented and edited it all and I had a lot of fun producing it. The best part was doing the interviews – it was the perfect excuse to take a microphone into the offices of some top scientists and ask them a lot of questions.
My PhD involved a lot of photography/imaging/microscopy, so I like to entertain the idea that I’ll find some use after my PhD for all the graphics skills I’ve developed.
How do you see the current and future science media ecosystem, how it differs from the past, and what role will new, young science communicators like yourself play in building it and making it the best it can be?
It’s uncertain but it’s exciting. We might not know where the media is headed but it isn’t all bad news. The British public seems genuinely hungry for science content - science programming, magazines, blogs, podcasts, pub discussion groups and comedy stand-up shows are proliferating all over the place. It’s a great time to be communicating science. It’s also terrific fun trying out all these new tools and working out how to use them to tell a story. I’m really excited by how multi-disciplinary everything is becoming – I like that journalists are now expected to blog, podcast and present too.
Previously in this series: