I had the happy pleasure of visiting on Friday with Sheril Kirshenbaum and Bora Zivkovic for a panel discussion in a course at Duke University’s Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy.
Directed by Dr Misha Angrist, PubPol 196S “Science in the Media” is described in the course catalog as follows:
Those who write about science, health and related policy matters for a general audience face a formidable challenge: to make complex, nuanced ideas understandable to the nonscientist in a limited amount of space and in ways that are engaging and entertaining, even if the topic is far outside the reader’s frame of reference. This is even more difficult in a time when acute financial and political crises tend to dominate the ever-shrinking print journalism universe. What, if anything, can writers do to get people to care about science? What does good science writing look like and what can we hope to get from it as readers and as citizens?
We will examine different modes of science writing, different outlets for publication, and the peculiar editorial demands each places on the writer. We will consider multiple narrative approaches and various traps into which science writers may fall. Our first goal is to read broadly and deeply with particular attention to science stories as told by the best practitioners in the field. Our second goal is to write: about what we’ve read, about scientists we’ve talked to and the science they do, and about the meaning of it all to a public that is simultaneously bombarded by, fascinated with and alienated from science.
(We featured Misha Angrist here last November when the local press covered his participation in George Church’s Personal Genome Project.)
About a dozen students, many on their way to graduate school asked us questions ranging from how Bora got started blogging and developed such a comprehensive handle on the science blogosphere to how Sheril uses her scientific training to communicate policy and write books. Bora tells a moving story of how he left a warring Yugoslavia and translated his equestrian expertise into a career in research and, now, science communication.
Other areas of focus were how one develops a voice and reputation in the blogosphere, with or without a pseudonym (including how a pseudonym might have helped Sheril when an overzealous reader showed up at her building). The discussion also touched on whether practicing scientists have an obligation for public outreach about their work, perhaps via blogs, especially given the accountability expected with NIH stimulus grant funds. We were even fortunate to have Isis (On Becoming a Domestic and Laboratory Goddess) join us online to discuss how important it is to be voice and role model for others “managing to do bench science when you’re too pregnant to approach the bench.”
The most interesting question I received from the awesome students we met was about how personal do I think is appropriate on a science blog. The questioner had read my post eulogizing my Dad and there had been notable discomfort among the class when they learned that despite all the care I put into my science posts, I am best-known for liveblogging my vasectomy.
I hold that I am a blogger who writes mostly about science – I’m still not sure what is a “proper science blogger.” One could still see that even my personal posts have scientific content: my post about my Dad talks about his influence in how I became a biologist and the realities of living with substance dependence; my vasectomy post was to get men to sack up and stop depending on their female partners for pharmacological or surgical contraception and provide a forum for men to talk candidly about the procedure.
In the context of the class and in answering Angrist’s course question of, “what, if anything, can writers do to get people to care about science?,” I feel that close personal experiences engage the reader in learning about science or expanding their worldview about scientific topics.
But even without intentional science content in our personal posts, I submit that we as scientists, and our trainees, can benefit from readers seeing us as just like “real people” with fears, sadness, anxieties, triumphs, deaths, flooded basements, births, worrying about balancing families and work, managing breast pumping and lectures, and everything else that everyone else does.
Many thanks again to Misha for inviting us and to the Duke students for engaging us.
[See this Q&A with Misha Angrist in last week’s Duke Chronicle on genomics and privacy]