November 13, 2018
Blog post written by Taylor Wang.
October 25th: “Finding Your Voice: From Scientist to Science Writer”
Dr. Christie Wilcox, Ph.D.
If someone had asked young Dr. Christie Wilcox what she wanted to be when she grew up, the last thing on her mind would have been science. As an enthusiastic participant in high school theater who did independent studies in both poetry and history, Dr. Wilcox fully expected her future to head in the direction of the humanities. It wasn’t until the end of high school when she was considering which colleges to apply to that any other option entered her mind. Although it had never been the focus of her high school studies, Dr. Wilcox had always had a knack for the sciences and did well in all of her classes—especially physics. With her heart set on moving back to Hawai‘i, where she had lived for a portion of her childhood, Dr. Wilcox considered the potential for making it in Hawai‘i as an actress or musician and promptly decided to instead apply to Eckerd College in Florida as a double physics and marine biology major. The physics major did not last very long, Dr. Wilcox dropped it after one class, but the marine biology major stuck and four years later she graduated with a degree in marine biology and a minor in chemistry.
Deciding to take some time off from school and gain experience with working in microorganisms, Dr. Wilcox joined a molecular biology lab at Lake Eerie College of Osteopathic Medicine as a research assistant. After two years of supervising medical students and performing her own work on drug testing, Dr. Wilcox decided that she liked her work well enough, but something was still missing: she was getting bored. After talking to a journalist friend who suggested she try blogging (back in 2008!), Dr. Wilcox decided to try her hand at it, and so Observations of a Nerd was born. After some time writing her blog and working as a research associate, Dr. Wilcox realized she really enjoyed her writing and science, but she missed working with animals. Prompted by this realization, she took the plunge and finally moved to Hawai‘i in order to pursue a Ph.D. at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.
During her graduate studies, Dr. Wilcox reconnected with animal studies through field research focused on lionfishes; and she continued to blog. It was during this time of her life that her blog began to really gain recognition. She was invited to blog on ScienceBlogs—one of the biggest blog networks at the time. After that, things began to really take off: Scientific American was launching a blog network and invited Dr. Wilcox to write for them, a blog that later moved to Discover. In fact, Dr. Wilcox’s blog would remain with Discover for five years, until a year ago when she decided it was time to move on to something else. All of this increased involvement for Dr. Wilcox in blogging convinced her that that science writing, outreach, and social media were incredibly important for scientists. She expended an enormous amount of energy trying to convince other scientists of this as well. After a yearlong upwards battle of tireless volunteering to give talks and workshops to middling reception, something seemed to click. Finally, Dr. Wilcox was no longer confronted with the question of ‘Why does this matter to our science?’ but instead with the question of ‘How do I improve my own science writing and outreach?’ from her audiences. This epiphany in the scientific community was part of why Dr. Wilcox agreed to co-edit her first book, Science Blogging: The Essential Guide, which eventually published in 2016. Spoiler alert: things did not calm down for Dr. Wilcox from here.
While the demands for Dr. Wilcox’s blogging and workshops increased, the demands from her own research never lessened. If you think graduate school is hard, imagine trying to get your experiments done while having to constantly travel for workshops or meet writing deadlines. The was the reality of Dr. Wilcox’s life for almost the entirety of her PhD, and it is not a reality she would encourage anyone else to embrace. Even with a supportive PI that relished bragging about his student’s talents in research and writing, she still had to make up the time spent blogging or traveling by working in lab on the weekends. This breakneck pace became almost unbearable during her 4th year of graduate work, when she agreed to write Venomous: How Earth’s Deadliest Creatures Mastered Biochemistry. Dr. Wilcox would go on to spend the next year writing both her dissertation and a book, but also traveling all over the world for interviews to be incorporated in Venomous. After 5.5 years, Dr. Wilcox emerged from her defense with a PhD and promptly hopped on a plane to the Amazon for her writing: a fitting end to the years in graduate school spent precariously balancing her writing with her research.
At this point, there was no doubt in Dr. Wilcox’s mind that she wanted to be a scientific writer. So of course she remained at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa to do a postdoc studying jellies. She remained there until last year, due to the simple fact of how hard it is to let go and move on. Dr. Wilcox will always miss academia and research on some level. She loves the act of it; coming up with experiments, turning exciting results into consumable material. But as people began to recognize Dr. Wilcox more for her writing than her research, she also faced an internal truth: she would always love both science and writing, but the one nearer and dearer to her heart was unquestionably the communication of science.
That doesn’t mean that Dr. Wilcox misses research constantly or regrets her decision, because at the end of the day she still gets to do some of the most fun parts of research! She still gets to dig into the research, getting down and dirty with a slew of fascinating journal articles before synthesizing interesting ideas into a finished product that can be shared with everyone. These days, the life of Dr. Wilcox consists of helping write scripts for the YouTube channel SciShow, while also working freelance as a science writer. She spends most of her life on Google Docs and Gmail, writing and editing scripts while also managing a team of freelancers (with the help of three other editors). The SciShow team produces more than a dozen videos a week among the various SciShow channels and spends the majority of her time doing the same sort of things graduate student needs to do in order to write a research report. She tries to find the best science on an interesting topic, fact checks the sources, and ensures the results are based on solid science before finally putting it all together for a more general audience. To truly explain why she loves her job, Dr. Wilcox showed an example of a SciShow episode that she edited the script for (the link for this video is attached at the bottom of this post) about what polar bear milk might taste like, and what that taste tells us about the biology of these animals. Dr. Wilcox loves her job because she gets to learn and write about cool science like polar bear milk, but she also loves it for its flexibility. Not only does she get to live in an amazing place like Port Angeles, but in stark contrast to her graduate student days she finally gets her weekends to herself. Dr. Wilcox gets to work a normal schedule from home, one of the greatest benefits of all because it allows her to be a stay at home mother and watch her daughter grow up.
But what does all of this mean for the rest of us, who might also be interested in a career of science writing? Dr. Wilcox laid the groundwork for things you would need to have in your toolkit in order to have a fighting chance at becoming a science writer someday. Skills like being able to identify exciting and interesting science stories that will catch people’s interest, while also being able to read, digest, and synthesize the information in these interesting stories for general consumption. It’s also important to be able to track down sources and check the validity and quality of the results they present. Most of all you must be able to write, and if you want to have a future in the filed you must also learn how to efficiently manage your time and juggle multiple projects at once. This should sound familiar, Dr. Wilcox told us, because you can essentially get all of these skills from a traditional PhD education. How you pick a dissertation topic underscores your ability to find cool and interesting science, while the endless parade of papers you read to find and understand this topic hones your ability to read, digest, and understand information better than most journalists. As a graduate student you also learn how to manage multiple experiments simultaneously, while also learning to manage people through training undergraduates or rotation students.
If you want to take only one thing away from all of this advice, however, Dr. Wilcox emphasized that the only way to truly become a science writer is to actually write. Even if it’s writing the manuscript for your next paper, it is still writing. Start a lab blog where you discuss the work being published by people in your group. After every big paper is published in your lab, post it on the blog and reach out to the university to write a press release that can then also be published. Write about your own research and reach out to sites like The Conversation which publishes articles from researchers about their own work. After getting a start in hard science, try to make a transition to writing in a way that tells a story. Start thinking about answering questions like ‘what is the bigger picture?’, ‘how does this topic fit into the world?’. For anyone to want to read what you write, there has to be a story with a beginning, middle, and ending with a big, triumphant conclusion that drives home why you are even bothering to write about this particular topic for your audience. And while you’re practicing this form of writing, remember: know your audience. Be aware of them in the words you use, the length of your writing, and both the style and tone as well. That doesn’t mean you have to dumb down anything for your audience, just be aware of what is common knowledge for them. For example, if you’re writing about new research in pesticide resistance for plants and you use the word photosynthesis, take the time to explain that this is the process by which plants make sugars from light.
Make sure you keep your writing focused and clear, think about the specific things you want to get across for the reader to understand and remember long after they have finished reading. For example, when editing the script for how polar bear milk tastes Dr. Wilcox had to make decisions about which facts and details were most important and relevant for the point she wanted to get across: that the taste of an animal’s milk can give us insight into the molecules inside which can then tell us something about the biology of the animal. For anything you write, think about what you can use to hook your audience. Consider starting with an interesting result and then bring in the details and give your readers the answers to questions that this result gives rise to. Think about key words that might get a lot of use on social media, what triggers can you use to get your audience to feel. Instead of just reading the story you are telling them, think of ways to get them to feel a way about it: get them interested and excited, sad or happy. Finally, all of this writing and practice means nothing if you’re writing on your private twitter. People can’t read your work or get excited unless it is publicly available for them to find. And if you’re excited and motivated to go start your own blog but just aren’t sure what to write about, just remember that blogworthy applies to just about anything which you are passionate about, can add some context for, and that fits in the theme of your writing.
Video: “What Does Polar Bear Milk Taste Like?” <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6nRH3aXhhY4>