Web Exclusives: Careers
Scientists and the public rely on writers to spread the word about research advances. Skilled at boiling down complicated findings and seasoning them with engaging details, science writers tell stories about research and the people behind it.
But there's no recipe for becoming a science writer. Before joining the field, some writers earned doctorate degrees (Ph.D.s) in a research area and worked in labs. Some majored in English or journalism and learned the science on the job. Many have even completed specialized graduate-level programs that hone their writing skills. Regardless, they all share a knack for words and a curiosity to know more about the world.
The career offers a lot of flexibility. Science writers can cover any number of scientific fields that may interest them. They can work for newspapers, magazines, universities, government agencies, TV networks, radio stations, and Web-based publications. Or, they can freelance—working independently, usually from a home office, on assignments they seek out. Some writers even do both!
Here's what the contributors of Computing Life say about how they got into the writing life.
David Bochner, a senior at Harvard University in Massachusetts, says he plans to write on the side as he pursues a Ph.D. in neuroscience. A contributor and an editor-in-chief of Harvard's undergraduate science publication, he says his first attempts at science writing involved construction paper, crayons, and some villainous-looking viruses. He wrote for Computing Life during a summer internship at NIGMS.
Emily Carlson, also the editor of Computing Life, announced that she wanted to be a science writer in high school-her parents, she recalls, had never heard of such a career! After college, she got a graduate degree in science writing, had a variety of internships, and landed her first job covering research activities at a university. One of the perks of being a science writer, she says, is talking to scientists and occasionally venturing into the field to learn first-hand about cutting-edge research.
Alison Davis, a freelance writer based in Maryland, is fascinated by all matters of science and health. She began her career as a basic scientist-she has a Ph.D. in pharmacology, the science of how the body interacts with medicines. Although she enjoyed the thrill of discovery in the lab, she ultimately decided to pursue advanced training in science writing so she could share a broad range of research advances with many people.
Stephanie Dutchen loved learning about science when she was a kid, but in college she decided to study her other passion: writing. Finding out about science writing made her happy because it meant she could combine her two favorite things! After college, she wrote for medical Web sites and then got a graduate degree in science writing. Talking to doctors and scientists about why they do what they do, she says, is the coolest part of the job.
Erin Fults, a recent graduate from Washington University in St. Louis, found that science writing was the perfect union of her interests. She spent two years as a "pre-med" and also worked for the student newspaper, rising to the rank of editor-in-chief. She discovered science journalism when she met a long-time science writer who mentored her, and she is excited about what this new field has to offer. She plans to work for a year before pursuing an advanced degree.
Susan Gaidos always knew she wanted to write, but she says she never expected it to be about science! Merging her college majors of biology and journalism, she worked full-time as a science writer at a university and ended up back in school for graduate-level courses in biology. Today, she is a freelance writer based in Maine and contributes articles to newspapers and popular science magazines.
Rahkendra Ice, a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., has always had a love for writing and a fascination with science. Until working at NIGMS, she never thought that the two interests would meet. Although new to science writing, she already finds it an enjoyable challenge to communicate the technical aspects of biomedical research through good writing and a sense of humor.
Karin Jegalian started freelancing after she took a course in science writing while completing her Ph.D. in biology. She says she enjoyed the intensity of being a scientist but found she could explore a variety of topics as a journalist. She went back to graduate school for science writing and built her career as a freelance science writer in the Washington, D.C., area.
Alisa Zapp Machalek, who has a graduate degree in biochemistry and also completed advanced training in science writing, worked in 10 different research labs before she realized she liked writing about science more than doing it. She says one of the most rewarding aspects of her job is creating NIGMS education publications that stoke students' interest in biology. She also mentors fledgling science writers.
Allison MacLachlan has loved writing for as long as she can remember and became interested in science in high school as a way to learn more about how living things work. After majoring in English and life sciences, she wanted to follow a path that combined both interests. She pursued a graduate degree in science writing and joined NIGMS for a summer internship, where she is happy to be part of a team that makes cutting-edge research accessible to the public.
Jilliene Mitchell says she gained her sense of scientific wonderment in a high school chemistry class. Although she majored in English, she lists biology and chemistry among her favorite college courses. Today, she combines her interests in writing and science to create NIGMS materials that encourage students from diverse backgrounds to pursue careers in biomedical and behavioral research.
Kirstie Saltsman first realized that she enjoyed writing about science when she was working on her Ph.D. thesis in cell biology. Writing about her research, she says, brought its broader significance into clearer focus than doing experiments and collecting data. She is now a freelance science writer in Baltimore, Maryland. Although she misses testing new ideas in the lab, she says she loves learning and writing about diverse areas of biomedical research.
Janelle Weaver started off training to become a neuroscientist and, after she got her Ph.D., reviewed research papers submitted for publication at a scientific journal. Eventually, she discovered that she liked interviewing scientists and writing about their work more than rejecting thousands of their manuscripts each year! She took on several science writing internships before going back to graduate school for specialized training. Her long-term goal is to become a freelance biomedical writer based somewhere in the West.