Internships provide a first-hand experience to those stepping into a career while providing a safe and stable environment to test and hone their skills. Sumeet Kulkarni got his feet wet in the writing world with a three-month internship program in science journalism offered by IndiaBioscience. Here, he shares a few pointers from his learning that ignited his career as a science journalist.
In Summer 2019, two years into a graduate program in Astrophysics, I applied to the IndiaBioscience science journalism internship. Despite being completely different from my field of research, I was happy and excited to get selected for a summer of reporting on the latest biosciences research in India. Working remotely over the next five months (while still juggling my grad school duties), I wrote and published three news and one feature articles — quantifying an output that only partially reflects my growth as a science writer during this period. Being my first introduction to the world of science journalism, I learnt its staples like finding and pitching ideas for stories, working with an editor to revise drafts and doing fact-checks to ensure accuracy. But when it comes to the actual craft of writing down a draft, here are my five biggest takeaways, which I hope would be helpful for any researcher wanting to write about science for the general public.
1. Identify your audience, and then identify the research they would really like to read
Communicating all research is important, whether it is to your peers, your funding agencies, aspiring students, or the general public (constituting the taxpayers who ultimately support you). For journalism, the audience largely involves the latter, and there are four broad reasons that can capture public interest in research. Examples of such research may be one that is
- timely, for instance, the outbreak of COVID-19.
- relevant to a local community, like the contamination of lakes in Bengaluru.
- revolving around daily life, like studies involving nutrition and improvement of public health.
- quirky, emphasizing the joy of doing science to unearth the gems that nature hides — examples include studying how singing crickets looking for a mate are prone to predation by spiders or what would happen if the Earth were made of blueberries.
- Lastly, every now and then, we embark upon scientific milestones, the ‘Aha moments’ defined by groundbreaking discoveries, like detecting gravitational waves or proving Fermat’s last theorem.
No matter what you are writing or who you are writing for, do not forget that your audience is going to invest time in reading the content, and you need to make sure they get the most out of it. One of our most essential duties to honour this investment is to:
2. Get to the point early
Talk about the most significant takeaway, the most important finding, and the study results first! Academic writing builds up slowly, starting with an in-depth background and motivation, followed by a detailed description of methods, before finally getting to the results and analysis. This way of writing is okay when researchers present their work to their collaborators (folks who are used to ploughing through multiple papers written in this fashion, often over several mugs of coffee). On the other hand, journalists follow an ‘inverted pyramid’ model, where the crux of the story is presented first and given the greatest importance. The reader must be hooked to the story early on, at the stage where they decide whether they will invest time in reading the rest of the story.
With an overflow of research articles today in every sub-field of science, I have seen many scientists embrace the following philosophy in browsing through them: if the title and abstract catch their eye, they jump straight to reading the results and the discussion. As a journalist, you want to captivate the reader from the start and not want them to skim across the article. While laying out your story, you should:
3. Know what to leave out
As a science writer, you may not be the expert in the relevant area of research, but you ARE the expert in relaying the message across. In fact, I found that it is to your advantage not to be the expert on the study. As a beginner writer, I sweated over not understanding the details of work done in a field entirely alien to my area of expertise. For instance, I spent hours scraping through online literature in order to simplify and outline a step-by-step molecular process described in a research article – before I was told that none of it is important!
What’s important is to be creative in giving your readers the big picture and not be afraid of leaving out unimportant details: even if you think you might not be doing complete justice to the study’s authors. You may not be an author, but you have the authority to present parts of the research that are most relevant to your story and leave out the rest.
Now, your hook is good, and you have a solid grasp of the big picture. Your next job is to make the rest of the science flow. In doing this, remember to:
4. Write a narrative, not a Wikipedia article
Don’t get me wrong, Wikipedia articles do a great job at explaining science. However, as a writer, your job is not just to deliver a dose of science nutrition but to present it as a hearty meal. Think of looking up the meaning of a new word in a dictionary as opposed to seeing it used in a sentence. The former helps you understand the word, while the latter makes you appreciate it.
Popular science articles are often referred to as science stories because they’re precisely that: stories. Every research has an anchoring character: maybe it’s the scientist or an organism they’re studying, or perhaps it’s an inanimate entity like a protein or an electron. The character is placed at the centre of an anchoring event, which, just like a movie, follows a set-up, a climax and a resolution — a time-tested technique to capture and hold on the audience’s attention. While this kind of structuring should not stand out in an obvious way, it’s an essential skill to be able to twist it into your tale. One of the most important things to aid this process is interviewing the scientists themselves. While doing so, keep in mind to:
5. Listen to experiences, not facts from the researchers
More often than not, you will find a story hidden not in the published research but in how the researcher(s) went about accomplishing their goals. For instance, I’ve heard interesting anecdotes from ecologists doing fieldwork, data scientists recollecting how quickly their hardware became obsolete, and my gravitational-wave physics colleagues tracking down noise in their detector to thirsty ravens pecking at the ice forming outside it. Such stories not only provide great quotes but can present you with a whole new way of crafting your narrative.
Note that this particular point does not apply to the other kind of source you would (and must) interview: an independent scientist not involved with the study in question. Independent sources should be asked to comment on the research’s specifics and its potential advantages and drawbacks. Their quotes are essential to lend credence from the scientific community to the research being reported.
Given that this was a remote internship, I conducted all my interviews online (this was before talking to people on a screen became a daily chore), and skype was the preferred platform. Getting comfortable and confident at interviewing scientists to hear their stories is a skill that did not come naturally to me. Still, I greatly appreciate the opportunity to be able to practice it as an actual science reporter for those three months. In a relatively short period of time, I could learn the important tenets of the craft of science writing listed above through timely feedback and regular interaction with my editor, Shreya Ghosh.
All things considered, this remote science journalism internship was crucial in igniting my science writing career, which I have kept kindled throughout my graduate school. The experience in having written for IndiaBioscience also helps me pitch new articles to other outlets. Since that internship, my writing has been featured in Scientific American, The Wire, and Astrobites. You may find a complete list of my media clips here.