Åsmund H. Eikenes
8 min readNov 14, 2014

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How science writing makes me a better scientist.

Image credit.

I have always been a curious person. I’m eager and excited about facts, details and knowledge, and I like asking questions and wonder about how nature and biology turned out like it did.

Many scientists share this predisposition for getting excited about minute and obscure details. I think that such a personality trait is a large part of what brings people to the natural sciences, and also a significant part of what makes us decent scientists.

However, this fascination and love of facts that spice up normal conversations can be our worst enemy when we want to communicate scientific knowledge to non-scientists. It can also result in overloading our research projects with irrelevant information.

In this essay, I would like to tell you how becoming interested in science communication has contributed to my developments as a scientist over the last year.

So let me set this up with two short stories that exemplify the past and present of my communication skills:

I’m calling this first one CLEAR AS MUD. I was a M.Sc. student at the University of Oslo, Norway, and was working with a membrane protein and its role during prostate cancer. The conversation took place during a dinner party with the extended family about four years ago. In response to an older gentleman politely asking me what I was doing, I presented him with the following:

I’m a master student at the University of Oslo, and my research focuses on prostate cancer. The prostate is regulated by androgens, also called testosterone, which circulates in the blood and enters the cells to bind a receptor that turns on a number of different genes in the nucleus. The lab I am working in is interested in how this binding to DNA happens and how some of the genes controlled by the androgen receptor contributes to cancer development. I work with the binding partners of one of these proteins at the plasma membrane and investigate if it can interact with different signaling pathways to control differentiation of cancer cells to other cell types more resistant to treatment. This knowledge may tell us more about how we interpret relapse after different types of treatment and what can be done to make sure that more people survive this cancer type.

I saw no problems with my little scientific outburst, and was rather proud of all the scientific phrases I had managed to pack into my monologue. This was textbook stuff, basically common knowledge, and was supposed to be received as a relatable light-version of my laboratory explorations.

The owner of the question however, was neither enlightened nor interested to learn more. Mission failed.

The second story is more recent, and I’m calling this one SLIM JIM. My current PhD project at the Norwegian Radium Hospital explores the regulatory mechanisms of cell division, using fruit flies as the model system. This conversation happened at a different party and with different people, but the opening question is the same: “So what do you do?”

I’m a biologist, and I work at the Radium Hospital, doing research on cell division and cancer.

Period. That’s all I’m offering as a start.

Many will respond with something along the lines of: “Wow, is that because cancer is like uncontrolled cell division and maybe you can find like new therapies to like treat people?”

And the dialogue is on!

Yes, you are right that uncontrolled cell division is an important contributor to cancer. I try to understand the role of a few genes that are important for precision during cell division. We actually use fruit flies to do this, since we can study cells as parts of three-dimensional organs. This gives insight into how defects during cell division can result in tumors in a living organism.

You may notice that in contrast to CLEAR AS MUD, in the second story, SLIM JIM, I did not actually say anything specific about what I do at work. I purposefully skipped a whole bunch of interesting details.

I said nothing about stabilizing the contractile ring, nothing about modulation of midbodies and nothing about assembly of the abscission machinery at the end of cytokinesis. A great loss to the conversation, you may say.

The first couple of times this happened, I was really disappointed. Not being able to have a deeply scientific conversation with a non-scientist seemed like an insult to all the knowledge I had accumulated over the years. What is the point of knowing all these things if I can’t share them with people? I know that some of you know this frustrating feeling.

For me, learning to set aside interesting details in favor of getting a single main message across has been hard work. The learning curve I want to tell you about, and the process I hope I can inspire you to join, was kick-started when I was living in Los Angeles last year, as a visiting graduate student at UCLA.

The word I want you to remember is STORYTELLING.

Storytelling is deeply rooted in the American identity and culture, and in Hollywood in particular. Everywhere I went in the city of Angels, people were talking about it, discussing it, researching it and pursuing careers in it. People were storytelling while tanning at the beach, sipping mimosas on Sunset Boulevard, hiking to the Hollywood sign or waiting in line at one of the UCLA Campus coffee shops.

Storytelling seemed to be the default conversation topic and career plan for everybody, and of course I got hooked.

I too wanted to be a science writer, someone who could eloquently communicate complex discoveries to the masses.

Talented storytellers and science communicators present information that is relevant, understandable, engaging and important.

I would like to argue that in addition, this is also critical for me as a scientist. In abstracts, posters, papers and grant proposals, I try to convey that my research is relevant, understandable, engaging and important.

For me, the learning to master the art of science writing has influenced how I approach my scientific endeavors. The importance of reflecting on why my project is relevant, where it fits in the bigger picture, and how my findings move the field forward cannot be understated.

Here’s a scenario that I think most of you should plan to experience at some point: A recently published research paper with cool findings need “translation” for a non-scientific audience, a 500-word text in your native language. If you have not done this task yet, you are missing out on a very useful exercise, and I suggest you put it on the to-do list immediately.

You will need the following three things: An entry point into why the article is interesting, one or two main findings and a conclusion that puts the new results into a relatable context. You need storytelling.

Obviously, not all the details of the 7 figures + 10 supplementary items of a Cell paper can become part of your 500-word summary. To identify the main message, you need to be objective, critical and precise.

In my experience, critically reading papers with the aim of relating the content to non-scientist requires a different perspective than when preparing for a journal club.

Instead of relaying the information to well-educated colleagues, the approach required to communicate research to a general audience requires an even more trained storyteller’s eye. We need to shift the focus from intricate biological nuances to the core experiments and the key results.

Have the researchers answered a main question with a series of experiments that are scientifically sound, correctly interpreted and sensibly concluded from? Yes or no?

This same series of questions and the mentality of storytelling I can now bring back to the lab and apply to my own project. Am I doing the key experiments to answer the most important questions in my field? Am I doing the proper controls and the most interesting follow-ups to tell an intriguing scientific story that the field is waiting for?

These questions push me to become a better scientist.

When you do this to your own projects, perhaps you will see that a different perspective on your research might be more relevant to the field. In my experience, this can contribute to identifying the areas where the project requires a complementary approach, new collaborations or additional experiments.

You may, like I did, realize that sperm production in flies is not the most exciting or relevant cancer research model in the history of science. But at the same time, I now understand how my pieces of the puzzle contribute to the global cancer research efforts. Framing, context and the why, is as important for writing a 500 word text, as for a research paper and a doctoral thesis.

Together, shifting from the overloaded CLEAR AS MUD-strategy to a more refined SLIM JIM-approach has many advantages. Understanding the context of a research project and critically evaluating the work presented are key skills of storytelling, both in science writing and in science doing. These skills are important for me both in the lab, and to communicate science to both non-scientists and fellow biologists.

As I am sure you have all experienced, nothing in life comes without hard work, time and practice. The same is true for storytelling. As a concluding point, I would like to offer two pieces of advice to help you become science writers.

Number one: Practice. Write often, diverse and without the critical voice on your shoulder running the show.

We all need practice, without it we will never learn the skills needed for engaging storytelling. I try to write a bit every week, ranging from a page or two on the thesis, a re-write of a page in a manuscript, free-writing for a short fictional story, a blog post at forskning.no, a commentary piece about the importance of basic science, or a 500-word summary of a new research paper.

Asking for feedback is a second critical element to writing. Be precise; ask for what you need, whether it is comments on structure, flow of arguments or use of scientific language. Find someone who has 20 minutes to spare to read and push your text forward. Ask colleagues, significant others, friends or strangers. If nobody else offers, you’re welcome to send me an email.

I promise you that the more times you get feedback to help edit your text, the better it gets. It is not unusual to edit a 500-word text at least 4–6 times after the first draft is in place. We need to practice to improve our storytelling skills.

Number two: Find your inspiration. Read, listen to or watch other science communicators in action. Learn from the best.

In addition to the David Attenborough classics, you may want to watch Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s recent television series Cosmos.

You can read Bill Bryson’s A short history of nearly everything and Siddharta Mukherjee’s Emperror of all Maladies, A biography of Cancer.

Or, you can listen to podcast magic from Radiolab and This American Life.

In contrast to diving deep into a very specific scientific detail, these sources of inspiration will help you to nurture a broad scientific interest and a passion for telling stories about life and nature.

Science writing and science doing are two sides of the same story.

Good luck with telling yours!

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