Getting Science Journalists to Write About Your Work

Recently, a colleague publicly lamented via an ecology mailing list the lack of science journalists writing about his work. Although the colleague, post-response, seemed to just want camaraderie vs. solutions, I felt it useful to others to post my response to him here, along with supplemental advice (in italics) suggested by Dr. Jorge Santiago-Blay:

The market right now isn’t that great for Science Writers professionally, so they can be few and far between, and obviously, they’re overworked (just like us!). The National Association of Science Writers and Eurekalert can be good avenues to get others to start writing about your work. Because of time constraints, science journalists usually don’t have a lot of time to search for your work, or wait on responses, so a good thing to do is to follow these guidelines:
1. Put up press releases or contact with emails that are already written for a lay audience. This means starting with why people should care/what makes this cool. Be sure to include your preferred contact info; they may use part of this for quotes and want to contact you for a follow-up.
2. Don’t firehose everyone by putting up/contacting a journalist about everything, even the little stuff. Make sure you’ve got a good story and the ‘right’ to tell it (check with your publisher about embargo dates, etc.). Otherwise, you risk overselling/breaching agreements/being ignored after a bit.
3. When a journalist contacts you, get back to them quickly. Their deadlines are tight, so respect that. If someone calls, you can take 5-10 min to compose yourself and get ideas together, but don’t wait too long. If you get back to them quicker, it does 2 things: 1) helps you gain a bit more control about how the pitch of the story will go, and 2) it encourages them to contact you again if they need to (for this work) or in the future (for new stuff/outside opinions on the work of others).
On point # 3a, so true re. due dates. Once I was contacted by one of them and it could have given me huge publicity. Yet, I could not do it their time. Instead, I suggested another. I did not suspect (then) that they may be operating under due date pressure. Btw, ditto with some jobs, some employers do not seem to respect their own posted (in ads) due dates.
On point # 3b, re. control. Also so true. Make sure about who is the author, how much control on wording/time of publication, etc. journalists have. These days, requesting to see a prepublication version on what they have written about your (or my) work is considered by some a type of censorship. Then, if they make mistakes or display your work in a fashion you do not like or is inaccurate, one has to invest time fixing things… 
4. Make your work ‘timely’! If there is something in current events or a major holiday/season/sporting event coming up that it relates to, this will make the ‘sell’ easier. Ex. If you work on acoustic pollution, there’s an angle for talking about a big NASCAR race. If you work in mating, bringing up summer lovin’/spring flings can be good, too. There’s lots of stuff, and you might have to fight a bit of anthropomorphism, but it can work in your favor, too. Be creative here!
5. Write about your work yourself now. If you’ve got a blog or website, go ahead and start writing things there. A journalist who can Google and see you’re able to talk to the public in understandable, interesting terms is more likely to want to work with you. You’re less of an unknown gamble on whether they can quickly glean what they need from you and get a good story out. (Once you’ve got some content, don’t be afraid to email and invite folks to read there)
Overall, to me it is a balance between, on the plus side:
a. Publicity to your (my) work and ourselves
b. Overall generosity to others (that is important to me) by promoting good info
and (on the minus side):
a. Investment: time and energy (as usual)
b. Aggravation of potentially dealing with errors, etc.
Hope this helps, and good luck!

Great Panel, Poor Pocketbooks: Why You Should Write Your Representative

I just returned from one of the most critical, but kind assemblages of experts. What was I doing? I was serving on a National Science Foundation (NSF) Panel where we were deciding what extremely few project pre-proposals would get even a chance at competing for funding with a full proposal.

To be clear: Lots of great science goes on around the US, but we simply don’t have the means to support it (or even the majority of it). Why? Our budget is insufficient.

Here’s where moving+panel experience= inspiration for this post.

I write my representatives pretty often (take that, Millennial-Haters!), and much of my writing is in support of science and education funding, as well as efforts to end discrimination. Because we moved to a new district, some of my representatives have changed. So I went searching…


Here you can look up your representatives’ contact information, voting record, efficacy, term and re-election dates, etc. You can get updates emailed in digest form, too.  A feature I found that makes me excited about this website is the ability to easily track committee work. In particular, I’m glad my new rep. also happens to serve on the budget committee. I suspect we’ll become quite close 🙂

Please, for what you care about, contact your reps. And if you’re a scientist, fan of science, or patriot, we can’t afford for you not to.


Tightrope Walking in Heels

We’ve just finished hosting a Quantitative Biology Workshop at Spelman to attract our Atlanta-area colleagues and bring a few collaborators in town. In about a week, I’ll be at NSF for a panel. Somehow, I’m also moving in the midst of this…

In trying to have some strategy so that I’ve got everything I need to go to NSF on hand, I’m confronted with a rather mundane, but important, choice: what do I wear?

Since coming to Spelman, I’ve been a bit more conscious of my clothing for a few reasons:

  1. I’m a postdoc now. This means I teach a bit as a primary instructor and am visible around the department. My ratty jeans don’t send good signals, as comfortable as they might be.
  2. I’m younger, and unfortunately, I have been mistaken for a student. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can be limiting when you actually are an authority on something.
  3. The faculty here tend to be more traditional, so they wear clothing that is a bit more professional. Likewise, the students tend to dress really well, so fitting in means a bit more dressing up.

Seeing faculty across different Atlanta institutions at last week’s conference, I was again reminded that appearance (clothingmakeup) does seem to make a difference in the way people perceive you, particularly for women and minorities. If I’m looking to make a positive impression on new colleagues while at NSF, it seems I need to up my game.

Normally, to pack for a trip, I wouldn’t care about clothing too much, and the pragmatist in me would pack what fits into suitcase, won’t wrinkle, and tolerates weather/AC unknowns. Now, beyond the checks for rips and stains, I’m starting to give what I wear more thought. I’m very much a novice at this, but hooray for help from the internet!

A cursory glance through Google will show a ton of links, with everything from the basic ‘bathe often’ to runway fashion in academia. For me, I think mastery of basic hygiene has occurred (hopefully), and I’ve no desire to be a runway model, so I want to find a good middle ground of ‘functional, fits, and fitting’. I’m trying to adopt this attitude and outsource my shopping through delivery services (shout out to StitchFix and Trunk Club for Women!)  when I can afford it.

This isn’t the first experiment I’ve done with my image. Not many people know this, but I actually did a pilot experiment in my 3rd-4th year of graduate school. It was small (and had no meaningful control, obviously), but I made the choice to not wear t-shirts with text, wear mascara and concealer, and on days I taught, I would always wear a cardigan/blazer, blouse, and dark shoes (lab days I cheated and wore black sneakers vs. boots). On those days, I did get positive responses from others in terms of both the number and quality of interactions. These responses are hard for me to write off as merely confidence-boosting, because I’d say I was actually less confident and more awkward when I wore this stuff. I begrudgingly have to admit these differences in the classroom and general interactions (both on campus and in stores/restaurants) were image-influenced– even if people liked outwardly-awkward me best.

So, I’m packing away boxes and suitcases, keeping in mind that anecdotal experience says I should care how I appear. Nonetheless, sweat pants may make it in the bag. Work-life balance, right?

What tips do you have for being comfortable and professional? How do you cope with ‘appearances’ in academia? Let me know your thoughts!


Research Proposal Season

It is definitely true that proposal writing, editing, and evaluation are skills that can be developed over time. I say that with just a N=1 (me), but I’ve seen it amongst others, too, and several mentors have suggested as much.

So how do you advise a student writing their first research proposal, particularly if they’re just in their first year?

I’m running into this problem now, as I’m working with students on their writing and their conceptual understanding of biology. To be clear, these are good students, but writing quality (winning!) grant proposals can be a tough business. How much do I push at this very beginning stage so that they learn, but aren’t completely put off by the process?

As an undergrad, I remember writing these, and I very much appreciate the care my mentors showed me, especially in assuring me that a page stained blood-red didn’t mean bad. Looking back, I wasn’t deterred by the redness, so much as I was so green to the process. I remember thinking, “Why do I have to convince someone so hard to invest money in this? It’s COOL! Don’t you see?! Grumble, grumble.”— and off I’d go to redraft. (The process and feelings are a bit less exaggerated, but essentially the same now, with perhaps fewer drafts).

So, we’ve been playing a bit with a few techniques to get my students to really ‘get’ how proposals are written. I haven’t found the perfect solution, but here’s how various approaches have fared:

  1. Past Proposals: I’ve been able to share some similarly-formatted documents and ask them to look for patterns across the documents. Even when I’ve tried vastly different methodological/scientific questions, the students focused too much on *what* is done, vs. *why* anyone should do it. Still, it was somewhat useful for getting the references formatted and length about right. Verdict: C
  2. Reviews (or very good intros to primary lit): These tend to help the students get the tone/intro right, and to an extent, why one should care about doing this at all. Still, the papers aren’t as punchy with ‘why’ (as compared to grants), so this still requires a bit more of a push. Even though these papers often lack methods, when mentioned briefly, it’s a nice example for students. Verdict: B
  3. Peer-Reviews/Editing: This takes a bit to set up, but peer-edits can help cut down on basic grammatical edits and see where non-experts reviewing these proposals might get hung up on part of the idea. The science advisement isn’t necessarily there (unless you’ve got an unbalanced pairing and/or experienced students), but it can still help to at least reduce the number of drafts. Verdict: C
  4. Campus Writing Centers:  Having students go to the writing center can mimic peer-review within lab, and often the turn-around time is much faster. Again, the science advisement may not be there, but editing for clarity, brevity, and general grammar will be taken care of so that you can focus on the science when it’s on your desk. Verdict: B
  5. TEDTalks:  It may be weird, but having students listen to how talks are kicked-off can give them the idea of how to write a pretty good proposal (Simon Sinek’s Start with Why is a favorite). It’s a different medium which still requires translation to written word and adding in the technical elements, but this tends to ‘get the creative juices flowing’. Verdict: B

What have you used? What would you suggest to others? Please share!


When “Wee” Present

It’s enough to prepare your own presentation for conferences, but it’s another to help students prepare. In addition to the normal mechanics of what a presentation should look/sound like, there are also conference jitters. This can affect how strongly students ‘engage’ and what they take away from the conference experience.

To help your students have a great conference, here’s a list of things that seem to help:

  1. Dress: Impart your students with knowledge of what people typically wear at conferences. For ecology/evolution, it is not abnormal to see jeans and t-shirts. Nonetheless, your students may want to dress a step or two up from that; in any case, keep them from awkwardly standing out in a 3-piece suit… unless that’s their thing.
  2. Practice: Try to get the presentation done in enough time to do a dry-run before you go. This may not always happen, but it’s good to get some practice in and improve based on friendly feedback in-house.
  3. Know some names: If they’re reading papers in classes/for research, have them look up a few names in the conference directory ahead of time. This will help them to feel like they already know some people before they arrive, and give them something to talk about should they meet people. This is also true for departments/schools they are targeting- know who you might run into.
  4. Introduce them to people: If your student is interested in a particular line of work, or if they happen to walk up while you are talking to someone, introduce them. If they’re looking at a particular program for their next steps, see if you can help set up a 1-on-1 with them and someone you know there.
  5. (But…) Leave them alone: Let them figure out what they want to do and which talks they want to explore. Venues are generally pretty safe, and they *are* adults. Ask them what they learned from going to other talks, and tell them to be on the look-out for things you might be able to bring back to your lab.

Have any other tips? Append them here!


Sometimes we get too close to our research. Ok, all of the time we’re probably too close. If you’re like me, you’re fascinated by what you do, and even when things are slow-going, you’re still excited to wake up and think about things.

The problem is, you might spend all day, every day, thinking about specific things, but rarely will others do the same. So, when you have to present, how do you choose your focus? And how do you best present things which must flow sequentially when the ideas are linked conceptually (rather than chronologically)?

These are hard questions to answer, but I’ve been able to synthesize some ideas on how to clearly present the main points for yourself and your audience (once you decide what they are!):

  1. Decide what is important, what your goals are, and how generally the presentation should flow. If you’ve got the ideas sketched out, the presentation will flow more logically and will be constructed faster.
  2. Use color. Do so consistently, in contrasting shades, and with caution. Remember that color can be used to trigger associations (e.g., red for danger), but also keep in mind red/green or other types of colorblindness might prevent seeing distinctions.
  3. Use text sparingly, and when you do, make it easy to read. Use a large enough font to see from the back of the room, and ideally an arial font, as it can be read more easily. Don’t use all caps, as it is actually (for many) harder to read than regular text. Remember that, between text on a slide and what you are saying, audiences will focus on the slide first, so don’t overload it!
  4. Use (high-quality) images. If you can show a picture, the ideas tend to stick better.  Be sure the images are not blurry, though!
  5. Use consistent slide design, but avoid templates. Often we try to make stuff ‘fit’ a template that doesn’t fit the content. Don’t be afraid to make a new one.
  6. Leave space by not cramming every idea, graph, or image onto a single slide. Some may live and die by the “1 min/slide” rule, but if your 1 minute is spent with your audiences’ eyes roaming the slide trying to figure out the point, you’ve failed to convey anything.
  7. Don’t overdo animation. Some is good, but too much can be distracting.
  8. Use the slide sorter and presenter view to discover whether the logical flow of your presentation is as good as you think it is. Often, slides should or can be broken up to help the audience, and putting notes to yourself about the transitions can help you see whether a few words or a whole slide need to be devoted to transitions.
  9. Check spelling and grammar. We all make mistakes. Correct them!
  10. Have a backup, particularly if you have a very large file or are switching devices. Sometimes things won’t display correctly or at all, so be sure you can deliver a lower-tech version and/or explain your presentation even if the slides don’t cooperate.

What tips have you got? Tweet them to me @choosy_female !