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Science Writing

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Thinking about leaving the lab? Do you want sane hours and more variety in your job? Then science writing may be for you. I've been working as a science writer for The Dallas Morning News for 3 years, and I feel like I'm in college again. (Only now they're paying me!) Every week brings a new topic and I'm learning more about science than ever. If you're thinking about writing as a career, this chapter will give you a flavor of the field and tell you how to get the training you need to become gainfully employed.

Should You Become A Science Writer?

A personal ad for a scientist who would make a good science writer might go something like this: "BUS (bored, unfulfilled scientist), age and zodiac sign unimportant, likes to talk science but hates to do it. I would rather learn a little about many areas of science than spend the rest of my career focused on a single, narrow field. I crave variety. I need to feel like I've accomplished something when I go home for the day. I am willing to leave behind cumbersome, jargon-laden academic prose. I dream of getting published in a matter of a month, a week, even a few hours. Can you help?"

Absolutely! I have a Ph.D. in molecular genetics and I've been a science writer with The Dallas Morning News for 3 years. During that time, I've met dozens of other writers who have also left the lab. When we talk about how we got into the profession, the reasons are usually the same. Like scientists, we science writers are generally deeply interested in science. We're curious, we love to learn, and we want to make a difference.

But unlike most scientists, those who have become science writers are perfectly happy to observe. In fact, we are downright relieved that we never have to do another experiment. We're so happy being vultures-we can sit and wait until someone else has repeated an experiment 10 times, until they've worked out all the quirks, done all the controls and agonized over a publication. Then, we revel vicariously in their success, write an article about it, and get it in print in a fraction of the time. Doesn't this sound great?

A Challenging Field

For me, science writing has been as challenging as it's been satisfying. While I mainly cover biology for the Morning News, I've also had the opportunity to write about geology, astronomy, and particle physics. Those were some of the more difficult stories I've done, but what other job would allow me to spend hours on the phone quizzing some of the country's best geologists and physicists about their work? If I were still working as a biologist and wanted to expand my horizons, I'd have to settle for reading popular science articles that someone else had written.

Within my primary focus, or "beat," I've covered a huge variety of topics in life sciences-the biology behind mental illness and breast cancer, the cloning of sheep and the genetics of taste, heart development, high blood pressure, immunology, the Human Genome Project, and many other advances in genetics.

The job isn't easy, but it doesn't run me into the ground like research did. This, of course, is because I find reporting and writing a lot more fun. All that said, be forewarned that science writing is not a profession for scientists who just can't come up with a better alternative. If you venture this way, you'll work hard. Deadlines and editors can be tough. But you'll learn a lot, you'll reach real people, and (most days, anyway!) you'll go home knowing you've accomplished something.

What Is A Typical Work Day Like?

A typical day for me (and probably for most newspaper reporters) starts like this: I get to work around 9:30 A.M. I check my voice mail, my E-mail, and scan my snail-mail to see if there's anything pressing. Then, I read the Morning News and look through The New York Times. If I have a story in the paper, I check to see how it survived the late-night editing process. What happens next depends on the day of the week and what stories I happen to be working on. Early in the week, I scan "tip sheets," bulletins from the major science journals that summarize what is coming out in that week's issue. I order any papers that look like they might make a good story and save them to "pitch" at the weekly staff meeting. Then I might go to the local university to do an interview, do interviews over the phone, or work on a story. If I have a major story coming out in the weekly section, later in the week I'll discuss the text with my editor and the accompanying graphics with the artist. If there's a story that merits "daily" coverage (an article that has to run in the national or local section of the paper the next day), my work day might get a little hectic, especially if sources decide not to call back until an hour before deadline.

Sometimes news will break unexpectedly, such as when NASA scientists reported they had possibly found life on Mars, or when Scottish scientists announced that they had cloned a sheep. One morning, when I was still an intern, I lay half asleep and listened to National Public Radio announce that Al Gilman, a Dallas biologist, had won a Nobel Prize. Needless to say, that was a busy day!

Big news doesn't break that often in science, especially compared to beats like crime or politics. So in between interviews and writing, I have time to read journals, press releases, and other publications. I travel to five or six scientific meetings every year to hear the latest, unpublished research and to meet sources face to face. Basically, I don't feel the need to rip my hair out more than, say, three or four times a year. My days generally end at 6:30 or 7:00 P.M.

Some Inspiration

You're probably already considering leaving the ivory tower. But if you are still having doubts or have a vague sense of guilt, believe me when I say it's okay to leave. When I was considering getting out of basic research, I worried far too much about what other people thought. I wondered if my professors and lab-mates thought I had copped out. One professor even tried to reassure me that I really could succeed in research, as if he thought I was taking on a less demanding profession. Even I wondered if I was.

But after making a living as a science writer, I can safely say I did not move to an easier job. Just because science writers write in simple language doesn't mean the job is simple. If you choose to become a science writer, you can make your career as challenging as you want.
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