Science and S’mores: SciCommCamp 2017
SciCommCamp can be best described as a not-so-average conference for a diverse group of fabulously nerdy science communicators with a common goal: to make science publicly accessible. I left SciCommCamp with pep in my step and a bit more confidence in my planned post-graduate school transition out of academia and into a career in science communication. I was drawn to SciCommCamp not just by the rave reviews, networking possibilities, and opportunity to improve my writing: I wanted to find people who cared about a lot of the same things I do. Needless to say, my expectations were far surpassed. SciCommCamp was founded by science communicators Jason Goldman, Sarah Keartes, and Cara Santa Maria, who seamlessly created a supportive environment where, for a couple days in October, I was able to escape the craziness of lab and find that focus I had been craving.
Take the time to connect
Emily Calandrelli, producer and host of Xploration Outer Space, correspondent on Bill Nye Saves the World, and author of recently published book series Ada Lace, delivered an inspiring keynote the first night of SciCommCamp. She discussed her upbringing in a part of the country where science is often undervalued, her struggle to break away from much of what she was taught at a young age, and her approach to communicating the importance of science education in areas where that sentiment is not always welcome. How do we as science communicators reach people who have led completely different lives and had totally different experiences from us? “Before trying to teach anything, take the time to connect,” emphasized Emily. “If our goal is to get people excited about science they need to feel like it’s for them. To make this happen, first work to understand their circumstances and where their beliefs about a topic, say fossil fuels, come from.” Emily’s passion for what she does is palpable when she speaks, a trait I continued to see in both workshop leaders and attendees over the course of SciCommCamp.
Bring your personality to what you do
With the arrival of Netflix series like Bill Nye Saves the World, I’ve grown increasingly curious about what writing for television would be like, and so I attended a workshop to gain some perspective. I had the chance to learn from Mike Drucker, writer for shows including Adam Ruins Everything, The President Show, Bill Nye Saves the World, The Tonight Show, and Saturday Night Live. Mike discussed the importance of maintaining a more narrow focus when writing for television. For example, instead of writing an episode about global environmental destruction brought on by climate change, propose an episode on the effects of climate change on, say, coral reef ecosystems. The second piece of advice was to always find people to work with on a project. “Collaborate! I’ve learned that you’re never going to be able to do it alone,” Mike emphasized. Outside of technical advice, he delivered a more general message: Always bring your personality to what you do. “You can’t just be a scientist, you need to have a point of view. What makes you unique?”
Be relevant, but be true to you
After learning about writing for television I switched gears and learned about writing for kids, something workshop leader Bethany Brookshire taught me was not so different from writing in an accessible way for adults. Bethany is a staff writer at Science News and Eureka!Lab, and used her experiences to delve into the nitty-gritty of what makes great writing for kids. My favorite tip was to ask kids tough questions and take on tough concepts. Simplifying material doesn’t mean creating something devoid of information. Kids want to be challenged, it just means deciding how to challenge them in a manner that’s age-appropriate. So, avoid topics that are irrelevant to kids and instead address fields of science that will resonate, e.g., writing about a study on the benefits of a daily cup of coffee may not strike a chord with a middle school student (at least let’s hope not…). Defining the terms you use and adding multimedia to help with pronunciation are a couple of simple ways to make writing more kid-accessible. And, just in case you’re wondering, the youths know you’re not one of them, so don’t worry about acting like you were born after Y2K. “Don’t pretend to be young and hip, just be yourself!” stressed Bethany. “Kids may make fun of you, but that’s okay!”
I’ve accepted that I’m no youth, so after drinking what was likely my third cup of coffee that day, I headed to a workshop on writing and pitching a book, something I’ve contemplated but never known where to start. The workshop was led by Adam Becker, whose book What is Real? The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics comes out in spring 2018. Adam, along with other SciCommCamp attendees with book-writing experience, agreed that starting with a book proposal was a smart step before diving into writing an entire book. Having a proposal allows you to pitch a book concept to an agent (whose name you can often find in the acknowledgments section of a book). Having an agent versus self-publishing is a personal choice, but the overwhelming opinion was that an agent makes the process far less stressful. When it comes to pitching your work, the general consensus was to avoid words and phrases like “aspiring” or “working on becoming,” when describing what you do. You are a science writer, not an aspiring science writer. And, when the writing gets rough, take it on in chunks—find ways to pay attention solely to what’s in front of you. The message of making an effort to stay present carried through to one of my favorite parts of SciCommCamp: The Freelancer’s Support Group.
Stay sane by setting limits
In the Freelancer’s Support Group we learned about WOOP-ing (Want, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan) our way to a successful freelance career and talked about staying sane by setting limits when it comes to work. Support Group leader Alie Ward has recently found success in sticking to a strict schedule of not working after 7pm, taking the remaining time in the evening for herself. We discussed the three P’s: Passion, Prestige, and Payment, how any job should fulfill at least two of them, and that no freelancer should accept being low-balled when it comes to compensation. Although I left with these kinds of concrete pieces of advice, it was the feeling of camaraderie with other freelance writers that made the greatest impact. I finally felt less alone in my career interest and realized that the support I felt from this group was what I had been seeking for months.
In the end, I found that SciCommCamp wasn’t just about becoming a better communicator, stuffing my face with s’mores, and unexpectedly meeting a Colombian Tegu (true story)—it was about learning from people in completely different fields, appreciating what they do, and recognizing how we can work together to make each other better and make our message more clear: everyone should feel like science is for them.
SciCommCamp 2018 will be held from November 2-4th at American Jewish University’s Brandeis-Bardin Campus, just north of Los Angeles. Check back early next year to register!
Samantha (Sam) Jones is a science researcher and writer, working toward a PhD in biomedical science at UCSD. Sam grew up in the Boston area as an avid Red Sox fan and lover of lobster, moving west in 2013 to start graduate school. As a graduate student she became increasingly passionate about improving science literacy, which led her to writing for the general public. When not in the lab, or hunched over a computer, you can find her teaching yoga or spending time outside appreciating the beautiful San Diego weather.