In the third episode of this six-part series about the skills needed to explain your research to a general audience, Pakinam Amer talks to scientists who left the lab to work as full-time science communicators in print, online and broadcast journalism.
Often the biggest challenge some of them faced was telling family they were swapping the well-trodden career path of academic research for the more precarious field of science communication.
Gareth Mitchell, a technology reporter and science communications lecturer who presents the BBC programme Digital Planet, tells Amer: “I was fine with the transfer and the lack of money and the insecurity and the randomness that came when I transferred from a reasonably safe and hard fought-for career in engineering into something much more uncertain and media-related, but my parents freaked out.
“Maybe that's putting it a bit strongly, but they questioned me quite forensically about why on earth their wonderful bright engineering son would possibly want to get his hands dirty with a Masters course in communication and then busk it in the land of radio.”
Buzzfeed science editor Azeen Ghorayshi was a fruit fly researcher until 2012, and recalls breaking news of her career switch to her parents, who fled to the US from Iran following the 1979 Revolution.
“Journalism plays a very different role there. There’s state media, for example. It’s not a job that they thought of as being easy, or safe, or secure or prestigious. My dad wanted me to become a doctor. That’s a very common thing with immigrant parents.”
How do you break into the field, either in a staff or freelance role? Do you need to complete an expensive graduate programme? Mitchell tells Amer: “Ask yourself why you want to do it, why it matters to you, and it’s OK to say because it’s cool and will make me happy.
“But maybe you have a deeper reason. Perhaps you think your particular subject area or discipline is insufficiently represented in the wider media? Or maybe it’s over-represented, or misrepresented? Then tell yourself that you can do it, and then think about the mode. Are you the kind of person who might be better going round schools giving talks, or doing stand-up comedy in a science festival? Do you want to be a podcaster, a blogger, a vlogger, a YouTuber?”
Finally, Ferris Jabr tells Amer about his work as a science writer and author, and his forthcoming book about the co-evolution of earth and life.