Capturing Curious Minds: Communicating Complex Science

Ask A Biologist Podcast, Vol 134
Podcast Interview with James Gorman
Writer James Gorman in Antarctica

Dr. Biology: 0:01

This is Ask A Biologist a program about the living world, and I'm Dr. Biology. On this show we spend most of our time talking with biologists and other scientists about their work, but there is a part of science, in fact, part of what we call the scientific method, that we also need to talk about. In case you're rusty remembering the parts of the scientific method. They are observation, question, hypothesis, prediction, testing, conclusion, and finally communication. 

Now, in science, communication usually involves writing a scientific paper that is submitted to a science journal for review and possible publication. This helps others learn from your work. Now, the problem with this is that papers are generally written for other scientists and even a particular group of scientists who do research in a very specific area, so they use really technical terms and things that a lot of us may not understand. This often results in a very technical paper that a limited number of people would or could read and understand. 

There are people, science communicators, who do specialize in communicating science beyond the science community. They have the role of taking that highly technical paper and communicating it in an accessible way. Maybe even more important, a good science communicator can tell a story about the research in a way that is fun and exciting to learn. 

My guest today, I think, will be perfect for diving into this topic of science communication. James Gorman is a science reporter. He was on the New York Times staff for 28 years, working as an editor, reporter, and host of the video series ScienceTake, which I hope we get to talk a little bit about in this podcast. He is also the author of seven books that cover a wide range of topics, from dinosaurs to penguins, to name just a few. Today, we'll explore the challenges and rewards of telling a good story, a good science story. Welcome, Jim, and thank you for taking time out to join me on Ask A Biologist.

Jim: 2:30

Oh, thank you for having me.

Dr. Biology: 2:33

So, first of all, I have one big question in three parts. [laughter]

Jim: 2:38

Okay, I'm ready.

Dr. Biology: 2:41

So, I'll tell you what it is, how should we communicate science? Okay, that's the big question and we're going to break it down. The first one is how do we communicate science if we're the science writer or communicator? How should we communicate science if we're the scientist right? And then, finally, how should someone consume science content today? So, let's start off with how should we communicate science if you're a science communicator.

Jim: 3:08

Accurately. [laughter] As a science communicator I mean you're essentially or as a science reporter, a science journalist. I mean people cover many different aspects of science. Some are more on the politics and funding and how scientists act, the ethics of it. My career has always been on how cool is that sort of science, explaining the actual scientific investigations and what scientists have found out. So, the most important thing is that you have to be accurate. When you're talking to people who don't have a scientific background, you've got to find a way to make it interesting and appealing, but it always has to be accurate and I would say that's the first thing that you have to do.

Dr. Biology: 3:52

Right, and when you say interesting and appealing, can you give me an example of something you've done in the past where you took something that probably wasn't going to get consumed by the public, the general public and, with a twist, you actually can tell a really cool story?

Jim: 4:09

Sure, I mean, that's sort of the definition of the job. I can think offhand of a video that I did. We did this series of videos ScienceTake at the Times and it involved fruit flies and aggression and looking at genes and how genes were affecting the expressions of aggression. So, this is a really complicated and the work was done with a high level of sophistication and it's the sort of thing that writing about it is going to be really tough. 

You could, and you can, paint any picture in words, but we did it as part of a series called ScienceTake and we had video from the scientists so we could see the process of their research and one of the things that they did the way they gathered the data about how the fruit flies were behaving was they looked at male fruit flies fighting and they're great to watch. It's like watching a little boxing match with fruit flies. So, that immediately catches the attention of the viewer. And then you can go into some of the detail. You can show pictures of the neurons, you can show some of the things that they found out in terms of the genetics, but you've got that immediate hook. So that was one way to make it interesting.

Dr. Biology: 5:33

Right, that visual picture.

Jim: 5:35

Exactly.

Dr. Biology: 5:36

And in this case it truly is a visual picture. So now let's turn our attention to the scientists, because anybody who listened to this show I have a tendency to pick on scientists. I say they're great at doing science, but they aren't necessarily great writers, which is not a good thing. Because I still say it's good for their science colleagues and it's certainly going to be helpful for the rest of the world to understand what they're actually doing and, quite frankly, why it's cool, because most of the scientists really love what they're doing. It's important to be able to communicate it. So, what's the advice for our scientists?

Jim: 6:12

Well, scientists. I think they have a responsibility to talk to the public about their work, and actually most of the scientists that I've encountered are really anxious to talk about their work. They enjoy it. The thing is that they've been trained to speak to their colleagues. That's what your whole career depends on. You have to present your findings in a very precise way and you have a shorthand, the scientific jargon, which is incredibly useful because you don't have to use a paragraph to describe something. You can use one word. To the average reader you have to say what a genome is or what proteinase is or something like that. 

But as far as I know, there's not enough emphasis in science education for researchers, in communicating to the public and learning that you  have to meet your audience, where they are. You have to tell them a story, you have to use the language that they use and you have to leave out some of the details. Now, you don't want to mislead anybody and you don't want to be incorrect, but the things that are very important to you, the exact percentages or the particular computer program that you use to analyze the data, are not going to be of interest and they're just going to make the reader or the viewer, sort of their eyes glaze over. 

It's easy to say, very hard to execute. You speak in simple language, directly. Use the active voice, say what actually happened. I mean scientists tend to talk abstractly about the grand concepts and the import of what they're finding. They need to also say well, in the lab we poured this red viscous liquid from one container into another and then watched as it transformed itself into a gremlin or whatever. The point is, you're telling a story, you're grounding the viewer or the reader in a specific, concrete example of what you do and how you find out what you're looking for.

Dr. Biology: 8:10

Right, painting that picture, putting them in that place.

Jim: 8:15

Right.

Dr. Biology: 8:15

Yeah, absolutely. We just did a workshop with you earlier today. I was thinking scientists out there could actually do it for themselves by recording themselves.

Jim: 8:24

Yeah.

Dr. Biology: 8:25

You want to talk a little bit about what we did for an exercise? And all I'm saying is why don't you do this, record it and listen to it, because they'll immediately start hearing these words that are a problem.

Jim: 8:36

Sure, this is an exercise that I stole from another writing teacher and I can't remember who that writing teacher is. So, wherever you are, thank you. But you write down the 15 or so words that are most important to your field, for instance genome, proteome, whatever field you're in the sort of the terms of art that you use to talk to your colleagues. Write them all down on a piece of paper. Then you try to tell someone about a recent finding and its importance and why they should be interested in it, without using any of those words. 

Now you can do this in a fun way. I've done it in class where we have little buzzers and every time somebody uses a word that's too technical, bezzet, or you can just keep an eye on it yourself. But you see, time and again it's remarkably difficult not to use the words that you're used to, because that's how you think of your work. So, to change it into a story, it's very hard to switch to that way of speaking. 

So sometimes when I'm interviewing scientists, I ask them to explain it as if they were talking to their niece or nephew or a smart eighth grader. And if you do that, you realize that actually you do have the vocabulary and the way of talking about these things to people that don't know the terms of art. So, if you imagine yourself sitting across from your favorite nephew and explaining how you figured out the biological basis of aggression and fruit flies, you're going to talk in a completely different way and you'll find that it comes very naturally, if you can switch yourself to that frame of mind. 

Dr. Biology: 10:16

Right. So out there, scientists, you're practicing. Go get a recorder, Do the exercise. Listen to yourself, and I think you will find that you need to do some practice. Now the last part of that three-part question what advice do you have for someone who's consuming science these days, consuming science articles that are not written by scientists?

Jim: 10:39

Well, that's the hardest question of all. It's a lot easier to say how you're going to deliver good information. How are you going to tell whether you're getting good information? One thing is that you can, and this is less and less true of how people consume news, but you can rely on a particular publication that you trust. Where you think the writers and reporters are doing their due diligence, they're talking to the scientists, they're asking the right questions and they're giving you information that is reliable. 

That's a little bit of a shortcut. If you're coming upon an article somewhere and you have to decide well, is this something legitimate, is this reliable or not? There are different things you can for. One is what is the source of the information? Is a scientific journal quoted? Can you look it up? Did they give you a link so that you can see what kind of a journal it is? There are journals with very fancy names. They're not real. But if you have the opportunity to go to it, the reporter has at least provided you that background. So, you know, okay, that's a good thing. I can go to the original research if I want to. 

Another thing is to look for sweeping generalizations and kind of avoid them, and particularly when you're consuming health news. You know there's not really a huge issue like in the evolution of how crickets jump. If you get that wrong and you read something and you think, oh my god, I know how crickets jump and it turns out you don't, you got it wrong. There's not a lot at stake unless you're a cricket researcher. But one of the biggest problems in health reporting is when people say Three times as many people died from whatever the cause was, if they were coffee drinkers and you go oh my god, three times as many people. But really it was one in a billion people who died if they didn't drink coffee, and three in a billion who died if they did drink coffee. If you look at it that way, you think, okay, what do I care? Three in a billion, one in a billion so I'm exaggerating to make an effect. 

But it's one of the biggest problems reporting on health when that sort of information, in that perspective and context, is left out. Another thing is the difference between and this is correlation and causation. You know, you have many studies where you show that, well, people who live longer exercise, okay, but is that because they're already healthier and that's why they're exercising? Where's the cause and effect and how did they figure that out? So really, I think you have to question, you have to look at their credentials of the publication, whether it's online or in print, and see if you know, if you're familiar with them, if you know who's reporting, and then you look at the kind of information that's presented. You have to develop a kind of detector, for I guess I can't say what you're supposed to detect, but you know nonsense. A nonsense detector, that's it.

Dr. Biology: 13:44

Yes, oh, I like that. A nonsense detector. In essence, this is back to digging deeper. 

Jim: 13:49 

Yeah 

Dr. Biology: 13:50

Take a little bit of time to make sure you get all the facts and information. You mentioned a little bit about ScienceTake. 

Jim: 13:58

Mm-hmm. 

Dr. Biology: 13:59

This is a collection of short videos. Let's talk a little about ScienceTake. First of all, why'd you start it?

Jim: 14:06

Well, that's really interesting. It wasn't my idea. It was actually the idea of one of our photo editors who was very involved in the visual aspect of things, and we all knew at the time when we started it that there was a lot of video out there available from researchers. For instance, the ScienceTake that I mentioned, that was called fight club for flies. So as part of their experiment, they were videotaping and then analyzing the videotape of the fruit flies in combat. And there are many other scientists who do it for a lot of different reasons. So there's a lot of video out there. 

As reporters, we would look at a new paper that was published. We would see okay, here's the results, here's how we can tell the story. But look, they have a clip of the New Caledonian crow bending a wire and we can actually see it happening and we can see how smart the bird is. We can also see how the experiment is being done. So, there was this availability of a lot of really cool looking video. That was really useful, I think, to explain how science works. And there was also, at this time, the publications, like the Times and everybody else was looking for ways to get more people to click on their stories. That's also a big part of it. And cool video. You know, if you're looking at your phone or you're on your computer, you're gonna go to cool video. 

That's always gonna pull you in. And we found that over time how appealing the video was, how interesting it was to look at, was really significant in terms of how many people watched it. Which may seem like the dumbest, you know, duh, of course, but you know we tend to think of science, reporters and a scientist that it's how important is the conclusion? How important is the actual science is being done? And those are all parts of it. But the visual impact was really important. So how did we use that visual impact? That was something that, in the end, really surprised me because I thought, since we were doing these things, I would narrate, do like a little news item of a discovery that scientists had made. Talk over the videos and you could see what the flies were doing, or the salamanders, or the frogs or the parrot. And I was worried that because the visuals were so important and the time was so short that scientists would not appreciate this kind of dumbing down of their work and that we wouldn't be able to convey enough of the essence of the science to make it you know, valid, really good reporting, instead of just entertaining. 

Because if you look on YouTube or TikTok or whatever platform you're looking on now, you can see a million cool cat videos and lots of different things, some stuff that says it, science, some stuff that is science, some stuff that's not. So how are we going to make it so that it was really useful? And we found out two things. First of all, scientists. I checked everything with them so we'd go back and say is this right? Is this right, is that right? So, we were very careful to get it correct. 

But scientists were very happy to see it presented in a way that essentially a middle school student would enjoy. I would say that was our target audience. You know smart middle school student. So, we loved creepy crawly stuff. You know bugs, ticks, stuff like that, cockroaches doing karate kicks to fend off wasps. The other thing we learned was that you tell a short story and you can get maybe one idea in one scientific idea. But that's good enough. I mean, if you're getting somebody and you're giving them one sort of Interesting scientific idea in a minute, that's fun and it's useful. 

And the other thing that we figured out, which I think was even more important was that and this is going to be obvious to anybody who's a filmmaker or photographer who's not a text person like me was that the images carry a huge amount of information. So, we're delivering a view of how science works, of what's actually going on in the lab. You are seeing an experiment going on, instead of just the dry words that describe why flies are aggressive. You are actually watching the flies fight, and that video contains so much information about what the behavior was, how they were looking at it, how they were categorizing it. 

At the beginning, I was fixated on the idea that this should do exactly what a news item does, which is it should deliver what the finding was and how they found it out. And by the end, it seemed to me that the more important thing was it was showing the process, it was giving you a window. People who watch these things could see science at work. So, by being careful not to get anything wrong and knowing what to leave out, telling a simple story, we could deliver something that was entertaining, really fun to look at, gave you a glimpse that you didn't even know you were absorbing of how science works. And had one central idea, one scientific idea. 

So, I think we managed and, judging from the feedback from scientists and middle school science teachers, who are my favorite people in the entire world, I have to say they're the best. Judging from the feedback, we succeeded in not misleading anybody and having correct information, but finding a way to simplify it so that you're delivering only one piece of the information.

Dr. Biology: 19:35

And you mentioned that part about the process of science how important that was. We had an earlier podcast with Joe Palca. [The] same thing talking about this and part of the reason why we started Ask A Biologist and in particular the podcast is scientists don't do this because it's boring, they don't do it because it's hard, they do it because it's really cool and fun to them. And karate kicks by a cockroach to another insect. I'm sure they're just as excited about seeing that as the viewers that when they watch the ScienceTake.

Jim: 20:10

Absolutely. And the other thing that it captures I think in all science writing should capture and should focus in on, is that what's exciting about science is asking the questions. It's not just the answers, it's not a body of knowledge that we've found out. As you say, what makes scientists? Why are they doing it? Because it's really interesting. They want to find out. Well, how do cockroaches defend themselves against wasps? How do fruit flies fight? What genes come into play when they're fighting? They have all these questions they want answered and it's a process of asking the questions and figuring out how to ask the questions that make science interesting. 

Also, if you see that and you're a middle school student or anyone for that matter when I read something about science, I know that somebody was actually working. They didn't just come up with this answer. There was a process that they went through. It's a way of asking questions. Science is a way of asking questions and getting answers, and you get a good glimpse of that with video. You can do that in writing as well, of course. I mean, that's my job. I was the writer and I had to learn to not describe what was already on the screen but to write in a different way, but I think that was the best thing about ScienceTake really was the way that it emphasized the process.

Dr. Biology: 21:29

Yeah, you talk about the process. What are some of your rules or best practices that you follow when you're writing your stories or preparing for a video?

Jim: 21:38

Well, I guess the first thing is you do as much homework as you can. You have to read the paper. You don't want to have to ask questions that you could have answered by reading, because that's a waste of the scientist's time. On the other hand, you have to not be afraid to ask dumb questions in two ways. One if there's something you don't understand, you have to be really clear about it when you're interviewing. You don't pretend that you're the expert, and I made this mistake a lot as a beginning science reporter. I would try to talk the talk. So, we're talking about the evolution of spiral galaxies. Boy, I want to be in there. 

And I listened to my interview afterwards and I didn't get any of the questions answered that I wanted in. But scientists didn't say anything in comprehensible language. So, I had to learn to ask dumb questions and not be afraid to ask dumb questions. But also, even when I knew the answer, if I wanted to see if the scientists could say it in a way that people would understand because it's always appealing to have the actual researcher talk to you, not just the science reporter to learn to ask questions and say can you explain this in again? We're talking about talking to your nephew or something like that. So, the two preparations [are] doing all your homework, but then not pretending that you've learned the subject, knowing how to ask dumb questions and elicit responses in the normal colloquial speech. 

Dr. Biology: 23:08

It's interesting because it doesn't take much for me to be outside of my comfort zone, even though I'm in the world of biology. There are so many areas of biology, so it is important to ask those questions, because it doesn't serve anybody any good if you don't get the answer, because you're not going to be able to convey it in any way.

Jim: 23:31

Exactly right. So, I have written a lot about the evolution of dogs and wolves and ancient DNA and I would often find myself saying, okay, I get the idea that you've figured out by comparing DNA, you've sort of figured out how close wolves are to dogs. But you get into this section where you describe the statistics and what you actually did. I'm lost. Please can you explain that to me, so I don't have to give all the details, but I have to give people some idea of what you did. And why should we believe this? I mean because we can just say fancy statistical analysis showed boom and we can't go into all the detail of it because nobody's gonna get that. 

But I wanna get some understanding and I have to sort of be clear about my ignorance, and my ignorance is a valuable thing in many ways because I'm the representative of the reader. What I shouldn't have is ignorance that I could have remedied by doing my homework beforehand. I don't wanna have that kind of lazy ignorance, but basic, representing the point of view of the layperson. That is valuable ignorance.

Dr. Biology: 24:37

Now, we've talked about articles. We've talked about ScienceTakes. You're also an author of books. To name a few, How to Build a Dinosaur: Extinction Doesn't Have to be Forever.

Jim: 24 :54

Right.

Dr. Biology: 24:51 

Ocean Enough and Time Discovering the Waters Around Antarctica. And The Total Penguin.

Jim: 24:58

Ah, the Total Penguin was on my favorite.

Dr. Biology: 25:00

Well, that's exactly what I wanted to ask you about - Is The Total Penguin. Yeah, let's talk a little bit about that book.

Jim: 25:07

Oh, the Total Penguin. I had some of the most fun ever. At the time I was freelance, I was not on staff. I was looking for work and I had an agent who had been involved in a previous book that I had done and I said you know, I'm looking for work. And she said well, so-and-so, they're gonna do a coffee table book on penguins, and would you be interested in that? And I say, yeah absolutely. 

So, we go to meet with the editor at the publishing company and this is the only time in my life I think I've ever thought well on my feet in this kind of circumstance. But she said, well, would you need to see them in the wild? And I immediately said, oh, absolutely, I have to. You got to go to Antarctica. How much would that cost? Oh well, I'll check it out. And so, I went on this three-week cruise to Antarctica and that gave me a lot of the physical detail and the sort of emotional appreciation of the penguins and that contributed to the research that I did on all the different species and so on. So, it was a lot of fun. 

The one drawback was that I thought, and this has nothing to do with being a good science writer, but with human frailty, I'm gonna be on this cruise and I'm gonna be the guy who's writing the book on penguins. This is gonna be cool. I'm gonna be like a mini celebrity. So also on the cruise was a writer named Diane Ackerman who was writing the story on penguins for the New Yorker, and so I was the other writer on the cruise. Anyway, it turned out to be a great experience and I really fell in love with certain kinds of penguins and part of the fun was looking through the old accounts of explorers where they gave everything, including recipes for how to cook penguins and how tasty they were, which is a strange thing, but not so strange if you look at like Audubon's work. I mean, he sometimes includes recipes. 

Dr. Biology:  27:06

Speaking of penguins what is your favorite? 

Jim: 27:09

Rockhopper. 

Dr. Biology:  27:10

Rockhopper. 

Jim: 27:11

The Rockhopper. If you see them, they have these tufts of hair coming out of them. They look as if they had dyed punk kind of hairdo and they're very vociferous. Vociferous, I mean incredibly noisy and raucous. And they're aggressive in defending their nests. And one of the previous explorers talked about walking through a rockhopper colony and then attaching themselves to him like terriers, clamping their jaws in this case their bills on his sleeves, and that he could swing them around and they wouldn't let go. As I said, some of these early explorers had great descriptions. One of them talked about how they had landed and they saw many, many large penguins and they could knock down as many as they wanted with a stick. It really gives you a glimpse into another world.

Dr. Biology: 28:02

So now, Jim, on Ask A Biologist I always ask three questions, and it's typically of my scientists, so we're going to modify this just a little bit. So, you're ready, 

Jim: 28:14

I'm ready.

Dr. Biology: 28:15

Okay, these are the same three [questions] at the end. I stole this from James Lipton. They're not his questions, though.

Jim: 28:21

Right, right.

Dr. Biology: 28:22 

When did you first know you wanted to be a journalist and were you always interested in science?

Jim: 28:28

I have to say that I was always interested in science to a certain extent. I mean, I was a kid who was always interested in the natural world. But I didn't have a plan to be a journalist. I planned to be a famous novelist, as many of us do. But it turned out after I got out of college and started work on science fiction. Novelist turned out. I was sitting there typing away at my typewriter and my funds were disappearing and I thought, you know, I better get a job. What am I going to do? What am I going to do for a living? 

So, I had been editor of my high school paper and I was interested in writing, of course, and so I thought, all right, well, you know, I'll get a job on a newspaper. This was in the days when the only kind of mail was snail mail. So, I sent out many letters and applications. Went to a few interviews, but the only really positive response I got was from a tiny weekly newspaper in Madawaska of Maine that there are two bumps on the top of the Maine map and it's on one of the bumps. It's way up there. That was my first job. I was there for about six months and it was 24 below zero and the snow drifts were six feet high and I thought maybe I can go move to a bigger paper. And from then on I went to the Hartford Kern and a variety of other papers. 

You know I liked journalism in the sense I liked being the position of asking people questions and having being able to call them up. I think there was a kind of combative aspect to sort of daily journalism, reporting on the police and the school board and things. People didn't always want to tell you what you wanted to know and I was fascinated with science. At the time I was taking extra courses in science and I got the idea that I wanted to really write about science. I'd read people like in the old days. This name won't mean anything to most people, but there was a science writer at the time named Walter Sullivan who was a real major figure, and these people were describing how scientists are understanding the natural world, which I liked ideas. I like the strange things that you could discover, and I found out, as I'd hoped when I got into it, that scientists like talking about their work. 

So, it's not to say that there aren't scientists who fudge their data or do things that are incorrect or that you don't have controversies. You can't get involved in an adversarial relationship and reporting, but in most of what I did, I was on the side of, or in the area of writing, where you're looking at the awe factor. The how cool is that. And when you talk to scientists to ask them about the research, they usually love to talk to you.

Dr. Biology: 31:03

Well, you had a wonderful career, still continues, but I'm going to cut it off. I'm going to take it all away Now this is a thought question, because some of my scientists freak out about now because I take it all away, and I'm going to do the same thing for you as I do for them. They like to teach, almost all of them love to teach, so I'm going to take your teaching away. If you couldn't do what you've been doing and again it's going to be, I'm going to say writing in general If you couldn't do it, what would you do? Or be?

Jim: 31:33

I'd be a field biologist. That's what I would have loved to have been. I mean, if I had it to do all over again, I would have been some kind of field biologist - birds, marine biologist, whatever out in the field watching animals observing their behavior. So, in a way it's kind of cheating, because you say I can't do what I've done, but why can't I do what I always wrote about people doing?

Dr. Biology: 31:56

Oh, I think it's perfect. So, you're going to become a biologist. That's great. In your career as a science journalist, have you had any adventures there that would lead you down that path?

Jim: 32:12

I think my favorite field trip was I got a chance to scuba dive and Belize with these vast spawning aggregations of drum, certain kind of fish, and it was one of the most spectacular events that you could see in nature. We were down about 70 or 100 feet and there are thousands of fish in the sort of ice cream cone spiral and at one moment they all release the sperm and eggs at once, and that's what attracts whale sharks. 

Whale sharks are sharks, but they look more like baleen whales and they swim, just sort of hoovering in all the sperm and eggs that are in the water. 

What I've always loved about being a science writer is that I'm a sort of professional undergraduate. You know I just constantly get to ask people well, explain, how did you do that, how did you do this? But there's also and the reason that I said I'd like to be a field biologist there's also this chance to be in situations you'd never ever be in otherwise, unless you were a scientist.

Dr. Biology: 33:22

That's truely one of the things that's amazing about scientists.

Jim: 33:26

Yeh.

Dr. Biology: 33:27
 
Now the last question what advice would you have for a future science communicator?

Jim: 33:34

I guess read. Read is the most important thing. I mean, you have to just read constantly how people do the things you admire. So, if you want to be a science communicator, presumably you've seen movies or videos or you've read articles and you've watched it and you've thought you know, boy, I'd really like to do that. So, you have to absorb as much of that as you can and figure out how they do it. You can go to school, you can get a degree, you know a journalism degree and there are programs in science writing. 

And getting a job these days is tougher. When I started out, you went to a small newspaper and then you went to a bigger newspaper and then you went to a magazine or something, because there were millions of newspapers Everybody, that's all they did, was reading newspapers. And that's not true anymore. So now I'm a little befuddled about what you should do if you're a young person and you want to get into this field, because it seems to me there's more opportunity than ever to write about science, but maybe less opportunity to get paid for writing about science. So, you can have your own blog, you can post things, you can write about this, you can do TikTok. The platforms are there, but how are you going to make a living at it? 

That's a question I don't really have the answer to. I mean, I think you need to make contacts, you need to find some people who do what you're interested in doing and try and get them to introduce you to other people, see if somebody there can get you a job. Doing the sort of cold calling sending in your resume. That's tough. Although I did get my job through the New York Times. My first science job. There used to be these ads on the subway. I got my job through the New York Times. This was in an ancient era when the way people found jobs was through classified advertisements in newspapers, so that would be a subject of a whole other podcast. But I actually answered an ad and got a job. 

My first science writing job was on a little magazine called the Sciences. I don't think it exists anymore. It was a wonderful job, and don't be discouraged by editors who aren't that happy with what you're doing. When I got my first job as a science writer, the editor said well, you're not very good, but you're the best of the applicants, so if you want the job, you can have it 

Dr. Biology: 36:10

Well, Jim with that final thought, I want to thank you for sitting down and being on Ask A Biologist.

Jim: 35:53

Oh, thank you for having me. I've really enjoyed it.

Dr. Biology: 36:00

You have been listening to Ask A Biologist, and my guest has been James Gorman, a science reporter and an editor for the New York Times.. He's also the host of the video series ScienceTake, which we talked about, and is really a great series to go check out. We'll be sure to include a link in the episode notes so you can get there. Jim is also an author of seven different books, of which his favorite is The Total Penguin, so we'll be sure to include that link in the show notes as well. 

The Ask A Biologist podcast is produced on the campus of Arizona State University and is recorded in the Grass Roots Studio housed in the School of Life Sciences, which is an academic unit of The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. And remember, even though our program is not broadcast live, you can still send us your questions about biology using our companion website. The address is askabiologist.asu.edu, or you can just use your favorite search tool and enter the words Ask A Biologist. As always, I'm Dr. Biology and I hope you're staying safe and healthy.

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Bibliographic details:

  • Article: Capturing Curious Minds: Communicating Complex Science
  • Episode number: 134
  • Author(s): Dr. Biology
  • Publisher: ASU Ask A Biologist
  • Date published: March 4, 2024
  • Date accessed: May 21, 2024
  • Link: https://askabiologist.asu.edu/science-writing

APA Style

Dr. Biology. (2024, March 04). Capturing Curious Minds: Communicating Complex Science (134) [Audio podcast Episode.] In Ask A Biologist Podcast. ASU Ask A Biologist. https://askabiologist.asu.edu/science-writing

American Psychological Association. For more info, see http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/560/10/

Chicago Manual of Style

Dr. Biology. "Capturing Curious Minds: Communicating Complex Science." Produced by ASU Ask A Biologist. Ask A Biologist Podcast. March 4, 2024. Podcast, MP3 audio. https://askabiologist.asu.edu/science-writing.

MLA Style

"Capturing Curious Minds: Communicating Complex Science." Ask A Biologist Podcast from ASU Ask A Biologist, 04 March, 2024, askabiologist.asu.edu/science-writing.

Modern Language Association, 7th Ed. For more info, see http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/747/08/
The Cover of the book Total Penguin by James Gorman

Want to learn more about science with James Gorman? Check out his book, The Total Penguin.

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