Speaking and Writing About Science

by Rebecca Kolberg

Protein purification doesn't faze you. You don't blink at running an in vitro transcription reaction. But when it comes time to present your results in a paper or a talk, you break out in a cold sweat. Yes, you are among the legions of researchers who could use some help in learning how to write and speak about your science in the most effective way.

"Most scientists receive little or no formal training in writing and consider writing the last - and most odious - part of their work, rather than an integral part of the research process," says Ruth Guyer, the Ph.D. immunologist and veteran science writer who taught NIH's initial offering of the "Writing About Science" course from Jan. 24 through Feb. 14.

Course Participants

Course participants
Stefano Bertuzzi, left,
Patricia Cortazar,
Peter Balint-Kurti,
and Yvette Miller

Even though the four-week course, sponsored by the Office of Science Education and the Office of Research on Women's Health, required 12 hours of class time plus a tough load of writing and reading assignments, more than 160 NIH researchers signed up for the 16 slots. The writing course is scheduled to be held again in May and September. A five-week companion course, "Talking About Science," taught by actor and speech coach Scott Morgan, was getting under way as The NIH CATALYST went to press. The speaking course, which will be held again in June and October, covers a range of public-speaking situations encountered by scientists: introducing host speakers, fielding questions, talking at a poster session, and delivering a 10 minute scientific presentation.

Unlike some general science-writing courses offered at universities and the Foundation for Advanced Education in the Sciences, the new course specifically seeks to hone biomedical researchers' skills in writing articles suitable for publication in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Most assignments are aimed at writing papers based on participants' current research - from choosing a target journal to putting the finishing touches on the crucial abstract. Researchers are also encouraged to place themselves in the shoes of journal editors and peer reviewers through exercises such as critiquing their classmates' papers.

Yvette Miller, a senior staff fellow in the Clinical Center's Department of Transfusion Medicine, says the course helped steer her in the right direction for her first major scientific paper, which features results of her work on transplants of stem cells from umbilical cords. "It definitely makes the writing process less traumatic for you and your mentor," says Miller, who also plans to follow Guyer's advice that researchers write up their results as they go along, rather than waiting until all experiments are done to begin working on a paper.

"Writing helps you make sense of what you're doing and build a better framework in which to place your experiments," says Guyer, who in her days at the bench at the University of California at Berkeley discovered that when she conducted writing and research in tandem, she could detect - and repair - holes in her experimental designs before her data were subjected to the scrutiny of peer review.

Although every scientist has strengths and weaknesses when it comes to writing, Guyer says the most common problem is overuse of jargon. "You don't want to make the reader struggle to navigate through your writing," she says. Many scientists also weaken the impact of their message by using words or phrases that are unnecessarily long. For example, Guyer says replacing the three-syllable word "utilize" with the one-syllable word "use" makes for a more direct - and more powerful - sentence.

In their course evaluations, the students, about half of whom were M.D.s and half Ph.D.s, solidly supported continuing the course. One even suggested that NIH establish a writing clinic where researchers could go for help as they write papers. Most also said they would recommend the course to other researchers. "Go for it!" one participant wrote, adding, "Have a mini-paper topic ready to write up. Be prepared to work hard and to learn to accept useful criticism."

For more information on the writing and speaking courses, contact Gloria Seelman at the Office of Science Education (phone: 496-0608; fax: 402-3034; e-mail: gq5@cu.nih.gov).

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