The Training Page
Goldilocks and Science Writing
BY HEATHER DOLAN, SPECIAL TO THE NIH CATALYST
Despite my childhood aspirations to become a writer, I arrived at the NIH with a B.S. in chemical engineering. A reluctant scientist at best, I struggled to fit into the research scene as a post-baccalaureate trainee. Fortunately, I transitioned midyear from bench work to interning with the NIH Catalyst. At last, I was able to use my technical background to do something I truly enjoy—writing.
With biomedicine as my subject matter, I hit the ground running. My first assignment was to cover prominent yeast geneticist David Botstein’s talk for the Wednesday Afternoon Lecture Series. I had successfully written technical papers during my undergraduate years at Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh), but the Botstein piece was a different beast. How was I going to accurately describe his theory that connected yeast genetics to human cancer without making the reader’s head spin? Being a science writer is much like being on the receiving end of a Goldilocks analysis—not too much technical information, but not too little, either. Accuracy is key, but too many details can chase the reader away.
Sometimes, though, the details can be tougher to explain than the big picture. NICHD neuroscientists Christopher McBain and Kenneth Pelkey contributed to a discovery, published in the March 2012 issue of Cell, about memory formation in the hippocampus. Pelkey and McBain had performed work to confirm that mice being experimented on by a lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT; Cambridge, Mass.) were neurologically modified. But their work was just one piece of a bigger story. I became so concerned with getting to the point and tying all of the pieces together that I forgot to tell the whole story. I was also so worried about not explaining the science accurately that I shortchanged the reader on concepts integral to McBain’s and Pelkey’s aspect of the research. Luckily, the Catalyst managing editor helped me shape the story so it was both factually correct and easy to read (http://irp.nih.gov/catalyst/v20i4/something-old-something-new).
Science writing isn’t a journalism cakewalk. The topics covered are massive and wildly variable: One week you’re covering a story on stem cell advances in retinal diseases, while another week you’re investigating electrical brain stimulation. You come out of interviews wondering what in the world the entorhinal cortex is (part of the brain involved in memory formation). You suffer writer’s block because you’re not sure whether what you just wrote even makes sense to you. But at the end of the day, it’s all worth it because you get to bring science from the bench to, not only the bedside, but also the tableside.
Heather Dolan interned for the NIH Catalyst January through July 2012, and then she left NIH to take an engineering job in Ohio. But her work continues to appear in the Catalyst. (See http://irp.nih.gov/catalyst/v21i1/an-eye-for-an-ear for her story on NIH volunteers who read scientific textbooks for the blind.)