Science communicator Gwen Pearson’s tips for success: daily writing, networking, and a few tech tricks

How do you get better at writing? By doing it everyday. That was the advice of Gwen Pearson, writer for WIRED, outreach coordinator at Purdue’s Entomology Department, and great lover of bugs – just check out her twitter feed @bug_gwen. I travelled from Syracuse down to Ithaca last week to hear Pearson speak at Cornell, hoping to glean insights into what it’s like to be a science communicator. The seminar included plenty of entertaining anecdotes – my favorite of which was how she got into science writing, a story which centers around ordering pubic lice on the internet. Interesting assignment tales aside, Pearson shared some honest and straight-forward advice on breaking into science communication: foster your connections, get savvy in the ways of the internet, and perhaps above all else – write every day.

To improve the quality of the writing you produce, Pearson could not have been more clear on her top tip: practice daily. I initially though she was suggesting writing a full-blown science story of a blog post everyday, which surely would improve your science communication skills, but sounds incompatible with trying to complete a graduate degree. Pearson corrected my misconception by suggesting writing about any topic and gave an example of an early post she was particularly proud of: a parody of Poe’s “The Raven” about a squirrel living in her basement.

Now that you’re consistently producing written products, make them easier for your audience to find by learning about “the backend” of content you produce on the web. Pearson really hammered home the notion that you may have the best material, but if people can’t find it, your content isn’t worth much. When trying to spread research results to a broad audience it’s important to consider tech stuff that scientists, or at least this scientist, usually doesn’t consider. Including relevant tags in metadata, setting a featured photo – bonus points for including a person in said photo, and crafting a search snippet to appear below your content’s website title in search results are all ways to make your work easier to find.

Though it may be considered a dirty word in certain academic fields, networking can play an important role in meeting new people and finding jobs. The idea of building a network of connections is nothing new, but in the age of twitter it’s become easier to gain access to those who are big enough deals in their field to otherwise be out of reach. Following those you admire professionally gives you insight into what they’re thinking about and the topics they engage with. Judicious use of tweeting at people when you produce something relevant to their interests can get you exposure. As a relative newbie to twitter and its vast networking potential, I was particularly fond of Pearson’s spin on the “Golden Rule” as applied to the appropriateness of directly tweeting someone you don’t know – if you wouldn’t find it creepy to receive the tweet you’ve crafted, then tweet away.

With all the skills I gathered from Pearson’s talks it’s clear where I need to begin if I want to be a successful science communicator. I need to start writing. Writing about my science, about interesting talks I hear, about any housebound squirrels; I need to start writing a lot.

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