Author: Joshua Tusin
Date: September 2005
"I'd NEVER try to tell my mother what I do every day." That was the response Jennifer Boeth Donovan, a science writer, heard from a biochemist she once interviewed. Donovan was trying to get the scientist to explain her work in something approximating lay English, so she could understand it well enough to re-explain it in her article.
After several unsuccessful attempts, Donovan had asked her usually foolproof question: "Tell me what you do every day the way you would explain it to your mother." With a horrified expression, the biochemist had replied that she would never try to tell her mom what she does every day.
"I have been making a living writing and editing for over 30 years," Donavan explains. She now writes for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute where she is the science education editor.
But getting to this point was not a straight shot for Donovan. She always knew she wanted to write, but never expected to specialize in science.
"I worked as a general assignment reporter and feature writer on newspapers and worked my way up to a level of trust from editors that enabled me to cover what I liked best," she said. To her surprise, medical science and everything related to the topic were her favorite stories. Even people close to Donovan would never have expected her to pick science.
Looking at Donovan's formal education, nothing directly prepared her for a career as a science writer. As a college undergraduate, Donovan received a bachelor's of arts in sociology and minored in psychology. As a graduate student, Donovan's focus was journalism. "I am self-educated in the life sciences and science writing," she says.
If this winding road seems appealing, Donovan warns that self-education, "is a tough way to do it." However, when she was in college, the opportunities available today did not exist. She says these include science writing programs, student memberships in the National Association of Science Writers (NASW), and JYI.
Donovan suggests that someone who likes writing and science avail him or herself of as many of those opportunities as possible, in addition to majoring in a related field. She adds that having a lot of experience in and knowledge of the science-writing field will make it an easier path than Donovan has traveled.
For students who want to pursue science writing, Donovan has a few suggestions. "NASW is the best starting place," she says. "They have student memberships which are a worthwhile investment in an undergraduate science writer's future." The NASW student memberships entitle students to all of the same benefits and opportunities full members have, except holding office and voting for officers. The most valuable resources available to students include the extensive listing of internships and educational programs, as well as an opportunity for mentoring.
Donovan also suggests checking with the campus journalism or communications department, the university news or public affairs office and local newspapers for possible internships. They often use summer or school year interns. Publications such as Science News also make use of interns. The Council for the Advancement of Science Writing offers fellowships for graduate study and may also have information on internships.
Donovan further recommends working for the campus newspaper. Writing for a school newspaper provides practice and can later help an aspiring science writer obtain an internship at a "real" newspaper or magazine, she says.
In addition to these experiences, Donovan says, "I would recommend an undergraduate degree in a science." Attending a graduate program in science writing is a valuable next step. Donovan suggests programs such as the ones offered at the University of California at Santa Cruz, Johns Hopkins, or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Donovan makes use of what may seem like many resources in order to write her stories, but each performs an essential task and they are resources she recommends to science writers. "I have at my fingertips (and constantly refer to) the following books: Dorland's Medical Dictionary; A Dictionary of Genetics; Introduction to Molecular Medicine; the AP (Associated Press)Stylebook; The Elements of Style; The Elements of Grammar; The Elements of Editing; The Art of Readable Writing; a good thesaurus and a good dictionary."
Donovan also uses Internet sources like MedLine, BioMedNet, MedScape, Bio Tech Life Science Dictionary, the NASW, and Resources for Science Writers. She also uses sites like those of the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the National Academies.
However, some of Donovan's most important information will always come from interviews with scientists, although interviews are not always as straightforward as she would like them to be.
As Donovan found with her biochemist interviewee, it's not always easy to eliminate the jargon and explain science in clear, accurate and readable language. Making sure an article makes sense and is accurate and interesting is a difficult but rewarding job.
"Only do it if you love it, and if you love it, do it," she says, "no matter who says you'll never make it or how little you get paid at the start."
Related web sites
Howard Hughes Medical Institute (http://www.hhml.org) - search for Jennifer Boeth Donovan to read her articles for the HHMI's quarterly magazine,. She also writes "Grants in Action" Web features, without a byline. Go to http://www.hhmi.org/news/ and click on "science education."
National Association of Science Writers (http://www.nasw.org)
Council for the Advancement of Science Writing (http://www.casw.org)
Bio Tech Life Science Dictionary (http://biotech.icmb.utexas.edu/pages/dictionary.html)
Resources for Science Writers (http://www.esf.org/eusja/)
MedLine - now accessed through PubMed (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi)
National Institutes of Health (http://www.nih.gov/)
National Science Foundation (http://www.nsf.gov/)
National Academies (http://www.nas.edu/)