So, if you are reading this, you’re in a new place! Science Decoded officially now lives here on my main website, and I’d love to know what you think of the design/functionality. The fact that you are reading this also means that I’ve broken my blogging hiatus. I never actually meant to take a break from blogging, but for something that is strictly a labor of love I completely lost heart somewhere in the late spring, and it just cascaded from there.
When I talked to friends and colleagues about why I let the blog trail off into nothingness I most often was met with the assessment that I was having a “quarter life crisis” or and “existential crisis” but crisis feels like a strong term for simply not wanting to do something that I didn’t think mattered. Though I suppose it is somewhat existential and conveniently timed to turning 25 that I took to questioning not only what role I play in this whole science communication ecosystem, but also what the point is of having a blog when so many others exist that seem to have far more purpose and clear direction.
I very much want what I do to have value, and yet it has increasingly felt like I just need to back away slowly from the Internet and stop contributing to the noise. In my most grouchy “get off my lawn” moments, that is what a lot of my engagement with science and other science communicators started to feel like, noise. People with opinions about stuff. You are never going to run out of people with opinions about stuff. Sure, I have opinions about stuff, but who gives a damn? Thinking this way forced me to turn inward and stop sharing things altogether.
So I attended this workshop at MIT
With this situation brewing for months, I found myself invited to a two day workshop hosted by MIT on the “Evolving Culture of Science Engagement.” Fancy, right? Kind of I guess, it was mildly intimidating and imposter syndrome inducing to find myself grouped together with a fascinating and accomplished collection of science communicators. Our task was to talk about the myriad ways that people run up against science on the daily – in a closed door meeting.
So, sitting there is a hush-hush gathering about science engagement, I obviously seized the opportunity to share all of my opinions about all of the stuff and blow the minds of science communication giants like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Robert Krulwich – right? Sort of. By sort of I mean I sat in the back row and listened to other people share their opinions about stuff, I watched a cat video at one point (during a break, geez) and I thought a lot about what value I could possibly add to the room. I attended this meeting for two days and didn’t say one word in the open forum. Not one word. What a wasted opportunity right? Right (hangs head in shame.)
The more I tried to think of something to say, the more I turned inward on the principle that I don’t need to hear myself talk, unless I have something of value to impart to others I’d rather sit down and shut up. So I let my thoughts about science, communication, culture, and engagement percolate. I’m not so self-depricating as to think that I don’t have value – I know I have value – but I struggle to describe what I do, why I do it, and how that might help others.
I’ve come to the conclusion that most of my struggle is coming from the fact that my job is completely atypical in the whole spectrum of science communication. I don’t know anyone else (if you exist, please make yourself known) who does what I do. Doing something unusual is great – if you can embrace it. I’ve been carrying around what can only be described as a sense of embarrassment for over a year now about a job that I love, which is ridiculous and perhaps proof that I actually have been in a crisis of sorts.
Science Writer, party of one
I’m not a journalist, I don’t report the news, interview unbiased sources, or write stories of any sort of investigative nature. I’m not a public information officer or communications officer – I have never written a press release, and I do not promote research to reporters to get it into the news. I’m not a scientist – no research here, not even science of science communication. I’m not a creator, I don’t make anything in the realm of videos, podcasts, animations, photographs, art, data visualizations or anything else. I’m not a curator, I don’t consistently link or archive the work of others in any way. I’m not a teacher, dear God, don’t leave me alone with the little humans. I’m also not out in the community, I don’t run shows or events and I’m not about to volunteer for some citizen science. So…what’s left? Right. Development.
I’m a science writer in a fundraising office. People in development don’t know what I do, and other science writers don’t really know what I do – but what I do seems valuable, at least to me. I don’t fundraise for cancer research; instead I am an elaborate thank you note for people who already support science, but only because they’ve encountered cancer in some way. Cancer effects everyone and on the long list of things cancer doesn’t care about , cancer doesn’t care if you like science or not, if you or a loved one has it – you’re in a for a crash course in biomedicine.
Since I started this job, I’ve felt a stigma attached to being a science writer in development as if the fact that I’m connected to the finances of my institution puts a big scarlet “M” for Money right across my chest. It does, I guess. It weighs heavy on me in everything else that I do that I must disclose that I work in development for cancer research, because I think transparency is essential to maintaining legitimacy. But I still feel embarrassed about my scarlet letter, as if I somehow flunked out of all the other career options and this is where I ended up. I chose this job, and I continue to choose it because I love it.
I’m not exactly sure when or why it became cool to be unhappy and stressed out. People seem to bond over being mutually unhappy and this is strange to me because I’ve also conversely found that people don’t like to be around someone who is negative. We can bond over our shared woes but don’t be too down or no one will like you. Well, I don’t really have any shared woes – while every job has downsides, in doing something so different my concerns rarely overlap with the concerns I hear from other science writing friends. I don’t want to be a downer so I try not to share things that only matter to me, and it also feels weird and uncomfortable to be all “things are good – I get paid to do a job that I enjoy and feel good about and I have health insurance and yay” because no one likes that person either. So I end up saying nothing. Then I say nothing in a room full of important people at MIT and I feel bad about that. It’s silly.
I get up everyday and go to work because I like explaining research to people and letting them know that what they’ve done by supporting science really matters. I get to talk to scientists, I get to write, and I get to tell people they’ve done a good thing. I feel really good about this role, and confession time: it isn’t a stepping stone to becoming a journalist or a PIO or anything else. I want to be an advocate for science with people who have the means to do something about it – it makes me feel useful.
This means the blog is changing a bit
So how does my personal revelation that I need to own being content with my job become something relevant to anyone else? I keep coming back to the idea of knowing your audience. On the second day of the workshop it felt like the group was spinning its wheels talking about communicating to two groups: students, and science deniers (the later prompting a bit of “Oh, you crazy Americans” from the Brits in the room.) But if we are really talking about culture and engagement, I think my audience is actually a fantastic target.
I write for people who are educated, who largely think science and research are good things. But the vast majority of them aren’t stake holders in science – they are just ordinary people who have encountered a disease and want to do something about it. It is this person, the person who knows a little about science and is sort of interested but doesn’t really think about it until it crosses into their life in a prominent way, that I think is the audience we really need to go after if we want our American culture to encompass science in a more significant role.
So all of my hand wringing about my career and what I do and why it might matter actually led me to a tangible conclusion – and back to the blog. When I look at how the blog has evolved over time it has become less about science “news” and increasingly about my own interactions with science. The books I read, the people I talk to, the places I go, the things that I see or that happen to people I know. These are snapshots of science crossing into my life, and perhaps the value is simply in sharing them. I have a backlog of months of posts to write, none of them are timely, but (I hope) all of them are interesting, all of them are science, and all of them are things that someone who isn’t typically into science might connect with – things that have potential to alter the perception of science from a thing for people who are already into science to a thing that is just all around you, and a part of life.
This was a very long winded way to say that the blog is back, with a newly defined purpose and more posts coming soon. I’m also going to stop completely overthinking my job and what it means and just own the fact that what I do is a little unusual and I like it alot. So, crisis averted.