About 2 years into my Ph.D., I began to realize that I couldn't imagine my life as a researcher in 5 years' time and to wonder why that might be. Why wasn't I enthusiastic about where my first, second, or even third postdoc would be and into which new and fascinating areas of oceanography they would lead me?
It wasn't that I didn't enjoy my particular area of research. I did. I still do. But I had begun to realize that my heart (and perhaps my skills) lay outside academic research. I felt like I wanted to be a communicator of leading-edge science but not necessarily a doer of it myself. Could I admit that and still say I had a passion for science?
In a quest to find out, I arranged to do a weeklong placement at the BBC online science and environment news desk in London. I immediately found myself at the forefront of cutting-edge science news, reporting new research as soon as it was released. For each news piece, I extracted details from academic papers, contacted scientists for interviews and independent comment, and then condensed everything into an engaging news story. It was an incredible buzz, and I was thrilled to see my byline on the latest science news.
My experience at the BBC gave me the science-writing bug. I was hooked on making innovative and seemingly quite specialized science accessible and interesting to the average person.
A couple of weeks later, I came across the perfect opportunity to gain more insight and experience in science communication: a monthlong press office internship with the Society for Experimental Biology (SEB). I applied for and got the position. I spent a few days at the SEB offices to familiarize myself with the society and my duties as a press officer. After that, I worked for about 2.5 weeks from home preparing for the societies annual meeting. Finally, I worked the 4-day conference in Prague.
My first task was to identify newsworthy research out of the 500-plus talks being presented at the conference and to write interesting and eye-catching press releases about them. The research included a variety of topics, from the complex sequence of genetic processes that control when a plant flowers to how three-legged dogs could help robot design and what ostrich anatomy could tell us about dinosaurs. I set about contacting the scientists behind about 10 of the presentations I chose to find out more about their work and, in their own words, why they thought it was important.
I found being a press officer was quite different from being a science reporter. It's one step closer to the science and the scientists than journalism is. I felt that my task was to personally represent each one of the scientists; to convey their extensive knowledge, passion, and enthusiasm; and to attract a wider audience to their fascinating work.
Even though I was not writing the articles myself this time, I found that writing a well-crafted, succinct but informative press release that successfully competed with other news releases for the attention of science journalists and editors was both challenging and extremely fulfilling.
The week before the conference, my press notices were released online to the international press. I was nervous and excited but most of all just impatient for it all to begin. I had gotten to know each of my scientists and the details of their research so well that I couldn't wait to meet them and finally put some faces to names.
The few days of the conference were a flurry of e-mails, phone calls, and visits from local, national, and international press. I dealt with a constant stream of requests for information, quotes, and images from journalists worldwide. I contacted news editors from TV, radio, scientific journals, and national newspapers to try to gain extra coverage. I arranged and supervised the scientists' interviews with reporters, some conducted in person and others by phone. I was constantly looking out for further opportunities to generate attention for my news stories, not to mention attending talks and poster sessions over the busy 4 days of the conference.
Many of the scientists I was representing had never done any media engagement before, so I found myself coaching them on doing interviews. I loved being the facilitator and mediator, a bridge between the scientific and journalistic worlds.
Research news from the conference gained some fantastic press coverage in national newspapers in the United Kingdom, Europe, and the United States, on several high-profile online news sites, and in hundreds of Internet sites and blogs worldwide. I got such a buzz knowing that I had helped make that happen, that I had been a catalyst for getting some great scientific research into the public domain.
These experiences consolidated what I think I already knew in my heart: The things I love most about science are the people and the stories. Just as in my Ph.D. work, I was surrounded by new and exciting science at the BBC and SEB. But suddenly I was doing something I found far more satisfying: learning and writing about a far broader range of topics than before and communicating the research to a wider audience.
I have been very fortunate in having the flexibility in my work schedule and the complete support of my Ph.D. supervisor to allow me to do the placement and internship. SEB was also very understanding of my situation and helped me plan the work around my existing Ph.D. commitments.
Since my SEB internship, following a career in science communication has felt like the most natural thing in the world for me. I am in the final stages of writing my Ph.D. thesis, but I'm also writing articles, making podcasts, and watching for news story ideas whenever possible. I'll finish my Ph.D. in November, and I'm eager to take the next step onto the path toward a science communication career.
So, I have found my answer: I may be heading for a career away from research, but I most certainly still have a passion for science. Now it's a matter of finding the right position for me, and personally, I have never felt so motivated.
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Rosalind Pidcock is a Ph.D. student at the National Oceanography Centre at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom.