What I Learned From 5 Weeks of Science Communication

Anna here –

As an undergrad wrapping up my first year of college this past spring, I remember sitting in my dorm room with a thermos of hot tea, scanning website after website, asking myself what I was going to do with my summer. At the time, I was about halfway through my first-ever geology class, which had sent me on an earth and climate science kick that inspired most of my searches. Eventually, my professor sent me a link to the TimeScavengers website and internship information page. It seemed like a perfect opportunity – something that would allow me to geek out about science from the comfort of my own home, where I could still spend time with my friends and family. I decided to apply.

Naively, I assumed the internship would be a breeze. Looking back, I’m ashamed of how smug I felt about it – I had grown up hearing people telling me that I was a good writer, and that I was a good scientist, so I imagined that it wouldn’t be that hard to combine the two. Within the first week, I quickly found out I was mistaken. It turned out that there’s likely a reason most scientists aren’t writers, and vice versa: because it is hard. 

For me, the biggest challenge was the time and effort it took to dissect each article to a level where I could rewrite it for others. I remember multiple occasions when I put my highlighter away, thinking I fully understood an article, only to sit in front of an empty Google Doc and realize I had to go back and reread an entire section. I discovered there was a huge difference between understanding something in my brain and putting it in words. (This, of course, was shortly followed by the realization that the understanding locked in my brain was probably not all that complete to begin with). Point being, there’s another layer of insight that comes with trying to explain science, and, as painful as that layer might be to reach, it will definitely be beneficial in the long run.

While nothing about the internship proved impossible, it certainly challenged me in ways I didn’t expect. However, I was also struck by how much easier these processes became over time. In one of my first articles, I remember essentially skipping over a methods section that had too many big, scientific-looking words. The task of sorting through all of them, looking them up, rereading and rewriting seemed too daunting, and my mentors, Sam and Alex, had to explain the whole thing to me. On a more recent article, however, I was able to plow through an equally challenging methods section on my own. I sprawled out at a table at a library nearby, a printed out and highlighted article in front of me, with a notebook on one side and my laptop to look up words with on the other side. It still took quite a while, but it was satisfying in the end to see the improvements I had made over the course of the internship.

In the end, I don’t think my time with TimeScavengers has changed the path I hope to take as a scientist. If anything, the hours reading articles made me realize how much I itched to be out in the field doing my own research, rather than pouring over someone else’s. However, this internship definitely changed my perspective on science communication going forward. It seems to me that anyone who seeks the fancy title of “scientist” should also seek the title of “science communicator.” After all, earth-shattering research is worth nothing if only the researcher themself knows about it – they must be able to convey their findings to everyone else in order for it to make an impact. I also hope to make accessibility a priority in any research that I do in the future, so that aspiring scientists feel encouraged, rather than intimidated, when reading my findings.

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