By Rebecca Dell
COLUMBIA, Mo. — She started out as a researcher, but en route to her Ph.D. in molecular genetics, Tina Hesman Saey realized she didn’t want the lab life she had envisioned.
So she finished her Ph.D. at Washington University in St. Louis and moved on to Boston University for a master’s in science journalism. When she finished that degree, Saey jokes, she graduated from the 27th grade.
Now Saey works at Science News, writing features and news stories on molecular biology. Her recent features include “Life Support,” on the role the placenta plays in pregnancy, and “From Great Grandma to You,” on the epigenetic changes that are passed from generation to generation. On March 7, 2014, Hesman held a Skype Q&A session with Sara Shipley Hiles‘ Science, Health and Environmental Science Writing class to share some of her best practices.
Her Ph.D. doesn’t mean that she’s versed in every subject she writes about, she says. The letters after her name can lend her credibility for initial interviews with scientists, but if she’s working on a story about geology or physics, she needs to learn a whole new discipline. When she worked in a lab, she got to specialize in one topic. As a science writer, she gets to cover a broad range of specialties.
One of Saey’s strengths is her ability to communicate complex scientific processes using analogies that the everyday reader can understand. In “From Great Grandma to You,” she calls the womb “the antithesis of Las Vegas; what happens there not only doesn’t stay there, it can influence a child’s health for life.” That analogy helps readers understand the big picture. Then she zooms in, writing about “scribblings in the genome’s margin” and “a censor’s black marker” to describe subtle changes to DNA.
Here are some of Saey’s tips and lessons for you aspiring science writers out there — whether or not you have a doctorate.
- Get scoops by staying current with journal articles.
- Reach out to new sources regularly. “Science is an international initiative,” Saey says, and she wants to curate points of view that reflect this.
- Try to get scientists to explain things to you like they would explain them to a neighbor. “Try to give them some specific person who wouldn’t have a scientific background,” Saey says. You might have to help them. “Some scientists are really good at offering up analogies,” Saey says. “Most are not.” If you come up with a sparkling analogy, test it out on the scientist to see if it’s accurate.
- Avoid using too many analogies for the same topic. It’s the equivalent of mixing metaphors. Saey often tries to find an analogy she can use as a framework throughout her story.
- Riddle your prose with action. Verbs that Saey uses in “Life Support” include forge, invade, reroute, lodge, anchor, plug and pounce.
- Be very, very clear about the difference between correlation and causation. Most scientific studies aren’t going to show a huge breakthrough, and exploratory research shouldn’t be reported in a sensational way.