This publication was originally posted on the hellobio blog in February 2021.
Six years ago, my brand-new university degree qualified me to apply for a Ph.D. program studying strange stuff in strange places.
Luckily, I got a scholarship, moved to a remote place in the UK and my initial experiments kicked off alright. Everything seemed to be under control. I was excited! Until I had to write my first year report.
“You don’t write like a typical scientist,” my first Ph.D. supervisor said at the time, handing me back my review draft. I wasn’t sure whether to take his remark as an encouragement, a dismissal, or both. In my Neverland he might as well have said that I write like a pro.
Right, but in reality he just grimaced. I guessed he had meant it as a criticism and that was OK. I’ve always thought of myself as some sort of inspired typist anyway. Still, I asked for an explanation. “Look, these two words over here,” he said. “This doesn’t sound like science.”
The words were “treasure trove”. They are friendly words. Non-academic words, lyrical words, and words that don’t make me sound like a scientist.
So for the next few months, I had to forget about such words, and it was heart-breaking. Not because “treasure trove” sounded really good, but because of the lesson I had to learn: poetic words don’t belong in science. Writing academic prose should be, ideally, purely objective, remote and insular, technical and specialized – whilst my writing was all about perspective, subjectivity, and the confused experience that was science.
I thought I’d give myself the best shot at success if I worked hard at sounding like a scientist. My hopes were high. So I found a few courses on the internet and changed my focus to academic writing. For a few months, I was all-in; I practised economy in writing, used impersonal expressions, maintained a temperate and critical tone, avoided colloquial phrases, run-on sentences, and extreme verbosity. But each time I read aloud what I wrote, it felt fake, as if I was trying to be somebody I wasn’t.
There were times when I imagined that sounding like a scientist surely required some sort of inborn talent, like a SLAS (sounding-like-a-scientist”) gene. But I wasn`t sure I had that gene since no one in my family had been a scientist, let alone a non-native writer. I come from the wrong side of the tracks, as they say. I had worked my way into a decent PhD, but I didn’t write the way my colleagues did – or the way I imagined scientists did.
Then, a few paragraphs later, my review finally got the green light. But the excitement was gone. I got bored. I didn’t get the point of scientific discovery if the literature itself is not exciting and interesting to read. While academic writing is meant for a few specialists in the field and as such is probably the most personal writing there is, I couldn’t imagine my whole career writing in such a way.
“Bummer, I need something else,” I thought.
This awareness led me to participate in a few writing programmes, workshops and online courses. I even undertook an internship in the science communication environment to meet potential mentors and improve the way I wanted to write about science. Some were one-week intensives; others, like my internship, ran for a few months. Some focused on personal essays. Several covered technical exposition. One was about narrative analysis and design. In other words, I’ve been learning to see science writing not as a way of asserting the intellectual superiority, but as a way of listening and understanding to one another better. In return, I realised that the biggest issue for me wasn’t the fact that I may not write as a typical scientist – it was the mindset that writing as a typical scientist is how we all should write.
Still, it took some time to turn myself around. I had to carefully read strong writing, studying its structure and form, and copying it stylistically until I found my own voice. But the more I learnt about science writing, the more I started learning about science as well. Science, after all, is one of the oldest and most enduring stories we have. It’s about searching for answers, struggling with setbacks, persevering through tedium and competing with colleagues all eager to put forth their own ideas about how the world works. Perhaps most of all, it’s about women and men, students and professors, people from every colour and creed, dreamers and logical thinkers, all driven by their infatuation with curiosity. This led me to understand that I don’t need to sound like a typical scientist in order to be one.
More than five years have elapsed since those days in grad school – and my adviser has changed in the meantime – but, since then, I have stopped second guessing my writing and, to my surprise, even landed a job as a science writer at one of the most esteemed chemical journals out there.
Yes, I may have failed in my attempts to sound like a “typical scientist”. But at least, I scooped out a treasure trove of lessons.
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