Scientists Are Storytellers - Or At Least They Should Be
Career Story by Natalie Cain, Scientific Editor at Cell Reports
I didn’t always intend to be a scientist. As a kid, I was pretty certain I’d end up in a creative career - an artist, a writer, a photographer; something like that. Those plans changed after the recombinant DNA unit in freshman year biology. Once I held a pipette in my hand and saw bands on a gel, I immediately decided biology was awesome and all I wanted to do.
What surprised me in the beginning, though, is that my scientific career has also allowed me to use my creative side. Of course, as a bench scientist it’s important to be creative in problem solving, whether you are figuring out how to design an experiment, or what your data might mean. But contrary to conventional wisdom, it is also useful to bring that creativity to your scientific writing. Not at the level of the writing itself - it’s true that scientific writing should be clear, straightforward, and relatively free of rhetorical flourishes. Rather, creativity is very important when deciding how to structure the paper - how to tell your story.
I first learned this approach to science communication from my Ph.D. advisor. I noticed that when he talked about previous work in the lab, he wouldn’t call them papers or projects, he’d call them stories. He taught me that transitions were crucial in writing or talks for keeping your audience with you, helping them understand how each piece of data connects to the next and builds the final model. Like a storyteller, you build a narrative that hooks your readers or listeners and gets them excited about your research. I brought this approach to my postdoc and used it to assemble a story out of an interesting observation, “confirmatory results”, and “negative data” that was accepted as a short report in JCB and featured on the issue’s cover.
In retrospect, this experience probably was the first to seed the idea of an editorial career in my mind. Others began asking my advice on their papers and grants, and as I helped them sculpt their narratives I was also honing my ability to approach a new paper and distill it down to its take-home message, even if outside my immediate field. I use that skill the most in my current position as a Scientific Editor at Cell Press. That said, because my journal, Cell Reports, has a very broad scope, a close second would be the ability to quickly give myself a crash course on a new topic. For instance, if there’s a paper on axon guidance in my inbox, I need to understand it well enough to describe the major findings to my colleagues and recommend a course of action (review or reject, usually). Luckily, I’m not completely on my own - I have an office full of brilliant and helpful colleagues with their own areas of expertise ready to help.
In many ways, this career wasn’t exactly what I expected, but the transition has been nearly seamless and I’m excited to go to work every day. To hear more about it, and how UC Davis’s BEST program helped me get there, please join me in the Louise Slaughter Conference Room 1-9555 at noon on Wednesday, July 11th for my Career Story. I love answering questions, so bring lots of them! I hear there will be pizza.
And if you want to hear more insights into publishing your paper at Cell Press and Cell Reports, stay for my talk at 1PM. Everyone is welcome, so make sure to invite your labmates and advisors!
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