For the first in our series “Conversations about Science Writing,” MiSciWriters editor-in-chief Irene Park chatted with Kara Gavin, a lead Public Relations representative for the Michigan Medicine and the Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation. Irene asked Kara some questions about her experiences that led to her current position and whether she has any tips for new, budding science writers.
The transcript is lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
MSW: Could you describe your current position?
KG: I am one of seven writers on the staff at the Michigan Medicine Department of Communication. I find and tell stories about research for a very broad audience to internal and external worlds – about the research going on in medical school labs.
I’ve been at the University for almost 18 years. When I first started, there was not a lot of research coverage. It was very much hospital PR [public relations] with very little research news. Over time, we noticed that we could get so much more attention with research news than clinical news. So it became more about finding stories about research and translating them into stories to represent the institution.
The advance of social media means that everything we produce reaches many audiences. We are always looking for reporters to get interested in the research we write about, so there is a media relations function still. Now, everything I write goes up the University of Michigan Health Lab blog. The blog was created last year as a platform for sharing not only research news but reflections on science and society and Q&A’s with researchers.
My job is equal parts writing, connecting reporters with our experts, and cultivating future stories by giving talks. I give several talks a month: teaching researchers how to use Twitter as professionals, or why they should engage in the PR process.
MSW: What experiences led to your interest in science writing? Was there anything that surprised you?
KG: When I was in high school, I knew I was decent at writing and I really liked science. My dad is an ecologist and my mom is a nurse, so I had that background going on in my family. I considered majoring in science, but I specifically looked for colleges that offered a science writing degree.
I ended up going to Lehigh University and double-majored in science writing and biology. During my time as an undergraduate research assistant, I realized that I was not cut out to methodically count algae spores with a baseball clicker and look for how many were on the verge of dividing. Maybe it was just that project, but I thought, “Research is just not for me.” I am not patient enough. I like learning about new things and sharing those things. I still wanted to be around science, talk to scientists, and share new findings in science, so science writing seemed like a natural next step.
So I applied for graduate school in journalism, got in, and went to Columbia for the one-year master’s degree in journalism. I was the only one with a bachelor’s degree in science. Most people majored in journalism, political science, or government. It opened my eyes to how few journalists have any understanding and training in science. They may be curious about it but did not major in it.
My internship at Brookhaven National Laboratory turned into a job – I was there for six years. There I was exposed to many different fields of research: particle physics, environmental research, energy research, and medical research. Once I wrote about the clinical research based on an accelerator-based approach to treat glioblastoma. The researchers were going to aim the particle accelerator beam at the tumor and energize boron in the drug to implode the tumor from within. It sounded great! Afterward, all these people called our PR office because they read what I wrote, and they were really hopeful.
That was my first taste of the medical world and medical science writing. There is a big responsibility. While you get the attention for promising research, you also raise hope – how you phrase things and explain how far the research is from the clinic are very important.
MSW: What is your favorite part of the job? The most challenging?
KG: My favorite is often when I work with a faculty member for the first time, who has never worked with the PR office. Helping them see the power of what we do and how they can go beyond publishing a paper – getting your paper out to the public as well as to their peers – is really fun.
The challenges are when researchers aren’t comfortable with how I want to describe the science or when they want to add extra paragraphs explaining the science. How do you say no to the researchers? I don’t say no, but I say: “How about this instead? Instead of focusing on this one paper, let’s wait for the next article or find a societal issue this paper relates to.” I never want to shut down researchers and have them think that we are not interested in their work.
MSW: Do you have any specific tips for new science writers?
For science students who might have majored in science – bachelor’s, master’s, or even PhD – who are interested in science writing, can you get a tenure-track position and still maintain a blog? I think it has been done, and it could be done. Having that credential is actually very powerful. The articles in The Conversation get picked up because they are coming from the experts, not from PR representatives or mediators.
For students who want to step off the scientific career path, I would like to see more PhD-level researchers hired by academic communication offices. Traditionally, we have hired journalists or people trained in PR or marketing. We need a variety of perspectives – people who are trained as journalists or in PR will not understand how hard it is to get research published or understand how seemingly incremental findings are actually big findings. Those who are interested need to get as much practice as they can in writing for the general audiences*. And get feedback – you need to know if your metaphors and images really work.
*Editor’s note: MiSciWriters is always looking for new writers, editors, and leaders. Joining MSW is a great way to take Kara’s advice and get practice in science writing and editing, with lots of constructive feedback!
About this series: Conversations about Science Writing is a series of interviews with people of varied experiences in science writing. If you know anyone who works in these areas – including yourself – let us know!