Paving a path for yourself is never straightforward. Kayla Wiles, relations intern at ELIXIR, has paved this path in her mission as a science writer. As she balances values from scientists, physicians, and other professionals for the general public, she achieves these goals in communicating life science information. In this interview with her, we’ll share how she does it.
Hussain: Beginning with the basics…why science writing?
KW: I used to think that I had made up the idea of science writing – I didn’t know anyone else at the time who had merged a mutual love of both science and communication into a single career. Going to the AAAS Annual Meeting in Boston this year really showed me that science writing isn’t just a career; it’s a global necessity. And because it’s a necessity to communicate research across different cultures for the sake of mankind’s survival and curiosity, science writing is most definitely not just my idea. I like that I’m on a mission.
Hussain: As an undergraduate, you made your own degree: Health Journalism. You chose which courses to take and figured out which opportunities were right for you. What made you decide to take such an independent approach to your college career?
KW: Towards the end of my freshman year at Furman University, I felt like I needed to start thinking about a major. My adviser pulled out the university’s course catalog and asked me to make a list of courses from each major that I would be interested in taking. The problem was that my lists were about the same length for five different majors. Noting this, my adviser asked if I had heard about Furman’s Individualized Curriculum Program – a way to merge courses from different departments into a single major, provided that the degree still met certain criteria.
Her solution was a relief for me. I felt that if I had chosen just one or two majors, I would have missed out on other courses that would develop me as a writer. I graduated knowing how the body works on a basic level (biology), how diseases can be prevented and the public health measures that affect them (health sciences), the role of the media and how to write creatively (communication studies and English), and why health care systems matter (economics).
Hussain: When you go through story ideas, how do you generally decide what makes a good story?
KW: On a superficial level, if I would read it on a phone. I don’t like reading things on phones, so if a story is engaging enough to overcome my discomfort with small touch screens and doesn’t take up more than two minutes of my time, then I think it’s a winner. The angle matters too – sometimes the research itself isn’t new, but the context is fresh or trendy. I wrote a story once that put iron overload (not new) in the context of the flu season (because keeping zinc and vitamin C levels balanced with iron levels promotes a healthier immune system). People are interested in stories that relate to them, so the good story will be creative in making that case.
Hussain: Your background in health, biology, and journalism give you breadth of interaction that other writers might not have. How does your work communicating between medical professionals and journalists shape the way you write?
KW: I didn’t really think about this until I came to the U.K. and was tasked with writing to scientists more frequently than to the public. Scientists might want to know more details about how a new technology or biological mechanism works, but they are still drawn to pictures, catchy headlines, and concise sentences just like any other average person. My courses in biology/health sciences gave me the flexibility to understand both levels – the technical jargon and the more commonly-used terms. Journalism courses helped me to be aware of my audience and determine which level of detail would best tell them what they need to know.
A veteran science writer once told me that it’s more important for a journalist to understand how science works than to know everything possible within a particular field; new research changes our understanding of the human body every day. But if a journalist can approach a study with the scientific method in mind and practice, then he/she will know better than to communicate something at face value. Medical professionals need to be fact-checked, too.
Hussain: Your story “Using language skills to detect Alzheimer’s” draws upon linguistics, cognitive science, and neuroscience in a health setting. What are some ways you, as a writer, approach explaining these interdisciplinary areas of research?
KW: I love interdisciplinary. For this particular article, I had to organize three different studies into common themes and explain how each made an argument that language is a potential tool for detecting Alzheimer’s disease before it happens. Because this message was coming from several different disciplines, I think it was easier to convince the reader that this is a plausible idea. The challenge was communicating all this concisely and engagingly. I still have lots of room to improve on that.
Hussain: Which science writers are your favorites to follow and why?
KW: I’ve followed several science news outlets for a while, but didn’t really think about following individual writers until recently. Right now, my favorites are Nsikan Akpan from PBS NewsHour and freelance writer Cassandra Willyard. Akpan communicates science news with a lot of personality and through several different kinds of media. He uses humor and energy as a way to draw in the public to scientific discoveries. Willyard, on the other hand, writes narrative ledes that read like fiction but are actually introducing you to a story that’s real.
She also knows how to be witty and objective at the same time.
Hussain: Name one book everyone should read.
KW: The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini. I love how Hosseini creates the portrait of a war-torn country through the eyes of an evolving protagonist. Hosseini’s style is clean, meaningful, and makes an unhappy ending satisfying. This is a style that I hope to emulate – one that provides the reader with a lot of depth but does not overwhelm with details.
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