Professional Development Grant: Science Features


The 2015 ASC Professional Development Grant I received, for which I am very grateful, enabled me to complete a journalism course on feature writing through the Extension program at the University of California, Berkeley.

I work as a science writer for the Queensland Brain Institute, which is based at The University of Queensland. My role there involves communicating neuroscience knowledge and research news through a variety of channels, ranging from social media through podcasts to press releases.

Of the science communicator/science journalist divide, about which Bianca Nogrady wrote an excellent ASC piece last year, I’d likely sit in the communicator camp: I didn’t study journalism at university, and prior to my UC Berkeley course, I had no significant reporting experience.

In this golden age of distraction, with our 24-hour news cycle and the shift to online media consumption, with social media and the rising dominance of mobile Internet usage, attentions spans have steadily been eroded and information is reduced to as small as tweet-sized chunks. It isn’t uncommon to read a 400-word piece of science news that is little more than a fleshed-out media release.

Despite all this, the feature as a journalistic form is far from dead: the success of publications like The New Yorker signals that the demand for long-form, well researched reportage is as great as ever. Features get down to the nitty-gritty of a subject, whether it’s CRISPR gene editing or tardigrades, where shorter news pieces don’t have the scope to do so. The devil is in the details, after all.

So it was partly to expand my skillset, and partly out of interest in the feature as a journalistic form, that I chose the UC Berkeley course. The ten-week online program took us through the basics of writing a feature, from conception to pitch.

The required reading for the course was William Blundell’s The Art and Craft of Feature Writing, which is based on the Wall Street Journal guide—it’s a fantastic resource that I’d highly recommend to anyone who is interested in testing out or improving their feature-writing abilities. The book is a good guide to the entire process, from generating ideas (start with general topics of interest and brainstorm potential specific stories from there), to shaping the direction of a story (conflict always makes things interesting!) to self-editing (let your written piece rest for a while and then read it again with fresh, reader’s eyes). The course co-ordinator was herself a freelance journalist, and also gave great advice and feedback when it came to writing, as well as pitching editors.

The course had weekly assessment that culminated in the submission of a 1500–word feature article. I wrote a tech piece on ethical hackers, which I successfully pitched to The Atlantic’s science editors. The feature was fascinating to research, and I was lucky enough to interview individuals ranging from a hacker in the Philippines to a former counterterrorism analyst at the NSA.

When I talk to ‘non-sciencey’ friends, I am occasionally surprised by the discrepancy between what a layperson knows and what most people with a science background consider as being basic information. Well written, engaging science feature articles are a great way to make science accessible and bridge the knowledge gap, and I’d recommend the UC Berkeley course to anyone interested in writing them.

I went to freelance focus and what happened next will shock you!

You know those annoying Facebook posts – yeah I went there but hey if you are reading this, it worked…and who knows maybe you will be shocked by what I learnt.

The ASC kindly sponsored me to attend Freelance Focus in Brisbane, hosted by the Walkley’s Foundation. I, like many science communication professionals have been considering dabbling in some freelance writing (maybe even getting paid to do it) but had no idea how to start or where to begin, this is why I was keen to attend Freelance Focus.

After listening to many inspirational freelance writers speak, all of whom have made a career out of freelancing, I started to realise it is going to take motivation, organisation and a lot of hard work to make it a reality (even if I only want to dabble).

“Storytelling isn’t easy and takes investment from you,” as Trent Dalton from The Australian told us.

In fact, Andrew McMillen, a successful Brisbane based freelance writer, even suggested a ‘science’ to freelancing, from pitch through to end product – he has a colour coded excel spread sheet dating back to 2006 with all his articles, and comments on what worked, what didn’t work and the impact of the article – it sounded impressive…

During the Forum we heard from keynote speaker, Noah Rosenberg who is an American freelance writer and the founding Director of Narratively (URL –, which publishes the work of over 300,000 freelance writers around the globe. He spoke about four key lessons in storytelling and stated that there is a lot of opportunities available for freelance writers but with that also comes a lot of clutter and you need to figure out what is best for you. I thought I’d share these lessons with you.

His first lesson was to not be afraid to ask for help but make sure it easy for people to help. By this he didn’t just mean making sure you ask someone to proofread an article or get advice on a pitch. He was also talking about ‘help’ in the sense of promotion as well – asking other news outlets, journalists and social media sites to share and/or re-blog your work. He explained that in some cases after a 60 day period (I think it was) you can even re pitch your article to another outlet if still relevant and get paid again….if you’re lucky I suppose. However, his second point was pertinent in saying ‘make it easy for people to help.’ Don’t just send an email saying please re-share my article on Facebook but go as far as creating the Facebook post for consideration, writing tweets for people to send out and making sure your work is easy to find (online and Google-able).

Lesson two was about negotiation and he explained that creativity is key here. When starting out as a writer, he explained that it might be more worthwhile to negotiate more around how your article will be promoted rather than how much you will be paid. Is a Facebook post that can reach 10,000 people worth just as much as writing an article for $200? Hence the importance of ‘creativity’ in your negotiation and thinking about what is worth ‘value’ to you as the writer.

Lesson three was about evaluation of your own work and this links very much to lessons one and two in that it is important to create links (online) which can be tracked and evaluated so you can effectively measure who and what is working best for you when publicising your work – did you get more clicks from Twitter or Facebook? When an article was published on another blog/online website – how many clicks did it get and where did the readers come from. All important information to know and with Google Analytics – all information you should be able to access from the organisation who shared your work.

Finally, lesson four was making sure you have well defined goals and ways to achieve these goals – when you write an article, ask yourself why you are writing it, who do you want to read it, and how are you going to achieve this.

It was great to listen and learn from Noah and I certainly suggest watching the seminar Joan also posted to the ASC list recently – watch below.

Noah Rosenberg UQ 2015 – The Narratively Journey from UQ Journalism & Communication on Vimeo.

On a final note, one of the other reasons I attended Freelance Focus was to learn more about ‘how to pitch effectively to an editor’. I got a few tips and here are my main take home tips from the experts:

  • Be extremely familiar with the publications you are pitching too.
  • Make constant contacts in the writing world.
  • A mentor can be helpful when starting out.
  • Be persistent with your pitch and follow up (usually after about a week).
  • Plan ahead with your pitches – pitch weeks in advance and it can be useful to pitch up to 20 ideas at once, not just one or two.
    • With pitches tell your story in a couple of lines only, don’t have to write the full article.
  • If you get a deadline – stick to it. You will be red-flagged if you miss one.
  • Make sure your final article is polished and well researched.
  • Most editors like to see prior work, so if you rank well on Google and have your own website blog that is helpful. So basically have a strong web presence.

Want more insights – check out #FreelanceFocus on twitter which ended up trending in Brisbane due to its activity throughout the day.

You can also visit my Twitter account @ianmcd85 to see what I tweeted about on the day (August 5th).

Thanks for reading and with that I’ll leave you with my final tweet from the event…..

Learnt so much at #freelancefocus today – loved every minute – now to put my thoughts into words for the @auscicomm scope article

— Dr Ian McDonald (@ianmcd85) August 5, 2015

Become a storyteller (for science)

I had the pleasure of attending the Walkley Foundation’s Freelance Focus conference this week with support from the ASC and the UQ School of Journalism and Communication. It was a busy day, full of inspiring content that ranged from Noah Rosenberg (founder and CEO of Narratively) talking on fostering audiences and narrative, to Nathan Burman (comms guy for Twitter Australia) running a masterclass focused on best practice for the social medium.

Running  through the entire conference was the  theme of storytelling. It was a theme that seems particularly relevant to ASC given spreading science stories is a large part of what we do. So, here are five take home points that might just help you the next time you’re crafting a science story. Read along for the who, what, when, where, and why.

Who is your audience?

Before you put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), imagine your audience. Who is best suited to your tale of the impact of gravity on quantum weirdness?

Your audience shouldn’t just help you to manage the complexity of your language, it should also shape the mediums you choose to convey your story through.

What medium will you use to tell your story?

It might seem easiest to write a press release and hit send, but is that the most effective way of getting your story out there? Would a podcast be more accessible to your audience, would it make your story come alive? Choose a medium that embraces the key elements of your story – whether that be a soundbite, long-form article or ten-second GIF.

When should your story end?

Your story doesn’t need to be a one hour documentary to have impact. Think carefully about the ideal length of your work and be realistic about resourcing. It’s a cliché that rings true – sometimes less is more.

Where is the person in your story?

Personal tales make dry, complex information come alive. Whose experiences can you tap into to give warmth to your piece? Use their story to bring the unique and remarkable aspects of your story to light.

Why should people read your story?

Cultivating a community around your story will help increase its impact once published. Identify the people around you who will be interested and happy to share your tale with others.





Can We Teach Science with Fiction?

I’m a scientist. But over these past few years, I’ve discovered that I’m a writer, too. This side of myself surprised me, though it really shouldn’t have—if you’d asked me when I was 6 or 8 or 11 years old what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d have said “writer.” But then around Grade 8, I did a project on whale communication and somehow ended up becoming an ecologist studying birds, frogs and marsupials. That’s how it happens, I guess.

As an undergrad, I never realised how much of science is writing. I envisioned a career of exotic fieldwork and experimental design and gel-running, and although I do those things from time to time, I spend most of my working life (the part not feeding marsupials or cleaning their poo, anyway) reading and writing. Publishing papers, applying for grants, reporting to stakeholders—these are jobs that must be done and done well to succeed in science. In fact, there are countless metrics to calculate your scientific value based on how much you publish, where you publish and how many times your work has been cited by others in research papers, on Twitter, or in the media. So yes, I’m a writer.

But I have to admit, academic papers sucked the soul out of me and any desire to read and write I may have harboured. Between 2004–2007, I don’t think I read anything that wasn’t a journal article (except maybe the Harry Potters), and I’m pretty sure that every chapter in my PhD thesis started with the same sentence. This was not the creative, inspired writing that I’d dreamed of as a child. So when my daughter was born and I had a few years away from university life, I reacquainted myself with fiction. I read books for pleasure – stories that had nothing to do with the metabolic constraints of tadpoles or the jumping performance of metamorphic frogs. Stories that nonetheless affected me, made me see the world differently, gave me perspective. I also began writing my own stories and blogging regularly.

Now that was reading; that was writing.

I returned to academic life in 2013, but I’m not the same scientist that I was before. Now, I look for evocative, clever word usage in whatever I’m reading, and writing and editing has become one of my favourite parts of the job. But I’m not satisfied with just that. What I want to know is, can we use fiction to:

  1. improve science writing and
  2. teach science itself?

Most undergraduate and post-graduate science programs teach basic academic and essay writing, but reading and discussing fiction could show students what it is that makes great stories great – engaging and memorable. Writing fiction can give students the writing practice that’s critical for improvement and encourage them to approach ideas from different angles. I think we can teach important scientific concepts through stories, too; and no, not just science fiction stories. I’m interested in the idea that science might be integrated into stories just like spinach can be baked into chocolate brownies (yes, it’s possible!)—I love science, and I also love spinach, but I recognise that not everyone feels that way.

On a physical level, learning happens when information is gathered from the environment and placed into context, producing a lasting change in the brain. In other words – learning requires that we comprehend and that we remember. Like other art forms, fiction uses analogy and example to link information with emotion, encouraging viewers to see the same information in a different way and in the context of the human experience. Students learn better when they’re interested in the subject matter and when they see how it relates to them and their world (but particularly to them). In this regard, fiction is entertaining, and gives ideas and information a wider vantage that encourages emotional connection and big-thinking. As a supplement to traditional forms of science teaching, I think fiction could motivate, inspire and augment learning in young scientists.

Thank you to the ASC for awarding me a 2014 Professional Development grant, which supported my enrolment in an online fiction writing course through Stanford University. The 10-week course was exceptional. I learned the fundamentals of good writing (plot, character, point of view), but most importantly, I gained valuable feedback on my own short fiction. I hope to get some of my creative work published this year—and yes, it’s chock full of science.

From the president

Thank you to Claire Harris for preparing the update from the President.

If you haven’t seen the email from Rod Lamberts (9 July) you may have missed that Rod has decided to step down as President, due to health reasons.

This was not a decision I made lightly. I had some large and shiny plans for the ASC back in November last year and was enjoying the opening phases of enacting these with the ASC Executive and National Council. But having weighed up what’s possible for me, and what’s fair and practical for the ASC, the only reasonable path was for me to stand aside and let someone else take the lead.

This has been a reluctant decision, and speaking on behalf of the Executive members, and I’m sure the rest of the membership, we all feel for Rod in his situation.  We wish him the best and the Executive is glad to report that Rod will stay on the Executive and attend meetings when he can.

After discussions within the Executive and National Council (the representatives from our branch committees) I have agreed to take on the role of Acting President until the AGM. This will be a joint effort really, with Will Grant, Vice President and others in the Executive sharing the load.

As I said in my email to the list recently, this is an exciting time for the ASC. We are ramping up to the 2014 conference and will shortly be calling for expressions of interest to run sessions at the conference (keep an eye on the ASC website and Scope newsletter for updates). This event is a key pillar of the ASC associations objectives and will deliver a range of benefits, primarily to members, but also wider communities interested in science and the communication of its impacts on society.

We are also, with Will’s leadership, exploring what the future of ASC looks like with regards to professionalisation. So far, members have told us that becoming a professionalised association is something they would value. This is an important discussion and so we, on the Executive, invite your further thoughts.

I am also pleased to see that we have many enthusiastic writers working with our new Scope editor, Victoria Leitch, to bring new content to you all. This group effort has been specifically supported to encourage and harness the talent and passion of our members who want to contribute to ASC and help deliver as best we can as a volunteer association. This is a great opportunity for the writers – providing them with a tool to meet others, generate stories, build their profile and have their work delivered straight into the inbox of Scope subscribers. For all those who have been in touch to offer your time and enthusiasm, I thank you and look forward to enjoyable and rewarding projects ahead.

Another important recruitment is the general manager position – a vision shaped and implemented by the 2012 and 2013 Executives. We have received applications for this new role, which ultimately is aimed to deliver greater strategic partnerships, funding and the key projects.

I feel privileged to take on the role of president and look forward to meeting more of you over coming months. As always, your reflections on the ASC and how it is supporting or could better support its members are always welcome; either to me or your local branch reps.

Cheer squad, critic or crusader? Science and medical writers today

17 May 2013
6:00 pmto8:00 pm

Cheer squad or critic? Awareness raiser, crusader or watchdog? What is the role of science and medical writers today?

Join us for a discussion on this, and more, by a panel of expert science and medical writers in Sydney on 17 May. This is a joint event of the Australian Science Communicators and the Australasian Medical Writers’ Association.

Our speakers are:

  • Jane McCredie — executive director of the NSW Writers’ Centre
  • Mikey Slezak — Australasian correspondent for New Scientist
  • Bianca Nogrady — freelance journalist, author and broadcaster.

As well as the role of science and medical writers they’ll be covering:

  • employment options
  • audiences, styles and philosophies in science and medical writing
  • relationships with other fields.

This session is for anyone who cares about the public discussion of science and medicine.

Place: Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts, 280 Pitt St, Sydney (near Bathurst St)

Drinks and nibbles start at 6 pm, discussion begins at 6:30 pm (for about an hour).

Seating is limited and bookings are essential:

Cost: Free for ASC and AMWA members; $10 for the general public

Enquiries: Helen Sim 0419 635 905 (voice or text)


Jane McCredie is an author and journalist specialising in science and medicine. She is co-editor with Natasha Mitchell  of this year’s anthology of The Best Australian Science Writing and writes a weekly blog on medicine for the Medical Journal of Australia’s electronic sister publication, Her book on the science of sex and gender, Making Girls and Boys, was published in Australia in 2011 and in the US (under the title, Beyond X and Y) in 2012. The former popular science publisher at NewSouth Books, Jane is now executive director of the NSW Writers’ Centre.

Michael Slezak is New Scientist’s Australasian correspondent. Since starting there a year ago, he’s written about everything from dinosaur footprints to space mining, and covered every twist and turn in the Higgs boson story. Before that, he spent two years as a medical journalist at Reed Business Information and studied and taught philosophy of science at the University of Sydney.

Bianca Nogrady is a freelance science journalist, broadcaster and author, who is yet to meet a piece of research she doesn’t find fascinating. In nearly a decade of freelance reporting, she has written for publications including Scientific American, The Australian, Ecos magazine, Australian Doctor and the ABC’s health, science and environment websites. She is also author of The End: The Human Experience Of Death (in bookstores this month) and co-author of The Sixth Wave: How To Succeed In A Resource-Limited World (2010).


Request/offer from The Science Picture Company

We just received an interesting request/offer which may appeal to those seeking to get established in their sci-comm careers. It comes from The Science Picture Company, a photolibrary operating in Ireland.

I know nothing about the company other than having had a look at their website. There are a few photolibraries specialising in science related images and they are an evolving part of the visual component of science communication.

The Science Picture Company’s message follows below. Contact Kathryn if you are interested.

Jesse Shore
National President

I work for The Science Picture Company. We are a cutting edge digital illustration and animation studio specializing in all things science. See

We are developing our new blog at the moment and are inviting Science Communication Students to be part of the process (full writing credit given).

Although this isn’t a paid position at the moment the company is expanding quickly, so this may change. We’re very happy to provide recommendations and/or testimonials for successful pieces.

At the moment we are inviting submissions from graduates with a science background (life sciences in particular). Ideally the articles will be 250-700 words and referenced, but most importantly we want our blog to be interesting, visual and share friendly!

(More info: Ideally the articles will be 250-700 words and referenced, but most importantly we want our blog to be interesting, visual and share friendly! So content that is current, accessible to most people and can be illustrated by the images on our website ticks all of the boxes! Articles on how the human condition is influenced are of most interest to us, especially the more quirky and unusual ones! It’s important the articles be written in layman’s terms without excessive use of jargon. In terms of subject area we are open to suggestions and would love to have a wide variety of articles to share.

We do have quite a mix on our website! It isn’t obvious from the categories but the bulk of our work is anatomy based, sports/healthcare a secondary focus. At the moment our company is young and flexible enough to let our designers imaginations run of some sic-fi topics occasionally! )

If you think this may be of interest to any of your members we’d be delighted to hear their ideas / submissions.

Best Regards,
Kathryn Baker
3D Medical Animations & Illustrations | Stock Science Images

Personalising science for scientists?

There is an interesting blog entry in titled “Should scientific papers be written in a first-person narrative?” by James Dacey, It’s really a teaser for people to cast their vote on physicsworld’s Facebook page but it raises an interesting aspect of science communication.

Sci-commers have regularly posed the value of having a more narrative tone for papers only to be told that the science journals won’t accept papers written in that style.

Is there a need for journals to change their editorial formats? If there is change I imagine it would be at a glacially slow rate unless there is some worldwide paradigm shift in science report writing.

The question is also related to the communication skills of scientists. Some are superb communicators but many lack the skills to weave a compelling story which supports their thesis. Many ASC members make their livelihoods partly because of the preponderance of the latter. We also recognise that scientists need time to do science, and crafting a cracking communiqué is usually time-consuming.

Yet I wonder whether more readable papers would become more popular among scientists and get increasingly cited? That may not make for better science but could lead to academic promotion.

What are the reasons for scientific journals to welcome relevant narrative in papers?

How many science communicators does it take to change a scientist’s narrative light bulb?

Can you suggest other interesting opinions about personalising scientific papers?

Is this worthy of a session at the national conference?

Jesse Shore
National president

Discovery Science Writers Series: 23 April, Dr Leo Joseph and Dr Libby Robin

23 April 2010
12:30 pmto1:30 pm

Discovery Science Writers Series: Leo Joseph and Libby Robin

23 April 2010 12:30pm

Authors Dr Leo Joseph and Dr Libby Robin discuss the science behind their book ‘Boom and Bust: Bird Stories for a Dry Country’.


CSIRO Discovery

Black Mountain Laboratories

Clunies Ross Street, Acton

About the talk

Dr Leo Joseph and Dr Libby Robin have edited the marvellous new work Boom and Bust: Bird Stories for a Dry Country, which recounts the history and the authors’ personal experiences of a particular bird species and their strategies for survival in the ever-changing climate of Australia.

Dr Joseph and Dr Robin join Mr Cris Kennedy from CSIRO Discovery Centre in a conversation about the process of writing for and editing their Whitley Award Winning book.

Read more about Boom and Bust: Bird Stories for a Dry Country.

About the authors

Dr Joseph is the Director and research leader of the Australian National Wildlife Collection (ANWC) and a board member of the ANWC Foundation.

Dr Joseph and Dr Robin join Mr Cris Kennedy from CSIRO Discovery Centre in a conversation about the process of writing for and editing Boom and Bust: Bird Stories for a Dry Country.

Read more about Dr Leo Joseph: investigating the evolution of Australian birds.

Dr Robin has a joint appointment in the Fenner School of the Australian National University, and as Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Historical Research, National Museum of Australia, Canberra.

She is an environmental historian with a Doctor of Philosophy in the History of Science from the University of Melbourne, Victoria. She currently coordinates the Australasian Environmental History Network.

About the Discovery Science Writers Series

CSIRO Discovery presents a series that celebrates authors from the Canberra region who publish in the science arena. Our talks will focus on the science behind the publications as well as the writing process.

Our authors have all recently published, and where possible, copies of their books will be on sale at our events and our authors will sign copies for you.

The Discovery Science Writers Series is presented in association with the Australian Science Communicators ACT.

Read more about this event on CSIRO’s events listing.

Read more about CSIRO Discovery.

ASC SA event; Dilemmas of science reporting

Australian Science Communicators (ASC SA) Event

*The Dilemmas of Science Reporting*

*/Complexity, risk, and the dissident voice/**//*

*Panellists: **Clare Peddie, Rob Morrison, Susannah Elliot and Rod Irvine.***

*MC- Richard Musgrove,*

*Date: February 15,** 2010*

*Time: **6pm – 8pm*

*Venue:* *RiAUS, The Science Exchange*

*Cost: * ASCSA members: free* (see why & how to join below)

Non members: $10

Non member students: $5

*Bookings: *

* Event Summary*

This is the second ASCSA event of the year and covers several critical areas of science communication.

Given the public (including policy makers) have the right to accurate information, how do scientists/science communicators break down and report complex results in digestible form, without missing vital information or getting the story wrong? Secondly, how does a scientist/communicator approach an interview or story which concerns risk, knowing that the public may use that information to inform lifestyle choices? Lastly, how we deal with dissident voice(s), particularly if the issue involves risk or, equally; how do you get your point across if you are the dissident voice??

Guidelines on Science and Health Communication prepared by the RiGB, The Royal Society and The Social Issues Research Centre are available on

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