#MySciComm: Lucy Frisch on switching gears from book publicist to science storytelling advocate
This week, Lucy Frisch responds to the #MySciComm questions!
We’re collaborating with Lucy to bring a science storytelling show to #ESA2017 next week! Details here. Join us if you’re in Portland!
Lucy is a Marketing Manager at Springer Nature in the Author & Partner Marketing and Services division. She curates author services through the lens of her publicity experience, designing initiatives to promote author empowerment, self-promotion and public engagement. Her focus is on implementing new ways to connect researchers and their work with the public, including the Springer Nature Storytellers program, a science communication initiative that harnesses the power of storytelling in an effort to truly humanize science. Follow her work with the Springer Nature Storytellers program at www.beforetheabstract.com and @b4theabstract.
The #MySciComm series features a host of SciComm professionals. We’re looking for more contributors, so please get in touch if you’d like to write a post!
1) How did you get into the kind of SciComm that you do?
Science and math have never exactly been my calling.
I describe myself as allergic to numbers. The last time I performed anything qualifying as a scientific experiment was in my high school AP Biology class. Even so, as an undergraduate at New York University, I designed my own major around a study of beauty as a social construction.
I made hypotheses about how appearance (particularly of women) impacts the female experience in different parts of the world and informs social and economic privilege in local communities and society at large. Rather than numbers, personal narrative and story sharing were the methods I used for gathering information to draw conclusions and determine results.
Throughout college, I was a part-time manager’s assistant at a hedge fund in Manhattan. I used to bolt out of class and swap my jeans and Converse sneakers for one of my few business professional outfits. I’d hop on the F train from West 4th Street, leaving the village vibe for corporate 57th St. in Midtown.
During my last year of undergrad, I felt like I was destined for a career in academia.
I valued learning and the pursuit of knowledge above any other opportunity. I remember a particularly intense roundtable discussion in my Race and Reproduction class. We dove into the implications of race as a matter of social construction rather than biological difference. Our discussion helped me take my studies to a new level.
That afternoon at my corporate office job, I helped a financial analyst file papers. I was buzzing with ideas from class and mentioned race as a social construction. He replied, “Well, if people look different from each other, isn’t that all that anyone cares about?”
And with that, my balloon of intellectual discovery and social justice deflated.
That intense conversation had consumed me, twelve classmates, and our professor for the better part of the morning. The ideas we discussed are incredibly relevant to people around the world. And yet, because of the way they’re communicated, back and forth between those who have the inclination (and let’s face it, the resources) to pursue a higher education, these ideas may never reach those who they affect the most.
It was conversations like the one I had with that financial analyst that inspired me to leave academia.
I now wanted to find a job that could help bridge the gap between the classroom and the public. Leaving the nest of academia made me feel directionless, until it dawned on me that just because I was taking a break from the classroom didn’t mean I had to give up one of my greatest joys: books. My love of books and academia was paired with my fascination with the communications industry, specifically how beauty is bought and sold around the world. And, then someone at the hedge fund who had been interested in the classroom ideas I brought uptown, told me about a job at a small academic publisher.
Looking at that job posting, it clicked – academic publishing is the industry that gives knowledge and new discoveries a platform.
I wanted in, and much to my surprise (given the fact that I had no professional publicity experience), I got an interview. Long story short – I was hired. I spent the next three years developing publicity campaigns and content marketing strategy for nursing and social science textbooks and professional resources.
In crafting a media pitch, I depended heavily on an author to summarize the main points of their book. I needed authors to explain their work in a way that enabled me, someone outside their academic or professional realm, to understand and speak intelligently about their book. Only recently did I realize that these conversations with authors were basic exercises in science communication. And these one-on-ones often told me why they personally pursued their respective fields. That was by far my favorite part of the job.
When an opportunity opened up on the Author & Partner Marketing and Services team at Springer Nature, I was eager to get my foot in the door at one of the world’s largest academic publishers. So many brilliant minds! So much cutting edge research!
But what enticed me most was the opportunity to manage the Springer Nature Storytellers (Storytellers) program.
This program gives researchers an opportunity to tell true, personal stories from the frontlines of discovery. Storytellers produces live storytelling shows and “Before the Abstract,” their podcast and blog. It sounded like the perfect opportunity to continue helping authors share the importance of their work with people outside of academia.
Apart from working closely with our partners at The Story Collider and feeding off of their wisdom, I just threw myself into storytelling. In the same way I once worked to craft the perfect pitch to journalists, I now help authors tell a story that is going to grab the public’s attention and make them care. But first I need to convince researchers that they have a story worth telling.
What I have learned is that research becomes relatable to a wider audience when it is: 1) woven throughout a personal narrative, 2) explained from the vantage point of real life experiences, and 3) communicated with true emotion.
Told this way, research becomes part of a shared human experience. For example, in preparation for my first ever Springer Nature Storytellers show, I had the pleasure of working with a world-renowned pathologist. He is also the Editor-in-Chief of a leading manual on global cancer staging. On our first phone call, I furiously took notes as he dropped the names of carcinomas, cancer therapy techniques, and contributions he’d made to oncology. As important as these details are to his research, they were going right over my head and widening the gap between his world and my own. I interrupted with a simple question: “Where did you grow up, and why did you want to become a pathologist?”
The pathologist let me into his childhood. He used to accompany his father, a family physician in Mumbai, to his clinic on the weekends. Witnessing his father with patients and their families made him realize that medicine is not a profession but a passion. As he talked, it became clear this man’s commitment to his work originated much earlier than his incredible efforts with a book about cancer. His childhood experiences were the side of his research that was going to stick with a general audience.
Not all of us wanted to go into medicine when we were kids. But we may remember the feeling of watching our parent do something and thinking we wanted to be just like them some day. My job is to help researchers realize how seemingly “insignificant” details like that can have great impact on their listeners.
2) What are your top 3 SciComm tips and/or resources?
1. Believe in the power of a story.
Storytelling may not be an exact science but as Muriel Rukeyser, American poet and political activist, one wrote, “The Universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” Stories help us relate to each other, and the empathy that storytelling breeds also has incredible persuasive power. I encourage authors to really tap into the influence that personal storytelling can have on stakeholders regarding grant funding, policy change, and additional professional and academic opportunities. One of our criminologists told a story at a live show about a surprising relationship he’s built with an inmate solely through letters. This inmate was imprisoned for a homicide he committed nearly 20 years ago, as a 15-yr-old. Our researcher shared how his understanding of redemption had truly shifted since his correspondence with a man who was doing everything right…. except for the fact that he’d taken a life. He now questioned what constitutes “enough time” in jail. His personal investment in the future of this man struck a chord with our listeners, so much so that he even received consultancy offers from correctional facilities across the country.
2. Share a story that has the most meaning for you.
I think when we’re passionate and excited about doing something, then we perform better because we’re more invested in the outcome. So when I have an initial call with an author to brainstorm story ideas for our live shows, I push them towards the narrative that has the most meaning to them. Often this story is not the one that shares their most noteworthy discovery or professional experience, but rather evokes the most emotion. One of our surgeon storytellers had swept her dream of being a writer under the rug as she grew into her surgery career, until she realized that she could do both. Her personal journey into blogging and creative writing was truly heartfelt. After all, science communication is about making research more accessible to the public. As she explains it, it’s equally about helping the public see scientists and other researchers as people, not just cold but competent brilliant minds.
3. Everyone has a story to tell, but we’re not all born storytellers.
We partner with an incredible organization, The Story Collider, to produce our live shows in conjunction with major conferences across the country. When we decide to bring a live storytelling show to a society conference, we get interest from a wide variety of experts who may or may not be comfortable with public speaking and talking about personal aspects of their life in front of a live audience. Storytelling is a very different format from lecturing. Once I’ve nailed down a story idea with our authors, we are fortunate to have the experts at Story Collider work with our researchers to structure their story in a way that’s truly engaging. Story Collider also makes sure researchers are comfortable getting up on stage with nothing but their mic and their story for support. Click here for more tips for a great Story Collider story!