#MySciComm: Caitlin Looby on breaking into science journalism without quitting science
This week, Dr. Caitlin Looby, a SciComm Section member, responds to the #MySciComm questions!
Caitlin Looby is a scientist and a freelance science writer. She earned her PhD in Biology from the University of California, Irvine, her M.S. in Biotechnology at Kean University, and her B.S. in Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Connecticut. During graduate school, Caitlin found a new passion, motivator, and purpose in science communication. She recently traded ocean views for mountain views, and lives in Colorado. Connect with Caitlin on @caitlooby, through email, or on her website.
1) How did you get into the kind of SciComm that you do?
In graduate school, I realized that I couldn’t wait to finish a study so I could write about it.
I was always interested in science, and loved writing as a creative outlet, but I never thought to pursue both passions simultaneously. During my Master’s, I realized I could write as a form of outreach after I met women from a women’s association in a Costa Rican town near my field site. My colleagues and I told the Costa Rican women about our research on soils and restoration, helped collect eggs in their chicken coop, and interviewed them. Later, my research team wrote about the experience for Association for Women in Science (AWIS) magazine. Our takeaway was that these women were leaders in the community, especially in regards to sustainability. Writing in this way was a fun and empowering experience.
After earning my Master’s, I was ready to pursue a PhD. I decided to go to the University of California, Irvine to work with Kathleen Treseder. I chose to work in Treseder’s lab because they produced great science and published well-written research papers. I was also able to continue conducting research in the Costa Rican cloud forests (the cooler and wetter versions of stereotypical tropical rain forests). Being in this lab, and doing the research I wanted to do, fueled my passion for both science and writing.
In my experience, the process of publishing scientific manuscripts felt slow, but popular science writing provided a way for me to feel like I could have a quick impact. I also felt that writing for broader audiences gave me another skillset that could either help me in the future with science, or become a career of its own. I remembered advice a graduate student gave me during my undergrad. “Don’t be a one-trick pony,” she said. “You never know when economy or political climate may shift, and research is no longer an option.” I am pretty sure she meant go do something completely outside science. But, I have loved writing since I was little, and science was in my wheelhouse.
So, I turned to science communication as an outlet for my writing bug and a way to do more outreach. A couple of years after publishing the story about the Costa Rican women’s cooperative, I approached AWIS about writing another article. They gave me a topic for their innovations issue that was close to my heart. I wrote about issues that women face when doing fieldwork, and I offered innovative solutions to help with some of these problems.
Finishing the article solidified how happy writing made me (even though I wrote it during a summer weekend). It was incredibly fulfilling. I felt like I had a voice and could use that voice to help others. Afterwards, I started writing articles here and there. I wrote an article on microbes and climate change for Cultures magazine, and one on rising sea levels for Canoe and Kayak and SUP magazines. Writing these articles back to back helped me learn how to tailor my writing to specific audiences, and think about audiences other than my fellow scientists. But, writing these articles wasn’t enough. I applied for every fellowship and grant I saw, just so I could write. Writing about a new project or providing context for a relatively unknown problem, such as climate change in the cloud forests, allowed me to be creative. I wanted to weave my work into an exciting story and find unique ways to answer questions. Ultimately, I realized I wasn’t completely happy unless I had something to write about.
With every article, I became more confident. To further improve my skills, I took a course for graduate students at UCI with writer, actor, and radio personality Sandra Tsing Loh. I was stoked not only to improve my skills, but to interact with someone who could give me great advice. On the first day, I gave my elevator pitch about my research. It was one minute of me describing how I use elevation gradients to mimic climate change. Sandra offered feedback on all of the jargon that we used on day one. I was convinced I did a good job until she said, “Elevation gradient… what’s an elevation gradient?.” In my head I tried to come up with an answer. I couldn’t.
Hearing Sandra’s comments pushed me to move my ability to communicate science to the next level. I started to think critically about every word I used. I also started to think of words as pictures.
No matter how long I thought about it, I couldn’t picture an elevation gradient. But, I could picture a mountain with cool temperatures and lots of rainfall at the top, and warm, dry conditions at the bottom. Hiking down the mountain was like time-travelling to the warmer, drier conditions predicted under climate change. That description lacked the conciseness of the phrase ‘elevation gradient,’ but it was far more effective. Moving forward, I knew that if I couldn’t immediately visualize a word, then I shouldn’t be using it.
Each opportunity led to another, and each taught me a new lesson.
During class, Sandra Tsing Loh saw my potential and passion for science communication. I wanted to do more than give good presentations for scientific audiences, and Sandra gave me my first big science communication opportunity. She asked me to be a script writer for the Loh Down on Science radio program hosted on Southern California Public Radio. In a fun, witty way, the Loh Down on Science gives listeners their daily dose of science. Describing an entire scientific study in 90 seconds, and making it fun, was challenging. It helped me be clearer and get to the point quickly. Writing for radio also enhanced my ability to use words that help listeners visualize concepts. I wrote scripts, and honed these skills, for a year while completing my PhD.
I wanted to develop other skills, such as website development, that can be helpful in science communication, so I applied to work as a Climate Communications Specialist at UCI. I helped develop a website and wrote news articles about climate champions across the UC-system. In addition to developing technical skills, I got firsthand experience interacting with scientists from the very different perspective of a journalist. This foundation was solidified when I applied for and got a position as an environmental reporting intern with Mongabay. Mongabay is a great online source for international, environmental news. This was the first time I worked closely with an editor, pitched article ideas, and wrote news articles. Mongabay editor pushed me to write about science topics that I didn’t have a background in. As a soil scientist, writing articles about fish was challenging and uncomfortable. But, between writing articles for Mongabay, scripts for the Loh Down on Science, and other freelance articles, I was writing consistently and I was cultivating versatility.
And then, all of these great opportunities led to a “pinch me” moment. I got an email from an op-ed editor at The New York Times saying that they found my research described on the National Science Foundation’s website. They wanted to hear about my experience doing fieldwork in cloud forests, and we scheduled a phone call. I did some extreme prepping because I assumed this was an interview—I was very nervous to be the one being interviewed.
On the phone, I raced through my spiel, and the editor basically said, “Great! I saw that you do a lot of science communication so you’re going to write it.” My dissertation was due to my advisor in a couple of weeks, and I was burnt out, but this was an amazing opportunity that I could not pass up. Although I am usually good under pressure, and I wanted to say no, the only word that came to mind was, “Okay.” I did not ask any questions. It worked out alright, though.
Writing the piece for NYT and reading other related articles made me appreciate how many great science stories still need to be told.
As a scientist—and especially a graduate student—you can become hyperfocused on one topic. But, writing articles made me want to read more broadly. This helped me become a more aware scientist and citizen. The weekend I spent working on the NYT op-ed—completely isolated in my pajamas—made me realize how far I had come from my first research experience in Costa Rica 10 years earlier. The NYT op-ed experience reminded me why I started on this path. It provided just the boost of motivation I needed to wrap up my PhD.
In that last year of my PhD, I wrote nearly thirty articles and radio scripts. On top of writing a dissertation and teaching, this was a significant time commitment. I hustled to make these opportunities happen. It would probably horrify some PIs to have a student dedicate so much time to other things besides their dissertation. Thankfully, my advisor supported me, because writing kept me motivated and gave my science a purpose.
Currently, I am a postdoc at University of Denver, continuing my work in tropical cloud forests. I am pursuing science communication opportunities and outreach, and writing opportunities with nearby organizations.
2) What are your top 3 SciComm tips and/or resources?
1. Ask for help.
There are a lot of people out there willing to give advice, share resources, and provide opportunities for science communication. If you are at a university, that is a great place to start. Contact the press office, and see if they can help out or have writing opportunities. If you work in, or go to school near, any state or national parks, non-profits, museums, or schools, let them know you are interested. Finally, let your colleagues and friends know you are looking for opportunities. Once people knew I was looking, I started getting tweets and emails from everyone I knew.
2. Be the change.
Science communication is a great way to have an impact. This is especially important in science, where women and underrepresented groups do not get asked enough about their perspectives, opinions, and research. I am very disappointed when I see articles that interview all or mostly men, and do not include the voices of other great scientists. Therefore, when I write an article I highlight women. Also, I make sure to reach out to women authors and co-authors of the journal articles I write about. As a science communicator, you can make decisions like this to help make science more inclusive.
3. Seek out different audiences.
You don’t always have to go after websites, magazines, etc., that are tailored towards audiences already primed and interested in science. For instance, if you are interested in writing about the environment, try pitching to an outdoor magazine. This can be a great opportunity to practice tailoring your writing to a specific audience. And it can broaden the impact of your science communication.