#MySciComm: Marty Downs on finding a home in the field of science communication

This week, Marty Downs responds to the #MySciComm questions! 

Woman smiling at camera

Marty is the Deputy Director of the Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) Network Communications Office, based at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) in Santa Barbara.  She manages internal and external communications for a network of over 2000 environmental scientists and 28 diverse research sites. Marty began her career as an ecosystem ecologist studying nitrogen and carbon cycling in northeastern U.S. forests, with occasional forays to Alaska and Sweden. While teaching a group of science journalism fellows the reality of hands-on science, she caught the science communication bug. She earned a master’s in science journalism from Boston University and launched a career in freelance science writing and, later, institutional communications. For the past decade, her work has involved using science communication to accelerate collaboration and interdisciplinary synthesis.


Okay, Marty…

1) How did you get into the kind of SciComm that you do?

I guess I should start with…what kind of SciComm do I do?

In the past few weeks, I’ve designed an organizational logo; strategized on figures for papers and outreach efforts; written and edited stories on topics such as gene flow, forest management, coastal erosion, and stakeholder cooperation; developed requirements for a personnel database, tweaked website back- and front-ends; helped plan anniversary celebrations for two major ecological organizations; and contributed to a soil methods paper.

I’ve also spent a lot of time formatting lists of talks, compiling a document archive, and other mundane tasks.

I love my work (almost all of it), but this is not what I imagined I would end up doing.

When I first transitioned from research to science communications, I started with a fantasy about travelling to exotic locations with brilliant and passionate scientists, writing richly illustrated stories about important and controversial issues. A few realities intervened — a major restructuring of the publishing industry, a shift in family responsibilities, and a still growing realization that I am more of a deliberate planner than a natural storyteller.

I admire and envy people who are natural storytellers. They seem as exotic to me as gifted athletes or those with a natural aptitude for music. I have always had to work at it, but that means that I think very deliberately about communications. A shy kid, I was in my twenties before I learned that asking people questions was not only not rude, it was the only way to establish connection with others. And it took another decade to understand that only by volunteering information about myself could I cement that connection.

Science, data, and certainty (or at least well-bounded uncertainties) were immensely appealing to me in my youth. I fell, almost thoughtlessly, into a research career. I loved the physicality of field work and the precision of lab work. But I could not imagine that I would ever enjoy applying for funding–which seemed to be most of what “grown up” scientists spent their time doing. So I agonized over whether to get a PhD and decided instead to pursue a career that maintained my connection to science but also offered more flexibility and variety. I think the exact moment I made the decision was in the fourth week of a growth chamber experiment that involved days crouching over paint buckets full of tundra in a blazing white growth chamber and nights running nitrogen mineralizations and fluorescence measurements.

The transition to science writing was both joyful and painful.

The work is downright fun. How else can you justify reading interesting papers from a huge variety of fields and just calling people up to ask them about their work? As an aspiring journalist, I had to wrap my head around a major new topic at least weekly—and understand it well enough not only to explain it, but to develop a lively storyline and a voice that inspired confidence in my readers. I regularly felt like my brain was going to explode and rarely felt adequate to the challenge. But the occasional flashes of success lured me onward.

Even as I struggled with story structure and robust verbs, I recall saying that I wasn’t so much interested in communicating for the sake of communicating, rather I was interested in learning how to communicate for a purpose. That strategic communications thread wasn’t much nurtured in my science journalism program, but it kept influencing my choices as I moved through various internships and career moves. Chronicle of Higher Education? Maybe not the best preparation for a wide variety of staff writing positions—but great for learning how academic science works. Editing the World Resources Report? An obscure publication for many, but a terrific primer on the environmental objectives of big International NGOs. A big city public health department? No better place to learn what drives local governments and (a bonus) how to reach underserved populations.

Through those various moves, I kept freelancing and learning from editors with different styles and different needs. I might have held to that track had I not rather suddenly become the main breadwinner in our small family. A steady paycheck and health benefits became a very high priority.

Why do I need to say that?

Do I still feel that I need an excuse for moving into media relations?

Maybe. The relationship between reporters and PR people is fraught, but that’s a topic for another day.

Regardless, media relations was the opportunity that presented itself, and I grabbed it with gusto. I wrote science news from more than a dozen departments and worked at building relationships with prized media outlets. But building an institution’s reputation was not exactly the “purpose” I had in mind way back when.

It wasn’t long before I was recruited into Brown University’s Environmental Change Initiative, a budding interdisciplinary research program with big ambitions (now the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society). There, the communications skills I had worked so hard to develop served to help connect researchers from different fields; secure funding from individuals, agencies and foundations; and build bridges from basic research to applications. There wasn’t really a name for what I was doing at that point, but it combined elements of jobs that are now known as navigators, research development professionals, or community managers.

There I was, applying for funding, just as I had tried so hard to avoid—but with a new-found understanding that the way anyone gets to pursue good ideas is to find the money for them.

My current position at the LTER Network Communications Office (LNCO) involves many of the same elements, but spread across a much larger canvas. Rather than working with a few departments at a single university, the LTER Network encompasses dozens of programs based at many universities, agencies, and nonprofits. The work is immensely varied—partly because we can’t afford as much specialization as is typical in industry or larger non-profits. Any given day might involve meeting organization, strategizing, writing articles, presentation coaching, graphic design, web development, database design, and social media.

A great deal of our role at the LNCO is to facilitate synthesis across and beyond the LTER Network, so I stay closely connected to science-in-process. As a journalist, I’m always trying to see things as an outsider would. What’s the missing bit of background? Why do they think that’s obvious? Who in the room is following, and where am I seeing confusion? That outside perspective can really help grease the wheels of interdisciplinary science.

One of the biggest challenges I faced when moving from science to reporting was getting comfortable with asking naive questions for the sake of prompting a better explanation.

In an interdisciplinary context, asking the right naive question can really help crack the silos. So the challenge becomes how to maintain and occasionally insert that fresh perspective while also earning and preserving the trust of researchers from many fields. It’s not simple. But when I’m successful, I have the satisfaction of knowing that my efforts are helping to maintain and build a major resource for ecological science and science-based management of environmental resources.

As part of a central office for a geographically-distributed network, I rarely get out to field sites or even get to do in-person interviews anymore, and I miss them very much. On the other hand, I don’t think I’ll ever need to see the inside of a growth chamber again!

2) What are your top 3 SciComm tips and/or resources?

1. Active voice.

Yes, using active voice will make your writing more lively and vigorous. That’s great. It also forces you to identify the actor, where you would otherwise simply identify the effect. Often, you’ll find that you don’t know as much about who or what is driving the action as you thought you did. So, in order to use the active voice in your writing, you have to find out. That leads to a deeper story, communicated in richer writing.

2. Narrative is about struggle and transformation.

Science writers hear a lot about storytelling and we’re always telling scientists that they need to embrace storytelling, but we’re not often good at explaining exactly what that means. Character and setting are important tools of storytelling and they will make any piece of communication more interesting, but they aren’t the thing itself.

What are the stories that have stood the test of time? Peter Rabbit? Robinson Crusoe? The Odyssey? They all involve a challenge, escalating tensions, resolution, and a main character who emerges changed in some important way: wiser, stronger, sometimes chastened. That’s the essence of storytelling and science is made for it.

3. Ask for the feedback that you want.

Different project stages require different kinds of feedback. And different individuals are better at addressing different concerns. When you ask someone to weigh in on your writing (and you should), help them focus their feedback and work more effectively by asking for what you need from that person, at that stage in the project. It shows that you value their input and are considerate of the other demands on their time.