Scientist to science writer

It began as an adventure, of the flying kind. The smell of jet fuel and the constant engine roar in the quilted interior of the de Havilland Beaver reminded me of the Arctic. Of travelling three hours by Twin Otter to a remote glacier site, then waiting anxiously two months later, in fog and rainy weather, for the plane to return. This was how my academic career started: in a small, noisy plane, peering into the cramped cockpit, watching the pilot work the controls as we soared low over the landscape.

Vancouver1

Vancouver2

A couple of shots of downtown Vancouver from the floatplane.

But when the pilot dropped me off at the conference centre and I walked in to register, adventure and reality collided with a slightly sickening thud.

You can argue that ‘once a scientist, always a scientist,’ and I tend to agree given the way scientists are trained to think and work. But I’m no longer a practicing scientist – and there’s no substitute for the actual doing of science. A conference, by definition, is a place where there’s a lot of science on display, and you’re better able to keep up if you’re steeped in that science activity.

Thing is, I wasn’t there as a scientist – which the green, slightly frayed ‘Media’ ribbon on my name tag clearly showed. This was my first scientific conference as a media representative. But reading the other name tags on the media table – the well-known science journalists in particular – I knew I wasn’t even close to their league.

Here I was, at a scientific conference. No longer a scientist, but not a science journalist, either.

I wasn’t there to soak up the latest science in my field (unfortunately). But I also wasn’t there to write publicly-accessible pieces on the latest science being presented (I’ll need more practice to do this well). I was taking the temperature of science in society, of geosciences as a whole and in Canada in particular, and sharing Canadian Science Publishing as an organization interested not only in scholarly publishing, but in the science community.

As neither a scientist nor a bona fide science journalist, I worked from a middle ground focused on science culture, communication, and engagement. My tools of choice? Twitter, Storify, and blogging – and a few in-person encounters that helped me put faces to names, and provided interview content for blog posts.

Ultimately I managed to defeat my inferiority complex for the duration of the conference, at least, and deliver what CSP had requested. But in the weeks following I found myself wondering – as we all do from time to time – where I belong.

I’ve written previously that I enjoy nature writing, so that’s a bit of a clue. But I’m also interested in the stories behind the science. Who scientists are as people, and what science tells us about what it means to be human and about our place in the world. I love to write about the tactile, the experience-able, and the observable – likely why I studied environmental science rather than physics or chemistry.

So I guess my Twitter bio – written a couple of years ago – is still correct: I inhabit the space between science and story. And it’s a pretty interesting place to be.

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