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The Write Stuff: Selling Science Is Still A Career


So you love science and dream of getting paid for writing about it.

Join the club.

Science and/or medical writing is a seductive aspiration for many people.

As a result, the NCBiotech Jobs Network program September 30 attracted some 90 people to hear three professional science writers describe their very different jobs. They included:

  • Catherine Clabby, senior editor of E.O. Wilson’s Life on Earth, a digital biology textbook. Cathy is also a freelance science writer and editor who produces a column on science visualization for American Scientist magazine, where she once was a senior editor. Before she spent nine months as a Knight Science Journalism Program fellow at MIT, she was a science reporter for the News & Observer in Raleigh for many years.
  • Joanna Downer, Ph.D., director of research development at the Duke University School of Medicine. She previously worked in science writing and media relations, first at Duke Medicine and then at Johns Hopkins Medicine. She also has extensive experience in scientific editing. Joanna holds an M.A. and Ph.D. in nuclear chemistry from Washington University in St. Louis.
  • Tracey du Laney, Ph.D., a partner and co-founder of Biosciences Information Partners, an RTP firm that offers technology assessments, market and competitor analyses, investor due diligence, tech transfer information services, grant writing and business plan writing, as well as market research and other life sciences consulting services. After earning an M.S. in biomedical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin and a Ph.D. in biochemical engineering from Duke, she worked as a research scientist at a Triangle area start-up biotech company.

These three have very diverse career paths. Yet all earn their paychecks writing about science and/or scientists.

Choose your flavorite

One of the primary take-away messages of this Jobs Network event, then: science writing comes in many flavors. Magazines and newspapers. Grant writing to geothermal heat. Books and blogs. Regulatory documents and regenerative medicine treatises.

Each type of science writing has its own requirements. Some jobs are only appropriate for people with journalism training and experience. Some require graduate-level training and/or expertise in a specific field of science. And all require practice, publication and more practice.

A touch of fleet-footedness, entrepreneurship and balanced self-promotion also seem to separate the successful from the rest, thanks to the fast-changing landscape and definitions of media.

There's no clipping penalty in science writing

The panelists agreed that grabbing and holding loyal readers is paramount. So beginners, after accumulating appropriate skills, might need to garner “clips” of published work via free submissions to publications, unpaid  internships or other creative methods of “dues” payment.

Cutting corners, however, can cause long-term harm. Sloppy reportage or selling your bylined articles to “pay-to-play” publishers or shoddy buyers can haunt you. Any article might “live” on the Web for years – or longer.

The fact remains that science writing remains a tantalizing career. Just don’t clip your day job until you have a pile of clips – and readers – to convince yourself and others you’re ready to live off your science writing.

There are lots of good examples of science blogs, which can result in a friendly few followers or thousands. Consider, for example, the blog written by my colleague Deborah Thompson called Biotechnology Digest.

Just down the road, in Pittsboro, lives Bora Zivkovic, internationally known blog editor of Scientific American. He is also a co-founder and vice-chair of ScienceOnline, and co-founder of He is the series editor of The Open Laboratory, the annual anthology of the best science writing online, and co-editor of its multimedia counterpart, Science Studio.

Bora had to travel in Eastern Europe, or he would have also been a panelist for our Jobs Network event. Fortunately, as the event demonstrated, North Carolina is rife with excellent science writing/writers.

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