The Write Stuff: Communication in Science

DePaul University/Jeff Carrion

Sarah Read and Timothy French. Photo credit: DePaul University/Jeff Carrion

After four years of College of Science and Health (CSH) courses and two years of working as a lab technician for a chemical manufacturer, graduate student Kelli Peck (CSH ’13) felt confident in her chemistry skills. But she couldn’t say the same when it came to composing scientific reports. “I often felt bogged down and overwhelmed when beginning to write a scientific piece,” she says. “What was missing most from my writing was organization.”

Concerns like Peck’s helped inspire Timothy French, assistant professor of physical chemistry and chemistry and physics education in CSH, to propose a new course, Science Writing and Communication, in tandem with Assistant Professor Sarah Read, who teaches in the Writing, Rhetoric and Discourse (WRD) department in the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences. “We co-taught this course collaboratively in every sense of the word,” Read says. “We were each in class every day, and we shared the floor on equal terms, which is part of what made this course unique.” Course development was supported by a Collaborative Instruction Fellow Stipend from DePaul’s Office of Academic Affairs.

Looking back on his education, French notes that he had to learn scientific writing on his own through practice and trial and error. “It was always something you had to figure out along the way in your lab classes,” he remembers. Professors focused on formatting issues—margins, paragraphing, figures and tables—rather than the substance of the writing itself. While those skills are important, French and Read wanted their students to dig deeper. “The philosophical commitment that shaped our approach was that it is not possible to separate doing science from writing,” French says. “Writing as a scientist is part of doing science.”

By the end of the Science Writing and Communication course, students were able to understand the rhetorical rationales for different sections in scientific journal articles, implement strategies to explain scientific content to nonspecialist and public audiences, interpret statistical data and convey those results effectively through writing, and so on. “I realized the importance of being
persuasive in scientific writing since scientists are often the ones who challenge the status quo with their findings or ideas,” Peck says. “You need to consider your audience and make their jobs as readers as easy as possible.”

The students also had an opportunity to express themselves during a final scientific poster presentation. “The preference for a poster presentation is becoming more common for scientific conferences,” Read says. “We thought that hosting our own scientific poster presentation would be a useful experience for their careers as practicing chemists.” Faculty from the chemistry department and WRD program attended the event, and students not only shared their research, but also discussed the process of designing and drafting their posters.

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Now when Peck faces the blank page, she isn’t plagued by anxiety. “Sometimes what’s more important than writing something incredible or grand in the first draft is simply beginning to write and refining it by the process of rewriting,” Peck says, adding that she’s started applying the knowledge she acquired in the class to other coursework: “I already wrote a journal article for
computational chemistry using the organizational and persuasive techniques I learned.”

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