Writing about science in easy-to-understand terms “is good exercise for you and good for the world,” award-winning journalist Natalie Wolchover told nearly 100 people gathered in Lewis Auditorium March 15 for her masterclass on the contribution of science to life through storytelling.
“Clearly there is a lot of work for science communicators to do to improve literacy and that’s an important goal to achieve,” she said.
Wolchover, Zubrow’s Spring 2022 Visiting Journalist Emeritus (DVJ) at the College of Arts and Sciences, offered seven principles to follow when communicating science. The first is to tell a story, she said: identify where the tension is, then set it up so that there is resolution. She used her story “Does Time Really Flow?” for example.
When communicating about scientific research, include the motivations of scientists in your story, she said, expressing their passions and emotions: “Show that science is a human endeavor by putting people in the story. “
Another principle described by Wolchover is to always hang your story on a news hook: “Tell the reader why this story deserves attention now,” she said, and identify the deep question behind the research – ” the questions on which everyone is asking”.
But be sure to take the shortest explanatory route, she urged the audience, with no jargon or information for fun. “Each explanation must contribute to the resolution of the story,” she said.
At the same time, she says, people are “rightly” wary of simple narratives without nuance. “Embrace complexity, disagreement and uncertainty,” she said.
During his two weeks on campus, Wolchover met with dozens of professors, including physicists, chemists, mathematicians and engineers, to learn more about their research. She also met with leaders from Cornell’s Quantum Initiative, participated in a roundtable on climate research hosted by the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability, and visited facilities such as the Cornell Nanoscale Facility and the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source.
“Natalie’s stories are deep and wide. His stories often reveal emerging trends, connect interesting threads, and tackle big questions,” said Ray Jayawardhana, Dean of Arts and Science at Harold Tanner. “We are privileged that she has spent this time with us.”
Wolchover has been writing about science for over a decade and is an editor and writer for Quanta Magazine covering physics and math. She has won numerous awards, including the Science Communication Award from the American Institute of Physics and the Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award from the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Most recently, Quanta Magazine was nominated for a National Magazine Award in the Reporting category for the Wolchover story “The Webb Space Telescope Will Rewrite Cosmic History.” If it works.”
In addition to the masterclass, Wolchover shared his expertise with the Cornell community during a fireside chat with Jayawardhana and during a graduate student drop-in. She also offered a Career Conversation for undergraduates on March 11 at the A&S Career Development Office.
As she told undergraduates, she was a doctoral student in physics when she decided to switch gears and get into science communication. “I realized the balance wasn’t right for me,” she said. “I didn’t want to be in this deep silo and work on just one research question. It wasn’t going to be enough for my life. I wanted to know more.
Wolchover said she finds story ideas in multiple places — conferences, physics blogs, colloquia at research universities and, in the world of COVID, Zoom calls researchers sharing their ideas. But probably most importantly, she keeps in touch with researchers she has met before and uses this network when working on stories.
“That’s part of what made my time at Cornell so valuable: I met scientists and mathematicians that I hope to continue talking to for the rest of my career,” Wolchover said. “After two years of the pandemic, visiting labs, meeting researchers in person to hear what excites them about their fields, and talking to diverse groups of students from my own field was refreshing and invigorating.”
Linda B. Glaser is head of news and media relations for the College of Arts and Sciences.