Transitioning from science

to science writing

Published November 01 2017

I spent four undergraduate years at Vanderbilt University as an unimpressive science student. I had taken Advanced Placement Biology in high school, really excelled, and then decided to major in biology in college, thinking this level of success would translate. It didn’t.

After barely scraping through general chemistry and biology in my first two years of college, I took the requisite organic chemistry in my junior year. On the second test, I received a 35 percent. For the third test, I employed the techniques that gave me success in high school: hours of note-taking, reading, rereading, studying and practice problems. I received a 23 percent.

That was my breaking point. I figured it was time to switch paths. I was also working toward a minor in English, and those classes felt stress-free, natural and easy.

I did well in high school biology in part because I had the time to study. In college, I sidetracked myself. I was a varsity athlete, an editor of a school paper and a leader for alternative winter break volunteer programs. But also, I hadn’t taken AP Chemistry or AP Physics in high school. Had I taken these classes and realized my lack of aptitude for these critical subjects, I might have thought differently about science in college.

But the problem, if you could call it that, was that I really still loved biology. The year before the orgo debacle, I received a coveted undergraduate summer research grant for infectious disease study. I enjoyed and did well in my lab classes. And I only had three semesters remaining of college, not enough time to switch majors.

I passed orgo but with a D, and I wanted to grasp the subject. So I retook the class the summer before my senior year. Half of each of summer day was spent in class, which meant I couldn’t do research or work a full-time job. But the remaining half-day was enough for a part-time gig.

At the time, I was writing for Vanderbilt’s satire paper, and the editor had sent out a list of summer internships. One was at Nashville’s National Public Radio affiliate, WPLN. I figured I might as well try something completely different. I applied, interviewed, and WPLN chose me to be one of two summer interns. They were even lenient with my class schedule.

I felt like a button that had finally found its corresponding buttonhole. My editor at the station often assigned me to somewhat science-y topics, such as planning meetings for establishing a green corridor around Nashville. I learned that my chemistry and biology classes had prepared me to understand more than someone who had not studied science. I knew which questions to ask, and I could produce stories without having to research fundamental concepts.

Much of Lily Williams’ work at Medill was multimedia-focused. One photo essay demonstrated the effects of myalgic encephalomyelitis. Lizzie Mooney of Riverside, Illinois, pictured here, has been sick for more than two years with chronic pain and sensitivity and can barely leave her home.  Courtesy of Lily Williams/Medill

I left the internship with the editor’s suggestion that I improve my writing. Formal science journalism training seemed like the best way to improve my writing and simultaneously keep a foot in the door in the sciences.

So I applied to master’s programs in science journalism. There are quite a few: Berkeley, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Michigan State are some that have full science-writing specializations. Other universities offer a handful of science-writing classes within their journalism graduate schools. I applied to five programs and chose the Medill School of Journalism in Chicago, with a full specialization in health, environment and science. Two others in the 12-student specialization also had degrees in the sciences: One had a bachelor’s in entomology; another had a Ph.D. in biological mathematics.

In graduate school, my work was often well outside the realm of what I had studied as an undergrad. I researched the patentability of psychedelic drugs. I produced an audio final on seasonal affective disorder. I spent a quarter embedded in a materials science and engineering lab, watching students build a small satellite used to run experiments in space. Even my short study of the sciences helped me process information quickly and understand what was most important to know about the science at hand.

The project that convinced me of science journalism’s importance came in my third quarter at Medill. The subject was an 11-year-old girl, bedridden from myalgic encephalomyelitis, or ME, a disease also known by the euphemism “chronic fatigue syndrome.” She was growing increasingly ill, and her parents were desperate for people to believe her illness was serious; research and funding for ME is minimal. It was my job to capture her day to day, and I — a stranger — spent a week in their home, witnessing intimate moments of suffering. For her parents, I was not only someone who would help in the push for treatment for their daughter but also someone who would just listen and really try to understand.

This graduate program taught us how to translate scientific concepts for the layperson. It helped the students without science degrees understand which topics are important and gave them skills to ask the right questions. And it helped those of us with science backgrounds find a balance between technical writing and writing for someone who knows nothing about science, which is no small feat.

Science writing has been an excellent application of my interest in biology. I hope to share the excitement of biology with others and use my knowledge to identify topics that might be important but go unnoticed by a journalist who doesn’t know what they are looking for. A science background also can support necessary journalism skills, such as interpreting data.

And while writing has always felt very natural for me, my graduate program gave me the tools to tell stories and discuss research in a more concise and appealing way. Science journalists serve as the bridge between scientists and nonscientists. Their writing must be correct and efficient but also eloquent and captivating. A year or two in a master’s program can help you share scientific information with a much broader audience.

Lily Williams Lily Williams has a B.A. in ecology, evolution and organismal biology from Vanderbilt University and an M.S. in science, health and environmental journalism from Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. She is a freelance journalist and communications director based in Asheville, N.C.