Immersion Courses: Prep & Practice: Scientific Communications & Media

Rare Look Inside Scientific Communications & Media Industry Offered to Biosciences Trainees

By Nadine Taylor-Barnes

March 29, 2021

In a special immersion course, three Stanford instructors, trained bioscientists and industry professionals, teach communications skills and reveal the inner workings of the scientific media and publishing world – an industry mostly opaque to scientists, even as it wields a sizeable influence upon their careers.

The educators offered wisdom, gleaned from their collective fifty years in the media business, as part of Preparation & Practice: Scientific Communications & Media. Their goal: to help Biosciences students and postdocs become better scientific authors, navigate the publishing business, and learn how open access publishing, artificial intelligence, and preprint servers are impacting the industry. In the process, a few editorial careers may even be launched.

The Stanford School of Medicine actively engages with entrepreneurial firms through its professional and career development programs and start-up fairs. As such, Stephanie Eberle, Assistant Dean, BioSci Careers, was asked by TIME to help identify companies for the summit. “We work closely with small companies, having them come to campus to talk to our trainees, having trainees visit the firms, and creating internships,” Eberle said.

Commenting about the summit, Eberle said, “National leaders are collaborating across many disciplines, “and our Stanford community and alumni are right in the middle of this collaboration, bringing precision medicine to today’s healthcare system.”  

Power of Language

But beyond the details of how an important industry is organized and functions, the Stanford instructors provided a valuable lesson: alerting all scientists to the power of language in shaping how their scientific discoveries are understood and received.

Associate professor, Kristin Sainani, PhD, 2002, epidemiology, summed it up. “In today’s world, scientists have a responsibility to explain their science and their discoveries. If scientists don’t control their message,” she warned, “our science can be used by others for their own hidden agendas, leaving the door open for pseudoscience and misinformation.”

In October, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates spoke about the importance of explaining the science during the StanfordMed Live event about the coronavirus pandemic. Gates talked with Lloyd B. Minor, MD, dean of the School of Medicine, about the impact communications could have helping rebuild public trust in science after the proliferation of misinformation during the pandemic. He suggested that scientists talk publicly about their research, the heroes inventing the vaccines, the safe development and production of vaccines, and even show the early adopters of the vaccines.

Amy Adams, former director of science communication and now director of long-range vision communication, for Stanford, stressed the critical role communications plays, explaining to her students. “You will have more influence as a scientist; you will get more credit for your ideas, if you write well. Meaning: be concise, be clear, and be engaging.”

As a former journalist, with a genetics background, Adams wrote about advances in neuroscience, immunotherapy and cancer biology for the School of Medicine. Now, as part of university staff, she articulates Stanford’s long-range vision strategy and the ongoing initiatives that fulfill it.

Because scientists are beholden to the government for most of their research funding, Adams and Sainani said they need to make their research understandable to a wider audience. “When scientists write well, you make it easier for legislators and the general public to understand what they are investing in,” said Adams.

Adjunct professor Paul-André Genest, PhD, said communications is under-appreciated as a skill for all scientists. “There is so much miscommunication because people do not write clearly in journal articles, presentations, and emails,” he said. Genest, a parasitologist by training, is a life science publisher for Wiley, the prestigious global leader specializing in scientific, professional, technical, and medical publishing. In addition to publishing the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Wiley publishes nearly 1,700 journals.

Take-aways from the Pros

The Stanford instructors said these pointers apply to all forms of scientific writing – scholarly journal articles, presentations, or general articles. They reminded everyone that writing is difficult, and editorial criticism is a natural part of the process.

  • Explain the science: be concise, clear and engaging
  • Write to inform, not to impress
  • Don’t assume your reader is well-versed on the topic
  • Don’t rely on jargon; limit acronyms
  • Use active verbs, not passive voice
  • For general articles, capture your reader’s attention with a good lead paragraph & tell a story
  • Media deadlines are sacrosanct


Original vs edited copy: the Mouse example

  • Original: “Mice, whose tastebuds have been altered, seem to have more of a tolerance for bitter taste as they licked quinine more than mice that did not have altered tastebuds.”
  • Edited: “Mice with altered tastebuds licked quinine more than control mice.”

It’s Not Dumbing Down the Science

Both Adams and Sainani confronted a common, but unspoken, myth among scientists: scientific writing has to be complex in order to be taken seriously. “There’s a belief that writing effectively means one has to ‘dumb down’ the science,” Sainani said. “That the research is too complicated to explain in lay terms.”

Describing herself as living in both the academic and media worlds, Sainani should know. In addition to  teaching statistics and writing for academic journals, she writes news articles for the general public.

Granted, it’s hard, labor-intensive work to describe research concepts and discoveries. Adams chided the group, “Don’t use terms that don’t exist in nature! Jargon is a shortcut. It assumes that readers know your field as well as you do. Many authors use it like a security blanket, so they don’t have to explain the concepts.”

Consider also a compounding factor: each scientific discipline has its own vernacular, and academic papers are laser-focused on narrow areas of expertise. Thus, it’s even more important for scientists to write effectively. “Explain the concepts, make them understandable for peer reviewers and others, outside your discipline,” said Adams.

Scientists can be their own worst enemy, making it difficult and time-consuming for editors. “Sometimes, when I’m reading scientific papers, I feel like I’m decoding them rather than reading about the authors’ ideas and research,” said Sainani. “The emphasis is all wrong.”

In 2013, Sainani started a MOOC course in communications for scientists, a forerunner of this course. The course has reached hundreds of thousands of scientists, and more than 15,000 have completed the course for a certificate. Once, Sainani tweeted out to her science students, “When you are struggling to read a scientific article, you might think that the problem is with you. But the problem isn’t with you. It’s with the poor quality of writing in scientific papers.” The Tweet resonated with scientists, generating concurring comments and 1,400 likes.

Offering another anecdote, Adams described one of the best emails she received from the father of a scientist whose work she wrote about. “The father thanked me, saying that he finally understood his son’s research work, for the very first time in his life!” said Adams. “That’s the kind of impact we can have.”

A Distinguished History

To complete the media industry picture, Genest spoke about the scholarly publishing side of the house, the global business enabling three million articles to reach the scientific community through print and online channels annually.

After reminding students that this industry has a distinguished history – dating back to the first

scientific journal in 1600, and now numbering 30,000 journals worldwide – Genest launched into why scientists should care about this industry which directly affects their manuscript submissions and, ultimately, their careers.

Take, for example, journal ownership. Does a commercial publisher, society or university press own the journal? This determines copyright protections. What about reviewer transparency? Can authors choose single blind, double blind, or open peer review? Is the business model gold open access (i.e. the articles are freely available following the payment of article processing charges) or hybrid (i.e. a subscription journal that allows open access publication)? This affects whether articles are available in front of or behind a paywall.

“The core role of publishing,” Genest said, “is to acquire, edit, certify, produce, license, disseminate, and preserve the scientific record,” he said, describing the life cycle of manuscripts.

“Today, scientific publishing is fast-paced and highly competitive, as publishing houses become more open, driven by digital tools that make research more accessible, efficient, inclusive and transparent.” Genest mentioned artificial intelligence as a big driver of change, as well as, computer-assisted research engines, new mega-journals, preprint servers, data repositories, and journal finders that help authors decide where to submit their work.

In order to differentiate themselves, Genest said, publishers are becoming increasingly author-centric, deploying new technologies that assist authors, such as, collaborative writing tools, improved submission systems, and author dashboards that track articles during the publication process and their reach/citations after release. There are also new ways to make articles more understandable by enhancing their online content with graphics, videos, hyperlinked citations, and research resource identifiers, for instance.

“I’m at the intersection of biomedicine & life”

According to Stephanie Eberle, M.Ed., assistant dean and executive director, BioSci Careers, this course is one of eleven “high visibility” immersion courses that are unique to Stanford. Eberle worked with academic and industry professionals to design these courses (see sidebar) for all Biosciences home programs and related programs. Two former class participants of the scientific communications course commented on how it benefited them.

Rebecca McClellan, sixth-year graduate student, chemistry, is researching polymers that can be used in gene therapy to penetrate cell membranes to deliver mRNA. She is not necessarily someone you would expect to enroll in this course, but McClellan signed up upon the advice of a friend in 2018. She discovered she loved describing the research to non-scientists, “like my mom,” she said.

“It’s easy to think of yourself just within the context of other scientists,” McClellan said. “I wanted to look outside my home program to learn about jobs where scientists work. At first, I felt I had to justify taking the time. But then I thought, I’m a trainee, and that’s what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m trying to learn as much as I can!”

Now, she is working part-time in science communications for Stanford ChEM-H, penning articles about mucin proteins and their role in the flu and Covid-19.

“We need to think holistically about how our scientific training is important for many positions throughout science. Consider all the non-traditional jobs in marketing, research administration, policy, development, and non-profit, that need our scientific skills,” said McClellan. What are her future aspirations? She would like to work across multiple disciplines, ensuring the coordination of people, resources and projects. “I want to be a bridge between the ideas and the people.”

Another of Adams and Sainani’s proteges, Jonathan Wosen, PhD, 2019, immunology, now covers biotechnology for one of the nation’s major metropolitan newspapers, the San Diego Union-Tribune. Joining as the pandemic broke out, Wosen covers how San Diego’s research institutes and biotech industry are racing to develop Covid-19 vaccines, tests and treatments. His timing, coupled with his background in immunology, could not have been better.

“Every day, I get to use my passion for science and storytelling to tell interesting, important stories about how science impacts people’s lives,” Wosen said. “It’s an honor, a privilege and, above all, a ton of fun.”

After studying immune system proteins in intestinal epithelium cells, in Elizabeth Mellins lab, Wosen rediscovered his journalistic passion through this course. He had been editor-in-chief of his high school paper. “Amy and Kristin showed me how I could combine my two passions -- science and writing.”

While completing his PhD studies, Wosen wrote about drug research, development and safety for STAT News and interned for SoM communications. After graduation, he began a one-year science communication master’s program at the University of California, Santa Cruz, before joining the Union-Tribune in April.

Every day, Wosen is immersed in science, explaining to thousands of people how researchers developed a new molecule that makes nerves glow during brain surgery or how scientists are using artificial intelligence to find new uses for old drugs. He also covers the San Diego Zoo and has written about how zoo researchers cloned an endangered horse from frozen, 40-year-old cells. He couldn’t be happier.

“If you had told me when I was taking Amy and Kristin’s class back in 2016 that I would one day be a science journalist for my hometown paper, I’m not sure I would have believed you,” Wosen said. “But here I am.”

Note: For those interested in taking a science writing course, before the next offering of this immersion course, the instructors recommend Kristin Sainani’s MOOC course: “Writing in the Sciences”

Immersion Courses: Real World of Business

BioSci Careers offers eleven preparation & practice immersion courses taught by industry leaders and academic professionals. The 20-hour courses introduce the industry sector, its business models, operations, and career opportunities. Students learn professional skills through practice exercises that mimic on-the-job situations and can network with faculty, alumni, and practitioners to get advice developing their professional goals.

“Each course is not only unique to Stanford,” said Stephanie K. Eberle, M.Ed, assistant dean and executive director, BioSci Careers, “but also targeted to the biomedical industry and the specific professions our Biosciences graduate students and postdocs trainees can fill. These courses demonstrate to our trainees how their research and analytical skills apply directly to these careers.”

BioSci Careers Immersion Coursework