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ACS Reactions host, Sam Jones, on curiosity, writing, podcasting, and YouTube trolls

Sam Jones: Science Writer at the American Chemical Society

Samantha Jones is a science communicator based in the Washington, D.C. area.  She works for the American Chemical Society (ACS) as a science writer and as the host for several science communication programs including the podcast Orbitals and the YouTube series Reactions (produced as a collaboration between ACS and PBS).  In addition she hosts her own podcast, STEMpod, and also writes for publications such as Psychology Today.

After many years working as a molecular biologist, Sam appreciates how much her current position allows her to interface with the public.  “In graduate school,” she says, “you have this wall that separates you from the world.  You’re getting input from your peers and your advisor and your committee members, but not the general public.”  The end products of most successful laboratory work, journal publications, aren’t read widely outside of a small coterie of experts in the field.  “There’s definitely a lot more eyes on what I do now,” Sam says, leading to a “greater sense of accomplishment” than even her best experiences as a PhD student.

Breaking Into #SciComm

While Sam wanted to get a PhD, she knew when she started her graduate program at UC San Diego that she wasn’t “dead-set” on being a principal investigator (a scientist with her own lab).  Towards the end of her time in school, she started to attend career development panels and other events in which graduate students could learn about the types of jobs they could pursue after completing their education.  After one session about medical writing, Sam was inspired to sign up for a science writing course.  This class was so well taught and so aligned with her interests, she says, that it became the highlight of her week (even though it ran until 10:30 on Monday evenings)!

After that, Sam knew that she wanted to be a science communicator.  She endeavored to add as much writing experience as possible onto her resume.  First, she got an internship with Calit2 through UCSD, where she learned how to craft informative and engaging pieces on a rapid time table.  Then she started writing feature pieces and press releases for the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and other clients.  While she was essentially working two jobs at once–graduate student and freelancer–Sam believes that her writing actually motivated her to work even harder in her program.  Once she knew that she wasn’t going to stay in academia, it became critical for her to finish her PhD as quickly as possible and move onto the next phase of her career.

When she was transitioning away from benchwork, Sam was able to work with a number of mentors who exposed her to different forms of science communication, helped her hone her writing, and showed her that her dream career was possible.  For graduate students who are questioning whether they should stay in academia, Sam recommends finding someone whose work they admire and finding twenty minutes to talk to that person about how they began their career.

Solving a Puzzle

What does Sam enjoy about writing?  She compares it to solving a puzzle; each part of one of her pieces needs to fit together in order to convey the most pertinent information to a particular audience.  When trying to summarize journal articles for non-scientists, she says “you need to take that information and figure out what is actually interesting to other people, and then get that across in a way that makes them want to read.”  For Sam’s freelance work, she often thinks about whether her pieces would make sense to someone like her grandmother, who hasn’t been to school since the 1950s.  In these pieces, Sam will include jargon in order to be more accessible to her scientifically-trained audience, but then immediately define those terms so that all of her readers can understand them.

The only way we can fight [psuedoscience] is to be able to explain why it’s not real, but more so explain what is real, and in a way that people actually want to listen.

Sam Jones

In a time when the world faces a multitude of crises that can only be tackled with the help of scientific research — and widespread public engagement of scientific findings — effective scientific communication becomes critical.  “There’s a lot of pseudoscience out there,” Sam says.  “The only way we can fight against it is to be able to explain why it’s not real, but more so explain what is real, and in a way that people actually want to listen.”

Sam’s Favorite Books

Once a Scientist is made possible by support from our listeners! Each week, we ask our interviewee to tell us about their favorite books. If any of these reads catch your eye, you can support the show by using the links below to buy a copy for yourself!

Notes for this episode were written by Sam Asinof.

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