Curious Science Writers is an innovative program hosted by Americans for Medical Progress that selects a group of high school students through a highly competitive application process. Students who are curious, creative and committed to advancing the art of science communication can apply to become writers, editors, graphic designers, and social media coordinators. In order to educate the public, writers choose a science topic to research and write a story on. Preparation is vigorous, and includes a week-long intensive boot camp. This year, the program was conducted virtually and led by Program Director Paula Clifford, Editorial Advisor and Faculty Leader Jim Newman, and cSw Educator Fellow Maitê Ghazaleh Bucher.
On July 10, 2023, the bootcamp experience started off strong with introductions. Students hailed from across the United States in addition to a writer dialing in all the way from India! Highlights of the day included when we learned the value of science communications from guest speaker Todd Bentsen and started to get their creative juices flowing by discussing the writing process and working in “SciComm Workout” small groups. Partners were tasked with explaining to a king from 700 years ago how to use newly invented technology, including Twitter and a school bus. The exercise revealed how challenging communicating about science can be as well as multiple threats like misinformation. Through additional presentations, we learned how to identify credible sources, strategies for decoding scientific papers, and how to create an outline for our stories.
Tuesday provided valuable insights for our research paper journey. We began by discussing an article which shed light on the challenge of conveying scientific information in a way that the general public can understand. We learned that using metaphors can be an effective strategy to make complex concepts more interpretable. Carol Haggans (Scientific and Health Communication Consultant, Office of Dietary Supplements, National Institutes of Health) emphasized the importance of fact sheets, and we discovered how to curate and update them as new research emerges. Jim Newman shared his writing process, stressing the significance of outlining and writing a first draft in one sitting. He advised us to refine drafts by addressing issues such as word repetition, missing words, and unclear statements. We also learned tips for contacting and interviewing content experts, essential for our research paper. Annika Singh’s talk on graphic design highlighted how art pieces can complement our research. Additionally, we explored the significance of a professional online presence and how it impacts credibility. Michael Newman (Senior Media Relations Representative, Johns Hopkins Medicine) taught us the art of hooking readers with engaging stories, emphasizing the use of storytelling elements, analogies, visuals, and quotes. We now understand how to create captivating narratives that resonate with diverse audiences.
Approaching the middle of the week, students focused on technical skills such as learning various ways to promote their science information through social media and preparing for interviews with content experts. Jessica Henry, Digital Communications Specialist at the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) offered us advice to best engage our audience by being as concise as possible, especially in a world where the attention span of an average person is less than four minutes. We were given the opportunity to practice conducting an interview hands-on with Dr. Rasika Vartak, a specialist at UCSF of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology. She offered us insightful advice on what sort of questions are best to ask and how to best guide the conversation.
On Thursday, writers embarked on various field trips throughout the country and via Zoom. Participants toured various research facilities including the National Institute of Health at Bethesda, AstraZeneca (both in-person and virtually), the University of California at San Francisco, New York’s Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and the University of Texas in El Paso.
Friday commenced with a discussion on a reflection of our field trip, and a sharing of what we found most interesting. Later, we discussed “Animals in Research” and how they contribute to advancing science and medicine, particularly in developing new drugs. The biggest takeaway was weighing the ethical considerations and benefits of using animals in scientific studies. Elizabeth Doughman, Managing Editor of Poultry Future, rounded out the morining sessions by guiding us on the art of editing, emphasizing the significance of refining our work for clarity and coherence.
Before breaking for lunch, we participated in a SciCom workout in groups of four, where a describer would illustrate a painting while the painters would create an image based on their directions. Through this workout, we as a group learned to see each other’s perspectives in the assignment. The describer was forced to contemplate a manner of explanation that would be most clear to the painter, while the painter needed to interpret descriptions from the shoes of the describer.
The afternoon sessions on our last day began wiith a discussion about the challenges of science writing for social media, including strategies to combat disinformation and craft compelling advertisements for scientific work that resonate with the general public on social platforms. Our second guest speaker of the day, Amy Sheck, Dean of Science at the North Carolina School of Science & Mathematics, provided a talk that shed light on the magic of revision and why it is a crucial aspect of crafting a high-quality research paper. We learned the importance of refining and polishing our ideas to present a coherent and impactful paper. The day concluded with a session on how to effectively edit our research paper, condensing it to its most pertinent content. These lessons have armed us with the tools to write a well-researched, effectively revised, and compellingly presented paper that communicates our findings clearly and engages a broader audience, both in academia and on social media.
All in all, the Curious Science Writers Boot Camp was a transformative week for all involved. Whether a writer, editor, graphic designer or social media coordinator, every participant shared that they learned something new about themselves and about science. Moving forward, students will work on their stories and eventually publish their contributions onto the cSw page. Stay tuned!