Clear communication plays a key role in the dissemination of new ideas and the acquisition of resources needed to do scientific research. Just as importantly, we scientists need to communicate what we're doing to the general public. Fewer than 20 percent of Americans have a sufficient level of science literacy to be able to read the Tuesday science section of The New York Times. If we want the public to understand science, to use science in making smart decisions about health, the environment, and new technologies, and to support the public funding of basic research, then it's up to us to present the public with stories about science that are accessible, engaging, and informative.
Conceptually, one can break down types of writing about science along two axes: the intended audience (specialists vs. a general audience) and the author's level of personal involvement in the subject. The resulting four domains correspond well to four types of science writing. First is the original scientific research paper, a work in which the author produces the bulk of the data for an audience comprised of other scientists. Second is the literature-based scholarly review, a paper typically written for scientists but one in which the author typically has less personal involvement in producing the data that are reviewed. Traditional nonfiction or standard journalism is aimed at the general public, and the writer typically displays a neutral, objective stance with little personal involvement. The fourth domain is that of creative nonfiction, exemplified by the types of articles one might read in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, or National Geographic. In this realm, authors write for the public but often weave memoir or a strong personal point of view into the piece.
In designing the programs for this HHMI Professorship, I chose to focus on the first and last types as the most personally engaged forms of writing about science, thus producing the highest potential for long-term impact in establishing transferable skills.
In the first program, we are designing new writing-intensive courses that target seniors majoring in Biology. We have focused on seniors because of evidence showing that capstone experiences in the senior year define some of the most memorable and rewarding academic events of a student's undergraduate career. The HHMI program will enable students to enroll in a quarter-long course in which they write for a scientific audience and describe their own original laboratory research produced for a senior honors thesis, or a course in which they choose a topic of intense personal interest in biology, then write a paper in the style of a New Yorker article intended for a broad public audience.
The second program is called the Senior Reflection (TSR) in Biology. Through TSR, students produce highly personalized creative projects centered on any aspect of the life sciences that particularly affected their education. In these projects, students employ artistic or creative forms of expression (e.g. filmmaking, sculpture, poetry, photography, painting) to educate, inform, and evoke curiosity about a scientific topic. TSR students enroll in a three-quarter course sequence that culminates in a public exhibition at the end of spring quarter. Each TSR project includes two written components – a proposal and a final essay – in which each student discusses the scientific and personal motivations, ideas, and background that gave rise to his or her project. In addition to enabling science students to use the arts to communicate science to a general audience, we also hope to recruit students from the humanities into the program, thus extending the reach of STEM education at Stanford.