Ed Yong and the Craft of Science Writing

By Allie Akmal

The words STORIES MATTER appeared in giant letters on the screen behind science journalist Ed Yong, as he stood, backlit, on the stage at Scripps Research Auditorium on a recent drizzly Thursday afternoon in San Diego.

“Science is not just this purely objective empirical neutral force that can be dissociated from the rest of society. Those two things are incredibly intertwined … stories matter,” Yong explained to the audience of several hundred graduate students, scientists and science writers who had tramped through the rain to hear the scicomm star give a talk entitled “Why Storytelling Matters in Science.”

A staff science writer at The Atlantic magazine, Yong was invited to speak by Kristian Andersen, director and principal investigator of the Scripps Center for Viral Systems Biology (CViSB), on the occasion of the first annual CViSB workshop.

Yong, who has 150,000 Twitter followers, is something of a science writing wunderkind. After two years of graduate school in science, he told the group, he realized that he was better at talking and writing about science than doing it. So he switched gears, began writing and, over a decade, built a reputation and a following with his blog, Not Exactly Rocket Science. According to Yong’s final blogpost, by the time he shut the blog down in 2016, he “had written more than 1,800 pieces under its banner.” Yong credits his success to hard work, certainly, but also to luck and good timing. He said the field of science writing is competitive and harder to get into these days.

Over the course of the hourlong talk, Yong demonstrated the approach that has made him a success: getting his audience to care about science by getting them to care about the researchers behind the science he’s describing. Like openly transgender neuroscientist Ben Barres, who helped put long-overshadowed brain cells called glia on equal footing with neurons. Or Iranian medical geneticist Pardis Sabeti, who arrived in the U.S. as a refugee and whose work today involves worldwide travel to sequence viruses like Lassa and Ebola during outbreaks.

“The people who we are affects the science that we do, the questions that we want to pursue, the ways in which we look at and analyze our data,” Yong said, arguing for why diversity matters in science, and how science communicators have a responsibility to share diverse stories. “We, by the choices that we make, affect who is seen as being a part of science and therefore who gets to be part of science and therefore the type of science that gets done.”

Yong walked the audience through a 9,000-word feature about whether the world is ready for an epidemic like the 2014 Ebola outbreak, breaking the story down into an eight-part emotional arc he wanted readers to experience. He advised aspiring science writers to deconstruct pieces they like, and figure out what makes them tick.IMG_6471

And while many people think that journal papers, with their careful language, are the embodiment of science, Yong argued they’re only part of the story. A big part of what makes a piece come alive, he suggested, is attention to sentiment. “Feelings and emotions are part of science. They’re part of conduct of science. You can’t take them away from the supposedly neutral, objective, empirical methods and results sections that fill papers.”

He also counseled against a model of lay science communication that “treats people as empty vessels into which you pour facts and knowledge and suddenly they become wiser, they change their minds, they become into whatever [topic] you want them to become into. And, sadly, that is not how any of it works. That is not how people process information.”

“If you take away just one thing from this talk, let it be this,” Yong said, “You cannot displace a feeling with a fact. It just does not work. You can only displace a feeling with a different feeling.”

Like arriving at a talk feeling curious, and leaving feeling really inspired.





December Updates


Sorry for the prosaic title, things are hectic.

First, you may have noticed the groovy new SANDSWA logo. Many thanks to Sanford Burnham Prebys science writer Monica May for the concept and graphic designer Priyanka Paurana for the finished product. For her creativity, Monica won a year’s membership in SANDSWA – nice.

On January 3, SANDSWA members are getting a free Ruben H. Fleet Science Center tour, featuring CEO Steven Snyder, PhD, and marketing director Wendy Grant. Not a member? That’s easily remedied: JOIN NOW.

Happy-Hour.jpgThere was another awesome happy hour at AleSmith on December 4. We’re sad if you missed it, but there will be another one coming up in February. We’re open to location suggestions.

Want to improve your science writing chops? SANDSWA board members Heather Buschman and Tiffany Fox are teaching UC San Diego Extension’s Science Writing I, Tuesday evenings January 15 through March 12. This course changes lives. Check it out.

And finally, do you feel like SANDSWA’s blog posts have gotten a little monochrome (exhibit A)? That’s okay, you can help fix it. We are constantly looking for guest bloggers to add new ideas into the mix. Send us a note, we’re always open.


Happy Hour, etc.

Happy Hour3Last Wednesday, we hung out with 40 of our closest friends at AleSmith, off Miramar Rd. We quaffed a beer or two, talked shop and watched Marine Ospreys land at the nearby airbase. Thanks everyone who came and sorry if you missed it. Don’t worry, more on the way.

There’s a rumor going around that one of our attendees received a job offer mid-happy hour. That’s some next-level networking, and we applaud the effort. More on that as new information comes in, but I think it’s just one more proof point that SANDSWA is the nexus of all things good in the world.

On a related note, Salk Institute is looking for a science writer. I relay this with some reluctance, since I freelance for them and a new FTE means less Salk for me. Still, must look beyond my own selfish self-interest and encourage qualified people to apply. They have an awesome comms team and cool faculty.

SANDSWA is up to 43 members – including eight newbies on Wednesday. Thanks everyone for joining. For those who are not members yet, please peruse our member benefits and immediately sign up. We will be your friends forever and ever.

What’s next? On September 26, we’re doing a tour and tasting at White Labs in Mira Mesa. Better yeast means better beer and White Labs is on top of it. The event starts at 5:30 and costs $10. We will have the registration up shortly. And, no, we do not drink too much. We drink exactly the right amount.

You should follow us on Facebook and Twitter – your productivity has been way too high lately.

What’s Next for SANDSWA

36978837_10216168953047461_5130917847635066880_o1.jpgWe’ve received a lot of positive feedback on our recent happy hour, so it makes sense to have another. Hope to see everyone on August 15, 5:30 to 7:30 pm, at AleSmith Brewing Company for our second event.

We would also like to encourage everyone to become a member. It’s only $25 a year, $15 for students. We’re putting together a nice membership package, which is expanding by the minute:

  • Regular newsletters with event notifications, job openings, member news and more
  • Invitations to special quarterly events, lectures, workshops, field trips
  • Opportunities to write a blog post or be featured in our blog and newsletter
  • Access to member directory
  • Opportunity to take a leadership role in organization – professional development and community service

So, you can serve your community, network like crazy and enhance your personal brand. What could possibly be better?

On the member event front, we are looking into potential tours at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, White Labs and other sites, as well as satellite events with some of the many scientific conferences that come to San Diego.

But what would you like us to do? Feel free to share in the comments below, through Twitter @SANDSWA2 or on our Facebook group. See you on 8/15.