The students tried not to look sheepish as their professor projected the article on the whiteboard, waiting for their work to be devoured by their classmates. It was the second class for the nine students, all of whom are Ph.D. candidates or post-doctoral fellows. Their assignment had been to distill their extensive research down to just three paragraphs so that the average person could understand it, and, as in any class, some showed more aptitude than others. The piece on the board was by one of the students, a Russian-born biologist.
The professor, the journalist and author Stephen Hall (with whom I took a different writing workshop last year), pointed to the word "sequencing." "That's jargon-ish," he said, circling it on the board. "Even some people in the sciences don't have an intuitive understanding of what that means." He turned to another student in the class, an Italian native working on his doctorate in economics, for confirmation. "Yes, I didn't know what was going on," he said, turning to the piece's author. The biology student wrote something in her notebook.
Hall's class at New York University is one of several that have sprung up at colleges across the country that are designed to help early-career scientists hone their writing skills. Science requires an increasingly large amount of writing, whether researchers do it through articles for the popular media or grant proposals and research papers. Given the highly technical subject matter, scientists need special guidance when it comes to writing for a non-expert audience. But the educators who teach these classes rarely have much precedent to follow. Although the instructors typically design their own courses, several common threads among the classes reveal the challenges that researchers often face in communicating science in a digestible way—and why it's more critical than ever that they learn to do so.