/ 15 August 2014

Making science sexy for everyone

Sarah Wild
Sarah Wild

They tell stories about the world around them, how the universe works, how systems develop over time, how people interact. From points of fact or data, they extrapolate narratives and meaning.

But while journalists are conditioned to write for the person in the street, scientists often have a very specific audience: each other. This means that for those not in the scientific community, or even those in a different discipline, this world of wonder and all its stories are out of reach, couched in jargon, academic writing and maths. And this is why the Mail & Guardian started Science Voices, a project to train science postgraduates in South African universities to write for a popular audience and showcase the work that they are doing.

What you are holding in your hands is the hard work of 28 students who freely gave hours of their time to tell you what they do, and to get their work and science out into the public space. 

The response to Science Voices was remarkable and surprising, showing the passion and talent in our universities. After putting out a call for entries, we received nearly 150 submissions. Naively, we chose 30 entries because, as a colleague said to me, “you need to choose more because half will flake”. They didn’t.

The point of Science Voices wasn’t to receive the entries and then for me to rewrite them. If I’d done that, the postgraduates would have had their work published, but they wouldn’t have learnt anything. 

It was a process of toing and froing: the student would write, I would edit, ask questions, encourage them to write in a narrative style and send it back to them for revision. In some instances this cycle happened five or six times.

Many of the submissions were not from first-language English speakers, and while the pieces may have taken more edits, these students possibly put in more effort: trying to explain their science to a different audience in a language that they are not comfortable with.

We aimed for a diversity of institutions, ability and disciplines so that a range of students would benefit from this training, and so that you could enjoy a smorgasbord of science: from the intricacies of chemical bonds and using quantum biology to ask “what is life?” to South African women’s shopping habits and the natural defence systems of trees. We also looked for a local flavour and included stories about endangered Zulu sheep and what a decade of satellite images tell us about Thohoyandou in Limpopo.

The greatest challenge in the Science Voices project wasn’t the students, who often tinkered with their stories late into the night and sent me new versions in the early hours of the morning. It was their supervisors. These supervisors obviously wanted their students to succeed and submit the best piece of writing, and so tried to write it for them. I now speak directly to those supervisors when I say that the point of training is to teach your students to apply themselves, not to do it for them. You need to have faith in them.

These 28 students are a credit to South Africa’s education system, and are exactly what our country needs: intelligent, hardworking people who are passionate about what they do and excited to bring new knowledge into the world. Thank you. Without you, this project wouldn’t have been possible.

Many other people were instrumental in getting this project off the ground: M&G editor Angela Quintal and M&G editor-in-chief Chris Roper for buying into the idea; head of advertising Mike Ntasa and his advertising team for finding the sponsors to make it viable; our main sponsor, the National Research Foundation, for helping us showcase South African science talent; the designers; head of the supplements division Ben Kelly; supplements news editor Ansie Vicente and her science background for the indispensable second set of eyes; and to all the postgraduate students who entered.

Hopefully, Science Voices 2014 is the first of many collections of South Africa’s best science postgraduate writing. I look forward to working with future postgraduate students to tell the stories of the amazing research happening in South Africa.

Sarah Wild – Science editor