The Science of Writing

A peer-to-peer writing program prepares students to become strong communicators of science 

By Andrea Cooper 

Group Photo of the Science Writing Fellows

One feeling stands out for Ainsley Walker ’23 when she remembers her early days as a first-year in a Barnard chemistry class. “I was really nervous coming in concerning lab reports,” says Walker, a dual major in biology and sociology. “We wrote them every week. So every week I felt nervous for the next one.”

But she performed well in the class. Her self-described imposter syndrome eventually gave way to a growing awareness of her strong science writing abilities. By the end of the academic year, she applied to be a science writing fellow, an opportunity offered through the Erica Mann Jong ’63 Writing Center, which provides peer-to-peer writing guidance for students in science classes. “I could help people feel more confident about their writing,” Walker says, “because I had been in that position of feeling insecure.”

She’s now part of an experienced group that advises Barnard students on how to develop their science writing skills. And this program comes at a time when communicating the science in fields from healthcare to climate is more crucial than ever. About 130 students applied to be writing fellows last year. Thirty-three were accepted; 12 of those are designated science writing fellows.

The inspiration for more instruction in science writing at Barnard came from a group of fourth-year science majors in 2017. They recognized writing was essential for their studies but believed the College could do more to prepare students for the task. There were no classes or much class time devoted to science writing, they argued.

“It would be a quick review of what a lab report is, and go do the lab. The emphasis was always on the science and never on the writing,” says Vyoma Sahani ’20, outreach coordinator for the science writing fellows initiative.

Following conversations between students and faculty, fellows from the Writing Center started working with Biology 1500, an introductory course with several hundred students, in 2018. The science partnership expanded, and in 2020, funding became available to hire and train fellows focused exclusively on science writing. Today, each science writing fellow is assigned to work with students in a specific science course, plus spend an hour a week at the Writing Center, where they assist students with papers on topics from genetics to Victorian poetry.

The ethos of the program is apparent in its selection process for fellows. Along with being skilled writers, based on their writing samples and faculty recommendations, successful applicants are great listeners who can make students feel comfortable and heard, Sahani says. Each applicant receives a piece of writing to review during the interview to see what questions about it they might ask a student during a coaching session.

Fellows receive significant training in a semester-long course taught by Pamela Cobrin, senior lecturer in English and director of the Writing Program, before working with students. The training continues for science writing fellows with twice-weekly meetings where fellows discuss pedagogy, readings, and workshop development.

Although science writing fellows have broad-based scientific knowledge, they aren’t charged with teaching scientific principles and don’t typically comment on a paper’s content. “Their job isn’t to say, ‘I think you might have done your t-tests wrong,’” says Jessica Goldstein, senior lecturer in biology and director of the Introductory Biology Laboratory Program.

Rather, a fellow might talk through a lab report with a student “thinking about whether or not all the pieces are cohesive,” says science writing fellow Jasmine Wang ’23, a biochemistry major. A student might discover strategies to make her points clearer, expand upon her ideas, or better demonstrate how the results of an experiment proved her hypothesis.

Through these one-on-one guided conversations, fellows encourage students to have confidence in their own voices, ideas, and perceptions. “It’s really about helping them spur their own thought process,” Wang says.

Group coaching is available and offers unexpected benefits for students in the same class. Frequently asked questions can be addressed, and a student might pose a query that others hadn’t considered yet. Science fellows offer workshops for targeted groups as well, from first-year writing classes to senior seminars. Topics range from how to read a scientific article to data and bias, which considers sources of bias and how language used to describe data can sway the reader.

We believe that STEM students should learn how to communicate effectively so that their scientific work is understood by everyone, not just specialists in their fields.

The program has developed partnerships with several organizations on campus. It conducts workshops and drop-in hours for Access Barnard, which supports students who identify as international, first-generation, or low-income. Through Beyond Barnard, alumni applying to medical school can book appointments with science writing fellows to get an outside perspective on how to strengthen their applications.

Ruya Tazebay ’24, who plans to double major in neuroscience and classics, has found her meetings with science writing fellows to be valuable. She likes that the guidance comes from peers who share her experiences at Barnard, “somebody who’s taken the same course, likely with the same professors, and perhaps even written the same reports. It’s nice knowing that I’m part of a greater community during these sessions.”

For her part, Goldstein says that the science faculty is delighted to have the support in Bio 1500 and other classes. About 70% of Bio 1500 students choose to meet with a science writing fellow. Goldstein has seen improvements in the overall structure and organization of students’ lab reports since the writing partnership began.

The partnership also gives faculty and fellows a chance to highlight the need for great writers in every discipline, including the sciences. “There is a responsibility on scientists to be excellent communicators to get their message out about what they’re doing, about what is the purpose of science, what is a fact, what is a belief, and how science deals with data and facts,” Goldstein says. She’s seen heightened interest from students in how scientific information is communicated and spread, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fellows earn a stipend per semester and can stay in the job until graduation, with a minimum commitment of three semesters. Sahani is hopeful the program will grow with additional funding, and she’s passionate about the need. “We believe that STEM students should learn how to communicate effectively so that their scientific work is understood by everyone, not just specialists in their fields,” she says. “We also want students who are not actively pursuing STEM degrees to be able to understand, interpret, and engage with scientific language and data so that they’re always part of this conversation.”

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