Sunday, December 28, 2014

Run Your Own Science Writing Group

Amanda Gefter and I have been co-directing NeuWrite Boston since September 2013, after I inherited the group from Molly Birnbaum and Judith Vick. NeuWrite is a workshop for scientists, science writers, and everything in between. While we're still figuring out how to do this with scientists and science writers from different disciplines and at different points in their career, I think we've got a good thing going with NeuWrite Boston.

Some people have been asking us how we got our group going and how we run the group, so I've decided to write this post. It's adapted from a couple of emails I've sent explaining how our group works. I hope this gives you enough information to go off and build your own group! (Brief note about me: I'm a late-stage PhD student in computer science at MIT. I've been interested in science communication for a while.)

How Amanda and I came to run the group. NeuWrite and Amanda both entered into my life pretty serendipitously. I had gone to college with Carl Schoonover, who started NeuWrite with his Columbia neuroscience PhD classmate Tim Requarth. In May 2013 I came across his profile as #3 on this list of 50 sexiest scientists and discovered that he had written a book (Portraits of the Mind, a gorgeous coffee table book of neuroscience images), started NeuWrite, and was doing all the science communication activities I always said I wanted to do but never did. I invited Carl, Tim, and their colleague Rebecca Brachman (who currently runs NeuWrite NYC) up to MIT to give a talk about science communication. Around this time both of the co-directors of NeuWrite Boston were leaving, so I somehow inherited the group. I was told to find a writer to run the group with me, so I started asking around. I met Amanda, a Knight Fellow at MIT and who just published her first book (Trespassing on Einstein's Lawn), through another Knight Fellow, Rochelle Sharpe, who I had met in a class. We met for coffee, hit it off, and have been running the group together ever since.

Membership. My favorite part about NeuWrite is the people. At every meeting I think to myself, "This is what it would be like if I took the most interesting people out of a party and made them all discuss something I cared about."

Our group has about 30 members, 10-15 of whom show up each time. There are a few members we inherited from before, but we recruited most of the current members. We've been trying to keep a balance between professional writers and professional scientists. A few people stayed in the group from when Judith and Molly ran it, but most of our members are new. I recruited the scientists mostly from my circle of friends and people who had shown up when Carl, Tim, and Rebecca same to speak. Amanda recruited the initial group of writers, some of whom were so successful they had long outgrown the need for such a group. We found a couple of more through other members in the group and through people finding us.

When recruiting, Carl, Tim, and Rebecca had recommended that we get people who are starting out in their careers--who need the group--rather than senior famous people. This has proven to be good advice: the junior people who get a lot out of workshopping in the group tend to be the best at showing up. Judith also told us to emphasize dedication--this is important for building a community where there is enough trust for people to be honest with constructive criticism.

Meetings. Our meetings have been surprisingly enjoyable for how productive they are. As Carl/Tim/Rebecca suggested, we meet once every three weeks for three hours. The first hour is social and the second two are for workshopping or discussion. We've workshopped not just specific pieces but also pitches for articles and books, scripts for educational videos, concepts for blogs, and proposals for magazines. (Read about some of what we did in 2014 here!) We've also workshopped a couple of the professional writers' pieces after publication and had them talk to us about their process. We've had discussion both about our favorite writing and our favorite science writing.

As for logistics, we host the meeting at one of our members' homes each time. The host cooks or orders out and we each chip in $10, plus optional drinks and desserts. (This is different from the original NeuWrite, which meets at a professor's house each time. I believe they also have departmental funding.) We have a Google spreadsheet where people can sign up to host, workshop, and send meeting notes (abbreviated minutes). I send out a Doodle RSVP for each meeting with people's food preference (omnivore/vegetarian/no food). Whoever is supposed to take the notes (usually Diana Crow or me) follows up afterward with a summary. If no one is signed up to workshop, I will email the list and/or ping individual people at least two weeks in advance. If no one wants to workshop, the group is pretty good about coming up with alternate activity.

A note on funding: it has been difficult for us to get funding when we first started because our members were spread across Harvard, MIT, and BU--and professional science writers. We haven't tried again since then.

Collaborations. The New York group seems to do a good amount of co-writing; we have yet to figure out how to get this going. People do help each other out on ideas, but there haven't yet been any collaborative products. One time, Tim De Chant, an editor at Nova, picked up a piece that Alison Hill, a biophysicist modelling HIV, wrote explaining why HIV has no "cure" yet. This past spring Amanda and I tried to pair people up to do projects together, but that didn't seem to really go anywhere. I have brainstormed with people about potentially collaborations--and the group model has made me much more open to co-writing. (For instance, I wrote this Wired opinion piece about how gender matters with two fellow MIT CS PhD students, Elena Glassman and Neha Narula, following our Reddit Ask Me Anything session.)

Some things we're working on in terms of group dynamics. Even though we've been having fun and doing things, we're still a work in progress. One thing we've struggled with is that since everyone seems to work in a different area of science, there aren't natural pairings between the writers and the scientists. Initially this made it unclear what the writers could get out of the group, especially if they are established and end up spending a lot of time mentoring scientists on their writing. For a while we tried to have the scientists spend an hour presenting their field to give the writers a deeper look, but I think everyone who wanted to go has already gone, so we've gone back to workshopping. We realized this issue at a meeting we had last January where we asked for feedback about what was working and what was not. This reflections/hopes-and-dreams meeting was incredibly helpful last year. It will be our first meeting of January 2015.

Social events and community things. One of the best parts of the group seems to be the network we have created of people interested in science communication. It is good for brainstorming and good for making the non-professional writers feel accountable for their science communication projects. People also trade notes on science news and good examples of science communication.

Because good things seem to come out of people talking to each other, we've been trying to provide more opportunities for this. So far we've had one official social event, a BBQ, that seemed to be a lot of fun. People sometimes email across the list about readings and events that they're going to. I'm not actually sure if people go to that, since I haven't been able to make it to any of them. There are some other fun things that go on: for instance Ash Jogalekar has a ton of books and gives them away every time he hosts. Inspired by this, we've talked about doing a NeuWrite Boston book exchange.

Summary of advice/what worked. I caution against taking too much advice from other people, but if I had to give advice about what worked this is what it would be:
  • Find people who need the group as much as the group needs them! For most members, unless they came highly recommended, I would do coffee with them and emphasize the importance of commitment to the group.
  • Allow the group to grow based on what the members want. A lot of cool things have come out of the members deciding they wanted certain things to happen, which would probably not have happened if they were waiting for Amanda and me to decide what was going to happen. Also, what works for another group and their members might not work for your members!
  • Try hard to balance out the group. We've noticed that when there is a good mix of writer/scientist backgrounds and a good mix of people in general, the discussion is better.
  • Make a website! (And do other things to increase feelings of legitimacy and community!) People seemed to feel our group was more legitimate after we had a website. It was good for morale and for our sense of community.
  • Spend time thinking about what your group needs to feel a sense of community. This is what keeps our members coming back to meetings.
Running NeuWrite has been one of my favorite extracurricular activities in graduate school. I have met many brilliant people from whom I've gotten such inspiration about the kinds of science communication projects I would like to do. tl;dr highly recommend; would do again. Good luck and have fun!

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