One afternoon, I met Nadine on Skype. She’s an atmospheric chemist and a new PI who currently works at ETH Zürich in Switzerland. We talked about her scientific writing pet peeves, how she stays focused, the science communication differences in Europe and North America and a lot more.
Hi Nadine! How are you?
Good. I'm actually quite excited to speak to you because I think you have a skill that is really, really useful. And a career idea that you seem to have created yourself as well.
Thank you, how kind. Yeah, my career path is probably a little bit unusual… I’m looking forward to speaking to you too!
It's a pleasure. I certainly don't have anything figured out, but I can share some things that have worked for me, and what I’ve been sharing with students working with me. And one thing that I care a lot about is science communication, which is also part of the reason that I'm active on Twitter.
I tell students, ‘You know, you could be the best scientists and have the greatest ideas, but if you cannot communicate those ideas, it's worthless.’ I even will go as far as say it's 50% science and 50% communication. Okay, maybe that's a bit extreme, but I do think that if you are a good storyteller, your science will be read.
I so agree. I think the problem that many scientists have is that they don't see themselves as communicators or writers. Whereas I think this is part of the job.
Yeah, being a new PI has been somewhat overwhelming. Just to give you an analogy: I've had my independent funding since November last year (2018). And what I’ve realized since is that being a PI means basically running a little company. Because the PI has to be the CEO, the COO, the CFO, the communications specialist, the human resources, managing the budget, and then communicating, right? But still do science, teach, edit and review other people's papers. It can get really crazy.
I can only imagine! I never became a PI, I quit academia after I finished my PhD. But since starting my business, I kept thinking that all these skills I’ve been learning that are required to run a business, would have been so useful to have when I was in academia. And they would be useful to people who are in academia now.
How have you experienced the move from North America to Europe?
I'm from Canada originally, and I did my PhD in Canada as well. Now I've been living in Switzerland for almost three years. And I have this new perspective of how European scientists work. The scientific mentality, and the communication mentality is actually very different I think, to North America.
What do you think is different in Europe compared to North America?
I think a lot about this. I find in general that European scientists are very detail oriented. And maybe it is more the Germanic approach that’s very systematic. All the details need to be there. It's often that they only publish a subset of what they know. So, I think their wealth of knowledge is very broad. However, I find that there's not as much emphasis on communication.
On the one hand, I find that the story, and the message is often lost if the emphasis is on the details. Yet, in North America, I think it can almost be the reverse. The message can be oversold. In extreme cases, I feel like I'm sold the best research since sliced bread that is going to change the world. And when you think about the science, you wonder about the details and the limitations of their work, and whether they controlled for all parameters. Of course, I'm generalizing, but those two examples are on opposite ends of the communication spectrum.
I think that if there was one system that was way better than the other, it would've beaten the other system. And we would all be doing the same system. So, in a sense I think it’s made me a better scientist to experience both systems. But at the end of the day, at conferences, which talks do I generally remember? The well communicated ones. Okay, I'm biased, because I also come from the North American system. But I do think that the communication aspect is maybe under-appreciated here in Europe. I think that's a shame.
I’ve had the same experiences. An observation I made is that most of my newsletter subscribers and Twitter followers are in North America. I don’t get a lot of pushback for the storytelling advice I’m putting out there, but it seems to me that it always comes from people in Europe. (Which I think it is mostly due to misunderstandings).
What I found is that for other scientists to take me seriously here in Europe, I have to show detail. And I've always been a storyteller, but I now know that I can't just tell a good story, I have to show detail. Otherwise they won't trust me. I now always have a caveat slide showing the limitations of our work and how we thought it through. It's a humble aspect that I think is important.
I attended this large conference in Vienna recently, the European Geophysical Union. It's I think 17,000 people. And there were a few Americans who gave what I thought were very good presentations, great stories, made people laugh and so on. And then I had some German colleagues talk to me after, and they said, ‘I don't know if I trust this science.’ And I was thinking to myself, ‘Ha. It's because they oversold it and didn’t show the details and because they’re not used to receiving information that way.’
I ended up having a conversation with one of the American professors that had given what I thought was a great talk. And I told them that I think it's important to show some detail. And they said that somebody came and talked to them about that. It’s important to balance of story and detail, and as I practice this balance, I think it will make me a better scientist.
Yeah, ideally you combine these two worlds, right?
Exactly. I think the sweet spot is right in the middle of the two communities.
Yeah. I think having a caveat slide is a great idea. I always recommend my clients in the discussion sections of their papers to include at least one paragraph about the limitations of their studies. I think it's so important because it makes you trustworthy. The people who read it understand that you really thought about your research, and that you can see it from an outside perspective and understand how you could improve your model.
Exactly. It's this trustworthy aspect. And it's part of the scientific method to show the limitations of your work so others can build upon your work. Then other scientists can address those limitations with complimentary methods for example.
Yes! So, what is your research field? And what do you study at the moment?
I’m an atmospheric chemist. And my background is actually organic chemistry. What I like to bring to atmospheric chemistry is the aspect of molecular mechanisms. I like applying this knowledge of how molecules react to what we see in the atmosphere. My current research here at ETH is looking at how the aerosols in our atmosphere form clouds – whether they nucleate a water droplet or nucleate an ice crystal. And what I'm interested in is how the chemistry within these aerosols impact that formation.
In about a year and a half – I've recently signed an offer – I’ll be moving to the University of British Columbia as an Assistant professor.
That sounds great, congratulations!
Thank you. There I'll also be doing indoor air chemistry. Using chemical mechanisms in the gas phase to understand what the oxidation products are that we breathe. So, I'm both interested in the outdoors, but also the indoor environment.
That’s an interesting topic.
We think so. I think it's tangible, you know? I can remember trying to tell my parents what I did when I was doing organic chemistry. And I said, ‘I made this little white powder, I developed conditions for this reaction, which maybe someday somebody will use to make something useful.’ And now I tell them, ‘When you look at these clouds, how do they from? Chemistry is part of that process.’
It's very exciting, and I’m really enjoying it. It's such collaborative research; there's a lot of work with physicists, engineers, computer scientists, and modelers. And I love learning from all these different perspectives and disciplines. And sometimes I get to be the token chemist.
Sounds very interdisciplinary!
Yeah. And this is where again communication is so key. As I learn the scientific language of these other fields, it helps make our research more impactful. Because then we know how to transfer knowledge, and which parameters they might need for their climate model. I need to use different language when I'm speaking to a chemist, to a physicist, or to an engineer, which is very challenging. But I enjoy doing that.
And how about your writing – how do you feel about that?
I probably have a love/hate relationship with writing. Because for me, what I find exciting is discovering a story. And once I have the story, I find it easiest to make a presentation, which I then translate into a manuscript. I wouldn't say I struggle so much with writing. What I struggle with is the final push towards the finished product. I'm a perfectionist, so it’s very difficult for me to say, ‘It's good enough, now it can get submitted.’
I do have high expectations of my own and my students’ writing. I warn them that the first draft that they give me may be highly marked. And that’s not because they’re not doing a good job, but because I want to help them identify areas for improvement. I also do have a few writing pet peeves if you’d like to hear them.
I think some of these are things that you also have written about, like long sentences. In some instances, people keep going, and keep going, and keep going.
Oh, I know what you mean. There’s often so many subclauses in these sentences, you basically have to read them three or four times until you understand them.
Exactly. My motto is ‘precise and concise’.
That's a good one!
To put this in practice, I say each sentence needs to bring new information. If you're saying the same thing but in a different way, delete it. I often ask students to start with one paragraph or one section, so that we can break that section out in detail. Then they can apply what they learned when writing a different section. I usually first ask for the methods section because it is the easiest for a student to start writing.
Another maybe very specific pet peeve of mine is using ‘this’ with a verb. For example, you want to refer to an idea that was described in the previous sentence. If you just say, ‘this is important’, it’s unclear what exactly you are referring to. So, I always say, 'this' needs to go with a noun, like 'this idea', 'this problem' or 'this research question'. This is how the idea of ‘precise and concise’ comes together.
That sounds like a great approach. Any other writing points you care about?
I’m a proponent for using the active voice in scientific literature. It helps with storytelling AND with being more concise. So rather than say ‘it has been shown that atmospheric chemistry research relies on laboratory, field and modelling studies’ just write ‘atmospheric chemistry research relies on laboratory, field and modelling studies’.
Yes, I agree! It helps you cut down your word count too. And it’s so much easier to read.
Also, about the first sentence, the topic sentence, in a paragraph: I think it should introduce the topic, and it should NEVER be ‘The data is shown in this figure.’
Yep! To be honest, I think a sentence like ‘the data is shown in Fig. 2B’ is needless overall. It reads much better and is more concise if you describe the data and then refer to the figure in parentheses, like ‘X is dependent on Y (Fig. 2B)’.
Do you give your trainees any instructions before you ask them to write a paper draft, or do you first just let them do whatever they think is best?
What's worked best so far is to first give my students a sense of that I care a lot about writing, and that this is something that we're going to put a lot of effort into. Then I explain the ‘precise and concise’ concept but don't give them too many guidelines. It also depends on the person, I think.
What I've done in the past is taking another paper that I thought was very well written and show them why it was well written. So, as an exercise I take a good paragraph, and a bad paragraph from the literature and then we discuss things like the topic sentence, and transition words.
Oh, transition words. I’ve made the observation that German speakers often use too many transition words, meaning too many linkers between sentences.
Yes, true. And the more I learn German, the more I understand where their mistakes are coming from. I noticed that the time component is important to them, right? Using words like ‘first’, ‘again’ and ‘now’, which we don’t emphasise in English, so it sometimes still makes sense, but it reads a bit strange.
Yeah, that’s interesting you say that. I was just talking about that with a German client of mine who used a lot of these temporal words in their manuscript that weren’t needed and at times confusing.
Another important point particularly for German speakers is the correct use of commas. I did a ‘commas quiz’ in the context of a scientific writing class I’ve given, and I have them read sentences out loud to help them hear the problem.
Great idea! Where did you learn your scientific writing skills – is it all self-taught, did you have good mentors, took courses or read books?
That's a good question. I did my education in Quebec, so I was still taking English literature classes until I was 19, before going to university. And I've noticed that when moving to Ontario, the quality of the writing there was somewhat worse. I wonder if it’s because they don't do any more English classes after high school.
Also, my mother studied languages. So, I think I have a bias there. Whether it's systematic or just the fact that there's a huge library in the house that I grew up in. My mother certainly transmitted her love of reading to me.
When I was a graduate student, I took all the professional development courses and workshops I could. I attended writing and presentation classes. I care about communication and about improving my writing.
What would you say is your biggest struggle when it comes to writing?
The perfectionism is where I get in trouble. I'm supposed to be writing a blog post right now for a student association. And I can't submit it yet, because not all the sentences are perfect. At this point, I have more of a time management problem.
But it’s the same for manuscripts. I always find something that can be better said, better done and better written. I’m working on picking and choosing my battles. So far, I’ve let students write their research papers, since I think it’s part of the learning experience that they need to do in graduate school. I’ll edit, sometimes heavily, but I don’t rewrite everything, and I also don’t have the time to do that.
And this is where for me, proposal writing is quite different to a paper. Because a proposal has a deadline. And my writing at this deadline has to be good enough. Then I just submit it and it's okay. But papers don't have deadlines. This is a problem for me because I often miss my self-imposed deadlines.
I can relate to that a lot. I used to be worse, but I guess since having my own business, I’m learning more and more to push the perfectionism aside, because things wouldn’t move if I perfected everything. But it still hurts sometimes to put things, like blog posts, out there, which I think could have been “more perfect”.
It is funny that you say this. Because this is how I’m learning to cope with being a new PI, which is so different to my career upbringing. Because during school, everybody is saying, you need to be the best at writing, get the best grades, be the best at presentations. It was always about being the best. I've always been taught to give my 110%. And as a perfectionist, I’m used to giving my 110%. Now, that is impossible. The only way to survive sometimes is to give my 20%, in others my 50%. And that is so difficult for me.
So true! Thinking of it, I have the impression that basically all my friends who are still in academia are perfectionists. And most of my clients are too. I also believe we get this instilled.
That's exactly right. So, the environment I’m creating in my group is, and I just saw this post on Twitter, ‘published is better than perfect’.
Oh, so good.
Our work still needs to be good, but perhaps not as perfect as we think. It’s important to still enjoy the research. I went through a workaholic phase in grad school and it doesn't work, I burned out, and was less productive. You know, I love to spend time with my family and friends, and I love to ski and spend time in the Alps. So now it's just a matter of ‘this is the time that I have for proposal writing, and if it's not good enough, then I still know I gave it my best time-limited shot”.
I think this is such a healthy approach that’ll make you more productive too.
Sometimes when I see what other people are doing, I think there are some chances I don't survive in academia. And then again, I think ‘No, I need to prove that this works.’
I see perfectionism and overwork all the time. I see it in younger colleagues, I see it in older colleagues. I'm trying to be vocal about it and share my experiences. I have one colleague that I know is going to burnout. And I'm asking him how I can support him, and I share what happened to me and that it made me realise what matters and what doesn’t. We perpetuate this perfectionism to the point that it's unsustainable.
Our world gets crazier by the year. There are always more things we have to do, more technology wanting our attention. Therefore, I believe we have to prioritise to take care of ourselves so that we don't burn out.
Absolutely. I've been fortunate so far that some agencies think my ideas are good. So, I'm going to ride the academic path as long as I can. If it doesn’t work out, there are plenty of other careers I’d be interested in.
Exactly, that's really good to keep in mind. Coming back to writing, when do you write best? Is there a certain time of day or do you have any routine around that?
I'm not a routine type of person. I cannot say, ‘Friday is my day to write’. And I cannot wake up every day at the same time. I like my days to be different. My PhD thesis for instance, I was writing in the evening, and at night. I would maybe start in the afternoon and then I’d write until 2AM or so. But it was more a circumstantial situation because I wanted to avoid distractions in the office, and that was the way to do it.
Now, last summer, I had papers to write and I would stay home in the morning to write and then come in to work in the afternoon. Again, for me it's a matter of having the least amount of distractions. Because my mind runs very quickly, and to be able to write I need to have focus.
How do you manage to stay focused?
One of my little tricks to keep that focus is to take intermittent breaks. At home, I have a puzzle. Actually, I have a puzzle table in my living room. When I write and realize that I am getting distracted, I go to my puzzle table and put in a few pieces. And then I continue writing. Working on a puzzle still uses my brain and to some extent problem solving skills, but in a different way than writing and it relaxes me.
Oh wow, I’ve never heard this before – what an amazing idea for a break activity! There’s probably a neuroscientific reason for how this can help to maintain focus. I recently read that, for example, playing Tetris can help the brain to de-stress, even prevent PTSD in some cases. And similar to puzzling, I recently started to knit in my breaks, I guess this too is some kind of focused meditation.
Yeah, exactly. When I'm working on a puzzle, I'm not thinking about other things, because I'm looking for piece shapes and I think about what colours are going to match etc.
So, what do you do in your breaks when you’re in the office?
Unfortunately, I don't have a puzzle there. What happens is that I usually go to Twitter to get a break in. And then I get sucked into reading an article or a discussion about new PIs, for example, and get side-tracked. Then it can happen that I think ‘Oh shoot, I just spent a half an hour clicking links’.
Oh, that’s so familiar. I like to go on Twitter during my workday as well. Partly because I’m working from home, and don’t have anyone to socialise with (other than my dog who basically only sleeps while I work). Twitter is great for the community, the information and discussions but I find it can be a time suck too.
I have actually seen companies implementing the puzzle strategy. At the Chemical Abstract Services headquarters in Columbus, Ohio, they have a huge table with puzzles and games. Like Rubik's cubes, brain teasers with sticks, circles and ropes that you have to untangle, for example. I am not sure why, but this focused problem-solving works wonders to help me refocus later.
Ah, interesting! So easy and cheap to implement as well. Do you use any other strategies to get your writing done productively?
Apart from taking breaks, deadlines are necessary for me to write productively. If it's not a proposal deadline that is set already by the university or the funding agency, then I try to set deadlines for myself. But then I have colleagues including students to hold myself accountable to these deadlines. For example, I will tell a student that they will get the paper back by this day. And then I have to do it.
Yes, social accountability helps me immensely as well. When you work with collaborators, do you have any system in place for writing and working together?
No, not right now. I'd like to get advice on that to be honest. What we've done is using Track Changes in Word. And some students like to write in LaTeX but then I ask them to transfer it to Word so that I can work with the tracked changes.
I must admit though that I am anti email threads. For me, email threads are unproductive types of discussions with much room for miscommunications and misunderstandings. Often, if I sense an email thread starting, I suggest a talk over the phone or Skype or a meeting in person. I have seen so many misunderstandings of tone and so on through email. And it's so sad. It's frustrating too. So that's how I've managed collaborations so far. But I'm interested in hearing what others have to say, because this is a tough topic. In today’s global science world our collaborators are no longer next door. They're often not in the same country, they're not even in the same time zone, so it can become challenging to communicate effectively regularly.
I wrote a blog post outlining a system that I think works well when you collaborate and co-write. In my opinion, the really important bit is to talk about how you want to work together in advance and set expectations. Like deciding on authorship and who’s going to write what early on or how that will be decided. Or how you want to communicate. It can be time-saving to set expectations there upfront.
We covered so much ground here today. Thank you so much for the great conversation, Nadine, and all the insights and writing tips you shared! It was so much fun talking to you!
It was such a pleasure, Anna. Thank you for this interview and I’m sure we could have chatted for hours still!
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER:
I’m Dr Anna Clemens, a scientific editor and writing coach for scientists. I give workshops about scientific writing, offer strategy calls and structurally edit papers and proposals. I’d love to work with you, please click here for more information.
I regularly blog about scientific writing and write articles about science for magazines and websites. I hold a PhD in Chemistry/Materials Science.
When I’m not at my desk, I’m probably hiking with my dog and assistant Zuza or enjoying an oat flat white in one of Prague’s many cosy cafés.