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Making Science Awesome

March 5, 2013

Dog Ear Consultants

AwesomeScience1As magazines that represent colleges and universities, we tend to report on a lot of scientific research happening on campus. The decoding of an extinct animal’s DNA. The creation of a new biopesticide. A breakthrough toward a cure for cancer.

Because it’s often sexy, scientific research can be an alumni magazine editor’s best friend. But some scientific researchers can be a real challenge. You know the type. They speak like RoboCop and have the personality of a flour tortilla. And it’s your responsibility to bring them and their research to life on the page.

The team at Dog Ear HQ has interviewed dozens and dozens of scientists over the years, and we’ve developed some basic methods to break down the tech talk, get researchers to loosen up in their lab coats, and heat up the Bunsen burners on science stories. Here are a few of our tricks under the microscope.

Go Face-to-Face: That press release you received from University Communications ain’t gonna cut it. Get out from behind your computer and go visit your scientist in his natural habitat: the lab. Ask him to describe the tools and instruments he uses. Notice the posters on the walls. Is there any music playing? Where was your scientist standing in the lab when he made his big discovery? What were his first words to his lab assistants at his “aha!” moment? Scene details are crucial in creating a narrative framework for how a research finding came to be.

AwesomeScience2Make Small Talk: Talk about the weather. Ask about family life. Chat about music. Discuss hobbies. Rapping over topics that have nothing to do with scientific research breaks the ice, reveals a scientist’s human side, and often opens up alternate avenues to finding a narrative element underneath the research. (“Oh, you have a 7-year-old son? How did he react when you told him you discovered a new class of dinosaur?” “You’re an avid skier? Does that inspire anything in your physics research?” “What do your lab assistants think of your Barry Manilow obsession?”)


Mine for the Motive:
Yes, the discovery or research finding is the meat of your article. But the story behind the research can reel readers in as much as or more than the research itself. Dig for what motivates your scientist—why does he study what he studies? Maybe a cancer researcher’s family member succumbed to cancer. Maybe a quantum physicist is trying to unlock time travel to go back and save his father’s life. Not in all cases, but sometimes a gripping story blossoms.

Press Repeat: Your notion of “layman’s terms” is vastly different than your scientist’s. When you kindly ask him to explain his highly technical, cutting-edge discovery in simple terminology and he replies in a foreign scientific language, don’t just accept that answer and move on. Grill him harder. “Forgive my dimwittedness, but I still don’t quite understand. Could you break it down even simpler?” Repeat as needed. If you don’t understand it, your readers won’t either.

Don’t Forget the Fieldwork: Scientists often go to great lengths to collect research samples. Sometimes their fieldwork is dangerous, sometimes it’s zany, and sometimes it’s just plain weird. (Note: Any study involving animals can be all three.) We’ve encountered scientists who’ve battled poisonous snakes on archeological digs, collected bug splatter from car windshields, fished lizards out of trees with fishing poles, and sent teams of mice into outer space. But the best we’ve encountered? A researcher who was measuring and analyzing the “smell of death” of pig carcasses. This stuff just writes itself.

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  1. Farnham, Rebecca #
    March 5, 2013

    I think you guys are awesome!!!! Thanks for all the great inspiration. I reposted this to our internal blog. Love the flour tortilla reference. LOL.

    Becky Rebecca Farnham | Assistant Creative Director UB Today Alumni magazine | Art Director University Communications | University at Buffalo 330 Crofts Hall | Buffalo, New York | 14260 716.645.4599 | farnham@buffalo.edu http://www.buffalo.edu

    From: “Dog Ear Consultants LLC .” <comment-reply@wordpress.com> Reply-To: “Dog Ear Consultants LLC .” <comment+_d5kj-utk6mzrkphyj5zmy@comment.wordpress.com> Date: Tuesday, March 5, 2013 6:38 AM To: “. .” <farnham@buffalo.edu> Subject: [New post] Making Science Awesome

    Dog Ear Consultants posted: “As magazines that represent colleges and universities, we tend to report on a lot of scientific research happening on campus. The decoding of an extinct animals DNA. The creation of a new biopesticide. A breakthrough toward a cure for cancer. Because “

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