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Grant Awarded to Help Young Scientists Become Better Writers

Graduate Science Writing Center to be created

by University of Rhode Island
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Nedra ReynoldsNedra Reynolds, writing and rhetoric professor at the University of Rhode Island.Photo courtesy of the University of Rhode IslandKINGSTON, R.I., Aug. 27, 2015 – Use the active voice. Keep it simple. Eliminate jargon. Sound like tips you’d hear in a journalism class? Guess again.

This fall, graduate students in science at the University of Rhode Island will be getting that advice as they hone their writing skills to make them better communicators.

URI has received a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to create a writing program for graduate students in the sciences, with workshops and classes starting in September. A Graduate Science Writing Center will open later in the year. 

The URI program is one of many emerging at colleges and universities throughout the country to help young scientists translate complex ideas into prose that the average person can understand.

Students will write frequently to become more comfortable with writing. They will write for other scientists and academics, as well as newspapers, magazines, nonprofit groups and websites. And their work will be reviewed in small groups and one-on-one sessions at the science writing center, expected to be in the College of the Environment and Life Sciences. 

Science professors will also incorporate more writing in their classes at an earlier date. For example, a first-year graduate student in biology might take a class called “Graduate Writing in the Life Sciences.’’ Faculty will also encourage students to write for non-academic publications and create science posters.

“This is a new and innovative way to train science writers in graduate education,’’ says Reynolds. “Our goal is to send outstanding science writers into the world – for research and non-research jobs.’’

Clear science writing could be as simple as explaining a CT scan (a computed tomography scan that takes X-rays from various angles and combines them to create cross-sectional images) or why excessive nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus can harm Narragansett Bay. Good writing can also convey a sense of wonder about the universe and inspire people to take action on pressing environmental issues like climate change.

Ingrid Lofgren, an associate professor and graduate coordinator in the department of nutrition and food sciencesIngrid Lofgren, an associate professor and graduate coordinator in the department of nutrition and food sciences.Photo courtesy of the University of Rhode IslandThe grant, “Science Writing and Rhetorical Training: A New Model for Developing Graduate Science Writers," was a team effort by faculty in the Harrington School of Communication and Media and the College of the Environment and Life Sciences. Professors from these departments will teach courses and run workshops.

Ingrid Lofgren, an associate professor and graduate coordinator in the department of nutrition and food sciences, is the lead principal investigator. In addition to Reynolds, co-principal investigators are: Caroline Gottschalk Druschke, an assistant professor of writing and rhetoric; Scott McWilliams, a professor of wildlife ecology and physiology; and Nancy Karraker, an assistant professor of wetland ecology and herpetology.

"I am really excited about the strong, interdisciplinary team working on this project,’’ says Lofgren.” It will be indispensable for the innovative work we proposed."

“This is a highly competitive grant, and we are proud of our Harrington School of Communication and Media faculty for being awarded this prestigious honor,’’ says Adam Roth, interim director of the Harrington School of Communication and Media. “Professors Reynolds and Gottschalk Druschke are top-notch scholars and their research project promises to yield important results for the future of science communication theory and practice.’’

Research is as important as ever. But now science is influencing public policy and political decisions, making it critical that scientists convey their ideas clearly. Scientists also need to know how to write well to get grants and write research papers.

“URI is leading the way to help science students become better writers, and that’s crucial in today’s swiftly changing world,’’ says Nedra Reynolds, a professor of writing and rhetoric who helped write the grant. “So much public policy, from climate change to sustainable farming, requires clear and effective writing accessible not only to academics, but also to the public.’’

The training in writing will be grounded in rhetoric, a field that focuses on the persuasive power of language and includes studies of argument, public discourse and civic engagement.