Australian Medical Writers Association Conference Series
In conversation with Dr Andy Stapleton: Keynote Speaker
Dr Andy Stapleton is a scientist, freelance writer, podcaster and the keynote speaker at the upcoming Australasian Medical Writers Association Conference. Aspiring science writer and PhD student Catharina Vendl talked to him about his recent career shift, his conference talk and science integrity in our post-fact world.
CV: Andy, according to your LinkedIn profile you are an expert communicator. How did you acquire your skills?
AS: I did two postdocs in material science at Flinders and at the University of South Australia in Adelaide. Academia provided me with a skill set that included writing about and communicating my research. It also taught me to take critique well and grow with it. If you survived your paper being torn apart by journal editors without having to cry all day, you are ready for the real world.
CV: Why did you leave academia?
AS: I genuinely enjoyed research and my postdoc positions went well. However, I also felt the weight of academia. There is a constant pressure for high performance and high quality publishing. Also, acquiring research grants is a tough business and you end up sacrificing a lot of your free time. It impacts your entire life style. I got to the point where I wanted a change. I have always enjoyed writing and started a blog. I quit my job in early 2017 and did an internship with the popular science magazine Cosmos in Melbourne. This was the beginning of my career as a science writer.
CV: That sounds like a big step. How did the transition from being employed by University to freelancing go?
AS: Someone once told me that a radical career change like mine takes at least 18 months. Only after this transition period you can really tell where you stand and if this is the right way to go. I am at the end of this transition now and it is definitely getting there. First I had to get my professional network and portfolio up and running. After the internship at Cosmos, I started working with Australia Science Channel, Science Alert and Australian Quarterly. Science Alert has over 10 million followers on Facebook. Writing for them was a huge step forward.
CV: What it is like to work as a freelancing science communicator in Australia?
AS: It can be tough. But I appreciate the freedom and it gets easier the better you establish yourself in the field. I recently started my own business, called verbalize.science (https://verbalize.science/). Our concept is unique in Australia. We offer universities and institutes a scientist friendly way to amplify research outcomes and extract the value from every science and research paper.
CV: Tell us more about verbalize.science. Just writing a press release is not sufficient for our multimedia dominated society anymore, is it?
AS: That’s right. We are taking it a big step further. We turn our clients’ research papers into podcasts and videos and help them to get the word out on traditional and social media. Our core offering to research institutes is a central dashboard and the ability to manage their research assets so they can use every bit of research to its full potential. In its current form, it has been running for about six months now and it is going really well.
CV: What does verbalize.science want to achieve?
AS: Our main aim is to give scientists and their research a strong voice. We want to make sure that their findings are mediated to the public in a way that can be easily understood and that the value of every research paper is unlocked.
CV: You claim that science is better when you have a smile on your face. Your sense of humour plays an important role in your work. Should researchers follow your example and make science more fun?
AS: Good question. Most of all I believe that scientists should be authentic. This is the way they can get across their research findings in the most convincing way. A good sense of humour is in my nature and therefore part of my work. If that’s not you, don’t force it.
CV: You will be the keynote speaker of the upcoming conference of the Australasian Medical Writers Association. Can you give us a teaser of what to expect from your talk?
AS: It is my job to set the scene for the conference theme ‘Integrity’. I will throw some questions out there that will lead through the conference. How do we as science communicators and writers make sure that we present research findings in the right way? How do we guarantee that the public doesn’t misinterpret them? Many journalists who write about science in newspapers or online are not actually experts in this field. They are under pressure to produce ‘click bait’. Under such circumstances honesty and even humanity can easily fall by the wayside. We as science writers have to make a stand against such practises.
CV: What is your advice to people who are at the beginning of their science communication career?
AS: Your degree and knowledge don’t matter as much. It only matters what you have done. Get a strong portfolio and a network up. Just start writing. Write a blog and also consider using other ways like podcasts and videos to get the word out on the street.
CV: Thank you for the interview, Andy!