Writing? In the sciences? Strange, I know. Even at a liberal arts college like Wheaton, we often think of science and writing as belonging on opposite sides of the academic spectrum, as if there is a great distance between STEM and the humanities. However, as an English major and former Pre-Med student, I have seen firsthand that they are not quite that distinct. Writing isn’t just for the aspiring novelist or literary critic; it is a skill that can serve you in nearly every facet of your life.
To get a better sense of how writing can serve those pursuing a career in the sciences, I spoke with Dr. Francis Umesiri, an organic chemist and Associate Professor of Chemistry. Dr. Umesiri has published many journal articles, often with a focus on organic medicinal chemistry. He has also authored several books, including Fasting for Life, which draws from decades of scientific research to illustrate the benefits of intermittent fasting.
Why should scientists know how to write?
When asked about the importance of having scientists who can write, Dr. Umesiri stated that “the core of science is not just research but also communication.” He pointed out that if a researcher makes a huge breakthrough but cannot share what they learned with others, it helps no one. Scientists only contribute to the field when they convey their findings so that colleagues can understand, reproduce, and build on their work. This requires an ability to both speak and write well.
In addition, Dr. Umesiri noted that there is “a growing need for scientists to bridge the gap with the general public.” Of course, articles published in peer-reviewed journals must still abide by the standards set by the scientific community; still, scientists have increasingly needed to engage with audiences who do not have a scientific background and will likely struggle to understand much of the jargon used in the field.
Scientists must eliminate jargon where possible to make their results accessible to general audiences. It must be noted, however, that if they oversimplify, they risk making dull, ambiguous generalizations that don’t serve readers any better than the jargon.
Ultimately, Dr. Umesiri believes that the key to good writing in the sciences is “to do justice to the data so that others can see it for what it is.” These words beautifully capture the balancing act scientists face as they navigate between staying true to the science and helping non-scientists understand. Writers in STEM must remain faithful to the facts and represent their work accurately, but to truly “do justice” to it, they must help their audience understand and benefit from the knowledge. In the end, good scientific writing serves the reader, not the writer.
So what can you do?
Of course, all this takes practice, and it isn’t easy to improve on your own. That’s where the Writing Center comes in! You might think we’re all English majors who do nothing but work on English papers, but in fact, our consultants come from a variety of departments, including Spanish, Urban Studies, and—of course—the sciences. When you sign up for a consultation on WCOnline, you can choose to limit your search to consultants who have experience with a certain area like Pre-Med so that you can get the most helpful, specific feedback possible. Even if we don’t have a consultant with the exact major you’re looking for, we are all well-equipped to help with questions about organization, evidence and analysis, APA style, and even issues like grammar and spelling (it happens to everyone). Some conventions are obviously specific to certain genres and fields, but the need for clear, well-reasoned writing is universal.
Ultimately, we’re here to meet you wherever you are in the writing process, whether you’re struggling to get a word on the page or proofreading your final draft. We can help you look over your research proposal, lab report, or whatever else you’re working on, and give you feedback on what you’re already doing well and how you can make your writing even better moving forward. The Writing Center is a wonderful (and free!) resource that can serve you well because, regardless of what you’re studying, we’re all writers. We hope to see you soon!