A conversation with Rebecca Schwarzlose

Holden Thorp

Link to Article

In this week’s Science Editorial, I wrote about an interview I had with Rebecca Schwarzlose, a postdoctoral researcher at Washington University in St. Louis* who also wrote an acclaimed popular book, called Brainscapes, about neural maps. Her story reflects the challenges of being both a researcher and an outstanding science communicator. Here are some highlights from that conversation.

*HT is a faculty member on leave from the same institution

Holden Thorp: I’ve been writing a lot about the science communication problem. I’m skeptical about the idea that every scientist needs to be better trained at communication. How did you go from being an undergraduate to a graduate student who wrote a trade book to then becoming a full-time neuroscience researcher?

Rebecca Schwarzlose: I was an undergraduate in psychology at Northwestern University, and I wanted to study neuroscience—particularly neuropsychiatric disorders—so I went to MIT for graduate school.  I struggled with neuropsychiatric models in mice, so I learned neuroimaging techniques and then went to UCLA to do postdoctoral research on the neural basis for psychiatric illness.

For personal and family reasons, I left academia and was home with my young child. I did some research part time but also spent time thinking about and practicing science writing. That was when the idea for a book came about.

I then became an editor at Trends in Cognitive Sciences. That was a different experience—thinking about how to communicate with scientists who are in adjacent fields. Although it wasn’t quite the same as communicating with the general public, a lot of the same challenges existed. I tried to help authors get their ideas across in a more accessible manner. After a few years, I wanted to get back to research. I also got a book deal.

I’m finally now at the stage where the book has been published and I’m engaging with people about science while also doing research full time.

Holden Thorp: So you didn’t really work on science communication until after you’d finished grad school and a short postdoc at UCLA?

Rebecca Schwarzlose: That’s right. I didn’t have any formal training in science communication. Thankfully, my graduate advisor was a good writer and gave me advice on writing scientific articles. But I didn’t have anyone advising or offering guidance on reaching out more broadly.

Holden Thorp: How did you figure out how to shop your book proposal and get a contract?

Rebecca Schwarzlose: I did some reading about it, attended workshops on science writing, met people who did science writing, and pieced together how to write a book proposal. Things just fell together.

Holden Thorp: What part of your public communication work is still going on now?

Rebecca Schwarzlose: I’m still giving interviews and being invited to speak to different audiences, which has been rewarding.

You touch people who have very different backgrounds and are interested in the same things but for very different reasons.

Holden Thorp: Would you say that this hurts your productivity as a researcher?

Rebecca Schwarzlose: Writing a book and then going out into the world and talking about it was a very big project. It did hurt my productivity in terms of research publications. I also have a family, and so there are fewer opportunities to work through the weekend and stay up all night working.

Writing an article here or there, having a blog, or doing a podcast allows you to reach out to people in ways that are more “bite-size.” The challenge is that research is a competitive environment, so it’s hard to allocate time for something else.

Holden Thorp: What about your peers? Are they appreciative of what you’re doing, or jealous, or some mix?

Rebecca Schwarzlose: I think either supportive or maybe a little quizzical. No one thinks it’s a bad thing to be doing. It’s an unusual thing to be doing.

Holden Thorp: Do you think that it’s realistic to expect lots of people to do what you’re doing?

Rebecca Schwarzlose: No, I don’t. I think what we should probably be aiming for is finding ways to give scientists tools to help them communicate, not necessarily even with a general audience, but just more broadly between different disciplines.

We could change the culture too. We have the mentality that if you are brilliant, then people will either understand you or not. But even within the scientific community, it is incumbent upon us to be comprehensible to others and share what we have done with taxpayer money as broadly as possible.

Holden Thorp: You gave a talk the other night without saying “engram” or “voxels.” Most of your peers can’t do that.

Rebecca Schwarzlose: I think if they had to, it would strengthen their understanding of their own material, because when you are forced to explain something to someone who doesn’t know the jargon, you are forced to understand it at an even deeper level to explain it clearly.

Holden Thorp: Are you hoping to continue blending research and this public side?

Rebecca Schwarzlose: I can’t see doing a book anytime soon. It was more than a full-time commitment. I do hope to continue to communicate in small ways and to mentor others on how to be better science communicators.

Holden Thorp: If you think about the challenge of communicating to people who are skeptical about science, what have you learned?

Rebecca Schwarzlose: That’s another thing that scientists need to grapple with. It could be incorporated into our training, just as we are taught responsible conduct for research. How could we think about responsible communication? If I describe how deprivation early in life affects the developing brain in long-lasting ways, somebody who has preconceptions might think I am saying that people who were born in a deprived environment aren’t smart or capable. People hear what they want to hear based on their agenda. Thinking about the different sorts of mindsets you might encounter and trying to preempt obvious ways in which what you say might be distorted are important parts of executing effective communication.

Holden Thorp: What advice do you have for leaders around the world who are wrestling with this science communication problem?

Rebecca Schwarzlose: Perhaps along the lines of responsible conduct and research, we could enact more expectation from scientists at a grant level—for instance, by asking, “How have you communicated what you’ve learned from this grant-funded research?” When we evaluate applicants for academic positions or for promotions, we should think more broadly about how they are reaching out to other audiences and bringing what they’ve learned to the feet of the public or at least scientists in other fields.

This could help establish a new culture. Right now, there’s a feeling that scientists should put their heads down and be in the lab, and that talking about science broadly is showboating—that is, looking for attention and not really doing science.

Holden Thorp: You’re at a high-powered research place, Washington University. Institutions don’t get any more aggressive when it comes to traditional scientific achievement. What should Wash U do to make space for this?

Rebecca Schwarzlose: The medical school is trying to build up a science communication platform that involves inviting speakers with different experiences and asking them to speak more generally. These kinds of seminars are wonderful exposure, but the skills needed take practice. There could be a class in every graduate program that requires students to explore different ways of communicating scientific ideas to different audiences.

Holden Thorp: How do we get the skeptical scientists on board with this, to respect the kind of great work that you’re doing in science communication?

Rebecca Schwarzlose: If science communication was something you had to have on your CV, that would quickly get across the idea that you have to make time for it. And that might involve readjusting the degree to which we focus on our scientific publications for things like job searches.

Holden Thorp: Well, here’s hoping that can happen. Certainly, the great work that you’re doing is helping us go in that direction and thank you for your courage and determination in doing it.

Rebecca Schwarzlose: Thank you so much.


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