Ashley Smart is the Associate Director of the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT and a senior editor at Undark magazine. He joined KSJ in 2018, after eight years as an editor at Physics Today. He is a member of the advisory boards of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and The Open Notebook. Ashley was a 2015–16 Knight Science Journalism fellow. He holds a Ph.D. in chemical and biological engineering from Northwestern University.
Where can MIT graduate students find opportunities to apply their knowledge to science journalism, op-eds, or other means of communicating science to a general audience?
There are a number of great resources out there for students who are interested in writing for general audiences. I would recommend connecting with ComSciCon, a national, student-run group focused on helping graduate students practice and hone their communications skills. For students who are interested in a immersive science writing experience, there are great fellowships available, like the AAAS Mass Media Fellowships, which give students a chance to spend a few months in a newsroom. And for people who just want to try their hand at writing about a particular topic that interests them, there are lots of great outlets that will consider op-eds and other story ideas from young scientists, including The Conversation, Science Bites, and our very own Undark Magazine. The Knight Science Journalism program has also compiled an extensive collection of digital resources for people looking to break into science journalism.
As someone with a PhD in a science field, what do you consider some of the most effective strategies for writing about science?
I think one of the most important things a science writer can do is to know their audience, and tailor their writing to that audience. This is true for things like choosing the technical level — deciding which concepts will need explaining, which jargon should be cut, and so forth. But it’s also true for bigger picture issues, like figuring out what kind of story will resonate with a reader, and which information will matter most to them. For me, a lot of writing is just putting yourself in your reader’s shoes and imagining how the words you’re writing might be received by them. And so I think it also helps me to do a lot of reading myself, to get a feel for what works and doesn’t work for me as a reader — which in turn can lead me to new techniques to use in my own writing.
How do you view communication’s importance as a professional development competency for graduate students?
A new idea or discovery, no matter how great, isn’t worth much if no one knows about it, or if no one else can understand it. So I think it’s really important for any researcher to be able to tell people about their ideas and discoveries in a clear, engaging, and compelling manner. The style of communication is going to vary depending on the audience — the way you talk about your research in, say, a magazine column, is going to be different than the way you’d talk about it in a journal article or in a public talk. But the more styles you can master and the more audiences you can reach, the better the chance that the hard work you’re doing will make a broad impact on the world.