Q&A: Why Is Science Writing Important to Society? A Scientist Explains

Matthew Diasio headshot

Matthew Diasio earned his Ph.D. in materials science in December. This summer, he is working as a science reporter at the Raleigh News & Observer. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Matthew Diasio is a scientist with a passion for communicating science.

After recently finishing his Ph.D. in materials science at the University of Virginia School of Engineering, Diasio is working this summer as a science reporter with the Raleigh (North Carolina) News & Observer on an AAAS Mass Media Fellowship.

He is considering a career in science policy, and has helped create UVA’s Science Policy Initiative through the Office of Graduate and Postdoctoral Affairs. The program helps science and engineering graduate students find learning opportunities that leverage their scientific training toward meaningful careers in policy and other realms beyond the lab.

Here, Diasio discusses his unique fellowship.

Q. You are both a scientist and a writer. How do they match up?

A. I think the greatest similarity is that science and writing both depend on curiosity. Doing well in both requires a lot of research, and it helps to be really passionate about the topic you’re working on.

But how we present that background research is a big difference, and this comes up in almost every science communication training I’ve had. As scientists, we nearly always lead our papers or discussions with the background before discussing our results and implications. That makes sense in science, because we want to know how our colleagues got their results. As a writer, though, that’s literally burying the lead. Your audience is going to keep reading only if they can quickly understand why the science is important or think it’s interesting, so the results and significance need to come first.

Q. Describe your materials research.

A. I studied how to make a nanomaterial called graphene. You can think of graphene as a single layer of the carbon atoms in graphite, or pencil lead. Scientists and engineers are really interested in graphene because it’s one of the strongest and most conductive materials humans have discovered, and could find use in everything from faster, efficient and maybe even flexible electronics to lighter planes and cars.

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I used a high-speed blender to peel off the layers of graphite in liquid. I was interested in how the properties of the liquid affect this process, like how much graphene is made and the quality of the material. Using a thicker, viscous liquid made more graphene, which I believe is caused by the liquid having a greater pull or drag on the layers as it moves. This could help industry mass-produce graphene, making it easier to add to products.

Q. What have you learned so far during this mass media fellowship?

A. A common theme in orientation and in conversations with my editor is that there are a lot of different ways to make a topic interesting. We discussed how it’s helpful to find a narrative to your piece, because something that comes off as purely explanatory, like a textbook or encyclopedia article, isn’t going to attract most readers or keep their attention for long.

I’m working for the Raleigh News & Observer in North Carolina, so a good hook there is to find local research or local experts from the Research Triangle.

Q. Why is science writing important to society?

A. I’m passionate about science writing because I think it’s important to realize that even the best science education is going to be limited in scope. Most people never take another science class after high school or college. But they will need to use science again in their lives, and it might be about issues that didn’t even exist when they were in school.

As the coronavirus spread, people suddenly needed to learn about disinfectants and ways to reduce risk in everyday activities. Good science writing and other kinds of communication can empower people and communities to make the right decisions.

 Q. How has UVA helped prepare you for a career in science and writing?

A. The Office of Graduate and Postdoctoral Affairs and Ph.D. Plus [a UVA program to enhance professional development and career training for doctoral students] provided many great opportunities to work on my communication skills. Early in grad school, I attended an improv class at UVA run by the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science to learn about ways to better connect with an audience. Through the research communication class and Three-Minute Thesis, I’ve learned how to hone my message. I’ve also been involved in groups like the Science Policy Initiative and Cville Comm-UNI-ty.

Trying to come up with a good science demo for elementary school students or figuring out how to explain years of research in a minute to a politician makes you focus on what’s important and what’s going to make your audience want to know more.

Q. Where do you plan to take your career?

A. My interest in science communication is broad, since science really does touch many of the issues we’re facing as a society. Working on science policy activities in graduate school felt like a natural extension of this, so I’ve been looking for ways to do this in government or in community groups.

I’m going to be a Congressional Science & Engineering Fellow starting in the fall through the American Chemical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, where I’ll work in a congressional office. I’m excited to see firsthand how senators and representatives get advice and incorporate it into legislation.

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