Telling the stories of science: thanks and farewell, Marisa Wikramanayake

marisaPerth-based science journalist, writer and editor Marisa Wikramanayake took the reins of the account this week for a breakneck whistlestop tour through the worlds of science communication and journalism, fiction and non-fiction writing, and science editing. In doing so she gave us a valuable insight into ‘the other side’ of science journalism – as researchers or as people interested in science, the view is often taken that science journalism is in a crisis, that the media doesn’t respect science, that editors and owners don’t properly resource science journalists or journalism, that those journalists sent to cover science are usually ignorant of science, indulge in false balance and cheap distortionary hyperbole to whip up superficial interest and artificial debate. Some of that may be true. But what is also true is there are a great many passionate and engaged science journalists out there – like Marisa, and like Joel Werner who tweeted for us earlier in the year – who tread the tightrope of endeavouring to understand, advocate and translate science from the bench to the spoken or printed MSM word, balancing the pressures of telling the truth and telling the story in an engaging way which will connect with their readers and their editors.

In one particularly fascinating thread, Marisa led us through the process and the conflicting pressures of researching, crafting and structuring a scientific story for various media platforms, an exercise as informative for baby science journalists as it was for researchers who’ve seen that process from the ‘bench’ side, often with their fingers over their eyes in horror at what was being ‘done’ to ‘their’ science in the name of telling a printable or marketable story. The understanding that ‘their’ science is ‘our’ science – all of ours, as taxpayers, as health system patients, as citizens of a society that values scientific and intellectual endeavour – and that for better or worse, the heralds which trumpet the tales of that science are now and in future primarily going to be the MSM – needs to be accepted by all sides. Of course, the rise of the ‘citizen science communicator’ – both in terms of lay people with passion for science and scientists with a passion for communication – makes this acceptance easier.

The sheer volume of engagement on the topics Marisa brought forth for discussion can be illustrated by the fact we broke Storify trying to archive them all. We’ll have a comprehensive archive of Marisa’s time on the account shortly, but for now we recommend you check out her website, where she’s popped up a few curationary Storify archives of her own, as well as following her at @mwikramanayake. Thanks again to Marisa and good luck in the future.

Next week, we return to the bench with developmental biologist Dr Megan Wilson (@DrMegsW), from the Department of Anatomy at the University of Otago, New Zealand.
Sweet as bro.

The Write Stuff – Marisa Wikramanayake joins Real Scientists

From sunny Florida to Perth, Western Australia, we welcome word wrangler Marisa Wikramanyake to Real Scientists.
Marisa is a Sri Lankan-born, Perth based journalist, writer and editor – “word wrangler” covers it, really – who has been fascinated by science from an early age, as detailed in her contribution to the Letters to Sir David project.  Spending most of her time writing, she  also geeks out with scientists, debates journalism practice and in her “spare time”  tries to write novels while editing other writers’ work. Marisa currently occupies a chair at Curtin University’s Digital Media Unit, helping to run the social media channels and chasing down  staff and students to write news stories.Her journalism credits include being in ground zero of a bomb blast twice, having her phones tapped and being a tad freaked out by the Scientologists. Publishing-wise, her first book came out at 17 and her natural habitat is a secondhand bookstore, a library or a literary festival (she’s covered the Galle Lit Festival with Richard Dawkins and has just finished organising IPEd’s latest national editing conference). She also pokes her nose in at Australian Women Writers, where she is the non-fiction editor, and lends her geek goddess expertise to the Guys Read Gals project and the Society of Editors (WA). To find out more about Marisa and her work, look her up at her blog at marisa.com.au or on Twitter @mwikramanayake.
Marisa Wikramanayake
We asked Marisa our six-seven questions to find out the nitty-gritty:
1. How did you end up in science writing?

I studied both science and arts subjects throughout school and university. I had a blog as a teenager and wrote about politics, popular culture, geography, history, philosophy, anything I wanted to rant about. A year after I landed in Australia and started a degree here, a newspaper editor in Sri Lanka saw the blog and asked me to write a weekly newspaper column about life in Australia for a Sri Lankan audience. I did this till 2009 when my editor got assassinated by which time I had graduated and was freelancing as an editor (of books and corporate documentation and policy articles) and another editor who had been a silent fan of the online blog & column posts called up Science Network WA’s editor at Scitech and recommended me. I got a call one day out of the blue, went in and got given a story to do which got published with no edits because it was exactly what he wanted.

Whatever I do, I really can’t let go of either the science or arts side in my writing, editing or journalism. The theme of straddling two things is a weird constant in my life.

2. What is your day job?

My day job changes. Right now I am an “online writer” for Curtin University in Perth which means I help to run the social media channels but I also update the content on the websites and I write the news stories for the news section (but not the media releases – that’s PR’s role). It’s a ton of fun because I get to write about cool things that researchers are doing as well as what the students do and I get to think of new ways to use social media to promote certain courses or departments or services or students/staff involved with Curtin. I like that I get that permission to go off and try new things. Right now I am helping run G+ hangouts for various events and groups so that online students can chat or watch livestreams and participate and potential students from across the world can ask all their important questions before flying into Australia. I also want to use it to showcase research that academics are working on or services that people can use and allow people from one campus to talk to those on another (Curtin has campuses in Singapore and Sarawak and partner institutions in other countries).

The rest of the time I am a freelance journalist and editor. I take on editing work for either organisations working on corporate documents (sometimes scientific) or I edit manuscripts for authors. As a journalist I mostly review books for the West Australian newspaper (they gleefully give me all the non fiction and crime fiction) or for the Australian Book Review and though I haven’t had much time of late to do it, I am on the list of freelancing journalists for Science Network WA where I cover all sorts of science. I am one of the few generalists – most people pick a science to cover and stick to that.

Oh and then I try to write books of my own and try to finish my Master of Communications in Neuroscience & Science Journalism. And I have a few other projects dealing with writers and literature and Secretary work for the Society of Editors (WA). If you asked me what my actual calling/work/real job/career was I’d say writer. As in books. Everything else just is awesome stuff to help others but also help support the said writing of books.

3) Why science writing?Hmm… 1) I like to write about things that are important – my job is to communicate something to someone whether it’s my message or someone else’s. I think science is important.

2) I want to surround myself with people who are passionate about things and scientists are passionate to the point of obsession about what they work on and that to me is wonderful. I adore the enthusiasm and excitement. It’s the same reason I love hanging out with writers and artists. Passion is great. I also admire how focused and dedicated they are – I focus on many things at once and try to tie them all to writing which I love but scientists just love one thing or one aspect of a topic and generally do all sorts of things to do with it. 3) I am good at this. I had a great education in Sri Lanka, US and here that taught me a lot about the concept of inquiry and logical and critical reasoning and the scientific process. I could be a social scientist but I couldn’t pick one branch of science to specialise in so being a straight scientist is out for me but I can hop around different branches of science and keep asking “Why?” or “How?” And that makes me a better novelist and a better journalist and I can understand what most scientists are doing and then explain that to others. And the more people talking about science the better.4) Where were you born?

I was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka in 1983. I never did fit into any sort of stereotype of a Sri Lankan girl. My whole upbringing was also a tad bit more liberal than most of my peers had it and English was my first language. I was a fish out of water from the start – maybe a mudskipper living in the intertidal zone or something. It did feel like straddling two worlds – my peers had a culture and I had another borne out of a more odd mix of Western and the Sri Lankan one that my parents knew of. Oh and we had a civil war going on so that complicated a few things as well – there were lots of things that I felt I could have done but was unable to.

I ended up knowing a lot about Western culture as well and being a bit of geek and nerd which was weird because only boys were supposed to like that stuff. I moved to the US a month after I turned 18 for university but I had to leave after two years – where I was felt too much like a bubble and I had traveled a lot as a child and wasn’t used to my concept of the world having to shrink to just the borders of a state. I found it hard to cope if I couldn’t find out what was happening in the rest of the world or discuss it for example. So I upped sticks and moved to Perth in 2004.

After starting life in three different countries now I feel the urge to move somewhere else though I don’t know where just yet. 🙂

5)  Other hobbies?

If I hadn’t been a writer… I would have been a dancer or an archaeologist/historian/anthropologist. The most awesome thing I learnt during my stint in the US was how to differentiate between hominid species by looking at skulls. The most awesome thing I did as part of my degree at the University of Notre Dame in Australia was go on an archaeological dig. My degree was a BA in English Literature and Geography with an Honours in Archaeology/Historical Georgaphy. I studied the evolution of a port city urban landscape over thirty years.

As for hobbies – I write stories, I read but I also like photography and painting and I dance of course. I can cook very well and I love to fish but I am not so great at that though apparently I talk to my fish when I catch them. These days I mostly try to catch up on sleep because I am lucky – most of my work involves a lot of exciting things to do with one or more of my hobbies.