Tell us a little bit about yourself
My name is JoAnna Wendel and I’m a science writer and cartoonist living in Portland, OR. I’ve been in SciComm since …I guess 2010 or so, when I started writing a science-themed column for the University of Oregon Daily Emerald. In 2014 I moved to DC to intern with the American Geophysical Union, where I stayed on as a staff reporter until 2018. After a brief stint at NASA, I’m now freelancing full time, both writing and cartooning. In my personal life, I’m an artist, outdoors-enthusiast, crossword puzzler, reader, and pet-mom to a cat named Pancake and a corn snake named Banana.
Did you always want to be a SciCommer?
Pretty much yes. As a small child, I wanted to be a “zoo painter,” which I guess means…someone who paints pictures of animals. Then I wanted to be a cartoonist. Then in high school, I decided I wanted to be a journalist, and very quickly discovered science journalism while reading National Geographic. So science and nature have always been a part of my professional aspirations.
There’s a lot of different careers within SciComm. How did you choose which direction you wanted to go?
I started with journalism because I didn’t realize there were other types of SciComm! After I left the American Geophysical Union I decided I didn’t want to be a journalist, but I wanted to stay in SciComm. As a freelancer, it’s hard to find work that ISN’T journalism, so that’s still what I’m doing today. But I’m also doing more science comics, which is so fun! I get to write AND draw. One day, when I do get a full-time job, I’d like it to be for a lab or university or other scientific institution, where I can work one-on-one with scientists to help them communicate their science in a general-public-friendly way. Or illustrate children’s science books. Whichever.
What’s been your favorite part about working in SciComm?
Learning so many new things all the time. I can be working on a story about earthquakes at the same time as sea turtles. I get to call scientists and ask them the silliest questions like “Could a spaceship fly through a gas giant?” or “Do turtles really like to be scratched on their shells?” I like to tell people that I have the best job because I don’t actually have to do any of the hard work (like, the experiments and math), I just get to ask for the answer and then tell everyone about how cool it is. (Of course, this is said in jest because writing about science IS hard work!)
What’s something about SciComm that you wish you knew before pursuing this career?
I wish I had known about the other types of SciComm, not just journalism. There are so many different avenues to SciComm! It doesn’t have to be for a big newspaper or fancy magazine. It can be at a university or in a lab or at a nonprofit, etc.
What do you think is your most important job as a SciCommer?
Accurately presenting science while also making it fun and engaging. Also adjusting your writing for different audiences. For the general public, I’m not going to use “regolith,” I’m going to say “soil” when talking about the top layer of material on Mars or the Moon. But if I’m writing for a scientifically trained audience, I’ll use “regolith.”
It’s also important to not get stuck in a mental trap of “oh these people don’t KNOW this, they’re stupid,” or “these people won’t vaccinate their kids — they’re evil!” A lot of very well-meaning people get caught up in misinformation, it’s important to remember that people are fallible.
Tell us about your favorite SciComm project
Right now it’s the webcomic I’m working on with my friend Laurel Hamers. It’s called Field Goats, and we highlight the overlooked wonders of the natural world, both big and small. So we focus on mostly plants, invertebrates, and some vertebrates like fish. We’re not doing it for money — it’s purely a passion project. It’s wonderful because Laurel is a great writer and editor, and we can make our own rules. We can make our own timeline and pick our own stories. And then I get to do what I love the most — draw! You can follow us at @FieldGoats on Instagram.