We hear a variety of answers to the question: “Why SciComm?” No two SciComm careers look the same! If you’re interested in SciComm, there’s room for you here! If you want to pivot within the SciComm space, there’s room for that, too! Find what interests you with the help of hearing from a variety of SciCommers. Many have left the lab bench for a chance to expand their scientific knowledge beyond their single area of expertise. Others still work as scientists but engage with and serve the public through science communication. Some people even knew early on that they wanted to pursue science communication. We bring you all these stories and the stories in between in our SciCommer Spotlight Series. In this series of blog posts, learn about science communicators’ career paths, their favorite SciComm projects, and why they participate in SciComm. There’s also some advice for aspiring SciCommers!
Meet JoAnna Wendel!
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.
What advice do you have for aspiring SciCommers?
There seems to be a lot of pressure to have a “brand,” especially on Twitter. You do NOT need to do this…depending on your professional goals. If you want to be the go-to person for a particular topic, or you want to host your own science youtube channel, or something like that, then yes personal branding is important. But if you’re like me, and just want to chill with scientists and write about their awesome work, then you don’t need to work so hard on your “brand.”
Also, freelancing is really hard and exhausting. I’ve been freelancing off and on for the last two years and the ONLY reason I’ve been able to is because I started with a good chunk of savings and I have a financial safety net to fall back on (my parents), and I also don’t have student loans. If you are going to freelance, get a part-time anchor gig so you have a dependable paycheck.
And your anchor gig doesn’t have to be science writing! It can be fact-checking, web production, writing “web content” for a commercial venture, or even retail.
ALSO: Your job is not your identity or a reflection of your worth! It’s really easy to get caught up in the identity part of science writing, and I’ve witnessed some of my friends feeling like “failures” because they aren’t the best science journalist ever (or when they choose to leave journalism). But just remember that you’re an entire human with many different skills, wants, needs, dreams, etc, and if you aren’t writing the cover story for National Geographic, that’s ok! It took me until…very recently to fully understand/accept this. But now I have, and I’m happier than ever.
Work-life balance: you deserve it.