Faculty in Focus: Scientific Writing is Challenging and Can Inspire Change

Robin Van Meter, Assistant Professor of Environmental Science/Studies and Biology.

Dr. Van Meter researches the effects of environmental pollution on amphibians and reptiles and teaches a range of courses including Applied Ecology, General Zoology, General Biology II, Conservation, and Wetlands Ecology. Her current scholarship investigates the effects of pesticides and fertilizers on juvenile leopard frogs.


In order to write and communicate well, what do students need to do?

Establish clarity in their own mind about the writing process and the message that the writing is intended to convey.  For a scientist, this often means having a fundamental understanding of the scientific process and how the work aligns with that process.  Knowing what question your research addresses, how it fits in more broadly with the published literature and how your work advances the science is key. Once students have established the basis for their work and executed a research design, they must also effectively relay their findings to the larger community.  Having a thorough understanding of the results of a scientific study is critical in effective written and oral communication.


What are some principles or characteristics of effective writing and related forms of communication that you emphasize in your courses?

 Being concise yet thorough. Scientific writing is designed to deliver the results and the take-home message of a study with enough detail that the study could be replicated, but without unnecessary detail.  This can be very challenging and takes practice.  I also often remind my students that it is okay if your data does not support your hypothesis!  If we knew all of the answers before we conducted an experiment there would be no need for experimentation.  Accepting experimental results as they are and working to reflect on those results in the context of the broader scientific literature is important in clear, honest writing.

What is something you learned about writing as a student that guides you now as a writer and teacher?

Paraphrasing!  It is very unusual to use direct quotes in scientific writing, but at the same time very easy to read a piece of primary literature and feel that the author has chosen the perfect wording to convey their findings.  As scientists, we have to get over this hurdle and learn how to make use of our unique vocabulary to transform the work of others using our own voice.  Also, as you read through the scientific literature your research interests may be very well represented by previously published work. To avoid being overly reflective in these instances, it is essential to provide enough facts to provoke interest while leaving room for critical analysis by the reader.

What is something that you learned about writing later in your career and wish that you had been taught earlier as a student?

Organizing references! I learned this the hard way during my Master’s degree research when we were still getting paper copies of materials through interlibrary loan.  There came a point where I was overwhelmed with stacks and piles of primary literature. Eventually, I began to organize the papers into colorful folders by topic.  This turned out to be a really useful experience, because now I organize my references electronically in Dropbox or Google Drive folders where they are always easily accessible.  Along with organization of references into folders, it is also extremely helpful to save your references using the same file format.  There are still times when I can imagine the front page of a particular paper in my mind, but I struggle to find the paper on my computer because my file formatting has not always been consistent.  Organization can make the writing process so much more enjoyable!


What writer or scholar (any genre or field) would you recommend as a model of a good writer, and why?

There are two that come to mind.  First, my all-time favorite scientist that I personally consider to be a role model just so happens to have been a very gifted writer, Rachel Carson.  Her writing is beautiful and her word choice so precise that it invokes tremendous mental imagery.  As a scientist, her writing offers clarity in its presentation of facts, while still being very seamless and fluid.  Rachel Carson’s writing was powerful enough to transform the modern environmental movement as we know it today.  Last but certainly not least, is Geshe Kelsang Gyatso Rinpoche. Geshe-la, as he is fondly referred to, is a Buddhist monk from Tibet who has written many books that relay Buddha’s teachings.  However, Geshe-la has translated and written the teachings in a modern way to engage the Western world and our 21stcentury ideals.  His writing is honest, heart-felt, meaningful and most relatable to our everyday lives.


What are you currently working on in your own writing and scholarship?

Currently, I am working on a manuscript from a research project I started in 2016 where I investigated the combined effects of pesticides and fertilizers on juvenile leopard frogs.  This writing, among others, has been very meaningful to me because I am passionate about gaining a better foundational understanding of the effects of pollutants on amphibians.  It is through the scientific process and the publication of written manuscripts that I am able to present my findings to the larger scientific community.  Together as a community, I feel strongly that our scientific work can inspire change.

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