Wild Words: A career communicating science

Roz Evans is a wildlife science communicator and community events organiser, who recently featured in Exeter University’s 41 most inspirational women in science. She is also the brains behind the amazing new nature magazine BIOSPHERE, which reports on the latest discoveries from the fields of ecology, conservation, climate, behaviour, evolution and physiology. Conservation Careers chatted to Roz to find out all about life as a science communicator, what inspires her to promote wildlife research and how BIOSPHERE began.

Wildlife research is one of the special sciences that can sometimes be really fascinating, really funny and really important all at once, Biosphere tries to highlight that”

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Why is science communication important to you?

Because what’s the point in making all of these discoveries if nobody knows about them? Wildlife is awesome, and science is awesome, and there’s nothing better than finding out that an animal or plant can do something way cooler than you ever would have imagined.

Can you tell us a bit about Biosphere?

Biosphere is a popular science magazine, dedicated to bringing to life the latest discoveries from wildlife and the natural world. We get practising scientists to tell the stories behind their own research: the result is lively, engaging writing that makes research exciting to learn about. The majority of the articles are research features, based on recently published discoveries, brought to life through creative storytelling. Each issue also features an ‘Opinion’ piece which discusses something topical or controversial. We also have an ‘In the Field’ section, which is an evocative look into a day in the life of a field researcher. From the dusty Kalahari to urban downtown Seattle, you’ll find researchers everywhere, wanting to tell you about what field work is really like.

Creating a magazine is a huge undertaking, what gave you the idea?

As a student, I wanted to be proactive and stay up to date with current research in my field of interest. I subscribed to the big scientific journals, but they were expensive and reading them wasn’t really an enjoyable experience. Scientists are taught how to write papers in a very formulaic manner, and although that’s great for some purposes it doesn’t make for easy reading for someone who just wants to immerse themselves in research for enjoyment. The popular wildlife magazines on the market didn’t feature much research so this didn’t fill the gap either. I felt like there was a real need for this magazine. Learning about wildlife is great and learning about new scientific discoveries is fascinating: when you put these two things together you get Biosphere.

What experiences have you have that helped you gain the skills to successfully launch Biosphere?

I took some work experience at BBC Wildlife magazine and Wild Travel magazine. These were both really interesting environments and although they’re significantly different to Biosphere, it was great to see magazines working from the inside. I also created Life Magazine whilst I was at University, which was like a mini version of Biosphere I guess! During my I spent a lot of time on community events that would engage people with wildlife. This is obviously a whole different ball game, but it was valuable nonetheless!

“Without experience, I was in that Catch 22 where I was finding it difficult to get experience, so I sort of created my own”

Could you tell us more about creating LIFE magazine at university? Was LIFE in preparation to create Biosphere when you graduated?

I didn’t consciously create LIFE in preparation for Biosphere, no. I actually created LIFE because I wanted to get experience writing and editing wildlife material, but there wasn’t anywhere I could do that at the time. Without experience, I was in that Catch 22 where I was finding it difficult to get experience, so I sort of created my own. We were in this awesome position at the Cornwall Campus surrounded by zoology and conservation students from Exeter University, and wildlife photographers and graphic designers from Falmouth University, all sharing a campus. The combination of all of these skills and passions made for an enthusiastic creative team.

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You created Biosphere from a Kickstarter campaign. Can you explain a bit more about this process and how useful it was?

Kickstarter is a crowdfunding site specifically for products and projects. It’s this fantastic platform where you can say, ‘hey, I have this idea, what do you reckon?’ and if people like it they ‘back’ you by pledging money for a certain reward. We offered magazine subscriptions as well as some bonus t-shirts. If not enough people think your idea is a good one, you don’t reach your fundraising target and there’s no risk for anyone involved. Luckily, we got loads of messages validating what we believed, with people telling us they had been waiting for a magazine like this, and we smashed our fundraising target.

To create a successful Kickstarter, you have to make a video to support your campaign. I used graphics and a voiceover artist for mine, because we didn’t have a dynamic production line we could film for anyone. This explained our concept, then the written part of the Kickstarter explained everything else in detail. I then spent the entire 30 day length of the campaign on social media, promoting the Kickstarter and getting it shared around the internet.

What were the most difficult bits of creating biosphere?

Getting people to believe in something that was just an idea in my head. You can believe in something completely passionately, but that doesn’t mean anyone else will automatically understand. If you’re a big publishing house with lots of money, you can float new magazines just to see what the reaction is like. People can see a physical product and buy it if they like it. However, we didn’t have these resources so we were really relying on people just giving us a go.

I also found it really difficult to move past mistakes. But this is something that gets easier with time, you realise that all of the good things about the thing you are creating far outweigh the few typos and mistakes.

What are the challenges of creating publications such as Life and Biosphere? Do you have difficulty bringing together all sorts of different people (scientists, writers, graphic designers etc…) and with relying on so many different people?

It can be difficult and you do get let down. I actually have a smaller team working on Biosphere than I did on LIFE, which I find easier in most cases. With Biosphere it’s important to keep things small but we do outsource our writing. There are so many passionate scientists across the world who want to communicate their research. They’re excited to get involved with a new style of writing, and really get to grips with the story behind their research. Of course you have mishaps, or researchers’ busy schedules get in their ways, but you just have to take this stuff in your stride. I’m a great believer in ‘hoping for the best’!

Our main requirement is that the research is ‘brought to life’”

How do you go about sourcing all the various aspects of each article? The information, the photo’s etc…?

Biosphere is very current: all of the research in it is from the previous month or two to before each issue’s release, so we keep our eyes on what’s coming out in our areas of interest. When we find something that has all the right elements to make a great feature, we’ll get in touch with the paper’s author and we’ll ask them to get involved. We talk to them about what makes a great piece, but ask them to be relaxed and free in the way they write. Our main requirement is that the research is ‘brought to life’. Once this article comes back in to us, it goes through an editing process and then gets sent back to the author for approval.

Photography we initially source from the researchers, but if there’s nothing suitable we source them from photographers elsewhere. For photo stories, we just spend a lot of time online searching for people who can tell a conservation story through their photos.

For In the Field articles, we use our contacts in research to locate researchers that are doing something interesting in the field and might want to write about it. We also keep an eye on social media and follow links to people’s blogs and websites.

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Do you have a favourite issue?

For some reason Issue 5 is my favourite. I was more creative with the layout, all of the articles were great, and it just felt like a good issue. Although I still haven’t had a cover that I love as much as the hummingbird on our inaugural Issue 1.

Do you feel that Biosphere hits a particular niche that was missing from the market?

Yeah I do. There’s nothing else like it out there. It fills this gap between scientific journals that are difficult to read, popular science magazines that rarely feature wildlife, and wildlife magazines that rarely feature research.

Biosphere has been a huge success its first 8 months, what are your future visions for the project?

We’d like to make it more of a staple within Universities. We’d like it to be a recommended read because we really are creating it as a resource. It would also be fun to create an app version of the magazine, so we can include links to videos and other media that you can’t have in print. We’ve only touched a fraction of our potential audience so far, so I suppose I just hope the future holds us reaching more and more people who can be inspired by the articles we have.

Can you explain the day to day life in a career as a science communicator?

For me, my day to day changes in each week because I work on a monthly schedule. In the first quarter I’ll be researching recent papers and deciding on what would make great features. This also includes emailing researchers to arrange articles to be written. In my second and third quarter I tend to be sourcing photography and photo stories, as well as sorting out business things and strategies to increase the reach of the magazine. Some issues I’ll write my own articles, so I’ll be working on researching and writing these. I’ll also start editing articles and the news in brief sections (produced by Editorial Assistant Nik) from the third quarter into the last quarter, when I am designing the magazine’s layout and deciding on final photos.

Are you involved with any other areas of science communication, alongside biosphere?

We’re currently looking in to the idea of producing magazines and newsletters for zoos, charities and other organisations that don’t have the facilities to do it in house. We’d like to help some of them revamp, and communicate the work they are doing to their audiences.

What is the best part of your job?

When people receive the magazine and they make the effort to send you a tweet, a Facebook message or an email to tell you they really love it. It’s touching that people put the effort in to do that.

Do you have any advice for someone hoping to pursue a similar path to you?

I suppose it depends which path. If you want to be an entrepreneur and have a product to deliver, then I would recommend Kickstarter as a platform. It’s a great validation system, as well as a way to raise your initial funding! If you want to be a science writer or communicator, I would highly recommend starting your own blog and writing creative articles on it about the latest research releases that catch your eye. We get emails from budding writers, and it’s difficult to judge whether they would be a good fit unless they have some previous writing to show us. I personally don’t discriminate between published and unpublished work, so as long as you have something to show your passions and skills then I think that’s a great start. If you want to be creative and you’re still at University, speak to your Student Union about starting your own magazine!

Careers Advice, Interviews, Mid Career, Communicator