Interview with Victoria Nicks of Decoded Science

Interview with Victoria Nicks, President/Founder, Decoded Science

interviewed by Beth G. Raps of Raps in French and English: Punctuated Passion and Precision

Beth: Is doing an expert-sourced science and tech website like Decoded Science your idea?

Victoria: Decoded Science started in 2011, not long after I had finished my Master's degree in Information Technology. At that time, I was writing on technology topics for a number of online sites, and networking with a number of other science writers. While discussing current trends, we started bemoaning how many articles we read every day in our areas of expertise that were written by people who had no idea what they were talking about. Beauty bloggers writing about artificial intelligence technology that doesn't actually exist, food bloggers writing about imaginary medical advances, and so on--all because, at the time, these topics had high click values in Google Adwords. We found it very frustrating that the actual science wasn't being covered properly, and all agreed that someone...someone ought to start a website where only actual experts could write about these topics. No one else picked up the gauntlet, so "someone" ended up being me. 


What's your science background? Communications background? Science communications background? Did you imagine Decoded was what you'd be doing with that background of yours?!


I hold a MS in IT, and towards the end of my degree, I was focusing on Artificial Intelligence--particularly Google's algorithm and business model. My only communications background took place while I was in the U.S. Air Force, during which time I trained groups and individuals on communications and computer security, as well as various other topics. I never would have imagined running a non-profit organization; my background isn't in management, organization, business, or anything else that would lead me to a position like this. 


What are the top milestones in Decoded's history?

After I founded Decoded Science in 2011, in 2013, it evolved into "Decoded Everything," and we started adding sites such as Decoded Past and Decoded Parenting. We converted to non-profit in 2014, when I came to accept that I wasn't in it for the money. I was fighting to save science from the ravages of ignorance and complacency, and that isn't a goal that meshes with ever-increasing numbers of ads and so on to make more and more money. Decoded Everything now clocks over three million page views per year, with an ever-increasing fan base, and ten sites, with plans for many more. 


What's really fun about your job? About Decoded?

The absolute best part of my job is having the opportunity to network with so many people who know so much about so many things! I love reading the articles--I read every single article Decoded publishes--and always learn something new. I venture to say I've gotten a better education simply from reading Decoded articles than I received in all my years in college! My favorite part about Decoded is getting reader comments telling us that they finally understand something that's been eluding them for years, or that they appreciate finding an unbiased source of information about a controversial science topic, and getting researcher comments telling us how much they appreciate having at least one outlet that covers their research correctly. 


What's hard about it?

The hardest thing about this job is not having expertise in every area I should. I can keep the websites running and updated, keep the articles flowing, and so on--but I'm not a natural when it comes to fundraising, which is a must for a non-profit! Everyone at this point is a volunteer, which makes it difficult--people need to pay the rent, and if they're volunteering full time, they're not working at a paying job. My biggest current goal is to raise funds to make it possible for our experts, designers, and editors to keep providing the service we're providing, but without having to sacrifice everything to do so. 


You have internships available. What kind(s) of interns would you like--in what areas?

I'm looking for three interns.  All our internship opportunities have the advantage of being online only, so interns can work from anywhere, learn from anywhere, and enjoy mentorship and networking with scientists from anywhere. Here are the three I'm seeking:


·        I'd love an intern who would sift through the embargoed research we have exclusive access to before publication, pick out studies appropriate for us to cover, ask the press contact for interviews (many of the researchers will answer questions via email), send a pre-baked set of questions to those who accept, and then format those interviews with basic info from the study as an article for me to publish. I LOVE those articles. I used to do this myself, but don't have time for it anymore. You learn so much by asking the researcher what they think is the coolest part of the study. The people who write the press release seldom put the best parts in, according to the researchers.This internship provides online research and publishing experience as well as practice "translating" science and tech research for the public.

·        I'd also love a public relations intern to ask scientists to write articles. Again, I don't have time to pursue scientists for articles like I used to in earlier days but this was something I did that I found really worked for both sides. Many science groups have research projects they like to talk about, so our articles are an opportunity for them as well as for our readers. Sourcing and promoting scientific research is fantastic professional scicomm experience.

·        And last, I'd love an intern to work with our fundraising consultant helping our three million annual visitors become inspired to invest in our work, and to help research and write successful grant proposals. The fundraising intern gets real-world experience learning how to fund science/tech using grassroots and crowdsourced methods as well as the traditional method of government and foundation grants.

Contact Victoria for more information about the internships!

Getting Started with a Job in Science Communication

By Amanda Freise

This post was originally published on BitesizeBio.

As a graduate student or PhD scientist you are likely to be surrounded by plenty of career advice and options – that is, if you’re interested in a career in academic research or the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries. Those of us who aren’t sold on either of those fields are left wondering what other career paths are available. One field, which has received little attention by most faculty and institutional career centers in the past, is science communication (SciComm). Briefly, a job in SciComm involves you communicating science, typically to laypeople but sometimes even to other scientists. Examples include formal science education in a classroom, informal education in a setting like a museum, outreach to various populations and science writing.

Why Might You Like a Career in Science Communication?

If you think increasing public understanding of science is a worthwhile goal, you’re already on the right track. Communicating science, like any other form of teaching, can be incredibly fulfilling. You’ll have the chance to see the light bulb go on when a person grasps something they just weren’t understanding before, or share the excitement of learning about an awesome science story. If you’re like me, you might have found that you enjoy talking about and teaching science more than you like actually doing it.

What Skills Do You Need?

For starters, it’s key that you enjoy talking about science to others. Teaching skills are a necessity; you should be able to break down subject matters in a way that people with a range of backgrounds in science can understand. This could include kids and adults, depending on the populations you want to reach. It’s also important that you make science approachable and fun – it helps if you have a little bit of creativity to come up with new and interesting ways to present science, whether it be with a hands-on experiment or an analogy that can be easily understood.

The Pros of a Job in SciComm

Compared with academia and industry, SciComm hasn’t received the same amount of support as a viable career path following graduate school. But we should give SciComm more credit. First off, those of us in the US are aware of the disheartening state of career opportunities in biomedical research, meaning that the job market for PhDs in academia is shrinking. If you are lucky enough to land a job as a junior faculty member, you will be faced with years of struggle just to get funded. Industry may not be subject to the whims of governmental funding, but your job security rests with a company whose goal is to make a profit and will drop projects as necessary to meet that goal. Given these issues in academia and industry, we should be talking more about other jobs that PhDs might be interested in – SciComm is just one possibility.

Second, engaging the public in a conversation about science is important, not just to educate them about the science that affects their daily lives (e.g. climate change and the importance of vaccination), but also because it is our job as experts to make science a priority to the general population. Finally, the skills and lessons learned from SciComm experience can even be applied to a career in industry or academia if you choose to go down this road – after all, who wouldn’t benefit from improving their ability to communicate their research?

The Cons of a Job in SciComm

Like any career path, SciComm has a few drawbacks. Depending on the type of SciComm job you pursue, pay varies widely. It can also be tricky to actually find job openings, as positions often have vague or obscure names; for example, I once saw a job advert that was seeking a person to develop a science outreach program that was simply titled “Project Manager”. So you may need to put in time to carefully sift through job descriptions. Additionally, because SciComm is a growing field, there aren’t many resources online or at institutions that can guide you on this career path; however, that’s where the community of science communicators comes in. Start talking to scientists already involved in this type of work and build a network of experienced communicators. You can also check out online communities such as SciComm Hub and Versatile PhD, which include resources for multiple SciComm careers and ideas on how to get involved.

How Can You Start Your SciComm Career?

SciComm is considered an “alternative” career, however, as more people are starting to think about this field of science, more communities and resources are forming to support their career development. Here are a few tips to get you started.

1. Join the community of science communicators to start learning what the field is like and to better delineate exactly what type of SciComm you’re interested in. Twitter is an excellent place to meet many SciCommers and to quickly get up to speed. We don’t bite, and it’s great to meet people who love talking about science as much as we do!

2. Volunteer in a position that allows you to practice communicating science. Ask your local museums if they are accepting volunteers – you’ll get to speak to a diverse group of museum guests.

3. Outreach organizations at your institution or in your area are also great options.

4. Writing is another important skill in your communication toolbox – have you considered starting a blog? Even if you don’t aspire to be a famous writer, the act of writing and thinking about how to communicate at any level is excellent practice and will help with whatever career you end up in.

 What are your thoughts on a career in science communication? Do you have any advice for anyone thinking about making the move? Let us know in the comments below!

Language and the Big Lie of Science, by Adam Huttner-Koros

Ed: This post was written by Adam Huttner-Koros, who graciously allowed us to re-post it here. Adam is a science communicator and linguist, and often writes about the intersection of science and language at his blog, Words ApartYou can read more of Adam's work there and follow him on Twitter: @ATHuttnerKoros


Language and the Big Lie of Science

Recent reading I’ve been doing about the culture of science and scientific belief has introduced me to the term “the Big Lie of Science“. To me, it’s the perfect way to describe something that I haven’t been able to name until now. Namely, as Dr. Matthew Francis puts it:

Science at its heart is about evidence; the practice of science, however, is about humans.

The Big Lie of Science is this: Science, if we believe its idealised narrative, is empirical. It is culturally neutral. It is unbiased. It accepts diversity. It strives for greater knowledge and welcomes different perspectives. Basically, so the narrative goes, science is flawless in its pure search for truth.

The practice of science, however, does not match that narrative. It is a human endeavour, with people guiding its every step. People with emotions doing science, people with biases doing science, people with prejudices doing science. They do it in historical institutions, in learned academies and in distinguished organisations. They do it the way they were taught it, the way it’s always been done, the way it will always be done. In contrast to the idealised narrative, the actual doing of science is as human as you can get.

That means that sexism happens in science. Racism happens in science. And yet you still have senior scientists saying things like “Astronomy is about as pure and as clean as you can get, so what’s the big deal?” when protests about colonisation and sovereignty in Hawai’i halt the construction of a telescope.

Where does language fit into this? For one thing, English has become the language of science. Remember, although the idealised narrative would have it that science can be done in any language (because of cultural neutrality), in actual fact, English in science has been granted a special assumption of neutrality that is not extended to other languages. This strikes me as similar to the way white men are portrayed as universally understood but coloured women are portrayed as only representative of their race and gender (see, for example, literaturefilms and televisionvideo gaming for instances of where this happens and its impact on people).

Every language has its own way of describing and classifying the world. This is formed through hundreds and thousands of years of people speaking, changing and documenting their language, leading to distinct linguistic behaviours and their own cultural baggage. As you might suspect, English is not immune from cultural baggage. Any science done in English is going to be stuck in the paradigms of that language.

What are the scientists losing by not discussing their work in their own language(s)? What is science losing? We can be sure that science would discover new and different things by working in different languages: people traditionally excluded would be let in, and traditionally ignored perspectives would be considered.

When we ignore the reality that the language of science is a key part of the practice of science, we ignore the fact that one of the reasons that science is a human endeavour is that it is done using human language. Science is currently being discussed primarily through the worldview of one particular language. I assure you, people and science are missing out because of it.


5 Tips for Becoming a Better TA

The first experience many grads have with teaching is through a TA training course provided by their university. Most universities have such a course, though they vary in scope, timing, and quality. So you might be looking to brush up on your teaching skills (especially if you want to pursue a career in education). Here are some tips, ideas, and resources that might help:

1) Observe other teachers!

Contact other TAs or professors in your department and ask them if you can sit in on one of their classes. Chances are, they will say yes, even if they aren't particularly innovative teachers. You can learn a lot by watching the way that they present their material and how the students respond to it. If you want to offer something useful to the teacher you're observing, ask if they would like to be evaluated! There's a great app developed at UC Davis called COPUS (Classroom Observation Protocol for Undergraduate STEM) which has the observer track what the teacher is doing and what the students are doing at 2 minute intervals throughout the class. This gives both the observer and the teacher a qualitative description of what was going on in their classroom and how dynamic their classroom appears to their students. Find more information here!

2) Attend conferences and workshops

This is especially true if you are about to apply for jobs. Hearing what people from other institutions are trying in their classrooms can be incredibly useful to your own teaching practices. Plus you can network with people who care about teaching as much as you do. It's a win-win! Also, it's interesting to see that sometimes the most innovative teachers are the ones at smaller institutions where the class sizes allow them more academic freedom and room to play around with different techniques. Find out more information about conferences and workshops here.

3) Don't be afraid to try new things

Any new teaching technique you try is going to take time to perfect. Often, the first time you try something new in your classroom, many things might go wrong, and it might not be well-received by the students. The best thing to do is to evaluate yourself after class and figure out what went wrong. Don't get discouraged! Watch videos of other teachers using the technique in their classrooms. Remember, students are used to being taught in a dry, lecture-style classroom. Pulling them out of that habit will be challenging. But in the long run, they will perform better on tests and retain the information long-term. Read about the challenges facing innovative teachers here.

4) Get feedback from your students

Most universities have an evaluation process that occurs at the end of each quarter/semester. The evaluation forms (either in paper or online) typically have a low response rate, and usually include generic ranking questions ("rank the TA on a scale from 1-5"). This may not be the type of feedback you are looking for. Instead, consider writing your own evaluation forms with more useful questions, and distribute them to your students whenever you want! You can give them mid-semester evaluations so that you can actually adapt your teaching style to match what they are looking for. You can find out what's working and what's not while there's still time to do something about it. You could even have the students fill out "exit tickets" at the end of each lecture/discussion section giving short (few sentences) reviews of the activities/techniques used in that day's class. To read more about the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of student evaluations, click here.

5) You don't have to re-invent the wheel

So you want to try new teaching techniques in your classroom. Where do you start? There are tons (TONS) of resources online for you to choose from, no matter what discipline you're coming from. You can find practice problems, think-pair-share questions, worksheets, lab manuals, etc. online along with scripts/directions for the instructor. One great resource is the SERC (Science Education Resource Center) at Carleton. Click here for more information.

SciComm Highlights 5-3-15

Hi, SciCommers! Here we’ve highlighted a variety of recent SciComm endeavors, and the awesome people working on them. 

PCR at CMU believes grad school should include training in public communication (hear, hear!). Keep up with them on Twitter @PCRcmu.

Jojo Scoble left research to start the Online Academic, a blog all about social media and online tools for scientists. Great tips if you want to increase your online presence.

Bob Nidever covers the intersection of art and science at Art/Science Nexus, and holds fantastic Artist/Scientist Meetups in West Los Angeles.

Alison Smith told us that she’s working on Jurassica - an unique museum celebrating the Jurassic Coast. Sponsored by Sir David Attenborough, so you know it’s gonna be good.

Jovana Grbic examines the science of sci-fi and other popular media at ScriptPhD.

Ragnhild Larsson worked on videos highlighting two researchers and their work on nanoparticles in the environment (and your fridge, your socks, your wall paint, and more...) and about sports science (site is in Swedish, but the video is in English).

If you’d like your SciComm blog, organization, or other activity to be included in a future Highlights post, please email us at, or tweet it to us @SciComm_Hub.

Welcome to SciComm Hub!

Welcome to SciComm Hub! Since this is our first blog post, we thought we'd take the opportunity to tell you all why we decided to start this website, and what it can do for you!

If you are a graduate student pursuing a PhD in a STEM field and have ever thought about a career in science education, outreach, or communication (SEOC), we understand your struggle. The typical career path after you graduate with a PhD is to find a post-doc position (or two, or three...) for a few years, then start applying to tenure-track faculty positions at a 4-year college or university. There are many resources in place for people who want to pursue that career track. However, if you want to do anything else, it can be a bit more difficult to find your way. 

Your institution, and even your advisor, may not be able to provide advice and support for your interest in an SEOC career. That's why we've created the Hub - we're collecting resources of many kinds to form a community and help students get on track for a career in SEOC.

We hope you'll join us in a few ways:

1. Join the community by adding yourself to the "Who Are We?" page. Send us a short bio and a picture of yourself and we'll post it.

2. Send us any articles or resources related to SEOC we may have missed. We're scouring the internet for new resources, but we want to make sure we get them all!

3. If you're participating in an SEOC event coming up, let us know and we'll add it to the calendar! You can also request volunteers for your event via the Hub.

4. Find us on Twitter! @SciComm_Hub


- Amanda Freise and Laura Haney
SciComm Hub Founders