I sat down with Sam Cox, two-time winner of the SFI Award for Journalism relating to Science and Technology, to chat with him about his work.
Can you tell me about the pieces you entered into the Smedias in 2019 and 2020? What was the thought process behind them and who did you write them for?
So in 2019, I wrote 3 pieces for Trinity News, one of the two student papers at Trinity. They were all on events I attended (1 at the Science Gallery and 2 at a science conference). For those, I was explaining what the events were and what they were like, and included some of my own opinions and what I thought of them. They were things that I was interested in, and so I had some idea of resources and books to check out for more information. I think they stood out as really engaging with the science scene in Ireland, though.
For 2020, I did one long feature piece for SPA Journalism, which publishes work by student journalists in the UK and Ireland. It started as a reporting piece on a concert where the musician and artist had synaesthesia, and the artist painted live what he saw as the piano piece was played. When I missed the original deadline for the article being published, I decided to expand the piece and included an interview with one of the professors who helped organise the event. In the end, it was a 2000 word piece that started by describing the concert, and then went into the science of what was happening (as explained by the professor). I took the opportunity to get more creative with the writing in this one – particularly in describing the concert and describing how some synaesthetes perceive the world. Science writing has just as much room for colour as any other genre.
How have you been involved with the SFI since winning your awards?
So after I won the award in 2020, the SFI contacted me and congratulated me on the award. They were due to announce new funding for 5 of their research centres, and so were wondering if I would be interested in doing paid features pieces on each of the centres and what their work was focused on. I said I would love to, and they put me in touch with the media contacts at each of the centres so I could arrange whatever interviews I thought would be appropriate. Once the pieces were finished, they helped find somewhere for the pieces to be published, and so were then featured on Silicon Republic. I have also helped out with some science communication with one of the centres since. It was a really great opportunity to get to know people in science in Ireland and to see the research and innovation taking place here. It was also really helpful to see how the structure of funding for science works in Ireland. Finally, it was very exciting and a huge confidence boost to make the move from student journalism to paid work.
How did your experiences in student journalism enhance your undergraduate degree overall?
For me, student journalism was the chance to pursue whatever I was interested in. Science writing wasn’t what I started with, and it wasn’t the last thing that I tried but I definitely found it suited me more than a lot of other areas. Throughout my undergraduate, student journalism gave me the chance to learn videography and how to design crosswords, as well as how to interview, report on news and structure a piece of writing. I think one of the biggest advantages of student journalism is the ability to switch your niche and to try different things – a process that isn’t as straightforward when you’ve graduated. It definitely kept things fresh and made working consistently at my degree less monotonous.
Do you have any advice for those who want to write about science and tech but don’t know how to get started?
I think for science and technology pieces, I try to keep two questions in mind: “Why is this important?” and “Why is this interesting?”. Trying to find the right balance between those two is one challenge, and figuring out how to best illustrate them to your audience is the other challenge. I tend to get very caught up in why I find a topic interesting, and so often need to rein it back and explain why this piece of science is particularly important and relevant. Including Irish research is always a great way to make it relevant and including examples of how people have been affected by the topic is another way.
One of the great things about science writing is the sheer variety of topics you can choose from. For me, how the brain works has always been fascinating, so that’s where I started. As time has gone on, I’ve covered things from geology to quantum computing, but I wouldn’t have had the confidence to start there. There’s fascinating research going on in Ireland related to the climate crisis, in social media, in agricultural innovation – there’s so much to choose from. Once you start attending events (many of which are now online) and talks on topics you’re interested in, you will see which speakers and researchers seem engaging, and you should reach out to them and ask if they are willing to be interviewed. A lot of researchers will be happy to talk about their work and why it is important.
If you’re struggling to understand or follow some of what the researcher is explaining, that’s not a problem – that’s part of your job as the interviewer. Chances are, if you’re finding it difficult to understand, your audience will too, and so that’s the perfect indication that you need to ask a question. Don’t move on until you’re confident you understand and can explain it back to the researcher and they confirm that you’ve got it. Also never be afraid to send a follow-up email to an interviewee if you realise you’re uncertain about something that they’ve said. Going into an interview, don’t be intimidated if you don’t think you have a great grasp on the topic at hand – that’s why you’re talking to the interviewee. With that said, if you can ask a question that shows you’ve made some effort with prior research into the topic, most researchers will appreciate that effort and it can help get a better interview.
Find out more about the SFI Award for Journalism relating to Science and Technology here. This year’s Smedia awards open on the 1st of March, so start getting your pieces ready!