AKA JellyBiologist: Embracing the risk and reward of blogging

By Amy Dunkle|Rhode Island NSF EPSCoR

“The blogging has forced me to make my research relevant to other people, how to communicate it in a way that is interesting to my aunt or my neighbor. The side benefit is getting me excited all over again about my work.”

Post-doctoral researcher Rebecca Helm knows as well as anyone else, if not more so, the fear of communicating your science and putting it out there for the world to consume and comment on, or possibly not even notice.

“I started to blog because I was going through one of these little existential science crises where I wasn’t sure what I was doing,” Helm recalled this spring, having just defended the thesis for her Ph.D. at Brown University. “I thought, does anybody care, is this something that could be exciting to people?”

The former Rhode Island NSF EPSCoR graduate fellow reasoned, “So, I started my blog half to answer my questions and half to get some company.”

Rebecca Helm
Rebecca Helm | Photo by Amy Dunkle

Now working with sea anemones at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Helm launched her blog, JellyBiologist, in July 2012, when conducting her graduate research on jellyfish, particularly the French Pelagia noctiluca. Her unassuming mission was to provide a resource for those interested in biology and jellies, “with occasional bits of other fun stuff thrown in.”

Putting her writing on public display was a bold move for Helm, who struggled with dyslexia throughout her childhood. And yet, once she committed to her blog, Helm readily found both her footing and her voice.

“As long as I have spellcheck, I’m okay,” she laughed.

Helm writes, when she has the time, in an embracing manner that engages the non-science reader and makes the subject easily relatable. She imparts information without jargon or judgment. She makes science interesting and likeable.

In a May 2013 post, Helm wrote about Sanderia, a self-cloning jelly:

“It turns out these were no purple stripped jelly polyps, they were Sanderia polyps, and they were spreading – blebbing off globs of tissue, on the tips of their tentacles, sides of their bodies, even from their gut. Each little ball of cells can grow into a whole new polyps, capable of producing jellies of its own. It’s as if I were to cut off a finger, and not only did I grow a new one, but the old one grew a tiny person attached to it, that, with enough food, would become as big as me. A pretty incredible strategy, and it makes me wonder why Sanderia hasn’t taken over the world yet.”

Most often, the blog posts are brief, sometimes only a paragraph or two, yet the brevity suffices and informs. JellyBiologist also occasionally showcases Helm’s artistic flair and scientific wit with hand drawn cartoons. Far from scientific illustrations, the simple panels provide readers with an exact mental picture of what Helm discusses.

Helm said her blog drew a small audience and its popularity took time: “It’s grown so slowly and it’s still not very big — maybe 30 unique hits a day? But, that’s definitely better than the first six months when it was zero.”

Still, in the early days, Helm found solace in what the anonymity afforded her; when she realized no one was reading her writing, she got over the sadness and wrote whatever she wanted. She took advantage of the freedom to explore writing style, tone and technology, adding in video and audio clips.

The other big turning point for Helm occurred with her attendance of a National Science Foundation (NSF) “Becoming the Messenger” workshop hosted by Rhode Island NSF EPSCoR. The event aimed to help scientists at various stages of their education and career to communicate science to a non-technical audience.

Helm said the event completely readjusted her perspective on hashtags, which had been something she didn’t think she needed.

“I started hashtagging other people’s groups,” she said. “I started networking and would butt myself into their conversations. Twitter was huge; it’s a great thing for scientists.”

The problem with scientists, Helms said, is that they share their science, but often only with people they know. As shallow and brief as social network platforms may be, they actually can serve as a good vehicle for sharing science.

“Twitter is a public forum, a way to get your research out to people who don’t know about it,” she noted. “And, you have to do it in 140 characters. Good luck with trying to make it esoteric.”

In a year, Helm went from a following of mostly family members to a significantly broader audience. Specifically, she hashtagged Deep Sea News, was invited to write guest posts and then evolved into a contributing writer, another huge impact on Helm’s evolution as a blogger.

The experience provided the opportunity to write with no stakes, or little risk, and gain the benefits of feedback.

“I wish upon every scientist who is an aspiring blogger to join a group already doing it,” she said. “Having a team was such a source of comfort.”

Taking from what she has learned along the way, Helm’s advice to would-be bloggers is to read what they are drawn to — find people whose work you love most and read it. Read also about the craft of writing, from language to persuasion and rhetorical devices.

Helm paraphrased a quote she came across, comparing the process to reading as the inhale and writing as the exhale. She cited Joseph Romm’s “Language Intelligence: Lessons on persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln, and Lady Gaga” as being especially influential. When reading the book, she found herself reading a chapter and then writing a post simply because the book so inspired her.

“For me, the biggest challenge has been psychological, getting too wrapped up in trying to make everything perfect,” said Helm. “Accuracy is the most important thing.”

After that, she added, it’s merely a matter of enjoying the process of writing for the sake of writing rather than the burden of having to produce something. She consistently journals at home, with the writing going absolutely nowhere beyond her own eyes.

Helm said she endured phases where the writing grew easier, then harder and then easier again.

“Maybe one day,” she said, trailing off at the thought of writing always being easy.

Helm said she viewed the public communication of her science as a critical part of her research, and noted that the writing forced her to stay in tune with what was happening in terms of public interest and what was taking place in her field. Writing in this fashion forces her to keep a broader perspective and maintain flexibility rather than letting her focus draw too narrow and rigid.

And ultimately, Helm said, she winds up benefitting: “Every time I’ve felt cruddy about my science and had one of these crises about what I’m doing, writing for the public has really helped lift me out.

“The blogging has forced me to make my research relevant to other people, how to communicate it in a way that is interesting to my aunt or my neighbor. The side benefit is getting me excited all over again about my work.”

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