“Try it, don’t think too much about it”

Barbara Klump on how to write a prize-winning essay for Science magazine.

December 04, 2019

Even after completing the endurance test that is a PhD, Barbara Klump is still fascinated by her research. So fascinated, in fact, that she recently convinced the editors at Science to feel the same. After submitting a 1000-word essay based on her PhD thesis, Klump was awarded the Science & SciLifeLab Prize for Young Scientists in the category Ecology and Environment. The prize, announced on 21 November, includes 10,000 USD prize money and a program of networking activities held in Stockholm in December during the same week as the Nobel Prize ceremony.

But Klump never expected this: “To be fair, I didn’t think I had a chance.” Now a postdoctoral fellow in the Cognitive and Cultural Ecology Lab (Aplin), Klump describes the backstory to this moment: what motivated her to communicate, how she approached the essay, and why four years of procrastination finally gave way to putting pen to paper.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity

How did you come across the Science & SciLifeLab Prize?

I first heard about the prize when I was in the 2nd year of my PhD at the University of St Andrews. It was advertised in the newsletter sent out by the School of Biology. What struck me about the prize was the 1000-word essay, which was the main component of the application. I’ve always liked communicating and telling people why research is exciting. Before my PhD I took two years off research to do a trainee program at the Natural History Museum in Karlsruhe, designing exhibits and public engagement programs. I really enjoyed it but eventually I did miss doing the research myself, which is why I took up the PhD position with the Rutz Lab studying tool use in New Caledonian crows.

What motivated you to apply?

I’ve discovered that people are fascinated by the fact that crows use tools. During my PhD, this was proven to me again and again through talking with the public at science communication events. Our lab presented at the Royal Society’s Summer Science Exhibition, UK’s biggest science fair, and I reached the finals at STEM for Britain and was invited to present my work at Westminster. So I had a hunch that the topic was interesting and that I had gained some experience in how to spark people’s imagination about it. But to be fair, I didn’t really think I had any chance to win the prize. When I looked at past winners in my category they were from applied and highly topical research areas, like climate change or plastic pollution, and nothing like the blue sky research of avian tool use and manufacture.

How did you finally make yourself do it?

It lingered in the back of my mind for years. Finally, I reached the last year that I was eligible to apply, which is when I sat down to write it. Two thoughts pushed me over the line. First, I will regret it if I don’t even try. Second, even if nothing comes of it, I’ll have a 1000-word snap shot of my PhD that I can share with family or friends so they don’t have to read my papers.

After that moment I didn’t think too much about it. I just wanted to get it down.

What was the writing process like?

It didn’t take me long to write because the story was more or less there. All those public engagement activities done in my PhD had allowed me to hone a general story, which helped me to not fall into the trap of overthinking things.

Whenever I write, I work off bullet points. The part that tends to grind the process to a halt for me is finding the red thread, what we call the rote faden in German, which is the story line. It has to make sense to me and it needs to develop. Once that’s there the actual writing is fairly quick for me. It took me one evening to write the draft. Next came the polishing, like fact checking and making sure I hadn’t used the same phrases repetitively. I sent the draft to a friend, who is a native English speaker but not related to the work, and she made some grammatical suggestions. But otherwise I had no outside editing on the draft.

What techniques did you use in the writing?

One thing that I’ve learned from experience is that you can always capture people’s interest if you make the science relatable. Even if it’s a distant link, it builds a bridge to understanding.

My PhD is not about humans, or even about human culture, but I knew that I couldn’t just talk about crows. So I took one step back and thought ‘Why do we study crows?’ Well, of course we study them because they are tool users and makers. Then I asked the next question: ‘Why is that interesting?’. This second question was the most important because it gave me my hook: it’s interesting because we are so reliant on tools. We can’t live without tools. Every single person on earth uses tools every day. That is the angle that I took for this essay.

I would never start a scientific paper with such an anthropocentric angle, but the experience with public engagement has taught me to tailor the message to the audience. You are not dumbing down the science or making it wrong, it’s just a different approach. Using comparisons has often helped me to explain one of the main findings in my PhD that crows practice safekeeping of their tools. Just imagine that you have to hammer a nail into a wall high up. Then imagine that you climb up the ladder and the hammer falls down. It’s super annoying to have to go back down, so wouldn’t you be more careful knowing that you are high up? We see that with the crows. If they are high up, they are much better about looking after the tools.

What advice would you give somebody applying for this prize?

Try it, don’t think too much about it. Every scientist is excited about what they are doing, because otherwise we wouldn’t do it. It’s about finding a way to share that excitement.

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