Laura Bowater studied and trained as a microbiologist, before realising that she enjoyed inspiring other people to study microbes too. Stepping away from the laboratory, Laura put down her micropipette and picked up a pen instead. Laura is the author of several articles that highlight the diversity and wonder of microbes and microbiology, as well as blog articles, teaching materials. Most recently her interest in Antibiotic Resistance formed the kernel of an idea that morphed into the popular science book; The Microbes Fight Back: Antibiotic Resistance.
Find out more about Laura Bowater
Laura, you are interested, you practice, and you teach science communication. You have received funding from different sources to develop science communication activities, and in 2009 you were a CueEast Engagement Award winner. This year you will have published a popular science book called The Microbes Fight Back: Antibiotic Resistance.
Who did you write this book for? The book is very much written or set out to be written for an audience that is interested in science, especially the growing problem of antibiotic resistance, but may never have studies science formally since they left school.
Why did you choose to write this book? I chose to write this book because in many ways I wanted to practice what I preach. I am absolutely adamant that scientists need to communicate their science, and in fact science in general, to a much wider audience. As scientists, part of our training is to learn to speak in a scientific language so that we can communicate effectively with our peers. But this can often mean that we exclude a wider audience from taking part in our scientific world. I genuinely feel that science, like art, is universal and it should be enjoyed by all. We all benefit from science and scientific advances and research affects every aspect of our lives on a daily basis. This book was an opportunity to see if I could communicate an area of science that I find hugely interesting and that I know presents a significant concern to humanity.
Considering this, how did you agree on the most suitable writing style? Finding my personal voice and my own writing style was a challenge. I knew what I enjoyed to read from other scientific author’s work but I couldn’t actually get that style to work for me. For example, I love books that are written in a first person – chatty style, but when I tried to write like that it felt very fake, almost as if I was pretending to be chatty. In the end, I used a style that is a mixture of third and second person that I hope is engaging and easy to read. We will see!
“The discovery of antibiotics has transformed human lives. We have relied on antibiotics to cure bacterial infections and their use has transformed modern surgery by reducing the risk of developing potentially life-threatening infections. We have also used antibiotics to support the increasing demands placed on food production industries to ensure food security. Society relies on antibiotics, but as a result the manufacturing process used to synthesise the drugs as well as their widespread use is threatening their future effectiveness in human medicine. Antibiotics are the only class of drug to become clinically inactive the longer they are used. The good news is that society is at last waking up to this global concern. The World Health Organisation (WHO) and governments across the globe are focusing attention on this multifaceted issue and a plethora of reports have been written and published describing the problem. Money is starting to be invested in order to tackle the growing threat of AMR and there is a growing understanding that there needs to be changes to legislation to underpin and support policy change to address this growing problem of antibiotic resistance.”
How would you describe the process of writing this book? Writing this popular science book was a challenge. It means reading the primary scientific research, watching the news and how this topic is communicated in the media as well as reports written by Governments and policy makers. I have never written a 200 page book by myself before and it was a complete learning curve. The process of book writing is solitary and uncomfortable. The time and effort that goes into something that boils down to black marks on a white page can be agonising and drawn out, and even when you have finished the writing the discomfort continues. The book gets sent back to you several months later for you to read and check for accuracy. This means scrutinising your book with fresh eyes, and I know that I am my own worst critic. Immediately you see that you wished you had written something differently or explained something better. You doubt your research and you feel stressed that new information and material has come to light which means that your original version is always out of date. There is little room for perfectionism here. A colleague said to me that an author needs to feel comfortable with producing something that is the best that you can do in the time you have available…. I see their point but it is a hard stance to accept if you are a perfectionist and scared of getting things wrong. The final step is the publishing of the book itself. At this stage you become two separate people, you have the person that wants people to buy your book, read your book and love your book. Whereas the other person wants no one to find out that you have written the book, or will chose to read the book or criticise your work because… by extrapolation that means they’re criticising you!!!
Alright, so this question is for that first, and more positive, version of yourself: what did you want to achieve with this book? From a personal perspective, I wanted to try it out. I do feel that I have now become someone who can offer science communication theory because they have science communication practice. Academically I am now a practitioner in a wider genre of science communication activities… but the proof is in the pudding as they say! So, now: will my book sit on a shelf in Amazon or will people read it? Will they like it? Will I have raised awareness about the issues that surround a future world where antibiotic resistance is common place? Will the readers feel empowered to become part of the solution to this problem – by thinking about the way we all use antibiotics, by supporting scientific research, or by putting pressure on the government? We will have to wait and see.
I read that science communicators can be classified into different tribes, in fact I have even written about this… I think in this book I have definitely become a Science Populariser, someone who wants to gain popularity with the public through writing, lecturing, journalism, or broadcasting. This group are scientists who are motivated to enthuse new audiences about science. That is me!
Could you briefly explain what other science communication tribes are there, other than the Science Popularisers? Well there are the Professional Science Communicators who are lucky enough to communicate science for a living. This group may have been trained as scientists and they might work in museums or science centres, universities or research institutes, or perhaps they work by themselves or in small companies where science communication activities is their core business. Then we have the Academic Science Communication Experts. More often than not, members of this tribe will have a social science background and they study how scientists communicate with each other and/or members of the public. But they also theorise and hypothesis about how science can be communicated more effectively. Another tribe is the Science Defenders. In general these are scientists who are working on projects or on topics that may be important or controversial and they are seeking to engage with the public to explain their research and perhaps their research choices. Lastly you have the scientists- like me- who enjoy science communication and see it as an incredibly rewarding side shoot of their work. We value the opportunity to enthuse and inspire others, outside the research community, about the science we do and why we do it.
In 2013 you also published a book about Science Communication called Science Communication, A practical guide for scientists in which, among other things, you deal with different factors that can influence your communication efforts. So based on this book, but also on your more practical science communication experiences, what advice would you give to someone who is considering writing a popular science book in their own field? My advice is to make sure that you are writing a book on a topic that you are genuinely interested in. Writing a book takes a lot of dedication, determination and commitment and you need to be motivated to keep going and to get it finished! Also do not underestimate how much time it will take to complete the writing and find a set of people who will be a critical but friendly reviewers to help you get your language right and your messages across effectively.
You have collaborated with a graphic designer, Ali Mcwalter, for the illustrations in your books. Was it a positive experience to unite forces in order to come up with more appealing ways of presenting scientific information? Would you consider exploring this interdisciplinary collaborations further? There is a saying that a picture paints a thousand words. Well when it comes to science communication I think that is spot on. There are some scientific concepts and messages that can be tricky to grasp and having an effective design to present that information in a different way is incredibly valuable. Working with a graphic designer who can work with you to present information, concepts and theories in visually appealing ways is incredibly exciting. I am always amazed how someone can take a bunch of thoughts and ideas and repurpose them into an image that can communicate science so clearly and beautifully. I have been lucky enough to work with a graphic designer for both of my books and I am constantly thinking about how new ideas that could be infographed and communigraphed!
I also had the opportunity to chat with Ali Mcwalter about their collaboration. From his viewpoint: Working with Laura on these books was a great opportunity, and a fun project to work on. I grew up with textbooks and science based books at school and university being so boring, and I finally had a chance to make a change, or at least a little one. We both had the same goal – which is a great start – to make the data and projects in general accessible and appealing to everyone. A large part of the brief was to stand out from the crowd, which I think we achieved by producing thoughtful and considered book covers. Laura was very open to new ideas and ways of thinking, which meant we could explore lots of different possibilities on the way to our final solutions. I would definitely be open to working with the science community in this way in the future. Making science more accessible and approachable to all is important and if I can help, awesome!
Find out more about Ali Mcwalter’s work in Distinct Signal