Science Writing Renewed by Liberal Arts Collaboration

By Meghan Barrett

An international movement is growing that brings scientists and creative producers of all kinds together to communicate compelling and accurate science. The first NeuWrite project group formed in 2008 at Columbia University when neuroscience graduate student Carl Schoonover pulled together a group of scientists and writers to begin informally meeting and discussing the idea of scientific communication. Eventually, those early meetings developed into an MFA-style workshop format – the group reviewed members’ collaborations, discussed existing science-writing, and invited established science-writers to speak. What began as a group of salon meetings in the home of Stuart Firestein, chair of Columbia’s biology department, became a huge success. NeuWrite dual-bylines appear in Science, The New York Times, Scientific American, The Los Angeles Times, and more.

The relevance of the project to scientifically engaged societies means that it is quickly expanding around the globe. Chapters have already appeared at other universities and in other cities including NYU, Stanford, Boston, San Diego, and London; groups are currently in development in San Francisco, the District of Columbia, Philadelphia, Portland, and at Brown University. Each project group is slightly different. Some are strictly limited to neuroscience while others delve into all kinds of STEM, but all have the same end goal in mind – a unique collaboration focused on engaging the public in science. 

Tim Requarth, the current Director of the NeuWrite project, coordinated much of this expansion. Requarth joined the group after attending Columbia to study neuroscience in 2008 and, in 2009, took over management of the NYC group. Since then, Requarth has helped to guide new groups by teaching recruiting techniques, helping the groups make local area connections, and working with them on finding funds for NeuWrite events and materials. Requarth emphasized the importance of NeuWrite in the larger community, saying, “…by combining two very different groups of people that are often not in conversation casually with each other, you end up creating a new and higher standard of what science communication can be.” 

Lytton Smith, assistant professor of English at SUNY Geneseo, believes this project is a goldmine for liberal arts colleges. Smith, who earned his MFA at Columbia University in 2007, piloted the first undergraduate NeuWrite chapter at Geneseo in the fall of 2015 with Distinguished Teaching Professor of Mathematics Olympia Nicodemi. Smith believes NeuWrite can help undergraduate students and writers better understand the complexity of their identities. According to Smith: “The key thing about undergraduate liberal arts education is the idea of synthesis. What is most important is that we come out with the ability to join the dots between quite different and disparate things… that’s what we need going beyond university.” 

NeuWrite also serves to help students develop their understanding of the porous nature of academic disciplines and to engage with a complex topic often on the periphery of their major studies. Ideally, Smith would like to see student work created through the NeuWrite project disseminated beyond the campus community, allowing undergraduate research and creative voices to reach a larger audience.  

Nationally, NeuWrite has produced seven original public events, totaling over 1,500 attendees. In addition to the constant collaborations of the over 250 members, NeuWrite produces two original blogs and two podcasts. 

Several ΦBK members are listed as collaborators on NeuWrite projects, including Rachel Aviv (ΦBK, Brown University, 2004), Benjamin Backus (ΦBK, Swarthmore College, 1985), Andrew Fink (ΦBK, Carleton College, 2004), Carl Fisher (ΦBK, UNC Chapel Hill, 2002), Janna Levin (ΦBK, Barnard College, 1988), Ben Lillie (ΦBK, Reed College, 2001), Grace Lindsay (ΦBK, University of Pittsburgh, 2010), Karan Mahajan (ΦBK, Stanford University, 2004), Francesca Mari (ΦBK, Harvard University, 2007), Karen Russell (ΦBK, Northwestern University, 2003), and Pat Walters (ΦBK, University of Delaware, 2006).

Meghan Barrett is a senior earning her BS in biology and creative writing at SUNY Geneseo. She is president of Alpha Delta Epsilon regional sorority and a proud member of the Alpha Delta of New York Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa at SUNY Geneseo.