A Guide to STEM Writing
Written By: Zhao Gu Gammage
STEM writing can consist of anything from a lab report to a newspaper article and focuses on helping people understand what are often complex scientific concepts. STEM writing is important because it helps people understand the world around them, from developments in the cars they drive to the foods they eat. Without clear and comprehensible writing on these topics, many people without a STEM background would not be able to understand how aspects of the world work. More broadly, effective writing is important because it allows others to analyze new ideas, opinions, and topics.
This blog post will focus on STEM writing for the general public using mRNA vaccines as an example.
Tip 1: Finding a Topic and Understanding the Content
How do I find a topic?
Read science articles from credible sources such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, Pew Research Center, and NASA to see which topics spark your interest.
Ask people around you what science topics interest them, and have them explain their topics to you; if what they say sounds interesting, do some independent reading and further explore the topic.
Once I have my topic, what do I do?
Once you’ve found a topic you’re passionate about, research it thoroughly to gain a full understanding of it. Look at a variety of sources (e.g., interviews, research studies, videos) to develop a solid understanding of the topic.
Make sure to fact-check what you read and focus on verifying the credibility of your sources.
If you’re unsure whether you understand a topic, explain it to a friend or family member and ask for feedback on your explanation. If they respond with follow-up questions that you don’t know the answer to, return to research.
Ask a science professional (teacher, researcher, scientist) any questions you can’t find the answer to online and make sure you understand what they’re saying.
mRNA research: For this example, I would look at the Mayo Clinic’s article on mRNA vaccines, this video from Harvard University, and this interview conducted by The New York Times about an mRNA researcher.
Tip 2: Writing an Introduction
How do I start writing?
Think about how to grab a reader’s attention. Instead of immediately jumping in to explain your topic in the first sentence, begin more broadly and work your way to your topic. The first sentence can include anything from a question to a personal anecdote. This is always the first thing that the reader reads, so be sure to pique the reader’s interest.
When writing the introduction, ask yourself: What’s there, and why care? Why is your topic important, and why should readers learn about it?
mRNA introduction (without tip 2): The mRNA vaccine gives cells instructions for how to make the antigen to the COVID-19 virus so they can produce S proteins and build antibodies for the immune system to fight the virus, specifically preventing the viral cells from multiplying.
This first sentence does not hook the reader and instead sounds like something straight out of a science textbook. The technical jargon may confuse those without prior knowledge of epidemiology or biology. The sentence below may work better since it explains what the vaccine does, but only after certain words (antigen, S protein, antibodies) are defined.
mRNA introduction (with tip 2): mRNA vaccines, such as those from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, have drastically reduced hospitalizations and the spread of the virus. But how exactly do these mRNA vaccines work?
The first sentence clearly demonstrates the importance of mRNA vaccines, and the question posed piques the reader’s interest.
Tip 3: Explaining the Topic
How do I explain the topic effectively?
When you’re writing an explanation, consider any questions readers may pose as they’re skimming through, and be sure to address them.
Fully explain the concept: this means explaining the different parts of the concept - how they work individually and how they work together. Be sure to use the correct scientific terms when necessary, and explain the terms as needed.
mRNA explanation (without tip 3): By encoding genetic instructions into the polymer mRNA, these vaccines allow cells to produce the S protein antigen to the COVID-19 virus. The antigen itself is the S protein, and when it comes in contact with a COVID-19 cell, it will eradicate the cell, thus preventing vaccinated people from becoming ill if they contract the virus.
Despite correctly explaining how mRNA vaccines work, this explanation does not break down the technical terms used (mRNA, S protein, antigen, polymer). It could have included more details about how, for example, mRNA vaccines give cells instructions to produce antigens and how immune cells recognize COVID-19 cells.
mRNA explanation (with tip 3): mRNA vaccines contain messenger RNA, which gives our cells instructions on producing the S protein (spike proteins which are seen on the COVID-19 cells). The S proteins trigger the body to produce antibodies, which are cell