By David Washburn
Tiffany Fox loves nerds. Whether they are computer scientists, archeologists or optical physicists – the newspaperwoman-turned-science writer loves learning about what they do and then telling the world about it.
It’s a good thing Fox has this passion because people who are good at science are usually not so good at communicating. As the Director of Communications at UC San Diego Department of Surgery, she uses articles, videos and public presentations to make sure that when the researchers work their magic, they aren’t laboring in obscurity.
How did you get started in the world of science writing?
I started out in newspapers and came to San Diego to work as a news assistant for The Union-Tribune – my first day was Election Day 2000. I wrote about the arts (and at previous publications, about politics and science) and loved it all. But in 2005 I saw was what happening to the newspaper business and wanted to get more experience writing for the web.
I took a writing job with UC San Diego and ended up at Qualcomm Institute at UC San Diego. I told people I was the in-house reporter -- I wrote about everything from photonics, underwater archeology and bio-engineering to visual arts and art history. In spring of 2019, I moved into my currrent position as Director of Communications with the Department of Surgery at UC San Diego. I've been teaching Science Writing I for Extension, along with Heather Buschman, since 2018.
What did you most enjoy about your work?
I enjoy the fact that I’m always learning. The research is so fascinating and so practical. I play a role in helping the community around me, which makes my work meaningful.
What advice would you give someone looking to enter science communications?
The number one quality you should have is curiosity – if you are someone with a limited array of interests, you aren’t going to do very well. It also takes courage and it takes humility. You won’t know a fraction of what the person you are interviewing knows and you have to be okay with that.
One easy thing to do is to pay attention to current events and read, read what’s going on in the world of science…come up with ways to be a part of the community – blogging is a great way to start. It’s crucial to be on social media – follow #scicomm.
It’s a myth that science communication is a specialized field and a small community. Because there are so few academic jobs, it’s become a path for people who want to stay immersed in the world of science without having to fight for tenured jobs.
How is the field changing?
It is starting to become expected that academics, especially in fields with a lot of public outreach, develop communication skills. The Scripps Institute of Oceanography has realized this for a long time – who’s going to speak for the oceans if the researchers don’t?
A lot of researchers now have personal blogs, and the journals will link to other outlets…it is an increasingly interconnected environment. In the past researchers thought that if they just dumped the facts on people, they would see that climate change is real or vaccines are safe – that has, of course, proven not to be the case.
Researchers have to have empathy and compassion for their audience, especially when it comes to controversial topics.
Going forward, what are the challenges facing those who work in science communications?
The anti-science climate. It will take a generation to recover from the damage being done by a government that doesn’t value scientific research. If you think about young people being raised in an era where the government itself has an anti-science bent…that’s terrifying.
What do you like most about teaching for Extension?
I’m most excited about getting people to see that science communication is an entire specialty in itself. It’s something that’s not just a workshop but a career, an actual job. It’s creative work and the possibilities are endless as to what you write about and how you write about it.
Updated September 26, 2019