Science in the News (SITN) is an initiative created to build a communication bridge between science-trainees and a curious public, offering everything from blog posts and graphics to podcasts and in-person events. And from the top down, it’s all run by Harvard students.
“A lot of our volunteers are grad students or other trainees at Harvard,” says Hope Merens, MCO PhD candidate in the lab of Stirling Churchman and co-director of SITN. “Everyone at SITN is excited about science and sharing it with the public. But you don’t have the same pressures of grad school. You’re there because you are excited about a certain scientific topic and you don’t need to discover anything related to it. You don’t even need to be working in that field. It gives people a lot of freedom compared to what they’re doing day to day.”
SITN began twenty years ago. It has since grown to a group of approximately 80 volunteers, including at least a dozen MCB/MCO students. In those two decades it has weathered the constant turnover of volunteers—a given considering the contributors and leaders inevitably move on from Harvard graduate life—and a Covid-19 shut down. But the group has managed to continue producing content and hosting events thanks to a tight mentor/mentee structure and an active alumni network.
Live events have returned in the past few years, with one of the most popular being Science by the Pint, in which representatives from labs at Harvard spend an evening at a local bar talking about their work and answering questions.
“It’s a really fun way to talk with people about what they’re studying in a way that isn’t as stiff as a conference poster, and to see what types of questions the public will ask when they trust that they’re in a safe space to be curious,” says Merens.
Another live event is a Seminar Series, which are weekly evening talks open and accessible to all focusing on stories of modern science and engineering. The remaining Spring 2023 Seminar Series events will be held April 19 and 26 from 7 to 8 PM in room B103 in the Northwest Building at 52 Oxford St in Cambridge.
Merens started her journey with SITN on the Science by the Pint team in 2019 before transitioning to podcasts. As a current co-director, she oversees all the SITN sections which include the blog, public events, the podcast, science-based artwork, and a Covid-19 information hub.
“A lot of volunteers come to us thinking about alternative career paths to academia and want to learn some of the skills that we teach through mentorship in our program,” says Merens. “We don’t expect people to come in and already have these skills.”
Merens, however, had some experience within the arts before starting at SITN. Both of her parents are journalists, and becoming a scientist wasn’t even on her radar until she took part in science fairs throughout high school. The fairs sparked an interest in how scientists ask and pursue answers to their questions. Since then, her interests have ranged from neurobiology to biochemistry, before focusing on genetics in the Churchman lab. There, she studies how cells interpret the biological cues that instruct them to produce various kinds of RNA. She also looks at how the myriad aspects of the RNA production process interact and feed back into one another.
She hopes to continue in academia after her PhD work is complete and is certain that the skills she has honed at SITN will play a role in her future.
“A lot of people don’t come into grad school thinking about making graphics to explain their science or other science. People think ‘well, I’m no good at giving PowerPoint talks,’” says Merens. “I would encourage people to just try it out, do something a little bit different. We’re here to help and give advice, and it’s a good way to meet people on campus who have similar interests and explore a different side of the science that you do.”