Written by: Paige Gilbank

“Scientists are constantly trying to persuade each other and broader audience… and with clear and compelling writing, we are more likely to successfully persuade someone to change their beliefs and behaviours,” says Sandy Marshall, course instructor at the Translational Research Program (TRP).

Marshall teaches the Rhetoric of Science course as well as a module course on Grant Writing. The Rhetoric of Science class gives students of various academic backgrounds an understanding of how to effectively reach a target audience. Class time and assignments focus on honing student’s writing skills and challenging them to convey scientific information to end-knowledge users, such as doctors, patients, or the general public.

“The course teaches you to be more proactive and purposeful in your scientific writing,” says TRP student Katie Tucker, who took Rhetoric of Science this past fall. “We assume, as scientists, that there is only one way to convey our message and this is often with jargon that assumes an existing competency in the field. In fact, there are many consumers of scientific communications. The message must be tailored to the audience and the medium.”

The Grant Writing module aims to teach students how to be persuasive in their grants and to ensure their writing caters to the reviewers evaluating their application. “By the end of [the] module, students will be able to demonstrate structured outlines, well-researched writing, and careful editing,” says Marshall. By teaching students to be deliberate in their writing, they can avoid common pitfalls of grant applications and increase their chances of a successful application.

In addition to teaching at the TRP, Marshall is a medical editor, writer and educator with Marshall Medical Communications. Furthermore, she teaches science communication workshops at the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute.

“I was drawn to medical science at a young age, when my mother was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer. My mother did recover, but…I had developed a deep fear of disease and gratitude for medicine.” Marshall says. This fear and gratitude fuelled her pursuit to study medical science. Marshall completed a Bachelor of Science in life sciences from Queen’s University and continued her studies in a Master of Science in medical science from the University of Toronto.

Throughout her training and career, Marshall has improved her own writing by reducing word count in favour of concise messaging. “Now my first drafts are still verbose but after several rounds of revision, the final drafts are crisp.”

In Marshall’s experience, one of the most common errors scientists make in their writing is overestimating their reader’s knowledge on the topic. “If we write in such a way that only direct team members will understand, then these are the only people who will read our article.”

Now, Marshall passes on her expertise to students in the hopes of influencing trainees to change the way scientific information is presented. Scientists are constantly trying to spread their results; to other researchers, to healthcare practitioners, to biomedical technologists, to patients. It is imperative that these messages are accessible and deliberate to ensure the impact isn’t curbed by miscommunication.