Elizabeth Finkel and the art of storytelling

As one of the most successful and recognisable figures in Australian science journalism, Elizabeth Finkel's style and passion helped launch Nicki Cranna into a career that combines writing, art and science.

Illustration by  Meg Gough-Brooks

Illustration by Meg Gough-Brooks


Model Specimens is a monthly column that explores the role models who inspired today's scientists. This month, our Art Director Nicki Cranna shares how Elizabeth Finkel helped her to understand that you can’t explain science without a good story.

I learnt early in my academic career that merely stating facts is exactly what not to do to get people intrigued about your oh-so-important research. I distinctly remember going to a party when I first began my PhD. I’d just started explaining my project to a fellow partygoer, only to get a blank look, an “oh ok, cool…” and a back to my face. Evidently, I had not done my job. Not only had I not communicated appropriately to my ‘audience,’ I had also bored the person who was trying to enjoy a good time. Fail.

It wasn’t until I met Elizabeth Finkel that I understood science can be communicated in a fun, interesting and accessible way. She was speaking on a panel of distinguished science communicators as a part of the Melbourne Writers Festival, ‘The Story of Science,’ where she and others discussed the alchemy of combining facts and figures to create a meaningful narrative without abusing the facts. She illustrated that science is not solely for scientists specifically trained in the area, but for everyone to enjoy and understand. At the time, I’d been weighing up my options post-PhD — which appeared to be limited if I wasn’t captivated by the idea of devoting my life to becoming a slave to grant deadlines and lab benches. Elizabeth showed me that — as a woman, and as a scientist in Australia — you could do whatever the hell you wanted if you were passionate and dedicated.

The simplest explanation

This festival, and meeting Elizabeth, cemented my interest in science communication and discovering creative ways to communicate data. The importance of effectively communicating science to the public has become more widespread in recent times. We now understand the countless benefits that successful communication brings. It builds support for science, and promotes understanding of its relevance to society, resulting in more informed decision-making at all levels; from government to communities to individuals. It helps make science more inclusive.

Elizabeth Finkel is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Cosmos Magazine.  ©  Cosmos Magazine  (used with permission)

Elizabeth Finkel is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Cosmos Magazine. © Cosmos Magazine (used with permission)

As a graduate student, it’s easy to be influenced by superiors. In academia, it’s common to receive conflicting advice or advice you don’t necessarily agree with, especially when it comes to conveying ideas. I once took part in a science communication competition, explaining my research, on stage, to a non-specialist audience of hundreds of people in just three minutes. This meant injecting creativity, metaphors and a little bit of humour into an otherwise dry topic. From this, I was invited to speak about my research on a radio show.

Before the radio appearance, I received a piece of advice from an academic whose perspective on communicating complex ideas involved placing the responsibility onto the audience. Or in other words, and I quote; “If they are unable to understand my research, they are unintelligent.” The recommendation from this academic was to ensure I discussed the intricate details of my project, whilst veering away from the story behind the research and how it was connected to people. This experience forged a greater appreciation for the knowledge Elizabeth had bestowed upon me, as I was able to confidently disagree with said advice and use storytelling instead. And I’m not alone in this, afterall, Albert Einstein once stated: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”.

Telling the story

Elizabeth is a master storyteller. She approaches her writing in a non-authoritative journalistic way. She tells her scientifically accurate stories using characters and experiences, connecting the science to the people; an essential tactic in conveying important and somewhat complex messages. She creates a narrative, a vital ingredient.

But that wasn’t always the case, Elizabeth started out as a traditional research scientist and spent 10 years as an academic researcher. She completed her PhD at the University of Melbourne and then investigated developmental genetics, or “the genes that transform a mushy egg into a shapely embryo,” at the University of California, before steering her career towards science writing, a skill she has developed over the last twenty years or so.

Now, she is an editor, journalist, broadcaster and speaker on all things science. Elizabeth is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of one of the leading science literacy magazines in Australia. Cosmos magazine, launched in 2005, provides readers with “the science of everything” and has close to 200,000 subscribers worldwide and two million viewers each month. To support a growing community of science storytellers, Cosmos magazine provides opportunities for aspiring communicators to write and to gain experience in editing, publishing or design with the potential to continue as an employee at the magazine. Alongside this they offer a program in schools, with the aim of inspiring the next generation of scientists by bringing relevant science lessons built on science news to the classroom. Elizabeth is not only dedicated to telling the story of science, but ensuring future scientists are equipped with the skills to enhance their curiosity and disseminate the facts and figures to their audience.

Cosmos Magazine is a bi-monthly science magazine that aims to make science accessible to everyone.  ©  Cosmos Magazine  (used with permission)

Cosmos Magazine is a bi-monthly science magazine that aims to make science accessible to everyone. © Cosmos Magazine (used with permission)

Her journalistic repertoire includes bylines in prestigious science journals such as Science, The Lancet and Nature Medicine, as well as magazines such as New Scientist. She has also been a broadcaster for ABC Radio National and regularly speaks at events and conferences.

Her skills and work have secured her many esteemed awards, including the Eureka Prize for Science Journalism for her article a statin a day – the first print article to win the award in 11 years. In this piece of investigative science journalism, Elizabeth confidently delivers an unbiased survey of the long-standing fierce debate: to take or not to take statins. In 2016, in recognition of her plethora of prizes, her outstanding influence in the world of science journalism and her altruistic work, she was made a Member of the Order of Australia.

Not only has Elizabeth made her splash in science journalism, she's also written a handful of books, similarly recognised and prized. Here, her writing evolved to the genre of creative non-fiction, employing the tools of a novelist: character, place, plot and voice, all blended with hard science.

Her first book, Stem Cells: Controversy on the Frontiers of Science, explores whether we should use embryonic stem cells in medical research. In the book, Elizabeth navigates the issues surrounding one of the most heated medical debates in the world: one that has  grabbed the attention of politicians and the public. She delves not only into the science, but the ethics, the politics, the economics, the people and the future of this contentious topic.

Elizabeth’s second book, The Genome Generation, describes the implications of the Human Genome Project. Finkel details what it means to be part of the genome generation: how it has helped us gain further understanding of evolution, how it has changed medical research, the way we grow crops and breed livestock, and how understanding the human genome provides us with much needed knowledge. She artfully intertwines stories of people and researchers to ensure the human element is not lost. The reader feels connected.

“Wester is a genial, softly spoken man. He and his wife came to Gaborone in 2001 to do AIDS research and helped set up Masa or ‘new dawn’—the program to deliver HAART. There was no guarantee that the AIDS drugs would produce exactly the same effects in southern Africans, nor the same side effects. Wester found a case in point, a type of drug known as a nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitor (NRTI). The drug puts a spanner in the works of a crucial bit of the virus machinery, the reverse transcriptase that rewrites the virus’s RNA genome as DNA. If the virus can’t be rewritten as DNA, it can’t replicate. But in some people the spanner also creates havoc in their mitochondria.”

– Excerpt from The Genome Generation  

With her eloquent style and enigmatic ability to grab your attention, Elizabeth’s work helped trigger my communicator gene, hidden within the matrix of strict academic training. She has achieved many of the things I hope to achieve myself: making science more accessible, more fun, and interesting to both young and old. She is an expert in communicating science to the masses. The downstream effect resulted in the cultivation of my small science jewellery business, my work on science art exhibitions and projects, becoming the art director of this publication, as well as doing a little bit of writing myself. The premise behind my method: decode the science into a digestible format, and use art as a way to capture attention. Without the inspiration Elizabeth offered, I could still be chained to a lab bench somewhere right now.

Edited by Tessa Evans and Nicola McCaskill