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Field Notes: Emma Gillies

Updated: Aug 28, 2020

Emma Gillies recently graduated from McGill, having studied environmental biology. She is currently a Master’s student at the University of British Columbia in Resources Environment and Sustainability. In this Q&A, we discuss the increasing importance of writing skills in science and her advice for successfully gaining career opportunities.

MSWI: When you came into McGill, did you know this is what you wanted to do?

E: No, quite honestly, no. I started in wildlife biology, a specialization within my major, and I ended up switching the specialization to applied ecology. I went in thinking I wanted to be a wildlife biologist and study elephants in Africa. I realized one or two years in that I was more interested in larger systems and ecosystems, not as much specific species. I got more interested in the consulting and policy side after my internship at an environmental consulting company.

MSWI: How did you find out about this internship? What can you recommend about networking yourself, especially when you’re in your younger years of undergrad and might not have that much experience?

E: When you don’t know anyone and are starting from a bare minimum, my best advice is just to Google things and maybe ask older friends for connections. The more time you put into it, the more you’re going to get out of it and really know about your options in your area. I got my internship by volunteering with an organization my employer was a part of.

The following summer, I was applying to all these internships, and I wasn’t getting anything. So I sent my employer an email asking if she had any internship opportunities, and luckily she did. At Terrahumana solutions, I was the only intern, so I was given a lot more responsibility than if I worked at a huge cooperation.

I learned that you don’t always have to go through a huge applicant pool to get an internship. Sometimes it’s just sending a ton of emails, not getting that many replies, but seeing what you can get. This was also the case for me this past summer. With the pandemic, it was hard for almost everyone to find an internship. I was trying quite hard, and all these jobs were being taken down that I had applied to. I just tried the same strategy. I researched environmental tech startups in Montreal and emailed a bunch of companies, many I hadn’t actually even heard of until I started researching. I think maybe one or two replied to me, and I got an internship with one of them.

I was targeting tech companies because I wanted experience in coding. I knew I wasn’t going to get any work experience as a computer scientist because I have very limited experience in that area. But if I actually help the company as they’re related to the environment, then I can also learn something along the way on the tech side. People like to see that you’re trying new things and that you can bring things to the company.

MSWI: You mentioned environmental policy as a future plan. That requires a blend of science and writing. When did these interests develop?

E: I had a lot of trouble choosing my degree at first because I’m interested in a lot of different things, with writing being one interest. One of the reasons I chose environmental biology was because being in biology means you’re going to have to write a lot, for instance, in research. It’s important to try to improve your writing, and even learn to love it because it’s something that if you want to stay in science, you’ll have to get used to it.

The interesting thing about policy is that it really is bridging a gap between science and governance. To do that, you need to be good at communicating. If you’re a scientist, you have to be good at communicating with the policymakers. If you’re a policymaker, you have to be good at communicating and understanding the scientist.

MSWI: How did you develop your interest in writing at McGill?

E: Journalism has always been an interest, but I got into it at McGill. I saw that McGill had a few newspapers, and I started writing for the McGill Tribune at the end of my first semester. After that, I was a contributor, then a staff writer, and then I was the editor for the science and technology section my final year. That was a really fun time, where I learned a lot, not just about writing, but I also learned how to interview people and do adequate research on a topic.

In any form of journalism, you should keep it simple and especially in science journalism; you don’t want to get caught up in the details. Science can be difficult for the general layperson to understand. Even me, I was in environmental biology, but I was writing stories about astronomy and things I didn’t really know about. At the end of the day, keeping it really simple is more effective in communicating it to the audience.

I also learned to really listen to what the source was saying. It’s really a form of storytelling, so try to craft your message around the people you interview. Also, science can honestly be boring, so using your sources to make it more relatable and more engaging. That’s something I struggled with, how to make science engaging.

MSWI: For those who want to write to the general public as scientists, but don’t necessarily want to go into journalism, do you have any tips?

E: I took a course during my time at McGill’ Scientific Literacy.’ Honestly, I wouldn’t say I liked the course during my time at McGill, but it did help me in the end. It was good for showing me that scientists really make it a lot more complicated than what it has to be. Some of the same tools I was using to make myself a better journalist I think also applied to scientific writing.

You don’t want to try and appear smarter than you are, you need to keep it simple. For instance, don’t write ‘utilize’ when you can just say ‘use.’ I think it’s honestly easier to make it really complex and harder to make it simple because you have to really understand what you’re talking about. The point of the article or essay is to communicate clearly so pay attention to word choice, sentence variation, verb choice.

Personally, I always think you should write really quickly and spend a lot more time editing. I take a strategic break between writing and editing to help have a clear mind. Never turn in a paper without making several edits. You’ll always find errors and can always polish more.

MSWI: How do you develop your own writing style and voice?

E: I feel like it’s something that evolves. For me, it took a lot of practice-- writing and reading a lot. I think that at the end of the day, it comes down to increasing your exposure to good writers and practicing. When you find a voice you like, you’ll naturally emulate it a bit. It’s hard to be completely original with your voice. You’re not going to get good at things unless you go and do it. You can do any kind of writing, too, contributing to a blog, taking a communication course, or submitting to a literary magazine. Have someone critique your work. That always is a really good thing.

Obviously, it’s a bit harder when you have to write formally for an article that needs to be published, but I still think there are times that I’ll read a published article and think, “Well that person’s a really good writer and it’s engaging.” In journalism or in research, you often have a specific style to write but it’s also really possible to keep the voice of the writer. There’s a big push now for science communication to become more engaging. In the past, it seemed to be less about how you write and more about getting the results told. We’ll maybe be able to see more distinct voices emerge in years to come.

MSWI: Switching to your Master’s application, can you walk me through your process of deciding where to apply and how you think you stood out?

E: First of all, it’s perfectly fine to take a couple of years off of school or try to get a job without a Master’s. With environmental biology, it’s kind of hard to have a career without needing a Master’s, but I think there are plenty of fields within science that don’t require a Master’s. It’s important to do your research and be sure that’s what you want to do.

As much as we don’t want to think about it sometimes, reputation can be quite important to admission committees and coming from McGill does help. Otherwise, the aspects I contributed were my grades, my experiences, letters of reference, and the cover letter/personal statement. It depends on where you’re applying because each school will have a different application process. I really focused on my writing because that’s where you get to talk about your experience and why you want to join their program. When it comes down to my personal statement, I was trying to showcase my experience and why I wanted their program and how it would be helpful to me in the future. I think they also want you to be a good writer, so that goes back to mixing up sentence structure, choosing good words, and editing. I would really recommend going to Career and Planning Services (CAPS) because they can help with stylizing it.

If you did honours or have a publication, that looks really good in research-based programs, and you should definitely discuss it. With the research, they also want to make sure you find a supervisor that fits your needs and interests. That’s when exploring your interest and getting experience in your undergrad really comes in handy.

MSWI: Did you do honours or publish during your time at McGill?

E: I did do honours. I did it in the Department of Chemistry on ‘Freshwater microplastic pollution.’ We’re supposed to be submitting it for publication, but that’s not a guarantee. If you have a publication coming out of your undergraduate, kudos to you! I think the requirements for honours depends on your major, but mine was 12 extra credits that were divided between a research project and higher-level coursework. It was a lot of extra work, but it was definitely worth it. I would recommend if you’re in your 2nd or 3rd year to look into this because some Masters programs do require you to have an honours degree, such as Oxford.

MSWI: Can you explain the networking process to find a supervisor?

E: When it comes to course-based programs, I didn’t need to contact anyone. Whereas the research ones are more up in the air about how to contact professors about their research. I honestly just emailed. Make sure your email introduces yourself while being quite brief. I straight up said, “I like your research, and I’m interested in applying for a Master’s at your school. Do you have any space in your lab?”

You need to start researching professors and know your interests quite early. I would say start emailing July-September of your last year. I think I was emailing people quite late, September-October. It honestly took a lot longer than I thought. You have to narrow down what school, what program, what professors. It worked out, luckily. With a lot of applications, they wanted you to contact professors beforehand.

Also, use your professors, go to older friends, go to CAPS for help. McGill is kind of hard to navigate sometimes, but there are resources! People are there to help you; you just need to be proactive.

MSWI: Any last comments?

E: There are tons of opportunities at McGill; they just aren’t advertised well (see below for Emma’s suggestions) One thing that I realized later than I should have is that you should get involved in things that aren’t for the resume. Don’t think of the resume all the time and gain some balance. Joining these random clubs, you can meet new people and gain skills. This is honestly a shameless plug but, for example, the McGill Tribune. It’s honestly really good to try, even if that means you just write one article. If you have space, try taking classes outside of your major or some that you’re scared of. One of my least favourite classes was COMP 202, Foundations of Programming. But I’m really proud that I took the course and was able to use those skills at my current internship.

McGill is kind of a high-pressure environment, where people are always trying to get ahead. So I find that it’s really hard to say no to possible opportunities. But you also have to realize that your time is valuable.

*Interview was edited for brevity and cohesiveness.

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