How U of T prepared me to become a freelance science writer

As an undergrad, I learned biology, chemistry, and how to believe in myself

How U of T prepared me to become a freelance science writer

When I finished my degree in December 2016, I wasn’t sure what would come next. It felt like staring into a giant abyss, but at the same time, I knew there was something out there for me.

I first got the idea to pursue science writing after reading some bad science journalism — more specifically, writing that misrepresented statistics, sensationalized findings, and lacked the critical perspective that I craved. I thought maybe I could do it better. I knew I had a good science education, good writing skills, and a very critical eye.

I didn’t really know how to break into the field, so I just searched on Indeed for freelance science writing jobs. I came across an ad looking for someone to write articles about science and cannabis, and I thought that there was a real need for good information on the subject.

I expressed this opinion in my cover letter, and it turned out the boss shared my values. I freelanced for the company for a few months before they hired me in full-time capacity, and I worked there until the company was sold a year later.

That was how I got my start. I’ve been writing about science and medicine for two and a half years now, and I love what I do. I’ve written about diabetes, ALS, Alzheimer’s, genomics, oncology, and, of course, cannabis, among many other topics. I find it meaningful to communicate important health and science information to the public.

I’ve had the chance to interview doctors, patients, laypeople, and experts to feature in my articles. I’ve read hundreds of academic journal articles. I’ve learned so much, both about science and about people, and I still get excited every time I land a new project.

These days, I work from home — or wherever I happen to be. I am a freelance writer, which means I own my own business and set my own hours. I find my own clients and sometimes pitch my own ideas for writing projects. It’s an active, involved process, but I find it is worth it to not have to work in an office, full time, for someone else.

I built my business slowly, and it was uncomfortable at first. I had to email people I didn’t know and ask them if I could work for them. I had to follow up on emails that didn’t get a response. I had to call people, meet people, and network. I had to decide how much money my time was worth. I had to be vulnerable.

But looking back, I think I learned how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable during undergrad. U of T pushed me beyond who I thought I was, and in that way, it prepared me for my own personal entrepreneurial journey, and all the challenges that have come with it.

I studied both arts and science equally during my time at U of T. I graduated with an Honours Bachelor of Science with a major in neuroscience and minors in bioethics, and Buddhism, psychology and mental health.

The gruelling life science courses challenged me to become more diligent, more hardworking, and more thorough. I made it my personal goal to get my GPA as high as I could, and with time, I was consistently earning As.

Although it was difficult, a U of T life science education is second to none. It made me confident I could tackle any topic within the realm of medical writing, and I’ve yet to find one I couldn’t manage. More broadly, the experience gave me the belief that I could face a challenging situation and succeed anyway.

I also took philosophy and cognitive science courses, which satisfied my curiosity and love for ideas, theories, and abstraction. They were almost all essay-based, and I became a better writer, thinker, and debater for taking them. I frequently take an interdisciplinary approach in my science-writing because of this aspect of my education.

I have faced some challenges along the way, aside from the hard work of building up a clientele. Although my education had prepared me to start as a science writer, I still had to learn a new skillset to succeed.

University does not teach you to write for the general public. It teaches you to write at a high level of abstraction, for better or for worse. I learned to write with shorter sentences and to use simpler concepts. I learned what the average person knows about the human body. I practiced editing other people’s work at my full-time job, and I’ve since gotten a lot better at writing for the layperson.

I’ve had to be humble and write about things I don’t find interesting or don’t agree with. I had to work for free a few times to get my name out there. I’ve had to accept the editor’s authority and let go of my attachments to certain stylistic flourishes and turns of phrase. Almost everything I write for the web gets edited in some way I don’t like, but I’ve found a good balance between fighting for what I want and accepting the changes and moving on.

U of T challenges you intellectually and emotionally to be your best. It does not compromise your education to make things easier on you. It demands that you rise to meet the challenge, and it will absolutely leave you behind if you do not. Undergrad hurt, but it ultimately made me stronger.

When The Varsity reached out and asked me to tell my story and reflect on my time at U of T, I was thrilled. As I reflect on my undergrad experience, I realize all the ways it’s helped me become the person I am today, and I feel grateful.

My advice for undergrads is to grind hard and trust that you are building up resilience. You can turn that resilience into something profitable if you are willing to do uncomfortable things. If you are learning about something you’re passionate about, developing transferable skills, and increasing your resilience, you will figure out how to make a living once you graduate.

Try your best to be grateful, even when it’s hard. It gets easier after graduation.

Laura Tennant is a Toronto freelance science writer and U of T alum from the class of 2016. She’s written for a variety of clients, including Diabetes Canada, the ALS Society of Canada, Geneseeq Technology Inc., and

How to survive a lab

Tips and tricks for scientific success

How to survive a lab

What are labs? Awful three-hour block of red in your timetable starting at 9:00 am on Mondays? A torture chamber for life sciences students? Not always! Yes, labs are terrifying. Yes, they are often a lot of work. But they can also be fun if you know what you’re doing. 

I had so many questions before my first lab: What do I do during the lab? What am I supposed to do before a lab? Why is a lab worth 25 per cent of my grade? But I’m here to tell you to relax, firstyear life sciences students. All you have to do is read up on how to survive your first lab and maybe, just maybe, you’ll even enjoy it.

1. Be prepared

Do your pre-lab readings and prepare your notebook! Preparing for labs not only means that you will ace your pre-lab quiz, but it will also make the lab work feel like smooth sailing — which is the best feeling ever, trust me. You’ll thank yourself when you’re done ahead of time while everyone else is still confused and running after your teaching assistant.

2. Don’t do lab on an empty stomach and four hours of sleep

Get some sleep, caffeine, and breakfast. Imagine trying to get through a three-hour lab with a grumbling stomach and constant yawning. You’re just asking to break that watch glass, miss an observation, or forget a crucial step — and, consequently, redo your trial. Instead, be nice to yourself and go to bed!

3. Write everything down

You have a lab notebook for a reason — use it! Write down all the steps, record all reagents and materials used, observations made, and data recorded. Not only because it’s worth marks, but also because it will help you in solving your post-lab blue sheet, writing your discussion and reviewing for exams; yes, you can be tested on your labs.

4. Start early, and don’t be afraid to ask for help

Nothing is more stressful than sitting down the night before and struggling — and maybe crying — over pre-lab problems that you could have solved a week ago at your teaching assistant’s drop-in office hours. They are an awesome bunch and always willing to help, you simply have to reach out.

5. Have fun!

Very cliché, but very true. Get close to your lab partners. You don’t have to be best friends, though you absolutely can be, but say “hi” outside of the lab and work together on those pre-labs. Get to know your teaching assistant as well. They’re super involved in some really cool research in your area of study and are usually very willing to share. Connect and enjoy!