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Jennifer Town understands the importance of communicating her research. Photo by David Stobbe.

Town’s PhD thesis wins Toop writing prize

Jennifer Town's PhD thesis on a better, more reliable way to produce green energy from manure has earned her the University of Saskatchewan's Harry Toop Memorial Prize in Scientific Writing.

"It's wonderful to be recognized," says Town who recently completed her graduate studies at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM). "Writing hasn't necessarily come easy for me, and I've had to work really hard at it. But the writing aspect of my graduate studies has led to such positive outcomes and opportunities."

The Harry Toop Memorial Prize is presented annually to a U of S graduate student whose thesis has demonstrated excellence in scientific writing.

WCVM professor Janet Hill worked closely with Town while she carried out her research investigating the microbiology of microbes that can be used to improve methane production. She nominated Town because her excellent work fulfilled the award's goal. "We're incredibly proud of her and her work," says Hill, head of the WCVM Department of Veterinary Microbiology as well as its graduate chair. "This award recognizes her thesis, but throughout her program, Jen has been an exemplary communicator who has shown a great ability to communicate at different levels by adjusting her style to suit the audience."

Hill explains that Town's efficient use of language is a critical skill that will help her throughout her career. Scientists need the ability to explain their research to a wide range of people including colleagues, reviewers and potential funders. It's also increasingly important that their writing can be understood by an international audience – people for whom English is not a first language.

Hill recommends that students practise those skills throughout their program and not just when they're writing their theses. She also advises them to ask for feedback from their supervisors, instructors and fellow students.

Town is grateful for the advice and encouragement she received from Hill as well as from Dr. Tim Dumonceaux, her PhD supervisor. They both challenged her to focus on her writing and garner valuable experience by preparing peer-reviewed journal articles, research posters and scientific abstracts throughout her graduate studies.

"I had the opportunity to present my research at conferences in London, Ont., and Vienna, Austria," says Town who also had three articles published in scientific journals. "Those were fantastic experiences that gave me the opportunity to meet people and network."

Town was particularly happy she'd listened to their advice when it was time to prepare her PhD defence and write her thesis. She also appreciated the feedback from her coworkers who were always willing to look over her writing and provide an outside perspective on the clarity of her information.

What advice can Town give other students? She emphasizes that it's always important for them to put in a good effort, but sometimes they just need to make sure they finish.

"It's easy to get into the cycle of trying to make your work perfect," says Town. "Trying to reach perfection can be your enemy if it stops you from submitting your article to a journal or your abstract to a high-level conference. You need to keep the momentum going."

Town also recommends that students consider their audience as they're writing and then tailor their article or presentation accordingly. Hill adds that whether you're communicating with lay people or with experts, the same general principles apply, and graduate students are at a huge advantage if they're able to write clearly and concisely.

"Jen was able to consolidate a really complex story into a logical and highly readable narrative, and she did a good job of explaining how her thesis would fit into the larger field of microbiology," says Hill. "This award recognizes her thesis, but her communication abilities shone throughout her program."

Now that her graduate work is done, Town is enjoying her work as a research assistant with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. She's also hopeful that funding will become available so she can launch a larger version of her PhD project.

Town plans to continue practising her writing as she progresses in her research career, and she's very thankful to the Toop family for sponsoring the award and encouraging the development of science students.

"When you start grad studies, you get into science because you like doing research and you like being in the lab, but you don't realize how much writing is involved," says Town. "You have to be able to communicate how good your work is and what's exciting about it, and that's what leads to more opportunities."

Lynne Gunville of Candle Lake, Sask., is a freelance writer and editor whose career includes 25 years of teaching English and communications to adults.
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