Laura Roberts photo
What is your educational background?
Dr. Laura Roberts earned her undergraduate degree in English from Louisiana State University in 2010.
After graduating from Louisiana State, Roberts spent some time to build her resume and figure out what she wanted to do. During this time, she volunteered with AmeriCorps as a volunteer coordinator for a food bank and tutored for the Huntington Learning Center for English and ACT preparation.
With some resume material and experience under her belt, she attended UW-Milwaukee to earn her master’s degree in professional writing, finishing in 2016. During her master’s program, Roberts was a part of a scientific and medical communications lab.
“We did projects looking at things like, ‘How does the FDA in their drug trials include patient voices, and does it actually have an effect on rulings of whether a drug is approved or not?’ … we also worked on a project looking at how doctors talk to patients about cancer and obesity.”
From UW-Milwaukee, Roberts went to North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina and earned her Ph.D. in communication, rhetoric and digital media in 2020.
In her Ph.D. program, her interests in technical writing expanded once more. Working with her adviser, Roberts focused on preparing and providing training on professional writing for graduate students involved in science.
As part of the communications training, Roberts had the opportunity to work with a cluster of faculty members from a wide range of disciplines, from citizen science, environmentalism and astronomy.
“The major finding there was that a lot of students were interested in learning about digital media tools. How to communicate with the public using digital media, that was the thing that a lot of students were concerned with, and even things like small talk and networking, those are skills people worried about and wanted to get better at and improve.”
After graduating from North Carolina, Roberts came to UW-Platteville to teach.
What type of classes have you been teaching at UW-Platteville?
Roberts teaches technical writing classes for the professional writing program in English, and this semester has taught Technical Writing and will be teaching Writing, Editing and Publishing for Multiple Media in the fall.
She also developed her own course, titled Design and Editing for Complex Information.
“I think it will really help [students] for not only just designing and formatting documents, but also thinking about things like complex problems of ‘how do we visualize material to best reach an audience,’” said Roberts. “I think the appeal is hopefully broad that people in, maybe, the computer sciences, or people who are going into business, can use these tools to think more effectively about design and editing as well.”
How did you become interested in teaching?
“I’d say my tutoring experience at Huntington Learning Center made me realize I enjoyed working with students and helping them in a one-on-one environment.”
While at Huntington Learning Center, Roberts had the opportunity to work with students throughout their education and to personally gear content for them.
“I enjoyed structuring assignments and worksheets so that I could see students’ progress and start learning the material. Tutoring never felt like work to me, so I think that’s when I realized it was something I wanted to pursue as a career.”
Roberts furthered her decision on teaching as her career path by entering graduate school at Milwaukee.
“During my master’s degree, I didn’t have the opportunity to teach, but I enjoyed giving class presentations and taking on that teaching role during presentations. I then realized that I enjoyed the dialogic component of teaching.”
Roberts’ experience in her doctorate program was almost a complete switch from her master’s degree experience. Instead of delivering presentations for class, Roberts began to formulate teaching programs and plans for professional and technical writing.
What interested you about scientific, medical and technical writing?
“I always found it fascinating personally, and I think it’s an area where communication can intervene and actually do something positive. And I think there is a (misunderstanding) that (rhetoric of science) is trying to break down scientists or kind of pick apart scientific arguments. But, there’s been this move more recently to working together with scientists, with medical providers, to say ‘how can we help in the situation?’”
Tracing further back, Roberts’s interest in rhetoric and technical writing stemmed from her enjoyment of reading when she was younger.
“In high school and in middle school, I always loved reading. And, I wouldn’t say I was, like, a writer per se, but I was more of a reader and I really enjoyed thinking about writing and thinking about theory.”
From here, her passion for rhetoric, writing theory and English grew and began to show while at Louisiana State. During her time there, Roberts took a rhetoric of science class.
“It kind of just sparked my interest and thinking about the language that is used to discuss scientific and medical topics to make us feel a certain way about things, or act in certain ways, or make decisions.”
During her master’s degree as well, she had the opportunity to work within the field of medical writing as part of an internship with Johnson Controls.
“I started off working as a Content Documentation Specialist, which sounds very fancy,” remarked Roberts. “Basically, they had a website that they wanted to change the content for, and so I was helping as they were figuring that out.”
The internship was originally meant to last two months. Roberts ended up being hired by Johnson Controls and worked there for the duration of her Ph. D. until she began at UW-Platteville, totaling about five years of employment.
While working at Johnson Controls, Roberts was able to utilize and strengthen her education and experience in medical writing and scientific writing.
Within the medical field and medical writing is the large component of risk and risk communication.
“We have everyday hazards that we always encounter, but risk kind of connotes this outrage component of fear to hazard,” explained Roberts.
Roberts continued, “So things like weather related risks or climate change are things we can’t (easily) prevent, we don’t know exactly when it’s going to happen, but it probably will happen at some point.”
In the scientific field, though, and scientific writing, a large component is the communication and adaption of new data, theories, processes and more.
“I think a lot of people think there’s no rhetoric or persuasion in STEM. They think, ‘Oh, these are the facts and I’m learning the facts,’ but the facts change over time and we go through progressions of history where we thought one thing and then we learn that it’s actually completely different.”
Because both forms are technical writing, scientific writing and medical may overlap in their key components. Oftentimes, scientific writing has to deal with risk communication and medical writing has to deal with data communication.
“I think that communication is so important to the sciences and especially if we think about vaccine hesitancy,” Roberts added. “How do you communicate to someone about this being a safe vaccine to take, especially if they have preconceived ideas that it’s dangerous, or it’s going to affect them negatively? How do we overcome that through communication? Because it is a communication problem, it’s not a science problem at this point.”
Do you have advice to share with students?
“Pursuing internships at this point while you’re in school is just an excellent opportunity to dip your foot into the corporate world, even if you do want to go to graduate school, get your Ph.D. and teach. That experience was so valuable for me, just in terms of learning about what it’s like to be a part of an organization.”
Roberts elaborated, “Especially as an English major, I think with English majors there’s this idea that ‘it’s not going to go anywhere, what is this major for, why are you in it?’ but I think (after) having those experiences, then you can see all of the different ways that your major can be useful and valuable within different organizations.”
“And I would also say, don’t be too hard on yourself,” concluded Roberts. “I think I, and probably a lot of students, especially now, had a crisis in terms of ‘what am I doing’ or ‘what am I doing now,’ ‘what am I doing with my life,’ but I think it will work out. You have to pick a strand of something to focus on, maybe what you are interested in. Show that passion … and talk to people about it. If you’re interested in something, seek out other people who are interested in it … I don’t think I’d be here without people who helped me out and pointed me in the right direction.”