This is a series of Q&As with young and up-and-coming science, health and environmental writers and reporters. They have recently hatched in the Incubators (science writing programs at schools of journalism), have even more recently fledged (graduated), and are now making their mark as wonderful new voices explaining science to the public.
Today we introduce you to Kristina Ashley Bjoran (blog, Twitter). If her name is familiar to you, it may be because she has published with us twice so far – see: Animal emotion: When objectivity fails and Looking for Empathy in a Conflict-Ridden World.
How did you get into science and how did you get into writing? And how did these two trajectories fuse into becoming a science writer?
Once upon a time, long ago in the halls of Clayton State University (CSU) near Atlanta, GA, I wandered the halls of the English department and came across a poster for MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing (GPSW). As a former biology major turned English major, I knew at once this was what I wanted to do.
I had decided to leave my biology track because of all the politics I’d discovered that weave through sciences; at the time, politics and science were things I didn’t believe should mix. Especially in neuroscience and marine biology, both of which I had a passion for.
But I loved writing – I’d been doing it most of my life. So I made it my goal senior year to craft a portfolio in science writing. CSU didn’t have much in the way of a newspaper or any scientifically geared publication, so I found Suite 101 and Examiner.com. I wrote like crazy for these (what most would call) content farms, covering science for the Atlanta area and writing about sustainable fishing and paleontology for Suite 101.
At the latter, I had the pleasure of working with a wonderful editor named Jill Browne, who helped me get the basics down for the technicalities of science writing. She later went on to write me a recommendation for MIT. And I’ll be forever thankful for that.
Science writing simply felt right. I could still experience and live with the science while not feeling constrained by bureaucracy.
Why did you decide to attend a specialized science/health/environmental writing program instead of a generalized journalism or writing program, or just starting a blog and hoping to break into the science writing business?
Initially, I hadn’t necessarily planned on going to grad school. I admit I had a little thing for MIT – how cool would it be to go to the same school as Tony Stark/Iron Man? I never felt like a journalist, though I flirted with the idea occasionally during my homeschooling.
Because I wasn’t married to the idea of grad school (but more to the idea of MIT and their science writing program), I only applied there. Receiving that letter of acceptance was perhaps one of the most exciting moments in my life.
But a few weeks after the acceptance, I started to think very seriously about “just breaking in” to the industry. After all, I had built up a decent portfolio at those arguably reputable content sites, and grad school is terribly expensive. At that time, I’d also just started writing for and editing a widely read publication on user experience design on the Web, called UX Booth.
There was a week or so that I was deep in discussion with the awesome folks at the MIT program about the cost and necessity of the program; in the end, though, the experience of being around an internationally renown science school and writers with similar interests was just too much to pass up.
And I still thought I might be Iron Man one day. Or Iron Woman, I suppose. I’m still working on the designs for the flight suit.
Which science writing program did you attend? Why did you choose that one? What are your best experiences there?
I suppose I’ve answered this in part already: MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing. Aside from my love of MIT, their program was simply the best one for me, by far. While other programs focus solely on journalism or admit only science majors, MIT’s GPSW approached all aspects of science communications. From documentary to journalism to essays, they had a far less myopic approach than the others I’d seen.
As for experiences in the program, I must say that spending nearly a year working with the faculty was the most exciting. I had the pleasure of having Alan Lightman as my thesis advisor, and with his edits and guidance I learned more about writing than I had in any other educational experience. There were tears. There was stress. There were many sleepless nights. And there were many, many revisions. But that process will go down in my personal history as one of the most valuable.
This is to say nothing of the projects we got to work on in the “classroom.” The documentary stands out. There were seven students in my program including me, and we paired off to make a 10-minute documentary for each group. Running from pre-production to post-production with my teammate taught me skills that I now found are some of my most marketable. Also, it’s just cool to say, “Hey – I made this documentary” to strangers.
What professional experience you have had so far – publications, internships, jobs? Feel free to include a bunch of links here! What is your current job?
Post-MIT, I went first to intern at Technology Review for a few months. Besides building up a pretty substantial portfolio there, I can’t say enough about the fabulous folks that are running that publication. I found a mentor in every editor, and though I had another internship lined up before I left Tech Review, I left kicking and screaming.
I flew to San Francisco a day after my last at Tech Review to intern with WIRED Magazine. The experience there was significantly different from Tech Review, but I quickly learned the inner workings of a broad-audience magazine.
Before the WIRED internship finished up, I was offered a job at a recently-funded startup in the Bay area, where I spent the last 5 months working as a community manager. It was becoming obvious now: having a strong ability to communicate complex ideas in any industry is a widely sought-after characteristic. And the paycheck was certainly nothing to scoff at after a few internships.
Then again, coming from a program that stresses ethical standards in communications, I found many reasons that I wasn’t compatible with the company with which I worked. So now, I’m happily back to my freelance and contract work. I finally got my own site up and running. I’ve picked back up pitching to various science and Web-related magazines like Six Revisions, UX Booth, and soon, Contently’s blog, The Content Strategist.
If anyone asks these days, I’m a content/editorial strategist for the Web. It’s a lot of fun, pretty darn lucrative and in-need, and in essence, exactly what I went to school for: communicating complex ideas to the widest of audiences. I just get to do that for websites now.
Do you write a personal or science blog? How much do you use social media networks, e.g., Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, Tumblr, Pinterest, Flickr, YouTube etc., to promote your own and your friends’ work, to learn and to connect?
I’ve only just found the time post-MIT to start my own blog, called Cluster Cluck. Since I work in Web content now, too, there’s a mix of content-based stuff and, of course, science stuff. Oh, and my illustrations. It’s definitely a work-in-progress.
In terms of promoting my and others’ content, I don’t find Facebook all that valuable, really. I’m all over Twitter, which I find to be one of the most valuable ways to engage others without annoying them. There’s an art to it, for sure, but once you’re in the sweet spot, it’s a very powerful tool.
Guest posting on other blogs is another oft-passed-over opportunity, I’ve noticed. One of the best ways to promote yourself or others is to just start engaging in the community at hand. When I discovered how much I loved writing about the Web and Web technologies, I started guest posting on several sites (which, by the way, pays in many cases) and getting involved on Quora. Simply adding value to the conversations at large is not only good for promotion, but it’s also something we should be doing anyway.
Apart from writing, do you also do other aspects of science communication, e.g., podcasts, video, art/illustration, photography, infographics, or do you do any coding, web design and programming?
Yes! While writing is still a large part of what I do in my science and technology communication, I’ve taken to photography, illustration, and video production too. I’m very thankful that MIT’s GPSW took significant time to teach best practices for video production; between that and my own knowledge of HTML and CSS, it makes for a pretty unstoppable force. And no, I don’t mean that to sound as self-aggrandizing as it does. I’m certainly a stoppable force.
How do you see the current and future science media ecosystem, how it differs from the past, and what role will new, young science communicators like yourself play in building it and making it the best it can be?
I’m going to run the cliche track here first: the communications and media landscape has evolved. Magazines know it. Newspapers know it. Being skilled at writing or speaking simply isn’t enough anymore – though I’d argue that’s been the case for some time.
New science communicators have a responsibility to take advantage of the plethora of tools they have at their disposal, from blogging to social networks to, I’d even argue, Web design. Design plays a big role in how things are communicated over the Interwebs, and the more science communicators know about it, the better.
And though it’s always been important for communicators to be accountable for their ethics and reporting, it becomes paramount now in the accelerating publish cycle. We now have so many resources at our hands, so many ways to check facts and double check them, that there’s little excuse to communicate the wrong things. We mustn’t be victims to the pressure to publish, not when the facts suffer (*cough-arsenic life-cough*).
Images: both by Kristina Ashley Bjoran, second one in Technology Review.