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The SA Incubator

The SA Incubator


The next generation of science writers and journalists.
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Introducing: Rachel Nuwer

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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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 Rachel Nuwer (homepage, blog, Twitter).

Where are you originally from?

I’m from Biloxi, Mississippi. We’re known for casinos, seafood and Hurricane Katrina.

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?

I grew up exploring the bayous and beaches of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Most of my free time was spent outdoors discovering the wonders of the natural world, and growing up I wanted to be an Amazon explorer. Friends referred to my house as “Noah’s Ark”–I shared a roof with a colorful collection of iguanas, finches, corn snakes, hedge hogs, chickens, hissing cockroaches, doves and African frogs–which also inspired an appreciation of living things. I pursued my interest in science and nature as an undergraduate at Loyola University New Orleans where I studied biology. Writing always came more easily to me than math, though, so I tacked on a minor in English literature, just for fun. Still, I thought I’d follow a traditional science research career after graduating.

In the middle of pursuing a master’s degree in ecology at the University of East Anglia, however, I realized that a career spent modeling population trends in R and focusing on a few particular research questions might not be the best suited for me. During a lecture, a stream ecology professor casually mentioned science journalism, which perked my interest. Given my strength in writing and my woes with statistics, science journalism seemed like a great career compromise. For fear of sounding a bit cheesy, I felt like I could more effectively make the world a better place through writing about science than by actually doing the science. I did some research into science journalism and soon knew that I had found my career.

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?

In the increasingly precarious world of journalism, it seemed to me that having a specialized beat and expertise would help me stand out from the generic J-school crowd. Plus, my interests lie primarily in science and communicating science to others, so focusing on that made sense. Because I’d never taken a journalism or communications class before, I really had no idea what I was getting into, or where to begin. In light of that, having some formal guidance and instruction at a school seemed like a more practical way of breaking in than just blazing a blogging trail on my own, even with the hefty price tag associated with graduate programs.

Which science writing program did you attend? Why did you choose that one? What are your best experiences there?

I attended NYU’s Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program (SHERP), which was definitely the best choice for me. I visited a few schools early on and was impressed by the personalized attention and resources SHERP offered. Plus, Dan Fagin is a really good salesman. I always wanted to live in New York, too, so programs outside of the city were less appealing. SHERP also wound up offering me the best financial aid package, so that made the decision easy.

It’s hard to narrow down my best experiences at SHERP. Making connections with inspiring professors, fellow students and guest lecturers stands out, of course. The specialized training in video and data journalism also were tremendously valuable. Finally, simply having critical, constructive editorial guidance definitely made me a better writer.

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?

During my time at SHERP, I interned at Audubon Magazine, the Scientist Magazine and the New York Times environment desk. Now, I’m trying to make ends meet as a freelancer, writing for places like Scientific American, the New York Times, Popular Mechanics and ScienceNOW.

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 write about illegal wildlife trade on my website. I’m a daily Twitter and Facebook user where I promote my own work as well as any other content that catches my eye. I try to keep Twitter professional, while Facebook is more personal.

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?

I love photography and videography, and have produced videos for TimesCast and Audubon. I also try to keep up my links in the science community, and presented my ecology master’s research at the Student Conference on Conservation Science last fall. I’m publishing a peer-reviewed article in the journal Oryx based upon my ecology master’s work, too.

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?

Well, I’m new to the game so I can’t speak much about the past.  For newbies, this “crazy new world” of journalism is the only one we’ve known. In a way, I think the lack of experience with the old model of journalism is helpful for newcomers, since we were spared the tumult of the last decade or so of journalism. As for the future of media, having multiple journalistic skill sets–especially related to technology–will increasingly be an asset, I think. Many of my friends are polishing skills not only in writing but also in things like podcasting, data visualization or programming, and have landed gigs thanks to those skills. Who knows what the future holds for the science media world, but I look forward to being part of the community for years to come.

Thank you!

====================

Previously in this series:

Kristina Ashley Bjoran
Emily Eggleston
Erin Podolak



Previous: Khalil’s Picks (13 April 2012) More
The SA Incubator
Next: Introducing: Hannah Krakauer




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