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.
Hello, welcome to The SA Incubator. Let’s start from the beginning: where are you originally from?
A surprisingly tough question! I lived all over the country growing up, but I spent most of my time in North Carolina. I went to college in California, and my family now lives in Washington state. I consider just about the entire west coast “home.”
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 started my undergrad at Stanford a diehard humanities student, studying philosophy and religion. About halfway through college, I started to feel itchy about the field I’d picked–I liked it, but I wanted something else, too.
I took a phenomenal class on the philosophy of neuroscience which then inspired me to cross the campus and take a real neuroscience class. It was love at first ion channel. I plunged into the rest of the biology program and picked up a second major.
At the same time, I was working for a documentary-style radio program that aired on the Stanford radio station. I mostly wrote and produced pieces about art and design, though some science crept in there as well. I enjoyed everything about making radio pieces, from the research to the editing, but it didn’t occur to me until much later that I could actually make a career out of storytelling.
I love learning, so graduate school seemed like the logical next step for me. The trouble was, I had no idea how to narrow down what field I wanted to go into. The idea of studying just one thing for six or seven years, let alone the rest of my life, didn’t feel right.
I was fortunate to have a conversation with Robert Kanigel, then a professor at the science writing program at MIT. He told me that this quality of wanting to jump around and learn lots of new things–something I’d thought of as a weakness–was in fact a strength for a science writer. I went home that afternoon and promptly started working on my application to graduate programs in science writing.
Even though I ended up in a more science-based field, I am hugely grateful for my philosophy background. The overlap between philosophy and science is a beautiful and mysterious place. Especially in a field like neuroscience, where we still have so much to learn, philosophy can help us make sense of how we ought to pose the questions we still have. And that, I think, is also an area ripe for science writers.
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?
Having a dedicated period of time to hone my skills and learn everything a science writer needs to get started was too tempting to pass up. I have valued my mentors enormously, and the faculty at MIT have both helped and challenged me to be a better writer than I think I would have been on my own.
I also liked how graduate school would push me past the limits of my comfort zone. My background is in biology, so that’s where I feel most comfortable writing. I’m not sure I would have had the guts to tackle articles about neutron stars or the mechanics of bat ears on my own, but the stories on subjects I knew least about turned out to be some of my favorites to work on.
As for a science program rather than general journalism? I always knew I wanted to write about science. So again, the promise of diving right into the thing I wanted most was impossible to turn down.
Which science writing program did you attend? Why did you choose that one? What are your best experiences there?
I am currently wrapping up my masters degree at MIT’s science writing program. Part of the reason I chose the program turned out to be my favorite part of the year: the thesis project. We spend the entire year we’re here working on a long-form piece on a subject of our choosing.
I am writing my thesis on octopus personalities, and trust me, it’s just as awesome as it sounds. I got to travel to Monterey, CA to visit with the giant Pacific octopuses at the aquarium there, which is high up on my list of best life experiences.
Getting to dive deeply into one long research project has been a huge amount of work, but extremely rewarding. It’s nice to have a glimpse into what a future career writing books and other long pieces might look like. And of course I relish any excuse to talk people’s ears off about octopuses.
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?
As soon as I finish my coursework at MIT this spring, I’m heading out to San Francisco to start a six-month internship at New Scientist, which I could not be anticipating more highly.
Before coming to MIT, I did a research/editorial internship at NOVA over at WGBH where I wrote for the blog Inside NOVA. My summer project was writing a six-part series about venomous animals, including spitting cobras and box jellyfish.
And before that, I senior produced a radio program at Stanford. I even had one of my pieces–a story about a woman who designs toys for disabled kids–air on the Seattle NPR affiliate KUOW.
I’m currently a full-time student, and most of my energies are spent working on that aforementioned thesis. But I do have a couple of pieces coming out in the near future, so keep an eye on my Twitter (@hannahkrakauer). You can also peruse my full portfolio on my website.
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 am a big fan of Twitter, both to see what’s going on in the science writing world and to help promote people whose work I find inspiring. It’s really through Twitter that I’ve gotten to see the openness of the science writing community. I’ve Tweeted a few of my writing idols and actually heard back!
I appreciate that Twitter is both a tool for connecting with other writers and learning about some of the best science writing that’s out there. The community is so great at passing around good pieces, and I’ve gleaned a lot about what superior science writing looks like from the people I follow on Twitter.
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?
Since my career in writing actually got started in radio, I have a soft spot for podcasts–really for audio editing of any kind. I also do some video editing, and it’s a skill I want to push myself in even more in the future.
I’ve dabbled in web design, and built a website for a nonprofit in my adopted hometown of Bellingham, WA.
I am also interested in science education and museums. Being at MIT, right across the courtyard from the Media Lab, has been a great opportunity to explore the role of technology in education. I even got to help develop a concept for an interactive science museum exhibit that teaches kids about angles–a very cool new way to apply my skills in communicating science.
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?
There’s no question that science media has changed a lot in the past decade. I find most of the changes really exciting, especially for someone like me who enjoys fussing with technology.
Tools like the iPad dramatically expand the possibilities of what a compelling narrative can look like. And videos and podcasts have some distinct storytelling advantages that are great fun to play around with.
Part of why I find this technology exciting is that it opens up a whole new world of ways for writers, artists and designers to collaborate. I think this collaboration is one area that young science writers, including myself, can and should jump on.
But as we well know, with great technology comes great responsibility. It’s easy to fall prey to a glossy video or snazzy design, so as young writers I think we also need to pay extra attention to ensuring the content stays as true and rich as ever. The race to finish first, and prettiest, is no excuse for sloppy journalism.
I have no doubt that we can do it! I am excited to see where science writing is headed, and what my place in it will be.
Previously in this series:
Secrets of the Universe: Past, Present, FutureX