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?
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?
As a curious kid, I spent many afternoons doing backyard science. This involved things like jumping out of trees wearing feathers and trying to fly, or seeing how big a mud puddle my sister and I could make with the garden hose. John Mather told me once that kids are natural scientists, and I agree. Keeping them curious and interested in answering their own questions is the challenge, not generating that inquisitive spirit. Anyway, seeking formal training and legitimate empirical work seemed like an obvious career path, and one that eventually led me to graduate school at Cornell University.
Along the way, I wrote. A lot. As an undergrad, I thought term papers were fun. As a grad student, writing manuscripts and making figures were the best parts of the job. Turns out, I had more fun crafting words into sentences than I did crafting protein blots. When I noticed that I was tolerating being a scientist – rather than really enjoying it – science journalism jumped out as a plausible next direction. Toward the end of graduate school, I began focusing on preparing myself for that next step by looking at science journalism programs and doing some actual reporting.
I also spent most of my life dancing, having trained for a career in ballet. At one point, I found myself tugged in three different directions, though I’d say reporting, science, and the performing arts are similar in many ways (more on that later).
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?
After graduating from 21st grade, it seemed logical to enroll in a focused program that would quickly get me on my way.
Some people definitely become successful science journalists without attending any sort of program. I needed the formal instruction and guidance, though, having come from a science-heavy, jargon-soaked background with comparatively little reporting experience. I needed to learn how to navigate this world of publications and editors, each with their own priorities, audiences, and preferences, and that’s something Rob Irion (director of the UC Santa Cruz Science Communication program; more below on that) started helping us with as soon as the gun went off.
I’m glad I decided against bushwhacking through this landscape on my own. The first assignment I completed for class was awful. Really, really fantastically bad – all 198, stinking words. My draft came back wearing enough ink to keep a tattoo artist stocked for a week. I even ventured into Rob’s office to ask if he was going to boot me from the program…
Which science writing program did you attend? Why did you choose that one? What are your best experiences there?
I graduated from the UC Santa Cruz Science Communication program – one intense year, focused on producing stories, and with a seriously strong internship program. I knew going in that I would throw everything I had at those nine, short months, because when would I ever have an opportunity like that again? It was the only program I applied to because it seemed like such a good fit.
I was right about that — my year among the redwoods in science writing bootcamp is one of the best I’ve had. Numerous sleepy mornings and crises of confidence, combined with world-class instruction, high-profile internships, and more support than I ever could have hoped for helped me emerge with a foundation in something – science journalism – that I not only tolerated but couldn’t get enough of.
As for the high points? Hard to pick! Instructors, classmates, internships…goodness. Instructors because they really are The Best – generous with their time and feedback, even while holding full-time jobs, and incredibly accomplished in the areas they teach. Classmates because of our varied backgrounds and similar, burning motivations. From interviewing crab fishermen on the docks, to nervously applying for internships, covering our first conference, going spelunking for class, learning the secret to writing features on deadline — we went through quite a bit together. It’s exciting to see what they’re up to now, and I’m enjoying getting to know the current class as well.
Internships might be tops on the list, though. We plunged right in, and dammit, I was going to extract every last bit of on-the-job training that I could. On my first day reporting for the Santa Cruz Sentinel (before classes had even started), my editor sent me out to cover an intimidating, coastal cliff-climbing accident. Everyone ended up ok, and I quickly found out that I could handle those sorts of assignments.
I left the program with many connections, some really good friends, and somewhere around 70 published stories.
Oh I just thought of another one. Reporting my feature for Rob’s class took me into the field on a day-long chase with biologists hoping to catch and collar a mountain lion. There’s no substitute for the textures that kind of reporting adds to a story. Admittedly, I was lucky – we did get the cat, in the end.
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?
I’m on staff covering astronomy (and a bit of physics) for Science News, based in Washington, D.C. My internship there began a few weeks after UCSC ended – and involved a quick, cross-country drive with my two pups. Soon, I was hired out of my internship to write about that enormous chunk of stuff that isn’t part of our home planet.
During the school year, I interned with the Santa Cruz Sentinel (ten weeks, prolonged by freelancing during the winter break); the San Jose Mercury News (also 10 weeks, prolonged by working through spring break); and Nature, writing news for print and the website (unprolongable because I had to get to D.C.!). I also published pieces with New Scientist, ScienceNOW, Santa Cruz Magazine, Nature Medicine, covered planetary sciences for the American Geophysical Union’s blog during the winter 2010 meeting, and wrote a guest blog for Scientific American.
I still get anxious every time something goes online or appears in print. We dancers always say that if you’re not nervous, it’s because you’re not invested in the performance, and to me, every piece of writing is a bit like a performance, on deadline. There’s no substitute for being ready once the audience is there, the stage manager calls places, the music starts, and you’re in the wings. But there is less rehearsal time and a bit less control over the final product.
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 don’t have a personal blog, but I did contribute quite a bit to our UCSC class blog. At first, I was very intimidated by blogging – like, who cares what I think about anything? – and ended up writing my first piece about losing my Twitter virginity. Until we had to sign up for Twitter during Erika Check Hayden’s social media class, I’d avoided the site. That turned around. It might be worth noting that my Twitter handle, @slugnads, is a portmanteau of the UCSC mascot and the only nickname I’ve ever had.
And as the year went on, I discovered that I enjoyed the challenge of finding something interesting to write about that I could color in a bit. I even found a mini-niche in quirky, image-driven pieces, which is something I’d like to explore a bit more (it’s just dang fun, and lets me indulge my more whimsical side).
Now, I still find it kind of hard to promote my own work using social media. So I pick the pieces that I think are worth sharing. When I come across something that moves me or is particularly well done, I happily share that. And I do find many good tips and stories from social media sites.
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?
Well, the UCSC program is very multimedia intensive during the spring quarter. We produce podcasts, slideshows, and videos, as well as work with the artists illustrating our feature stories. My classmates produced some really outstanding pieces in these areas (including this video, this video, and this podcast). We take a course in the spring that introduces us to data viz (things like this), which is something I need to think about getting into a bit more because it reminds me of everything I loved about being a scientist.
Sadly, I haven’t managed to banish the A/V gremlin that has been following me around since 1997, when a website I designed for a physics course erased itself the day before my final project was due (I also tarnish silver jewelry, am poison oak and mosquito-resistant, and seem to data-jam my phone, so it might just be me…). I love working with the medium(s), but the constant crashing/cameras v. computer smackdown/general fustercluckity renders these endeavours somewhat less than efficient.
But that being said, how can you argue with the opportunity to share a mountain lion’s pissed off snarls in a podcast? I can’t. I do love photography, and I did manage to capture the San Jose Mercury News-bots on video (a labor of love). So I’m optimistic.
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 hope the predictions for magazines and newspapers aren’t as dire as everyone says they are. Am I a bit old-fashioned? Maybe. But there’s something irreplaceable about turning pages and smelling that freshly-printed aroma, even if newsprint-fingerprints end up stamped all over the door frame.
On the other hand, you can see that I’m quite link-happy. Embedding videos, slide shows, podcasts, links, infographics like this hypnotic map – that stuff adds tons of value that is impossible to incorporate in print. You should see the Science News iPad edition – it’s gorgeous. That backlit screen, the photos, swiping and scrolling – I need to get an iPad.
But even with all its merits, I think the web can be a treacherous landscape. It enables somewhat more casual reporting and writing, which can be both good (more colorful and accessible stories) and bad (first-draft-style typos and errors, things masquerading as reporting). The Guardian just published an interview with Sergey Brin in which he raises some alarming points about the convoluted state of freedom on the web. And the recent success of crowd-funding for Matter suggests that readers are ready for reliable sources of creative, in-depth reporting. It’s all kind of mixed up, and I think it’s too soon to tell where the pieces will land.
Previously in this series:
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