This is a series of Q&As with young and up-and-coming science, health and environmental writers and reporters. They have – at least most of them – 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?
The earliest image that comes to mind is of me and my brother, peeling up layers of just-lain sod in our backyard to find the worms slithering underneath. Or, a slightly later image: a shoebox filled with cicada shells we’d plucked off of trees. (I saved that box for years.) An interest in science always starts like that, I think—with the realization that there is so much cool stuff you want to lay your hands on, dig into, deconstruct and understand.
In my sophomore year of high school, I joined a science research program; under the supervision of a wacky teacher, ten of us did a project a year. I looked at underwater frogs’ mating calls and tested the effects of Echinacea on gene expression. (Young me was significantly more impressive than current me.) But I was as interested in literature as I was in science. Science and fiction (and, occasionally, science fiction) offered different methods of approaching the same goal: analyzing not-me, whether that meant animals or, through nuanced characters, other people. On my college applications, I wrote that I wanted to major in physics and English.
As it happened, I majored in anthropology, which seemed a good marriage of science (albeit a qualitative method of parsing a culture from the inside out) and literature. While writing my thesis, I realized that the part I loved wasn’t applying anthropological theory, but weaving a narrative that attempted to explain what I’d seen—in other words, journalism.
Five years later, I’m still navigating the balance between science and the humanities. It turns out that they’re more easily interwoven than I’d thought: both start with a nagging need to analyze and understand. Much of the science writing I do is focused on psychology—like anthropology, an integrative discipline that offers a way of seeing the world.
Why did you decide to attend a writing program instead of just starting a blog and hoping to break into the science writing business?
I’m constantly impressed by people who plunge right into journalism—or any profession—and create a model from the ground up of how to do the work. I’m a structure-oriented person, and I learn best when I have a framework of knowledge to fit new tidbits into; I’m not as good at creating that framework for myself. So on a conceptual level, graduate school was really helpful for me.
Besides that, in the jobs I had leading up to graduate school, I didn’t get much intense, critical feedback on my writing. Hearing “it’s good!” on a piece I knew was mediocre and was desperate to improve was really frustrating. I hoped my graduate school professors would call me out on hazy lines of thinking and lazy writing, and oh, did they ever. It was incredible.
Which program did you attend? Why did you choose that one? What are your best experiences there?
Unlike most of your Incubators, I didn’t attend a science journalism program—the humanities-oriented part of me triumphed. NYU’s Cultural Reporting and Criticism Program was nominally focused on arts criticism, but at root, I learned how to critically analyze whatever I was writing about. Pretty language is lovely, but unless you can use it to present a crystal-clear line of thinking, it’s not worth much. So the skills I learned in graduate school are applicable to all of the writing I do—not just, say, book reviews.
One of the most liberating graduate school experiences was writing an intense personal essay for the first time. I decided to write about neurosis, interweaving personal experience (I am a New York Jew, after all) with Freudian theory in an attempt to deconstruct what, exactly, neurosis is. It was the most un-self-conscious writing I’ve ever done, and led me to take a course in Freudian theory the following semester. Now, psychoanalysis is a marriage of science and the humanities if there ever was one. (Freud is one hell of a writer, if you weren’t aware. This is not sarcastic.) At base, again, was this question of why the world—“the world,” in this case, being the people who inhabit it—works the way it does.
Also, the 15 other students in my program are brilliant, and they continue to inspire and intimidate me.
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?
Right after I graduated from college, I worked as an editor at a startup, an online college guide. My coeditors—all of whom were in their early to mid-twenties at the time, which meant happy hours aplenty—are still some of the most talented and funny people I know, and that was a really wonderful way to get started in journalism. I worked part-time at The Huffington Post for a while after that, and then interned at The Moth, which was my first foray into audio storytelling. I loved it, and while in graduate school, I learned some more radio and interned at Radiolab—some science in the midst of all that art. Since I graduated in December, I’ve been freelancing. I’ve contributed to publications including The New York Times Magazine, The Morning News, The Rumpus, and YouBeauty—and have a forthcoming piece in Scientific American Mind. And always looking for more work, print or radio!
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 blog. (Let the flogging commence.) I would say I’m a moderate social media user. I tweet from time to time, but I’m most active on Facebook, largely because my former classmates post incredible work on there (their writing and others’). Most of the best writing and radio I find is through Twitter or Facebook posts.
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?
Radio! I’m working on a project for a public radio show this minute. It’s pretty exciting, but I’ll have to tell you about it later.
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?
For years, now—as we’ve heard incessantly—the media outlets that generate original content have suffered at the hands of aggregators. (Thieves!) It’s upsetting, but it’s capitalism—which should be reassuring: this can’t last. If newspapers go under, sites that exist solely parasitically will go under, and there will be a huge space for young upstarts to fill. Brilliant people are already doing this, using the web to facilitate original content instead of mooch off it. The Rumpus, Byliner, The Daily—all of these use the internet not as an excuse to be lazy, but as a creative springboard.
Previously in this series:
Secrets of the Universe: Past, Present, FutureX