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?
I was always interested in plants and animals. At Williams College I majored in biology and researched a thesis in forest ecology. Having finished six months of field work, I found that I had little to no enthusiasm for using statistical analysis programs (I compensated by crafting the world’s most extensive introduction). After college I searched for ways to be involved in ecology while avoiding data analysis entirely.
Before it occurred to me to try writing, I tried everything else. I was a nature camp counselor in Massachusetts, a farmhand in Spain, a wildlife illustrator in New York City, a lobster boat helmsman in Bar Harbor, a tour guide in Acadia National Park, an itinerant birder in the western United States, a biologist on an uninhabited island in the Galapagos, a naturalist in Ecuador, and an invasive species ecologist back in Massachusetts. At various points I was also a swim instructor, piano teacher, and pastry chef. I had a part-time career as a freelance artist throughout.
About two years ago I was reading an online science article—something about moose behavior, if I remember correctly—when it occurred to me that someone must write these things for a living. From there I quickly realized that science writing would be a great way to fuse my scientific and creative tendencies.
My hope is to write about ecology-related things that I can experience in person: I’d like to travel, make my own observations, and participate in field research. I also plan to integrate illustrations into my writing whenever possible, whether they’re on-the-spot field sketches or finished paintings.
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?
I thought about trying to break into science writing under my own power, but I decided that a graduate program would set me on the right track much more quickly. I didn’t actually consider any straight-up writing programs, maybe because the “science” part of “science writing” felt like my lifeline in an otherwise unfamiliar field.
Which science writing program did you attend? Why did you choose that one? What are your best experiences there?
I’m a student in MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing, class of 2012. I was attracted to the breadth of forms that this program covers, from news stories to features to essays to radio and video documentary. The most fulfilling and difficult project has been my 10,000-word thesis: I’m writing a story about evolution and taxonomy, inspired by the unusual culture of gull-watching. Needless to say, it’ll come with illustrations.
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?
So far I’ve been published through MIT and PloS Blogs. After finishing my coursework this spring, I’ll be heading to Ithaca, NY, to intern as a science writer at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a nonprofit dedicated to conservation through a focus on birds. I’ve been published as a science artist since 2007, when I began illustrating NYC Audubon’s bimonthly publication Urban Audubon. I’ve also created logos and illustrations for the Acadia Birding Festival and other environment-related organizations, in the US and abroad.
Do you write a personal or science blog (URLs)? 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?
My social media presence has been minimal in the past, largely because I have a phobia of getting sucked into spending too much time on the computer. But in the past year I’ve been learning a lot about how to navigate that world, and I’m figuring out how to strike a balance between internet time and real life (no Twitter yet). I’m just getting a new website off the ground, which includes a sketch blog of my daily encounters with animals, plants, and landscapes. I have kept personal and trip blogs in the past.
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?
As mentioned, illustration is a big part of my envisioned career as a science writer. I have recently been getting familiar with video and audio documentary through my graduate program at MIT. And I’ve done a little bit of web design.
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?
Of particular interest to me is the rising importance of images (and audio and video) in today’s web-dominated world. There’s great scope for thinking in multiple dimensions as a science writer, and I’m excited to be able to take advantage of that. It’s hard to predict how things will look in another decade or two, so I think the key is to stay flexible and creative.
Previously in this series:
Secrets of the Universe: Past, Present, FutureX