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?
Hello. I was born in London, England, and moved to a cattle ranch outside of Blanco, Texas, during elementary school. So, I am from two places that could not be more different!
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 am very sciencey by nature, while everyone else in my family is very literary by nature, and so I think inside and outside forces opposed and eventually balanced out, shaping me as a person. Growing up, I was encouraged to do a lot of reading and creative writing, but I always planned to be a scientist.
For many years, I would have told you that there was a 100 percent chance I would be a tiger zoologist when I grew up, but then, in early high school, Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” abruptly shifted my focus to physics. I studied physics at Tufts University, where I was heavily involved in nonlinear optics research, and then, after a brief stint as an organic farmer, I started the physics Ph.D. program at Berkeley.
I guess I had swung too far in one direction, though, because early in my graduate school career, I suddenly felt myself being yanked back. I realized that academia wasn’t right for me. I loved science, but absolutely had to combine it with my love for constructing interesting sentences, for putting the significance of a new finding into words, and for explaining sciencey things to literary people, like my family.
Did you attend a specialized science/health/environmental writing program, a generalized journalism or writing program, or just start a blog and hoping to break into the science writing business?
I just started writing and hoped for the best, and it worked. When I dropped out of physics grad school to work toward becoming a writer, I started a blog, called Facto Diem, to which I posted one article each day about a surprising and little known science fact. I tutored students of undergraduate physics on the side, and that earned me just enough to get by as I focused on blogging. Links to my articles from The Daily Dish, Cosmic Variance and elsewhere helped me get exposure, but the best part of blogging was producing hundreds of ready-made writing samples that I used when applying for internships and freelance jobs.
It seems to me that even many tech-savvy people have traces of the false impression that you must possess some sort of authority to have a blog — that it is a semi-official publication, and you must be qualified to write for it. If the blog is good, and people are sharing and commenting on your posts, that obviously adds to the impression tremendously, and it makes blogging a powerful point of entry into professional writing.
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?
Early on in my career, I freelanced for Make magazine and SEED. Next, I did an internship with Science Illustrated magazine, which was essentially a joint internship with Popular Science, which is owned by the same company. I also freelanced for PopSci.com, and wrote for them what may be the most heavyweight article I’ve written thus far in my career.
After the internship, I got a job at TechMediaNetwork, as a staff writer for the science website Life’s Little Mysteries. I have several beats, from debunking false paranormal claims and fake YouTube videos, to answering common science questions people have, to covering cool or weird new research findings. My articles are syndicated at Yahoo News and MSNBC, and sometimes other websites, such as SciAm.
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?
The aforementioned Facto Diem still exists, and all the posts were evergreens (i.e. always relevant rather than newsy), so interested parties should feel free to check them out. However, alas, I no longer update it. I use Twitter to promote my articles and good reads from around the Web, as well as to stay up to the minute on science news. (I keep my follow count low so that news on my feed is, in fact, still measurable in minutes rather than seconds.)
I regularly engage with readers on the Life’s Little Mysteries Facebook page, where I post stories, ask and answer questions, and ask for story suggestions, and this helps a lot in figuring out what people are actually interested in reading about. However, I don’t use Google Plus, Tumblr or any of the other networks; I don’t think I can handle as many of them as your average 25-year-old New Yorker. Ultimately I use social networks to keep up with the times and share my articles, but for me it’s very important to concentrate on writing for long stretches of time and not be distracted by all the short strings of words vying for my attention.
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 have helped create several short videos for Life’s Little Mysteries, and I love to spice up stories with ridiculous photoshop jobs. I also frequently create image albums. As for other forms of media, I’ve done a few radio and TV interviews. Though I love to draw, I’ve yet to integrate the skill into my work. I plan to do so someday, with inspiration from ViHart, among others.
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?
Despite the notorious thinning and/or disappearance of newspaper science sections, I think the science media ecosystem is the liveliest its ever been. There’s bountiful coverage aimed at every level of expertise: technical posts on the latest dark matter paper at Cosmic Variance (with a vigorous debate among physicists going on in the comments section), LiveScience articles aimed at lay readers with a genuine science interest, right on down to articles in the Daily Mail’s science section aimed to entertain and rile, and fringe blogs cherry-picking facts in an effort to convert everyone to some conspiracy theory or other.
However, with all that content out there, the challenge is figuring out how to help readers know the difference. Distrust of scientists and fear of global cataclysm are both on the rise, and that’s partly attributable to how much scary and conflicting information there is on the Internet. In my opinion, the best way to earn readers’ trust is to slow down a bit: to spend more time learning the science we’re explaining in our articles and write more in-depth (but still accessible) pieces.
We must do enough background research on the subject at hand to grasp the context of a new finding, and, if it’s controversial, learn enough to form an educated opinion about which side of the argument carries more weight, and deserves to be given the bulk of the article’s focus. Failing to do so (and, as a result, giving undue weight to minority ideas) often leaves readers not knowing what to believe. They also get the impression that science is chaos, and thus, useless to them.
In short, writing more thoughtful and researched articles (even if that means writing fewer articles) will better serve the public, and I hope we and more of the media outlets we write for will move in that direction. There is some evidence that quality wins over quantity in generating Web traffic, too, so there may not be any tradeoff with slowing down a little. For example, in February, Salon.com reported that a 33 percent decrease in article count in the preceding few months correlated with a 40 percent increase in traffic on the site. People don’t want to read 10 light articles about the same thing; they want to read an article that gives the full picture, teaches them what has led scientists to think what they think and why it matters.
Thank you, too!
Previously in this series:
Secrets of the Universe: Past, Present, FutureX