This is a series of Q&As with young and up-and-coming science, health and environmental writers and reporters. They – at least some of them – 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?
My parents taught me to think rationally and independently at a young age, and I won special awards in math, but I didn’t think about pursuing science until late high school. Senior year, I had a charismatic math teacher who would jump up from his desk and sing “Chain of Fools” whenever we used the “Chain Rule” and a creative biochemistry teacher who wrote plays about DNA transcription. They made me love science.
At the same time, I adored writing and music and kept a journal like my life depended on it. In college, one of my close friends (a top ranked National Slam Poet) and I set up a monthly exploration-poetry date where we’d just walk around town and write about things we’d never seen. I published a few hand-made poetry books and hawked them at rock shows. I also hosted a local music show at the college station WUTK 90.3FM. But, when it came time to choose a major in college, I went the practical route and chose science. Certain job, certain future.
After getting my bachelor’s in Microbiology, I moved to Chicago, and couldn’t find a job in science (go figure.) At the urging of my comic-book-artist friends, I started my own science zine. There’s a big zine culture in Chicago. Most of them are print-only and everyone hand illustrates them like they’re a piece of art. A local musician-turned-journalist saw my zines and suggested I write a science column for his upstart local rag. I said yes, of course! My first article was about Gregory Perelman, the mathematician who refused the Fields Medal in 2006. It was more of a narrative poem, but I loved writing it.
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?
Before USC, I wasn’t well acquainted with the business of being a science journalist and its tradition as being an apprenticeship-style pursuit. In fact, I’d never heard of or knew anyone who described themselves as a “science writer” until I met K.C. Cole in Los Angeles. All my friends were artists.
In winter 2008, I had already been accepted into several different Biochemistry PhD programs but was still considering my options. One night, at an art show, someone gave me K.C.’s book, Universe in a Teacup. I devoured it. The next day, I cold-emailed K.C. to tell her how awesome it was, and when she talked about what it was like to be a science writer, I suddenly thought, “yep, that’s it!” I found a career that combined my love of science and insatiable curiosity with my artistic sensibilities. Sold.
At the time, K.C. had just been approached to head the science concentration of the Specialized Journalism program at USC, and the deadline to apply was 3 months out. I applied, and was accepted. So, I really chose the science writing grad program in opposition to a traditional science PhD program. Plus, what’s better than learning from the very person that got me interested in the profession?
Which science writing program did you attend? Why did you choose that one? What are your best experiences there?
At USC, I learned a lot about what it means to be a journalist today (ethically and practically speaking.) Most of the students in my program were working journalists, returning to school to get more training in their favorite beat. Some were veteran journalists. Some were just starting out. Beats ranged from art to immigration to religion. It made for some great discussions.
My favorite (and probably most humbling) experience at USC was discussing my first articles with K.C. My writing sucked. And then it got better. That was validating. I also enjoyed chatting with my fellow science journalists–we all had such diverse interests; I thought we could have written a monthly publication on our own. We still keep in touch.
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?
In college, I worked in a couple different labs as an undergrad, published my first scientific paper at 19 years old, and did some weird science things on the side like helping a doctor develop a laser diagnostic system.
My early science writing was all in the form of handmade books and zines. I also wrote the forward to my friend’s comics sometimes. I’m not sure how professional this experience is, but it worked for me. My first science article appeared in a local Chicago art paper called The Skeleton News, and I wrote several other articles there. It’s also print-only.
After I joined USC’s master’s program, I started blogging a bit, I wrote for Sandra Tsing Loh’s radio program “Loh Down on Science,” and I started writing a column for the newsletter at the Page Museum (An archaeological site in the middle of a huge city? Nothing better!) Post-graduation, I landed a job as Associate Communications Director at a non-profit startup called Informed by Nature. It’s a catch-all job: I do some writing for the website, program development, and creative development for the company. We’ll be launching in late 2012.
I use my extra time to freelance. Lately, I’ve been writing for New Scientist magazine, Smithsonian.com, WonderHowTo.com, and Huffington Post. I also like to write guests posts at SciAm, The Guardian, and anywhere else that will have me. One of my SciAm guest posts from last year made it into Best Online Science Writing 2012 (formerly Open Laboratory). I’m launching a new science column for Informed by Nature in about 3 months.
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?
Blogging, Twitter, and Facebook have been incredibly helpful for networking, finding stories, and following the work of my colleagues and friends. I used to make social networking a part of my regular working routine, but now I just get on it while I’m in line at the supermarket or waiting for a doctor’s appointment. I also ditched my personal science blog when I got too busy to keep it up. But not before it helped me network and put me in touch with several editors that I still talk to and pitch today. Incredibly useful for getting started.
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’m also an artist. I’ve illustrated my own science zines, shown photographs at galleries, and shown one of my performance pieces at LACMA, a major museum in Los Angeles. I’ve yet to fully incorporate my abilities in visual art into my science writing career, but I do write about art a lot for NewScientist.com.
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’ve only been writing for about 3 or 4 years, so I really don’t know what the journalism industry used to be like. But, I do think that some accounts of past-versus-present tend to overemphasize the cosmetic differences. Yes, we now talk about different types of media and different softwares/technologies for creating and disseminating content. But, readers still like a good quality product from someone they trust. In that way, things haven’t changed all that much. It does seem like a tricky transition period in terms of business models for journalism, though. I would think it’s a good bet to stay in an entrepreneurial mindset. Not such a new thing for journalists either.
Previously in this series:
Kristina Ashley Bjoran
Mary Beth Griggs