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?
I grew up in rural Georgia, in a one-stoplight town, much like a setting for one of Flannery O’Connor’s Southern Gothic stories. Nature nurtured me. In springtime as a youngster, I caught tadpoles, plopped them in a Mason jar of lake water and assigned names (because tadpoles can easily be distinguished). Every night, stars lit up a black sky brighter than the best LED screen money can buy. My father taught me to identify trees in the forest. A blissful place to grow up.
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?
Writing came first. At age 12, I published a newsletter for my neighborhood and had the nerve to charge for subscriptions. The Iowa Young Writers Workshop accepted me into their summer writing program one year before I could legally drive. In high school, I worked for our county’s weekly newspaper. Every Wednesday afternoon, we pasted pages together using hot wax and blueprint paper. Old school, eh?! After high school, Elon University in North Carolina accepted me into its Communications Fellows program. I studied there two years. A knee injury forced me to give up a partial NCAA track-and-field scholarship and I moved back home to attend the University of Georgia.
Science stayed along the peripheries throughout high school and college. A writer writes; a scientist experiments—and never the two shall meet, or so I thought. The passionate science professor who dazzles minds and sparks passions never appeared in my life. By the time I finished my undergraduate studies in journalism, newspapers offered a solid career path. (Ha!) I planned to hustle until my byline appeared in The New York Times. Conrad Fink, a beloved journalism professor, encouraged me toward that goal. As we all know, the cogs of print journalism began to slow considerably in 2007. At that time I worked as a general assignment reporter at a mid-sized daily in Atlanta. I saw the writing on the wall and it read, “Specialize, specialize, specialize.”
Once more, I packed my bags and headed to Athens. My love of nature and insatiable curiosity of how things work led me to study ecosystem ecology in a program founded by Eugene Odum, a world-renown ecologist, at UGA. My master’s of science thesis examines how scientists, by working across disciplines, break down academic silos, and therefore can better communicate ecological and scientific concepts to the public. Halfway through that program, while I kept a 40-hour-a-week job, a thought occurred to me: Hey, I want to write about medicine and health, too. My mother recently retired from a lifetime of nursing. My maternal grandmother also made her living as a registered nurse. I was born with severe asthma and spent many nights as a 3-year-old with a plastic oxygen tent perched over my bed. Personal health quickly became an important concept and remains so to me. The idea of writing stories at the intersections of ecology, health and medicine appealed to me.
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?
One day in 2010, Pat Thomas, who directs the Knight Foundation Health & Medical Journalism graduate program at UGA, made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. She invited me to enroll in her introductory course on public health reporting. This sounded like a good excuse to interview real people dealing with tangible problems, which was something I missed while immersed in my science program. In that course, we covered randomized controlled double-blind studies, internal and external validity, absolute risk and publication bias, and a ton of other must-know medical research terms. No matter how much of a lifelong learner you may be, the structure and rigor offered by a specialized writing program forces you to expand your knowledge by leaps and bounds. Pat wielded powerful lessons with her red pen. Without her editing and teaching, my writing would still be vague and verbose.
Which science writing program did you attend? Why did you choose that one? What are your best experiences there?
Right now one semester remains before the end of my studies in the Health & Medical Journalism graduate program at UGA. Certainly the program has required intense writing and rigorous research using databases like PubMed and the Cochrane Library. But the HMJ curriculum also focuses heavily on multimedia skills. Video is now an integral component of online science communication. We learned to create professional quality videos. If I never knew how to properly film interviews, background images and edit using Final Cut Pro software, then I’d be dead in the competitive waters of science communication. Besides, journalists who stay locked in a video editing lab until midnight are not so unlike the scientists who skip dinner to stay at the bench: both want concrete results to share with the world.
The best parts? Our cohort witnessed the opening of the university’s first medical school in fall 2010. A colleague and I interviewed the medical college dean, which resulted in a video I filmed and edited. During that semester, we logged many hours with the new medical students and I felt quite lucky to observe the goings-on inside a medical school. Along the way, I learned about cell communication and why inflammation helps heal a wound. This past April, I attended the TEDMED conference in Washington, D.C., and shook hands with Jay Walker, who curates the event. Most of all, I appreciate the camaraderie I have with my colleagues in the program, both present and past. We help each other get to the top and such altruism is hard to find.
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?
Earlier this month I completed a yearlong science/medical writing assistantship with the UGA News Service. I interviewed top-tier scientists and wrote news releases about fascinating research on a whole gamut of subjects, including nanoparticle cancer therapy and hypoxia in cells.
Now, in less than one week, I will be the science writing intern at Nature Medicine in New York City for six months. The opportunity to cover cancer biology, cardiovascular research, gene therapy, immunology, and neuroscience, among other subjects, at an academic journal with the top impact factor in its field is beyond thrilling. I may just break out in song right now. I’ll be posting stories on Nature Medicine’s blog, called Spoonful of Medicine, and will also write news briefs and features stories.
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?
I started a blog in 2011 after attending the Science Online conference in Raleigh, N.C. Like the shoe cobbler’s children, though, it has been much neglected. My plan is to incorporate the blog more with my online portfolio. I am a huge fan of social media. I think it allows us to know people we otherwise could never have met and results in a tremendous cross-pollination of ideas. I use Twitter and Facebook to keep up with what my friends had for breakfast that day, but also to know what they are reading, studying, researching, writing about. To a lesser extent I use Google Plus, YouTube and Flickr. I use a professional photo-sharing site called SmugMug. And while I’ve visited plenty of Tumblr and Pinterest sites, I haven’t caught on to those yet.
Social media, as we call it, creates this incredibly rich ecosystem of information and it’s up to each of us, and especially myself, to check links, think critically, research facts that seem out of place or hard to believe. When Gutenberg invented movable type, suddenly the dissemination of information was out of the monks’ hands, and there was much hemming and hawing. The fact is that we’re not going back to the gatekeepers of newspapers and major broadcast companies. Instead, we are training ourselves to think more critically, separate the wheat from the chaff.
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 love working with audio and video, and I’ve done a fair amount of work with video, and less with podcast-only audio, though I’m certified in the Soundtrack Pro editing software and would love to use those skills more often. Photography has been a love of mine since I developed photographs in the darkroom at the local newspaper. Now I carry a Canon 7D with me wherever I can (it weighs about 10 pounds) to shoot still and moving images. I don’t have any experience with coding, web design, or programming, but I’m always keen to learn new skills to present information in engaging, colorful and things-that-make-you-go-hmm sort of ways.
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?
Information collides towards us at such insane rates, on our computers and tablets, and it’s quite different from the days of sitting down with the morning newspaper and contemplating the news of day—which I still make a point to do every day with The Wall Street Journal. We are ourselves becoming conditioned to expect instantaneous responses via phone texts, Facebook comments and Twitter direct messages. This expectation increases the speed of how we perceive time and also information. We are left with an increased amount of information, but less time to process it. One advantage of the old gatekeeper media model was that readers saved time by letting news professionals decide the important facts of the day. I’m not nostalgic for a bygone; history provides us plenty examples of poor editors (Hearst and the Spanish-American War, anyone?). However, in the current science media ecosystem, we have placed the onus of fact-checking on ourselves. I worry about the integrity of information. Computer programmers and code developers may one day soon come up with “truth goggles,” which we can use to verify information on the Internet. But critical thinking skills and strong writing skills should not be sacrificed for the purpose of spreading lots of information through blogs and social media. It’s a balance, like everything up.
I’m concerned that my five-year-old nephew, a professional whiz on the iPad, will grow up without ever experiencing boredom. Long, contemplative moments away from our glowing screens are crucial to our forward progress in creativity, science and writing.
Thank you for having me!
Previously in this series:
Kristina Ashley Bjoran
Mary Beth Griggs