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’m from Pasadena, California (part of the Los Angeles area) and lived there all my life until I went to college in a very different place: Williamstown, Massachusetts. Williamstown has a population of around 8,000 and is in the northern Berkshires. In California, I spent a lot of time going to movies, running in canyons and exploring the city’s public transit. In Williamstown, activities included snowshoe racing, learning to make cheese and occasionally daydreaming about hopping freight trains to go on adventures outside the town’s limits. One thing the places share: beautiful mountains.
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 line for the last year has been that I first decided to be a science writer after graduating from college with degrees in biology and English. I recently discovered proof to the contrary. In an old journal from freshman year of college, under the heading “Possible Future Ambitions,” I apparently wrote, “Science writing would be really fun.”
Around that time, I was starting to realize that biology was more than cut-and-dried facts, and that people around the country were experimenting and floundering about trying to figure it out. Writing and reading have always been most important to me, but I found myself taking biology class after biology class. In retrospect, I figured out pretty early on that what I loved most was stories, but it took me a little longer to figure out the kinds of stories I wanted to tell.
How do you find suitable stories to write about? What are your criteria?
I’ve gotten a few story ideas from current press releases, journal articles and events, but I’ve also found stories just by thinking of an interesting question and trying to answer it or by trying to researching one story idea and coming up with another. Good signs along the way: 1) When my questions get a rise out of my sources. 2) When I find myself enthusiastically relaying facts from my story to people I barely know.
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?
If I had been able to fool anyone (including myself) into thinking I actually wanted to be a biologist, I may have enjoyed working in a lab and doing some science writing on the side following graduation. Unfortunately, I became aware of my non-scientific ambitions a little too early. The thing to do seemed to be to pursue science journalism wholeheartedly, and school was a first step. I chose a science journalism program as opposed to a general journalism program because I thought I’d meet people with interests closer to my own and get some specific insights into the market for what I wanted to do.
Which science writing program did you attend? Why did you choose that one? What are your best experiences there?
I am still in the midst of the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program (SHERP) at New York University. I chose SHERP because it was in New York City and because of program head Dan Fagin’s insidious methods of luring people in. He encouraged me to go to SHERP classes for three days, and I met amazing guest speakers, sat through an editorial crisis related to our online news site Scienceline and ate Jamaican food. By the end of that, I was already a SHERPie.
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?
I’m interning this summer for the New York Times science desk. I get to write and do multimedia projects on health and the environment. The most fun piece I’ve done so far was a video for the Green Blog on the opening of the Wild Bird Fund, a wildlife rehabilitation center on the Upper West Side. My fellow intern and I spent three hours interviewing people and hanging out while blue jays and grackles landed on our heads and an endless stream of baby pigeons came through the door.
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 never expected I would like making videos, but I’ve done two of them in the last month and loved it. I’ve contributed to WNYU’s science radio show, The Doppler Effect. And finally, my whole class is taking a class this summer on making infographics.
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 find it exciting and terrifying that the job I’m pursuing is so different than it was 20 years ago when people first started asking what I wanted to be when I grew up. I see people making such fun and creative things, like animations about beer, mesmerizing maps and (in Amy Harmon’s case) epic articles about autism featuring images and sounds that pop out of words. I also am a fan of journalism being a job that people can get paid for, and I want that to continue to be the case. I think it’s our job to be relentlessly optimistic and open-minded about how to do journalism.
Thank you, Bora!
Previously in this series:
Kristina Ashley Bjoran
Mary Beth Griggs
Amy Shira Teitel
Noby Leong and Tristan O’Brien
Secrets of the Universe: Past, Present, FutureX