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 was born and raised in Bethesda, MD; I’m one of those people that lived in the same house until I went off to college. I made up for that later in life by working in Belize, Panama, and Kenya, and now I live in Southern Nevada.
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 hate to be cliché, but unfortunately, it’s true: I spent my entire childhood wanting to study animals when I grew up. After I did my undergraduate thesis at Amherst College on hummingbird behavior, I spent a few years in the field working as a research assistant, studying tree frogs and fringe-lipped bats. I seem to have a strange affection for underappreciated animals, since I followed the frog and bat research with my Ph.D. work on the social behavior of spotted hyenas in Kenya through Michigan State University.
Although I loved being in the field and observing animals, I realized partway through my dissertation that I didn’t really enjoy designing and conducting my own research. By then, I had gotten interested in dispelling some of the common myths about hyenas, since they really are misunderstood creatures. I started blogging about hyenas and about my life in the field in Kenya, and learned that I loved writing about the natural world, explaining how researchers actually do science, and trying to convey why it is so important to understand science in today’s world.
Why did you decide to try breaking into the science writing business without attending a specialized science writing program?
By the time I realized I wanted to go into science writing, I was already three years into a Ph.D. program in zoology. I decided to finish my dissertation, since I knew that a background in research would help me write about science. I think it’s so important that science writers understand how the scientific process works, what some of the major frustrations and limitations of research are, and how to interpret data and results. It really does a disservice to the reader when reporters write about a study straight from the press release, or can’t think critically about the research. Don’t get me wrong: there are a lot of incredible science writers with no formal background in science, but they must work so hard to understand the ins-and-outs of scientific research.
Of course, on the flip side, I’ve never had any real training in journalism, and there’s been a big learning curve for me in terms of learning how to write. I was so lucky that John Timmer at Ars Technica was willing to take me in and give me a chance to start writing; now, I’ve been contributing to the science section at Ars for nearly three years. I’ve learned so much about writing along the way, but a lot of it has been trial by fire. Ars readers are a well-educated and quirky bunch, and writing for them has made me very conscious of what readers want to know about a subject. I was also fortunate enough to attend this year’s Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop, where I got to play around with narrative, structure, and interviews. I’m so grateful to have gotten instruction and feedback from several great mentors, even without attending a specialized writing program.
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 do a lot of photography, and I play around with videography a bit as well. I think that it’s very helpful to take a multimedia approach when it comes to science, since so many people are under the assumption that science is dry and boring. Images can be compelling in a way that words aren’t, and I think it’s part of our job as communicators to use all the tools in our toolbox to get people excited about science.
I’ve also learned that photos and video are useful devices to help explain how research works. When I talk to people about my dissertation work, it is great to be able to use pictures to demonstrate how we identified individual hyenas, or to show a video to illustrate a particular behavior. I think the same is true for other areas of science, since many readers never have worked in a lab or in the field. Illustrating how nuclear fission works, or showing a photo of a newly-identified beetle can help readers understand what scientists are actually doing. Anything we can do to improve scientific literacy or knowledge of the scientific process is a step in the right direction.
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?
It’s a very exciting time to be joining the science writing community. Because traditional print journalism isn’t dominating the field like it used to, people are looking to other sources of science information. Blogging, multimedia, online publications, and social media offer great opportunities for those of us that are just entering the field to have our voices heard. Young science writers (as well as those that have been around longer) now have all these incredible niches in which they can make their mark, and the science writing world has become an incredibly diverse and creative community.
In terms of the political and economic climate, it’s also a really important time to be involved in communicating science to nonscientists. Funding for science and the environment – including basic research, NASA, and even the National Park Service – is disappearing, and both evolution and climate change remain controversial, despite overwhelming evidence. We not only need to provide content for people who are interested in science, we also need to reach out to those that don’t think science matters, and to those that distrust science. To me, that’s one of the biggest challenges that the science writing community is facing right now.
Thanks so much!
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