This is a series of Q&As with new, 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 originally from Old Bethpage, a suburb of Long Island about an hour to the east of New York City. I spent a couple years living in exotic cities like Cleveland and Baltimore. There’s no place like home though, so I made the return trip back to New York in fall 2011 for grad school number two.
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 dad was both a physics and math professor at a local college on Long Island. He was a big influence on why I chose to enter science in the first place. I dabbled in a lot of different sciences throughout high school and college, but it wasn’t until my senior year of college that I finally decided that I was going to specialize in neuroscience.
During graduate school in Baltimore, I started listening to the Nature podcast and This American Life, which led me to the idea of combining science with storytelling. I did a Google search for science, writing, and grad school. That’s when I first uncovered science journalism as a discipline. I knew that this was the chance for me to talk about cool science news to all types of people and hope that readers catch my infectious enthusiasm.
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?
By the time I realized that I wanted to be a science writer, I had spent nearly a decade immersed in a purely academic environment. At this point, it was very difficult for me to figure out what parts of science were considered as “common knowledge.” I didn’t want to use jargon, but on the other hand, I didn’t want to insult readers by bludgeoning them over the head with phrases like “DNA, the building block of life.” Maybe not something that basic, but you get the idea.
In addition, the only type of writing that I had done was for academic circles. A Powerpoint presentation about one’s research objectives is not going to get people excited about science. Rather than figure out the process through trial and error, I thought it’d be better to start from scratch and learn how to write about science for a general audience.
Which science writing program did you attend? Why did you choose that one?
I will soon be graduating from NYU’s Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting program, better known as SHERP. I wanted a program where it didn’t matter that I had no journalism experience (or writing experience, for that matter) before the first day of class. Many of my classmates were in the same boat that I was, so I know I was in good company.
In addition to SHERP’s writing and reporting classes, I also wanted a program that emphasized multimedia education. Since then, I’ve learned how to properly edit video and audio, as well as how to tell stories tailored to those media.
How do you find suitable stories to write about? What are your criteria?
David Kestenbaum from Planet Money told our radio production class a simple formula for a good story. It should fit the following equation: “I want to write a story about X and it is interesting because Y.” Both X and Y shouldn’t be longer than a short phrase or two.
If the Y is something like “because it is the latest research in the field,” then chances are that it’s a good news item, but not a great story. If it’s too long, then it’s a good topic, but it’s still not a great story. Finding the happy medium is what I tend to look for, which is usually equal parts sifting through press releases, scouring the internet, and sitting alone and just thinking out loud.
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?
Over the summer, I worked with Popular Mechanics and learned how to engage web readers with both the stories I wrote and with social media. Right now, I am with Science Friday and am learning how to not only find stories right for the radio show, but also finding the right people to tell them. Both internships have been great learning experiences.
For anyone who’s interested in my work, please check out my webpage at www.jonmchang.com for more details.
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 am a multimedia fiend. I’ve spent the last year and a half doing my best Jad Abrumad and Robert Krulwich impressions on The Doppler Effect, NYU’s science and technology radio show. In addition, I’ve also filmed some short videos, some for class projects and one for Science Friday.
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 don’t have a crystal ball so much as I have a magic 8 ball that constantly reads, “ASK AGAIN LATER.” For now though, I’m predicting that the science media ecosystem will emphasize the individual reporters/scientists/consumers, and instead focus more on the relationships that they foster between one another. Social media is more than just a buzzphrase. It’s a way for writers to engage their audience and figure out how they respond to a story. It’s also a way for writers to cast a wide net and see if they’ve caught any stories.
That seems like a safe enough answer, don’t you think?
You’re welcome! It’s been fun.
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