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The SA Incubator

The SA Incubator


The next generation of science writers and journalists.
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Introducing: Kate Prengaman

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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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.

Today we introduce you to Kate Prengaman (blog, Twitter).

Hello, welcome to The SA Incubator. Let’s start from the beginning: where are you from?

Where I am from is a complicated question these days. I grew up in Ohio, went to the College of William and Mary, and then moved around for years working a variety of research projects as a field biologist in Florida, Alaska, and 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 guess I have been into science as long as I can remember. As a kid, my sister and I ran around in the woods, chasing bugs and picking wildflowers.  We even built a hospital for wounded grasshoppers and crickets.  I was the girl at scout camp who would catch the spiders and carry them outside the tent while everyone else screamed.

My interest in journalism started in high school – I was the editor of the school newspaper and got my first taste of controversy with an infamous letter to the editor of the local paper.  I loved doing journalism, but my favorite classes in high school were the sciences, because I had great science teachers. When I went to college, I knew I wanted to study biology and environmental science. I didn’t abandon journalism entirely – I took a job as the sex columnist for the campus newspaper my freshman year.

The column was a hit and I had a blast interviewing people for tips on losing one’s virginity or writing about the dangers of relying on alcohol to feel comfortable with sexuality. That column actually led me to science writing on the advice of a bio prof who told me that I had a great writing voice and I should consider a career in science writing. I had never realized that such a thing was possible, so it was definitely the moment I felt like my stars aligned.

Why did you decide to attend a journalism program, instead of just starting a blog and hoping to break into the science writing business?

Holding a horny toad in the Mojave Desert. Photo by Carl Howard

Holding a horny toad in the Mojave Desert. Photo by Carl Howard

Well, I spent some lovely years working in research – counting flower buds on rare plants in the Florida scrub, tracking the Mojave Desert’s response to wildfires, and making vegetation maps of national parks in Alaska and across the southwest. I learned a lot about science and got paid to hike outside everyday. I told myself I should start writing, since I told people that I wanted to be a writer, but I was busy hiking and exploring and I never found time to write. I realized that I needed the structure of school to kick me out of my inertia, so I applied to grad programs. Sometimes, when I’ve been staring at my laptop too long, I start wishing that I had never left field work. I certainly miss all the sunshine, but grad school is definitely its own adventure and I’m trying to make the most of it.

Which science writing program did you attend? Why did you choose that one? What are your best experiences there?

I decided to do my masters in journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to work as a research assistant for Deborah Blum, doing background research for her next book. This job opportunity convinced me to come here, and I’ve learned just how much research really goes into writing a book. My program isn’t just for science reporting, my friends are interested in international journalism, social justice journalism, local journalism, and more. I like that we’re all learning how to apply journalistic skills and tools to such diverse issues.

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?

With my friend Joanna at the top of Longs Peak, in Colorado.

With my friend Joanna at the top of Longs Peak, in Colorado.

For almost a year, I’ve been working as a reporting intern at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.  My main focus has been covering the frac sand mining industry that’s booming here in Wisconsin, but I’m reporting on some other environmental stories now too. I discovered a love for investigative journalism- it’s really about thinking like a scientist about reporting.  I’m dipping my toes into freelancing too, and I blog about ecology and environmental science.

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 maps! Making maps used to be a key part of my fieldwork, and when I got to journalism school, I was pleasantly surprised that my map skills were desirable in my new field. I took a couple of classes in the awesome UW cartography program and learned how to make more audience friendly maps and data graphics. At WCIJ I’ve been able to apply these skills to make some really cool graphics to help tell our stories. I’m surprised at how many tech skills I’ve had to pick up in j-school- building websites and making interactive maps were not things I expected to learn, but I’m really glad I did.

What are your plans for the future?

My plans for the future are to figure out what I’m doing next! I graduate in May, so I am job searching, freelancing and applying for fellowships. Wish me luck as I try to navigate my way toward earning a living from my passions for science and investigative and environmental reporting.

Thanks!

No, thank you for having me!

====================

Previously in this series:

Kristina Ashley Bjoran
Emily Eggleston
Erin Podolak
Rachel Nuwer
Hannah Krakauer
Rose Eveleth
Nadia Drake
Kelly Izlar
Jack Scanlan
Francie Diep
Maggie Pingolt
Jessica Gross
Abby McBride
Natalie Wolchover
Jordan Gaines
Audrey Quinn
Douglas Main
Smitha Mundasad
Mary Beth Griggs
Shara Yurkiewicz
Casey Rentz
Akshat Rathi
Kathleen Raven
Penny Sarchet
Amy Shira Teitel
Victoria Charlton
Noby Leong and Tristan O’Brien
Taylor Kubota
Benjamin Plackett
Laura Geggel
Daisy Yuhas
Miriam Kramer
Ashley Taylor
Kate Yandell
Justine Hausheer
Aatish Bhatia
Ashley Tucker
Jessica Men
Kelly Oakes
Lauren Fuge
Catherine Owsik
Marissa Fessenden
Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato
Kelly Poe
Kate Shaw
Meghan Rosen
Jon Tennant
Ashley Braun
Suzi Gage
Michael Grisafe
Jonathan Chang
Alison Schumacher
Alyssa Botelho
Hillary Craddock
Susan Matthews
Lacey Avery
Ilana Yurkiewicz





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