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 and welcome to The SA Incubator. To start off, where are you from?
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?
Well, I started off my time at Cornell strictly as a biology-premed student, bent on taking only the necessary courses for med school. But my closed mindset opened after a natural disaster occurred winter break of my freshman year — the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that struck Haiti, the country where my parents were born. Every day on the news I saw medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta report on the devastation, and as sad as it was to watch, I quickly became captivated by the way he combined medicine with media to convey the gravity of the situation. I decided then that I wanted to expand upon my undergraduate interests in science and medicine by learning about journalism, in hopes that I could be like Sanjay Gupta one day. So when classes resumed I enrolled in my first communication course on science, environmental and health reporting.
Though I originally took the course to learn about medical reporting, the class got me hooked on taking complex science news and sharing those stories with a general audience. By the time the semester was done I was eager to learn more about journalism.
So that summer I signed up for a science writing class taught by famed science writer Carl Zimmer at the Cornell-affiliated Shoals Marine Lab, off the coast of Maine. As a part of the class, we spent our days following marine biologists and island ecologists on hagfishing trips and bird-banding brigades, and then wrote articles about our adventures at night. That course was a tough, week-long science writing bootcamp that catapulted me into an undergraduate career chasing science stories for the student newspaper.
Since then I’ve covered diverse science disciplines from solar physics and multi-dimensional mathematics, to plant pathology and environmental activism as a student reporter for The Cornell Daily Sun.
What professional experience have you had so far—publications, internships, jobs? Feel free to include a bunch of links here! What is your current job?
I’m currently the outgoing editor for The Sun’s weekly science section. During my year as head of the science desk, the section has covered cool on-campus research like an engineering team’s work with temporal cloaking, or making moments in time seem invisible, as well as the once-in-a-decade blooming of a titan arum, also known as the rare “corpse plant.” And yes, it did smell horrendous — a mix of cabbage gone bad and rotting fish.
But I got the chance to report on science at the professional level this past summer when I had the amazing opportunity to intern at Science as the AAAS Minority Science Writing Intern. I came to Science at an exciting time — during a summer that saw the announcement of the Higgs Boson discovery followed by the successful landing of the Curiosity Mars Rover. And though I didn’t get to cover those high-profile science stories, I did get to watch the pros tackle them with hard-hitting reporting and style.
The majority of the stories I wrote fell under the “creature feature” beat. That means I got to report on exciting new animal research, such as the biomechanics behind the brown-tree snake’s gap-bridging abilities and the unfortunate consequences of noisy housefly sex in a bat-filled cave. I sought out these “gee whiz” science stories ever since successfully making my first pitch for an article on a carnivorous pitcher plant that uses raindrops to launch unsuspecting insects hiding below its lid into an awaiting acid bath.
Following my summer at Science, I got to attend two major science conferences as a student journalism travel grant recipient. The first was in New Orleans for Neuroscience 2012 where I shadowed Science News neuroscience writer Laura Sanders. Then more recently I was at the AAAS Conference in Boston were I met nine other very talented young science writers from across the country and got to cover a symposium on whale evolution and wrote a piece on the blue whale’s impressive aquatic acrobatics.
Which story of yours do you like best?
That would have to be this story I wrote about where people flee after disaster strikes. The researchers analyzed cell phone data following the 2010 Haiti Earthquake to track down where residents escaping Port-au-Prince went following their exodus from the capital. Through my reporting I heard personal stories about people in Haiti that reflected the results that the researchers had found. It was a very humbling experience to write an article about the same event that had set off my path towards science journalism just a few short years before.
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?
At Science I recorded a podcast about Neanderthal extinction theories and artificial jellyfish, and have wanted to do another one ever since. Right now I’m currently working on integrating more multimedia into The Sun’s science agenda. Currently I’ve done the reporting and directing for a few short science films such as this one on the Cornell NYC Tech Campus and this one about a C.U. vet student’s animal activism efforts. Now that I’m done with my editorial position, I’m looking to shoot/produce/edit my own science videos for The Sun, like this one about a biology-inspired student project team called iGem.
I hope to go even further with the science multimedia. After attending ScienceOnline 2013 and meeting online science news personalities like Talk Nerdy to Me’s Cara Santa Maria and Dr. Carin Bondar from Wild Sex and ScienceAlert, I’ve had an itch to start making my own weekly videos that look at a roundup of science news at Cornell.
Do you write a personal or science blog ? 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?
Right now Facebook is my main social media platform for broadcasting science news. Throughout the day I tend to post little science “pick-me ups” to give my friends something interesting to read and ponder while they’re escaping their studies browsing Facebook. I’ve also taken to Twitter (@SciFleur — a pun on my last name) and love the rush of live-tweeting science conferences.
I have a portfolio site with an accompanying blog, Stardust; Slightly Used, that I’ve been hesitant to start up. But after attending ScienceOnline and talking with blogging extraordinaires like Bora and Ed Yong I’ve gained some great insight into the world of science blogs. So now, with the proper motivation, some ideas in the pipeline, and interviews already taped on my recorder I’ll be starting my science blog soon — so stay tuned!
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?
Over the past few months I’ve had the good fortune to be able to attend a number of different science journalism conferences, and through these trips I’ve met with many science writers – some seasoned professionals and others just breaking into the field from grad programs or undergrad. I’ve learned from talking to people across the science communication spectrum that science journalism is changing, and has been for a while. For example, Ivan Oransky gave a presentation at AAAS that showed in 1989 there were over 95 newspapers with science sections, and in 2012 that number had dwindled to 19.
But in its place new tools like blogs, social media and data visualizations have emerged to help inform the public. And in the midst of all this change there is a new generation of science communicators ready to get their messages out. I’ve been lucky enough to have met a good number of them and I can say that the youngins are a talented and driven bunch. The future of science communication will be different, yes, but not lost. As long as there are scientifically curious people out there, they will find ways to share their stories.
My good sir, thank you!
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