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The SA Incubator

The next generation of science writers and journalists.
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Introducing: Caitlin Kirkwood

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 Caitlin Kirkwood (blog, Twitter).

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

Thank you for this wonderful opportunity and hello everyone! I hail from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania – The City of Champions – and like most Pittsburghers, I bleed black and gold. Here we go Steelers, here we go!

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?

Growing up, science, a.k.a. good old-fashioned fun, was everywhere. The Christmas presents under our family tree contained gyroscopes, ant farms, and books detailing the life cycles of dolphins and snakes. My Dad always had a new project that would send us diving headfirst into creating scaled mobiles of the solar system and building primitive radios out of gum bands (that’s Pittsburghese for rubber bands), TP tubes, and a little copper wire. I even had a short stint as a hamster geneticist in 7th grade when the pet store mistakenly sold me a pregnant “male” hamster. Needless to say that gig didn’t pan out but these early experiences set me up for my professional pursuit of science.

When I entered the University of Pittsburgh’s bioengineering program, my life-long love affair with science exploded – human physiology, basic science, and engineering all conveniently packaged into one neat major! And after emerging starry-eyed on the other side of my bachelor’s degree, I strangely (and looking back perhaps crazily) was hungry for more. With a specific interest in the workings of the brain, I joined the Center for Neuroscience’s PhD program at the University of Pittsburgh where I am currently studying the neurobiological underpinnings of Alzheimer disease and psychosis.

About 3.5 years into my PhD odyssey my passion for science writing surfaced. Perhaps it’s a direct result of an acute case of bench burnout, but once I started writing about the savory bits of neuroscience in a public forum and realized I could reach people across disciplines, I experienced a completely new and rejuvenating sense of fulfillment that was not being totally satisfied by my lab work. Communicating complex ideas about the brain that engage people from a wide range of backgrounds has ignited a fire in me. There is incredible research being done worldwide, people should know about it, and I want to tell these stories.

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?

Yes! This past May I launched my science blog, The Synaptic Scoop. I write about hot off the press, perplexing, useful, and otherwise just plain cool neuroscience research. I want to engage and excite people about the brain!

As far as social media networks go, Twitter is the fast-paced informational exchange behemoth that has been invaluable in connecting me with other science writers and expanding my readership. Before Twitter, only a few close friends and my mom read what I was writing. Thanks Mom! In addition to the shameless self-promotion, I use Twitter to admire and promote the work of other journalists. I’m also on Facebook and Google+ but Twitter is by far my primary platform for spreading the word about science. Come and play in the cyber sandbox with me!

What are your plans for the future?

Have you heard that joke about how many PhD students it takes to screw in a light bulb? The answer is: Only 1, but it takes 9.3 years. Ha-ha… (*Silent weeping*) Finishing up my PhD is at the top of my to-do list – hopefully next spring! And all jokes aside, my graduate training has been a semi-long but tremendous experience that has irrevocably shaped my ability to critically evaluate primary scientific literature, an essential quality for any science writer worth their salt, in my opinion.

In parallel with dissertation completion, I’m working hard at building my writing portfolio. As a newcomer to the science-writing scene I’ve reached out to some great science journalists and the number one piece of advice I’ve received has been “keep writing”. So that is my primary plan of attack – write as much and as often as possible. The Synaptic Scoop serves as my writing laboratory. Writing for a general audience is quite different than writing for other scientists and the process has been a lot like cooking spaghetti; I throw new post ideas at the digital “wall” and see what sticks. Soon I’d like to branch out from my personal blog and start pitching stories. My hope is to one day transform my passion for science, learning, research, and writing into a full-blown career.

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?

A mind-boggling statistic is that only 17% of Americans can name a living scientist. In the age of social media that percentage is absurd but not incomprehensible. My peers and I must work hard to bridge the informational canyon between lab research and the general public. Personally, I believe novel information packaging is the way of the future. Several new storytelling formats including video, podcasts, interactive text, and infographics can be publicized on social media platforms, like Twitter, and aid in changing the way information makes it out into society. Let’s give the people what they need via the most palatable formats available to us today.


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
Kate Prengaman
Nicholas St. Fleur
Dani Grodsky
Cristy Gelling
Shannon Palus
Kyle Hill
Allyson Green
Rebecca Burton
Sedeer el-Showk

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