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’m a Toronto native, currently living in sunny Arizona where people make fun of the way I say “about.”
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 fell in love with space when I was seven. I did a project in the second grade about Venus and I was struck by how different the planet was from Earth but that I could also see it in the night sky. It wasn’t long before I had that same feeling of awe when I came across Neil Armstrong walking on the Moon in my kids’ space books. That’s where my love affair with space and spaceflight history began, but I didn’t know what to do with it. I’ve always been artistic so pursuing this interest from a science angle wasn’t the best path. I’ve always been an avid reader, and in high school I started taking writing more seriously. When I started my undergrad, I discovered that History of Science and Technology was a legitimate discipline. With that as my major, fusing writing and space history became part of my daily life. I knew then that I wanted to write about space, I just didn’t know how. I took a year off after graduating and dabbled in communications thinking that that might be the best way forward but it wasn’t. Then I went back for a Masters but that wasn’t right either. That middle-ground where academically sound research fuels accessible history of space and science writing eluded me. I decided not to go back to school after finishing my MA and try a different approach.
Did you decide to attend a specialized science writing program or just start a blog and hoping to break into the science writing business?
I jumped in with a blog and put myself and my work out there. Vintage Space started out almost like a training exercise; it was a way for me to break my academic writing habits and find my voice as a general science writer. Once I got into the swing of it, things started moving. I started Vintage Space mid November 2010 and by January 2011 my blog was in syndication on a couple of space sites and I’d been approached to do an interview on a podcast. It was enough momentum so soon after starting that I decided to stick with my self-guided path and see where it led.
What professional experience you have had so far – publications, internships, jobs? What is your current job?
I started writing for Motherboard last May and did some print work last summer, and three posts for Scientific American’s Guest Blog in the fall. Then in November I joined the team at Universe Today, which gave me the fantastic chance to reach a whole new, and much larger, space-inclined audience. Earlier this year I joined Discovery News Space and AmericaSpace. It’s been amazing to write for such high-quality outlets. My website has links to all my online work.
Do you write a personal or science blog?
Vintage Space is a space history blog, though I do post occasional personal updates like career changes and exciting developments. It’s sort of a testing ground of ideas. I’m always thinking about bigger projects, so the articles on Vintage Space come from researching little pieces – a specific story about a mission, for example, that is part of a bigger story. It’s also an ongoing learning experience as I find out what people are interested in and what they just don’t care to read about.
How much do you use social media networks to learn and to connect?
A lot. Google+ has quickly become my favourite site for sharing and connecting with, and learning from, others with the same interests. I’ve met some fascinating people on that site I would never have come across normally. On Facebook I use my personal account and my Vintage Space to connect with people and post loads of stuff about space history. I’m slowly getting better at using Twitter and taking advantage of it’s huge usefulness as a networking platform. By Science Online 2013 I hope to be a Twitter pro!
Apart from writing, do you also do other aspects of science communication?
I dabble. I’m a frequent contributor to the podcast Spaceflight Observer and I recently joined in on the Weekly Space Hangouts on Google+. Both took some getting used to. Once I got over my nerves I got more comfortable – it was hard speaking without editing first. I’d eventually like to start doing some kind of video presentation of my own space history content. I think it would translate well to a visual medium, I just haven’t figure out exactly how yet.
Do you think it’s important for science writers to mingle with other forms of science communication tools today?
Yes, though it might depend on what you want from your career. By sticking to one medium you risk limiting your reach. Not everyone’s a reader; some people are more visual while others are auditory. If you’ve got something to share and teach people about, try to reach all kinds of learners.
Can you briefly give insight on your writing process? Once you get a topic you’d want to write about, how do you proceed from there?
My process is a little backwards. I read a lot of astronaut biographies and autobiographies and watch a lot of documentaries of the early space age. Something usually catches my attention, whether it’s a detail or story I know but haven’t thought about it a while or something I haven’t heard before. That becomes the impetus for an article. I go to official sources like mission reports and program chronologies to substantiate the personal recollections with verifiable facts. I build my narrative from there. I also always have a dictionary and thesaurus on hand. Finding the right words is a big part of my process.
Which article of yours is your favorite and why?
The article I wrote about John Glenn for SciAm’s Gust Blog stands out as a favourite. I love good narrative history that weaves background details in with flashbacks instead of a boring chronological progression. That article was the first time I really felt like I nailed that approach. Some other favourites were just fun to research, like the one on Apollo 18. Digging into the crazy secret Moon mission theories was a lot of fun!
What are your plans for the future?
Books. I’ve got a proposal together and I’m actively seeking representation for my first book. The whole process has been interesting and often frustrating, but an overall incredible learning experience. I’ve got three other book ideas in my head that I’m excited to tackle once this first one gets rolling.
Previously in this series: