This is a series of Q&As with young and up-and-coming science, health and environmental writers and reporters. They 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 Kelly Oakes (Twitter).
Kelly is a young freelance science writer based in London, UK. She already has lots of experience in the field: she was the science editor of Imperial College’s student newspaper, has recently interned at BBC Future and travelled to the Lindau Meetings as an official blogger. She has also being shortlisted two years running for the Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize. Kelly regularly blogs about astrophysics and particle physics here at Scientific American on her blog, Basic Space.
Kelly is already doing great things and is definitely one to look for in the future. I’m excited that she’s agreed to answer a few questions about her budding career as a science writer.
Hello and welcome to The SA Incubator. First off, tell us why you got into science writing?
As a kid I never really knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. But I was always interested in science (see the photo of me collecting fossils on a beach when I was very little below). I especially liked astronomy, and eventually I ended up on a physics degree at Imperial College London,UK.
One class we had to take in first year was professional skills. It included things like presentations and writing a CV, but the bit I remember was when we had to take a scientific journal paper and write it up as a popular article. I did well at it and thought, hey, maybe this is something I could make a career out of… It took a couple more years until I set up my blog and started writing about science for the student newspaper, but I’d point to that class as the start of my interest in science writing.
You career appears to have followed a well-structured progression: you were a science editor of a student-run university publication, you started blogging with Scientific American, then you were an editorial intern at BBC Future, and you’re now a freelance science writer. How has your experience been so far?
It sounds like a logical progression when you put it like that, but in reality I feel like everything has happened all at once lately. I only just finished my run as science editor at Imperial’s student newspaper when term ended in June, after over a year in the job. That taught me a lot about how to spot a good story and allowed me to spread my wings beyond physics. Blogging at Scientific American has been amazing. It was a challenge to go from feeling like I was just writing for myself to hitting publish and knowing that there would actually be people reading what I’d written. I don’t feel like I’ve quite got to where I want to be with the blog yet, but blogs are supposed to be more like a work-in-progress, right? My favourite thing about blogging is that it gives me an excuse to keep up with the bits of physics that really interest me, even though I’m no longer studying it.
I was an intern at BBC Future part-time earlier this year, before it launched. That was a really good experience and I learnt a lot in the short time I was there. It can be hard to appreciate all the work that goes into a website like that until you see it first hand. And I started freelancing around the same time, mainly for BBC Focus magazine with a couple of other pieces here and there. And of course I’ve been studying for my masters in science communication the whole time too. So the last year has been really busy for me – in a good way!
As you’ve mentioned, before opting for a Masters in Science Communication, you did a Masters in Physics. How is this impacting your writing career?
My undergraduate degree was four years long, as opposed to the more typical three in the UK. In the fourth year we undertook an original research project and dissertation to earn our masters. My project was in particle physics, trying to isolate a rare decay of a particular type of subatomic particle (called a B meson) in data from the LHCb detector at CERN. Some aspects of the decay could give us a glimpse at what physics might look like beyond the Standard Model of particle physics, as well as other cool stuff like why there is more matter than antimatter in the universe. I still have a soft spot for the topic and keep up with it, so you could say it has influenced me that way. It also means its easier for me to watch stuff like the Higgs announcement from CERN and know what’s going on – I know my way around a particle physics histogram pretty well now, and talk of branching ratios and decay channels doesn’t faze me.
You write primarily about astrophysics and particle physics and I think it’s fair to say that you’re enthralled by this branch of science. Why the fascination? Where does it stem from?
Astronomy is probably the most accessible branch of physics – all you need to do is look up to see stars. If you’re anything like me that triggers enough questions to keep you interested long enough to get through the basics of mechanics and electromagnetism and quantum mechanics so that you can finally get to the really interesting stuff that comes in the last couple of years of a degree. By the time I was in my lectures for cosmology and advanced particle physics I’d basically been waiting my whole life to get down to that fundamental level. But you don’t need all that background to be able to grasp some of the cool aspects of the subject. Physics is essentially trying to answer the most fundamental questions about the universe: where did it come from and where is it going? I don’t see why anyone wouldn’t be interested in that. Of course, I know as a science writer it’s my job to make them interested in the particular topic that I’m writing about at a given moment, but I think most people want answers to those big questions.
Continuing along the physics theme, with the very plausible discovery of the Higgs Boson a few weeks ago, science sections have been buzzing with more physics than usual. What was your impression on the media’s coverage of CERN’s announcement?
The sheer amount of coverage has been great. Because I was in Lindau when the discovery was announced I haven’t followed it as closely as I would have done otherwise, but from what I can tell it’s all been pretty good. I’ve especially enjoyed seeing people coming up with new analogies to explain what the Higgs does. The only thing I would say from speaking to people outside of physics is that everyone seems to get that the Higgs is important, but not many people seem to know exactly what it is. Which is completely understandable! I mean, it’s not like its something you can see or touch, and it’s not like its discovery is going to change our everyday lives in any immediately noticeable way so there’s no reason why anyone should need to know what it is. But I feel like the media, and I’m including myself in that, could maybe do a better job at explaining the basics. One questions I’ve heard from people who don’t know a lot of physics is, what is a boson? We throw around the phrase Higgs boson, but how many people know that the Higgs is not the only boson, or what bosons as a class of fundamental particles do? I know it’s hard to get this stuff into a short news article – not many people want to wade through paragraphs of background, they just want to new and exciting thing right away. I always try to err on the side of presuming my audience knows absolutely nothing about a subject, but that they are capable of understanding it, and work from there. But it’s a difficult thing to get right.
You were in Lindau for the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting. How effective do you think it is to connect young researchers with their vastly more experienced peers?
As I understand it that’s the main aim of Lindau and I think it does a good job of it. The parts of the meeting that do that best are, from what I’ve heard of them, the afternoon discussion sessions with one Nobel laureate and a small-ish number of young researchers. Members of the press, including the official blog team, are not allowed into those discussions, so I haven’t witnessed one first hand. But I guess that’s why they are so good, as the Nobel laureates are perhaps less worried about what they say than they are in the morning sessions when we’re out with our laptops and dictaphones recording their every word.
I also think the meeting is good at connecting young researchers with each other, and letting them keep up with other developments in, for example, physics, that might not be part of their everyday lab work.
Which articles of yours do you like the most and why?
One of my favourite topics at the moment is supernovae – dying stars that explode – and I wrote a blog post called “Stars that go out with a bang” in December that got picked up for the print version of Scientific American about a particular type of dying star called a type 1a supernova. These ones are special because they can be used as “standard candles” in the universe, so astronomers use them to measure distances. In fact, it was with measurements of type 1a supernovae that astronomers discovered that the expansion of the universe was accelerating, caused by something we call dark energy but really know very little about.
A different type of supernova was the subject of probably my favourite post at my blog, “We’re cosmic dust but you’re everything to me”. That’s a lyric from a Jarvis Cocker song and I’d been waiting for the right moment to use it in a post. Then along came a story about how a supernova that exploded in 1987 (as we see it from Earth) could help explain lots of extra cosmic dust in the early universe and it seemed to fit. That post was one of my most popular in terms of page views.. I like to think, in a world of SEO and keyword-rich headlines, that it was because the title stood out as something a little different – but I could have just got lucky.
Finally, the feature I wrote for BBC Future about predicting space weather (this link will work from the UK) after my placement there was a big learning curve. So in that respect that one was great to write and I’m proud of the finished product too. And it’s a good example of when something in space can directly affect us here on Earth – especially with the solar maximum due next year.
Finally, what are your plans for the future? Do you intend to stay in science journalism?
I’d like to stay in science journalism if it will have me! In the short term, I’m about to start a placement at New Scientist magazine and after that placement I’ll be finishing up my science communication masters dissertation which is on science blogging. After that, we’ll just have to wait and see where I end up...
Previously in this series: