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, welcome to The SA Incubator. Let’s start from the beginning: where are you originally from?
I grew up about 20 miles east of Atlanta, in a small house that looks like a log cabin, nestled between a stand of hardwood trees and the banks of the Yellow River. We had 13 wooded acres, so I had plenty of space to wander with our six cats.
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 was always attracted to writing, but my love for nature and curiosity about how the earth came to be led me to study science. I still collect rocks, seashells and acorns, which I display on my bookshelves next to photographs and books. My curiosity led me to the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences at Auburn University in Alabama. There, the backcountry woods often served as our classrooms, where I studied land management, forest biology and policy. I interned with a professor who studied tree physiology. I spent most of that time in a basement lab, sifting through bags and bags of soil in search of discovering tiny roots. This tedious task was rewarded when I was asked to join the team for nearly a month of field research in Maui, Hawaii. I liked working in serene forests but I often assigned myself with the writing portion of our group projects. While studying abroad in Santiago and Valdivia, Chile, I visited forest industry operations that included public relations and public affairs and saw other writing opportunities as well. It hit me that I could combine what I wanted to do (write) with what I already studied (science).
Why did you decide to attend a specialized science/health/environmental writing program instead of a generalized journalism or writing program, or just starting a blog and hoping to break into the science writing business?
My initial goal for attending graduate school was to become a better writer, someone who could tell stories and convey facts more like a journalist and less like a scientist. I also wanted to learn more about multimedia production and the media industry and knew I needed a mentor. The University of Georgia’s (UGA) Health and Medical Journalism (HMJ) graduate program has taught me far more than I could have taught myself. In my very first journalism class I wrote a profile, chronicled a town meeting and published stories that required me to interview random strangers on the street. Assignments like this have drawn me far out of my comfort zone, which can be difficult to do without a push. Pat Thomas, Knight Chair in Health and Medical Journalism, keeps the courses challenging and rigorous and takes time to edit every story in great detail – a great way for us to learn. Like my forestry training, this specialized journalism program has once again made the outdoors my classroom.
Which science writing program did you attend? Why did you choose that one? What are your best experiences there?
I knew I wanted to take science courses while learning how to write about science. At first I thought the HMJ graduate program might be too narrowly focused on what I thought of as health, and not broad enough to include my interests in the environment. However, the program embraces the one health concept, and we can design our own menu of science courses drawn from many different disciplines. I’m now in my final semester of graduate school. Looking back it’s clear that some of the highlights include scientists and media experts who’ve come to our journalism classes and to campus wide events.
The HMJ program invites researchers, physicians and award-winning writers/producers to work with us during class. We’ve had Pulitzer jurors and Emmy winners edit our stories and videos, a truly rare opportunity. The UGA campus also hosts workshops, movies and guest lectures from leading experts on just about every subject. My absolute favorite was a visit from National Geographic photographer Mattius Klum, who showed us how he uses photography to tell stories about conservation. I’ve also traveled from coast-to-coast to participate in national scientific conferences and professional meetings. But the most fantastic thing about the program is the fellowship among the students. As my colleague Kathleen Raven said, past and present HMJers help each other out and it’s great to be a part of such a knowledgeable and supportive network.
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?
Before starting graduate school, I spent a year co-coordinating Rivers Alive, a Georgia Department of Natural Resources program that supports volunteers cleaning up waterways all over the state. I also participated in outreach programs like conducting workshops, staffing event booths and teaching water conservation principles to the public.
Since coming to UGA in fall 2011, I’ve been a research assistant with Georgia Sea Grant and UGA Marine Extension Service, which create research, outreach and education programs focused on the Georgia coast. I function as a communication specialist, which means I’ve had the chance to interview everyone from research scientists to shellfish farmers, and I’ve written and pitched stories to a range of media organizations. I also manage Georgia Sea Grant’s social media presence and generate web content. I’ve learned so much from the Sea Grant team, and their mission hits close to home. My mother is a seventh generation Floridian and her love for the ocean has been passed down to me, so I love being part of an organization that encourages better stewardship of precious coastal and watershed resources.
Do you write a personal or science blog (URLs)? 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?
This past fall I met Scientific American blogger Jennifer Frazer of The Artful Amoeba at the National Association of Science Writers conference in Raleigh, NC. Her advice about blogging has stuck with me: blog about topics that are passionately interesting to you, as well as something you know something about and want to explore further. I have given this a lot of thought and recently started a blog about different animals. The posts will be presented in alphabetical order, hence the name WildlifeABC. I have tried a few blogs in my day but I’m hoping this one is a keeper!
I rely heavily on social media to connect with friends, family and colleagues. However, I use the various platforms in different ways. As a Facebook user since its inception, I try to keep it my own personal space. Twitter is me and the world. I use Twitter to promote my work, as well as work by colleagues and friends and random tidbits I find interesting. I also have LinkedIn, Google Plus, Tumblr, Pinterest and YouTube accounts, which are also open to the world but I’m not yet using them to their full potential. It takes time to understand and cultivate social media use in ways that represent me and act as extensions of my identity. Sometimes I find it difficult to share things via social media because I imagine what I say falling into a huge black hole, and never knowing where it will be coughed up again.
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?
The HMJ program at University of Georgia requires us to shoot, edit and publish videos to package with print pieces and as stand-alone works. At first I was utterly confused by video editing, but with experience I’ve discovered that I actually like producing video. I expect to keep at it and hope the final products will improve with practice. I also enjoy photography, but I’m by no means a professional photographer. A few years ago, a friend was looking at pictures taken during my adventures in Chile and asked why there were no people in them. And she was right; almost all my photographs were of clouds, the Andes Mountains or sleepy sea lions. You can find some of my landscape photography on my website. Speaking of, I have a personal website that I put together using Weebly and I can find my way around the content management system ExpressEngine (neither of which requires code).
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?
The Internet and technology has really changed the landscape. Whether you’re a new mom or a turtle enthusiast, you can find an online community to join and learn from. Information will continue to be produced, stored and sought out by people who need and want it. It’s important for young writers to help make information about science as accurate, understandable, reliable and interesting as possible, and to pick up new tools as they appear. Most importantly, the passion and enthusiasm young people bring to their work is unmatched. We’re fresh, full of ideas and determined to help make the world a better place.
Thank you for having me :)
Previously in this series: