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?
Hi, and thanks for showing interest in me. I grew up in gorgeous Santa Rosa, California – about 60 miles north of San Francisco. I went to UC San Diego in La Jolla, California for four years and then I came straight to Manhattan for graduate school.
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 took courses from 11 different science and social science departments in undergraduate because I craved the variety. Unfortunately, my dalliances with so many different subjects made it hard for me to figure out what to do after graduation. A professor that I turned to for advice asked me what my dream job would be and I said, “I’d want to be a student forever.” And that’s what science journalism is for me. I get to learn something new every day with the extra perk of sharing my lessons with others.
As for writing, I’ve always been a writer, from short stories when I was 6 to a hefty thesis my senior year at UC San Diego. I was completely shocked when I learned there was a career out there that could mix my love of science with my passion for writing. I still kind of am.
How do you find suitable stories to write about? What are your criteria?
My biggest concern when I am looking for a story idea is that I might write a story that’s been done to death. As a result, I tend to choose topics that are off the beaten path. (Think: the health repercussions of kids not showering after gym class or a profile of a professor who makes educational video games.) These ideas generally come from random curiosity or encounters with really fascinating (but not necessarily news-y) trends or people. My preference for strange subjects usually results in at least one day in my writing process where I’m convinced that I was out of my mind when I chose whatever topic I did. Still, in the end, I’m proud of the individuality – perhaps quirkiness – I bring to the table and I’ve been very happy with my results.
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?
It was a very straight-forward decision for me. Since I hadn’t ever done journalism of any kind and didn’t have a writing degree, I knew that going to a master’s program that specialized in science writing would be the best way for me to gain the knowledge and experience I needed to become a quality science journalist.
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 science media ecosystem these days is in constant flux, so it’s difficult to describe. There is definitely more of a need than ever to reach out to our audiences and to actually interact with them. Also, because many of our lives are now open books on the internet, there is more of a demand to let our readers/watchers/listeners know that there is a human being at the other end of our words and to be the same person off the page that you are on it. I’m actually quite excited for that change. It inspires me to always put a little bit of myself into my writing.
From what I’ve seen, young science communicators are seriously pushing themselves to gain experience in all different kinds of media and to be innovative with what they’ve learned. This is resulting in spectacular new ways to communicate science to the masses. (For example, this hydro-fracturing explainer that some NYU students made last year with ProPublica still blows my mind.)
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?
I have made a few videos, I was one of the science correspondents for NYU’s news program, and I love taking photos for my stories. This one is my new favorite. I have also started to learn some coding, some animation, and I made my own website (with much assistance from a website creation program). At the moment, I am attempting to make an infographic but that is the most extreme case of a work in progress that you can imagine. I generally stay away from art/illustration because I respect it too much to contribute my sad stick figures.
Which article of yours is your favorite and why?
It’s really difficult to choose but I would say my favorite so far is the story I wrote about whether parent’s plastic surgery could psychologically affect their children. It was a really outrageous idea to pitch because it was just a question that popped into my mind for no particular reason. It also wasn’t a story with a clear-cut answer. Those can be the hardest to write but a lot of times I find that they are the closest to the truth. In the end, the response that I got from both my sources and readers was that my story was thought-provoking while still being true to the science and that was – and still is – extremely rewarding.
What are your plans for the future?
I am planning to create science stories for a general audience. Not just a general science audience but as general an audience as possible. I want what I make to be the kind of story that someone would want to read or watch on a plane, not something they feel compelled to take in so that they can sound smart. (But hopefully my stories can actually make them smarter too.) I’m not sure what kind of media I’ll go into yet. So far, I really enjoy blogging, reported essays and video but I’m keeping my options open.
Previously in this series: