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.
Today we introduce you to Ashley Taylor (blog, Twitter).
Hello, welcome to The SA Incubator. Let’s start from the beginning: where are you originally from?
I grew up in Bar Harbor, Maine, on a long hill with a cove at the bottom. My parents were scientists at the Jackson Lab, the mouse genetics institution that had brought them to Mount Desert Island in the first place. When I was entering 10th grade, my parents retired from the lab, and we all moved to Maceo (MAY-see-oh), Kentucky, to the 1832 family farm and farmhouse where my dad had grown up. I represent the fourth generation of Taylors who grew up (or at least spent some of childhood) on that farm, and my parents still live there, raising cattle (Dad) and tomatoes (Mom). I much prefer New York and Boston to Kentucky, but home is where the parents are to some extent.
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 can’t separate my career trajectory from my geographic one. I see Bar Harbor as a community where everyone is either an artist, a scientist…or one of the people who keep the world running for the artists and scientists. I grew up as an artist and was averse to science because it was what my parents did for a living. I played violin, studied ballet and filled notebooks with my writing. The adults in the community encouraged children to pursue the arts. That changed when I moved to Kentucky. I found that the English teachers didn’t care about writing at all. Papers came back months later with checkmarks, not comments. At the same time, I fell in love with biology. The science teachers at my new high school were really good. Biology, chemistry (and also French and Latin) replaced English as my favorite subjects. I decided that I wanted to be a scientist after all. (preferably in France). I read books from the “science shelf” of my dad’s office, turned my notebooks toward mouse genetics, majored in biology in college, and had several great lab experiences. But my first experience working as a technician in a lab, where hardly anything I did worked, made me realize that what I’d done well in the lab as a student was analyze and write up my results. The data-gathering part was not for me. So I decided to write about science instead of doing it.
How do you find suitable stories to write about? What are your criteria?
Finding stories is the hardest part about science journalism for me. We are taught to look for stories that “the average reader” will be interested in, and since I’m me, not the average reader, I find this difficult. My stories come from shoe-leather reporting (walking past a colony of stray cats, for example) and from seeing the science angle of stories from other beats (for example, a story about choreographer Merce Cunningham’s use of motion-capture technology). That’s also my way of assuring that my stories are unique. I don’t like sorting through the endless information online and trying to pick a needle, a good story, from the haystack. But I don’t ignore the haystack. I look for stories on EurekAlert and look for new angles in stories I read, say, in the Times, but then, I fear writing a story that has been done before. Balance is key. A story, or one’s take on it, has to be little-known in order to be news but it can’t be so little known that it’s obscure. It should be a story that few people have written about—but not because it’s not worth writing.
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?
I spent a few years writing part time and trying to break into the worlds of journalism, then science journalism, but I succeeded only at breaking into graduate school. I was in the Boston area at the time. On the journalism side, I took a course at Harvard Extension School and contributed articles to my local newspaper, The Somerville News, where I had fun covering Board of Aldermen meetings and all the issues—development, education, budgets—that those meetings represented. I also bombarded literary magazines with my personal essays to no professional success (a local writer’s group did publish some of my stuff). On the science side, I wrote science-related stories at the local paper when I could, spent some time writing voice-over narration for Journal of Visualized Experiments, and applied for a staff writer job at a research institution. Instead of getting the job, I got into graduate school at New York University’s Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program (SHERP).
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?
At SHERP, I’ve learned to shoot and edit video and know the basics of making podcasts. In a data journalism class this summer, I’m learning how to make webpages and smart, data-filled graphics to display on them.
Which article of yours is your favorite and why?
My favorite article of mine is one I wrote about a colony of stray cats in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and the people who take care of them. The assignment was to write a profile related to an environmental issue, and my idea was that describing the life of a cat that lived outside would be a unique perspective on the urban environment. In “Guernsey of Bergen Street,” I tried to imitate a New Yorker feature, telling the story completely through scenes I witnessed. Some say that the article does not give enough context, that its focus is too narrow. I chose a narrow focus because that was the level at which I could do the best descriptive writing and the level at which I could get information that a story researched online would lack. Maybe this story does not reach the happy medium between first-hand experience and fact, but it’s an earnest attempt.
What are your plans for the future?
Make a living as a journalist, something subject, of course, to who will pay me to write what. I enjoy writing about almost any topic, so I can see myself working for a newspaper, magazine or scientific institution.
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?
For two years, I was a staff writer for The Somerville News, a local weekly newspaper in Massachusetts. I also wrote voice-over scripts for the Journal of Visualized Experiments (JoVE). I’m currently working as a science-writing intern in the communications department at the American Museum of Natural History. I publish my work on Scienceline, SHERP’s science news site, and I’ve had a personal essay published at Talking Writing.
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?
As one of my professors, Christine Gorman, has been saying, knowing the five W’s of a story has lost value now that such information gets out onto the internet, via Twitter and other social-media sites. Information is less valuable now because the internet and phones allow people to both spread and access it easily and for free. There are also an endless number of possible stories to write (where sometime in the past, one’s stories might be limited to information one could gather on foot). The age of internet media requires journalists to pick out the most important stories from a sea of information and to say not just what happened but something original about what it means. It’s a challenge. I think young science journalists (and readers, too) can help the field by Tweeting (Twitter) and “Liking” (Facebook) good stories to make them stand out.
I think it’s important to try to stay down-to-Earth even if one can travel anywhere on the worldwide web. Though the five Ws may get out quickly on Twitter, nobody can scoop a journalist on a one-time event covered by one reporter in person, even if that event is just a morning in lab with a researcher. The internet makes the reporting of facts less valuable, yes, but it makes the reporting of unique experiences more valuable. One could argue that the internet has also fostered a proliferation of unique experiences, blogs, which cheapen first-hand reporting. Yet in the world of news, I think that a story that has that perfect combination of fact and first-hand experience is more valuable these days. Whether or not it’s more or less valuable than it once was, it’s still what I strive for.
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?
I write a personal blog, Crenshaw Seeds, which is an outlet for my writing on topics I’m passionate about, from dance to music to ways of life and stabs at the deep questions that one can never answer deeply enough.
I do use social media to promote my work, and I find that Facebook links are the best way to bring people to my writing. Still, I can’t help feeling a bit selfish for using Facebook, a site ostensibly about keeping in touch with friends, as a way to promote myself, especially when I neglect the friendship side of it. I do it anyway, but I can’t shake the feeling of guilt.
This adds to a previous question about the “media ecosystem.” Part of what we young journalists (and everyone who uses social media sites) have to figure out is what we feel is an acceptable level of self promotion, an acceptable online presence. We have to square with our online selves, selves which, like it or not, can be much more stylized than the in-person versions. It’s important to feel comfortable with one’s online presence and feel that it’s honest, no matter how much or how little it delves into one’s personal life.
Previously in this series:
Noby Leong and Tristan O’Brien