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 was dragged up (as my parents like to say) in North Yorkshire, which is a rural county in the UK – but I moved to New York from London. Hmm, thinking of home makes me miss the color ‘green.’ That said, I’m sat on the balcony in the sun while I’m writing this, so it’s swings and roundabouts I suppose!
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 always loved science as a child. I was such a geek – I was obsessed with dinosaurs and used to know most of the species and where they lived by age 5. I had other interests growing up; debating, swimming, politics, etc but they came and went. Science and speaking French are probably the two interests that have stayed constant. When it came to applying for college I already spoke good French but there was, is, and always will be a whole lot more to learn about science. I went to Imperial College, London to study Biology.
At university I was always more intrigued by what the science meant than the theory itself. Don’t get me wrong, making bacteria glow in the dark is cool, and I enjoyed doing that stuff but I think I was more interested by how the happenings in the lab could effect what goes on outside of it. I guess that is a convoluted way of saying that I wasn’t married to science but I didn’t want to leave it alone either. So when I graduated, I looked for something non scientific to do but something that also used what I had learned from four years hard work at Imperial.
After a few days of putting google through its paces, one of the hits clicked with me – and that was science journalism.
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?
1) I want a job. Just throwing that out there. I think that if you can carve out a niche as a writer and say “I am a science journalist extraordinaire” then you are more employable. haha nervous laughter.
2) I worked hard to get my undergraduate degree and so I want to use and build on the skills and knowledge that I learned.
3) Science is cool and clearly the best thing to write about.
Which science writing program did you attend? Why did you choose that one? What are your best experiences there?
I’m expecting to graduate (fingers crossed) from New York University’s M.A in Science, Health and Environmental Reporting (SHERP) program in December 2012. I chose to go there because the course was specialized in science journalism with two for-credit internship classes, so there is a hands-on approach as well as an academic side. Best experiences? Thats kind of difficult to say, because as much as SHERP is enjoyably challenging, it can be a tough ride at times – we are expected to write at a very high standard, produce videos, design info-graphics, know how to code, blog and do all this within stressful deadlines and keep a smile on our faces. But I’m not sure that I’d rather do anything else!
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 begrudgingly began to tweet when I started at NYU, but now I love it. I tweet about science, politics, my work and my friends’ work. People can follow me: @BenjPlackett. I do have a blog: benjaminplackett.com, which usually features science writing. Facebook I tend to keep as private.
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?
I am interning at Health.com this summer and one of my favorite jobs there is to write health news, which can be syndicated to other news outlets, like this one on CNN. I like that clip because it got people talking, there are quite a few eccentric comments from readers, which makes me giggle. Apart from interning with Health.com, I also freelance for Inside Science News Service and I am a fan of this clip because I really enjoyed reporting it. I got to speak to a wealth of different people. Other than that, I write for scienceline.org (a website run by those of us on my program) and my articles are here. Thanks for allowing me to shamelessly self-promote here.
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’m taking a class in coding and data visualization this summer, which might sound like a cruel and unusual punishment but it is teaching me to make all kinds of interactive thingy m’bobs, so maybe we’ll see more info-graphics from me in the future. For the moment, I like to turn my hand to video production as often as I can. I have made a couple so far: one about the Chicago River and the other about fracking. I’m also making some videos for Health.com this summer – I’ve already filmed one.
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?
Well, that's a question and a half. It’s one that I ponder late at night, so I wish I had a witty answer. I think that there is and always will be a place for well reported and well crafted science stories. But I think to enjoy the privilege of writing them, we (young journalists) should and are having to diversify our skill set. Who wouldn’t want to write cool stories and also make videos, info-graphics and code too?
Previously in this series: