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 Catherine Owsik (Twitter).
Hello, welcome to The SA Incubator. Let’s start from the beginning: where are you originally from?
I was born and raised in Toronto, a busy city up in Canada. If you’ve never been to Canada, it is a truly beautiful country (and not as cold and barren as you may imagine).
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’ve always been passionately curious, so science appealed to me when I was young because it gave me answers to life’s questions. I read my mum’s extensive National Geographic collection and loved watching science shows like Bill Nye the Science Guy, Magic School Bus and Kratt’s Creatures (which is now called Zoboomafoo). I’ve kept up my curiosity and have now focused on more complex science questions that require my own research and ideas.
Writing is a skill that I worked on later in life. I always felt comfortable expressing myself on paper — I actually wrote notes to my siblings when we got into spats — and in elementary school I played with the dream of becoming a journalist.
Ultimately though, I followed the science path to Queen’s University, where I am now finishing off my Bachelor’s degree in biology.
Writing caught up with me in the form of my school’s newspaper, the Queen’s Journal, where I worked as an editor for two years. In my last year there I found I was pitching and loving the science stories. A quick Google search revealed to me that “science journalism” was something you could actually study, and from there the idea for Nerve hatched.
For how long have you been writing about science?
I wrote my first published science article about two years ago, but it was just recently that I started taking it seriously. I started up Nerve Magazine — a science, technology and engineering magazine — at my University and just recently published our first online issue.
How important a role do you think young science bloggers and communicators, such as yourself, have in today’s society?
To me, it looks like society’s technology is exponentially advancing, and I think young science communicators are able to fill the demand of communicating the constant scientific changes. I think one of our best assets is that we have an innate connection to a large, young and thriving demographic. We have the credibility of a scientific news source, but we are arguably much more relatable than those reporters. Therefore, I think it is our job to learn as much as we can to communicate effectively and never lose that close connection with our audience.
You write about a variety of science topics in Nerve Magazine, from astronomy to nutrition. How challenging is it to write about such different fields?
Personally, it’s not very difficult because I enjoy learning all the details that comes with writing each story. One of the main reasons I love studying science is that it covers such a broad range of topics, and by writing various stories I learn some pretty interesting things. Research and interviewing also allow me to independently learn on a detailed level, which really works for me. I’m worried that during the upcoming school year I’ll enjoy learning more through Nerve than my actual University studies!
How do you find suitable stories to write about? What are your criteria?
Most of my ideas come to me on the fly. Conversations with friends, volunteering for science events, reading articles and watching documentaries have all proved to be good sources for inspiration.
I have a note in my BlackBerry with words jotted down, so I often go through it and elaborate on those until a full story idea forms. My criteria are pretty simple:
1) Would I read this? If I don’t find the topic interesting enough, I won’t write it. My audience consists of my peers, and I think I am a pretty good measure for the average student interest.
2) Would my roommate understand this? My roommate (and also best friend) is a very smart girl and a self-professed straight-Arts student. I know if I explain an idea to her, and she doesn’t understand it, then it may be too scientific.
Can you briefly give insight on your writing process? Once you get a topic you’d want to write about, how do you proceed from there?
I start off with an overload of research. I find credible sources, jot down as many notes as possible and then organize my notes with little words in the margins. If I find repeat facts I just feel validated.
I try to find an expert on the topic and contact them for an interview. Interviews have an entirely different process, but it’s a skill I think I honed from working as an Assistant News editor (which meant conducting approximately four interviews a week). This is almost immediately followed with transcribing the interview.
Finally, the writing begins… this varies greatly per story, but once I get going I really hate to stop.
I then spend hours editing and working on InDesign to put the article into magazine layout. I also do a lot of my editing in InDesign, the story just sounds different once you visualize it.
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?
Nerve Magazine does currently have a blog, a Facebook page and a Twitter account — all of which I am managing. Social media is key here because (due to how expensive printing is) Nerve is mostly an online magazine. Our social media has had a pretty good start, but once there is more content to put out I will definitely have to step it up a notch to get our work seen.
Social media is also a good way to hear about science news occurring on campus, which we feature in the “Breaking the Bubble” part of the magazine… so overall, it’s pretty important.
Do you think it’s important for science writers to mingle with other forms of science communication tools today?
Yes! I know as a kid I was attracted to the science stories with the glitz and glam; the beautiful photos, the interesting characters and the feeling of one-on-one contact it all amassed to. I believe this is what the general public wants nowadays… and science writers need to be able to provide that feeling of personal interaction through photos, videos and graphics.
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?
Yes, I love photography and have had my photos published in newspapers (and not even just my school newspaper). I also have been using Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop to create graphics and photos for Nerve — it turns out I really enjoy the visual side of articles as well! I created the current Nerve Wordpress blog and used a different program (Balsamiq) to create a mockup of our final site for the designers.
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 spent the past two years working at the Queen’s Journal newspaper. My published stories are here, but most of them are straight news article and not very science-based.
I am still a student, but I am working as Editor in Chief of Nerve Magazine (yes I created my own job). It doesn’t pay anything, it’s a lot of work (mostly because contributors are rare during this start-up)… but, I love it! Here’s the link to our first online issue.
Officially though, I am working as a waitress at a restaurant/pub. I can’t live off a job I made up, now can I?
How do you see Nerve evolving in the future?
It will grow. I’ve only had one issue out so far, but it was so satisfying that I won’t let it go downhill. As well as increasing in the amount of content, I’m looking to implement different multimedia into the actual magazine (since it is online I may as well make the most out of it) — so, I will learn how to embed video, audio and those sorts of things. Along with this I will be increasing my use of social media to maintain a strong connection with my audience.
Different people have a different view of what a science geek is. How would you define a science geek and do you consider yourself as one?
Simply put, I think a science geek is someone who gets pleasure out of learning and experiencing science. And yes, I consider myself one! One of my favorite things about science writing is that you learn something new with each article you write… so basically, I’m attracted to a job where I never have to stop learning (which is pretty geeky if you ask me!)
What are your plans for the future?
This is one of the scariest questions you could ask a soon-to-be graduate. And honestly, I’m not sure… all I know is my future will involve science and communication. I have dreams, but those are hard to turn into concrete plans because nobody tells you which way is the best to go. Luckily, I have pretty quick path-finding instincts.
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?
Science writing, like regular journalism, is shifting to an online mode. This means that articles are much more accessible — and in my opinion, this is one of the best things to happen to the field in a long time. I keep hearing that with this shift we run the risk of losing writing quality… but I think because young science communicators have grown up in this technological mess we know how to efficiently write, fact-check and edit, all on the go! I don’t think we need to let writing quality suffer… if anything, young science communicators just need to be trained in a new way.
Thank you, it was my pleasure.
Previously in this series:
Noby Leong and Tristan O’Brien