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'm from Champaign, Illinois--home to the University of Illinois. A great Midwest college town; an ideal place to grow up.
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?
Man, I've always loved the natural world, living things, and science of all kinds. Writing has also been a lifelong passion, and reading. In first grade I wrote a short story called "Trapped in Paradise" about insurance dealer brothers Ken and Scott who crash land on a tropical island. I spent much of my youth outside and was an Eagle Scout. I spent several years on my high school's awesome newspaper (The Gargoyle). At Washington University in St. Louis, I was a reporter and news editor for the newspaper, Student Life. I also double-majored in environmental biology and English literature.
Every science writer I've talked to seems to have had an "aha" moment. Here's mine: during sophomore year I was working in the lab of an ethnobotanist named Walter Lewis and his wife Memory Elvin-Lewis. I told Memory that I liked science but didn't really like doing research that much. Instead of being alarmed or annoyed, since I was being paid to, you know, do research, she mentioned that she'd been interviewed by a science writer named Tony Fitzpatrick, who wrote a story about a study of hers. So I met with Tony, and he became a mentor and lifelong friend (and made me realize you could write about science for a living). Tony helped me get my first paid writing gigs with Wash U's alumni paper and the Howard Hughes Medical Institutes’ The Bulletin.
After graduating I took a job as a science writer at Purdue University, for 2.5 years. Then I took a brief break from writing and worked as a researcher at a biofuels company. But I knew that was a detour, and soon got back into writing, specifically journalism. I wanted to write for readers, as opposed to please the people I was writing about (as was the case as a public information officer).
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 went to the Science, Health & Environmental Reporting Program at NYU because I thought that'd be the best way to go from being a "science writer" to a "science journalist," and was easier than trying to break into the biz without many contacts.
Which science writing program did you attend? Why did you choose that one? What are your best experiences there?
SHERP at NYU. I knew I wanted to move to NYC and it came down to Columbia and NYU. Although I’m not exclusively interested in science (for example I love sports--especially the St. Louis Cardinals--and follow politics with perverse fascination), it matters greatly to me, and given my background I thought it made more sense to go to SHERP than to a place that had maybe one class in science writing. Plus my advisor Dan Fagin was very encouraging (and will be a lifelong friend/mentor). I definitely made the right choice.
The best part is all the amazing people I’ve met, especially my classmates and teachers.
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?
My first internship was at Popular Mechanics. My favorite pieces were about making antivenom, underwater volcanoes and vampire bats. I was also the web intern at Discover Magazine (see my stuff here and here). Now I freelance for the New York Times Green Blog, Popular Mechanics, OurAmazingPlanet.com and elsewhere. My favorite piece for the Green Blog is the story of a grad student who was a Peace Corps volunteer, only to see her West African village devoured by locusts. She then devoted her life to studying the voracious insects. My second favorite story seeks to answer the following question, which I’m sure keeps you up at night: can the cowman and the panther coexist?
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?
I use Twitter a lot @Douglas_Main. I don’t really have a blog, which is silly. I plan to start one any day, though. Can I update this when I do? I’ve been planning on doing it for the last two years.
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 did a couple videos in SHERP, which were fun to make with my excellent partners Rose Eveleth and Rachel Nuwer. I took a class in coding and infographics that taught me a lot. But my main focus is on being the best writer I can possibly be. If, however, any future employers are reading this, I’m really good at all of these things.
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?
It’s certainly concerning that there’s been such a decline in staff jobs at newspapers and other traditional outlets for science journalists. But I’m an optimist, and certainly excited & encouraged by science writing on the web now.
I hope the role of new science writers/communicators like myself will be to bravely, earnestly and skeptically tackle the important and fascinating issues of the day, as opposed to the “mainstream” stories that one feels “have to be written about,” or done as a matter of course. Do it well and be original, or don’t bother.
No sir—thank you.
Previously in this series: