This is a series of Q&As with young and up-and-coming science, health and environmental writers and reporters. They 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 am from Summit, New Jersey.
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 had a love for science, but I’ve never really wanted to be a researcher. Unlike many science writers who come to the field with a background or degree in science, I have only ever been a science writer. I believe my personal strength has always lied in communication, and the fact that I love talking to and interacting with people. This, coupled with an intense fascination with the natural world (particularly astronomy at an early age and later environmental science and zoology) is what led me to science writing. I couldn’t pinpoint when I started writing, it seems like something that I’ve always done in one capacity or another, whether through personal journals, for class work, for the school newspaper, and later through internships. I knew I wanted to be a science writer before I knew it was actually a profession, or even a subject that I could major in during college. While at Lehigh University a friend pointed me toward their science writing major, thinking it was the epitome of what I’d always described as my dream job. She was right.
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 knew from the start of my higher education experience that I wanted to be a science writer. I believe you need to chase your passion in life, and while it might have been more practical to hold off on specializing so early, I felt strongly that I needed to dive in headfirst and go all in for science writing. I think I’m very lucky to have found something that I love to do so early in my life, and therefore it made sense to me to use my time at college to develop my skills as a science writer.
There are many different paths that people take to end up as science writers. Mine was fairly direct because communicating science is all I’ve ever wanted to do, I’ve been passionate about it since I was a little girl staring up at the stars while walking the dog at night with my Dad. It honestly didn’t occur to me to ever go after any other field.
Which science writing program did you attend? Why did you choose that one? What are your best experiences there?
I’ve been lucky enough to attend two programs in science writing. As an undergraduate I majored in science writing at Lehigh University under the guidance of Sharon Friedman. It was while I was at Lehigh that I attended my first AAAS conference and really started to get a feel for science writing as a profession. It only inspired me more to keep trying to break into the business. After I left Lehigh I interned for a year with the journal BioTechniques in New York City. I learned a tremendous amount at BioTechniques, but still struggled to find a full time job. I felt that furthering my education was necessary to increase my skills as a multimedia journalist to help my job prospects, so I started looking into graduate programs in journalism that would allow me to continue to specialize in science.
I chose the University of Wisconsin-Madison for my MA because the program is flexible and students are free to explore whatever areas they feel they need more instruction in. I was also excited to work with Deborah Blum, who became my advisor in the program. Attending a large university like UW-Madison has the tremendous benefit of being able to expose students to some of the very best speakers and professionals in the country. I’ve been able to listen to and meet incredibly inspiring journalists and science writers in the country due to the programs supported by UW-Madison.
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 15 months interning with the journal BioTechniques, where I got my first real taste of what it feels like to be a published journalist. I got to interview some of the world’s best scientists and important figures in the research community. In my first week I scored an interview with Dr. Francis Collins, who would be named as the Director of the National Institutes of Health a few weeks later. The realization that if I was sincere and worked hard, people actually would talk to me lit a fire in me to go after the best interviews that I could. While at BioTechniques I wrote two feature length articles that ran in their print issues. The first on genome sequencing technology and the second on rare variants.
I’ve also interned as a blogger with the website Geekosystem. Geekosystem is one of the blogs in the Abrams Media Network, owned by ABC News legal correspondent Dan Abrams. Geekosystem specializes in short posts of the most news worthy science, technology, video game, and general Internet stories of the day. The short turnaround time on these posts was a huge challenge, and I learned a lot about writing on a 30-minute deadline. While there I was able to cover a variety of science stories, including a NASA study showing that meteorites contain several of the components needed to make DNA on earth.
In addition to my internships, I also work as a medical copywriter. I’m currently employed by Twin Boro Physical Therapy, based in New Jersey, where for over a year I worked on developing a database of information on the injuries and conditions that can by treated by physical therapy. This database, featured on the newly designed Twin Boro Physical Therapy website, was launched in April 2012.
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 have a blog that is a mixture of personal and science posts called Science Decoded that I started two years ago. Science Decoded is a platform for me to share what I’m doing in grad school, while also talking about science discoveries, media coverage of science, and the interesting things that I read or learn. I strongly believe in the value of social media for all professions but especially for journalists. Being active on Twitter (@erinpodolak) is one of the best ways I have seen to connect with other writers and to become a part of the science writing community. I get more information from Twitter than any other source, it is where I can admire and promote the work of other writers, and share my own thoughts and ideas. It has helped me connect with other writers and learn how to make an impression. I can’t stress enough how important these connections are. Before I became active on Twitter, I was largely blogging for just a handful of friends. I have seen much more activity on my blog since I started interacting with people on Twitter.
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?
Part of the reason that I wanted to go to graduate school was because I wanted to learn how to take advantage of all of the different platforms for telling stories. Multimedia is a critical component of journalism today, and is only going to grow in importance in the future. To be a young writer you need to be able to tell stories in a variety of ways. I am familiar with podcasting. I take and edit my own photographs, and enjoy photography as a pastime. I have worked on several videos to tell stories, and recently featured one on my blog about a first grade science experiment and the importance of science education at the primary level.
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?
A few years ago when I first started trying to work as a science writer, there was a lot of fear in the journalism community about the downfall of print publications and the shift to “new” media. In my opinion we are living in an age of journalistic opportunity. What the Internet and social media tools like Twitter has given us is a tremendous advantage when it comes to interacting with our audience. I wanted to become a science writer because I wanted to reach people, I want to talk to them, hear their stories, and share it all with the world. There has never been a better time to do that, and the number of tools and platforms we have to do so is both exciting and overwhelming. The opportunities are tremendous if you actually harness the power to communicate with readers. For young science writers the pressure is on. It is simply not enough to be able to write well. Telling stories means telling them by whatever means is best, whether through audio, pictures, video, or infographics. It means listening to and replying to people on Twitter, and in the comments section of blog posts and articles. It means having your ear to the Internet, rather than the ground. If we put in the legwork, and really chase the stories, spending the time to talk to sources and do the right research there is no telling what kind of information we can find and discuss. There has simply never been a better time for the dissemination of information, or for science communication.
Previously in this series: