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.
Today we introduce you to Jessica Men (Twitter).
Jessica is new to the science writing scene. While in university studying to major in biology, she started experimenting with writing. She initially wrote about university culture and entertainment before contributing for The Celebrity Workout blog, mixing pop culture, celebrities and science in her posts. This gradual change in writing scene led her from the US to Australia where, at the age of 21, she interned with COSMOS.
I’m glad to welcome Jessica today on The SA Incubator so she can tell us more about her budding writer’s life.
Hello and welcome to The SA Incubator. First off, tell us why you got into science writing?
Writing has always been my favorite hobby. I submitted to poetry and fiction magazines when I was younger, worked on the yearbook and newspaper in middle school, then became an editor on my high school newspaper. Don’t get me wrong, I was a little science nerd too. I went to science summer camps, obsessed over planetariums, built model rockets, did all that stuff. When it came time for university, I went into biology because it seems like a field that’s constantly expanding into new and exciting areas, and thus would always need more people. However, the thought of giving up my lifelong love of writing was heartbreaking! So I made it a personal goal to actively seek out ways to keep writing in my life.
When you starting writing, you were not covering science at all. Would you say that becoming a science writer was something you were aspiring to be since the beginning or did the path become clearer along the way?
I started out on the entertainment track because I love the world of celebrities (maybe a little too much sometimes. My friends call me ‘the Queen of Pop Culture’; my mom just tells me to grow up). But then I thought about how many successful entertainment bloggers/writers there were. I didn’t want to be just another Perez Hilton.
As time went on, I began to notice how few of my university classmates had a passion for both science and English. There was such an apparent left brain/right brain dichotomy! My pre-med classmates constantly complained about hating their writing courses; my classmates from my honors English track were almost all theater or humanities majors. I realized how rare my two polar-opposite interests made me, and also the potential behind combining the two. I eventually declared a Health Communications minor to go along with my Biology major because the thought of writing about science in a way that can make it interesting and accessible to all types of people was so cool to me.
How would you compare writing about science to writing about celebrities, for instance? More fun? Tougher? More gratifying, perhaps?
Definitely tougher. If I were assigned to cover the latest episode of American Idol, I could rant and rattle off an opinion piece in minutes. I love being snarky, witty, funny. But if I were assigned to cover a profile on a scientist’s work on rainforest conservation, I’d have to do background research just to be prepared for the many specifics of the topic. For each different scientific piece, I’d have to do a different set of research. But in the end, scientific writing is way more gratifying because you’re influencing the way a reader thinks about that topic for the rest of their lives. On the other hand, someone reading my Idol piece will probably forget what I’ve written about Episode 2 by the time Episode 3 aired.
You recently completed an internship at COSMOS. What was your experience working for a major science publisher?
It was probably one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had! I got to travel to a continent I’d always wanted to visit, see the inside workings of a major magazine, and have my published words be read by thousands of people. My editors even trusted me enough to send me to find a story at Cebit, the huge business technology convention in Darling Harbour, Sydney. I got to see prototypes of inventions that aren’t even on the market yet, listen to some of Australia’s better-known researchers, and even interview a CEO at the CSIRO ICT Centre. I remember telling my friends after just the second day of the internship, I could see myself working somewhere like COSMOS for the rest of my life.
As you’ve mentioned, you had to move from the US to Sydney, Australia for the internship. How did this work out for you?
Surprisingly, very easily! Sydney is a lot like Los Angeles (where I’m from), so there was very little culture shock. It totally slipped my mind, however, that it was winter in Australia while it’s summer in California - so I didn’t pack the right clothes. You’d think someone who likes science as much as I do would have remembered where the equator is!
What are your views about the current state of science journalism?
Science journalism is so slept on, especially in America! It’s so unfortunate how underrated this field is, because there’s so much substance. Fascinating scientific discoveries are being made everyday, and I’ll never understand why many people don’t want to know about them. I feel like science is one of the most influential and relevant areas to our lives, yet too many media outlets aren’t milking their science segment or section to its fullest potential. That is, the ones who haven’t eliminated their science sections altogether create pieces so esoteric and boring that it’s no wonder people are turned off by science. There are ways to make science interesting to everyone, and journalists can potentially spread vital knowledge. That’s why it’s so frustrating to see the current state of science journalism at a plateau. Journalists and media outlets hold so much power, and they aren’t using it right! COSMOS was such a refreshing publication for me. They’re the perfect example of people who understand science but also understand how to take that knowledge and make it interesting to the general public and everyday reader.
How important a role do you think young science bloggers and communicators, such as yourself, have in today’s society?
I think we’re important to society because we’re going to be the ones to help advance science journalism. Our age makes us an asset. We grew up in a digital age—we practically came out of the womb blogging about it! If print journalism ever disappears, so many of us will be ready to take science journalism completely online. Social media is a big frontier being explored right now. In the business world, I see so many older companies today struggling to keep up, while hip startups run by young entrepreneurs are skyrocketing. I feel like the same is possible for science journalism. Another advantage of our age is, we don’t have to guess what young readers would be most interested in reading—because we are those young readers! We know what we like best. We would know how to make scientific pieces more appealing to our generation.
Finally, what are your plans for the future? Do you intend to stay in science journalism?
I’m going to be attending pharmacy school at the University of Southern California (where I also did my undergrad) in the fall. But I’m still going to keep my eyes peeled for any way to combine writing and science. I’ve stubbornly persisted in keeping writing a part of my life for 22 years, and I’ve been successful so far. I feel like I’ve come a long way and am on the brink of stumbling upon a career I love. I’m not about to give up now!
Previously in this series:
Noby Leong and Tristan O’Brien