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 grew up in the fields and woods of Bahama, North Carolina – that’s Ba- HEY- ma –which is just north of Durham. When I got tired of picking off ticks all summer, I went up to study stars and hike in the North Carolina mountains.
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?
After a wonderful, circuitous college career, I got a degree in physics and astronomy from Appalachian State University. As much as I loved conducting science, I was more interested in the story of the results –what they mean, who they affect, what bearing they might have on our future. Also…umm…I’m not very good at math. So there’s that. Don’t tell my dear teachers.
Once I even tried to get a masters degree in engineering, but the computational physics class made me cry one too many times (I wish I were joking). However, I always loved writing. I worked for the University Writing Center while pursuing the aforementioned fated engineering degree, and that was the brightest spot in those few months. I enjoyed working with words and developing stories. It was especially inspiring when students would come in with science papers, and together we would build scientific narratives. Blending technical information into the flow, arc and art of a good story was a craft I wanted to learn. I recognized the need for more science storytellers in society, and found an answering desire within myself. So I started looking for ways to access the science writing community.
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 remember when I first heard about science writing graduate programs. It was the summer of 2006, and I was in some small, hot town in Florida doing a service project. One of my teammates and I were demolishing an old house with mallets and talking about our futures. I was an undergraduate at the time, bemoaning my math classes and trying to write poetry.
She said, “You know, you can probably do both math and poetry at the same time.”
“Yeah, they have science writing programs,” she said. “Since you’re all into that stuff.”
Mallet smash. Long pause.
“Well sh**,” I said. “That’s it. That’s what I want to do.”
That conversation has stuck in my head ever since, and for me, the idea of a science writing graduate program was wrapped up with the career direction in general. Since I didn’t have much formal writing training, I figured a degree program would provide me with a good background before I launched into a professional community. Also, I like school.
Which science writing program did you attend? Why did you choose that one? What are your best experiences there?
I am three weeks shy of marching across the stage to get my masters diploma in medical and science journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The best word to describe this program is “generous.” They have been so good to me—the community encourages students to collaborate rather than compete, the faculty and staff are always looking out for their students and I lucked out with a nice fellowship package. Besides receiving a solid set of story development tools, UNC-Chapel Hill introduced me to multimedia. Before starting the program, I had no multimedia experience and no interest in acquiring any. Now, at the end, I’m excited about developing and incorporating video and graphics into as many science communication pieces as possible.
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?
As I mentioned earlier, I am still technically a student. I’m working as a teaching assistant while finishing up my thesis, which focuses on how visuals advance scientific understanding. I spent last summer working with the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center developing a Multimedia Bootcamp for Science Communicators, which will launch in 2013 if the world doesn’t end before then.
This summer, I am working as a fellow for Powering a Nation, an intensive, 10-week journalism project at UNC-Chapel Hill where my team and I will be investigating the conflicts, tension and issues surrounding an energy source.
I’ve got my eye on a few internships for the coming year, but post-graduation looms ominously.
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?
No blog yet. But it’s in the works. I’ve been navigating through the Wordpress learning curve, and it’s coming along pretty well. I’ve just cracked into the Twitter world (@KellyIzlar) and still haven’t quite caught the bug. But I’m vulnerable, folks. Facebook and Google Plus are still the jam.
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 hinted at this in an earlier answer, but while I’m still a multimedia novice, I’ve been enjoying learning how to use the various platforms. I’ve done bits and pieces of all the above, but I love motion graphics. I’ve been teaching myself how to use Adobe Illustrator, Adobe After Effects and Maya. My thesis was devoted to the importance of incorporating visual elements into every aspect of the scientific process, from research and cross-disciplinary collaboration to public communication.
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?
To have an impact these days, a science communicator needs to be narrower in her focus and broader in her technical expertise. We need to talk about one issue in detail using every available tool to reach out to as many different people as possible.
For instance, Johnny, Katie and Joaquim don’t know much about slugs. Johnny thinks they’re gross, Katie picks them off her mother’s plants and Joaquim only knows you can kill them with salt.
To teach these three people about the diversity and life-cycle of gastropods, a media-savvy science communicator would try different approaches. Johnny might want to read a long-form narrative piece about scientists who study slugs. Katie might like an interactive graphic or visualization about what different species of slugs eat. Joaquim might click on a video of slug sex or mucus production.
Placing all of these elements on the same web-platform would provide more access points for the public, propelling the science further into the community.
A science communicator who has proficiency in all of these media areas would be a force to be reckoned with.
Previously in this series: