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 Marissa Fessenden (blog, Twitter).
Hello, welcome to The SA Incubator. Let's start from the beginning: where are you originally from?
I grew up on a dairy farm in the Finger Lakes region of New York—a beautiful area with lakes, fields and wineries. The family farm is in a hamlet called King Ferry and the closest city is Ithaca.
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?
In high school I thought I wanted to be an artist or an actress, but when I got to college my favorite class was Introductory Biology. It surprised me at the time, but looking back it makes sense: My parents majored in animal science and dairy science in college and I think they passed down a way of looking at the world through the lens of biology. My mom is a professional gardener and had a greenhouse when I was a kid. I used to spend hours looking at the structure of flowers, playing with roly-polys or helping her transplant seedlings into larger pots. My dad explained how glaciers carved the lakes and hills around us, how to find constellations in the night sky and taught me to appreciate our connection to the land. My siblings and I played on the farm, talked to cows, rode our bikes on the laneways between rows of corn and searched for kittens in the haymows.
I tried to major in biology but I didn’t want to focus. I’d always loved reading, writing and telling stories. Some of the best stories were essays in books and articles in magazines like National Geographic. When I realized someone writes those science stories, I decided to figure out how to be that person.
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 started writing for the communications office at my college, Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. I think one of my mentors there told me about the Science Communication program at Santa Cruz. Jumping into science journalism without any training seemed very daunting, so I looked at several specialized programs. At the same time, I didn’t want to do a general journalism program because I wanted to stay connected to science. The science writing programs also offered internships—a way to get my feet wet without jumping in the deep end yet.
Which science writing program did you attend? Why did you choose that one? What are your best experiences there?
I decided to go to the Santa Cruz program. I was very impressed with the program director, Rob Irion. He is a wonderful mentor and editor. Rob and the other instructors make the program a rigorous, incredibly valuable experience. I knew that the nine months of classes would be intense and they were. We also had the opportunity to meet many successful science writers, as guest lecturers and at conferences. The program introduced my classmates and I to many tools and tricks of the trade, including data-driven journalism, video and audio editing, blogging, as well as how to tackle profiles and other forms of writing. I was (and continue to be) impressed by my classmates’ work.
Even before classes started we were publishing our work though school year internships. My first internship was at the Santa Cruz Sentinel. I got to report on the unusual number of humpback whales spending time just outside the harbor. That story got me on a boat and out to meet the whales.
I also loved attending class in the middle of a redwood forest and living on the shores of Monterey Bay.
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?
After my internship at the newspaper, I spent 10 weeks as a production intern at Big Picture Science, the science radio show. I found that I love editing audio files and thinking about stories for radio. I even got the opportunity to do an interview with a scientist at the AAAS meeting in Vancouver, Canada. That interview was in the episode “Catch a Wave.” The staff members of BPS are all wonderful, creative people. In the spring I worked as an online media intern for Stanford School of Medicine. I wrote mainly for the blog, which gave me experience writing short posts on quick deadline.
Now I’m in the middle of an internship at Scientific American, writing for the magazine and occasionally online. I’m having a fantastic time, surrounded by talented writers and enjoying exploring New York City. So far, I’ve written fun stories (such as this story on imaging proteins moving through a membrane), more serious stories (such as this article on end-of-life care) and ongoing projects (I’m helping the effort to get presidential candidates and congress members answers to questions related to science policy).
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 personal blog that has gotten a little dusty since I started my graduate program. I’m reviving it now because science blogging was and continues to be an inspiration. I also have a portfolio site. I’m on Google Plus, Pinterest, Facebook and Twitter. I try to use all of them: Twitter for keeping up with what is happening in the science writing community, Facebook for sharing with friends and family, Google Plus for things that are too long to be shared on Twitter, and Pinterest for things that inspire me.
I feel more comfortable promoting others’ work and sharing things that I think are awesome. But I am trying to push some of my own work. All of these tools are great for building community as well as finding ideas and motivation.
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 have always been very visual. I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting ways to incorporate art, photography and infographics into stories. I dabble in photography and enjoy sketching, so I hope that I can use these skills in my work. One of my favorite parts of my graduate program was putting together a simple animation for a video on marine algae. That video was my final multimedia project accompanying a feature story on harmful algal blooms. All my classmates feature stories and podcasts are now online as Science Notes 2012, a showcase for the Santa Cruz Science Communication program and the Science Illustration program at California State University, Monterey Bay.
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?
I think after a rocky period, people are starting to figure this new ecosystem out. Producing quality work is more important than flashy content—though people will always eat candy and chips. Collaboration and community is a huge part of the Internet. I love that science communication is a small enough field that we can pull together, support and inspire each other. It’s about connections—between journalists and scientists, between communicators and with our audience. I hope that we can connect readers to the narrative of discovery and the intelligent, passionate people in science. Geek culture is more mainstream because of the Internet (I think, though I am clearly biased). Let’s roll with that.
Also, although the news cycle is so intense and quick, I think there is more room for stories that are evergreen. It is easier to access stories online and there is unlimited room for explainers, stories about scientists in the field and articles that are just really cool.
Finally, the tools are fantastic. I learned just a bit about data analysis and I’m eager to learn more. It is possible now to pull together teams of journalists working in many locations to collaborate on big, data-rich projects.
I may be idealistic, but I think that change is good and we have the opportunity to build a really kick-ass media ecosystem. I think that is our role as young science communicators: to be enthusiastic and willing to work hard. I can do that.
And thank you!
Previously in this series:
Noby Leong and Tristan O’Brien