This is a series of Q&As with new, 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 Rebecca Burton (blog, Twitter).
Hello, welcome to The SA Incubator. Let’s start from the beginning: where are you originally from?
I am from Pensacola, Fla., a small beach town about 10 minutes from Alabama where we use the word y’all and eat crawfish and grits. I moved to Miami when I was 18 to attend undergraduate school at Florida International University and learned very quickly that north Florida may as well be a different state from South Florida. I am now getting my master’s in science/health communication at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Fla., another small town with big alligators. I stress being a Florida native because this humid, wet and mushy state that often gets made fun of in the news, is part of the reason I am so interested in science to begin with.
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?
For me, writing came first. It was engrained in my head since I was in first grade, when I started writing poems for my mom and teacher, that I was going to be a writer. I just listened to the adults in my life and stuck with it. When I got to high school I realized writing cheesy poems probably wasn’t going to get me a stable career so I helped start my high school’s first newspaper and became editor-in-chief to get some experience in journalistic writing. I really owe a lot of my formal training to my high school journalism teacher, Mr. Pribble.
At the same time, I really enjoyed my high school science classes. They were really the only classes (besides journalism) that I actually looked forward to going to. Part of the reason was because of two teachers, Dr. Battaglia and Mr. Rittenhouse, who were always able to get anyone interested in their lessons—even the slackers—by making every single lesson hands-on. I think that aspect is sometimes missing from science classrooms today. I found myself conflicted on what to do in college—should I major in biology or journalism?
I ended up majoring in journalism, but still took science classes as electives and ended up minoring in marine biology. Since I was self-admittedly a beach bum and surfer, marine life always piqued my interest. I wanted to figure out what was happening to deteriorating coral reef systems, and how to prevent the places I had come to call home from becoing part of a dead marine ecosystem. Since FIU was located on Biscayne Bay, the campus was overflowing with tons of timely and relevant research, so I ended up turning some of the stuff I was learning in my marine biology classes into stories for the school paper and environmental journalism conferences. The story I’m most proud of is one I wrote for FIU’s paper. I found out the provost was thinking of building an extra road into campus, but that it would require the bulldozing of mangroves. I decided to write a piece about how the bulldozing of the mangroves would affect Biscayne Bay. It may have not been the best story I’ve ever written, but it was the first environmental scoop that I followed and tackled to the end.
At the same time I was interning at the Miami Herald writing local and feature stories, but I never had as much fun writing those as I did scientific pieces. I expressed this to my editor, and luckily she was able to give me assignments about medical and environmental research.
What professional experience you have had so far—publications, internships, jobs? Feel free to include a bunch of links here! Do you write a personal or science blog? What is your current job?
Well, as far as journalism, I have had quite a few internships. I worked in the digital media department for NBC Miami and I have written for the South Florida News Service, the Miami Herald, the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire and Gainesville magazine. But, as far as science, health and environmental journalism I’m trying to pave my own way. I’ve found it’s kind of difficult for interns to pitch a science story that they’re really interested in to editors of mainstream media who do not necessarily place a priority on these types of stories.
Aside from some work for the Society of Environmental Journalists conferences and campus papers, most of my science writing has taken place on my personal blog Layman’s Terms Media (all of my clips and my resume can also be found there). I started the blog last summer before starting grad school. The blog has evolved quite a bit. It first started as merely a personal portfolio with all of my clips, videos and photos with some few-and-far-between posts about my “journey” to become a science writer. Now, I scan scientific journals and press releases to get ideas for actual science stories. Personal experience and curiosity is also a major generator of story ideas too.
I realized I was never going to get enough experience in science writing unless I actually did it. So, I started writing stories every time I got the chance. I am still experimenting with topics and writing style and trying to get a feel for who my audience is. But I can say that even being my own editor, I believe my writing has improved and I am building relationships with scientists and medical professionals that I will need throughout my career. My next goal is to really narrow the focus of my blog to one topic, but I feel that I need to experiment with many before I commit.
Currently, to make ends meet, I am trying to build my experience in the field by interning for Health News Florida where I assist in aggregating health news from all over the state as well as writing stories about health care policy. I also am an intern reporter for UF Health News and Communications, where I write about the medical research that is going on within the college. Even though this experience may be seen as more on the PR side, I still am using the experience to translate research to lay people and also to build relationships with medical experts. To pay my bills, I am a web producer for the Gainesville Sun, where I manage their website. There, I am getting experience writing headlines for the web, and organizing web content in a desirable way, which has helped me in organizing my blog. During the school year, I’m also a teaching assistant for a multimedia reporting course where I help undergraduates with editing video and audio.
Which science writing program do you attend? Why did you choose that one? What are your best experiences there?
To be honest, I was one of those people who applied to grad school in desperation. No jobs had shown up, and being a waitress without school loans wouldn’t have paid the bills in a big place like Miami. I discovered the science/health communication program at UF and it seemed like a great fit. I chose it mainly because it was in-state and also because the school had a great reputation.
When I got there, it was a lot different than I expected. We weren’t learning how to write science articles. The classes were not science journalism-101. Instead, the classes dove deep into the problems of science communication, science policy and how journalistic norms affect the quality of science writing today. By learning the problems and discussing solutions based on social science research, these courses—although not practical—have helped me become a more thoughtful science communicator.
Although most of the graduate-level courses in the program are more research-oriented, I was able to audit an undergraduate science writing class in the school of journalism, taught by Czerne Reid. In the class, she would hold Skype conferences with influential science writers who would give us advice on writing and networking. Everything I learned while attending that class is essential and I was lucky to have the opportunity to speak with such professionals.
My thesis is addressing these problems on a local scale. In Gainesville, there is a superfund site that has been plaguing residents for decades and frankly, they are not happy with both the EPA and the health department. I will be doing in-depth interviews with residents to try to figure out what the organizations did wrong in communicating the health risks of the contaminated area.
What are your plans for the future? Do you intend to dabble more with the science communication sphere? How are you hoping to break into the science writing business?
I have a year left to graduate and my main goal is to keep improving my science writing and hopefully start getting a paycheck for it (isn’t that every grad’s dream?) I would love any job working for either a science publication, a newspaper that covers science and health in-depth, or even a science education organization. After all, part of my motivation for writing about science for lay people is to educate them.
I plan on breaking into the business by just practicing, and trying to get my name out there. I will continue writing for my blog, working hard at my internships and soaking in everything I learn in the remainder of my classes. At the same time, it never hurts to network and build professional connections through social media as well.
Previously in this series:
Noby Leong and Tristan O’Brien