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.
Hello, welcome to The SA Incubator. Let’s start from the beginning: where are you originally from?
Philadelphia is my home base, though I lived some places before that. I currently live in Montreal, where I study physics at McGill University. I’m not here for too much longer, though. I am just about to “hatch!”
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?
One afternoon, when I was learning about equations and variables in school — just your very basic pre-pre-algebra at age 11 or something — I was standing in the kitchen with my dad, and he threw me an orange. He said something along the lines of, “you could write an equation that would describe that orange’s motion.” That was the coolest thing I’d ever heard. That, and heavy doses of Richard Feynman from our family bookshelf, led me to pursue an undergraduate degree in physics. I wanted to study physics specifically so I could better understand the things I was reading about, the things that seemed really magical about the world. My family is a science family. When I was growing up, we had a rock tumbler, and a telescope, and subscribed to many of the publications that I would now kill to work for. That I would study science felt inevitable.
As for the writing part – I was pretty terrible at writing, for the longest time. In 11th grade we had a unit on creative writing, and I realized that writing could be so many things beyond a 5 paragraph essay. I wrote this thing that was really fluffy, and a little off the wall, about math class. I sat at my desk writing, and re-writing, and re-writing, in a really deep trance. It was an amazing feeling. It was like I caught some kind of brain infection, and I started doing all kinds of weird things like keeping a journal and writing fiction. I have enormous word files on my computer full of things that maybe no one else should ever see.
Science writing then became a logical extension of these two things that I was deeply into. I wound up at unversity pretty much knowing exactly what I wanted to do with my time: study physics and write for the school newspaper. I spent five years doing both of those things — extending my degree to make time for both. I picked up a minor in anthropology along the way, too, which made the whole thing balance out very nicely.
What professional experience have you had so far—publications, internships, jobs? Feel free to include a bunch of links here! What is your current job?
I started writing for the McGill Daily — the only student-run paper with a Sci+Tech section at the time — my very first month at school. I picked up a story assignment — about nanotechnology and cancer — and spent a few minutes talking to the editor who explained I needed to interview some people. I sat in my dorm room pacing around and pinching myself until I worked up the courage to cold-call scientists and ask them questions about their work. I was 18 years old and the stuffed animal I had elected to take to college with me was sitting on the bed staring at me, propped up on the dorm-room bed two feet away from the itsy bitsy dorm room desk, and I was quite nervous.
But no one laughed me off the phone or called me an idiot or asked me how old I was, or was able to see Tiger through the phone line, or whatever other fears I had about interviewing. I handed in the story.
The editor called me later that afternoon to inform me that I hadn’t included any quotes.
My response (paraphrased): Mmm. Quotes?
I’ve improved a little since. I wrote a column for a year. I wrote blurbs about campus events, and I wrote features, and I wrote about Mars, and I made excuses to interview writers and educators I admired. I was elected editor of the Science+Technology section. The Daily newsroom became my home.
During my third November of university, sitting in a Second Cup on Ste-Catherine bored and stressed out by my math homework, I applied to an internship at Discover. For some reason, I was accepted, and so I emailed my academic adviser to inform him that I was going to play hooky for a semester, found an apartment on Craigslist, and took off for New York. Those were the coolest, weirdest four months of my life thus far. I remember being on the phone with astrophysicist Kip Thorne for a story, while sitting in a coffee shop in the East Village — a very, “wow, how did I get here,” moment. There were lots of those.
Currently, I am an editor at the McGill Science Undergraduate Research Journal, where I founded the journal’s blog. In the way of paid labor, I freelance edit and fact-check. I write now and then for a few places (but just a little — pitching and going to school is challenging).
One thing that I’ve started doing in the past year is writing about my experiences with casual misogyny in the physics department (which, for the record, is probably no worse at McGill than anywhere else), just kind of saying things about my experience and discussing the concept of the chilly climate and whatnot. That’s earned me a tiny bit of a reputation. I’ve learned why its not a good idea to read the comments sections on articles (though I still do it). Being a feminist isn’t a job, but it is the kind of thing that can make you really appreciate the concept of happy hour.
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 use Twitter constantly, to the effect of finding out interesting things and talking to people and making inside jokes. That’s probably a terrible “brand” strategy. I used to have a personal Tumblr, but it was very TMI and I didn’t like that. I find that I use Facebook and G-chat (and increasingly, Google Plus) mostly to maintain ties with people — hang out with folks I’ve met at conferences, or keep up with people from high school. I have a constant Facebook message going with several good friends, and with people I have met at conferences, like ScienceOnline2013. Honestly, that’s why I find social networking really valuable, strengthening medium and strong ties, and always having people to bounce ideas off of, and share experiences with. Or just complain to, etc.
I hate promoting my own work, which I know is a problem. I try to do it. But I do not like doing it.
Personal science blog TK soon, I hope! Between freelance gigs and schoolwork, I am a little drained. That is going to change soon, though...
What are your plans for the future?
I am graduating this spring and right now my plans are very specific (in that I know exactly what I want to do — science writing) and at the same time very up in the air in that I don’t know how I am going to do it (in a way that could pay rent, I mean). I am pretty set on not going to any kind of specialized program, at least for the moment, mostly because of the cost.
I would love to find a great paid internship — or a job (!) — and until that happens I am just going to hang out and freelance and write even more cover letters and try not to irk my new roommates (aka parents) too too much. (Do you need a keen intern or freelancer? Contact me).
It is safe to say that I’m going to be writing, whether I find people to pay me to do that or not.
Previously in this series: