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 Susan E. Matthews (Twitter).
Hello, welcome to The SA Incubator. Let’s start from the beginning: where are you originally from?
Hi, and thanks for having me! I’m originally from the other part of New York — upstate. I grew up in a tiny town with one traffic light, just south of Albany. Living across from a bird sanctuary definitely infiltrated my child brain’s subconscious thoughts on conservation and respect for nature.
I went to college in another small town in New Hampshire, so moving to the city was a bit of an adjustment. At first I couldn’t get over how many people there were all the time (deer outnumber people where I grew up), but I’ve adjusted.
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?
I got into writing first. I recently cleaned out my closet at home and found stacks upon stacks of journals with stories (mostly murder mysteries, strangely? I had a thing for Agatha Christie). In high school, I departed from fiction, launching a school newspaper in my high school. I cut and glued the first stories into the first layouts. Passing those papers out to my classmates was so exciting.
When I started visiting college campuses, whether the school had a daily paper became a big factor for me. I ended up at Dartmouth, where I started working for the daily paper there, The Dartmouth, and eventually became Editor in Chief. I got great advice from alums of the paper now in journalism — Dartmouth didn’t have a journalism program, so they encouraged me to major in a subject that I would eventually want to write about. That’s how I ended up studying environmental studies. I traveled to southern Africa on a term abroad to study sustainable development and environmental, and I also worked in a biogeochemistry lab on an experiment on climate change in the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica.
I decided I wanted to learn how to write well about science. I believe some of the world’s biggest problems have to do with science — development, energy, climate change, obesity. But this also means that these problems can be solved via science. Being able to write about these issues in an engaging manner is critical for bringing information and fact to the forefront of discussion. I like to think that better coverage will result in better solutions.
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 mentioned that being editor of my college paper gave me great contacts in the journalism world. One of those former editors was Dan Fagin, who invited me to coffee because he was up in Hanover during the winter of my junior year. Once I started telling him about my time in Africa and my interest in science writing, he wasted no time encouraging me to consider grad school, particularly the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program he runs at NYU — nicknamed SHERP.
Because I had spent so much time traveling and in labs, I hadn’t had much real world experience when I graduated from college. SHERP was a great balance between classes and internships, so it allowed me to seamlessly weave together my two passions and become much more experienced in just 16 months.
Apart from writing, do you also do other aspects of science communication?
I’ve learned the basics of video, and hope to incorporate it more into my work going forward. My real other skill is graphics, particularly those that are data-driven. When a graphic succeeds at conveying information, words become superfluous.
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?
I jumped at the chance to go to SHERP because I knew it would offer me great internship opportunities, and it did. I interned at OnEarth last spring, getting a full look at how a magazine runs. From there, I went to Tech Media Network, where I wrote several stories a day for MyHealthNewsDaily. This past fall, I was interning with Nature Medicine, where I got in-depth experience covering the biomedical world. Now, I’m a fellow at Popular Science, doing short stories for the front and back of the book, and trying my hand at gadgets and tech. While I came into SHERP with an environment focus, my internships have helped me branch out, particularly into covering health. Now that I’m done with school I’m also freelancing a bit. You can check out my work on my website.
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?
One of the reasons I struggled with whether or not to go to j-school was because I believe that journalism is something that you learn by doing. Well, right now, the whole world of journalism is changing so much that everyone — young and old — needs to be learning by experimenting.
Luckily, I was able to incorporate some of this experimenting into my coursework at NYU, first taking a class with Jay Rosen on how to break free of horse race political coverage, and then studying how giving everyone access to the publish button (aka the Internet) is changing the media landscape with Clay Shirky. I’m really lucky to have had the chance to experiment in a setting that was part academic and part real life (we partnered with the Guardian in Jay’s class, for example).
I think that right now, we’re seeing an explosion of journalism, even though all of it may not be profitable and all of it may not be written by journalists, per se. But if anything, more interest in journalism is a good thing, even though we still have to figure out how to make a living off this and make sure the audience isn’t overwhelmed with information.
This is particularly important for my generation, which will face the consequences of climate change and may be the first generation to have a shorter lifespan than our parents. Any science communicator — no matter the age — can help make the science journalism world (and in consequence, the general world) better by offering clear explanation and insightful analysis in an engaging format, not just a barrage of 700-word articles. Graphics, short stories, video, interactive media, longform and crowd-sourced journalism should all play a role.
Previously in this series:
Noby Leong and Tristan O’Brien