Each year, the UC-Santa Cruz Science Communication program publishes an online multimedia magazine called Science Notes. As old as the program itself (which began in 1981), Science Notes is the culmination of two quarters’ work. Thank you to Rob Irion and Nadia Drake for providing the information and most of the text for this post.
This year’s issue of Science Notes went up on September 16, and represents two quarters’ work.
During director Rob Irion’s feature-writing course in winter quarter, students pitch story ideas. Then, they report and write their features. "The requirements are that the students must spend time with the scientific teams, limiting them to the San Francisco Bay Area," Irion explains. They must also write about research outside of their own areas of science training, seek substantive independent comment, add at least two multimedia elements (one is a podcast), and emphasize a narrative structure, rather than just a simple recounting of facts.
Guest editors help students craft their narratives. This year’s class worked with freelance journalist Gordy Slack, a former editor at California Wild, who helped students find narrative paths through various Forests of Facts.
In the spring, the class added multimedia components to their stories – podcasts, slideshows, photos, or videos. Molly Bentley, a BBC radio correspondent and executive producer of the SETI Institute's "Big Picture Science" radio program, worked with the class on their podcasts.
But that’s not all. Illustrations for each feature are crafted by students in the Science Illustration program at CSU-Monterey Bay, and the whole package is assembled over the summer.
"One of my central goals is to cultivate each student's voice as a writer. So many of our alumni go on to write features for a living, and they look back on this course (and on Science Notes) as their proving ground -- confirmation that they can, in fact, do it in a way that merits publication," Irion writes.
Here, in their own words, are some reflections and behind-the-scenes stories from each of the students in the Science Communication class of 2011:
Nadia Drake ("Walking with Pumas")
One year ago, I was warned that a mountain lion had been spotted several times in the neighborhood. A large carnivore prowling around the local dark forest is a somewhat alarming idea, but rather than simply accepting that instinctual fear reaction, I decided to learn as much about mountain lions as I could. That’s how I discovered Chris Wilmers and the work he’s doing at UC Santa Cruz.
As I grew to understand them, the elegant, shy cats clawed their way into my imagination and refused to let go. I pitched a feature story on Wilmers’ research.
Turns out, mountain lions (aka pumas, cougars, catamounts, painters – they have many names) are intriguing, powerful, and beautiful animals. Because Chris and his team of researchers were so generous with their time, I was able to accompany them into the field during my reporting. There, I found myself staring into the gleaming eyes of a coiled, snarling 100-pound cat. I have so much respect for these elusive creatures now — and I worry that we aren’t doing enough on our end to peacefully coexist with them (see story's postscript).
As an aside, I now have a large version of Corlis Schneider’s illustration waiting to add some color to my new digs in Washington, D.C.!
Melissae Fellet ("Meeting of the Waters")
My weakness for the underdog drew me to Elkhorn Slough. I felt the beauty of this resilient wetland was often overshadowed by the redwood forests to the north and the rocky coast to the south. I had to spend more time mucking about the mudflats.
With each reporting trip -- kayaking, birdwatching, hiking and helping researchers collect water samples -- the wetland revealed its whole self to me. The many natural equilibriums of the slough, which may not be obvious at first glance, push and pull their way through my story.
So if you ever spend time along California's Central Coast, stop at Elkhorn Slough. It's just as beautiful -- if not more beautiful -- as the popular natural attractions.
Donna Hesterman ("Taking Care of Glitches")
When I pitched the idea for a story about video game glitch-busting software, our director had a few reservations. Software stories can be a little wonky, he warned. In the end, he relented saying that it could be interesting, but only if I found a source in the video game industry who could speak to how developers might use the product.
No sweat, right?
None of the video game makers were willing to go on the record about anything regarding testing, quality assurance procedures, or how glitchy games affect sales. Apparently, shareholders are easily spooked. Producers who talk too much about untried technologies that could slow down development timelines create uncertainty that sends investors running for a sure thing.
In the end, a developer working in educational software was willing to be a part of the story, and that saved the piece at the last possible minute. The educational video game industry, according to my source, has a little more wiggle room for experimentation and will likely be first to adopt new innovations that totally change the gaming experience.
Jane Lee ("Documenting Eden")
One of the best things about writing my first feature was getting to go behind the scenes at the California Academy of Sciences. One of the researchers I interviewed, Robert Drewes, was very generous with his time and gave me a tour of their collections room.
I got to poke around shelves housing snakes, frogs and lizards from all over the world. Some of them were "type" specimens – the only animal to bear the name for an entire species. For a bio nerd, that was pretty huge.
Catherine Meyers ("Peru’s Mountains of Gold")
I wrote my feature on the effects that massive gold mining operations have on rural populations in Peru. Probably the most challenging aspect of the assignment was trying to transport readers to a place I’d never visited -- there is no really good replacement for on-the-ground reporting. But since a trip to the Andes wasn’t in my budget, I found that asking the researcher to show me pictures of his travels helped enormously. I was better able to visualize the landscape and the scale of the mines. Plus, bringing up the pictures reminded the researcher of stories he had forgotten to tell and revealed new information that I would never have thought to ask about.
Sandeep Ravindran ("Lizard Family Ties")
My feature gave me a taste of the difficulties and joys of field research—and of writing about it. One of my first challenges came when a change in the lizard researchers’ fieldtrip schedule meant that I couldn’t actually visit their field site. I then had to rely on photos of the field site and interviews to try to describe those desert scenes I’d been hoping to experience.
For my video project, I got to record the same researchers studying another lizard species at a different field site. But, my only opportunity to visit the site came before we received our video training. After a brief video-shooting crash course I went out with the researchers, following them with a camera as they walked up and down the green hills where their lizards lived. I learned a lot about what it takes to capture video of field work while trying not to slow down busy researchers or get in their way. And I certainly gained a whole new appreciation for field-research documentaries!
Keith Rozendal ("Meet Mother Ayahuasca")
My story discovered me at a heavy metal concert (The Melvins) I attended with a college friend in San Francisco. Discussing my other writing on the push for FDA approval for psychedelic psychiatry in the US, my friend let me know about his friend "Diana." It took several sessions and more than 6 hours of telephone interviewing to gain enough trust for her to relate the intimate details of her ayahuasca insight.
But even with the protection of confidentiality, Diana had been skipping over a crucial part of her story every time we talked.
All she would say would be something like: "This is the part that is really quite personal. It gave me an answer. It was a physical processing of that answer. It was positive, and my answer came as an insight."
I think she realized that her story would be incomplete without that profound scene, and in recalling it, she had some in-the-moment reflections and emotional processing of the experience that I was very fortunate to witness. Her thoughts on the terror leavening her blissful insight came from that emotional peak of the interview and the cool-down phase.
I've since been in contact with the owners of the Temple, who are doing some very interesting cultural preservation and survival work with the Shipibo-Conibo that I may write about in the future. They have invited me down to see their operations and to witness the plant shamanism for myself. They have given me permission to use their materials in my video, and I have gained permissions from most of the other sources as well.
Danielle Venton ("Give Bees a Chance")
Getting into the field is always fun when you're reporting, especially if the field is full of blossoming almond trees. Many of the people I interviewed spoke of the "bloom break" in tones of awe, so I was desperate to get into the orchards and see for myself. I spent hours wandering around trees, down orchard rows, surrounded by soft-pink petals, sniffing, snapping photos, taking video, listening to the honyebees' soft hum. For a moment I entertained a fantasy of becoming an almond farmer.
Visiting the pinned native bee collection, the "insect graveyard" as I call it, at Claire Kremen's UC Berkeley lab was another treat. Who would have though bees could come in so many wild colors, shapes and sizes? Some are a jewel-like metallic green, some are fuzzy like a teddy bear. The students in the lab are wildly enthusiastic about bees. They'll speak fondly of their favorites, or tell funny stories about encountering memorable bees. It's hard not to become a bee-devotee around them. And there is no denying it, bees are adorable. [note: Danielle’s podcast places the listener smack in the middle of an urban bee garden]
Susan Young ("New Tools for the Blind")
Writing my first feature really solidified for me the importance of hidden sources- experts and stakeholders whom I interviewed, but didn't quote or mention directly in my piece. Every one of them helped shape this story by supporting what my main sources said or by bringing up important counterpoints or relevant issues I hadn't yet considered.
I did have to get over a guilty feeling that I might be disappointing sources or wasting their time by not explicitly including them in the story. In the end, I realized I needed to talk with each and every one of them to thoroughly report a complicated issue.
Sascha Zubryd ("The Salmon Snatchers")
I'm so impressed with the multimedia aspects of Science Notes this year. Video and audio were new storytelling media for me, and I was surprised how much I enjoyed working with them.
I'm grateful to my willing, patient sources who were also great on mic/camera, and to our instructors for their gentle direction.
Building a logical story structure for "The Salmon Snatchers" demanded all my powers of organization, and then some. Thank goodness for wise editors! Every time I write now I use skills they taught me during this project. [note: Sascha’s podcast features some fantastic audio of barking sea lions)
A last note from Rob: I hope you enjoy browsing the issue! The work shown represents a small portion of our overall training here during nine months of coursework and internships in Santa Cruz. Invariably, the students are proud of it, realizing that they now have the skills to pitch stories successfully to national editors.