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Treating a reporter well: a case study

9 Dec

Scientists wear many hats, and taking the time to talk to a reporter adds one more task to their day or week. So I’m especially grateful when scientists make it easier to do my job and get the facts right.

Here’s the backstory from earlier this week: I had some particularly thorny questions and wasn’t quite sure who my best source might be for a story I was working on. I’ll fictionalize the topic– I needed to know whether pixie dust might be a good alternative for fueling rocket ships. Although one scientist didn’t respond by either phone or email, several others provided me with what I needed by doing a few simple things, ones that didn’t take a lot of time or effort– at least they didn’t seem to.

  • Point 1: Speak with authority on what you know but admit what you don’t.  When Scientist A called me back (promptly– serious bonus points), he said, “Look I’m an expert on pixie dust but not rocket ships, so I can’t really comment on the paper as a whole. But when you consider the pixie dust, you have to consider several issues.” Although a partial answer, it helped me look for what I really needed, a rocket ship expert.
  • Point 2: A response that says you don’t have time is better than no response. A couple of researchers got back to me and said, “Sorry, I’m swamped. I really can’t help you.” If you do that promptly, that helps me: I know that I need to find someone else right away rather than waiting and hoping that you will get back to me. A couple others got back to me with answers after mentioning that they were traveling or out of the office. I don’t expect that scientists will check in with me while they’re on vacation, but it’s great when they’re willing to take the time to do it.
  • Point 3: When you can’t answer my question but you know someone who can, I’m grateful for a name I can stick into Google. Another scientist– who wasn’t a full expert on alternate rocket ship fuels– forwarded my email to a colleague on another continent. I’m grateful when a scientist, particularly one I’ve never talked to before, is willing to go out of her way and do that. But even if you’d rather not stay involved in my question, if you know of someone off the top of your head, I appreciate learning about someone whom I can chase down on my own.

Fellow science journalists, what would you add to my list?

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Science, humanities, and education

24 Nov

On this day before Thanksgiving, my brain simmers as I think about the importance of a well-rounded education for human society, creative innovation, and even curious individuals.

In the last few days, David Kroll has cross-posted on his blogs about this move and one prominent response. I’ve already commented briefly on his blog, but the topic is still nagging at me.

Here’s the background. Nearly two months ago, the George Philip, the president of SUNY Albany announced that he was eliminating several humanities programs from that campus. No more French, Russian and Italian. Bye-bye, classics and theater.

Enter Greg Petsko, a Brandeis professor who has written a scathing (and spot-on) critique of the move. Kroll’s post lauds him as “a cool dude.”

As a science writer, it’s probably no surprise that my brain is perched somewhere between the science and humanities most of the time. But that’s not something that happened after being solely immersed in science for years. I think I surprised myself, my family, and even some of my friends when I became a chemist. I read, I wrote, I loved history and travel, and I learned to speak a foreign language. In college, I double-majored in chemistry and German. But German could have just as easily been English or history. Those interests balanced my “how things work” push that led me to science. Though I’ve always had a bit of the engineer’s desire to deconstruct, those details were meaningless to me outside the context of what they mean to society. I’m not objective in valuing a well-rounded education.

Clearly this passion is personal for Petsko, too. He writes:

Perhaps my own background will interest you. I started out as a classics major. I’m now Professor of Biochemistry and Chemistry. Of all the courses I took in college and graduate school, the ones that have benefited me the most in my career as a scientist are the courses in classics, art history, sociology, and English literature. These courses didn’t just give me a much better appreciation for my own culture; they taught me how to think, to analyze, and to write clearly. None of my sciences courses did any of that.

Philip’s justification for the cuts at Albany are all about money. Yes, money is tight everywhere. At the same time, this issue touches deeper societal questions. What is a university education? And should it be a prerequisite for getting a good job?

The problem is that an education isn’t job training. It’s an immersion of ideas, critical thinking and creativity. Classes in French, Russian or classics belong at a university. Those classes probably aren’t going to lead directly to a job, but that isn’t their purpose. Not everyone will want to take them, and– for many people– that’s okay. But an educational institution should support and nurture scholarship and give students the benefits of a broad education.

Job training, well, that’s a whole separate issue. An education is only one piece of that puzzle, and I’d like to see more opportunities that allow individuals be able to choose programs that fit their interests and needs: vocational programs that will prepare them for a specific job or a degree with broader educational goals. My point is that institutions need to be honest in what they call themselves. If you’re in the business of education, you need to live up to that promise.

The Origin of this Science Writer

6 Aug

Last week, Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science started a post that’s collecting the stories of how science writers came to this particular career. I finally got around to adding my contribution, which I’m reposting with relevant links.

At 16, I published my first article of science writing, a profile my high school chemistry teacher—also a part-time caterer— for the school’s literary magazine. At the time, I thought of myself as an educational sponge rather than a writer. I was a math and science geek who also loved language and literature. But I had no idea that I could combine the two. Instead, I pursued chemistry, fascinated by the machinery that powered life.

That interest fueled me for almost a decade until I was 5 years into a Ph.D. program at Indiana University. It was 2002, and I felt like academic science was pushing me to learn more and more about less and less. I knew I wanted to finish the Ph.D., but I had to figure out what I would do next.

I read the “alternative careers” books for scientists. I volunteered and later worked on staff at a hands-on science museum. But I also contacted Holly Stocking, a (now retired) professor at the IU journalism school, about her science writing course. That class changed my course completely. Over the next 2 years, I wrote for the campus newspaper, applied for internships, and finished my Ph.D.

A month after my Ph.D. defense, I moved to New York City for an internship at Discover magazine, followed by an AAAS Mass Media Fellowship at WNBC-TV. In the last 6 years, I’ve been freelancing for publications such as Discover, Science News, ScientificAmerican.com, Science Careers, Nature Biotechnology, and a number of science and health publications for children. I’ve also worked on science exhibits, serving as the research coordinator for the permanent astronomy exhibits at Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles.

I love the opportunity to learn about new ideas, talk with interesting people, and put those pieces together to tell a story. I’ve written about my advice to new science writers before—particularly those with extensive training as scientists. More on that here.

Blogathon Haiku day

24 May

As part of the WordCount Blogathon, today we’re all embarking on haiku posts. I really should let my inner science poet out a little more often. Today, I decided to riff on the my writing process of taking my research– the papers I’ve read, the experts I’ve talked with– and synthesizing that mix into a science article. It’s a dance: you have to process what you’ve learned, decide what to leave in, what to take out, and wrap the whole thing in an attractive flowing package. Doubt lingers every time I begin this journey, but I’m still swimming on the other side.

My haiku:

drowning in detail

pulling the puzzle apart

story now complete

Making sense of 200,000 gallons per day

11 May

View of the Gulf Oil Slick from the Terra satellite Credit: NASA/Earth Observatory/Jesse Allen, using data provided courtesy of the University of Wisconsin’s Space Science and Engineering Center MODIS Direct Broadcast system.

How much? It’s one of those basic journalism questions, but when it comes to many science stories, it can be a tough one to answer in meaningful way. In most of my writing and reporting, I’m trying to find analogies to describe features smaller than the eye can see. But on the macroscale– like with the current oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico– comparisons are equally challenging.

This weekend, NPR’s On The Media looked at how reporters have characterized the size, scope, and political implications of this environmental disaster. Here’s a piece of the size discussion:

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jackie Savitz, a senior scientist with Oceana, an international ocean conservation association, says that describing the scale of the leak in geographical terms, or how it looks from outer space, gives the public an incomplete understanding of the spill’s true dimension.

JACKIE SAVITZ: It may paint a picture of an area on the surface of the ocean that’s the size of Delaware, to the exclusion of all that area down below the surface, where lots of fish and other marine animals live who are also being exposed to the contamination. It might be more telling to think of it in terms of volume, like how many Olympic-sized pools is that or how many stadiums would that be, or what lake might that be equivalent to.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Does the fact that can see it from space actually convey anything meaningful?

JACKIE SAVITZ: Most people don’t really have a sense of how far away space is, and even when you say it I’m not really sure how far away you’re talking about. Is it a satellite that’s circling the Earth or are you seeing it from the moon, right?

Yet another reminder to think carefully about analogies to thread that needle between cliche and useful comparison.

Listen to the whole segment here.

Triple digits!

7 May

No, I’m not riffing on 10 squared, or even the the discovery that DNA sequences called genes are combined into packets called chromosomes (100 years ago).

No, today marks this blog’s 100th post.

I’ve offered my own version of how to become a science writer (in 10 not-so-easy guidelines) and the cultural divide between my new world and the old one. I’ve written about my favorite Mars rover, my Monopoly money bet on Spirit, and her transition to stationary science station.

Here are a few other favorites:

I’m looking forward to the next hundred.

Blogathon posting partners

4 May

As I promised, I’m posting a list of my fellow blogathoners, more than a hundred strong. I’m inspired to be in such a large group, but it’s also a little daunting. (Thanks again to Michelle Rafter, our fearless organizer). Here’s to day 4– More science tomorrow.

  • Rebecca I. Allen – 356 No More, A journey from couch to fit
  • Andi, Misadventures with Andi, Merry musings of a feisty foodie slash lit-chickie slash globe-trotting wannabe Frenchie!
  • Anjuli – bhulbhulaiyan, a complicated entanglement of zigzag pathways
  • Christa Avampato – Christa in New York, Curating a Creative Life
  • Joan Lambert Bailey – PopcornHomestead, Gardening, place and my life in Tokyo
  • Karen Bannan – Natural as Possible Mom, Because natural isn’t always possible — or easy
  • Linda Barnby, TheNEA.org, Taking Entrepreneurs from Where They Are to Where they Want to Be
  • t.a. barnhart – Left Coast Foodie, Damn, that’s good: a foodie blog by someone who knows what he’s doing
  • June Bell – Enough is enough! Advice and support
  • Teresa Bitler – Forty Firsts, A Midlife Crisis in the Making
  • Athena l. Borozon – Altar Valley Daily Orb, The Desert Rat Dialogues
  • Jane Boursaw* – Film Gecko, Cool movie news and reviews
  • Alisa Bowman – Project Happily Ever After, Marriage advice from a recovering divorce daydreamer
  • Carson Brackney – Carson Brackney, Consultant, Copywriter, Content Provider, Factotum
  • Ben BradleyBen’s (Not Quite) First Ever Presence on the Interweb, Blog of an aspiring human being
  • Sheena Brockington – Greenhouse Advertising, Cultivating ideas for small businesses
  • Danielle Buffardi* – Horrible Sanity, Going into the mind of a mother and freelancer
  • Beverly Burmeier – Going on Adventures, Travel stories from near and far
  • Diane Calhoun – Violet is My Color, Life just happens, deal with it
  • Danielle Carter – Live and Love Life VA, Helping you do more of what you love, and less of what you don’t!
  • Fiona Chan – Candy Prison, A typical teenager
  • Joy Choquette – One Year. 156 Fears. Life Changing. One woman tackles her fears
  • Bernard Chung – Green Tea World, It’s more than just a cup of green tea here
  • Caroline Clemmons – A Writer’s Life, Writing tips, interviews and miscellaneous ramblings
  • Shelley Clunie – ShelCluzo’s Blog, Healthy, wealthy and wise at 62
  • Cocotte – Leaping into Life, Uncommon stories to nurture body, mind & soul
  • Christianne Cook – A Day in My Mind, The world through my eyes
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