Sunday, January 6, 2013

Pause Your PhD This Summer—And Try Out Science Reporting

Studio B at KUNC, my host site for the summer where I learned how to make science stories for the radio.

Reporting is a bit like doing scientific research—you don’t really know what it takes until you start doing it. Most scientists have never tried reporting, and are understandably nervous when their first breakthrough gets some media coverage. They don’t give a good interview, and a poorly trained reporter might not know how to properly translate obscure protein kinetics into something interesting—so the reporter botches it, exaggerating claims and getting facts wrong. The public—and science as a whole—loses.
That’s where the Mass Media Science & Engineering Fellows Program comes in. Unlike any other summer program I’m aware of, it’s a chance for graduate students to set down their pipettes (or test tubes, field samples, equations, or models) and see what it’s like for a reporter to get a good quote out of scientist, say, or simply just put that jargony sentence into, well, simple language (hint: it’s not always so simple).
The goal is not only to boost the quality of science journalism by injecting graduate students who know their science into the media landscape, but also to teach them how hard it can be—and what scientists need to do on their end to improve coverage.
Designed for science graduate students who are dedicated to improving science communication to the public, the fellowship carries the prestige of AAAS (the publisher of Science)—so future and current PIs aren’t frightened of your outside interests—and provides the hands-on experience that anyone contemplating a career change to journalism needs.
Fellows are paired up with a sponsor (mine was the very generous American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB)), given a brief orientation in Washington, DC at the AAAS headquarters, and sent off to various news outlets for 10 weeks to report, write—and in my case record—science stories.
My host was the tiny but superb NPR affiliate station, KUNC, in Greeley, Colorado. Folks familiar with ‘science radio’ may be aware of WNYC’s wonderful Radiolab, an hour-long radio magazine of sorts that asks big questions and delves deep into science topics.
My projects were all much shorter—either a minute or two put into the local newscast, or slightly longer ‘feature’ stories slotted into our versions of NPR’s Morning Edition or the afternoon All Things Considered program.
The feature stories were my favorite. It was an absolute blast (and challenge) to walk into a lab or climb up into a field observation tower, talk to some scientists, capture ambient sounds, and turn it into a three to four minute radio story. (For more information on my specific experience you can read my report on page nine in the Nov/Dec edition of the ASPB newsletter.)
Other hosts from last year include traditional print newspaper behemoths like the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, smaller regional papers (the Oregonian and the Raleigh News & Observer), as well as another Colorado radio station, Aspen Public Radio.
Not surprisingly, with the journalism world changing rapidly in the Internet era, all of us—regardless of the dominant media type of our hosts—also participated in some form of online component, from blogs and websites to social media tools.
With these technology advances in mind, it makes me very happy to announce that for the first time this year, AAAS is accepting applications via email! Here’s some more information and tips for those of you excited to become part of the next class of summer science reporters:
  • You don’t have to rely on snail mail this year, but that doesn’t mean you can delay—the deadline is January 15
  • Spend time on your writing sample, and emphasize your interest and commitment to science communication. Most of my classmates had gone out of their way to take a course or workshop in science writing, write for a campus publication, or author their own blog. (Being involved with the Science Diplomats counts, too!)
  • For Yalies who want to wait another year before applying, a great place to start is Carl Zimmer’s short workshop offered through the Ecology & Evolutionary Biology department. It’s a solid introduction to the basic skills required of science writers, and this year begins on January 28.
  • For another take from the 2012 Chicago Tribune fellow, see Jessica M. Morrison's blog post in Scientific American.

Jessica McDonald 
Immunobiology PhD Candidate 
2012 AAAS Mass Media Fellow