AAAS Mass Media Fellows Find Science, Journalism Require Similar Skills

Temple University graduate student Meredith Hegg said that communicating complex research to others, especially to scientists outside one's discipline and the public, can be one of the most difficult aspects of the scientific process.

But because her applied mathematics research requires collaboration with scientists outside her discipline, she eventually developed a strong set of science communication skills—avoiding unnecessary jargon and organizing facts into easy-to-understand concepts.


Meredith Hegg talks with Harvey Leifert, former press officer for the American Geophysical Union, about her work this summer at the Voice of America

Hegg credited these skills with helping her file radio stories this summer as a 2009 AAAS Mass Media Fellow where she worked as a science reporter for Voice of America (VOA).

"The best scientists are able to describe their research clearly as well as explain why their information is important," said Hegg, whose graduate work involves predicting the physical properties of composite materials. "These are the exact same skills that make a good science reporter."

Hegg was one of 12 scientist-reporters who spoke about their summer fellowship at a poster session during a 17-18 August AAAS Mass Media Fellowship wrap-up event at AAAS headquarters in Washington, D.C. Besides the poster session, the Fellows attended sessions on freelance writing, exploring jobs outside of academia, and a roundtable discussion with AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner.

Over the past 35 years, AAAS has teamed with various sponsoring organizations such as the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, the American Physical Society, and the American Mathematical Society to place science, engineering and mathematics scholars in newsrooms across the country for 10 weeks to expose them to the challenges of effectively communicating science to a non-technical audience.

The program has placed interns at newspapers, magazines, and radio outlets around the country including National Public Radio, the Sacramento Bee, the Chicago Tribune, Scientific American, the Los Angeles Times, and the Oregonian.

Stacey Pasco, senior program associate at AAAS Education and Human Resources, said the competitive program allows science, engineering, and mathematics students to use their academic and research skills to write about the science news of today, and, along the way, to sharpen their communication skills.

Pasco said that the journalism internship encourages the young scientists to "think beyond just their experiment as they discover that science ultimately serves society."

During the roundtable discussion, Leshner, who also serves as the executive editor of Science, cited a frequent disconnect between what scientists want to talk about and what the public wants to know. "Science journalists perform a critical function in society by bridging the conversation gap between the experts and the public," said Leshner.

Hegg, who graduated from Swarthmore College and previously taught high school mathematics in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, said her favorite VOA radio story was on a bold proposal to develop fairer national emission targets to mitigate climate change.

Written during the July 2009 G-8 Summit and entitled "New Plan Aims for Fairness in Carbon Emission Cuts,"Hegg's article detailed a plan developed by a team at Princeton University in which nations would be assigned emissions restrictions based on the number of people in their country that emit above a certain international per capita target.

This new proposal encourages heavy polluters in populous counties to curb emissions. Hegg said that using old target proposals, the small number of heavy polluters in India, for example, would not have to curb emissions due to the large number of Indian citizens that emit miniscule amounts of carbon.

Rob Sivak, senior features editor at VOA, said his organization, a federal agency that produces video, audio and web stories and distributes them worldwide in 45 different languages, has been thrilled with the Mass Media Fellows who have interned at VOA over the past eight years.

"We have been tremendously happy with their caliber. We welcome strong writers, especially for science reporting," said Sivak, who edited several of Hegg's stories. "The Fellows have always been self-motivating and good communicators. Those are the makings of a good journalist."


Ben Young Landis talks with a fellow scientist-journalist about his work this summer at the Orange County Register

Ben Young Landis, who recently received his masters in environmental management from the Nicholas School of Environment at Duke University, said that many of his articles for the Orange County (California) Register and its science blog sought to address common reader queries.

For Independence Day, Landis wrote an article on the science of fireworks that included a large multimedia presentation that showed how elements like copper, titanium, and sodium are combusted to create the different colors in the night sky. In researching the story, Landis even interviewed the chief scientist of Walt Disney Imagineering Research and Development.

"Who knew they even had such a position?" Landis joked.

One of his favorite stories was a feature article on Scott Carpenter, the fourth American in space and one of two living members of the "Mercury Seven," NASA's very first class of astronauts.

"[Carpenter's] exploits are the foundation for all that America and much of humanity have accomplished in human space exploration," wrote Landis. He added that many in his generation have largely forgotten Carpenter and his mission.

Russ Campbell, a communications officer for Burroughs Wellcome Fund, said that his organization is enthusiastic about supporting career development programs especially when they advance public understanding of science.

"We are consistently amazed at the great work that the Fellows do," said Campbell, who has been involved with the Mass Media Fellows program for the past four years. "As a group, they are some of the best science communicators."