AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellows Work on the Front Lines

Evelyn Lamb wrote an ode to the importance of algebra during her AAAS fellowship with Scientific American. Meeri Kim reported on advances in preventing blindness, which prompted an older reader of the Philadelphia Inquirer to seek medical care that reportedly saved her vision. Jon Bardin contributed to Los Angeles Times coverage of NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover landing. Ian C. Campbell ventured waist-deep into a river for an Oregonian story about a Native American harvest of eel-like creatures called lamprey.

These reporters were among a dozen AAAS Mass Media Science & Engineering Fellows who worked in top U.S. newsrooms this summer, covering dam explosions, breakthroughs in robotics, invasive species, science education, new drug delivery systems, and much more. In addition, two undergraduates who aspire to be science journalists spent 10 weeks at Science magazine in Washington, D.C., as part of the association’s Minority Science Writers Internship program.

Ian C. Campbell

Ian C. Campbell

“We have such great experiences with this program,” said Karl Stark, health and science editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer, who worked with University of Pennsylvania graduate student Kim. “The fellows do really good stories. They’ve got beautiful brains, and often they come with great writing skills, too.”

Stark said he was particularly impressed by Kim’s 27 June article on the dramatic rise in older Americans afflicted with eye disorders. “After reading that story, a woman realized she had a serious eye problem and should see a doctor,” Stark said. “They did an operation on the spot. She wrote Meeri back to say, basically, ‘If it wasn’t for you, I would have lost my eyesight.’”

The AAAS Mass Media Fellowships, established in 1975, send exceptional science, engineering, and mathematics students into leading newsrooms over the summer. Fellow Jessica Stoller-Conrad, for example, worked for National Public Radio, preparing content for health and food blogs. She completed roughly two dozen stories during her fellowship. Her favorite piece explored the challenges associated with dementia patients who have romantic relationships while living in nursing homes.

Stoller-Conrad, who holds a master’s degree in biology from the University of Notre Dame, said she plans to pursue a career in science journalism. Evelyn Lamb, a mathematician with a Ph.D. from Rice University, said she will continue to write for Scientific American this fall before completing a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Utah. “My goal is to go into academia,” Lamb said. “But I hope I can keep science and mathematics communication as a secondary endeavor.”

Shirley Malcom, head of AAAS Education and Human Resources, said former Mass Media fellows can now be found working in laboratories as well as newsrooms. “We need strong communicators, no matter what they decide to do with that skill,” Malcom said. “Some fellows, such as [MIT biologist] Eric Lander, have continued to work as scientists. Others, like NPR reporter Joe Palca, have made major contributions to science journalism. The goal is to increase the number of people who are deeply committed to communicating about science and technology, wherever they work.”

Past fellows also include Sam Kean, author of The Violinist’s Thumb and The Vanishing Spoon, who also serves as a correspondent for Science, said Bob Hirshon, AAAS program director for technology and learning. “They’re everywhere—teaching, doing research, reporting, and writing for general audiences.”

Lamb said her Scientific American essay in defense of algebra—written in response to a New York Times essay—made her think about how she could motivate students in the future as a mathematics teacher. “This fellowship taught me a lot about how people view math and science, and also how much they want to know,” she said. “There’s a real public need for good math and science writing.”

At the Oregonian, Campbell focused on writing science stories with a strong regional angle, a challenge that often required deep immersion into the local environment. Campbell donned boots and a hard hat, for example, when the Condit dam was removed from the White Salmon River to restore salmon migratory patterns. He also waded into deep water to interview Native American teens as they harvested lamprey, and he wrote a surprising piece about the impacts of elementary school teachers inadvertently releasing invasive species into the wild following classroom crayfish projects.

“It was a fantastic summer,” said Campbell, a doctoral candidate in biomedical engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University. “The Oregonian is a great newsroom. At first, I thought there might be cool science that I would miss out on because of the regional focus, but then I realized there is a wealth of science happening at the local universities.”

Bardin had a completely different type of reporting experience at the Los Angeles Times, where he wound up covering major national news stories, including the tragedy that unfolded in Aurora, Colorado, where James E. Holmes allegedly opened fire on moviegoers. Karen Kaplan, science and medicine editor for the Los Angeles Times, said Bardin’s coverage was insightful and may have helped to inform reporting by others.

“Much was made of the fact that Holmes had recently dropped out of a graduate neuroscience program at the University of Colorado at Denver,” Kaplan wrote in an e-mail about the fellowships. “Jon, who is wrapping up his Ph.D. in neuroscience at Cornell, helped set the record straight for readers (as well as for reporters and editors covering various aspects of the story) about what it’s like to be a grad student in this field. When CNN and other news outlets reported that Holmes [allegedly] diverted National Institutes of Health research funds to pay for his weapons, Jon wrote an authoritative blog post explaining how training grants actually work.”

Bardin also prepared “a fascinating A1 story about the biological difficulties of determining the gender of Olympic athletes,” Kaplan said, as well as pieces on the use of WikiLeaks data to predict the course of warfare, a robot that can learn to speak like a human, the genetic mutation that makes some tomatoes taste bland, and much more. He also worked with a team assigned to cover the landing of the Curiosity Rover.

“How many interns can say they live-tweeted the nail-biting ‘seven minutes of terror’ straight from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory as NASA’s Curiosity Rover descended to the Martian surface?” Kaplan asked.

Indeed, Bardin said he will never forget watching the landing. “It was an unbelievable experience,” he said. “All the best science writers in the country flew to Los Angeles to cover this story. I was in this cramped newsroom, surrounded by the best journalists in the business. I got to watch how they collected their information, how they handled the interviews. It was like a learning lab for me.”

Editors said the AAAS Mass Media Fellows play an important role in accurately reporting science news to the public. “The fellows we get from AAAS are usually among the best in the newsroom,” Kaplan said. “They are very committed and work hard to make the most of their time with us. In weekly story meetings, they bring a unique perspective that helps us see things in a new light.”

Stark agreed. “We have such great experiences with it. People do really good stories,” he said. “You have to invest in the person, and there is a time commitment, but I always feel it pays off. I enjoy doing it. They come with different perspectives, and they come with good ideas… If you think about how quickly the world is changing, it’s critical to get science information out there.”

Scientific American has hosted AAAS Mass Media Fellows for years, said Mariette DiChristina, the magazine’s editor-in-chief. “The fellows always enliven the office with their passion for science and communicating science to the public.”

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Bob Hirshon and Krystnell Storr

A number of organizations teamed up with AAAS to help sponsor the fellowships this year, including the American Physical Society, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, the Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineers (IEEE), the American Geophysical Union, the American Society of Plant Biologists, the American Physiological Society, and the American Mathematical Society.

In parallel with the AAAS Mass Media Fellowships, the journal Science hosted two students as part of the Minority Science Writers Internship program, begun in 2005. Krystnell Storr, one of the students, worked with editors David Grimm (a former Mass Media Fellow himself) and Jeff Mervis to prepare brief ScienceNOW articles and ScienceShots items.

Storr, a recent graduate of Earlham College in Indiana, hopes to earn a master’s degree in science writing. She said the internship taught her how to be more assertive and persistent in pursuing information for stories—a key journalistic skill. “Before coming to Science, I would request an interview, and if someone said they were too busy, I would say, ‘Oh, that’s okay.’ They helped me understand that I can push a little harder, and usually the source will give me at least a little bit of time.”

The complete lineup of 2012 Mass Media Fellows and Minority Science Writer Interns included:

AAAS Mass Media Fellows

Amanda Alvarez, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

Jon Bardin, Los Angeles Times

Jessica Morrison Beard, Chicago Tribune

Ian C. Campbell, Oregonian

Ryder Diaz, Aspen Public Radio

Julie Granka, Sacramento Bee

Meeri Kim, Philadelphia Inquirer

Evelyn Lamb, Scientific American

Jessica McDonald, KUNC-Greeley

Kerstin Nordstrom, Raleigh News & Observer

Jessica Stoller-Conrad, National Public Radio

Rebecca Widiss, Voice of America

Science Minority Writer Interns

Nicholas St. Fleur, Science

Krystnell Storr, Science