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AAAS Media Fellows Learn the Challenge and Joy of Landing on Page 1
Andreas von Bubnoff was about to earn his doctoral degree in developmental biology from the University of Freiburg in Germany, but this summer he got the kind of opportunity that thrills a good newspaper reporter.
Even as he was preparing to defend his thesis, the young German scientist was a AAAS mass media fellow working at the Chicago Tribune. In June, his editors came to him with a story first published in the journal Science, about comet dust gathered by the Stardust spacecraft as it crossed paths with the comet Wild 2. Von Bubnoff scrambled to report the story for the Tribune, and that's when he got his break.
"I phoned the team of German scientists and they kept going on about this molecule they discovered that might have been a key to life here on Earth," he said in an interview this week. "To me, that was the story."
His editors thought so tooand the biologist got a compelling exclusive that set him apart from reporters at other newspapers and broadcast stations.
It's not the sort of thrill that most scientists ever experiencethey have their own sort of Eureka! momentbut 17 college and university students in AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellows program this summer got the chance. For 10 weeks, they worked as reporters, researchers and production assistants in mass media organizations nationwide, from National Public Radio to Popular Science, and from the Los Angeles Times to the Voice of America.
"This program has the potential to be a life-changing experience for many of the fellows," said Stacey Pasco, manager of the fellows program. "They come in with a love of science and come out with a greater understanding of the importance of communicating scientific concepts to the public. But more specifically, they have now learned how to communicate these concepts more effectively."
The 2004 fellows convened at AAAS headquarters in Washington, D.C., this week to close out the summer with two days of lectures, poster sessions and social events. During its 30-year history, the program has supported more than 450 fellows. They have collaborated with media professionals at radio and television stations, newspapers, online sites and magazines, working to make science news clear and comprehensiveand fascinatingfor a general audience.
Unlike many of the other fellows, von Bubnoff had past experience writing for school newspapers; while doing his doctoral research at the University of California at Irvine, he also worked for the college newspaper, eventually serving as news editor. "I had my own science page that ran two to three stories a week," he said.
But that didn't match the scope or the high-intensity pace in a big-city newsroom. "Daily newspaper experience is important because it's really fast," said von Bubnoff. "I learned to rely on my instinct. There was one story that involved contacting a lot of scientists and only three hours to pull everything together. You call and interview 10 people and only three end up in the article.
"I learned how to type fast. Actually, I'm still working on it," he added. "Reporters will be on the phone, talking and typing the whole time."
Von Bubnoff returned to Freiburg this summer and successfully defended his thesis on glow-in-the-dark frogs. Now that he's got his Ph.D., he wants to do more writing, trying his hand at "really long, complex science pieces that delve deep beneath the surface." His next assignment: attending the prestigious Science Communication Program at the University of California at Santa Cruz, beginning in September.
Eric Tytell has spent the last two months writing for the Los Angeles Times, but unlike von Bubnoff, he looks forward to returning to the lab. Tytell is a Ph.D. candidate in organismic and evolution biology at Harvard University. He found the fellowship enriching in many ways, but like many reporters and editors, he found the frantic pace a bit maddening at times.
"In a Ph.D. program, you can take as long as you need to learn the details of your field, whether it takes five years or six or sometimes 10," he said. "As a reporter, I'd have two hours to reach the person and write the story….I was always working on the edge of understanding the science. It was really exciting, but also frustrating."
The piece he considers his bestit made Page 1 and generated a lot of response from readerswas about blue roses, or the lack thereof.
"It was interesting to learn the efforts to genetically engineer a blue rose," he explained. "They haven't gotten it to blue yetit's still more like purple. I spend a lot of time talking with biochemists, learning about flower pigments. Interviewing for the business and consumer aspect was difficult. I called more than 30 florists looking for an interesting quote to open with. That was difficult. I have a newfound respect for people who get the quotes."
Tytell also enjoyed the interaction he had with readers. As an example, he cites a story he wrote about the mucus levels of cystic fibrosis patients.
"Doctors always assumed there was too much mucus in cystic fibrosis patients," he explained. "So this one scientist from Wake Forest measured the mucus levels and found there to be too little. A week later I received a letter from a woman with cystic fibrosis thanking me for explaining her condition. That was really great."
Now that the fellowship is over, Tytell is focusing his final year of doctoral research and writing. Still, he says, he might try his hand at freelance writing in the future if his schedule allows. Tytell credits the program with building confidence in his ability to read something, understand it and then report it. He also feels he can better communicate his own researchon the mechanics of fish swimmingon a level that people can understand.
In ways such as that, the AAAS program's impact extends beyond the 10 weeks fellows spend at their summer sites. A significant number of program alumni have been encouraged by their fellowship experiences to pursue careers related to science journalism. Others working as scientists or engineers become more adept at describing scientific concepts to reporters who call their institutions for information. Some hire on as freelancers, or have otherwise incorporated new activities related to public understanding of science into their academic or professional work in science and engineering.
In addition to AAAS, the 2004 mass media fellows program was sponsored by: the American Geophysical Union; the American Mathematical Society; the American Physical Society; the American Physiological Society; the American Society of Plant Biologists; the Burroughs Wellcome Fund; the Camille & Henry Dreyfus Foundation; the Foundation for Child Development; the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, USA; and the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics.
"We are proud to have developed partnerships with our funders, many of whom are also affiliated societies," said Shirley Malcom, head of Education and Human Resources at AAAS. "They understand that supporting the development of students to communicate with the public, through public media, is an investment in promoting understanding of their fields."
Monica Amarelo and Edward W. Lempinen
19 August 2004