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Young Scientists in AAAS Mass Media Fellowship Program Score Hits Coast to Coast
[Photo © Harvey Leifert]
"It was the greatest eight weeks of my life. I had just an unbelievable experience."
So says Erika Gebel, a Johns Hopkins Ph.D. candidate in biophysics, about her summer. Was she surfing in Oahu, trekking in the Himalayas, or perhaps observing wildlife in Namibia? No, none of the above. Gebel reported science news at the Philadelphia Inquirer. She was one of 18 Mass Media Fellows selected by AAAS from among over a hundred applicants, all seeking to develop their skill as science writers and clarify their career goals.
The Fellows, who had fanned out across the country from New York to Santa Ana, Calif., in June, returned to AAAS Headquarters in Washington, D.C., 13 August for a wrap-up session. The highlight of the two-day event was a poster display, in which they shared their biggest stories with their colleagues and members of sponsoring organizations. There was a lot to share.
"It was a great group," said Stacey Pasco, who manages the AAAS Mass Media Fellows program. "They turned out a lot more stories than we've seen in the past, so they were really productive."
Not all Fellows become journalists, of course. The program is equally intended to help young scientists become better communicators. Indeed, the most important part of the Mass Media Fellowship program, says AAAS Senior Project Director Judy Kass, is "getting the science students to realize the importance of communicating to the public—and the fact that the public really values what they have to say."
The stories presented on the Fellows' poster boards covered an array of topics. Brandy Benedict, a Ph.D. candidate in applied mathematics at North Carolina State University, wrote two math-related stories for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. One was on the Sudoku craze, in which two professors said that mathematical skill can play a role in shaping the puzzles, if not necessarily in solving them. Benedict did not write only about math, of course; other stories included reports on neutron stars and the sighting of Kirtland's Warbler in Wisconsin, far from its normal range.
Elsa Youngsteadt also stretched her wings. Like Benedict a Ph.D. candidate at North Carolina State, but in entomology, she had sought assignment to a newspaper in California, but found herself at WOSU-AM, an NPR affiliate in Columbus, Ohio. She had little time to reflect on the unexpected venue, though. After just one day of training on various electronic equipment, she was off to cover stories.
Her favorite dealt with permaculture, a concept that combines design with ecological principles. But her editor's favorite, she says, was about a giant gas gun that fires aluminum pellets, simulating space junk, at 20,000 miles per hour into materials used to armor spacecraft. The racket made good radio sound, she said with a smile.
"I had a ball. It was actually, I think, more fun than writing for print, because there was that whole extra dimension," said Youngsteadt. "It was nice to do it in this community of 18," she adds. "We were also able to keep track of each other over the summer and kind of compare notes."
The Fellows participated in many training sessions at AAAS both before and after their work assignments. Here they listen to Steve Lyons of Moreno/Lyons Productions, who discussed various media-related career alternatives for young scientists.
[Photo © Harvey Leifert]
Benjamin Larson was one of several Fellows who is not certain about his career path. Soon to defend his oceanography thesis at the University of Washington, he worked at The Oregonian in Portland, under the tutelage of Science Editor Richard Hill. The mentoring provided to the Fellows by seasoned reporters and editors is a key element of the Fellows program, and Hill has played this role many times.
"I think he's earned every one of his awards and all of the praise that he gets. He's a great journalist, a friendly person," says Larson of Hill. "He does a lot of work on behalf of the Fellows, behind the scenes, without you even realizing it." Hill's reputation helped, says Larson. "All you had to do when you interviewed a scientist was mention Richard's name and they gave you the keys to the kingdom."
Although most Fellows are graduate students or recent Ph.D.s, Jackie Scahill had just graduated with a B.A. in biology from Ithaca College when she crossed the country to KPCC, an NPR affiliate in Pasadena, Calif. There she researched, reported, and produced science stories for local segments of All Things Considered. The experience was "amazing," she said of her summer at KPCC, which was participating in the Fellows program for the first time.
"I think this is an absolutely ideal way for a scientist to get into the field of journalism," said Scahill. "I wouldn't have gotten this if I tried applying for a job, because they wouldn't have hired me as a scientist. But now that I have this under my belt, it's like, hey, I know what I'm doing with radio." KPCC obviously agrees, because Scahill flew back to Pasadena after the Fellows wrap-up for two additional weeks—and possibly more—of science reporting for the station.
Although scientists often take a leisurely approach to research projects, journalists typically work under extreme time pressure. Katherine Leitzell learned this immediately upon arrival at U.S. News & World Report in Washington. At noon on her first day, a Thursday, she met her editor. "She said, 'We have an assignment for you,'" recounted Leitzell. It was a breaking story about stem cell research, and the magazine needed an article by Friday morning.
Leitzell has an M.S. in neuroscience from the University of Southern California, and she jumped right into the story, working until 7:30 that first evening and returning early the next morning, finishing at 10 A.M. "It was in the magazine on Monday," she said proudly. Her editor was delighted—and other editors were amazed that the newbie did so well so fast.
Every Mass Media Fellow has comparable stories to tell. The poster session at AAAS was the locus of anecdotes about stories that made page one—and those that just missed. Regardless of their individual achievements, all would surely agree with Erika Gebel, summing up the Fellows program: "I think it's the best thing ever for scientists who are interested in journalism."
20 August 2007