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Minority Science Writers Hone Journalism Skills in Summer Internship
Nearing the end of a summer's crash course in science journalism with the award-winning news team at the journal Science, the 2008 AAAS Minority Science Writers interns have learned everything from pitching stories to podcasting, with a impressive sheaf of clips to show for their hard work. It's a fast ten weeks, but Fayana Richards and Andrea Lu say the experience has been invaluable.
To file their stories for Science and ScienceNOW, the daily online news service of Science, Richards and Lu have explored the mysteries of tune deafness, the genetics of high altitude adaptation, a controversial science education bill in Louisiana, and anxious rats with overactive bladders. But they have also learned more about crafting and editing their stories and searching for science news in unexpected places.
"I have really sharpened my reporting and writing skills since I've been here, and I think I've become a much more resourceful person in terms of making a story better," said Richards, who graduated from the University of Arizona last May with a journalism degree. "I think that's more valuable than any clips I can get while I'm here."
Lu, who graduated in May from the University of California-Berkeley with a degree in integrative biology, praised the "fantastic events, the great people, and all the tools that are available to us" as part of the internship. "We learn from the best," she said.
The AAAS Minority Science Writers Internship, which runs from June to mid-August, is a paid internship open to any minority undergraduate with a serious interest in science writing. "The idea behind the internships is that science is increasingly global, the performers are increasing global, but the science journalism community is not representative of that increasing global participation," explained Jeffrey Mervis, Science deputy news editor and head of the internships.
The program, now in its fourth year, "isn't a program for science majors," like the AAAS Mass Media Fellowships, noted Mervis. "What makes this different is that we're trying to tap into the journalism community at the undergraduate level, to reach people committed to being journalists and say, "Hey, have you ever thought about doing science writing?'"
"I don't think that minority students tend to think of science journalism as a career," Richards said. "With a lot of my friends, they're looking for a moneymaker as an undergraduate, thinking about what they can do to help out their family."
As she pursued her double major in journalism and anthropology, Richards said she struggled to figure out how she could combine the two, then decided that science writing might be "the perfect blend." Despite having some scientific background, she was apprehensive at the start of the internship that scientists would be tough to interview. "But I feel like they do loosen up and show their personalities," she said. "They don't talk over my head, and I enjoy the experience."
Lu wrote for the campus newspaper The Daily Californian as an undergraduate, and said she found herself "sucked back into journalism" after working on her high school newspaper. At Berkeley, she said, "I really thought I found my niche in science reporting, and I wanted to explore it more with this internship."
In the Asian-American community, Lu said, students interested in science are often directed toward the hard sciences or engineering "without considering other avenues. You don't have to work in a lab or company, you could also go out and write and report on it."
After her previous experience writing up new research and profiling researchers, Lu said her time in the Washington, D.C.-based Science office was "kind of an eye-opener. A lot of the articles here are sort of previews of what's happening in industry and government, what happens in the grant process, what kinds of scandals are happening with peer review. I saw a lot more aspects of science journalism."
Richards and Lu say they have learned how hard it is to pitch a story, and to meet the exacting standards of the Science news editors. But they have also found that scientists and journalists have tremendous respect for the magazine, which helps them get their phone calls returned now and may help them land a job in the future.
"We try to make it fun, but we don't dumb it down, we don't pretend that it's not challenging," Mervis said. "We're interested in people who find that challenge exciting, and we'll give them all the support that they need with the resources we have here at AAAS."
Both interns heard gloomy reports about the future of journalism reports underscored by buyout and layoff news at major outlets such as The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times during their time in D.C. "I'm still very undecided," Lu admitted. "I'm at the point where I'm thinking, do I pursue a career in the sciences, or do I go into journalism, which is something I fell in love with?"
Richards will push to cover science in her next journalism job, even if she doesn't end up on the science or health beat, she said. "When I find a job, I'll pitch these stories independently, and maybe get a foot in the back door that way, rather than being the official science writer."
"It's been exciting to be a part of this program from the beginning and to see the impact it can have on young journalists," said Stacey Pasco, the senior program associate at AAAS Education and Human Resources who manages the internships. "By creating a cadre of alumni who are excited to take their lessons forward, we hope to create even more interest in this opportunity."
Learn more about the AAAS Minority Science Writers Internship, including profiles of past interns.
6 August 2008