News: News Archives
Scientists-Turned-Reporters Find "a Real Sense of Accomplishment" as AAAS Media Fellows
Tim De Chant
Tim De Chant, who is working toward his doctorate in environmental science at the University of California, Berkeley, has written for a well-regarded campus science magazine that appears once a semester. But that did not prepare him for the deadline intensity of a big city newspaper.
De Chant is among 14 science and engineering students, most of them working on doctorates, who were selected to participate in this year's AAAS Mass Media Fellowship program. De Chant spent his summer at The Chicago Tribune, where he quickly had to adjust to the pace of daily journalism. Soon after he arrived, he was assigned to cover a morning briefing at the Field Museum on the scanning of a 2,200-year-old mummy with new X-ray technology. He returned to the office by 11:30 a.m. and wrote a piece that was posted on the Tribune's web site by 2:00 p.m. and published in the next morning's paper.
"It's a real sense of accomplishment," De Chant said, to write a piece quickly and accurately. He credited his bosses at the Tribune with helping him develop his writing skills, guiding him through refinements in his style that his fiancé told him were apparent as his internship progressed.
There were similar accounts from other Fellows interviewed during a wrap-up session on Aug. 11-12 at AAAS. The Fellows said they were welcomed warmly in newsrooms, given meaningful assignments and patient instruction on how to report and write their stories. In many cases, they also experienced first-hand the changing landscape of American newspapers, where declines in advertising and circulation have led to staff reductions and a move to online reporting and content.
The Fellows, selected from an applicant pool of about 130, were placed in June with news outlets around the country, including National Public Radio, The Los Angeles Times, U.S. News and World Report, Discover magazine and Scientific American. Stacey Pasco, who manages the Mass Media Fellowship program, said the stresses on the newspaper industry may have an unintended benefit for the Fellows, what with science editors struggling to cover the news with fewer people. When the papers are short-staffed, she said, "I think the Fellows tend to get more work."
Leigh Boerner, who is working on a doctorate in chemistry from Indiana University, said she wrote about 25 science stories during her stint with The Orange County Register in California. She worked with Pat Brennan, an environment writer, and science editor Gary Robbins, who does much of his writing for a blog called Sciencedude. "My primary job was working on the Sciencedude blog,'' Boerner said, and she became very aware of the paper's interest in expanding its online content. "The thing that's really big at the Register now," Boerner said, "is 'hits,' " the number of unique visitors going to the science blog and other online pages.
Other Fellows worked on projects that were on softer deadlines. All were enthusiastic about their experiences and said they would recommend the Mass Media Fellowship program to friends and colleagues.
"It was a wonderful experience," said Lindsay Chura, a Mount Holyoke graduate who studied reproductive endocrinology in Australia on a Fulbright scholarship. She will soon begin a doctoral program at the University of Cambridge in Britain. Chura worked at U.S. News & World Report, where her assignments included compiling "An Atlas of Climate Change."
"The opportunity to really explore an area that was outside my usual scope was the most exciting aspect for me," Chura said. She also became intrigued by the policy questions surrounding climate change and sought contacts with aides on Capitol Hill and elsewhere who were dealing with the topic. Because of her new interest in science policy, Chura said, she may eventually apply for a AAAS Congressional Fellowship. Meanwhile, she hopes to do some freelance writing while she pursues her doctorate. "I definitely want to continue with this," Chura said.
Wendy Hansen, who just received her doctorate in biophysics from UC Berkeley, worked at The Los Angeles Times. "I learned a lot," Hansen said. "I loved the pace of it." She particularly enjoyed the opportunity to do a Q & A interview with biologist Cheryl Hayashi, a MacArthur Fellow at the University of California, Riverside, who is an expert on the genetic structure of spider silk. Hansen had an opportunity to play with some tarantulas during the course of the interview.
Other Mass Media Fellows also spoke of favorite stories and interesting personalities they interviewed. Carrie Nugent, a doctoral candidate in the earth and space science program at UCLA, worked at The Oregonian in Portland, Ore. "I love newspapers," she said, "even though they may become dinosaurs." Her favorite assignment was to write about an unusual frog in Cameroon that can scratch like a cat by shoving claw-like bits of bone through the skin of its toes. Such claws are remarkably rare in amphibians, she learned.
Julie Thole, who received her doctorate in plant biology in May from Washington University in St. Louis, was assigned to Discover magazine in New York. Like Chura, she also spent much of her time working in an area completely different from her training—research and fact-checking for a special issue of the magazine called "The Whole Universe Catalogue." As part of the assignment, she compiled a spreadsheet with details on more than 300 planets that have been discovered in solar systems beyond our own.
Brian Johnson, a geology student who graduated from Haverford College in May, spent his summer at National Public Radio. He worked on an audio slide show on the history of our fascination with Mars. He filed a piece on model rocket clubs for an in-house broadcast featuring the work of NPR interns. He also recounted his most intriguing interview, a conversation with a NASA scientist whose hobby was origami, the Japanese art of paper-folding. When the space agency studied how to deploy in orbit a telescope lens the size of a football field, the scientist used his origami skills to come up with a way of packing the lens, umbrella-like, into a rocket's cylindrical payload carrier. His solution was applauded, although the project ultimately did not go forward.
Back at The Chicago Tribune, De Chant's favorite story was a front-page piece that looked critically at different online calculators for estimating a "carbon footprint," the amount of heat-trapping greenhouse gases a person produces during driving and other activities. The calculators come up with wildly varying estimates, De Chant found, partly because the methodology is still very much a work in progress.
That said, at the suggestion of a former Mass Media Fellow who works at the Tribune, De Chant also did an accompanying story on the amount of carbon dioxide he put into the atmosphere while working on his carbon footprint story. Based on his own reporting and calculations developed by the Berkeley Institute of the Environment, De Chant came up with an estimate of 41.9 pounds: 2.9 pounds for transit to and from work; 0.09 pounds for electricity to power his computer; 0.0001 pounds for electricity to power his phone; and 38.9 pounds associated with production of the food he ate during his lunches.
Many of the Fellows will be returning to their studies at summer's end. But whether they eventually get back into journalism or remain in science, several of them said, the Fellows experience will help them communicate more effectively about science no matter what endeavors they pursue.
18 August 2008