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AAAS Mass Media Fellowship Charts New Path for Oceanographer Giuliana Viglione

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Giuliana Viglione

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the AAAS Mass Media Science & Engineering Fellowship changed Giuliana Viglione’s life.

Viglione is in the sixth and final year of her Ph.D. in environmental science and engineering at the California Institute of Technology. As a AAAS Mass Media Fellow, she spent the summer of 2018 writing about science for a local television news station in Seattle, Washington.

She thrived in the fast-paced newsroom where she published regularly on the King5 News website.

“Having been in grad school for five years, taking months if not years to put out a paper, it was amazing to write something and have that be published the same day or the next day,” Viglione said.

She plans to finalize her Ph.D. this academic year and pursue a career in science journalism.

“The fellowship really solidified that this is what I want to be doing,” Viglione said. “It was the first time in a long time that I went into work every day feeling excited.”

She is the first to note the irony that it took until the last year of her Ph.D. to discover she could combine her passions for science and writing together into a career.

Growing up, the New York native had always enjoyed writing stories and poems and had dreamed of being a novelist. She gravitated towards the sciences after a middle school science teacher made everything seem interesting, while high school English did the opposite — emphasizing literature analyzation over creative writing.

She studied chemical engineering at Columbia University, and her research experience in atmospheric chemistry led her to Caltech, where she jumped from the atmosphere to the ocean.

“I took an introductory oceanography class my first year,” she said, “and when I go back and look at my notes, the whole margins are filled with ‘Cool!’ and ‘This is amazing!’”

When the opportunity to study climate change in Antarctica using underwater robots arose, Viglione was hooked. Specifically, she has been researching how small scale currents in the Southern Ocean influence the ocean’s uptake of carbon dioxide, and how those motions might be better accounted for in global climate models.

Currents that are 1 kilometer to 10 kilometers wide might sound large, but on the scale of the ocean are actually quite small. “We don’t have any idea really how these motions can affect large scale climate because they are very hard to observe and very hard to model,” Viglione said.

While most Antarctic research is done during the summer when the weather is better and seas are calmer, Viglione and her colleagues deployed underwater gliders in Drake Passage, the stormiest region of the ocean between the southern tip of Argentina and islands north of Antarctica — in summer and in winter. The gliders rode the currents for about four months, revealing the diversity of these motions over space and time. For example, currents were very active on one side of an underwater ridge, while minimal motion was detected on the other.

Currently, climate models account for these motions as if they are uniform across the entire planet, but the data suggest variation must be included to accurately calculate the ocean’s effect on future climate scenarios, Viglione said. 

Even though the Antarctic landscape and research is enthralling, Viglione finds greater joy talking to other scientists about their fascinating work.

“It was really exciting and infectious to talk to scientists every day about something that they were so clearly passionate about,” she said.

During her fellowship, she wrote about a wide range of topics, such as the anti-cancer benefits of physical fitness, air quality, vaccines, women’s health, and Puget Sound’s endangered population of Southern Resident killer whales, including the grieving mother who made national headlines for not leaving her dead calf for almost three weeks.

“From the first day, I really got thrown into the thick of it,” Viglione said. “I had a very supportive editor who let me chase down any story that I wanted within reason.”

The challenge was learning how to write in a direct news style. Most of Viglione’s narrative introductions were quickly scrapped, in favor of getting right to the point. Writing stories within her own field was also enlightening.

“There were pieces of jargon that I don’t even think of as jargon anymore from having been using them for so long,” she said. “So I would have to ask the other reporter ‘Is that a word I can use? Do people know what this is?’”

Viglione’s scientific training came in handy, helping her quickly evaluate if press releases or papers were overblowing conclusions. And, her background in the performing arts, including plays, musicals and choir, made it easy for her to talk about her reporting on camera once a week.

Long before the fellowship, Viglione embraced scientific outreach, giving talks and running demonstrations for audiences young and old. Keen to help other scientists engage with the public, Viglione helped launched a blog called Caltech Letters, which provides a space for students to write about their research for broader audiences. As managing editor, she advises students across the campus how to craft their research stories.

While busy with her usual packed schedule of volunteering on advisory boards, advocating for inclusion in STEM, and organizing events and a journal club for women in her department, Viglione is wasting no time launching one more thing — the next phase of her career. Read her latest story about the Mars 2020 landing site for Discover and what she publishes next on her website.

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Laura Petersen