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AAAS Mass Media Fellows Embed in Newsrooms, Return as Science Communicators

For 10 weeks this summer, science and engineering scholars with the AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellows Program embedded in top newsrooms around the country.

Many started with little or no journalism experience. They now re-enter their fields as experienced science communicators, and about two-thirds said they want to transition into journalism at the end of the program. Those fellows who are sticking with career paths in science also said they found their summer experiences valuable.

"I don't think I want to be a career communicator, that was never my goal, but I just think that sometimes scientists are not effective at communicating science," said fellow Anzar Abbas, a neuroscience doctoral student at Emory University, whose internship was sponsored by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. "That's needed in the science community, not just for education of the public, but also for the advancement of science. The more people know about science, the more they will support science."

"As a physicist by training, I got to dabble in psychology, some neuroscience, some bioengineering. It was outside of my comfort zone, which was great," Berger said."

AAAS Mass Media Fellow Andy Berger

The 41st class of 20 fellows completed the program with a 17 August poster session at AAAS, where they demonstrated work published in Scientific American, Slate, WIRED, the LA Times, and others.

Three interns also wrote for Science as part of the Pitts Family Minority Science Writer Internship Program, which is now in its 11th year. Between both programs, over 450 unique science articles were published including 18 videos and 14 radio scripts.

Many Mass Media Fellows have gone on to distinguished careers as journalists. The list includes Steve Mirsky of Scientific American, Erica Goode and Kenneth Chang of the New York Times and Richard Harris, Joe Palca, and David Kestenbaum of NPR.

In a survey, more than one in three fellows said that the program changed the course of their career. About 43 percent of respondents said they work as journalists or public information officers.  Those that return to working in their field benefit from improved communication skills as scientists and engineers.

"This program helps in both ways. Not only do we have some of the best science journalists anywhere who have come out of this program and now give back to this program, but we also have dynamic scientists who have come out of this program and they are also excellent communicators," said Shirley Malcom, Director of Education and Human Resources Programs at AAAS.

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The 2015 class of AAAS Mass Media Fellows and Minority Science Writers Interns| AAAS

Since 1974, the AAAS Mass Media Fellows Program has graduated 655 fellows. This year's class was the largest in more than a decade thanks to new sponsorships from Howard Hughes Medical Institute, The Heising-Simons Foundation, and Univision. The fellowship expanded to include Spanish-language publications last year.

Although adjusting to newsroom culture involved a steep learning curve, the fellows said they enjoyed the challenge. Some, like Jessie Rack, benefited from having former fellows on the job with them. She worked at NPR.

"You hit the ground running," Rack said, but science correspondent Richard Harris "sort of adopted me and let me follow him around. Anytime I had sort of an overwhelming day, he'd pop up and say, `Hello, Jessie! You're doing great!'"

In the program, fellows are compelled to apply science knowledge in new ways. Andy Berger, a physicist who usually works with graphene, split his time between print and the web while working at Discover magazine where he wrote more than a dozen stories. The American Physical Society sponsored him.

"As a physicist by training, I got to dabble in psychology, some neuroscience, some bioengineering. It was outside of my comfort zone, which was great," Berger said.

One of his articles addressed football head injuries. That's neuroscience — but the effects of impacts to the brain are explained by physics.

With the fellowship completed, Berger said he'll get back to working with his hands again. But he plans to build on the communication skills that he learned.

"I would love to stay active in trying to communicate the importance of science," he said. "I want to serve as sort of the link between the science community and the public."