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AAAS Program Celebrates 40 Years of Turning Scientists Into Savvy Storytellers

Erika Engelhaupt remembers the joy and trepidation of her first days in the newsroom of The Philadelphia Inquirer as a AAAS Mass Media Science & Engineering Fellow in the summer of 2006.

Asked by her editor whether her first story deserved to be on Page 1, she began to explain the importance of a new fossil bird discovered in China by Philadelphia-area researchers. With only minutes before the meeting to decide the day's top stories, the editor asked Engelhaupt for her first paragraph, or 'lede' in newspaper parlance.

"It turns out that the mother of all birds was kind of a loon," Engelhaupt had written.

The editor loved it, the story made Page 1, and Engelhaupt's transition from environmental studies to a career in science writing was nicely underway.

She and many other alumni of the Mass Media Fellows program gathered at AAAS on 2 June to reminisce about their experiences and praise the program on the occasion of its 40th anniversary. They also celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Minority Science Writers Internship program for undergraduates at Science magazine.

Both programs give science-savvy students an opportunity to learn first-hand about science writing from working journalists during summer reporting jobs at newspapers, magazines, broadcast outlets and online sites.

The Mass Media Science & Engineering Fellows program has welcomed 620 participants since 1974, and many of them have gone on to distinguished careers in journalism and science communication. Those who have remained in the science professions have used their writing and reporting skills to better communicate their work to colleagues and the wider public.

In its early years, the program placed fellows in news organizations that were receptive to increased science coverage on such developing stories as the recombinant DNA revolution. With the loss of science writing positions at many newspapers in recent years, there is an even greater demand for fellows from news organizations "because they don't have the staff to cover science-related stories," said Dione Rossiter, AAAS project director for the Mass Media Fellows program.

Fellows have been placed this summer at such media outlets as NPR, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Oregonian, and the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, National Geographic, and Slate, the online news site. This year, for the first time, fellows will work at two Spanish-language news outlets, Univision and Nuestra Tele Noticias.

The list of program sponsors also has expanded, with the American Chemical Society joining the American Geophysical Union, the American Mathematical Society, the American Physical Society, the American Physiological Society, Burroughs Wellcome Fund, IEEE-USA, the Noyce Foundation, and the Society for Industrial & Applied Mathematics as a 2014 sponsor.

News, MMF anniversary, Mirsky half, 10 June 2014
News, MMF anniversary, Harris half, 10 June 2014

Scientific American's Steve Mirsky (above), NPR's Richard Harris and others said their summers as Mass Media Fellows were turning points in their decisions to pursue science reporting. | AAAS/ Carla Schaffer

While the fellows program clearly benefits the media outlets — some of which have taken on a fellow each summer for many years — it is the impact the program has had on the lives of the participants that stands out.

"Without this fellowship, I swear I'd be selling aluminum siding somewhere in New Jersey," said Steve Mirsky, columnist and podcast editor for Scientific American. Mirsky had received a master's degree in chemistry at Cornell University and was working fitfully toward his doctorate, with dim prospects for completion. When he saw a notice about the AAAS mass media program, Mirsky said, he realized it was "my ticket out of here." He was a fellow in 1985, working at WSVN-TV in Miami. He used that experience to get a job at a radio station in Syracuse, New York, where he developed broadcast skills that he now uses for his lively podcasts.

Richard Harris, a science correspondent for NPR and a 1980 fellow at The Washington Star, said his stint at the newspaper convinced him he would enjoy a career in science reporting. "It sealed the deal," he said.

Joe Palca, another NPR science correspondent, was a fellow at the local CBS TV affiliate in Washington, D.C. in 1981. "You can't possibly understand the problems journalists have in covering science without actually experiencing what it's like to be in a newsroom," he said in a video interview about his fellowship experience.

Karen Hopkin, a 1991 fellow who spent her summer at WOSU, an NPR affiliate in Columbus, Ohio, quickly learned just what it meant to be working in a newsroom as opposed to the research lab (she received a doctorate in biochemistry at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx). As Hopkin prepared her first radio segment on digital rectal exams for prostate cancer screening, her editor told her the piece "needed to sound more conversational."

Whatever the topic, there is a learning curve, she said, for "sounding like you're just chatting about things when you are reading your script. We come from grad school where we use all these long, difficult words. Some of it is just learning how to speak simply. You have to speak clearly, make your point. There's no going back."

Rossiter, herself a fellow in 2011, has been conducting a survey of alumni fellows to learn more about the long-term impact of the program. Preliminary results, based on responses from 200 of the 620 fellows, show that 76% of the respondents said the program was "extremely" or "very" important to their success, and 37% said it completely changed the course of their career.

The Minority Science Writers Internship program at Science, while only a decade old, has been having an impact of its own. Natalie Villacorta, a 2011 intern at the magazine, said the program allowed her to answer an inner voice that said "tell stories." While her parents both had science backgrounds and she had attended a magnet high school for science and technology, she always had an interest in becoming a writer. "I knew where my heart was," Villacorta said. She is now a health care reporter for Politico, an online news site.

Of the mass media fellows who have responded to Rossiter's survey, 31% describe themselves as journalists (either staff or freelance), 12% are public information officers, 16% are scientific researchers within academia or industry, and 22% are professors at two-year or four-year colleges. Twenty-nine percent gave other job descriptions. (With a bit of overlap in dual job descriptions, the numbers add up to more than 100%).

News, MMF anniversary, mingle full, 10 June 2014

The 2 June celebration at AAAS was a reunion for many of the fellowship's participants, stretching back to its first class in 1974. | AAAS/Carla Schaffer

"The mass media fellowship really allows you to stretch your mind," said Nicole Garbarini, a neuroscientist who worked at Scientific American in the summer of 2004. The experience broadened her outlook on the sorts of careers she could pursue. She later became a AAAS Science & Technology Policy fellow at the National Science Foundation and now uses her writing skills as a media and policy communications specialist at the National Institutes of Health.

"Even though I did go on to do a post-doc and work in academia and in the private sector," said JeanMarie Calvillo, a 1993 fellow at the Detroit Free Press, her colleagues often turned to her for help with writing and editing projects. "They knew I had a great background in science writing," Calvillo said.

In a video presentation at the anniversary celebration, Aziza Baccouche, a 1998 mass media fellow, recalled how her summer placement at CNN in Atlanta allowed her to meet Tom Johnson, who was then the president of the network. "He became my media mentor," said Baccouche, who went on to finish a doctorate in physics and became a science producer for WHUR, a PBS affiliate based at Washington's Howard University. She also founded her own production company. Baccouche, who is blind, also has become a motivational speaker and works to change perceptions and attitudes about the blind.

Richard Stone, a biophysicist who spent his fellowship summer at The Washington Post in 1990, said the AAAS program opened up a new world. He became a globetrotting correspondent for Science in Europe and Asia and now is the magazine's international news editor. "It really changed my life," Stone said.