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Aspiring Science Journalists Begin Fellowships During ‘Pivot Points in History’

Kevin Alicea-Torres and Karen Kwon are part of the largest group of AAAS Mass Media Fellows in the program's history. | Neil Orman/AAAS

Each summer, the American Association for the Advancement for Science places postgraduate, graduate and advanced undergraduate scientists in newsrooms across the United States, giving them the opportunity to work as journalists during a 10-week fellowship.

Over its 46-year history, the goal of the AAAS Mass Media Science & Engineering Fellowship — to train young researchers in communicating complex science to the public while enhancing the breadth and depth of science-related coverage in mainstream media — has remained consistent. This summer’s fellows, however, differ from past groups in a number of ways.

With 28 scientists at 25 news organizations, the current set of fellows, who began their assignments this month, is the largest in the program’s history. Among the host sites is El Nuevo Día, Puerto Rico’s most widely read newspaper and the commonwealth’s first media outlet to participate in the program.

This year’s fellows are also the first to work remotely, with social distancing guidelines and travel restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic preventing them from being physically present in their newsrooms. Though the lack of on-site work may be disappointing, the subjects currently dominating American news coverage, including the virus and protests against systemic racism, make this an especially vital time to work in science journalism, said AAAS staff, former fellows and host-site editors during the new fellows’ orientation June 3-5.

“You all are coming to this intersection of science and media at a time when it’s never been more important,” said AAAS CEO Sudip Parikh during his welcome address. “We are in a period where there’s just a confluence of events that are happening that really are pivot points in history. The sciences that are valuable to talk about might be the social sciences, the science around bias, the research around gun violence. These are difficult subjects. That experience is going to serve you well throughout your careers.”

“You are now part of the AAAS family of trying to advance science and serve society at the same time,” Parikh added. “I used to think that science was a refuge from the world. Unfortunately, there are no bubbles in this world. There are no places to hide out. We’re part of the communities in which we live. We have to own that and take leadership.”

Since its inaugural summer in 1975, when 10 scientists participated, the Mass Media Fellowship has built a network of approximately 750 alumni. Following the fellowship, some participants return to academia, putting their sharpened communication skills to use as researchers. Others build careers as journalists or public information officers.

The AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science & Technology hosts the program, with a handful of foundations, scientific societies and universities providing programmatic support and sponsoring individual fellows. This year’s fellows are working across the country at a diverse array of print, digital and radio news organizations. Outlets receiving a fellow for the first time include The Miami Herald, The Las Vegas Review-Journal and Science Friday, a public radio show syndicated by more than 400 stations nationwide.


This summer's fellows are working at a diverse array of print, digital and radio outlets. | Kristin Lewis/AAAS

As a 15-year-old working at a bakery near his home in Puerto Rico, Kevin Alicea-Torres waited eagerly for the day’s stack of El Nuevo Día newspapers to be delivered each morning before sunrise. Now a University of Pennsylvania Ph.D. candidate whose research focuses on cancer immunology, Alicea-Torres is spending the summer in charge of El Nuevo Día’s Sunday science section.

“To think that 15 years later, I’m writing for this same newspaper over the summer is a feeling that words cannot explain,” he said. “This AAAS Mass Media Fellowship is the perfect opportunity for me to grow as a science communicator and to fulfill one of my goals, which is to make science accessible to Hispanic communities.”

During their three-day orientation, the fellows received practical training, including a science writing boot camp led by David Grimm, online news editor of Science, and separate sessions on working with public information officers, fact-checking and interview techniques. During a panel discussion highlighting the experiences of three former fellows, Kelly Tyrrell spoke about what led her to the fellowship and what she has done since.

After spending a few months in a University of Pennsylvania graduate program, dropping out and working for two years as a research scientist, Tyrrell began pursuing a cell and molecular biology Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2008. During her second year in Madison, she attended a talk by Andrew Revkin, then the campus’s science writer in residence.

“It was really my epiphany moment,” said Tyrrell. “The gist of it was that, as scientists, our responsibility is to communicate what we do. … Right there in that lecture hall, I found my niche career idea.”

In 2011, Tyrrell left her Ph.D. program with a terminal master’s degree and spent the summer as a fellow at The Chicago Tribune. She went on to work as a health and science reporter in Wilmington, Delaware, but lost her job after two years during a round of layoffs. Today, she is happy to be back at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, running her alma mater’s science writing office.

“My path has had a lot of hurdles or apparent barriers, but it’s important to keep in mind that sometimes things that seem like barriers are actually opportunities in disguise,” Tyrrell said to the new group of fellows.

On the last day of the orientation, a panel of host-site editors gave the new fellows advice on how to make the most of their 10 weeks on staff. Tom Huang, a senior editor at The Dallas Morning News, stressed the importance of building editor-reporter relationships and honing the skills of generating and pitching story ideas. Scott Blanchard, editor of StateImpact Pennsylvania, a public radio collaboration, reminded the fellows to avoid jargon in order to make their writing as clear as possible.

Becky Lang, editor in chief of Discover magazine, noted that the remote nature of this year’s fellowship does not make the opportunity any less exciting.

“I realize that this is a different way of doing a fellowship,” said Lang. “It’s virtual, and that kind of stinks. But at the same time, the fact that you’re doing this during COVID is just unbelievable.”

“I can’t think of a better time in the last decade to be a science journalism fellow,” she added. “As long as you keep the communication lines open, you’re going to have a heck of a summer.”