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The Difference Philanthropy Can Make: The AAAS Minority Science Writers Program

In 2004, Science staff writers and editors saw a need to encourage more minority representation in their ranks. “Covering science is an important activity obviously of [AAAS], but the composition of the people covering science is also important,” said Jeff Mervis, Senior Correspondent at Science. However, the fact was, there just weren’t a lot of minority science writers. To change this, he said they needed to be proactive. “If you’re not growing the pipeline, you’re never going to make a significant difference.”

In order to grow the level of incoming minorities to the field, he and his colleagues sought private funding and worked with AAAS Education and Human Resources staff to launch the first Minority Science Writers Internship (MSWI) in the summer of 2005. The program—a 10-week paid internship onsite at Science in Washington, DC—has continued over the last 12 years, almost entirely funded by private donations.

Interns participate in an initial three-day orientation, along with the AAAS Mass Media Science & Engineering Fellows. They attend workshops such as “Interviewing Techniques,” “Writing for the Ear,” and ““Incorporating 3rd party Video Abstracts.” The orientation also includes panels on subjects ranging from ethics to social media.

Then, they get down to work! “We drop them in the deep end and make sure they don’t sink,” said Mervis, who noted that a lot is expected of the interns and they are treated as members of the staff. They write bylined articles, conduct interviews, and pitch stories. Natalie Villacorta, a 2011 intern, said, “I devoured as many press releases as I could fill my inbox with, searching for story ideas. It was so gratifying when an idea was accepted, and I was launched into a new adventure.”

The interns may have multiple potential mentors within the Science staff because they work with different editors depending on the story subject. “We want them to have experience working with different editors and also the experience of working with someone who has expertise in that area,” Mervis said.

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The 2016 Minority Writers Interns: Diane Lugo, Devi Shastri, and Maya Smith. 

Even if the interns wrote frequently for their college newspapers, they probably hadn’t received the level of editorial attention that the Science staff can provide. For example, Andrea Lu, a 2008 intern, said, “As a former science and technology reporter at my college newspaper, I thought I knew the basics of science journalism. Science showed me how wrong I was, but in a helpful, enlightening manner.”

Dolly Krishnaswamy, a 2010 intern, expanded on the value of receiving guidance from award-winning editors: “I think the [most] important take-away lesson is to realize that the editing process plays into the bigger picture as a tool for growth. As far as being a science writer goes, editing is the crash course that never stops. It’s racing, fast-paced, and you’re always absorbing more than you thought you could.”

Cathy Tran, in inaugural intern, said recently, looking back on her experience, that she appreciated being able to work with multiple editors to grow her network of mentors. “It was so inspiring to collaborate with and learn from those who were not only amazing writers but also such kind and helpful mentors whom I still keep in touch with more than a decade later.”

By being given the opportunity to work with multiple staff members, Juan David Romero, a 2015 intern, developed a passion for video editing. “Although I had the opportunity to report and write a lot, I am definitely proud that I was able to reach out to the Science video editor at the time and have the opportunity to do some projects with him as well,” he said. He even used his skills to make a video about MSWI.

The program isn’t intended just to groom the journalists of tomorrow. The intention is also to have an immediate impact on college-level journalism. “The idea was that they could immediately apply their skills to cover research on campus,” Mervis said. Universities are ripe with great science stories, and when the interns return to their schools, they have the skills to report on faculty research.

The program also helps interns realize their own potential. Zara Ahmed, a 2017 intern, said, “My writing improved a lot while I was at Science thanks to my patient and encouraging editors…. My confidence has really been lifted and I’m excited to see where this journey takes me.”

At the end of the program, there’s a wrap-up event that includes panel discussions on career resources as well as networking events to help launch their careers. Some alumni have gone on to be science journalists, such as Nicholas St. Fleur, who’s a science reporter for the New York Times. However, alumni have also pursued PhDs, flexed their skills as science communicators, and even become game designers.  

Tran is a Learning Design Researcher and Product Manager at Osmo, which leverages technology to create games for children. She said that the skills she learned in her internship still apply to her work: “I have since spent time as a researcher and designer at universities and educational technology companies and still think deeply about how to communicate research findings and data to a non-scientific audience in those roles. The ‘translation’ skills that I learned as part of my MSWI [are] incredibly helpful because I bridge our research and product development/design team by helping them applying research to their work as well as conduct studies to inform product development.”

Mervis said of Tran, “She has followed a path that may be atypical, but in some ways is also what we were hoping.” 

 

Like all of our communication fellowships and internships, the Minority Science Writers Internship relies on external funding and support for the 2018 internship is especially time sensitive.  If you would like to learn more about how you can help support this program, please contact our Office of Philanthropy at 202.326.6636 or at philanthropy@aaas.org

Author

Caitlin Jennings