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Mass Media Fellows Bridge Science and Journalism to Share Science Stories Across the Nation

AAAS Mass Media Fellowship 2021 participants
The 2021 cohort of AAAS Mass Media Fellows will work as journalists for newsrooms around the country for 10 weeks this summer. | AAAS

The AAAS Mass Media Fellowship program recently announced their new cohort of 29 fellows to be placed in newsrooms around the country for 10 weeks this summer. “The past year has only emphasized the need for accurate and effective science journalism,” says Kristin Lewis, the fellowship director. “Our fellows will bring their scientific expertise into newsrooms and build their reporting skills.”

These young scientists, a mix of current students, recent graduates, and post-doctoral researchers, enter the program with an impressive and diverse range of backgrounds and experience, often with the goal of contributing to science journalism, while also evaluating the next step in their own careers – whether to return to full-time science, or become full-time communicators. “From the perspective of the Fellowship,” says Lewis, “both career pathways serve to enhance science journalism – whether we have more science trained journalists or media-trained scientists.”

“At this point in my life, I am still working out whether I want to become a scientist deeply interested in science communication or a science writer outright,” says Bradley Allf, who studied both evolutionary biology and poetry in undergrad. He is now doing a Ph.D. on public science initiatives and their impact on people’s views about science. “I’m not sure there is a better opportunity for me to work out what I want my future career to look like than by diving headfirst into working in a science newsroom through this Fellowship to see whether science communication is a good fit for me as a career.”

Some, like Maddie Bender, are pretty sure they know the answer to that question.

“I’m well aware of the power words and stories hold, as well as their ability to shape public perception. The COVID-19 pandemic will be a defining moment in U.S. and world history, and we’ve already seen science journalism at its best educate people, and at worst confuse and distract them. As someone with training in public health and science communication, I feel that science journalism is my calling, and this pandemic has only made me more sure of it,” Bender said.

Bender’s original realization that science writing might be for her came when she first started covering science stories for her college newspaper, and saw that it allowed her to learn about so many different STEM fields in a way that active research did not.  

Bender wanted to first get a public health degree because, as she wrote in her 2019 graduate school application, she wanted to be prepared to cover the next pandemic when it happened. She was given the chance to do so much sooner than she expected. She has since written about the COVID-19 pandemic for Vice, Popular Science, and other outlets. Bender will be spending her fellowship with Scientific American.

Many of the fellows come to the program with specific goals for the kinds of stories they want to write and audiences they want to reach -- like Adela Wu, a neurosurgery resident at Stanford. She hopes, at least in the long-term, to write about healthcare in order to advocate for patients, especially for those suffering from terminal cancer or neuropsychiatric conditions and other vulnerable populations.

She says, “I see myself as a bridge for patients and the public to understand the incredible research scientists and physicians are producing… With my perspective as a practicing physician, I also recognize pressing issues that affect patients.” Someday, Wu also wants to create a graphic novel about her father’s decades-long experience with a recurring brain tumor. This summer, Wu will be writing for NPR.

Katrina Miller sees science journalism as another way to advocate for underrepresented identities in STEM. “As one of the few Black women in physics, I devote much of my time to promoting scientists of color,” she said. She also found, as she sought to grapple with the realities of the pandemic and of police brutality this past year, that she deeply wanted to help connect science with society. Miller will be working at WIRED for the summer.

Allf, who will be placed at The Austin-American Statesmen, also sees this fellowship as a step toward his long-term public engagement goals. “Building a diverse citizenry that is curious about and engaged in science is critical to tackling 21st century problems,” says Allf. He notes that scientists shouldn’t just do outreach, but should also “do the legwork” to see if their engagement is having its intended effects, including fostering deeper interest in science, and an understanding of what scientists are asking the public to support through their tax dollars and other actions.

The 2021 Mass Media Fellows and their host sites are as follows (to see their sponsors, go to the website):

  • Bradley Allf, The Austin American-Statesman
  • Aaron Anderson, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch
  • Brianna Barbu, Discover
  • Madeline Bender, Scientific American
  • Tamar Blanks, The Conversation
  • Alejandra Canales, The Dallas Morning News
  • Stephanie Castillo, The Las Vegas Review-Journal
  • Jaime Chambers, Science News
  • Sophia Charan, The Idaho Statesman
  • Luyi Cheng, Voice of America
  • Priya Dames, The Raleigh News & Observer
  • Haley Dunleavy, InsideClimate News
  • Madison Goldberg, StateImpact Pennsylvania
  • Shi En Kim, Smithsonian Magazine
  • Claudia Lopez Lloreda, STAT
  • Katrina Miller, WIRED
  • Aparna Nathan, The Philadelphia Inquirer
  • Niba Nirmal, Complexly
  • Ashley Piccone, KUNC
  • Adithi Ramakrishnan, WUNC
  • Charlene Rivera Bonet, El Nuevo Día
  • Jennifer Schmidt, The San Luis Obispo Tribune
  • Krishna Sharma, The Miami Herald
  • Brittany Trang, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
  • Vanessa Vieites, The Conversation
  • Chrystelle Vilfranc, The Indianapolis Star
  • Adela Wu, NPR
  • Nicholas Young, The Wichita Eagle
  • Emily Zhang, Science Friday