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Mass Media Fellows Reflect on Paths to Science Communication

2021 AAAS Mass Media Fellows Stephanie Castillo, Brianna Barbu and Priya Dames reflect on their paths to science communication. | Neil Orman/AAAS

In addition to their scientific areas of expertise, AAAS Mass Media Fellows in Science and Engineering bring with them a passion for sharing science with broad audiences – and the Eureka moments that sparked that interest in science writing and communication.

For Bradley Allf, who is spending this summer reporting and writing for The Austin American-Statesman, science and writing were separate pursuits for him until his last semester as an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina, where he was simultaneously writing two theses – one a book of poetry and one on his rattlesnake evolution research. When he took a journalism course on environmental storytelling, being able to combine his two seemingly disparate interests was “my Eureka moment,” said Allf, who is now a Ph.D. student at North Carolina State University studying how public participation in science impacts how people think about environmental issues.

Science writing, Allf said, draws on his interests in art and science and “builds toward something that's larger than either of them separately.”

Charlene Rivera Bonet, who is writing for El Nuevo Día in Puerto Rico, also found a career turning point in a class on science writing. She initially signed up to help build skills for her academic writing, but she wasn't deterred when she learned that the class was geared toward writing for public audiences.

“I decided to take it anyway, and I'm really glad I did because it changed my perspective and completely changed my career plans,” said Rivera Bonet. Her new interest in translating, digesting and making relatable complex scientific concepts, combined with her extracurricular work in scientific community outreach, led her to pursue a minor in life science communication as she completed her neuroscience Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin. 

Community outreach was also a pathway to science communication for Katrina Miller, who is writing for WIRED this summer. As a black woman pursuing graduate study in physics at the University of Chicago, she said yes to the many outreach opportunities she received on the South Side of Chicago –opportunities that bridge gaps between her community and her work and “give students a source of representation that I never had growing up,” she said.

Those motivations intensified for Miller in 2020. Amid the pandemic, police brutality and protests in her neighborhood, her fundamental research on particle physics felt disconnected from her surroundings, she said. 

“I was looking for something more intentional to feel like I was making a difference,” she said.

As someone who always loved writing – “I was that kid who was also filling up notebooks with short stories and poetry,” she said – Miller pursued writing for the public with an internship and, now, with the Mass Media Fellowship.

In the early weeks of the summer, Miller, like many other fellows, is still weighing future career plans after she completes her Ph.D., such as whether to take back to her academic work essential lessons of writing inclusively and accessibly or to pursue science writing full-time.

Said Miller, “So far I love it.”

For more Eureka moments from 2021 Mass Media Fellows, watch “Winding Roads to Science Communication.”

[Associated image: courtesy Stephanie Castillo]