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Mass Media Fellows Wrap Up Productive Summer

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The 2018 Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellows worked in newsrooms across the U.S. | Video by Neil Orman/ AAAS

Kevin Davenport is working toward a Ph.D. in experimental physics, but he's recently become a bit of an expert on long-billed curlews. During his summer as an American Association for the Advancement of Science Mass Media fellow at the Idaho Stateman, Davenport wrote a story about the unusually high level of human threats to the migratory birds in southwest Idaho.

"I got a lot of immediate feedback from the community," said Davenport of the story, "which is one of the great things about working for a local paper."

The AAAS Mass Media Fellows program pairs scientists and engineers like Davenport with media outlets in the U.S., giving the researchers a chance to report and write news stories for ten weeks each summer. Now in its 44 th year, the program has supported more than 750 fellows, including highly regarded scientists and journalists.

This year, the program made "major efforts" to place fellows at media outlets away from the U.S. coasts, said Shirley Malcom, director of AAAS Education and Human Resources. At an event held 20 August to showcase the fellows' work, Malcom said, "as I walked around I got excited, because I saw a lot of science being reported in the middle of the country."

This was the first year that the Statesman has worked with a Mass Media fellow, said the paper's community engagement editor Bill Manny. Davenport came to work eager to learn, Manny said, and the two of them had a "Socratic summer" of talking over how to write stories with science in them-as opposed to "science stories," Manny recalled.

Another of Davenport's articles explained fire damage to a concrete overpass that was the result of a fatal interstate accident in west Boise. "That was the story that got the most readership of all the stories he did for us," said Manny, "and I think it was where he really figured out how you can use a science perspective and a science background on just good basic journalism."

Several of this year's fellows said their science background had prepared them in unexpected ways for their summer jobs. Katherine J. Wu, a Harvard microbiology Ph.D. student who worked with Smithsonian magazine online, found that her time as a scientist "has made me a much better writer," she said. "I'm not afraid of failure, and I'm not afraid to ask what others might perceive as stupid questions."

When Alejandra Borunda finished her master's degree in journalism, "I don't think I had the confidence to tell the kinds of science stories that I wanted to tell," she said. Borunda, who spent her summer working at National Geographic, is now studying for a Ph.D. in earth and environmental sciences at Columbia University. "It took me going back to graduate school and really immersing myself in the nitty gritty of science to realize that I really did have that capability."

Other fellows said they were challenged and excited by the pace and environment of the newsroom. "I'm learning a lot more than at any other point in my life, and that includes grad school," said Paul Chisholm, a recent Ph.D. graduate in entomology from Washington State University who worked at the National Public Radio science desk. "I kind of compare it to a chunk of carbon that is being put under intense pressure. It's a lot of heat, a lot of pressure, but then that piece of carbon comes out the other end as a diamond."

Kathryn Furby, a recent Ph.D. graduate in marine biology from the University of California, San Diego, wrote about topics from whale sharks to liver disease for The Washington Post. She said the best part of each week at the paper was the team meeting where reporters and editors discussed their assignments. "I feel like journalists are always gathering stories as a part of their jobs, and that makes them really interesting colleagues."

As in previous years, some of the fellows hope to use their summer experience to launch a new career in journalism, while others want to take the lessons they've learned back to their work in academia. Francisco Guerrero Bolano, who is finishing a dual Ph.D. in forestry and water resources science at Oregon State University, said he wants to become more involved in training scientists to become better communicators after his time as a fellow at CNN Español. "Something that I learned from my experience at CNN is that we can compete with entertainment, and that we have an audience, and that audience is sitting in our classrooms and in conferences."

Anna Groves, who worked for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel this summer, received her Ph.D. in plant biology from Michigan State University in 2018. She was hired as an assistant editor at Discover magazine after her fellowship.

One of her favorite stories from this summer covered drunk driving and breathalyzer tests. "This story was the one that most of my friends were like, 'I love that story. I didn't know how that worked, but now I do,'" she said. "I think that's a really fun takeaway, for someone to read something and actually learn something that they will remember."

[Associated image: Mass Media Fellow Alejandra Borunda takes a call at National Geographic.]