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Newsroom Stints Help Scientists, Engineers Polish Skills

A group of undergraduate and graduate students in the fields of science, engineering, and mathematics sharpened their reporting and writing abilities, and honed their communication skills after spending the summer working in the fast-paced environments of the nation’s top newsrooms.

The students, some aspiring science journalists and others seeking to improve their ability to convey the intricacies of science clearly, recently completed AAAS’ Mass Media Fellowship and the Pitts Family Foundation Minority Science Writers Internship programs. At a recognition ceremony at AAAS’ headquarters on 15 Aug., the participants displayed some of the more than 300 articles they produced for top-tier news organizations, including NPR, National Geographic, Science and Univision.

Twenty students, who served in the two programs and went through a rigorous application process, were sponsored by institutes, foundations, and professional organizations such as the American Chemical Society, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, and the Pitts Family Foundation, which underwrite travel and stipends for the fellows.

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AAAS Poster Session 2016

 

Matt Miller, AAAS Mass Media Fellow at Slate, was sponsored by Jonathan Madara through the Penn Vet Student Inspiration Award for the first time this year. | Juan David Romero

The students attended an orientation session earlier this summer at AAAS’ headquarters that included media training on the type of work they would encounter in the newsrooms of participating newspapers, magazines, and radio stations that hosted the fellows over 10-weeks this summer.

“These fellows are people who have advanced degrees, so they have a tremendous storehouse of scientific, engineering, and technology information, and a lot of people who work in journalism don’t have that background,” said Chris McManes from IEEE-USA, a unit of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and one of the sponsoring organizations.

While both programs seek to increase public understanding of science and technology, the Mass Media Fellowship’s principal aim is to provide experiences to STEM-degree-seeking graduate students to help them explore science journalism careers. The goal of the Pitts Family Foundation Minority Science Writing Internship, on the other hand, is to help increase staff diversity in newsrooms, and bring a wider range of voices to publications such as Science magazine.

“This fellowship, more than anything, provides a foundation for us to build a career off of. I found it rewarding to be able to write about so many different topics, and things I wasn’t familiar with: paleontology, archaeology, environmental issues, and space,” said Aaron Sidder, an ecologist with a masters from Colorado State University who spent the summer at National Geographic.

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Mass Media Fellows 2016

 

On the left, Rush Holt, AAAS CEO and executive publisher of the Science family journals, with the majority of the Mass Media Fellows and Pitts Family Foundation Minority Science Writing interns outside AAAS headquarters. | Rebekah Corlew

 

Carolyn Beans, who earned a PhD in biology at the University of Virginia, spent the summer at NPR’s Washington headquarters. She said the experience was as challenging as it was engaging. “The most challenging part initially was learning how to pitch [a story] well, and I felt like once I had that down I kind of got on a roll, which was great,” Beans said. “I’ve never really had to write that fast before, so I had to learn to write quickly.”

Pedro Piqueras, who worked at Univision and was a Spanish-language Mass Media fellow this year, was able to leverage his chemical and environmental engineering background. Not only did his educational background enable him to bring clarity to complex topics, it allowed him to explore in depth potential solutions to pressing environmental issues.

“The whole purpose of AAAS is to advance society, and the way we advance society is not just giving people the science, but also giving these people the resources so they can use the science we are publishing to make a difference in their community,” said Piqueras, who is completing his PhD at the University of California Riverside.  

Part of the challenge of successful science communication, Piqueras said, is finding people whose work and life stories demonstrate science at work. Take, for example, Nalleli Cobo, a 15-year old Latina environmental activist who exposed the practices of oil corporations in Los Angeles. Piqueras was able to share her work in a story he wrote for Univision.

Since its inception in 1974, the Mass Media Fellowship program has graduated over 670 fellows. Some have gone on to successful journalism careers, such as NPR’s Joe Palca. Others have remained in science as very effective communicators, such as Eric Lander, president and founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and co-chair of President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. The Pitts Family Foundation Minority Science Writers program, which hosted its first class of interns in 2005, has also produced talented science journalists, such as The New York TimesNicholas St. Fleur. Other fellows in the two programs have gone on to work at AAAS itself.

The Minority Science Writers Internship

Check out the video at the top

Even though you may not have those same role models other people do, you certainly have the chance to get a step forward and to have hands-on experience that maybe you wouldn't be able to otherwise

Dianne Lugo/Intern

Throughout, fellows have reported that the experience has had a lasting and positive impact and introduced them to new career opportunities, either as journalists or better communicators in the lab. 

One third of this year’s Mass Media fellows said they would consider a journalism career focused on science after completing the program. A 2014 survey conducted by AAAS found that 77% of the Mass Media fellows surveyed said the fellowship introduced them to new career opportunities.

Shirley Malcom, head of AAAS’ Education and Human Resources Programs who has overseen the fellowship programs since 1989, said that going forward, she hopes to expand the Spanish-language focus of the Mass Media fellowship. In addition to placing Piqueras at Univision, in 2015 AAAS also dispatched Jennifer Gil from Puerto Rico to CNN en Español.

The 2017 application season for both the Pitts Family Foundation Minority Science Writers Internship and the Mass Media Fellowship programs open on Oct. 16. For more information and updates check AAAS.org or follow the links in this article.

“It is just an absolutely wonderful group,” said Malcom of this year’s fellows. “They have reached new highs in terms of output, in terms of enthusiasm, and really understanding the value of communicating science. I’m happy that we were able to get 300 stories about science this summer that otherwise would not have been out there.”