Scientists and Students Trade the Lab for the Newsroom Through AAAS

Mass Media Fellows and Minority Science Writer Interns gather during their June orientation. | Rebekah Corlew/AAAS

The role of stretchable batteries in wearable technology, the discovery of a rare otter fossil in the Mexican desert and the case of a man who died of a gunshot wound decades after being shot were among the issues explored in hundreds of news articles written by participants in two media fellowship programs run by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellowship and the AAAS Minority Science Writers Internship– which allowed scientists and students to spend this summer as science journalists – help increase public understanding of science and give participants the opportunity to sharpen their communications skills about scientific issues for non-science audiences, according to Rebekah Corlew, a project director in AAAS’ Education and Human Resources directorate.

Nineteen Mass Media Fellows, each of whom is sponsored by a scientific society or foundation, were embedded in newsrooms around the country. Now in its 43rd year, the Mass Media Fellowship has sent nearly 700 scientists and engineers into newsrooms. Participants are undergraduates and graduate students in the sciences; this year, postdocs who had completed their degree more than a year ago also were eligible.

Unlike the Mass Media Fellows, who must study science, Minority Science Writer Interns come from an array of academic backgrounds. The interns, who are minority undergraduate students with a serious interest in science writing, spend the summer at AAAS headquarters in Washington writing for Science. Two interns were selected for the 2017 program, sponsored by the Pitts Family Foundation.

Fellows and interns first came together for a whirlwind three-day orientation in June. After learning about pitching news stories, interviewing techniques, journalistic ethics and more, participants were off for 10 weeks of reporting and writing. Placements ranged from daily newspapers like The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post to science- and technology-focused publications like WIRED and Scientific American to multimedia outlets like PBS NewsHour and NOVA.

Jordan Axelson, who holds a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, worked for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, where, she said, “everything has to have a local angle.”

“The nice thing about being at a local paper is that you get to go out into the community and meet the researchers face to face,” Axelson said. Her articles took her to a local creamery where she reported on how cheese curds are made, a nearby river where research interns collected mussel specimens and –  her most memorable assignment – a pollinator garden created for wild bees by a local woman who wanted to inspire others to make their own gardens.

“Science can sometimes feel distant for the average person,” Axelson said. “To be able to do a story to try to show people, this is something that’s within your reach, this is something that you can do and have an impact on, was really validating.”

Other fellows were able to take a global approach. Take Dina Garcia, one of three Spanish Language Mass Media Fellows embedded in Spanish-language news outlets. Garcia, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Iowa College of Dentistry, said that one of the most fulfilling projects she worked on at CNN en Español focused on oral health initiatives in Mexico and El Salvador.

Working at CNN en Español “pushed me to think outside the boundaries of just the United States. To be able to think of the implications of research within different contexts of different Latin American countries,” Garcia said. “For me, moving forward, any work that I do, it will definitely have more of a global perspective.”

Fellows also had the opportunity to cover science news beyond their field of study. For Shaena Montanari, who holds a Ph.D. from the Richard Gilder Graduate School at the American Museum of Natural History, only a few of the dozens of articles she wrote for National Geographic were about her area of expertise: paleontology. Instead, she covered a broad range of subjects, from animal behavior to space, including the Aug. 21 total solar eclipse.

Yet, even stories within the fellows’ fields of expertise required new perspectives. Early in his fellowship at STAT, Jonathan Wosen, who will begin his final year of a Ph.D. in immunology at Stanford, wrote a draft article about new research on organoids, mini-organs grown from stem cells. Wosen was passionate about the subject from his own research and assumed it would be an easy assignment. Yet injecting excitement into the story was a challenge for a scientist wary of making bold claims about his work.

Consulting with his editor, Wosen explained how organoids are a useful tool with plenty of exciting applications. “She said, ‘All right, why don’t you take everything you just said, all the excitement and put it at the top of your story,’” Wosen said. “We want to try to capture the inspiration and the sense of wonder for the reader.”  

Writing on deadline for non-scientist readers was a challenge for most of the fellows. The ability to gauge how much information to share for a particular audience is something that Axelson came to understand. For Yomarie Bernier, a doctoral candidate at Universidad del Turabo in Puerto Rico and a Spanish Language Fellow, writing on deadline about the effects of a U.S.-Mexico border wall on gray wolves for Univision Planeta was outside of her comfort zone. “There’s a lot of work that goes into just 400 words,” added Montanari.

“Even if you have a background in communications, you have a lot to learn,” said Zahra Ahmad, a journalism major and biology minor at Central Michigan University. Working at Science as a Minority Science Writing Intern, Ahmad honed her magazine writing skills and found her voice as a narrator. “Most importantly, I gained a lot of confidence as a reporter, which I don’t think I would have been able to do at school alone,” Ahmad said.

Historically, program participants tend, upon completion, to restart their scientific work, continue in science journalism or pursue a career in the broader realm of science communication, Corlew said. The 2017 fellows and interns were no exception.

Bernier, for instance, will continue working part-time for Univision as she completes her dissertation. Montanari is slated to begin a AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship at the National Science Foundation in its Office of Legislative and Public Affairs where she expects to leverage her new science communication skills. “Learning how to generally show why this research that we spend all of our time doing is so important is a major skill,” Montanari said.

Fellows and interns have reported that their participation was crucial to launching or furthering their careers, Corlew said. “Some people said that it was incredibly hard – the hardest thing they’ve done,” she said. “But worth it.

Alumni of the programs continue to stay involved as mentors and orientation speakers, Corlew said. “They love the community,” she added. “They’re really, really supportive, and they want to do as much as possible.”