Two physics students received a crash course in science and the media when they spent ten weeks last summer as APS Mass Media Fellows. The APS program enables physics students to work full-time over the summer as reporters, researchers and production assistants in mass media organizations nationwide. Blake Likens, a recent graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, spent her summer internship at the Albuquerque Tribune in New Mexico, while Steve Mielke, a graduate student at the University of Toledo, spent last summer at CNN.
Likens was completing her undergraduate degree in astrophysics at Berkeley when she mentioned her interest in pursuing a career in science writing to some faculty members who suggested she apply for the APS fellowship. She was assigned to the Tribune in part because of her scientific background: New Mexico is something of a physics and astronomy hub because of Los Alamos and Sandia laboratories and the Very Large Array (VLA) telescope.
Working for a small local paper had its advantages, especially since Likens arrived in Albuquerque at the time the story broke about the missing hard drives at Los Alamos, along with ongoing coverage of the fires that broke out. "All the regular reporters were off covering the fires and the missing hard drives, so I ended up doing all the science reporting because everyone was busy covering the scandals," she says. She wrote stories on topics in astronomy, biology, ecology, physics, math, and health, as well as a controversial front page series on nuclear waste stewardship at Sandia National Laboratories. "I got to travel all around the state, and learned a lot about the government role in science, so I lucked out."
The experience was so positive Likens still has strong interest in eventually pursuing a career in science journalism, augmenting her prior experience writing for Berkeley publications, as well as the Lunar Prospector, published by NASA Ames Research Center. For the time being, however, she is focusing on graduate studies at Wesleyan University, expecting to complete her master's degree in astronomy in 2002. "At that point, it's a fork in the road," she says. "Either I go on and pursue a PhD and research career, or I head towards science writing. Either way, writing will always be a big part of what I do."
Mielke had some prior experience in writing and journalism. He earned a master's degree in English from Kent State University, and wrote several short articles on science and technology for local magazines based in northwest Ohio. But the APS fellowship was his first experience at a major broadcast news organization. He worked with producers and writers in the CNN features unit, assisting with their projects, and also had the chance to produce his own news segment from start to finish: a feature on CERN's Large Hadron Collider.
Mielke received his MS in physics from the University of Toledo, Ohio, in December 2000, and has since transferred to the University of California, Davis, to pursue his PhD studies. Since his experience as an APS mass media fellow, his future plans have wavered between a career in science broadcast journalism and a more traditional career in physics, although he has yet to make a decision. "But no matter what I decide, ultimately the fellowship was an invaluable experience. I learned a lot about science and the media, and I really enjoyed myself," he says. "The great thing about the program is that even if a fellow decides to stay in physics, you still have scientists who know intimately how the media reports science, so it improves communication between the two communities."
The APS Mass Media Fellowship was established in November 1995 to improve public understanding and appreciation of science and technology, and to sharpen the ability of the fellows to communicate complex technical issues to non-specialists. Priority is given to graduate students in physics or closely related fields, although applications are also considered from outstanding undergraduates and postdoctoral researchers.
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Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette