Three young physicists are spending this summer gaining invaluable firsthand experience in communicating science through the media as the 2003 APS mass media fellows. Stephanie Chasteen, a graduate student at University of California, Santa Cruz, is interning at National Public Radio (NPR) in Washington DC. Allison Heinrichs, a recent graduate of Ohio State University, is interning at the Los Angeles Times. And Cathy Nangini, a graduate student at the University of Toronto in Ontario, Canada, is interning at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Chasteen attended Bard College in New York's Hudson Valley as an undergraduate, and while she loved physics, she decided to pursue a major in psychology. Chasteen was the only woman in her department, and while her grades were excellent, "I felt intimidated by the physics classes, even though I did very well, because it seemed to come so much easier for the guys," she says. "No one told me I was good at it, so I felt I didn't have what it took."
But physics continued to fascinate her. Her confidence received a boost when a former physics professor expressed his disappointment at her decision not to major in his subject, telling her she'd been one of the best students in the class. Encouraged, she decided to pursue graduate studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. First, however, she chose to spend two years volunteering with the Peace Corps in Guinea, West Africa.
At Santa Cruz, she elected to specialize in condensed matter physics, working on polymer photovoltaics (solar cells). During this time, she also became interested in science writing. "I have a very general interest in science, from biology to physics to ecology," she says. And I have a great interest in scientific literacy: helping the public to achieve a greater view of the role science plays in their lives, particularly on environmental issues like global warming."
Chasteen decided to apply for the APS Mass Media Fellowship as a means of furthering her career goals in science writing by gaining some firsthand experience. She started freelancing over the last year, and plans to go into science communication when she completes her PhD in 2005.
The youngest of the three fellows, Heinrichs just completed an individualized study program at Ohio State University, tailoring her bachelor's degree to suit her interests in astronomy, physics, chemistry and English, with a minor in mathematics. She has always been fascinated by science, particularly astronomy. As an undergraduate, she spent one summer in Tucson, Arizona helping do research at the National Optical Astronomical Observatory.
The experience was very positive, but Heinrichs became convinced that her true interests lay in the communication of science to the general public. She applied for the APS Mass Media Fellowship to gain some firsthand experience, and ended up at the Los Angeles Times. Her first story was on monkey pox, a virus from Africa that infected local prairie dogs, which many Midwestern residents keep as pets. "It you were bitten, you'd develop something like a mild version of smallpox," she says.
Heinrich plans to take a year off after her fellowship and move to Seattle, freelancing and working to save money for graduate school. She is applying to various graduate schools with programs in science writing, including University of California, Santa Cruz, MIT and Boston University. "I enjoy scientific research, but the more I see of it, the more I realize that I really don't want to specialize," she says. Ultimately, she plans to go into science writing full time, or perhaps work in a science museum to share her love of science with others.
Nangini earned a BS in physics and an MS in geophysics at the University of Toronto before deciding to pursue her PhD in medical biophysics. She specialized in research on functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a complementary technique to conventional MRI. Whereas the latter provides static anatomical images, fMRI produces an image as a function of time, "so you can see what parts of the brain are working throughout a task or a particular stimulus," she says.
She has always had an interest in writing, having freelanced throughout her undergraduate and graduate education, even establishing a science column in the campus newspaper. She applied for the APS Mass Media Fellowship to further develop her skills in writing, interviewing and critical thinking. "I believe that science has an increasingly important role in shaping society, and hence has a crucial place in the media, which is the primary means by which the public receives their information," she says. "And that can be inspiring. But often the media is misinformed about science, and as a scientist, I hope to play a role in addressing that."
For the immediate future following her fellowship summer, Nangini plans to focus on her graduate studies to complete her PhD, although she hopes to continue to write on a freelance basis. "I actually think the two [research and science writing] are very complementary," she says. "The PhD work pushes my boundary of scientific knowledge and forces me to probe and question, which is exactly what you're supposed to do as a journalist."
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