Mass Media Fellows Reflect on Summer Science Writing Experience
Ed. Note: Each year APS sponsors two mass media fellows as part of a program run by the AAAS. Typically graduate students in physics or a related field, they spend eight weeks working for a mass media outlet, learning how to communicate science to the public. APS mass media fellow Marcus Woo spent his summer at WOSU-AM in Columbus Ohio, while Rachel Courtland spent the summer at US News and World Report in Washington D.C. APS News asked them to tell our readers a bit about their experiences.
Bitten by the Science Bug
By Marcus Woo
It was a humble set-up, just off the side of the road, amidst brush and trees at the edge of a forested area. I swatted at mosquitoes flying in the hot and humid air. Plastic yellow trays filled with clear liquid littered the ground, and a small mesh tent sat unassumingly beside a tall bush. The tent and the yellow trays, which weren't more than shallow disposable bowls, were wasp traps.
I was accompanying the curator for the Ohio State University insect
collection on his daily task of checking the wasp traps. This past summer, I was in Columbus, Ohio, as an AAAS Mass Media Fellow, sponsored by APS. I was working at National Public Radio affiliate WOSU-AM, and was wandering the halls of OSU while waiting to do an interview with a scientist for a story. After walking into the insect collection, the curator came up and talked to me. I soon found out he was part of a project to collect wasps from around the world, and that he was going to go collecting later that afternoon at a local site across the street. Curious as to how wasps were collected, and being on the look-out for another story idea, I said I'd go with him as soon as my other interview was finished.
Wasp collecting is simple enough. Scientists first fill yellow trays with water and dishwashing detergent. Wasps are drawn to the yellow color, and the detergent allows the surface tension of the water to break when a wasp lands, spelling doom for the unsuspecting insect. The mesh tent channels wasps up into a bottle of ethanol, where, unfortunately for them, they become part of what the scientists call “bug soup.” They collect the wasps in plastic bags and store them in freezers back in the lab, where undergraduates and graduate students have the tedious task of documenting and mounting them.
At first glance, this seems to be relatively modest science. No one’s trying to cure cancer or to solve the dark matter problem. They’re just a handful of scientists who have devoted their careers to learning about a specific type of bug. But this basic research reminded me that science, at its purest, is nothing but a simple quest to understand Nature and all its tiny parts. Science is a grand story, a story about learning and exploring, concepts and abstractions, exotic particles and complex molecules. The road-side wasp traps are an example of how science doesn’t just inhabit million-dollar laboratories or eccentric minds, but that it lives anywhere and everywhere, as tangible and real as a wasp sting. Like the way an elegant equation encapsulates a theory of physics, the simple story of collecting wasps by the roadside captures the grand tale of science.
Perhaps more so than print media, radio is all about storytelling. Some of my early inspiration to study physics was the stories of scientists, of the idiosyncratic Richard Feynman, and how characters like Albert Einstein, Sir Arthur Eddington, and Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar developed the fantastic ideas behind black holes. At WOSU, my stories were of course much shorter and simpler, but I was able to call them my own. I was given the opportunity to find a story idea, report on it by conducting interviews, write it, and then produce it, combining my own voice with sound-bites and natural sounds to illustrate the story. I learned about and covered many topics, from earthquakes and bird songs to algal blooms and astronomy. And hearing yourself for the first time on your own clock radio is pretty strange, to say the least.
From this brief but rewarding summer experience, I learned a little bit about the importance and necessity of journalism. I didn't have any prior journalism experience, and ignorance would've made it easy to dismiss journalists as sensationalist, superficial, or unscrupulous, willing to do anything for an exclusive scoop. Sometimes, this may be true. But from doing a story on global warming I realized that, at their best, journalists occupy an essential place in society, as vanguards of information, with power to influence opinions, actions, and the way society progresses–or regresses. With the ever-growing impact of complex scientific ideas like global warming on people's lives, the way science communicators tell the story of science becomes increasingly important.
This fellowship corroborated my growing belief that stories are fundamental, that we are all protagonists in our own life stories, that our histories, our futures, and the way we understand the world and universe are all like cosmic strings, weaving an epic tapestry that is the human condition. Science–our pursuit to understand Nature–is a story that's an integral part of this epic. While some science stories are more complicated than others, with more subplots and characters, involving genomes and quarks, in their barest of forms they all take the shape of a simple story about a guy collecting wasps by the road.
Here’s To My Health
By Rachel Courtland
From my time in the laboratory, I know that you shouldn’t drink coffee around the chemical hood. I also know that exercise is good, cigarettes are bad, nutrition is important, and hand-washing can head off a lot of trouble. But that’s pretty much the extent of my health knowledge. When I tell people I studied physics, I pretty much mean studied only physics. Got a basic question about solid-state physics, cosmology, electromagnetism, mechanics, statistical mechanics, astrophysics, or optics? I’m your gal. Just don’t ask me anything about biology.
I had this horrifying realization when I found out that APS was sponsoring my internship at the health and medicine desk at U.S. News and World Report in Washington, D.C. In the end, though, I found that my ignorance was an asset.
My lack of knowledge about the field meant I couldn’t and thus didn’t spend an inordinate amount of time going over every research paper. My physics training helped me quickly assess papers; even if the terms were foreign, the basic statistics and methodology were easy to evaluate. After going over background material, I got to the heart of reporting: interviews.
I was a little self-conscious at first, but spending the day on the phone with experts quickly became the most exhilarating part of the internship. One day, I’d be chatting about seasonal affective disorder and the FDA’s drug approval process. The next, I was talking about raw oyster harvesting in the Pacific Northwest. I wrote about how researchers now think that humidity doesn’t help the croup and about the ongoing efforts to find a way to prevent asthma, which often reduces lung function at an extraordinarily young age. Sometimes tracking down information was tricky. I once spent an entire afternoon trying to confirm the cost of a routine test.
For the most part, all the doctors and officials I spoke with were helpful, patient, and gracious. Even the pharmaceutical representative I called during dinnertime, on his cell phone, while he was away at a conference in Florida, took the time to answer all my questions, even my obnoxious, tough-guy ones.
My physics background also proved handy in the problem-solving aspects of writing process: finding the story, rearranging ideas, and eliminating clutter.
I’ve suspected for a while that science journalism would be a good career for me, but until I started work at U.S. News, I had no idea what it would be like. When I left graduate school with a masters, I thought I would work in science policy as a liaison between researchers and the government. But in the middle of a fellowship at the National Academy of Sciences, knee-deep in report writing, I found policy itself less interesting than the harrowing process of getting complex ideas out of my head and onto paper. In the future, I hope to write about a wider range of science topics, especially physics. I have APS to thank for getting me started on this path.
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Contributing Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff