Media Fellows Follow Varied Career Paths
By Michael Lucibella
For each of the last 15 years, as part of the Mass Media Fellowship program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), APS has sponsored one or two young scientists, with an interest in communication, to get hands-on experience at a media outlet. Participants have been placed at major newspapers, radio stations and magazines, and have then taken varied career paths, including journalism, science education and outreach, basic research and public relations. APS News caught up with a few of its past fellows to see what they were up to now.
David Kestenbaum was the first mass media fellow sponsored by APS. In 1997, he spent a summer at WOSU, a small NPR affiliate in Columbus Ohio. Today, he is one of the hosts of the popular NPR economics podcast Planet Money.
“[The AAAS fellowship] was the way I got into radio. If I didn’t have that, I don’t know that I would have gone into radio because I don’t know how I would have gotten started,” Kestenbaum said. “This was a way to get me to a radio station that was interested in having a science reporter for the summer.”
Kestenbaum had already been freelancing a bit while living in Chicago when he first heard about the media fellowship. At the time he had just finished his PhD at Harvard and had been part of the Fermilab team that discovered the top quark in 1995.
“I remember reading stuff in the papers and it didn’t seem like anyone really seemed to capture the fun and craziness of what actually finding the top quark was,” Kestenbaum said. “I felt there was this gap.”
He added that the small station was the perfect fit, because he had a lot of freedom to produce several stories that made it to air, something he likely wouldn’t have had a chance to do at a bigger affiliate.
“It was this nice little universe; it was a small operation you could actually participate in. They gave you a tape recorder and like the next day you’re on the radio,” Kestenbaum said.
With a summer of radio reporting under his belt, he landed a six-month internship at Science magazine in Washington DC. However he always kept his sights on broadcasting. Science let him work four days a week so he could have one day to freelance for NPR. When the internship ended, Science offered him a full time job. Before he took it, Kestenbaum biked up the street to NPR’s headquarters to ask the editors there for a job. Again he worked out a way to split his time between the two organizations, four days a week at the magazine and one at NPR. In 1999 NPR hired him full time as a science reporter.
At NPR he covered science for ten years, reporting on new discoveries and the politics of science, as well as some of the “dark sides” of science, including the Northeast blackout, the failed New Orleans levees and the Gulf oil spill.
In 2008, after the global financial crisis and ensuing recession, fellow reporter Adam Davidson asked Kestenbaum to join Planet Money, NPR’s new venture to report on the economy. Though he had little background in economics, the subject’s quantitative nature appealed to Kestenbaum, and he’s been on the beat ever since.
“I often think that business is like engineering and economics is sort of like physics,” Kestenbaum said. “It’s the sort of underlying rules, or what we think might be the rules.”
Stephanie Chasteen had experience behind a desk at NPR during her summer as an APS fellow in 2003. Today she runs a science outreach business called “Science Geek Girl” that helps educators and researchers develop new curricula for college and high school students.
“I do a variety of education consulting,” Chasteen said. “I call myself a consultant who provides support for educational reform.”
She is also working to help professors and future teachers develop new educational material at the University of Colorado, Boulder. There, she helps instructors and education undergraduates find new ways to connect students with science. Her official title is the “Outreach Coordinator,” which brings with it a range of responsibilities. She’s written articles about education, hosted workshops on the subject and consulted with teachers. Podcasts are her specialty, giving her a chance to draw on some of the audio production skills she learned at NPR.
“It’s turned out that I’ve used the writing in general and the audio experience in particular in a lot of different ways,” Chasteen said. “I would say that my niche is I write about education… It’s just a different kind of science”
At NPR’s science desk, she helped cover stories, and developed a few stories of her own for the radio. She reported on the first cloned horse, and the discovery of a new dinosaur fossil in India. David Kestenbaum even helped her with voice coaching lessons on occasion.
“I feel that that NPR experience showed that I was really capable,” Chasteen said. “Once I got that on my resume with NPR, people really started to notice me.”
After her summer internship, she received an NSF grant for a post-doc position at the Exploratorium in San Francisco. There her focus shifted from reporting science news to improving science education in the classroom. Working with teachers, running workshops and teaching inquiry methods of education replaced tracking down sources and hunting for stories.
“I felt that I could make a bigger impact through the education,” Chasteen said. “I’m sort of one small drip in one large pool of science literacy.”
In 2008 APS sponsored Carrie Nugent, a recent graduate from UCLA, to work at The Oregonian newspaper for the summer. She was excited to go. Writing for a science desk was something she had wanted to try for a long time.
“It just sounded awesome,” Nugent said. “I always thought that being a reporter would be a super cool thing.”
While at the paper, Nugent wrote articles about dogs helping to save a rare species of butterfly by sniffing out lupine blossoms, the environmental effects of a common cleaning agent, and home experiments for the microwave oven. Her favorite was about an entomologist whose job was to identify insects that people mailed to him. Every day some new arthropod would show up in his mailbox from some far off part of the state.
“It was really funny, it was really strange and I really enjoyed talking with him,” Nugent said.
Today she’s working on finishing up her PhD thesis on asteroids at UCLA. She has her eye on a couple of post-doc positions, especially one at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. In 2011, Nugent developed a ten-week astronomy seminar for undergraduates in the school’s education program, centered on the premise of Earth not having a moon. She also works for the American Astronomical Society’s division of planetary sciences subcommittee on federal relations advocating for more NASA funding. She says she frequently draws on her experience at The Oregonian.
“I think it’s been extremely helpful,” Nugent said. The congressional briefings she helps prepare for lawmakers “have to be clear and accessible and short,” a skill she picked up at the paper.