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Two physics graduate students spent several months last year learning the ropes of communicating science to the public, behind the scenes at a national magazine and a major news network. Nellie Andreeva, a graduate student in physics at the University of Maine in Orono, spent last summer at Business Week magazine in New York. Zohra Aziza Baccouche of Hampton University served her fellowship at CNN's Science and Technology unit in Atlanta, Georgia, last fall.
Andreeva received MS degrees in both physics and TV and radio journalism from Sofia University in Bulgaria in 1993, and began her graduate studies at the University of Maine last year. She has long been interested in combining her interest in physics with journalism. She spent six years as a producer, writer and director of TV shows for Bulgarian National Television, and has had two prior internships: one at the BBC in London, England, and another at WCAU-TV in Philadelphia, organized by the University of Delaware.
Andreeva's time at Business Week gave her the chance to work closely with professional science writers and to learn more about what it takes to communicate science to the public. "Science news is often presented too effectively in popular news magazines," she says, referring to the oversimplification of scientific concepts that usually occurs. "I had to get used to presenting research in slang, but it's better for people to read very simple science texts than to skip anything related to science as boring."
Her first major feature for the magazine was an article on the phenomenon of "six degrees of separation," a mathematical study showing that everyone on the planet is connected through six people or less. She subsequently wrote numerous articles on such topics as la Ni$a and its possible economic effects; a temperature detector for frozen foods; micro-engines; a mathematical model that could relieve congestion and cut delays at US airports; genetically engineered peas; and a self-cleaning coating which uses natural ultraviolet light to break down dirt on floors, walls and cars.
Andreeva notes that although the magazine calls its section "Science and Technology," most of the stories that are published relate to technology or applied scientific research. There is very little published on basic scientific research, although "this is understandable because of the business orientation of the magazine," she says. On the whole Andreeva is appreciative of the support she received during her internship. And she was gratified to receive positive feedback from readers on many of her published stories. She is continuing to write for Business Week even though her internship has officially ended.
After receiving a BS degree in physics from the College of William and Mary in 1995, Baccouche went on to earn an MS degree last year from Hampton University. She is currently pursuing her PhD in physics at the University of Maryland, College Park, working on a numerical calculation of the energy spectrum, wave functions and decay widths of heavy B and D mesons. She hopes to pursue a career in science communication after completing her PhD because of what she perceives as a "growing need" for better communication between scientists, the media, and the general public.
Baccouche held several prior media-related internships before joining the APS program, most with radio or television formats. So she had some preparation for the fast-paced environment of CNN's Science News unit, which is solely responsible for producing daily science packages for the evening news program and for the weekly Science and Technology showcase. Still, "making a transition from a physics laboratory to a news room environment takes some adjustment," she admits. She learned to persistently take the initiative to pursue story ideas, and to seek assistance when needed.
During her internship, Baccouche had the opportunity to produce several science news packages, including stories on mercury-eating plants, making it easier for the blind to surf the Internet, and remote vehicle monitoring. Like Andreeva, she bemoans the fact that "almost all of the science stories covered attempt to address the concern of how a particular story may affect people's lives," she says. "While I think this concern is important, some stories should be covered even though they don't include this element."
Baccouche expressed appreciation for her supervisor's understanding of her sight impairment and help in finding ways to make her stories accessible to those without vision impairment. "Unlike print journalism, television is visually based," she says. "You always have to write to what you have in tape. The pictures should tell the story."
The APS Mass Media Fellowship Program was established in 1997 as a means of improving public understanding and appreciation of science and technology, and to sharpen the ability of the fellows to communicate complex technical issues to non-specialists.
For more information on the APS Mass Media Fellowship Program, contact Nancy Passemante at the APS Washington Office, 202-662-8700, firstname.lastname@example.org, or access the APS Web site under the Public Affairs button
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