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Physicists are notorious for their inability to communicate their research to the general public, but as public education and outreach becomes more crucial in an increasingly technological society, more and more scientists are taking steps to become more media savvy. One such physicist is Sharmila Kamat, a graduate student at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) who spent this past summer at US News and World Report, based in Washington, DC, as an APS Mass Media Fellow.
Kamat had done quite a bit of writing while an undergraduate in India, most notably for Femina, the top English-language women's magazines in the country. She came to the US to pursue graduate studies in experimental particle astrophysics at CWRU, where she is part of the cryogenic dark matter collaboration searching for Weakly Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs). It was Lawrence Krauss, head of the physics department at CWRU and a best-selling science author himself (The Physics of Star Trek, Atom), who noted her interest in both science and writing, and suggested she apply for the fellowship.
Not surprisingly, Kamat's science background has come in handy during her fellowship. She wrote an article on the results of the Maxima, Boomerang, and DASY collaborations to map the Cosmic Background Radiation, first announced at the 2001 APS April Meeting in Washington, DC (see APS News, June 2001). Unfortunately, the breaking news on solar neutrinos took editorial precedence, and her story was postponed. But writing the piece proved a highlight of Kamat's fellowship experience. "It's always believed that physicists are incomprehensible, but I spoke with physicists who were very media savvy," she says. She also enjoyed the challenge of writing about a physics topic in a way the average layperson could understand.
Kamat has returned to her graduate studies at CWRU, but hopes to continue writing occasionally on a freelance basis. She has yet to decide how best to divide her time between a research career and science writing, but is encouraged by the increased coverage given to science in major newspapers and magazines, aided by such high-profile events as the controversial seminar on cloning held this past August. "That seminar really brought out the drama of science," she says of the experience. "This fellowship gave me the opportunity to get a front seat for the unfolding of that drama."
A second Mass Media Fellow, Maria Cranor, spent the summer at the Albuquerque Tribune in New Mexico. Cranor is a former intern in the APS Office of Public Affairs in Washington, DC, currently pursuing dual degrees in physics and psychology at the University of Utah. Cranor came to physics relatively late, studying anthropology and African pre-history at Berkeley, becoming a world traveler and avid rock-climber, and working as a marketing director of a manufacturer of climbing equipment. Eager for a new career path, she chose physics, and like her OPA internship last summer, the Mass Media fellowship offers a taste of the wide variety of careers available to physicists today.
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