By Erika Gebel
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 over the summer working for a mass media outlet, learning how to communicate science to the public. Last month APS Media Fellow Merek Siu wrote about his experiences; this month it’s Erika Gebel’s turn. She spent the summer at the
Philadelphia Inquirer and is now completing her PhD in biophysics at The Johns Hopkins University.
Surrounded by a medley of physics teachers—young, old, female, male, four-eyed, two-eyed—I sat in the back of a classroom that was strangely alive amongst the empty July halls of Ridley High School. Occasionally one of the throng would shoot me a curious glance. I was an interloper. Catching up being impossible, it probably seemed like I had no business showing up in the middle of an intensive three week workshop on “modeling” pedagogy.
Soon, my contact announced my intentions and the skeptical inquisitiveness turned to enthusiastic acceptance. I was from the Philadelphia Inquirer
, where I was spending the summer as AAAS mass media fellow generously supported by APS, and writing a story on the “modeling” methodology. Once the teachers found out my reporter status, they were eager to talk with me, often interrupting each other in an effort to fill my ear. This was not an unusual reaction to the presence of a reporter in the world of science; I had already noticed how scientists are often excited to talk about their research, especially with someone who can act as their translator and, perhaps, champion.
A science writer is essentially an interpreter, but also an educator and entertainer. It’s quite a balancing act, but one I found I am quite apt for. With the physics education story, I was going to have to wear all these hats. Physics in itself is difficult for many to grasp and indeed the mere mention of it will send some into a shivering cold sweat. I had to ease my readers into the story with something anyone could enjoy and that required little physics know-how to understand—smashing eggs.
An integral part of the workshop involved exploring Newtonian physics with gadgets, which, on the day I visited, included a two-story long spring, a weight, and an egg. The object of this game was to demonstrate one’s mastery of physics through determining to what displacement the spring-attached weight should be raised such that it would just kiss an egg placed on the ground beneath it. Once I painted that image for my readers, I hoped I could get them to continue reading in order to learn the fate of the unsuspecting egg. In the meantime, I was going to tell them about physics “modeling”.
Providing entertainment was a common strategy I employed to keep readers interested in science. For a story I wrote about proteins, entropy, and drug design, I likened the motion of proteins to a mating dance. People love to hear about health too, and that translates into stories about pharmaceuticals. In addition to explaining the basics of the research, I was careful to tie the findings directly into drugs and disease. If journalists are to compete with television, radio, and the internet, we need to paint pictures, tell stories, and provide visual representations to enhance the enjoyment and understanding of our readers. This is what I tried to do for every story and that strategy managed to get the “intimidating” topic of physics onto the Inquirer’s