Science Writing Part 2 – Moving From The Bench To The Newsroom

People who decide to pursue a science career are a rare breed. They study very complicated material and spend long hours in the lab. And after years of dedicated preparation to be scientists, some decide a life on the bench is not for them. They decide to become science writers.

One who made such a choice is OSU science writer Holly Wagner, who tells her story and the stories of others who made the same choice.

It wasn’t until my last quarter of college that I even knew there was such a thing as science writing.

I went to college determined to save the world’s rainforests, but after a couple of chemistry classes decided that the path of scientific inquiry maybe wasn’t the best way to get there.

So before graduating, I took some journalism classes. One was a course in science writing. It was something new, different, exciting – I could learn about science without having to memorize equations or formulas!

About a year after graduation, I returned to the university as a science writer. So instead of professors testing me on the fundamentals of chemistry and biology, I got to quiz them on their latest discoveries.

I was explaining science, and it was so cool.

My editor says that science writers are like kids in a candy store. There are so many flavors of research to try – zoology, engineering, nutrition, optometry, psychology, natural resources, geography – so many that the intellectual palate never gets bored. And writers – a naturally nosy bunch – get giddy when we get to go behind the scenes – kind of like Charlie at the chocolate factory – when researchers let us peek into their laboratories or take us into the field.

I love to bug people, to say what is that, how does that work, and here’s a chance to get them to do that and get paid for the pleasure, says National Public Radio science correspondent Joe Palca. A science writer for two decades, Joe originally thought he’d be on the other side of the bench.

Joe was in the midst of earning a PhD in psychology when he applied for a summer journalism internship – one geared toward training future scientists in explaining science to the public. He got an internship with a television station, and that was that. He finished his PhD and began his science-writing career.

I recently talked with Joe and others who made such seemingly drastic career decisions in light of earning a PhD. What compelled them to decide to work so hard at a mastering one area of science, only to abandon it to write about countless other disciplines?

In part, it’s just that – they wanted to know so much more about fields of science outside their expertise.

I liked the teaching part of science and I liked explaining things to people and I liked learning about new stuff all the time. I didn’t really have the sort of focus a lot of researchers have and was very interested in my topic but wanted to know about it and a lot of other things, Joe says.

David Kestenbaum, also a science correspondent with NPR in Washington, has a PhD in physics from Harvard. He got his radio start at WOSU eight years ago, during a summer internship of reporting science to the public.

The idea of a career in science writing really took hold as David worked on his thesis at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory near Chicago.

Joe describes his early career: I was lucky enough to be there when they discovered a teeny particle called the top quark,’ which everybody had been looking for for 15 years. I remember the week or two when we realized that was what was happening people broke into the snack machine because they weren’t going home; people were wearing the same clothes for two and three days in a row . And yet, somehow that was lost when the newspapers covered the story.

Just so you know, a quark is basic unit of matter that makes up electrons and neutrons. The top quark has a partner, aptly named the bottom quark. To physicists, finding these invisible bits of matter is like finding the holy grail. While it truly was an amazing discovery, Kestenbaum didn’t think that the media had given the full story.

There seemed to be this huge gulf between what research was really like and what appeared in the press and to the rest of the world the reporting was fairly dry and didn’t capture any of the sort of craziness that was actually going on in the world of research, Kestenbaum noted.

Unlike Palca and Kestenbaum, Susan Brown spent 13 years as a bench scientist. She studied how brains develop in small birds, and how these birds learn and produce songs. Susan eventually grew frustrated with her research career, and decided to change jobs.

“The actual practice of science includes a fair amount of drudgery and I found that very wearing, Brown reflected.

Now Susan is currently one of 10 students in the science-writing program at the University of California, Santa Cruz, a program geared toward people with research backgrounds who want to write about science for the public.

“There are not many aspects of life where science isn’t somehow tangentially touching it. It has everything to do with health and a general understanding about the world as well. We have large decisions before us, deciding how we’re going to use energy, deciding whether or not the world is warming up, how we’re going to feed all of us and if we’re going to use genetically engineered crops to do that. It informs public policy,” Brown said.

And the public’s need to know about science isn’t going to go away, she said, a sentiment shared by many of her colleagues. And the science writer’s job is to help their audiences better understand the impact of science on their daily lives.

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