The Final Countdown (Part II) The Speakers

This semester I decided to run a segment called The Final Countdown (I mean, really) to force me to take the time every month to reflect on my graduate experience and think about my time here in Madison. This month I want to talk about the different people I’ve gotten to meet through my grad program here. There are a lot of awesome people that I got to either hear lecture, grab coffee with, or ask questions about how avoid being awful at what I do. I’m very grateful for these experiences. Honestly, exposure to people of this caliber is one of the things I think I got the most out of in my time here.

My first semester at UW the science writer in residence was Jennifer Oulette, whose blog Cocktail Party Physics is a part of the Scientific American blog network. I got to hear her speak about becoming known as a physics writer, without any formal educational background in physics. I’ve always steered away from physics and math as a writer, but she was encouraging that if you put in the time to educate yourself you can write about complex topics in a meaningful way.

Washington Post features writer Manuel Roig-Franzia spoke in several of my classes when he visited UW about what makes a good feature, and how he goes about getting the story. What I took away from listening to him, was that you have to put in the time. If you want to write a good feature, you have to invest yourself in it, otherwise you won’t get everything out of the story that you could have.

Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (which I highly recommend) came to UW to speak because her book was chosen as the Go Big Read selection for the campus for the 2010-2011 school year. She gave a special talk in the Journalism school, and I found her process for staying organized and keeping all her information straight as she was working on a book of this magnitude really interesting.

While I try hard not to delve into politics, I found a lot of encouragement to keep doing what I’m doing in a talk by Jim VandeHei, co-founder of Politico. I went to this talk at a time when I was feeling totally inept as a writer and having serious doubts if I could cut it in this program. VandeHei gave me a big boost when he spoke about the future of journalism, and all the opportunities that lay ahead.

I got the opportunity to have lunch with Sheri Fink, Pulitzer Prize winner for her coverage of misconduct in hospitals in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. I was inspired by the strength journalists must have to chase a story no one wants to be real, to be committed to the facts, to the truth.

One of my favorite experiences in the program thus far was having coffee with Bill Blakemore of ABC News. I didn’t blog about talking to Bill, but I was so impressed not just by his long, prestigious career but also by how open and honest he was in talking with us. He was taking notes during the conversation, and writing down little tidbits of what we were saying for future reference, he made me feel like even me with all my stumbles along the way had a valuable opinion.

Last semester the science writer in residence was John Rennie, former editor and chief of Scientific American, a blogger for the PLoS Network, and a professor at NYU. Like Bill he also took the time to sit and get coffee with a group of students. It feels as though every time I start to get discouraged about the program and my abilities, a great writer appears to convince me that journalism isn’t dead and I’m not out here chasing a dead end future.

This semester I got to talk to Mark Schaefer, author of the Tao of Twitter and pick his brain about how to market yourself online. So far my life sciences communication class on social media has exposed me to some seriously skilled people when it comes to making the most of social media. Last week we also got to talk with John Morgan, author of Brand Against the Machine, and get his opinions on branding and marketing online. I was again amazed that people who are so busy, would take the time to talk to a class of students. Did I mention that Mark and John both spoke to us for free? Classy. Seriously.

Let’s not forget that I also got to hear (though not see, unfortunately) the President of the United States Barack Obama give a speech on the library mall here at UW. The President. Even with no view, it was still a great experience.

There have also been great people here in Madison who have taken time to work with students, and I’ve greatly enjoyed meeting them. This includes Brennan Nardi, Editor of Madison Magazine (and alum from my program), and Bill Lueders, formerly of the Isthmus and now with the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

Hopefully I didn’t forget anyone. Members of my cohort, please remind me if I did! It is quite a diverse, and amazing list of individuals. I’ve gotten so much out of getting to meet each of them, and I feel very lucky that UW-Madison afforded me the opportunity to do so. One of my biggest regrets in my undergrad was not taking advantage of all the opportunities to be exposed to different types of thinkers. I vowed not to do the same in my graduate experience. With this bunch, I think I succeeded.