Category: Guest Lecture

Encouragement From Jim VandeHei

Today for J800 my class attended a lecture and question and answer session with Jim VandeHei, the co-founder of Politico. Politico is a web and print based media outlet for national political news, that has been pretty successful in the last few years when other media outlets have been struggling (by that I mean they are actually making money instead of bleeding it, hiring young reporters instead of closing ranks on not letting anyone new in).

It was really encouraging to hear someone say that Journalism isn’t dead, and that if you are bright and driven you’ll be OK. The main thing that I took away from his talk was that if you know what you want to do and what you want to report on, you should  just be out there doing it. Don’t take any job that doesn’t have to do with your field, don’t settle. Make yourself known, and just keep calling until someone gives you a chance.

Even though I’m still leaning more towards a public information officer position than a full blown journalist position, it was nice to hear that it can be done. Not finding a job after going through all the effort of moving to Wisconsin to get my Master’s degree is definitely something that scares me. Listening to VandeHei made me inspired to start looking for an internship for next summer (which is my Thanksgiving break goal).

Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Today I met Rebecca Skloot, the author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, mentioned in my previous blog post. Skloot’s book is the UW Madison Go Big Read program’s selection for this year, so she gave a public lecture last night, and visited the journalism school this morning to take questions.

As far as author presentations go, I loved this one, because Skloot pretty much just plopped down in a chair and said what do you want to know? It was a small group (25-30 people) but the discussion kept up for over an hour just based on audience questions. My question for her was whether she was prepared for the Lacks family’s lack of science education and how she viewed her role as a journalist but also as their teacher. Her response was that the two roles were essentially one because her reporting style is based around an informal conversation, but that she wasn’t really prepared for how confused they were about what HeLa is.

20100316we-the-immortal-life-of-henrietta-lacks-by-rebecca-sklootOther questions that were asked ran the gamut from the business of publishing a book, to how Skloot handled Deborah’s death and incorporated it into the book, how she decided on the structure of the book, and how she handled (and organized) 10 years worth of notes. She was an engaging speaker, and was even willing to talk about some of the criticisms of her that have come up since the book came out.

The biggest criticism of Skloot out there is that she isn’t doing enough to help the Lacks family. But, she has set up a foundation for them — and I think its important to remember that for 10 years Skloot was accumulating debt chasing down this story, if the book hadn’t been a success she’d definitely be in the hole so I agree with her unapologetic attitude toward the money she’s made from the book’s success.

She also mentioned that she sometimes gets push back from people who don’t agree with the fact that she kept all of the interviews in their original dialect (people saying it puts down the lesser educated black people who don’t speak with proper grammar) but Skloot points out that she kept the dialect and “broken” English of European and Asian researchers as well as the Lacks family.

According to Skloot the biggest problem she’s encountered so far has been from the white members of the Lacks family. In the whole two pages that the white Lackses are discussed, they definitely appear as racists. But, it is Skloot’s word against the word of the children of her sources (her sources are now dead) who have argued that Skloot couldn’t possibly have done the interviews because their parents wouldn’t have said the things Skloot says they did.

Considering how utterly unimportant the white Lacks family is to the story, it’s sort of absurd to think that Skloot didn’t really do the reporting. It would be such a dumb part of the story to make up, so I’m inclined to believe that the interviews are true.

This book is undoubtedly going to be Skloot’s literary legacy, so overall it was fun to get another first hand perspective on what it takes to research, write, and market a successful science book.

What Makes A Writer Special?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why I chose to specialize in science. Whenever people ask, I typically tell them it is because I was really awful at science itself. This is only a half truth. I was absolutely awful at Chemistry and Physics, but I have always loved and succeeded in Biology and Environmental Science. I know my difficulty in chem and physics was directly tied to the trouble I have with math.

I know math has been described as beautiful for the ways in which numbers work through a charted path to arrive at a solution. But I have never been able to follow that path. I always get hopelessly muddled in trying to understand the principles to the point that I can’t follow the equation or the rule or whatever I’m supposed to be applying. I’m not stupid, so I wonder sometimes why I was so terrible at math. If I had a single teacher that cared enough to go off script and try to explain things in a different way, would I actually have been able to excel at a subject that didn’t come naturally? Things I”ll never know I guess. 
But anyway, consequently when I arrived at Lehigh I wanted to be a biology major, but I was so behind in math (barely scraping through Algebra III was a far cry from passing Calc I & II) that I would have had to pass pre-calc for no credit before I could even start on my major track. I wonder if in choosing to write about biology instead of struggle through the math that I needed to be able to do biology if I took the easy way out. Although, I’m not sure there is anything easy about being a science writer. 
I bring up my specialty and why I chose it because today in J800 Adam Lashinsky, a feature writer for Forbes, spoke about his work as a finance writer. He said he was working hard to avoid getting labeled as a tech writer, although he has done a lot of reporting on business in the Silicon Valley. His reasoning was that he wanted to be free to write about whatever interested him. 
There are positives and negatives to specializing, but for me it was the whole reason I got into journalism in the first place. I wanted to be connected to the science, so for me without that bond with my speciality I can’t say that I would be in journalism at all. I wonder if that will make me a better or worse science writer? 

Storytelling At the Washington Post

In two of my classes this week Manuel Roig-Franzia came in to talk about his experiences writing for the Washington Post’s Style section. After listening to him speak, I came away with almost a sense of awe at how ingrained it seems to be in him to tell stories.

For almost an hour today he just talked about the stories he’s covered and what talking to the people he interviewed was like. He started off telling us about traveling to Haiti in the wake of the Earthquake earlier this year, and went on to discuss interviewing Bill Bond a man who fully admits to having killed his father (but who never served any time in jail for it), and getting the scoop on the White House puppy. Yesterday I heard him talk about his work covering lobbyists in Washington D.C. based on articles about Heather Podesta and the restaurant Tosca.

Typically listening to someone talk for an hour straight could get really boring, but I found Roig-Franzia’s anecdotes about his work reporting to be highly entertaining. Not anything that I think I can really use in my own career mind you, but the guy can really tell an interesting story.

For those who don’t know, Roig-Franzia caused quite a stir last year for his role in a fist fight that broke out in the Washington Post newsroom. I don’t advocate punching people in the face, and I won’t weigh in on whether Roig-Franzia deserved it, but I will say that it is a rare person who is enough of a bad ass to call their boss a cock-sucker and keep their job.

Calculus, Zombies, World of Warcraft & Mean Girls

So after flipping out this morning about my article falling apart, I rallied myself and attended a lecture by UW’s Science Writer in Residence Jennifer Ouellette. She specializes in physics as a freelancer and has written three books. Her lecture was called “Dangerous Curves: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Calculus” which was about the research that she did for her most recent book about math and how it can be applied in everyday life: “The Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse.”

I had hoped that her lecture would be about what it was like to write about a subject that she has no background in (the calculus) but it was actually more about why she thinks math is cool and people should appreciate it. It was still an interesting lecture, and I give her credit for drawing an audience that merged the interests of undergrad journalism majors and graduate math students. For the record, graduate math students seem to function on an entirely different plain, and I for one do not speak graduate level math.

The-Calculus-Diaries-9780143117377Ouellette did a great job of bringing in different clips and examples of how math is applicable in everyday life. She showed part of the television show Numbers (which isn’t on air anymore, but is an interesting example of how to use math for dramatic crime fighting) and the mathlete competition from the movie Mean Girls, where a less controversial Lindsay Lohan realizes that it is okay to like math.

The zombie part of the title of her book has to do with a researcher who created an equation to figure out how best to survive a zombie apocalypse. Of course it is a multivariable calculus equation, which ultimately concludes that getting a gun and blowing away as many zombies as fast as you can is your best bet (although I think I could have concluded that without the calculus.)

The most interesting part of her talk for me (and the sorority girl in me does cringe to admit this) was when she starting talking about the game World of Warcraft. Apparently there was some sort of blood disease (similar to a highly contagious pandemic) that started spreading to the avatars in the game that was created by a player and started spreading rapidly through the program and the game actually had to be reset by its administrators to avoid all the characters dying of this plague-like disease. She brought it up as an example of how there can be technical models for real life situations, which actually didn’t have much to do with math, but is interesting from a science-health angle.

Overall, I’m not sure how useful her talk was in terms of helping me as a science writer, but it was entertaining, it got me out of the apartment, and I got away from my frustration over my article for a little while. I think I have my article situation figured out, sometimes just scrapping an idea and starting over from scratch is the best solution. I’m now feeling optimistic, so if only my eye would stop twitching things would be back to normal.

Ouellette’s blog Cocktail Party Physics is also a good example of science writing on the web, so be sure to check it out if physics is your thing.