Category: Science writing

#Sci4hels: The Killer (Female) Science Journalists of the Future

Myself, Kathleen, Bora, Rose, and Lena at Scio13 Photo by Russ Creech

Myself, Kathleen, Bora, Rose, and Lena at Scio13
Photo by Russ Creech

Confession time, folks: all of the sci4hels members are women. Young women, at the start of their careers in science journalism. To date, nothing RoseLena, Kathleen and I have done in the lead up to our panel discussion at the World Conference of Science Journalists has addressed this fact, including our website, blog posts or question time. Why should it? The topic of the panel has nothing to do with gender. In case you’ve missed me talking nonstop about sci4hels in the last six months here is the panel description:

The ‘Killer’ Science Journalists of the Future: “The science media ecosystem has never been as big, as good or as vibrant as it is today. Many young writers are joining the ranks of veterans each year- and they are good! Many of them have science backgrounds. They all write really well. And they are digital natives, effortlessly navigating today’s online world and using all the tools available to them. But some of them are going beyond being well adapted to the new media ecosystem – they are actively creating it. They experiment with new forms and formats to tell stories online, and if the appropriate tool is missing – they build it themselves. Not only can they write well, they can also code (well, some of us), design for the web, produce all types of multimedia, and do all of this with seemingly more fun than effort, seeing each other as collaborators rather than competitors. I’d like to see the best of them tell us what they do, how they do it and what they envision for the media ecosystem they are currently building.” – Bora Zivkovic (panel organizer)

Being female isn’t a part of that description. Yet, the panel is all female. Bora chose us by sifting through the work of dozens of new science journalists, by narrowing down his list slowly to make sure that he chose three panelists and a moderator whose experience and interests would make the best lineup. He ended up with four women. As four women who now have an international platform to discuss our profession, should we address our gender or not? Is it the proverbial gorilla in the room? Do we have some kind of duty to use our powers for good to try to tackle feminism and journalism just because we can? Are we putting some kind of target on our backs for criticism by calling attention to our gender?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, with a mixture of excitement and dread because we’ve made the decision to go there – to talk about being female science journalists. For me, even though I have my concerns about incorporating our gender into the official sci4hels discussion I don’t see how we can avoid talking about it. It comes up all the time behind closed doors, and if we’re going to commiserate and try to help each other tackle it, why shouldn’t we open it up to our larger community? So, the next sci4hels question time (what, you missed question #1 and question #2?) is going to set out to constructively answer: how do we get more women to the top of the masthead?

In the words of conversation moderator Rose Eveleth: “There are tons of women in science journalism, but very few at the very top. This isn’t a journalism specific problem, obviously, but in a field where the early and mid-career ranks are full of women, what can we do to even the numbers at the top? And, pertaining to our panel, what can the younger generations of science journalists do about it?”

We’re going to be discussing this on Thursday 4/11 at 10 am EST on Twitter at the hashtag #sci4hels. I’m excited for what I hope will be a value filled conversation about how women can rise to the top of the journalism hierarchy. I’m more excited to see what advice there is for young women particularly because trying to establish credibility is hard for everyone, but being new and being a woman is like a double whammy when it comes to trying to convince someone you know what you’re doing. If you don’t have your PhD or a Pulitzer to wave around to tell people you know your stuff, it is that much harder. We tackled how to break into the business with question #2, so I think this is a logical progression: once you’re in, then what? How do you continue to push your career forward and not plateau at deputy associate editor for XYZ?

With the first two questions I at least had some kind of an answer or advice to offer to the conversation. I don’t have as much to give about this topic. Aside from the painfully obvious, yet still painfully necessary advice to be professional – which includes writing polite and appropriate emails, meeting deadlines, and communicating with your editors should problems arise – I’m not really sure how you go about positioning yourself to rise through the ranks. All the more reason why I think this question is a  necessary one. So here’s hoping we can accomplish more than just feeding the trolls, I’ll let you know how it goes.

Update 4/16 – So how did it go? Well, Rose Eveleth has your recap here, with a lot of interesting points. Thank you to everyone who participated!

Highlights from ScienceOnline 2013

I recently had the privilege of attending the Science Online conference in Raleigh, NC. The conference, hosted by North Carolina State University, has been described as “returning to the mothership” for bloggers, social media enthusiasts, journalists, writers and scientists passionate about communicating online. I heard a few people this year saying they didn’t feel that way, but I guess I drank the kool-aid, because I certainly did.

Myself, Kathleen, Bora, Rose, and Lena at Scio13 Photo by Russ Creech

Myself, Kathleen Raven, Bora Zivkovic, Rose Eveleth, and Lena Groeger at Scio13
Photo by Russ Creech

Attending Science Online in person was something I wanted to do because blogging and social media isn’t a part of my full time science writing job, but it’s still extremely important to me. Communicating effectively means using whatever platforms fit the story the best, and I feel like I do some of my best writing on this blog. I get to be my own editor (which comes with some pressure) but I also get the freedom to explore whatever I feel like I need to talk about, to share what I love and to hopefully help other people learn new things or be encouraged to try writing themselves.

I owe so much to Bora Zivkovic, blogs editor at Scientific American and co-founder of Science Online, for bringing me and my little blog into this community. Attending Science Online in person really did feel like coming home. I know a lot of people have said that before, but for me it was actually the first time I felt like I belonged in such a large group. I’ve been on teams, in clubs, in a sorority, in a grad program, and have held jobs where I’ve gotten to work alongside other science writers – I say with all sincerity that I’ve never felt so comfortable being my true self around so many different people, and that’s coming from an extrovert.

So, now that I’ve established that I’m all-in on the love-fest aspect of Science Online, what were the highlights?

  • As a first time attendee, I was completely floored and honored by everyone who came up to talk or say hello. It was wonderful to meet in person people whose writing I’ve admired and been inspired by. One of my favorite comments that I received was that I have a good twitter avatar because online me looks like real me, so I was fairly easy to spot.
  • Actually rallying the nerve to take the microphone and talk about my own experience keeping up my blog and twitter while working full-time for an organization. I was in the session on what to do when people start taking your online rambling seriously, and I added the point that when looking for a job I actually used my blog and twitter as part of my resume. I’ve never tried to hide my online activities, so I still feel comfortable being myself online, even though I now also represent my employer.
  • Attending the session on using personal narrative to tell stories really got me thinking about how much of myself I put into my blogging and social media. One of the most important points is that personal narrative can be effective, but it needs to serve a purpose ie: don’t put yourself in the story just to have yourself in the story.
  • On a similar note, I thought the session on thinking beyond text was also really valuable and I took away the same idea: multimedia needs to serve a purpose. Don’t use audio, video, etc. just to use it, make sure it helps the story. One of the ideas that I tweeted was that you don’t have to do all of the things all the time – I’m a firm believer in doing what you enjoy the most. I am, as Ed Yong said, “a committed text-monkey” so it makes sense to partner with people who love multimedia when I want to tell a story in a different way.
  • From the session on fighting bullshit in the science communication ecosystem (aside from some fantastically tweetable one-liners, see below) I took away the idea that to counteract inaccurate stories, or you know stories that are mind bogglingly ridiculous, we as a community need to be as loud as the people who are spreading the bad story. We need to amplify our impact when we do debunking.
  • I had several great conversations about my decision to take a job in communication rather than pursue a standard journalism job. My ideas on this are still percolating (and I suggested it as a session at #scio14 with Kate Prengaman) but it has been bugging me for a while that there is this perception that journalism is somehow better than communication, and that if you take a communication job you can never ever go back to being a journalist ever again. Ever. One reason it bugs me is because by that definition I am, already, an epic failure. Wasn’t exactly my life goal. I do something I love, so clearly I don’t agree with that, and I’m tired of hearing it.  Especially for stressed out grads or recent-grads, it feels like your entire career hangs in the balance if you don’t land that perfect journalism job right out of the gate- I think that’s ridiculous.
  • It was really interesting to me to witness the unraveling of the session on explanatory journalism with of all things, what I interpreted as miscommunication between the points that were trying to be made by well, I think everyone? It felt like the scientists and journalists in the room were spinning their wheels after a while, and I can’t wait to see how the conversation evolves in the future.
  • One of the things I enjoyed the most throughout the conference were the people who followed along with my tweets, and replied to me or added to the discussion. You are all awesome.
  • Listening to Diane Kelly tell the story of the first time she met Carl Zimmer when they were in their 20’s was awesome. It really drove home for me how the friends and colleagues I make now could end up as life-long connections. You should also check out her TEDMed talk, because it is great.
  • I am so excited at the idea that is floating around to start a regional Science Online in Boston. If you’re interested in joining us to try to get this off the ground check out #sciobeantown on Twitter and make sure to let Karyn know you are interested.

A few other things:

  • Remember that time on the first night I ended up in a conversation with Ed Yong, Carl Zimmer, and David Dobbs? At. The. Same. Time. It might have included an inner dialogue that went something like: “you can do this, they are just people, say words.”
  • I put my livetweeting skills to the test, ended up in battle, and emerged victorious (though, there was talk about it being a draw by those nicer than I, also a few accusations of intimidation – which I know nothing, absolutely nothing about.)
  • After receiving copies of Spillover by David Quammen, My Beloved Brontosaurus by Brian Switek, Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova and The Philadelphia Chromosome by Jessica Wapner I might just have to revive the book reviews section of my blog.
  • I am perfectly dreadful at origami.
  • I was able to meet Michelle Banks (aka Artologica) and bought an awesome painting. There is some great stuff in her Etsy shop.
  • We managed to squeeze in a great Sci4hels brainstorming session, and I am so excited for Helsinki and our panel on the Killer Science Journalists of the Future (it was also awesome to have Bora, Lena, Rose, Kathleen and myself in the same place for the first time!)
  • One of my favorite things to witness was Perrin Ireland’s live storyboarding of the session discussions, it was completely amazing.
  • Pie is a serious issue, and I can read a dessert menu with the best of them.
  • As a last thought I want to take the time to say thank you to Karyn Traphagen, Bora Zivkovic and Anton Zuiker because this conference takes a lot of work, and it is run with so much dedication and care. I want to thank everyone in this community, whether you made the trip to Raleigh or not, because you make my life so much better by sharing your thoughts and insights. A last thank you to everyone who shared a story, let me share my own, and had a good laugh with me – meeting you was truly the best thing about Science Online.

Also, this:

For more posts on the conference check out the list from the Scio13 Planning Wiki.

Jorge Cham: The Science Gap

I recently watched this TED talk given by Jorge Cham, the creator of PhD Comics (Piled Higher and Deeper) and I wanted to make sure I shared it here because he makes some great points about science communcation. I don’t think anything he brings up would really come as a shock to someone who pays attention to science and the media, but I do think that his use of humor and cartoons is very effective.

The traditional way that scientists get their research in the form of an academically published article out to the public is “sub-optimal?” Not exactly a shocker, but an important point nonetheless. Sometimes I think we (and by that I mean me) have a tendency to get so wrapped up in the science communication world that you can almost forget that so many people are really far removed from the issues and research that we tackle on a daily basis. As a science writer it is my job to be a bridge between scientists and the public, so it is always a good reminder to think about the level of understanding and interest of your audience.

There are a lot more points to make about this one, but I’m short on time for blogging this week, so I’m just going to take my own advice from last week’s post and not push myself to think things when my brain is tired. (Better to put my brain cells toward thinking about #scio13!) But, if you have thoughts, by all means I’d love to know what you think!

Before I just leave this here, Cham mentions the cartoon he made at the request of Daniel Whiteson to explain what the Higgs Boson is in the TED talk so I thought I would also post that for those who are interested. It really is a great explanation of the Higgs… something I know a lot of science writers including myself have struggled with!

The Question of Code Revisited: I Think I Can, So Can’t I?

“All of the true things I’m about to tell you are shameless lies.” Is it ever acceptable to walk into an interview with a mentality straight out of the Books of Bokonon from Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle? In addition to being what is possibly my favorite literary quote ever, I think the idea of telling true lies really epitomizes an issue that so many science writers trying to break into the business are facing: when asked what our skills are, is what we feel comfortable knowing, all that we really know? 

I’ve been turning this over in my brain for a couple of months now. In September I wrote a blog post about whether or not learning to code should be required for journalists. Since I admittedly can’t code, I took the position that it doesn’t need to be required. I also said that in interviews it is totally unacceptable to claim that you can code when you can’t. I didn’t expect that statement to be a part of the post that would get any discussion going, but as it turned out it became for me the most interesting part. When the #sci4hels got talking about it, what seemed like a black and white issue (of course you shouldn’t stretch the truth in an interview!) became a lot less clear and a lot more complicated.

Degrees of truth

A lie is a lie, right? As journalists don’t we value the implicit requirement of honestly above nearly all else? Doesn’t this extend from what we say in a piece to the way we conduct ourselves professionally? So then, can you sit in an interview and when asked if you can code, edit video, make a podcast, etc. say that you can when you’ve never done it before? Is the skill that you have the ability to code or is the skill that you have the ability to learn to code? Learn quickly. In a way so that your potential employer never finds out that the moment you told them you could code you actually couldn’t. Is stretching the truth about your abilities lying? Even if it is lying, is it wrong or is it just a smart business move?
 
For me, the idea of claiming to know code when I don’t is absurd. Mostly because I don’t stand a chance of learning code in the time between getting hired and needing to use it on a professional level. I know, I know code isn’t THAT hard. I’ve heard that argument, the “you can do if you try” talk. I’m not scared to try, I just know myself enough to know that I’m not going to learn to code in a day. It took several weeks of my seventh grade school year for the Pythagorean theorem to make sense, and that’s not exactly hard. I try, but I’m not always a quick study. Maybe as far as being a millennial goes this puts me in the minority, but I know that if I sat in an interview and promised to code at a professional level in a days time I’d be telling a Vonnegut style shameless lie.
Why was this the bane of my middle school existence? Via Wikimedia Commons

Why was this the bane of my middle school existence? Via Wikimedia Commons

But, I’m not everybody. If the light bulb in your brain turned on a little bit faster when you were twelve and learning that a² + b² = c² then maybe you can learn to code in a day. Maybe code is the most logical thing you’ve ever seen and you will be its master by dinnertime. If you tell a potential employer that you can code, and you are completely sure of your ability to be able to deliver when called upon to use those skills, are you telling a lie? Is knowing what you need to know in order to know how to code the same as just knowing how to code?

 
I said before that I wasn’t afraid of code, but by sitting in an interview and swearing to the things I can’t do, am I selling myself short? Some of us might just be hiding behind a list of things we can’t do or won’t do and simultaneously shrinking our career prospects. Self sabotage, as it were. Is it principled, or pathetic? Being honest might be a one way ticket straight to the rejection pile. If I communicate the fact that I’d like to learn to code, and would gladly rise to that challenge enough to make someone want to hire me?

I have no faith in common sense

How do you know whether what you know is enough to claim that you know it? As #sci4hels were discussing this issue, what came up over and over was that you have to use common sense. You have to walk a thin line between what you know, what you know you can learn and how you present yourself and your abilities to your employers. If you claim to know something, and you fall flat on your face and don’t deliver the goods, you could do some real damage to your career. Not just because you’ll make your boss angry, not just because you might lose your job, not just because it might be embarrassing; but also because when you fail to deliver what started as a stretched bit of truth unraveled into a shameless lie. Getting caught in a lie in this business is a nail in your career’s coffin.
 
Sure, telling a lie about your ability isn’t the same as telling a lie in a story. I’m not saying that getting caught lying to an employer about what you can do is going to send your career to Lehrer type depths, but it isn’t going to help you get hired anywhere else. You run the risk of ending up labeled as someone who can’t deliver. Getting paid jobs as a science writer is hard enough, getting them once a pissed off editor tells all their connections not to hire you because you aren’t going to produce the work you say you will is going to be impossible.
 
This is a business about connections, if you start burning bridges so early in your career, you can really back yourself into a corner. It also speaks to character, doesn’t it? If you’ll lie about your abilities, what else will you lie about? How is anyone supposed to know where your professional ethics fall when you establish yourself as someone for whom a lie isn’t a lie it’s really more of a gray area.
 
So should we be telling young journalists that it’s okay to claim to be a master of science communication so long as you don’t fall flat on your face? It’s okay to lie, as long as you don’t fail and get caught. Is that really the lesson here? I have zero faith in advising journalism students to use common sense. Zero. If common sense were a clear boundary we wouldn’t still be spending entire class periods discussing what is Facebook appropriate (yes, even that cute picture of you playing beer pong with your Grandma probably doesn’t convey that you are serious about your career) and I’ve sat through those classes so I know very well what kind of questions students are asking. Use common sense doesn’t satisfy.
It's raining code, and apparently we're in the Matrix. Via Shutterstock

It’s raining code, and apparently we’re in the Matrix. Via Shutterstock

So then what are you supposed to do? The only answer that doesn’t present an ethical dilemma is to just learn code and then you’ll know you know it and you won’t be in a position where stretching the truth even comes up. Even someone with my stance has to agree that code is a nice skill to be packing in your arsenal. But this goes further than code. It could apply to any kind of program or web application; you can’t be an expert in everything. There are definitely going to be jobs that you might want where you don’t know the technology that is being used. It comes down to a personal risk vs. benefits assessment.

There is a lot to lose if you get caught claiming you can do things and not rising to the challenge – your reputation and your future prospects to name a few. There is also a lot to gain by forcing yourself to rise to the challenge to learn new things, get the job and stay competitive in this field. Maybe what new and young science journalists need is the kick in the rear that promising to deliver upon a skill brings. Maybe if I put myself in that situation I’d find that code isn’t nearly as bad as the Pythagorean theorem, and a lot of doors for future job prospects would get opened. Maybe I would torch my promising young career in a blaze of gray area glory.
 
Common sense is itself a gray area. If we are going to advise journalism students of anything, I’d say informed decision making is probably the way to go. You should be aware of the risks you take when you climb out on a limb with no safety net, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still climb. It has to be a personal case by case call, which really doesn’t help much. Hopefully though, if you think through the risks and the benefits of how you can present your skills, you’ll come to a decision that is the right one for you and your career. So proceed with caution. 

Science For Six-Year-Olds: Introducing The Scientist of the Month Segment

Science For Six-Year-Olds is a recurring segment on Science Decoded for Mrs. Podolak’s first grade class at Lincoln-Hubbard elementary school. This year the posts are inspired by #iamscience (also a Tumblr) and #realwomenofscience two hashtags on twitter that drove home for me the importance of teaching people who scientists are and what they really do. 

Hello first graders, welcome to Science Decoded! I am so excited to be writing posts just for you this school year. We are going to have a lot of fun blogging together, because we are going to have a special year-long spotlight on who scientists are and what they do. We’ll have our first Scientist of the Month in October, but before we do I first want to find out what you know about scientists. 

What do you think a scientist looks like? Are they all wrapped up in a laboratory like this person on the right? How would you describe a scientist? Are they smart, funny, kind, brave, patient, or happy? Do scientists get to have fun? What do you think scientists do all day? How old do you have to be to be a scientist? Are scientists boys or girls or both? Do any of you know anybody who is a scientist? What are they like?

The reason I wanted to do this segment for you is because scientists aren’t any one thing. Yes, they are all bound together by the fact that they very systematically analyze information to learn new things. But scientists are a very diverse group – they are lots of different people, with many different interests and backgrounds. Scientists also study all kinds of different things. A scientist can study plants, animals, cells, chemicals, energy, the way things move, medicine, space and how to build or put things together in addition to a lot of other stuff! 

via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons

Scientists are important to all of us, because they work hard to try to figure out things about the world that we don’t know. There used to be a time when people didn’t know that all living things are made of cells, but today we know so much more about them and have learned that understanding what goes on in cells is critically important. What are some of the things that you know about that scientists have discovered? Do you know the names of any scientists? 

I hope you have had a good time talking about who scientists are and what they do. I’m really looking forward to introducing you to some great scientists and helping you learn more about what it means to be a scientist. Our first scientist is a paleontologist and geochemist (don’t worry, we’ll learn what that means) but in the meantime if you have any questions for me, feel free to leave them in the comments. 

I’m not a scientist, I’m a science writer. I went to school to learn how to research, report on, and write stories about scientists and what they discover. But, even though I’m not a scientist, helping share scientists’ ideas is my specialty. Hopefully, I’ll be able to do that with these posts!