Tag Archives: University of Wisconsin-Madison

Blogging 101 Here’s What I Know

Not that I expect anyone to want to take the 20 minutes to watch a video that is essentially just me talking, but I recorded this interview about tips for bloggers who are just starting out so I thought I’d share it here. This was done as a prelude to a guest lecture that I gave in a Life Science Communication class at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The students asked some great questions, that I figured were also worth answering here on the blog. If you have questions about getting started as a blogger or want to add some wisdom (please, do!) definitely let me know in the comments.

Questions from the class:

Has your strategy for promoting and writing the blog changed since getting a full-time job?
Absolutely, I have less time to maintain the blog than I did when I was in school, so I have to be more strategic about what I do. I’m down to writing one post a week and I spend a lot more time on Twitter. 
How do you find and pick which topics to write about?
For a more detailed answer about this one, you can check out Filling the Empty Page: Reading to Write where I talk more about how I get story ideas from the things that I read, and how important it is to write about what genuinely interests you. 
If there is one thing you could have done differently what would it be?
I would have (and still should) comment more on other blog posts. This is a case of not practicing what I preach, I’m well aware of the benefits of commenting and getting involved in other forums, I just don’t do it nearly as often as I should. 
Is there a certain way you suggest commenting? As in: ask questions, critique, converse, praise, etc.
Comment however you want to, just make sure you are saying something that contributes to the conversation in some way.
How do you make yourself seem credible when writing about a serious matter?
If you check your facts, use the right sources, and are thoughtful and dedicated to getting the post correct then you are credible. People will see that. 
Are you using other social media sites besides Twitter to grow your blogging audience?
I just started using Google+ more, I’m intrigued to see what comes of it. 
Any advice in finding your blogging voice?
Blog a lot. When I first started Science Decoded, I wrote a lot more than I do now. You need to try it out, try different kinds of posts, explore different topics and eventually you’ll figure out what feels right to you. Give yourself time to develop your voice, you aren’t going to have everything exactly how you want it right out of the gate. 
Any tips for reaching out to influential stakeholders, it seems intimidating.
If tweeting or commenting to someone well established in your field, I think the best advice I can give is to just go for it – but have something of substance to say. If it really makes you uncomfortable, practice interacting with people you consider your peers first to get a better sense for how it all works. 
After you established a professional blog did you ever find yourself posting off topic of your specific aim because it was just so interesting you had to share it?
Absolutely. I kept Science Decoded fairly open ended in the first place because I knew I wanted the ability to write blog posts about a variety of topics. Even so, I’ve written posts that haven’t been related to science like when I went on a rant about supporting philanthropic causes or explained my fascination with Amelia Earhart. In my opinion, you can go off topic once in a while and you shouldn’t have a problem.
How do you keep your ideas confined to a tweet?
Tweeting short hand is tricky, it takes practice to instinctively distill ideas into a tweet but you’ll get the hang of it. 
What aspect of your writing has improved most over the years? (being concise, structure, etc.)
I would say the thing about my writing that has improved most since I started blogging is the ease with which I write in my own style. Like I said in answer to another question, your voice develops and becoming comfortable with my own voice is I think the best take-away from blogging. 
If you have any tips of your own, or if you have any other questions you’d like me to try to answer leave it in the comments! 

The Final Countdown: Closing Time

Tonight is my last night in Madison. I’ve said a lot of goodbyes in the last week, but none that felt particularly adequate. Most people just got a half hearted wave before I ran away, if you were very lucky you got a hug before I ran away. I’m not very good at goodbye indefinitely. It might actually be worse than goodbye forever. So, I’ve decided to take to the blog once more to try to say goodbye.

I vividly remember walking through the security line at Newark airport sobbing because I didn’t want to leave New Jersey. My friends were there. My family was there. All I knew was life on the East Coast. That first time that I had to get on the plane alone and fly to Wisconsin was the hardest. Every flight after got a little bit easier, to the point where I was happy to head back to Wisconsin. That change happened due to the people I now count among my friends. It happened because of the places here that I came to love. That change happened because I changed.

Photo by Erin Podolak

Photo by Erin Podolak

Sometimes it is hard to explain what I gained in Wisconsin without making my life in New Jersey seem lacking. That certainly isn’t the case. The bulk of my support system is in New Jersey, my family and the good friends who came along on this ride with daily gchats, emails, texts, and phone calls. They are the people who matter most to me, and I couldn’t have done any of this without their support, advice, and encouragement. But that being said, my time in Wisconsin was truly everything I never knew I needed.

I didn’t realize how close I was to giving up on journalism and science writing. It has been my dream to write about science since I was a kid, but in 2010 I was ready to give up. After the graduate school rejections, a full year of fruitless job searching, and working my ass off for free I came to Wisconsin on my last legs hoping dearly that journalism school would save the dream I saw imploding. It didn’t, particularly. Don’t get me wrong, I learned a lot. But classes themselves are not the stuff that dreams are made of. People make dreams. What saved mine was the professors who told me that my voice matters and is strong, the classmates who pushed me forward sharing my frustrations and successes, the wonderful journalists and speakers who gave me their attention and shared advice, and all the other people who remind me everyday on Twitter and on this blog and theirs why I love doing what I do. All of you contributed to bringing my dream back from the brink.

When people ask what comes next for me and I tell them I’m job hunting the answer I almost always get is “good luck, it’s tough out there.” Yes, it is. But I’m tough too. I’m more determined than ever to break into this field. Sometimes there are no open doors or windows, sometimes you have to burrow under a wall or scale the roof to get in. Sometimes you have to wait, or go back and draw up a new plan. I will not stop writing. I will not stop meeting people, or chasing the stories that interest me. I hope someone will pay me to do so, but if that doesn’t happen for a while I’ll just keep doing it on the side. I’ll keep trying. That is what I promise all of the people who have supported me and who believe that I can do this. I’ll keep trying. Wisconsin, the people I met, and the experiences I had living out here gave me the strength to try and to keep trying. I feel like I’ve gotten a part of myself, the feisty determined and confident part, back.

It is easier to leave a place, a time, a chapter in your life that you love and want to hold onto, when you know what comes next. I have no idea what comes next. Immediately I know that I’m moving back to New Jersey to stay with my parents until I find the kind of employment that comes with health benefits. But what that job will be, where it will be, and what I’m heading into, I don’t have a clue. That sort of seems fitting though. I had no clue what I was getting into when I decided to move to Madison, picked an apartment site unseen and agreed to live with a total stranger. That stranger ended up being the single most encouraging and sympathetic person in my life here and I will miss my roommate immensely. She made me laugh more than any other person whether it was at her, with her or at myself.

There is something I love about the unknown. If life was always tied up nicely in little packages, all planned out according to what everyone expects you to do it would be insufferably boring. The unknown holds the promise of an adventure the details of which you can’t see or understand. It is hard to say goodbye when you don’t know what comes next, but not knowing is life’s way of keeping things entertaining. You know I like to be entertained. So, it makes sense to me that I don’t have it all planned and figured out. I think that the most interesting lives are the ones that meander, the ones that don’t take a linear path. I want tremendously to succeed, but if I end up taking the long way to get there it will be okay. It might even be better than okay.

So tonight, as I look around my empty apartment, I propose a toast to dreams rekindled. To irreplaceable friendships forged over coffee and those Wisconsin beers. To going home again, better than when you left. To people who never let you forget that you matter. To getting what you need instead of what you want. To making your own opportunities. To the unknown. Cheers.

I’m so fortunate to have spent this part of my life in this place with these people. I wouldn’t trade the depression and tears or the joy and laughter for anything. As much as we might want to slow time down and hold onto a moment, we have to let moments pass. My moment in Wisconsin has passed, and it’s time to move on. On to the next adventure. There is a lot about Wisconsin that I’m going to miss dearly, but I’m ready to meet whatever comes next. So goodbye, and thank you.

The Final Countdown (Part IV): Time To Panic?

Dear readers, please excuse me while I have a quarter life crisis. We’ll get back to your regularly scheduled science writing posts momentarily. The last few weeks have seen such a mix of emotions, that it seems necessary to collect them in a blog post as an update for my semester long series about graduation and saying goodbye to Madison. So here is a self indulgent list of all the thoughts ricocheting in my brain. My hope is that a post like this chronicling the weird, pathetic, and hopeful thoughts of a graduate, a graduate school graduate mind you, about to be turned loose in the world will be one that others can commiserate with. I’m taking this to a blog post just to tell you that you don’t have to worry, there are other people out there freaking out. I am one of them.

  • I did not appreciate how amazing and wonderful the city of Madison is nearly enough. Now that I’m leaving it, now that the flight is booked, now is when I start to love it.
  • Having attended a small private school and now a large state university I can say that they each provide a very different experience. I’m glad to have gotten a taste of both.
  • The one thing I am dreading most about presenting my final portfolio to my peers is that in our presentation we have to include our “what’s next” plans. I do not know what is next, but I take comfort in knowing that I will not be the only person up there who doesn’t know what their future holds just yet.
  • The last two years alleviated the sense of failure I felt at not getting a writing job in New York City. It made everything okay because I was a graduate student. Being a graduate student was not the solution to a problem, it was the postponement of a problem.
  • Everyone keeps telling me that I am young and I have time. I’m 24, and it is young, but its not that young. I was supposed to have traveled the world and written a memoir by now.
  • I am 24 and I have a Master’s degree. So I didn’t write the memoir, I wrote a lot of other things! That’s pretty good right? Right.
  • It makes me frustrated to see jobs that I really feel like I could be great at require years of experience. You are supposed to do internships to get experience, so why does everyone act like my four internships and two part time writing jobs held while going to school don’t add up to three years of experience?
  • I do not know how to become “successful” in terms of finding a job that will pay my bills and make me a grown up and also become “successful” in terms of not abandoning my dreams and being happy. I desperately want them to be the same thing. I do not think I will get so lucky right out of the gate.
  • I do not know if being someone that everyone who has invested in me can be proud of, and being someone that I can be proud of are going to be the same thing.
  • How are you supposed to know the difference between following a dream that is a fool’s errand and following a dream that you can really make happen? Perhaps I am just an inspired fool.
  • The decisions I make now feel like they will impact forever. Everyone, including those older and wiser and those younger and wiser keep having to remind me that you can change your mind, change your job, change where you live, change who you know, and change what you know.
  • I want to ride an elephant, go to borneo, get a tattoo and jump out of an airplane. The last two are much more likely to happen than the first two.
  • I also want to have a car, pay my rent, buy food, and otherwise be a grown up and stand on my own so my parents can retire in peace.
  • Does going back to a place mean you will go back to who you were when you were last there?
  • Who I am now and who I was when I left New Jersey is not the same person. I feel the most like me that I have in a long time. The only crisis I am not having is a crisis of self. I am confident, relaxed and certain that it will all work out while still being certain that I’m going to stumble along the way as it is inevitable.
  • There are other people out there who are smarter than I am, who are better writers than I am, and who if I was doing the hiring I would probably hire before myself. These people understand how to properly use commas. I will probably never understand how to properly use commas.
  • I am still smart, a good writer, and willing to work really hard. I am also still idealistic enough to believe that if you work really hard you can make things happen.
  • I am one of the luckiest people I know. I have had such amazing opportunities, among them attending two highly respected universities. I am incredibly grateful to my parents for financing six years of education and for telling me to go after science writing with everything I’ve got.  Without them I would be living in a cardboard box with a sign that says “will write blog post for food.”
  • I am incredibly grateful to the University of Wisconsin-Madison for being everything I never knew I needed. There is really nothing like the insight and knowledge you can gain on a college campus, especially this campus.
  • I don’t know that I could ever get tired of the view from the Terrace. Honestly, I’ve never been on a more beautiful college campus, and I was very much in love with Lehigh’s.
  • The amount of people rooting for me is seriously humbling.
  • Selling oneself in the form of a cover letter is awkward. It never stops being awkward.
  • If I had my college years to live over again, I would do a lot differently. If I hadn’t lived it the way I did, I wouldn’t be who I am or where I am. Thus I would not be the person that would live it the way the person I am now would. We do not get do-overs, so must find a way to be content with what was.
  • Regardless, in each case my undergrad and graduate school experiences resulted in wonderful memories, great friendships, and more fun than should be allowed.
  • The second time around, I actually feel ready to graduate.
  • The amount of opportunities, of change, and of chances that lay before me is another reminder of how lucky I am. I can go anywhere, and do anything and I will still have a cheering squad behind me. This includes running away to Borneo or getting a full time job with health insurance.
I can’t say that everyone who is graduating will feel the way that I do. I’m quite sure some of my thoughts wouldn’t have crossed your mind, but I do hope they show you that being optimistic and confident doesn’t have to do with having all the answers. Sometimes it is just as important to have the questions, and to know that you have what it takes to find the answers…eventually. I don’t know what I’m going to be, or where I’m going to be but I can’t wait to find out.
Final countdown: T-11 days until my last assignment is due, T-19 days until I move back to NJ. Now, here is some Bon Jovi for you, and while we’re at it here is a little Passion Pit and some Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Goo Goo Dolls, Matchbox Twenty, Eli Young Band, Semisonic, the Talking Heads, Lady Gaga and the Killers because every crisis, especially those in your mid twenties should have a soundtrack.

Thoughts On Science Writing In The Age of Denial

This week I was lucky enough to be among the attendees at a conference called Science Writing in the Age of Denial, hosted here at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. What a great experience. Truly I couldn’t say enough to thank all of the organizers, speakers, panelists, and other attendees for all of the thoughtful discussion. For those of you who aren’t as familiar with the concept of science denial, it is simply the idea that despite scientific evidence that certain things are true (evolution, climate change, there is no autism/vaccine link, etc.) people will still claim (sometimes with serious vitriol) that science is wrong. This happens because the scientific evidence questions their world view or the mental model they have in place for understanding an issue.

I just wanted to share a few of the thoughts and ideas from the conference that I’m walking away with:

Respect is key. Our job as communicators is not to slap people around, name call, or put them down for thinking a certain way. Calling someone an idiot isn’t a good way to get them to take your point of view seriously. It is our job to communicate facts and evidence in a way that is compelling and approachable. I thought Dan Fagin from NYU’s SHERP program put it brilliantly when he said that as science writers we can’t stay walled off in our castle, acting like we’re on the defensive from the attacking hoard. We need to come down and really open up a dialogue if we want to make any progress.

We can not change minds with facts alone. It is our job to tell our audience a good story. A good story has the power to change minds. Telling scientific stories in a narrative way is one of the best ways we can go about trying to communicate about these controversial issues. Narrative is what will hook people, and hopefully get them thinking critically about issues and avoid them shutting down from the start simply based on the topic.

As science writers we have a tremendous ability to do harm. It could not be more important that we do our homework, and tell stories with all the nuance and shades of grey required to tell them accurately. For me this point was really driven home by Ivan Oransky, co-founder of the blog Retraction Watch, when he said that a all science/medical writers should have a biostatistician in their back pocket. It is unacceptable to spread misinformation because you as the writer didn’t understand it in the first place. We need to be reading the papers (including the graphs and methods) and asking questions of the researchers or qualified third party sources if we are unclear about something.

One of the most important things we can do for our audience is help educate those who are unfamiliar with the scientific process about how it all works. Deborah Blum raised this point, and pointed out that the problem with claiming a scientific consensus about a topic is that over the course of history scientific consensus about any number of issues has been revised. This is inherent in the nature of science, a constant search for new information is bound to result in new information. Sometimes this new information will confirm the previous conclusions, sometimes it will contradict and present more questions. This isn’t a reason to distrust what all scientists say, or to distrust conclusions for which there may be unanswered questions but for which there is very little contradictory evidence. We need to help the public understand that uncertainty is inherent in scientific research. Uncertainty doesn’t mean that scientists are liars, because unsure is not the same as false. The more we can do to help make the public comfortable with the scientific process, the more likely we are to help them learn to trust it.

We need to try to understand our audience. Knowing where your audience is coming from and what is driving their perspective is critical to being able to communicate ideas to them. You won’t change minds if you don’t establish an ongoing dialogue that addresses their point of view.

Another point I thought was really important was that the best way to help dispel misinformation is to stop repeating it. Articles like, “the top five misconceptions about climate change” just help keep the misinformation in the public eye. We need to focus on truth. I thought this was perfectly captured with the example of asking the audience who originally said the quote “I can see Russia from my house” I was among the people who thought Sarah Palin, but the real answer is Tina Fey. Palin made a comment about having foreign policy experience due to the proximity of Alaska to Russia, and Fey made fun of it by saying the above quote in a skit on Saturday Night Live. Palin never actually said it, but it has been repeated so much that it has taken on a life of its own. Thus, the misinformation lives on.

Those are just a few of the ideas I’ll be taking away from Science Writing in the Age of Denial. There were so many great sessions and panel discussions that I couldn’t possibly list every great idea and point here. If you are interested in what went on at the conference I seriously recommend checking out the twitter activity on the hashtags #denialconf and #sciencedenial. A lot of people were tweeting, myself included, and you will get a really great summary of what was said and went on. If you do check out the hashtags though, don’t be surprised to see some spam. We experienced several spam attacks throughout the conference.

I’ll close this post by just repeating my thanks to everyone who participated. I met some seriously fabulous writers (and only had one moment where I was freaking out in my brain trying to figure out what to say to someone so smart and famous). I had a great experience and I’m looking forward to hopefully meeting them, or at the very least reading more of their work, in the future. In the meantime I’ll be trying to incorporate the ideas and suggestions that came out of the conference into my own work.

The Final Countdown (Part III) The J-School

In this third installment of my special segment where I look back on my time in grad school I want to talk about what I actually took away from my program. I’m in the University of Wisconsin Madison’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication Master’s Pro-Track program. I realize that is a mouthful, which is why I typically refer to it as just the Pro-Track.

The program has only three core courses: short form journalism, long form journalism, and digital storytelling. The rest of the credits (you need 30) come from electives, either in the J-School or in any of the other departments on campus. I’ve taken classes in Zoology, History of Science, Life Science Communication and of course the J-School. Everyone has to have a specialty but you can choose to specialize in whatever field interests you most, I obviously chose science. I tried to choose electives that would be useful for science communication, not just journalism in general.

My colleagues in the Pro-Track, I'm the one in the stripes.

My colleagues in the Pro-Track, I’m the one in the stripes.

One of the best and worst things about the program is the flexibility it affords you to do whatever you want. I liked not having to fit into a pre-fab mold for what a Master’s student should look like. However, there were a lot of instances where I felt like I was completely on my own. Sure, I can always go ask for help, and when I’ve needed guidance I’ve sought it out. I just feel like in general, the Master’s Pro-Track students are an island unto themselves within the overall J-School. I literally had a PhD say to me once, “I don’t really consider you part of the department.” Yeah. Well, learning to be a practicing journalist is very different from doing academic research in communication, it just is.

Still, while we might be our own island, it wasn’t exactly a lonely island. The best thing about the way the MA Pro-Track program is structured is that you go through it with a cohort. The group of people I went through this grad school experience with were a supportive, and in my humble opinion, critical part of the program. More often than not, they were my sounding board for ideas, they answered my questions, they helped me talk through issues or problems, and they offered advice. On days when I wanted to tell journalism to go screw itself, they pulled me back. In several instances they became real friends, and an important part of my Madison life. I am very grateful to them, for helping me make the most out of this experience. (You can get the links to all of their blogs/websites here and I do sincerely encourage you to check them out).

One of the hardest things about this program, again in my humble opinion, is that we all came at it with different skill sets as writers. I have a science writing degree (BA from Lehigh University) and had three internships under my belt when I moved here, but there were several members of my cohort who had never written before. I believe there is always more to learn and work on, but my needs in this program were different from someone who has never sat through the “this is a nut graph” lecture before. It wasn’t easy getting everyone on the same page, and I don’t envy our professors trying to meet such diverse needs. As someone who was already comfortable with standard journalistic conventions, I was grateful when opportunities to challenge myself came up, particularly in one writing workshop course. The course, which I took last spring, was designed to give us the flexibility to tackle stories that we wanted to write but felt we needed help with.
I think of this course as “Journalism Therapy” because in the end all six students chosen to be a part of it ended up writing a personal narrative. We presented these pieces to each other, and worked through the struggles and roadblocks we were coming up against. I’ve always wanted to write about my family, and took the opportunity in the workshop class to write about 9/11. For a group of young people the amount of baggage that got laid on the table every other week was astounding. (I considered posting the piece I wrote in the course here, but so far I haven’t been able to bring myself to hit the publish button. If there is genuine interest, let me know I could probably be convinced to post it.)
Ultimately, what I took away from the course, and this program in general is an understanding of my own voice. It takes strength to tackle the hard subjects, to go to the dark places if you need to, to tell the story with truth and integrity, to keep going – around, over, and under obstacles if thats what you need to do to get it right. I don’t think you can summon that strength if you don’t know what it is you want to say. Ultimately I think my point is that I’m glad I did this. It was an experience I’m grateful to have had. While I didn’t necessarily learn the things I thought I would going into it, I still learned a lot about what kind of writer I want to be, and ultimately I think that is the most important thing I’ll be taking away from the J-School.

There is a lot more I could expound on about my experience, good and bad. If you are interested in the Pro-Track, or are a prospective student feel free to send me an email and I’d be happy to discuss the program in more specific terms.