Tag Archives: University of Wisconsin-Madison

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.

The Final Countdown (Part I) The Blog

Well Wisconsin, here we are. Stranded in the middle of another midwest winter, staring down my last semester of grad school. Yes, the last semester. It’s the final countdown people. Just 16 weeks stand between me and my Master’s degree. Two years ago when I decided to pack up and leave behind everyone I knew to chase this crazy science writing dream across the country it felt like I was facing a mountain of a task. But day by day, my time in Wisconsin has chipped away, leaving me asking… how did I get here?

Now that that’s over, back to talking about grad school. I’ve decided to run a series of posts this semester, under the title The Final Countdown to reflect on this experience. As I head toward graduation, and the conclusion of my life in Madison, I want to take the time to pull it all apart and examine the good and the bad. Today, I want to do some thinking about Science Decoded, and what having a blog to chronicle this time has meant to me. Each month I hope to talk about something different, leading up to graduation in May.
This blog started when I made my move to Wisconsin and has played an integral role in my life here. It is my distraction when I’m bored, my place to publish my work, share what I’ve learned, and on multiple occasions served as a class assignment. Science Decoded was recently featured in Scientific American’s Incubator blog (along with many more distinguished clips from my colleagues here at UW!) and it really got me thinking about how important this blog has become to me. One of the best things about the Internet is being able to carve out your own little piece, to share what you think is important, to have a voice.
I’ve always wanted Science Decoded to be a place where people just have access to scientific ideas that aren’t complicated and pompous, because science itself isn’t highfalutin. I’ve always found the beauty in science to be its simplicity, but that can get lost so quickly. A good friend recently told me that what he liked about this blog was that I write the way I talk. I had been wondering if I should change the tone I use on here to something more professional, since it has been getting a higher profile lately, but my friend’s comment inspired me to keep things the way they are. He told me that he likes the way I lure people in with anecdotes and asides about what I think about each topic, with a generally innocent tone but in the end smack you with the point.
That description made me laugh, but I was also relieved to know that I do get the point across (or at least in there, somewhere). Everything I write on here does have a purpose, even the polar bear posts, and I was worried that the reason behind each post was getting lost. But, all I’ve ever wanted was to get people thinking, and if I’m doing that, then I’m happy with what this blog has become.
I’d love to know what more people think about this blog. I’ve said over and over that I have no idea who reads this or why, but I’d love to find out. If there are things I could do differently, if there are things I can keep doing — let me know! Regardless, I intend to keep blogging. I know I was slacking during the month I was in New Jersey for the holidays (but honestly, it was a crazy time). That doesn’t mean I’ve given up on Science Decoded or that even when grad school ends I’ll throw in the towel. This blog means far more to me than just a class assignment. Now that I’ve carved my corner out in the Internet, I have no intention of giving it up.

Synchrotron: The End of an Era?

I’ve said before that being back on a college campus offers so many unique opportunities. This week was no exception with the visit of Bill Blakemore, ABC News climate change correspondent, AND a trip to UW’s Synchrotron Radiation Center. I got several opportunities to talk to Blakemore, and I highly suggest checking out his show Nature’s Edge – but rather than delve into climate communication (a topic on which I could spew my opinions for hours) I want to focus on the SRC.

Today, my internal dialogue was triggered by the trip I took with my colleagues from the School of Journalism and Mass Communications, through the cows and the nothing, to tour the SRC. Located about 30 minutes from campus, the SRC is a particle accelerator that is used by hundreds of researchers each year. Now, I make no bones about the fact that I am scared of physics – but even I was able to understand and enjoy learning about what the SRC does.Whenever I leave downtown Madison, I go through the same internal dialogue: “There are cows. Where am I? I don’t belong here. There are cows. And nothing. As far as I can see. Cows and nothing. What am I doing in Wisconsin?” I hate to admit it, but I do still suffer from re-locaters remorse. I don’t dislike Madison, but seeing prairie or open fields for miles so close to town still shocks me every time.

The “radiation’ part of the name Synchrotron Radiation Center has nothing to do with nuclear radiation, what we have all been worrying about with the Japanese earthquake. Rather, radiation refers simply to the center’s main purpose – to create light for scientific experiments. If you think back to what you know about the electromagnetic spectrum, you’ll remember that there are different forms of light – visible light, microwaves, radiowaves, uv rays, x-rays, etc.

The SRC conducts a variety of experiments using the different forms of light (infrared to x-ray range) that are generated by accelerating electrons around the Aladdin storage ring. I am not going to do a better job of explaining how the ring works than the SRC does on their website, but I will say that the wave of light created by winging the electrons around needs to be contained/controlled and that is essentially what Aladdin does. It is the mechanism that harnesses the light so it can be used in experiments.

The center was opened in 1981, and has a special role as far as SRC’s go because the UW center gives visiting researchers 2-3 weeks to work on their projects, unlike the 3-4 days they might get to conduct research at another facility. Because the SRC is funded by the National Science Foundation, researchers don’t have to pay to use it – it is free. Free resources, that invest significant time in research projects, are rare these days.

They are about to become even rarer. The SRC at UW has not made it into the NSF’s new budget, which means that funding (the approximately $5 million it takes to run the center) will be cut off in August 2011. I appreciate that the SRC isn’t cutting edge. It isn’t shiny and flashy, but it still has scientific merit. The idea of the resource going dark seems like such an utter waste.

My colleague Eric, who works in outreach at the SRC and organized the JSchool’s visit, has a terrific post on his blog about the closing of the SRC and the closing of Chicago’s Fermilab – which will leave a hole in the scientific research community in the Midwest. I encourage those of you in Madison to take the time to check out the SRC before the last electron goes shooting through the Aladdin ring, and for those of you not in Madison take a look at the federal science foundation budgets – is there a resource near you that will be lost in 2011?

The reason I chose to focus this post on the SRC rather than Blakemore’s visit, is because the SRC is such a uniquely Madison, WI experience. It reminds me of why, in spite of the cows and the nothing, I came to Madison. This is the site of some extraordinary scientific research – discoveries that I find fascinating, that ignite the sense of awe and wonder about the world that I have tried so hard to cling to as I have transitioned into adulthood. Seeing the SRC’s inquiries end, while sad, makes me appreciate that I was in Madison in time to experience it for myself.

My 19th First Day of School

Counting Preschool, Kindergarten, Elementary School, Middle School, High School, Undergrad, and now Grad School, today marked my 19th first day of school. I always love the first day of school, I find it exciting and for the most part teachers and professors are in a pretty good mood because they haven’t yet had to deal with students or grade papers.

I had two of my four classes today. The first, literary aspects of journalism – taught by Deborah Blum (a working journalist and science writer whose latest book is The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Science in Jazz Age New York). The course is going to explore journalism as an art form, with an emphasis on story telling. I’m really excited about it, because while I’m pretty confident in my ability to write short news, I’d really like to develop my skill at writing feature stories.

We’re going to be reading a lot in Blum’s class but two books that I’m particularly excited to read are Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (I’ve fallen asleep during the movie starring Johnny Depp at least four times, but I am hopeful that the book will do far more for me), and Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. UW-Madison’s Go Big Read initiative is featuring Skloot’s book so she’s going to be coming to campus this semester to give a large lecture at the Kohl Center, and a smaller lecture at the Journalism School. I’m excited about this book because my last article for BioTechniques before ending my internship was on cell line contamination, and was picked up by Skloot on her Twitter page. It was thrilling, so I am really looking forward to hearing another science writer, especially one so successful, speak.

The other class I had today was International Communication with Jo Ellen Fair. The class is focused on “Celebrity Culture, the Media, and International Humanitarian Interventions.” I think focusing on the role celebrities play in generating interest about humanitarian issue will be a really interesting way to look at international reporting.

So far it looks like this is going to be a great semester, I really liked being back in class and I felt comfortable being back in the college atmosphere. I have one class tomorrow that is just a lecture with no work attached to it and then the three day weekend before seriously starting course work next week, I’m pretty excited about it.

Wisconsin & Writing

Today I ran a bunch of errands around the UW Campus. I got my student ID, got my bus pass, set up a bank account, got groceries, found my classes etc. According to my Mom my ID picture makes me look homeless. I guess its a winner. Today was my family’s last full day here, they leave for the airport tomorrow at 4pm. I’m really glad they came out here to help me get settled but I think it will be good for me to just wander around a little by myself to get my bearings.

Tomorrow my article on genome wide association studies and technologies for finding rare variants is due for BioTechniques. I’m still waiting on one last interview, so fingers crossed that will come through tomorrow morning. Otherwise, I’m not sure what I’ll do, quote from papers probably. I did get four other interviews so its not terrible, but they asked for five so I’d really like to deliver. Its not my best work, but given that I only had two weeks, and that I moved and have been with my family non-stop for one week of that I’m proud of myself for the progress I’ve made.

In other science writing news, Harvard recently found Marc Hauser guilty of misconduct. I mentioned in an earlier post that the New York Times had reported on the alleged misconduct. I thought their reporting on the case was relatively balanced, so I figured it was worth mentioning.