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By Kaspar Mossman
Ed. Note: Each year APS sponsors two mass media fellows as part of a program run by AAAS. Typically these fellows are graduate students in physics or related subjects, who spend a summer writing about science for some mass media outlet. APS News has invited this year's mass media fellows, Kaspar Mossman and Michelle Lefort, to tell of their experiences in the pair of articles on this page.
Walter Mitty is a man who spins fantastic daydreams out of his humdrum life. “Rev her up to 8500! We’re going through!” he commands his imaginary aircrew as he drives his wife through slushy streets to the hairdresser.
Grad students have lots of time to daydream as we do the drudge work of science, growing wafers or combing through lines of computer code. At UC Berkeley, where I am a PhD candidate in biophysics, I daydream as I pipette cells up and down in a sterile hood. “Trim it down to 350 words!” I tell myself. “Got to get this piece in before deadline! ” In my mind, I’m a hardworking writer at Scientific American.
Wait…I am at Scientific American, at least for the next week. This summer, I’ve had a rewarding experience as an AAAS Mass Media fellow, working with the best editors in the science magazine business. I’ve written on topics as diverse as silicon lasers, handedness in chimpanzees, and the genetics of trypanosomes. APS sponsored me as a fellow. What I’ve most enjoyed has been the variety–that, and being able to call up top experts in every field who are thrilled to tell a reporter from Scientific American anything he wants to know. In the day I describe below, you’ll get some idea of what it’s been like:
9:04 am: I arrive at the offices of SciAm in Manhattan. Mariette DiChristina, executive editor and my supervisor, buzzes me in. I’m researching a calendar for Scientific American MIND, the quarterly psychology/neurology magazine. We decide that the “Bodyworlds” exhibit at the Franklin Museum in Philadelphia qualifies as a MIND event, since you can see exploded views of real human brains.
10:00 am: “Triage” meeting, at which we gather to discuss first drafts from feature writers. At SciAm, many features are written by researchers themselves, and then heavily rewritten by editors, who transmute stilted jargon into fresh, clear writing that people shell out hard cash to buy at the newsstand. It’s no mistake that this first edit session is called “triage.” Some of the pieces can’t be saved. We must focus on the living.
10:39 am: We huddle around editor-in-chief John Rennie’s television–part of a hideous multipurpose camping thing, which also functions as searchlight and distress beacon, that Steve Mirsky gave Rennie as a gag gift–to watch space shuttle Discovery lift off. All goes well. We breathe again.
SciAm is moving its offices to different floors in the same building, to save money. Editorial and art move into temporary digs on the 15th floor, while the 12th is renovated. I get a tiny closet as an office. People stop by to look in and laugh. But I have a door which I can close when I am doing phone interviews, so I am better off than some of the senior editors, whose desks are out in the middle of big open spaces.
2:15 pm: George Musser, technology editor, hollers “Floor cleaning robot demo in the kitchen!” We crowd into the kitchen, where the floor actually could use a good scrubbing, as representatives from iRobot demonstrate the newest Roomba. The horseshoe-crab-like robot motors around the floor, bumping into shoes and table legs as it follows an algorithm which ensures it licks clean every spot on the floor at least five times. After a few minutes, it becomes clear this fantastic robot actually works. We leave it to complete its job.
George is writing about Roomba for SciAm’s “Technicalities” column. Every month, this column reviews a SciAm editor’s personal experience with some new technology. It’s often a robot of some kind. In fact, I wasted a lot of time this July, trying to convince a Japanese company to send me their “home companion” robot for review. The New York Times already reviewed it, but SciAm wants to do it from, well, a more technical angle.
3:00 pm: Art meeting. In the hallway, the complete September issue is pinned to the wall, and we criticize the layout page by page. SciAm is justly famous for using art to explain science. Their art is so good because they are professionals, and they revise the layout over and over.
4:15 pm: I shut my “office” door for a phone interview with Devin Walton, product manager for Shimano American Corporation. Shimano is sending me a bicycle with digital automatic transmission, which I am reviewing instead of the Japanese robot. I’m excited about the bike, because I cycle all the time in Berkeley. As it turns out, the bike is fantastic–read about it in December!
6:10 pm: I’m not working as a grad student; therefore I feel no guilt at leaving the office at a reasonable hour. I disappear into the crowd on Madison Avenue; anonymous, except that I’m the only one whose shirt isn’t tucked in. SciAm has a liberal dress code, for Manhattan.
The AAAS Mass Media program is designed to develop scientists as communicators. This July and August, the editors at SciAm have given me a real boost–I’ve improved my writing, sharpened my questions, and have a much better idea of what makes a good story. Thank you, APS, for sponsoring me.
By Michelle Lefort
Why physics? This is a question I was often asked about my undergraduate major. Because it matters, I’d reply with a smile.
As a journalist with USA Today, I had the opportunity to answer this question not just to a handful of students but to millions of Americans. Of course, this wasn’t limited to physics, but extended to mathematics, paleontology, chemistry, and biology.
I was fortunate to have APS sponsor me for a Mass Media Fellowship with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). I was sent from a bench in Rochester, NY to spend ten weeks in McLean, VA at USA Today–the most widely circulated daily newspaper in the country.
I was accustomed to change and diving into new worlds. From physics to neuroscience to molecular biology, I had hopscotched my way around science, building a kaleidoscopic resume. I was prepared to absorb information from all corners of the scientific galaxy, but it was not as easy to transfer that into the palatable, concise world of print media.
Despite my inexperience, I was a reporter from my very first day. It was an incredible responsibility. My stories would be read across the country, and could shape people’s understanding of the world. Like any person in a new environment I sought the familiar–I over researched everything.
I spent hours on the phone with patient scientists getting all the details of their research, appropriate background, alternate interpretations, only to see it all turn into a mere three sentences.
Research to a journalist is a different entity altogether from lab research. Instead of saddling up to do experiments, I consulted with experts whose own work could illuminate strengths and weaknesses in a given result. Instead of calculating significant differences and appropriate controls, I had to craft a story that someone without a science background could understand and hopefully enjoy–and that the scientists would respect.
As someone who has always been naturally attracted to science, it was hard to put myself in the place of a reader who doesn’t like–or even care about–science. If I couldn’t concretely explain why a story was interesting or important, I didn’t have a chance of covering it. Just saying “Isn’t that awesome?” wasn’t going to convince an editor.
Over the course of my 10 weeks at USA Today, I calibrated my news eye. Early on I struggled to find stories that excited my editors, but I improved over time–at least I had fewer rejections near the end. I learned not only how to choose stories, but how to promote them.
One of my favorite stories covered a paper from Physical Review Letters on closed timelike curves. I wrote a fun article about the laws of physics, time travel and cinematic time machines.
Why physics? Because it’s fun!
It was harder than I imagined communicating the awe of the scientific method, especially in a results-centered media. It was also hard to let go when pieces of the story would become mere scraps–like a discussion of the effects of quantum perturbations on the closed timelike curve solution–but print is space is money and I was happy to get my physics story in the paper.
I learned so much at USA Today. I learned about shark biology, prosauropod evolution and hurricane formation, but more than that I learned how to tell science as a story. I hope to continue developing this skill, promoting the coverage of science and engaging the minds of readers.
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