Hi hello how are you! Here’s a question I get asked ALL the time: What experiences did you have during grad school that helped your AAAS Mass Media Fellowship application? See also: Would you mind sharing your application materials? And don’t forget: What kinds of things do I need to be doing as a grad student so I can snag a coveted MMF spot?
Well, wonder no more! Here’s what I had under my belt when I applied, some observations of my cohort (shout out to my brilliant 2018 crew!) and my general sense of what the application reviewers are looking for.
In general, you need to demonstrate two things on your application: 1. That you’re really interested in this kind of thing, and 2. That you’re coming in with good enough writing chops that you can actually have a productive summer at your outlet. They’ll teach you how journalism works, so don’t worry about having journalism-specific experience (though that certainly can’t hurt). But you do need to already have a clear sense of how to write and write well, and how to translate technical science into something for the masses.
When I arrived in Washington, D.C., for day one of orientation for the fellowship, I was blown away by my cohort. It felt like every person there had started their own ultra-successful publication or podcast, or had been the editor-in-chief of their school newspaper since they were old enough to read, or otherwise was far more prepared for the fellowship than I was. But looking back, even though I didn’t have any singular big shining achievement on my resume, I did have a pretty solid list that demonstrated that I was, in fact, super interested in science communication and also at least decent at it.
My general strategy as a grad student was to eat up every opportunity for #SciComm that was presented to me. And it wasn’t even because I was actively building my resume (even though I was) — it was just that these were the most fun and rewarding ways to spend my time. (Sorry, dissertation.) I started my own blog and wrote for others’ as well (I just counted: I wrote 31 posts total). I volunteered at science fairs. I volunteered to give Science-on-Tap-style talks at bars. I volunteered to teach biology to non-majors (when everyone knew the “easy” teaching gigs were elsewhere). Besides my blog, I really didn’t invent many new opportunities for myself. I just said “yes” anytime an opportunity was presented that sounded like fun. Plus, I found that once I earned a reputation for liking “this sort of thing,” people started to notice and would come to me directly with new opportunities.
As for the application itself, my biggest concern was the writing samples, especially the sample news story. But in the end, I just read a bunch of actual science news stories, mimicked the overall format and tone, and then found a scientific paper to write about that already seemed interesting to me. I think it turned out pretty well, for my first news story ever.
My application materials are below. The only other pieces they asked for in 2018 were undergrad and grad transcripts — not super enlightening, but I’ll mention I had good grades and zero journalism classes — and a CV. If you really want more info on the latter, have a look at my current CV and ignore everything after January 15, 2018.
Hope this helps!
Why are you, as a scientist or engineer, interested in participating in this program?
What I love most about being a scientist is having the knowledge and position to share information about the natural world with others. This fellowship will give me the skills, opportunity, and connections to pursue this full-time. I find scientific research to be most rewarding at two stages: first, when I get to compile what scientists before me knew to formulate my own understanding of a new topic. And second, when I’m finished researching and can share with others everything I’ve found. The in-between—doing research of my own—seems to be slowing me down in a world where so many people don’t have access to, aren’t aware of, or just don’t care about so much amazing science that’s already been done. I’m great at synthesizing written information and even better at communicating it. Because of this, I’m interested in pursuing science communication as a career path.
What in your background has prepared you for this fellowship?
I have cultivated a passion for communicating science throughout graduate school, and have practiced my non-technical writing as often as possible. I’ve written for several blogs, both university affiliated (BEACON Center for Evolution in Action, Kellogg Biological Station) and elsewhere (At A Crossroads, Ecological Society of America). I started my own blog, Plant//People, and recently have taken on a more editorial role to manage an increasing number of guest posts. I’ve engaged with #scicomm-ers on Twitter, brought Plant//People to Instagram, and brought my program’s graduate group to Twitter and Facebook. I’ve attended nearly every science communication seminar and workshop offered at Michigan State, and attended ComSciCon in Chicago last fall. At ComSciCon, I workshopped a piece I researched about misconceptions about the organic food industry with professional writers, which I recently pitched for publication. In addition to writing, I’ve given a handful of public science talks, designed and delivered activity booths at science fairs, taught four semesters of biology lab for non-majors, conducted countless informational interviews with writers and other communications professionals, and taken a summer elective through our journalism school about representations of the environment in the media. I’ve even visited Washington D.C. with the Ecological Society of America and the American Institute of Biological Sciences to discuss the importance of continued federal support of the sciences with congressional offices. Throughout all this, it has become exceedingly clear that this is what I do best, and what I enjoy best.
How do you think the skills learned from the fellowship will impact your future career or academic plans?
I don’t have the formal training or portfolio necessary to jump from academia into the media world on my own. This fellowship is a rare opportunity that will give me the skills and experiences I need to truly break out of the sciences, be taken seriously as a communicator, and pursue the career I desire. I see this fellowship as an integral step toward my future career success.
Have you had previous media-related experiences? Please Provide Details.
I participated in the Lansing Storytellers Project (think: The Moth). I pitched a true story to a storytelling coach at the Lansing State Journal, had coaching sessions individually and as a group, and then performed my story live at a local event. Although my story wasn’t science-related, this was a valuable public speaking and story-telling experience. It was enlightening to witness the other storytellers’ strengths and shortcomings and to workshop our stories as a group. By far the worst story at the event was told by a local university professor. She hadn’t shown up to the coaching sessions and told an overly detailed, confusing, boring rendition of her personal story— a story dramatic enough that it had been featured in The New Yorker! This absolute communication failure hurt me deeply as I looked around at the crowd starting to chatter in disinterest during this “typical boring science story.” I am very passionate about fighting this stereotype, and making stories like hers come to life!
Describe any activities, other than previous media experiences, you have undertaken that involved increasing public understanding of science and technology.
I believe my greatest impacts on the public have been through speaking engagements and my visit to Washington, D.C. I shared my own research findings with the Michigan Botanical Club and with land managers at the Stewardship Network, made a case for tallgrass prairies (and their restoration) to a crowd at a local bar, and explained my own theories on biology and Pokémon to another (the latter, admittedly, was the biggest hit). In Washington, I received formal training from the American Institute for Biological Sciences on how to engage congressional offices with a personal yet succinct message. Congresspersons are today some of the most important recipients of scientific information, which made this experience particularly meaningful for me. The personal connections possible at each of these in-person events solidified each message, making the most impact on my audience, and certainly leaving a lasting impression on me. Although I’ve spent a lot of time with writing and would be happy to continue to do so, these experiences have piqued my interest in exploring new forms of media, be it radio/podcasts or video.
What community outreach or educational activities have you participated in, science-related or otherwise?
Besides the public speaking and writing mentioned above, I’ve also participated in several local science fairs. I created an activity booth to teach plant identification techniques to middle schoolers, and a display describing benefits of native plant gardening (for all ages—but especially parents). I’ve also volunteered at the Michigan State Science Festival, the Graduate Women in Science’s Girls Math and Science Day, and the MSU Museum’s Darwin Discovery Day.
How did you find out about the program?
I’ve had this program recommended to me by so many colleagues over the years that I’ve lost count. I had to wait until finishing the bulk of my graduate research before applying— it’s hard for a prairie ecologist to skip a summer!
General Writing Sample
Ecology at a Crossroads
Runner-up, 2016 UWE Bristol Science Writing Contest, 18+ Division
A woman sits in front of a computer screen, its glow illuminating her face after a long day at work. She triumphantly hits Ctrl+Enter a final time, and leans back in her chair, waiting, expectantly, for something to happen. One by one, lines of black text appear on her screen, counting iterations of her latest analysis. 9998. 9999. 10000. Finally, a large block of text and numbers appears, and a graph pops up. If this is a good day, she shouts, “eureka!” But most days she scratches her head while packing up to head home to her kids, planning how she’ll tackle this computer code differently tomorrow.
This woman is analyzing a large dataset of information, but she’s not working for the next big tech company—she’s an ecologist, helping a conservation agency make decisions for their next project.
Ecology has come a long way since its inception some 150 years ago. The earliest ecologists were brilliant natural historians, exploring the natural world and documenting the patterns and species they encountered. Decades later, classic experimenters tossed sea stars out of barnacle pools and fumigated mangrove islands off the Florida Keys to see what would happen. Each of these simple, yet elegant, experiments changed the way ecologists thought for decades to come.
Fast forward to today, and everything is big, big, big. Experiments take up more hectares, studies are done with more collaborators, and more data is collected and analyzed. More complex datasets mean more complex analyses, and modern students of ecology are more likely to take a programming course than one on taxonomy. Of course, the majority of researchers are collecting new data, too. But as data tables are replacing sketch books, the ecologist-programmer is replacing the ecologist-naturalist.
With such technological requirements, it’s increasingly hard to stay connected with nature. Academia is rigorous, and not exactly known for allowing much free time for those who pursue it. In the old days, the quintessential naturalist would not have had to juggle grant deadlines, teaching, managing a lab, and their tenure application like a research professor does today.
Charles Darwin took five years off from the real world and paid his own way for his voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle. How many brilliant new ideas would we have today if ecologists had the freedom to do that?
Yet ecologists know they cannot truly understand plants without also understanding the mammals that eat them, the insects that pollinate them, the birds that carry their seeds, and the microbes that live in their roots. With estimates that 86% of Earth’s species may still be unknown, and extinction rates accelerating, naturalists are more important than ever.
This is why so many ecologists are making the effort to get back outside and observe the world, and are calling on their peers to do the same. For every ecologist making advances from behind a computer screen, there is another out in the woods—probably on their day off—just observing.
This is the future, and challenge, of ecology: learning to embrace the torrent of information in the computer age while maintaining a personal connection to the natural world. It will be the ecologists that master both that will pave the way forward for the future of the discipline.
A woman walks in the woods. Her pants are tucked into her socks and she has a curled-up book shoved in a pocket on her backpack. She strays from the trail, meanders, stops frequently. She jots a note here, takes a photo there. Sketches something. She observes the species she sees and how they interact. Something catches her eye, and she kneels down, waiting, expectantly, for something to happen. Today is a good day. She shouts, “eureka!” and calls her colleague, who is sitting in front of a computer screen.
Sample News Story
Firehawks: Nature’s Arsonists
Would a bird intentionally spread fires?
Wildfires are known to attract certain birds of prey. These birds aren’t looking to warm their feathers; they’re hoping their next meal will come from the insects and small mammals fleeing the blaze.
Some raptors have even been reported to spread fires themselves.
A study published in last month’s Journal of Ethnobiology set out to investigate reports of this interesting bird behavior in Northern Australia, where locals consider it commonplace.
Wildfires can be helpful to the landscape—flushing prey for hunters, keeping native ecosystems in balance, and clearing out fuel loads to keep future fires more constrained. But they can also be destructive, especially when they encroach on homes, herds of livestock, or Aboriginal sacred sites.
Firehawks—the generic term for these fire-spreading species—reportedly carry smoldering sticks from fires in their beaks or talons, intentionally igniting unburned areas. The three most common species are the Black Kite (Milvus migrans), Whistling Kite (Haliastur sphenurus), and Brown Falcon (Falco berigora).
Despite the beliefs of locals, officials in these fire-prone areas remain skeptical about the reality of avian fire-spreading. This arises from a lack of scientific data on the subject—no surprise, because of the dangers of doing research at the edge of an active wildfire. Although ornithologists acknowledge sightings of raptors carrying lit kindling near wildfires, many hold that this behavior must be unintentional. Instead, they argue, raptors diving to catch prey near a fire may accidentally end up with a smoldering stick caught in their beak, which could then ignite a fire when later dropped.
This skepticism may result in real harm in areas where birds really are interfering with fire-fighting efforts, as is suspected in Northern Australia. Most, if not all, Australian Aboriginal groups in this area have significant traditional ecological knowledge and cultural traditions centered around firehawks. And for land managers, Aboriginal or not, who deal with bushfires in the area, the interference from these avian fire-spreaders is well-known. For them, the lack of acknowledgement and support from officials can result in ineffective fire management strategies.
Researchers thus set out to understand and document the true extent of raptors’ fire-spreading behavior. They compiled observations from witnesses in the area, existing scientific literature, and their own lives. Witnesses were identified via responses to posts in the blog Northern Myth and a mention in the Tennant and District Times. Observational accounts were compiled through formal interviews in person, by phone, and by email.
As the researchers expected, witnesses were hard to come by. The vast majority were those with extensive experience with wildfires, especially firefighters. The researchers excluded all vague or second-hand reports, as well as any accounts gathered from Aboriginal people that may have infringed on their right to control access to sacred knowledge involving the land.
Though the reports were convincing, they were sparse, amounting to only seven from non-Aboriginal informants and 12 from Aboriginal groups, none of which were accompanied by photo or video evidence. Some observers referred to the fire-spreading behavior as common, while others reported seeing it only once during an entire career. One group of land stewards admitted to carrying shotguns in order to shoot down the fire-spreading birds to protect their livestock.
The researchers explain, “typically, non-Aboriginal people in the region have heard of fire-spreading secondhand (for example, we were told that tour guides to Kakadu National Park mention it to visitors), but quite rare is an informant who has unequivocally witnessed it and can recount convincing details under close scrutiny.”
These “convincing details” are what skeptics are waiting for. Empirical observations, or better yet, direct tests, are needed to confirm this compelling claim with scientific rigor. Resource managers agree that scientific acceptance of avian fire-spreading would allow them to more legitimately consider it as a variable in their work.
The researchers report plans for a series of controlled experiments. In these, fire managers will light fires in collaboration with field biologists, who will then be able to record and quantify fire-spreading behavior by the raptors. The researchers will work with Aboriginal rangers, too, to incorporate scientific methods in an approach that respects indigenous ecological knowledge.
Together, these different forms of evidence will complete a cohesive story about the true nature of firehawks. Do they mean to start fires? Are they just accidental arsonists? Although the scientific community is unsure, these compiled reports, in conjunction with these new studies, will help to settle this question once and for all.
Musings on science writing, from a scientist turned writer.