Sarah Jones, Trinity Communications
Jason Dinh is a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in Duke’s Department of Biology, focusing on animal behavior. On his journey through the science field, he stumbled across one of his hidden talents: writing.
“I always knew I liked writing, and people tell me that I’m good at it, and I think it’s a fun, meditative way to gather my thoughts,” he said.
However, science writing wasn’t in his career plans until the new year began, when he was awarded a the Mass Media Fellowship from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Jason talked with us about how he landed the fellowship, as well as the attributes, techniques and networking strategies he has used and is looking forward to developing while sitting next to professional editors and writers for ten weeks this summer.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
It is a Mass Media Fellowship with Discover Magazine. I am in week seven of 10 as a staff reporter. I write science journalism pieces on a variety of topics. Half of the stories are assigned to me by my editor, and the other half are stories that I pitch.
On a daily basis I scour the internet for the newest science and/or try to find interesting scientific topics that might be newsworthy and relevant to the general public. I do the research and then I pitch, and if the story gets green lit, then I go and I dig and I do a bunch more research and then synthesize the research I find. I may interview experts and eventually put a story together of about 1,000 words that goes up on the website.
That is a breeze over the process of things at Discover. Discover does not do much daily science news. Most of our work is on evergreen matters.
“Evergreen” means news that is relevant and newsworthy now but also a couple of years down the line. For example, the most recent article that I published was on the history of King Tut and the archaeological evidence about what we know about him and why we're obsessed with him. That is not totally “science news,” but it’s definitely evergreen.
I am writing more frequent embargoed news stories on papers that are coming out every day, so they [the topics I write about] are a bit of a mixed bag.
It is all really fun. My favorite part so far is doing the interviews. I find it energizing to talk to people who are talented and passionate about what they do.
For example, I am working on an article based on a series of profiles of the most important scientists of our day. I interviewed a scientist who worked under the Obama presidency as science advisor of the Environmental Protection Agency and who founded “field of green” chemistry, which uses today's manufacturing and chemical processes for a way to produce less waste.
I also spoke with a chemist who is turning how we treat cancer on its head. People have been shortlisting her over the last couple of years as one of the next Nobel Prize winners.
I first came across it online and I had doubts that I would land it. Then I talked to a bunch of people who had done fellowships in the past and had transitioned from doing Ph.D.s into doing science writing. They encouraged me to apply, saying things like, “The worst that happens is you get a no.”
The application itself was a series of short answers, and the most important parts were the personal writing samples. One had to be on a recent science news story, the other on any topic we chose in any style we chose. Also, in the application we were asked why we are interested in science writing and were prompted to share a spiel of our research.
The applications of the semifinalists go out to the newsrooms, and they read the articles we wrote and do an interview with the program director. Then AAAS does a matching process to match you with the newsroom that you end up working in.
I feel that when you are doing a Ph.D. you tunnel into your little rabbit hole. Sometimes you just get so deep into it you find yourself questioning, “Why am I doing this in the first place?” You can lose sense of your curiosity that I have noticed attracts people to science.
I find that as a science journalist you toggle your brain between just wildly different aspects of science and keep an eye on the frontiers of what we know across science.
In the later stage of graduate school, people will become trapped in their own project, in the day to day, in experiments not working. But doing this fellowship and getting into science writing, for me, has restored that sense of curiosity that got me into science to begin with.
There are a couple of ways. For one, I have a portfolio now — a tangible product — that displays experience. The soft skill is all the practice I am getting.
Science writing is about translation; learning a language, trying to put together a sentence that makes sense to a native speaker. Eight hours a day (when I am not doing interviewing and researching), I am getting practice at translating really hard science into something 1,000 words long that the average person at the Thanksgiving dinner table can understand.
Beyond that, everyone in the program is really amazing and kind, which is going to be really helpful in terms of personal relationships and networking. One of the alumni at the orientation said, “There’s a non-trivial chance that you're going to be working in a newsroom with one of the people here in your future, so make the best of it.”
Personally, I am in an exploratory phase. When choosing to do the fellowship I thought that I would like this, that I would be good at it, but you never know until you try. It could turn out that you like doing it for an hour of your day but doing it for 40 hours of your week is a nightmare.
The reason that I have fumbled around my whole life is to try a whole bunch of different things and figure out what I like. I find it hard to know what I like until I do it. Therefore, this is beyond gaining the hard skills and soft skills. It is a really valuable experience of figuring out if this is something that I am good at, and I could see myself doing it in the long term.
It’s really important to be able to synthesize a whole bunch of different science in a way that is digestible but still honest to the facts. I encourage doing a science communication internship and practicing how to convey something that is nebulous. Leaning into its complexity is going to be really valuable for careers in the science field.
I am working on this. Currently I am focusing on putting my eggs in more than one basket. The pandemic took away a lot of baskets.
I have been trying to find value in doing things outside of work and that I am able to put self-worth into. Other baskets that are not related to whether or not a paper gets accepted or the reviews that come in. There are activities that provide an internal worth that do not demand the judgment of other people on it. Again, I am not perfect at this.
Recently I picked up running. If you asked me three years ago, two years ago, even one year ago, I would have told you there is no chance that I will ever become a long-distance runner. My body's just physically incapable of it. However, by doing so, those tiny improvements within my own body were really empowering. It gave me self-worth.
I actually ran my first half (of a marathon) in March and would not have imagined a year ago running more than one mile, let alone thirteen. Things like this have been instrumental in me overcoming setbacks in my personal life and have helped me realize life is so much more than your professional life.
The AAAS Mass Media Fellowship is a 10-week summer program placing science, engineering and mathematics students at media organizations nationwide. Fellows use their academic training as they research, write and report on daily headlines, sharpening their abilities to communicate complex scientific issues to the public. For more information visit, the fellowship’s website.
Sarah Jones is a student at North Carolina Central University doing a science communications internship with the Trinity College of Arts & Sciences communications team. She is a senior biology student looking to pursue a career as a genetic counselor. She is excited to use the skills she strengthens this summer to communicate science with any given audience.