Katie Strong, a Ph.D. candidate in Chemistry at Emory University, has begun her Mass Media Fellowship at the Sacramento Bee, a 10-week summer program offered by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
Strong is one of twenty chosen by AAAS as part of their Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellows Program for 2015. The program places students and recent graduates from the sciences at media locations across the nation, training them as professional journalists, seeking to foster better science communication for the general public, and introduce scientists to new career directions. Now in its 41st year, the program boasts alumni such Joe Palca and Richard Harris of National Public Radio.
Strong’s first introduction to writing for a general audience came when she acted as editor for her high school yearbook. Even though she went on to get a bachelor’s degree in Chemistry at the University of Mary Washington, she never forgot how much she loved writing.
“So since I’ve been in grad school, I’ve tried to make an effort to write more than just academic papers and things like that, because I do enjoy doing it,” she says.
Strong wrote as an editorial intern for the American Journal of Bioethics Neuroscience for a time, but not writing for a mass audience. The journal’s blog was meant for scientists, she says, and even then neuroethics is “a niche market.”
Strong says she wants to learn how to “make science stories into stories, not just lists of data or general information. To really make a story that other people can relate to.” After completing her fifth year of graduate work, Strong wanted a chance to spend the summer following that desire, so she applied for the AAAS Mass Media Fellows program. Out of more than 130 applicants, she was one of the twenty selected.
She did not except to land in Sacramento.
“I kind of liked the fact that at [the Mass Media Fellowship Program] there’s this huge element of surprise, because you don’t really know where you’re going,” she says. “You don’t have any say in that. I thought that was really exciting.”
Her position at the Bee is not the only surprise Sacramento had for her, Strong says.
“The people in Sacramento are really friendly,” she says. “Surprisingly friendly. I don’t know if that’s a California thing or not—it really caught me off-guard.”
Strong likes that it is a new experience, she says, and not just in terms of her career. She has moved from Atlanta to Davis, leaving her apartment and car behind during this summer journalism fellowship with the Bee.
“It is completely new, which is a new experience in itself,” Strong says. “I’ve never really been in a newsroom before, I’ve never sat next to reporters. I’ve never even just picked up the phone and called someone because I wanted to interview them.”
Still, with two weeks of the fellowship under her belt, Strong is discovering some similarities between the newsroom and the research lab.
“Both settings seem to be filled with passionate, hard-working people who are willing to work long hours at the drop of a hat for probably not enough money,” Strong observes. “News and experiments don’t run on a 9-to-5 schedule! It seems like both reporters and scientists are working to find answers to questions, but they are using different tools to go about this. And, that is the biggest difference. Obviously in lab I’m using instruments and chemicals to solve problems, while in the newsroom this involves extensive research through interviews.”
Strong will be reporting for the Bee until early August, after which she will return to Emory to complete her doctoral work.
Katie Strong can be contacted at the Sacramento Bee at (916) 321-1101 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Her fellowship is sponsored by the American Chemical Society.
Additional reporting by Ben Young Landis.
— James Eldred