A Day in the Life of Tim De Chant

Tim De Chant is the senior digital editor for NOVA and editor of NOVA Next. He produces the blog Per Square Mile and has written for Wired, the Chicago Tribune, and other publications. Tim is also a lecturer at MIT in the Graduate Program in Science Writing. Follow him on Twitter @tdechant.

Tim De Chant

Tim De Chant

What I’m working on:

I just finished a big feature on automation and the economy, which I’ve been working on for the last few months. With that done, I’m starting to think about my next writing project. I always have a few ideas on deck, so it’s just a matter of doing some initial reporting to see which of them look most promising.

I’m also working with my colleagues on some new initiatives at NOVA, including some very cool projects that I’d like to say more about but probably can’t at this point.

Where I work:

I’m based out of NOVA’s offices at WGBH in Boston. I work with a great team that produces both the NOVA website (and related apps) along with the long-running TV show. My workspace is a typical office with a desk, iMac, and second monitor (I find those indispensable). Like others at WGBH, I’ve fine-tuned my lighting situation with a trio of desk and floor lamps so I don’t have to endure interrogation-room brightness of the overhead fluorescents.

Our team is split between quieter offices and “the cubes,” where the action is more lively. We also have a great break/lunch space that looks west over the leafy Boston suburbs. It’s a great place to take a first pass at editing a story. (Plus, the view of the sunsets can be pretty amazing.) Read more »

Ask TON: How to Build Narrative in Explanatory Stories

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Welcome back for another installment of Ask TON. This month we’re talking about how to turn your story’s vegetables into a juicy, tasty stew.

You have an assignment to cover new developments in a complicated field. You’ve been following it for a while, so you know the basics and the main players. You know you have to include summaries of some results, and enough background (your vegetables) to give readers a good overview. But you still want your story to be deliciously compelling, not just chock-full of data.

So what are the steps you can take to bring more narrative to a summary-type story? For stories that are mostly explanatory, what kinds of questions do you ask your sources in order to create narrative? Read more »

Meet the Newest TON/Burroughs Wellcome Fund Fellows

BWF logoWe are delighted to announce the latest recipients of our second round of fellowships for early-career science journalists, made possible by a grant from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund.

In a large pool of outstanding applicants, Geoffrey Giller’s and Julia Rosen’s story ideas and ongoing efforts to expand their science journalism skills and knowledge stood out. TON readers will get to know them and their work in the coming months, but for now, here’s a little bit about Geoff and Julia:

Geoffrey Giller

Geoffrey Giller

Geoffrey Giller, who will begin his TON/BWF fellowship this month, is a freelance writer and photographer and a recent graduate of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. He especially enjoys writing about amphibians, ecology, and natural history. You can follow him on Twitter @GeoffreyGiller and see some of his photography at his website.

Julia Rosen

Julia Rosen

 

Julia Rosen, who will begin her fellowship in March, is a freelance science writer based in Portland, Oregon. She loves to write about earth science, energy, climate, and food, although she can get interested in just about anything. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, where she worked as an AAAS Mass Media Fellow, EARTH MagazineEos, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter @ScienceJulia.

We’re delighted to welcome Geoff and Julia to The Open Notebook. We’re also thrilled to have enlisted the services of two terrific journalists who will serve as their mentors and editors:

April Reese

April Reese

April Reese, who will work with Geoff, is an associate editor at Discover magazine. During her 15-year career, she has written about science, environmental policy, politics, and music for numerous publications, including Greenwire, Land Letter, High Country News, Atlantic.com, Smithsonian.com, and Trend magazine. She lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Follow her on Twitter @areesesantafe.

 

Cameron Walker

Cameron Walker

Cameron Walker, who will be Julia’s mentor, is a writer in Santa Barbara, California. Her work has appeared in Discover, Aeon, Cancer Today, and elsewhere. She is a regular at The Last Word on Nothing, a blog about science and other interesting things. Follow Cameron on Twitter @camonthecoast.

 

We look forward to great things from this talented crew.

 

Writing for Women’s Magazines

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When I tell other science writers that I write for women’s magazines, their reaction is typically something along the lines of “Whoa. What is that like?” Writing for magazines like Glamour and O: The Oprah Magazine and Family Circle is certainly a different experience than writing for Nature—but it’s fun and challenging in its own way, and in my opinion it’s possible to cover science and medicine for these publications with integrity and accuracy.

Editors’ note: This article is published with funding support from the National Association of Science Writers.

Perhaps the biggest difference between a women’s magazine and a science magazine is audience expectations. While readers of Scientific American or Nautilus have a strong interest in basic science, women’s magazine readers may not. And women primarily read magazines like Good Housekeeping and Real Simple for their service—actionable information or advice on how to live happily or frugally or healthily (depending on the magazine). So while these publications do sometimes cover science, they only do so if the science applies to their readers’ everyday lives in a direct way that fits with the focus of the magazine. As science writer and editor Emily Laber-Warren, who worked on staff at Women’s Health in 2006, recalls: “Many of my ideas got no traction because I could not answer ‘where’s the service?’ to [the other editors’] satisfaction, even though I thought that our readership would be interested.” Laber-Warren now directs the Health & Science Reporting concentration at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

Ensuring Accuracy

Oprah logoThe service that a women’s magazine provides has to apply to its audience in an age- and sex-appropriate manner too. As health and lifestyle writer Virginia Sole-Smith explains, “Many women’s magazines only want to feature research that has been done about their particular demographic—women aged 25 to 45, for example. This makes a certain kind of sense because the health issues of a 30-year-old woman are pretty different than a 50-year-old man. But there is a huge bias in health research; scientists like studying men because in a lot of ways, they are simpler—no periods, pregnancies, menopause, etcetera to factor into the results. So it can be frustrating to cover a topic like, say, heart disease, and realize how little of the data applies to your audience.”

To solve this problem, Sole-Smith communicates frequently with her editors during the reporting process about what she can and cannot provide in her story. Sometimes editors come to writers with only a vague idea for a piece and hope that the writer can find the meat of the story on his or her own. As Sole-Smith puts it, “The editors have decided what they want the headline to be, and then they want you to find the story to match.” In these situations, clear communication is also essential. “This doesn’t happen with every assignment, and I’m sure it happens with other types of magazines, too, but it is a recurring problem in our niche. As realsimple logothe writer, you constantly walk a line between needing to please your editor and needing to stay true to your sources and reporting,” Sole-Smith says. Likewise, it’s also up to the writer to ensure that the research mentioned in the piece is characterized and applied accurately, especially if it gets incorporated into service. If a small trial reported that cognitive function improved in elderly patients with dementia who ate an ounce of dark chocolate every day, the article shouldn’t tell its twenty-something readers that eating a Milky Way Dark every day will boost their IQ. Read more »

A Day in the Life of Jennifer Ouellette

Jennifer Ouellette is a science writer based in Los Angeles, California. She is the author of four popular-science books, most recently Me, Myself and Why: Searching for the Science of Self (2014). She writes the Cocktail Party Physics blog at Scientific American (under the pen name Jen-Luc Piquant) and co-hosts Virtually Speaking Science in Second Life. Follow Jennifer on Twitter @jenlucpiquant.

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Jennifer Ouellette

What I’m working on:

I spent the first few months of 2014 promoting my new book, Me, Myself and Why: Searching for the Science of Self, which involved quite a bit of travel, but I did manage to knock out a few feature articles for various outlets in between. For instance, I wrote about the possibility of manipulating visual perception for a new kind of a “cinema without cuts” for Pacific Standard; covered self-organized criticality in the brain for Quanta, where I am a regular contributor; and had a blast with so-called “digital history” for New Scientist, focusing on the application of mathematical techniques to London’s Old Bailey archives to glean new historical insights.

I maintain my Cocktail Party Physics blog at Scientific American, with a weekly physics links roundup on Saturdays and the occasional additional post when a topic strikes my fancy—anything a bit quirky, interdisciplinary, or involving phase transitions are good bets for inspiration. Who doesn’t love a good phase transition? At the moment, I’m writing weekly recaps of the new WGN America series Manh(a)ttan, a fictionalized series of the U.S. effort to build an atomic bomb during World War II—simply because I love the series. I always try to work in a bit of behind-the-episode science, too. And I’m finalizing a new book proposal in the next couple of weeks, topic still under wraps.

I also co-host Virtually Speaking Science every second Wednesday. It’s an hour-long conversation between me and a scientist / science writer guest in Second Life, hosted in the Exploratorium’s virtual space and simultaneously podcast over Blog Talk Radio. It’s purely voluntary / a labor of love, but I really enjoy having these in-depth discussions with very smart people—and seeing how they design their avatars. My favorite (so far) was a complexity scientist whose avatar was a swarm of butterflies. Read more »

Seth Mnookin Follows a Family Battling a Rare Genetic Disease  

Seth Mnookin

Seth Mnookin

Bertrand Might’s parents knew something was wrong soon after he was born in 2007. The baby was “jiggly” and nearly impossible to comfort; as he grew, his health deteriorated. For years, the Mights searched desperately for a diagnosis. In 2012, scientists at Duke University learned through a form of genetic analysis known as exome sequencing that Bertrand’s illness was almost certainly caused by two separate mutations of a little-studied gene called NGLY1. While the Duke researchers were able to tentatively diagnose Bertrand, they couldn’t know for sure until they located another child with the same disease—and because there’s no formal mechanism for researchers at different institutions to share sequencing data, finding that crucial second case could have taken years. With Bertrand’s health rapidly deteriorating, his parents, Matt and Cristina Might, set out to find more patients on their own. Their quest drew the attention of science journalist and author Seth Mnookin, associate director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Graduate Program in Science Writing. Mnookin was drawn by a simple question: What do you do when you learn your child could die from a disease with no other known sufferers?

In “One of a Kind,” published in The New Yorker on July 21, 2014, Mnookin told the Mights’ story. As he reported on the scientific and administrative complexities surrounding rare diseases like Bertrand’s, Mnookin says, he also discovered “remarkable amounts of grace” in the families struggling to understand and cope with their children’s illness.

Here, Mnookin tells TON co-founder Siri Carpenter the story behind the story:

How did you find this story?

Matt Might, the father of the child I wrote about, wrote this 5,000-word blog post in May of 2012, describing the odyssey that ended with his son being diagnosed, through next-generation exome sequencing at Duke University, as the first person in the world with this new disease. Gizmodo reposted the piece two days later, which is where I saw it.

I was very affected by it. I emailed Matt saying “Hi, that was really powerful and if there’s any reason for you to be [in Boston] and you want to give me a call, please do.” He answered me, and then four or five days later I wrote again and said “I don’t have an assignment, I don’t have any prospects of an assignment, I’m not at a point where I can devote a huge amount of time to this”—I had just gotten to MIT—“but I think your story is incredible and I’d love to start talking with you with the idea of maybe one day doing something.”

For about a year, we spoke by Skype about once or twice a month. I also went and visited with the Mights in Salt Lake City in September of 2012. It was only in August or September of 2013, after I had dozens of hours of interviews with them, that I finally pitched the story.

How did the fact that you were teaching in the science writing program at MIT affect your decision to take on this story?

This was probably the first time in my life where I had the freedom to work on something without knowing what it was going to turn into. When I was just freelancing, I couldn’t have afforded to do that. In some ways my situation was perfectly suited towards working on that type of piece. Here was something I could work on when there was time. And if I hadn’t been able to convince some magazine to let me do it, I would have been really disappointed, but it wouldn’t have meant that all of a sudden I was going to be destitute. So that’s a huge luxury.

What did you talk about with the Mights, in those early conversations?

Initially I just started talking about Bertrand’s history: the same ground that Matt had written about in his post, and that [Bertrand’s mother] Cristina had also written about—she had her own very active blog about Bertrand that she had been keeping since before he was a year old. I was just building up the timeline and getting them to go back again and again because each time, details would come out. Read more »

Making the Most of Lab Visits

5744968358_e1392eeba0_zAny science story depends on getting the facts and figures right. But visiting scientists where they work allows you to move beyond the facts to glean insights into their personalities and passions. A lab visit can reward the enterprising reporter with behind-the-scenes details about how a discovery was made and what motivates the people doing the work.

But getting the most out of a lab visit is a skill unto itself. Many science journalists I know began their careers as bench scientists with intimate knowledge of lab work and all that goes with it. But with a background in political science, I had no occasion to visit a research lab until I started writing for a science museum nearly 15 years ago. Like a lot of other science writers, I’ve learned on the job—though not without a few missteps. I’ll never forget one of my first lab visits, when my overstuffed backpack nearly toppled an outsized glass Erlenmeyer flask in Pat Brown’s Stanford University biochemistry lab. I quickly stashed my pack in a corner, grabbed my notebook and pen, and resumed the lab tour, heart racing, hoping no one had noticed.

Watch Your Step

Editors’ note: This article is published with funding support from the National Association of Science Writers.

That early close call highlights a central element of any laboratory visit: Most labs have fragile equipment lying around and sensitive instruments recording experimental results. It may seem blazingly obvious that you should be extremely careful not to break anything or interfere with the work at hand. But labs can be cramped, cluttered, and chaotic. And when you’re juggling notebooks, pens, cameras, and recorders, it’s easy to get distracted. The last thing you want to do is bump into someone who’s in the middle of a delicate procedure or place your gear on a finely calibrated instrument. Pay attention to what’s going on around you, and you’ll be fine.

Book Enough Time

I usually ask for more time than I think I’ll need at a site—which, depending on the type of story I’m doing, could be anywhere from one to several hours. You should respect your source’s time, but your first priority is to get good material for your story. If I notice my time’s up but the person I’m interviewing doesn’t appear antsy, I’ll keep asking questions until I’m told it’s time for me to go. Read more »

Call for Fellowship Applications

bwfWe are now accepting applications for The Open Notebook/Burroughs Wellcome Fund fellowship for early-career science writers. (See here for stories written by our previous two fellows.)

The Fellowship

The next four-month TON/BWF fellowship will begin on November 15, 2014 and end on March 15, 2015. A second fellowship will begin on March 15 and end on July 15. (If you are available for only one or the other of these periods, please note in your application that your availability would be limited to that period.)

During the fellowship period, fellows will produce a total of five articles for publication at The Open Notebook—a mix of “story behind the story” interviews, reported features, and other resources, with the guidance of a mentor who will help shape story ideas, provide reporting and writing guidance as needed, and edit final copy. The fellowship will be remote and will be part-time. Thanks to a generous grant from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, each fellow will receive a stipend of $1,800.

Eligibility

The fellowship is open to early-career science writers with fewer than two years of professional science writing experience. (Internships and student work do not count toward this requirement). Graduate students interested in science writing are eligible. Prospective fellows must be available to devote sufficient time to completing articles as specified in the fellowship description.

Selection Criteria

TON’s editors will select one fellow for the fall 2014/winter 2015 period and one for the spring 2015 period. Priority will be given to applicants who demonstrate an ability to propose good feature ideas and who show strong writing ability.

Application Process

Applicants should email the following documents (collated into a single PDF file) to editors@theopennotebook.com:

  • A resume or CV
  • A one-page letter of interest explaining why you are seeking the fellowship and what you hope to learn from the experience
  • Up to three writing samples
  • Proposals for two TON features or multimedia stories (these can take the form of a behind-the-story writer interview; a topical feature on some element of the craft of science writing; or some other project centered on the craft of science writing). Each proposal should be no more than two paragraphs.

Separately, please provide one or two (no more) letters of reference. (Applicants who applied for our last round of fellowships, last winter, may re-use letters from their previous applications, if they wish. If doing so, please indicate as much at the TOP of your application letter.) Please ask referees to send letters directly to editors@theopennotebook.com.

Deadline

Applications, including letters of reference, must be received by midnight (Central time), October 27, 2014.

A Day in the Life of Elizabeth Svoboda

Elizabeth Svoboda is a science writer and the author of What Makes a Hero?: The Surprising Science of Selflessness. She lives in San Jose, California, with her husband and young son. Follow her on Twitter @svobodster.

Elizabeth Svoboda

Elizabeth Svoboda

What I’m working on:

After a tumultuous past couple of years caring for a young baby and shepherding my book out into the world, I’m finally getting back into the swing of things writing freelance pieces on a variety of topics. Right now, I’m working on a Discover column and a health story for O: the Oprah Magazine, as well as longer essay features for Nautilus and Aeon. After writing mostly about selflessness for such a long time, I’m enjoying branching out and investing my efforts in multiple projects—although I do still spend some time on book stuff, like promoting the paperback edition that just came out this August.

I work about 20–25 hours a week these days so I can spend more time with my toddler son. Right now, I plan to ramp up to something resembling a full-time schedule once he heads off to preschool.

Where I work:

From a practical standpoint, I’ve found that I can pretty much work from anywhere. I’m the stereotypical freelancer who’s more productive away from home, which means I spend a lot of my time in coffee shops, fast-food restaurants, and libraries. But I’m also lucky enough to have an artist’s studio building in our backyard with its own wireless Internet, which serves as a nice dedicated workspace about 100 feet from the main house (especially useful for early-morning phone interviews). Read more »

Erica Klarreich Profiles an Award-Winning Mathematician

Erica Klarreich

Erica Klarreich

In March 2014, mathematics and science journalist Erica Klarreich got a rare chance to report exclusively on a top math story. Thomas Lin, the managing editor of Quanta Magazine, had convinced the International Mathematical Union to give him advance notice of the winners of the Fields Medals, which are awarded every four years and are often described as mathematics’ Nobel Prize. (Quanta, which is published by but editorially independent from the Simons Foundation, is one of the few outlets with a commitment to running in-depth articles about math.) Lin brought Klarreich on board to help write several detailed profiles of the winners, including one of Stanford University professor Maryam Mirzakhani.

Klarreich’s August 2014 Quanta article “A Tenacious Explorer of Abstract Surfaces” describes Mirzakhani’s career arc, from her childhood in Tehran to her groundbreaking work on hyperbolic surfaces and billiard dynamics. It casts the mathematician as a fearless and accomplished scholar and is peppered with personal details such as the doodles Mirzakhani draws when thinking about mathematics. 

Here, Klarreich tells TON-BWF Fellow Tien Nguyen the story behind the story, including the decision to bury the information that Mirzakhani is the first woman to win a Fields Medal.  Read more »

(A Slightly Early) Happy 4th Birthday to TON—And Good News

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When we launched The Open Notebook in October 2010, our goal was modest: to conduct a series of intermittent interviews with writers whose work we admired. It wasn’t long before we started hankering to do more, but TON was a side project for both of us—we only had so much time to give to this labor of love.

naswLuckily, our timing was good. Just a few months after we launched, the National Association of Science Writers began its Idea Grants program, and TON was among the first beneficiaries. NASW’s generous support (along with donations from TON readers) enabled us to begin hiring writers to do interviews and report features, and it freed us to tackle new ideas, like an advice column, a database of successful story pitches, and writer profiles. In the last four years, we’ve published more than 50 in-depth interviews with leading science, environmental and health journalists; about 30 reported features on specific elements of the craft of science journalism, such as finding and sharpening ideas, pitching stories, handling unreliable sources, taking effective notes, identifying an effective narrative structure, and weaving exposition into narrative. More than 100 writers and editors have given guidance to their fellow journalists via our advice column, Ask TON, and our series of one-minute videos, Single Best. Dozens have contributed query letters to our pitch database, which now contains 80 successful pitches. Some intrepid souls have allowed TON readers a glimpse into their workspaces and daily routines, through our Natural Habitat and A Day in the Life series.

bwfLast year, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund awarded us a grant to launch a fellowship program for early-career science journalists. Since January, our first two fellows, Tina Casagrand and Tien Nguyen, have worked with TON mentors Kendall Powell and Alexandra Witze to create almost a dozen reported features and interviews, on subjects such as conducting data journalism, writing nut grafs, creating radio and podcast scripts, and writing headlines.

Today we’re delighted to say that both NASW and BWF have decided to provide continued support to TON. Over the next year, with NASW’s funding, we’ll be able to publish about a dozen more interviews and reported features and another dozen Ask TON columns (which are now being edited by the talented Rebecca Boyle), as well as assorted other resources. And BWF’s funding will allow us to offer two more fellowships for beginning-level science writers (stay tuned for an official call for application information soon).

We’re genuinely thrilled to partner with NASW and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, and very grateful for their continued support.

 

Image at top by Shutterstock.

Diversity in Science Writing: A Survey

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For a tribe that loves empirical evidence, science writers have very little data about race and ethnicity among their ranks. There’s no census tallying up the ethnicities of those who do this job. Yet when you look around the room at work, school, or professional conferences, it seems clear that people of color are underrepresented in science writing.

Editors’ note: This article is published in collaboration with CultureDish.org.

Why is this a problem? Apoorva Mandavilli, editorial director of SFARI.org and an adjunct faculty member at New York University’s science writing program, wrote in an essay published in Medium last year: “Without diversity in newsrooms, what you get is a small group of (mostly privileged) people writing for another small group of (mostly privileged) people. Entire stories are missed, and those that do get written have the same, tired perspectives, missing nuances of color, race, class, gender and ethnicity.”

The National Association of Science Writers (NASW) has tried to recruit more diverse journalists, but its efforts don’t seem to have worked, as Mandavilli reports.

Her story got me thinking it’s time to systematically ask science writers of color why they are underrepresented among science writers, and about their own experiences in the workplace. With The Open Notebook, I designed and distributed a survey for minority science writers. I received only 46 responses from U.S.-based respondents, itself a telling statistic: Compare that with the 618 responses to the NASW’s salary survey last year.*

The majority of respondents said they hadn’t noticed any bias against them in their careers, but a few shared stories of teachers and bosses whose actions made them feel they didn’t belong. Two people shared stories of overt discrimination.

The respondents had a lot to say about why certain racial groups are underrepresented in science writing. The most common theme was money—or lack thereof—suggesting that fellowships and scholarships intended specifically for minority science journalists may be a powerful diversifier.

The survey is of course not a representative sampling of science writers of color. The editors at The Open Notebook and I tried to publicize the survey widely—through social media, by directly contacting writers, and by posting to mailing lists, including those of the NASW, the Society of Environmental Journalists, the Association of Health Care Journalists, and several graduate programs in science writing. It’s impossible to know how those who participated in the survey might differ from the overall population of minority science writers in terms of employment status, income, geographic location, or other qualities.

Still, the individual responses and experiences are interesting, and the aggregate informative. They tell us, for example, that even if instances of bias are not universal, they are real. And identifying the causes underlying science writing’s lack of diversity is a first step toward finding solutions.

On to the results! Read more »

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