A Day in the Life of Eli Chen

Eli Chen reports on scientific research and environmental issues at St. Louis Public Radio. Her work has appeared in or aired on NPR, Marketplace, WHYY’s The Pulse, The New York Times, Science Friday, and Scientific American. Born and raised in the Chicago suburbs, her role model growing up was Sue the T. rex at the Field Museum, because everyone should aspire to become an apex predator. She tweets crotchety old man observations @StoriesByEli.

 

Courtesy of Eli Chen

What I’m working on:

At the moment, my brain is readjusting to a normal work schedule, after having just returned from a weeklong field trip with the Institute of Journalism and Natural Resources down the lower half of the Mississippi River. My editor is eager to schedule stories that stem from issues we covered on that trip, so I’m spending a part of this week going through the tape to figure out what I can turn into spots and features. I’m likely going to be crafting a story about how upstream river engineering is contributing to wetland degradation in the Mississippi River delta.

I should mention that like most NPR-member-station reporters, my workload mainly consists of 45-second news spots and 4-ish-minute features. My stories often focus on scientific research that’s produced by local universities and on environmental issues. Lately, I’ve been really interested in coal ash waste—or how utilities dispose of waste from coal-fired power plants. I produced a two-part radio story that looked into the three dozen mostly unlined coal-ash pits that exist in Missouri, and I am keeping an eye on the state’s efforts to develop regulations for them.

At the same time, I’m also preparing to produce two live storytelling shows this summer. I’m a producer with The Story Collider, which produces a podcast and live stage shows that feature personal stories about science from scientists and non-scientists. Our next show in St. Louis is happening in mid-July.

And then separately, I’m working on putting together a storytelling show to commemorate the five-year anniversary of the shooting of Michael Brown. I’m admittedly out of my depth with producing that show, especially since I wasn’t around St. Louis at that time, but I’ve been meeting a lot of folks, particularly in the black arts community, to make sure that I’m on the right path. So I’m expecting a pretty busy summer.

 

Courtesy of Eli Chen

Where I work:

I mainly work at St. Louis Public Radio, which is located in the city’s Grand Center, near where the big theaters are. My desk is pretty messy, the plants are half alive, and there are a bunch of angry-looking, unexplained Post-it Notes and weird objects, like the dead bat encased in the glass prism that I got at an osteology museum in Oklahoma City.

If I know I don’t need to be near a studio during an afternoon, I’ll ask a friend if she’ll let me into her coworking space or work down the street at a coffee shop.

Daily routine:

Without fail, I naturally wake up around 6:00 a.m. every day. But the actual time that I leave my bed varies—ideally, that happens within a half hour of when I wake up. I wander over to my living room to work out and alternate doing yoga, high-intensity interval training, or strength training. Then I shower and pack coffee and breakfast to take to work.

When I get to my office, I start going through my emails, make a to-do list, read the news, and start making calls on whatever stories I’m working on that day. Most days I’m at my desk doing research on stories, setting up calls and meetings. I’ll spend a little too much time on Slack, which is my productivity nemesis (I’m on like five Slack teams and it’s pretty horrible). A good day for me is one where I don’t have to come into the office at all—I very much look forward to days when I’m scheduled to go follow a conservation scientist out in the field.

I usually try to leave the station between 5:00 and 6:00 p.m. My evenings can get pretty interesting—there might be one or two nights a week that I actually go home and stay there. Otherwise I fill my time with things like improv shows, storytelling open-mics, drawing classes, and other events where I might run into interesting people.

Most productive part of my day:

In the morning, before noon. I get more tired and antsy as the day goes on and am prone to more distractions.

Most essential ritual or habit:

In the morning, coffee, followed by a gummy multivitamin and a good Spotify playlist.

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Favorite note-taking techniques/tools:

If I’ve got my laptop, then I take notes on Google Docs. I’ve got various notepads that I take out reporting with me. As a radio reporter, I record everything, so I’ll come back and transcribe it or sometimes dump the audio into Trint, a transcription software. I try to time-stamp important moments when I can—not perfect at it though.

I’ve also got a notebook that I write and draw my random personal observations in. I don’t know how much that helps my actual reporting, but I think it helps to maintain a healthy perspective of what it is that I’m doing and what I think of the people I’m talking to. I started doing that after reading Rolling Blackouts by Sarah Glidden.

How I keep track of my to-do list:

I tried to use to-do list apps but nothing ever stuck because I would rather have fewer tools to deal with in my life. So I simply use a Google Doc that I try to update every day with things I need to do that day, that week, and that month (and beyond). I make a list of spots I’m working on, feature stories, subjects to look into, storytellers I need to talk to for The Story Collider.

Essential software/apps/productivity tools:

Google Docs and Google Drive for all my notes and planning, Trint sometimes for transcription. For audio, we use Adobe Audition. And a good Spotify playlist full of rap and hip hop to keep my energy up.

Courtesy of Eli Chen

Favorite time waster/procrastination habit:

So as much as I hate being interrupted, I shamelessly bother the crap out of one of my coworkers, who is our graphic designer. His desk is particularly entertaining because he has three screens going at once, one of which usually has a livestream of a kitten nursery.

My reading habits:

I’m somewhat ashamed of my reading habits because I read very little when I’m off the clock. I also often start books and don’t finish them. What I’ve been trying to finish for some months is You’re the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women’s Friendships, by Deborah Tannen. On my recent river field trip, I took one of my smallest books, The Trouble with Reality: A Rumination on Moral Panic in Our Time, by Brooke Gladstone. I subscribe to a bunch of magazines—The New Yorker, Scientific American, National Geographic—but I am always the most excited about getting Bon Appétit. I stare at the magazine’s colorful recipes as a form of self-care. I get The New York Times on Sundays and I usually take that and an issue of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch with me to my corner coffee shop and make my way through the sections.

Sleep schedule:

Ideally I’d go to bed around 10:00 p.m. but usually it happens after 11:00.

 

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