My 2012 summer in Portland, Oregon was easily one of the most positive experiences of my life, and not just because I could finally derive most of my nutrition from food trucks. In the ten weeks working at The Oregonian, Oregon’s largest newspaper, I reported on science and engineering topics ranging from drilling into Antarctic lakes to development of a new artificial pancreas for diabetics. Throughout the summer, my ultimate goal was to act as an ambassador of science and engineering and get people excited about research they might otherwise never hear about. From conversations with readers, co-workers, and even friends 2,500 miles away at home in Atlanta, I could tell that my science writing really helped raise awareness of exciting research and its impacts.
Everything moves quickly in the newsroom. Early on a June morning, I walked through the front door of The Oregonian to report for my first day as an IEEE-USA-sponsored AAAS Mass Media Fellow. I had absolutely no experience in journalism beyond a passing familiarity operating a word processor, and a strong desire to improve the public’s general perception of science and engineering. By the end of the following day, my first story was turned in and headed to press, but it wasn’t until I held up the printed copy of my report on an undersea volcano off the Oregon coast that the shock sunk in: I had crossed the boundary from scientist to science journalist.
The reporting experience was incredibly educational and overwhelmingly positive. My most popular story of the summer covered inadvertent release of an invasive species of crawfish by elementary school teachers, which even became the topic of the next day’s editorial cartoon. In my tightest deadline, I covered in person the deconstruction of a dam that had impeded salmon spawning. I zoomed back to the newsroom after a site tour, ran to my desk to write it up in the final 45 minutes before press deadline, and was thrilled to see the piece as the top story on the front page the next morning.
Perhaps my most important lesson as a journalist came when I failed to fact-check one aspect of a story. I had covered the harvest of an endangered species of lamprey by a local Native American tribe for ceremonial purposes, and I noted that readers could track the migration of a real lamprey named Luna, who had her own Twitter and Facebook accounts. The next morning, it came to light that Luna was, in fact, a virtual lamprey, which I had misreported. Although the detail might seem small, newspapers’ reputations pivot upon their commitment to factual accuracy, so I had to run a correction. My editors were understanding, and I won’t overlook such a detail again.
I’m passionate about the importance of many modern research disciplines, as I self-identify as both a scientist and an engineer. I was reminded that not everyone shares this mindset, when I received a particularly jarring voicemail from a reader mid-way through the summer. The day before, I had reported on a new USGS study analyzing the probability of a major earthquake in Oregon that suggested “the big one” might be coming soon. The gentleman who called me was so enraged by my reporting that he was audibly fighting back tears. He was upset that his insurance premiums might rise as result of this report and accused me of failing to consider the consequences of reporting on the topic.
As someone who has dedicated my professional career to the pursuit of knowledge, I was taken aback to hear that he would rather not know about the risks inherent in his home. It was an acute reminder that not everyone shares my priorities. I don’t regret writing the story, and I’m confident that if his insurance premiums do get adjusted, it will be for actuarial reasons independent of my reporting. But, after that call, I redoubled my motivation to share and explain scientific research, so that it won’t be resented or feared.
Over the course of the summer, I had to quickly develop interviewing skills and adapt to a whole new set of jargon, but in the end I believe I succeeded. In ten weeks, I published 32 stories, seven of which were printed on page A1. I got over my shyness speaking to a stranger on the phone, and developed a knack for asking interview questions on the fly– instead of agonizing over developing a pre-made script. I stopped using a voice recorder during interviews.
I cannot emphasize how grateful I am to all the staff of The Oregonian, especially my editor, Joany Carlin, for their patience with me bumbling around the newsroom. I received lots of great constructive feedback that will really shape the future of my science writing career. Although I no longer work at a scientific publication, I’m still passionate about the importance of high-quality scientific communication, and the need for more ambassadors of science and engineering. I’ve since finished my Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from Georgia Tech and Emory University. I am now a postdoctoral fellow at Georgia Tech, researching a new approach for treating glaucoma. Together with some of the other AAAS Mass Media Fellows, I write about science and engineering communication, and off-the-beaten-path topics at Figure One.
I’m looking forward to future opportunities to share my passion for the importance of science and engineering.
I would like to thank IEEE-USA sincerely for making my Mass Media Fellowship possible-my last summer was truly life changing.
Ian Campbell was IEEE-USA’s 2012 Mass Media Fellow, and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology in biomedical engineering. He studies how the mechanical properties of the eye lead to vision loss in glaucoma.