Eyebrow: From the lab to the newsroom: a day in the life Diary of a 2013 Mass Media Fellow

By Dan Blustein

I started the day in the office, like every other workday, by reading the newspaper. After a phone interview with an oyster farmer, who uses cutting-edge aquaculture technology to grow the tasty bivalves, I ventured out to meet a researcher who developed a way to remotely control cockroaches. While these assignments seemed to be quite the departure from my Ph.D. research at Northeastern University developing underwater robots, it was just a typical day working as a science reporter at the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. Thanks to sponsorship from IEEE-USA, I worked at the paper for the summer through the AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellows program.

The program places science students in media outlets across the country, such as Scientific American, or The Los Angeles Times. This year, there were 14 of us, some planning to pursue science media full time after the program, and others returning to careers in scientific research, with new communication skills in hand. We started and ended the summer internship with trainings and workshops at the Washington, D.C., headquarters of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

My interest in the fellowship program stemmed from a passion for sharing science information with the general public. As a Fellow at a daily newspaper, I wrote about topics as far reaching as computational mechanics, livestock viruses, and black bear teeth. Educating and inspiring others through science is why I spent the summer in a newsroom. Through my work researching, reporting and writing stories each day, I was able to really develop my science journalism skills.

The highlight of this one particular day was my interview of a professor at North Carolina State University. I met with Dr. Alper Bozkurt, of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, where I learned about the way he remotely stimulates the nerves of cockroaches to direct their walking. Someday these cockroach “biobots’ could be deployed to crawl through the rubble of a collapsed building to search for survivors. With my background in engineering, I could really grasp the research, and was excited to learn more.

After the interview I toured Bozkurt’s cockroach lair”¦er”¦lab, where his Madagascar hissing cockroaches lived up to their name, hissing as they were picked up.

But I couldn’t linger too long admiring Bozkurt’s cool technology, and his unusual albino cockroach; I had to return to the newsroom to write up the story before my deadline later that afternoon.


Adjusting my writing for the newspaper was challenging at times. As a Ph.D. student, I was used to writing scientific articles with clearly defined sections, results and conclusions appearing at the end. But for the newspaper, I had to turn my writing upside down. I quickly learned that the general public wants to know about the implications (i.e. the conclusion) at the beginning. Why does a reader care about cockroach robots if they have no bearing on everyday life? So conclusions replaced introductions, and background information moved to the end of stories.

While this approach took a few weeks to adjust to, my supportive editors and mentors at the Raleigh newspaper really helped me adapt my writing under these new constraints. The instant feedback and daily productivity fueled a pace unmatched in the research world. By the time my cockroach robot story was sent off into the world online, and into the paper the next day, I was already researching my next story about the latest lung cancer treatment. I was lucky to learn about new and quite varied science topics each and every day, as part of my job.

By the end of the summer, it was quite clear to me that there was so much science progress happening–and not enough reporters to share the news. Even in my little corner of North Carolina, there were more science stories worthy of coverage than our newspaper could report on. And science shapes the lives of everyone. From medicine to technology, and energy to education, we can all thank science and engineering for improving our lives.

So, if you’re eager to help spread science information with the world, write an article, start a blog, or tweet a fact… And if you happen to be a student of science (undergrad seniors and graduate students up to one year after graduating are eligible)”¦I recommend applying to the AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellows Program.

Dan Blustein is a Ph.D. candidate at Northeastern University’s Marine Science Center, where he develops biomimetic robots.


Guest Contributor

IEEE-USA is an organizational unit of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (IEEE), created in 1973 to support the career and public policy interests of IEEE’s U.S. members. IEEE-USA is primarily supported by an annual assessment paid by U.S. IEEE Members.

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