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URMC / Education / Graduate Education / URBest Blog / December 2016 / Writing for Scientific American

Writing for Scientific American

Photo of American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellowship

News Article By Karl J. P. Smith, PhD Candidate

I spent last summer working on the 46th floor of the last building before the water on the southern tip of Manhattan. That’s the location of Scientific American’s offices, and I was there because I had received an American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellowship. I spent ten weeks away from lab as a science journalist in New York City, and I loved it. 

The fellowship is open to post-docs, undergraduates, and current graduate students in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields. The deadline to apply in 2017 is January 15th. Each fellow is assigned a major news organization, such as National Geographic, Wired, Slate, or NPR, and spends the summer writing about science for the general public.

I found out I was assigned to Scientific America on a cold May day last spring, and my labmates had to put up with me dancing around our basement lab for the rest of the afternoon. I had put together a good application for the fellowship, but the fellowship is competitive (there were just 16 slots my year). In 2015 and 2016 I had co-created, directed, and written a science podcast with Madeline Sofia (who is now working at NPR), and I had also created a project called 10 cent stories that I used sporadically as a vehicle for science communication at the Rochester Museum and Science Center. Later, I would find out that my letters of recommendation were what got me the choice spot at Scientific American.

The fellowship is paid, but housing is up to the fellow. I found an apartment in Harlem to sublet, and traveled to the Mass Media orientation in Washington, D.C. where veteran science journalists gave us a crash course in how to run down sources, work with an editor, structure a good article, and see through hype to the science below. Then, it was off to New York.

I had barely arrived at my desk (which was just down the hall from the windows where you could see the Statue of Liberty) when I was assigned to interview a British lord about the then-impending Brexit vote. At the time, I hardly knew anything about Brexit, and the interview was scheduled an hour from when I was assigned the story, so I began frantically assembling my questions, doing background research, and trying to understand the whole fraught political situation. I felt like I bluffed my way through the entire phone call, especially when I introduced myself as a reporter to the British lord. But the interview went very well and I was happy to turn in my first story later that day. The next day, Britain shocked the world by voting “yes” in the referendum, and what had been a niche political issue suddenly was front-page news. My article was on the front page of for a while, and I started to think I might be able to handle journalism.

During the summer I wrote about how swordfish grease themselves to cut through water, and also about how congress was responding (or not responding, really) to the threat of climate change. I wrote about the corpse flower that opened in the New York Botanical Garden and about how world records in sports have changed over time. I wrote about killer robots, the craters of the moon, and upward lightning. It was fun, it was hard, and it felt like important work.

I also made an effort to explore as much of New York City as possible. I saw Hamilton and The Book of Mormon. I ate a Cronut, a ramen burger, and pizza from all five boroughs of the city. I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge in the rain. Even better, I met some of the most absurd, inspiring, and friendly people that the world contains. The city has a restless vitality that I found irresistible, and I cannot wait to move back there.

I’m not sure if my career path will lead towards full time science journalism, but the experience changed me. Getting out of lab and looking at science from another angle let me appreciate with new granularity what I really liked about science. The writing experience, especially having a relationship with an editor and knowing that my work was going out into the larger world, honed my craft. And the people I met are doing such cool things and have such good advice for the projects I have in mind for the future. If you have the opportunity to apply for this fellowship (and if you’re reading this, you probably do), I cannot encourage you enough to do so. Best of luck!

Tracey Baas | 12/28/2016

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