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Perspective: The Summer I Knew I Could Be a Science Writer


 

We asked a number of AAAS Mass Media Fellows (AAASMMF) to reflect on what they have learned, how they have changed, and why it matters. Read journals by fellow AAASMMFs Krishna Sharma (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3), Vanessa Vieites, and Haley Dunleavy.


This story is supported by a grant from #BlackinScicomm Week and COMPASS Scicomm. All stories under the brack•ish series can be found here.


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As I stood in a park surrounded by hundreds of bees while interviewing the mayor of Loíza, Puerto Rico about a honey harvest, I wondered what was scarier, the bees, interviewing the mayor, or the fact that I was covering my first assignment as a science journalist. Luckily, I got out of all of it unscathed – the bees, the interview, and the assignment.


Workers harvest honey in Loíza, Puerto Rico. (Charlene Rivera Bonet for The Xylom)

It was a memorable first assignment working for the Puerto Rican newspaper El Nuevo Día as an AAAS Mass Media Fellow during the summer of 2021. I was surprised that my editor sent me to Loíza on my own. My first thought was “Does he know I don’t know what I’m doing?” But there was something about him trusting me that gave me confidence that I could get it done. And I did get it done.


That first assignment set the tone for the rest of the summer. I was constantly pushed out of my comfort zone, which allowed me to grow, not only in skills as a journalist but also in confidence.


I had finished my Ph.D. in neuroscience with a minor in life sciences communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison just a month before starting the Fellowship. My experience in research gave me a good foundation to understand the scientific process, which comes in handy, particularly for stories outside of my area of expertise. My minor gave me the theory and research behind science communication. But I needed to go from theory to practice. I had written articles for different outlets, but El Nuevo Día was my first experience working full-time for a newsroom.


My first thought was “Does he know I don’t know what I’m doing?” But there was something about him trusting me that gave me confidence that I could get it done. And I did get it done.

I knew the prestige of the Mass Media Fellowship, which is probably why it took me so long to apply. I attended an orientation put together by past fellows at UW-Madison two years in a row. I remember thinking how great it sounded, but that there was no way on earth I was going to get it because I wasn’t experienced enough.


Here’s a secret: you don’t have to be.


As the end of my Ph.D. approached and I decided science communication was the path I wanted to take after graduate school, I began looking for jobs, still feeling like I needed an immersive training experience in science writing before jumping into a full-time science writing position. The Mass Media Fellowship application announcement came up on my Twitter feed, and I decided to go for it with only a few days left to apply.


Fast forward to a few months later, I found out that not only was I selected as a fellow, but I was also paired with the major newspaper in Puerto Rico, which meant I got to go home.


 

Being born and raised in Puerto Rico, I was excited at the prospect of learning more about the science happening on the island and sharing it with others. One of my favorite parts of the summer – second only to devouring Puerto Rican staples like mofongo, fresh seafood, and fruit frappes – was producing culturally relevant science communication in Spanish. It was helpful that, for many of the pieces, I had context that helped me tell a complete story.