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.


View of the ocean in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. (Charlene Rivera Bonet for The Xylom)

Multiple major events that have happened in Puerto Rico, some of which I was there to experience, like the earthquake in January 2020, were relevant to many of the stories I wrote. Recent natural disasters, the governor quitting after two weeks of protests in 2019, the use of the town of Vieques as a bombing range by the U.S. Navy during the 90s, and of course, the COVID-19 pandemic still have an impact on the science done on the island. Knowing the background of these events informed the way I approached writing the stories.


I wrote pieces about a wide range of scientific or environmental topics – bees, bats, snakes, agriculture, neuroscience, food science, coronavirus, and more. I also got to write about topics tangentially related to science for other sections like sports and culture, which taught me to think about the audience for each section and tell the story in a way that was relevant for them.


This took some time to learn. For the bee story, published in the business section, my editor had to move paragraphs around on my first draft, so that numbers and financial information were front and center in the story, and the science was secondary. I learned to put the audience first by thinking about what they wanted or needed to read about, not what I wanted to write.


I learned to put the audience first by thinking about what they wanted or needed to read about, not what I wanted to write.

I also had to overcome my lifelong fear of talking to strangers, because interviews, as you might know, are key to journalism. Although most of them were on Zoom or over the phone, I was able to do several in-person interviews too. The first few interviews felt very scripted, and I panicked every time I didn’t have good follow-up questions. I eventually got more comfortable with interviews – although, realistically, I am still sometimes terrified of them. I learned what questions to ask, and how to ask them, which allowed me to become much better at letting the conversation flow more naturally.


The three notebooks used by Charlene throughout her fellowship. (Charlene Rivera Bonet for The Xylom)

The most memorable interviews I had were for a long story on the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health in Puerto Rico. I interviewed people that narrated their struggles with mental health, and mental health professionals that worked through the pandemic. Having done my graduate thesis on brain changes in depression, mental health is a topic I care about and try to normalize conversations around. My goal was to paint a picture of the effects of the pandemic on mental health, help people understand how common they were, and provide resources readers could use if they needed help. At least two of the people I interviewed mentioned feeling shame at the time of their struggle and wanting to use their story so that others would be encouraged to find help.


This piece was the most challenging overall. Not only was the interview process emotionally taxing, but also combining the multiple voices to make a coherent story was particularly hard. Looking back, I think it’s the story I am the proudest of.


 

I owe a big part of my success at El Nuevo Día to my editor. He showed trust and confidence in me from day one, gave me the freedom to work on projects I was excited about, provided helpful edits while valuing my voice, encouraged and guided me when I felt stuck, and pushed me out of my comfort zone. He also encouraged me to rest and not overwork, which is something I needed to learn after over four years of graduate school.


Charlene's bee story published in the print edition of El Nuevo Día. (Charlene Rivera Bonet for The Xylom)

My work totaled 28 stories - including four long features and spanning four different newspaper sections. But in the end, it’s not the number of articles I use as a measure of success. It’s the confidence I now have when interviewing, it’s the writing skills I gained, the network of writers and editors I formed at both El Nuevo Día and the Fellowship – including my amazing cohort – using my skills to share science and highlight Puerto Rican scientists, and the feeling that I am actually good at what I do – and this alone is worth a lot.


I am now a full-time science writer for the Waisman Center at UW-Madison, and part of my role includes building connections with the Spanish-speaking community in Wisconsin and developing and sharing content that is relevant and accessible to them. Although I am only two months into my new position, I can confidently say that my experience at El Nuevo Día prepared me well for this role. That’s not to say imposter syndrome doesn’t still peek in at times. Especially when I stare at blank pages or articles with tons of red after edits. But I now know how to better deal with those moments.


Although I am only two months into my new position, I can confidently say that my experience at El Nuevo Día prepared me well for this role.

Honey bees in Loíza, like their cousins anywhere else, find their way back to their hives. They can do it even if they are released in unfamiliar territory a few miles away — that’s like telling me to find my way from Toronto back to Madison simply by looking at the sun and the landscape around me. It’s simply ingrained into their DNA, this desire and obligation to bring back nectar and give back to their family.


Sunset in Vieques, Puerto Rico. (Charlene Rivera Bonet for The Xylom)

In a way, So do I; with every story I write, I learned more about our rich flora and fauna, grew more appreciation for our rich culture, and was in constant awe of the contribution of my fellow boricuas to the advancement of science, health, and technology in the island. Even if I journey farther and farther away from home, like bees to their hives, I just can’t help getting drawn back to Puerto Rico again and again.


 

View in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Charlene Rivera Bonet for The Xylom)

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Charlene Rivera Bonet

From Caguas, Puerto Rico, Charlene obtained a B.S. in Biology from the University of Puerto Rico-Cayey, and a Ph.D. in Neuroscience from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Following an AAAS Mass Media Fellowship at El Nuevo Día, she is now a science writer for the Waisman Center at UW-Madison, writing about the science and services at the Waisman Center, in addition to forming relationships with the Hispanic and Latino communities in Madison, and developing communications in Spanish that are also culturally relevant. In the summer of 2021, Charlene did the longest zipline in the Americas (1.5 miles long and with speeds up to 94 mph).