Part of Krishna's bookshelf that holds books on ecology and science writing. (Krishna Sharma for The Xylom)

“Wow, Getting Paid To Learn How To Write About Science. A Dream Come True!”


 

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. The journal below by Krishna Sharma, who is placed at the Miami Herald, has been lightly edited. Read our other journals by fellow AAASMMFs Vanessa Vieites and Haley Dunleavy.

 

June 2-4: Orientation

When I applied to the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship, I had known my love of communication and science could intertwine into one career path for a few years.


I found the fellowship by researching science writing and stumbling across the article “Breaking into Science Writing” in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment by Robin Smith and Julie Reynolds. They mentioned the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship as a way that some people broke into big-time science writing careers, and thus since the summer of 2018 knew that I wanted to apply.


That realization also made me describe myself as interested in science communication in new job opportunities, so when interviewing for DEVELOP, a leadership and training program by NASA, my supervisor told me I was taken on, in part, because of my budding passion for science communication and their desire to see more of that. I subsequently created posters, videos, and stories for climate change research related to that program, putting me on a formal path for science writing while the core of my career was still working as a scientist.


When I applied to the AAASMMF in the winter of 2020, I was solely thinking about how the Fellowship perfectly aligned with my interests. I thought, “wow, getting paid to learn how to write about science. A dream come true!” What I wasn’t thinking about, and what hit me like a truck during orientation, was the prestige that comes with this fellowship as well. I am realizing that science writing is a tight-knit world, where everyone knows everyone. Therefore, anyone with “Mass Media Fellow” in their email signature is immediately recognized by other science writers. And I understand why.


Our orientation started with a speech by the CEO of Science Magazine. The CEO. It’s still kind of shocking to remember.

Our orientation started with a speech by the CEO of Science Magazine. The CEO. It’s still kind of shocking to remember. We also workshopped with editors at big-name outlets, and directly got edits for a pitch from a former professor of the Johns Hopkins Science Writing program.


All in all, the orientation was probably the most informative and impressive orientation of any kind I’ve been to. The only downside is that it was also somewhat exhausting — eight hours a day, three days in a row of non-stop new and big information. It definitely made me proud to be part of this fellowship, and in awe of the network of individuals these kinds of opportunities can put you in touch with.


June 7

First day with the Miami Herald. I check my new email account — an avalanche of warnings, news, info about murders, football, and gentrification. So far the expectations gel with what I had hoped: rather than writing daily news, I’ll be hunkering down for a few large, enterprising pieces. I don’t have set hours or check-ins, so it’s up to me to start my due diligence with research on potential story ideas. South Florida has no dearth of environmental causes to write about.


One thing awkward about the AAASMMF is its timing — orientation starts on June 2nd, which means you probably are moving to a new place on June 1st or May 31st.

I’ve started creating a comprehensive excel sheet of all the info I need to catalog: pitches, internal contacts, external contacts, and resources. Unfortunately, I am trying to juggle all this while also moving into an entirely new place. One thing awkward about the AAASMMF is its timing — orientation starts on June 2nd, which means you probably are moving to a new place on June 1st or May 31st. Those graduating the same season, such as me, could not have moved in one month earlier, since I was still in grad school at the beginning of May. Thus, assembling Ikea furniture and dealing with all the stress of a move while simultaneously attending orientation and preparing for the summer is a lot to handle.


I’ve managed, though, and now that my bedroom and office are more or less all set up finally, I can focus on the craft of science writing.


June 8

Yesterday on the phone my editor told me that “MMFs get treated special” at my institution. He explained that a new newspaper recruit would be sent to 10-hour city hall meetings and murder scenes; they work overtime on laborious, boring, or otherwise undesirable stories. But through my Fellowship, I get to be treated like an expert (which, given my Masters’ in Ecology, makes sense). Thus, I am given an assignment of around one story every two weeks, which is ideal for me personally. I think some Fellows are assigned daily writing, but for me to write more magazine-style, with a few enterprising pieces, is ideal.


He explained that a new newspaper recruit would be sent to 10-hour city hall meetings and murder scenes; they work overtime on laborious, boring, or otherwise undesirable stories. But through my Fellowship, I get to be treated like an expert.

Yesterday my editor greenlit my first story pitch too (about the uncertainty in butterfly science), which I thought of in the weeks before the fellowship started. Today I sent out emails to prominent scientists in this niche field, plus local sources that seemed promising. Mostly cold emails, plus one professor whom I had met at a conference last year. It felt surreal writing “Hello Dr. X, I am a science writer with newspaper Y.” It felt more surreal getting a cascade of email responses saying that yes, they would like to interview with me! In just a couple of hours, I have scheduled a handful of interviews with some great scientists.


However, preparing interview questions is hard! Actually, writing, in general, is hard. It is so easy to underestimate how much time, mental energy, and background research goes into crafting just a couple of good interview questions or introductory sentences.


June 9

Today I received three more emails of scientists happy to interview with me — I did not prepare to get so many “Yes”s! It’s a bit overwhelming but in a positive way.


I had a Zoom interview with one scientist who did fascinating research with stable isotope analysis; it feels like a lot of work to pull this all together into one coherent story. I am also expected to ask sources for photos and even get video or audio from them if possible.


I’m definitely working full days, and I can tell this will be intellectually and socially intensive work. It’s on me to make sure I remain sharp and avoid burnout. I think I should try to compartmentalize my ‘work brain’ to certain hours of the day because it’s not sustainable for me to think about these stories even right before I sleep as I currently do.


Overall, today was exciting, overwhelming, and made me proud.



Krishna's basement workstation. (Krishna Sharma for The Xylom)


June 10

This morning I woke up (at my own set time, as I have the autonomy to schedule my daily hours), made a cup of coffee, and started reading my new copy of “The Craft of Science Writing.” I then got dressed/ready and headed downstairs to my workstation. My partner and I just moved in together, but we each rent separate rooms, in order to share a bedroom, and then I can use the other room to work from home. I started by checking my newspaper email, and then my normal email. After sending questions to my editor about how exactly to obtain permission to reprint photos for my article, I sent out emails to a couple of universities asking for permission to use their historic photos.


I then checked out my local Science Writers Association in Washington D.C., paid dues to join, and registered for some great upcoming events, including a pitch slam that features editors from Slate, Science News, and Ars Technica.


Around 11 am I prepared my interview questions for one of the most famous monarch butterfly scientists, whom I was interviewing at noon. I had actually already met her last year at a conference at the University of Georgia, so it probably helps that I have a professional connection to her already. Interviewing her was amazing. She is someone I am happy to keep in touch with, and seems to enjoy talking with me, which is really wonderful, and pretty crazy — she’s the scientist that helped start the whole ‘milkweed planting for monarchs’ movement!


Afterward, I made lunch and read for a bit more. I should probably read more science writing, something woefully lacking in my daily schedule.


In the afternoon I sat down to transcribe the recorded audio from a phone interview last Tuesday, something which is painfully tedious but necessary. I am specifically looking for good quotes. I did more work to set up my new house — picked up furniture, cleaned, rearranged the office. Finally, I cooked dinner and then started working on the actual article body content itself.


June 11

My car got broken into last night. Welcome to D.C. I guess! Dealing with police reports, insurance claims, and the anxiety of not feeling safe definitely blocks the feeling of creativity in the workspace but, that’s okay, I’ll just have to power through it. I suppose part of becoming an adult is dealing with all the shit life has to throw at you while maintaining a job/relationships/your sanity.

This morning I am going to comb through the answers to a follow-up email I sent to one scientist last night asking for clarifications and further insight. Then, I will finally begin writing the meat of the article! Exciting. I think I have enough quotes and info now to do so, even with two more interviews early next week.


Afternoon update: finished my first draft of the article! Feels good. Now to edit, redraft, and get visuals for it.



Krishna works on his first article about monarch butterflies. (Krishna Sharma for The Xylom)

June 14

This morning I woke up extra early, around 6 am, due to a chaotic and vocal pet cat. I made coffee and sat down to edit my first draft for about an hour, which went well. You can really endlessly edit your own writing, incrementally making it better, but something orientation talks about, and is especially present in short deadlines, is that you just have to accept that not all your pieces will be perfect. I think mine is nearing as good as it can be, barring the addition of two more interviews I’m conducting.


Afterward, I sent off a slew of emails. Two with follow-up clarifications and questions, one of which also asked for pictures, one to someone else asking for pictures, and one seeing if a local butterfly chapter was interested in an interview or had pictures too.

I then saved some job opportunities to apply for later, caught up on the AAAS MMF slack, caught up on NPR Scicommers job opportunities, and organized my AAAS word docs and information. I created interview questions for my interview with a monarch scientist at noon today. The interview went really well! So I spent this afternoon pretty seriously editing my first draft based on it.


June 15


This morning I edited and submitted my first finished story draft! Other Fellows have already published several and even gotten front-page stories, which is wild to me! But I’m proud of my first draft so far. I then used some leads that other staff members sent to me to start reaching out for a second story about a new blight that’s affecting coral reefs in Florida. I think this story might be easier to publish since it’s not about a controversy or debate, it’s just reporting info.


June 19

This fellowship keeps me jazzed up almost every day. It is so exciting to talk to all these new people, many of whom are fascinating and hold impressive positions. All the scientists I’ve talked to have been so welcoming, passionate, and wonderful to talk to. I suppose I benefit from writing about the environmental field, which is my background, because I think it’s full of the friendliest and kindest people out there. Not sure if people writing about chemistry or something get that same warm science interviewing experience.


This fellowship keeps me jazzed up almost every day. It is so exciting to talk to all these new people, many of whom are fascinating and hold impressive positions

Funnily enough, when people ask what I did today, it’s become just “the same ‘ol”. This means I interviewed a couple of people and wrote a lot. It’s some of the most rewarding work I’ve done, but it’s definitely hit a routine. Interview, write a draft, edit the draft, interview, and repeat


My editor is very engaged with my work, which is great. He kind of tore apart my first draft, but in a good way. I learned so much about how to write for a mass audience just from that edit feedback.


I’ve also finally pivoted to beginning my second story while simultaneously finishing my first story, which is a funny balance. The first story is more complicated than we initially thought, so its running is delayed. The second is very timely to report, involving the fate of Florida’s coral reefs, and the researchers told me I would be the first media person to write about this piece as it’s brand new research!


 


Support Student-Led Science News

The only student-run newsroom focused on science and society. Our in-depth, data-driven approach, mentorship for early-career storytellers, and multicultural content take time and proactive planning, which is why The Xylom depends on reader support. Your gifts keep our unbiased, nonprofit news site free.

37221767_728738530791315_276894873407822

Krishna Sharma

From Westford, Mass., Krishna obtained his B.S. in Biology from Boston University and headed south for his M.S. in Ecology at the University of Georgia to study the migration of butterflies along the Atlantic Coast. As aspiring poet and violinist, he is selected as a AAAS Mass Media Fellow in 2021, being placed at the Miami Herald.