Show, Donít Teach

November 19, 2006

In nine weeks on the science desk of an urban newspaper, the 2006 SIAM/AAAS media fellow improved her writing skills, learned new science, and gained new respect for science journalism.

Katharine Ott

For three summers I lived the normal life of a mathematics graduate student at the University of Virginia---taking classes, studying for qualifying exams, and conducting research in partial differential equations. Last summer, however, I left these activities behind and entered the unfamiliar territory of newspaper journalism as a AAAS Mass Media Fellow.

I was assigned to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, where for nine weeks I worked full-time as a science reporter. I wrote more than ten articles, including two front-page stories, and gained a new perspective on the scientific community. Working as a journalist, I was considered an outsider to science. This position allowed me to rediscover some of the beauty and wonder of science by taking away the tedious day-to-day activities and focusing my attention on research results and applications.

In the course of the summer I covered science stories from a wide variety of areas---ecology, chemistry, neuroscience, biology, and, yes, even mathematics. I interviewed PhDs, graduate students, fishermen, doctors, and everyday citizens. I visited a lab where lake trout watch animated movies, and I dissected a human brain. All of these activities taught me new science, and then it was my job to turn what I learned into a story.

One of my front-page stories was about chemists at the University of WisconsinĖ
Madison who had found a cheaper way to create a petroleum alternative. I have not taken a chemistry class since high school, and it was a daunting task to translate the chemists' research paper into a newspaper article that the public would be able to read and understand. I relied on my critical thinking skills and logical mind to break a complex chemical reaction into a series of steps. This process felt very similar to the one I use in teaching word problems to my class of college freshmen.

As with the chemistry story, most of my reporting was in fields that I am not familiar with, so I made it my goal to write a math story while at the paper. For several weeks I searched for a story lead and eventually uncovered a group of mathematicians in Wisconsin working on biology problems. My editor was very supportive of the story I pitched and made my article the centerpiece of the paper's weekly science section. I found this story to be the most enjoyable to research, but very difficult to write.

I enjoyed speaking with mathematicians working in an area different from my own, and I was fascinated by the wide variety of problems they are involved in. What made the story hard to write is that most of the mathematical ideas that interested me would not interest the average reader and had to be left out. I realized that my job as a reporter wasn't to teach mathematics, but rather to show how mathematics can be applied to real-world problems---problems like HIV infection, gene sequencing, and medical imaging. I hope that, in my small way, I convinced at least a handful of people that cutting-edge mathematics isn't entirely useless.

The media fellowship challenged me in many ways. I was forced to interact with people from a variety of backgrounds on a daily basis, and interviewing scientists improved my communication skills. My writing also improved, and the need to adhere to strict deadlines forced me to turn thoughts into words at a quick pace.

Working at a newspaper is very lively and rewarding. The newsroom was vastly different from my small, dark office in the math building at the university. With TVs running and phones ringing, the newsroom was a constant hub of activity and excitement. I also enjoyed the quick turnaround of work. My dissertation problem will consume several years, whereas over the summer I had a new story to report every week. And I got a huge thrill each and every time out of seeing my name in a byline and my story in print.

I do not plan on pursuing a journalism career, and in all honesty I was ready to return to some of the peace and quiet of my office, but I will take away more than just writing and interviewing skills from this fellowship. I now realize the importance for scientists of being able to convey what they do and why it is relevant. Mathematicians in particular seem to be prone to keeping their work to themselves or refusing to put their research into laymen's terms. But if we cannot share our work with the general public, then the mathematical community risks being cut out of funding, being left out of interdisciplinary research, and being able to recruit fewer and fewer future researchers.

In conclusion, I would like to mention the appreciation that I have gained for science journalism. Many people are misinformed about science, or just plain scared of it, and it takes skill to convey science in a way that is clear, concise, and understandable to large numbers of readers. Current world issues---including stem cell research, avian flu, and alternative energy---are all science-related, and the public needs to be well informed about these topics. It is unfortunate that most newspapers do not have PhD-level science journalists, because I feel that we can effectively translate information from the scientific community for the general public without compromising the scientific truth.

Writing Sample

Biology, no longer a predominantly qualitative field, is increasingly shifting toward the quantitative, Katharine Ott pointed out in the "math story" she wrote for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel near the end of her media fellowship. For Ott, the story was at the same time her "most enjoyable to research" and "very difficult to write."

Gheorghe Craciun, an assistant professor of mathematics at the University of WisconsinĖMadison, is among the mathematicians Ott interviewed and quoted in the article. "Biology used to be about looking at things, either with the naked eye or through a microscope," Craciun said. "Today, we no longer ask what it looks like, but how does it work."

"Understanding the mechanisms behind a cell, a lung or a virus, for instance, often involves measurable quantities," Ott wrote. "And once biologists have numbers in their hands, mathematicians can step in and build models."


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