Reaching for Success, One Word at a Time

March 4, 2014


“By the end of the summer,” wondered AAAS media fellow Ellen Lę, “would I be able to rightfully call myself a mathematician/science writer?”
Ellen Lę

What is joy if you can't communicate it to others? It's my belief that many mathematicians and scientists, particularly applied mathematicians, feel a need to communicate their work to others---to the public, to lay people, to those not privileged to do mathematics for a living, to their children, to their non-scientist friends. For them, and for me, just talking to the same circle of collaborators day after day is not fulfilling. So when I was offered a AAAS Mass Media Fellowship through SIAM to do science writing at The Sacramento Bee, the newspaper where famed science writer Deborah Blum wrote her Pulitzer Prize-winning series "The Monkey Wars," I jumped at the opportunity.

It made no sense, and also made perfect sense at the time. It was the summer between finishing my master's degree at the University of Iowa (in the Applied Mathematics and Computational Science program) and embarking on a PhD at ICES (the Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences at the University of Texas). I had no newspaper or media experience, except for a satirical math department fashion column that I wrote for my graduate student newsletter. (You read that correctly.) I hadn't written anything serious and non-math-related in two years.

But I loved science writing and media---how, when done well, it can be so pleasurable, educational, inspiring, powerful, and relevant all at once. I believed in it. Could I become a part of it? By the end of the summer, would I be able to rightfully call myself a mathematician/science writer?

Arriving at the fellows orientation in Washington, DC, I quickly realized that I was in way over my head. I did not love, eat, and breathe science journalism the way other fellows did. They did not simply aspire to the scientist/journalist title---some had already earned that status. Three people had popular science podcasts, and two were famous on Twitter. How was I even allowed to be in the same room?

Then it was off to The Sacramento Bee, where my editors quickly demoralized me further by showing me impressive clips from the previous two AAAS interns, one a hard-hitting physicist and the other a biologist with a passion for bees and tomatoes. The editors had great expectations for me, they said. Oh dear.

The first day, I sat clicking at my computer, looking for a story, optimistically hoping for an editor to throw me an assignment. The second day, the same thing happened. I re-read the "advice to future interns" essay that the previous intern had written, the one they had all loved; she said it took her two weeks to get her first story out! But during those two weeks, it seemed that all she did was work up the courage to pitch a story, and from then on it got much easier.

So the third day, hiding my nervousness and complete lack of an idea of what I was doing, I pitched a weather story---having noticed strange patterns in the national weather. I made frantic calls to meteorology and climate professors at UC Davis. One particularly charismatic and brash professor called me back and gave me some fantastic quotes. I wrote the story, and it ran the next day.

The same day my first article ran, one of the editors, Maury, told me to go investigate a foul odor rumored to be coming from a city park pond. I biked down to the park, talked to some locals, and found out that two city garbage trucks filled with dead fish had just left. I wrote a well-received pair of back-to-back articles investigating and explaining the science of that mysterious fish kill, earning Maury's trust.

From then on, he gave me wonderful assignments and was always eager to hear my pitches. Over the course of ten weeks, I managed to publish 14 articles and shoot and edit three videos. The topics I covered ranged from Snapchat to the eventual flooding of the world's coastal cities to urban bat populations. I'm proud of what I managed to accomplish in such a small amount of time.

As much as I enjoyed being a science writer, and as much as I embarrassingly enjoyed the compliments about my writing and potential as a journalist, the summer at The Sacramento Bee made me reaffirm my goal of becoming a mathematician. Was the summer a waste? Far from it. There are so many lessons that I carry forward, but the most important is the idea that to become an expert in anything, you have to be a novice in it first.

You have to be eager to absorb information and ask questions, and not pretend that you already know everything; otherwise, you might not get those great quotes for your article. Similarly, in mathematics, you have to figure out what concepts you're stuck on and get help, and not pretend that you already know everything; otherwise, you might soon find yourself in a bad place.

But you can't allow your novice-ness to paralyze you. Success is achieved one word at a time, one proof at a time, one day at a time. So what are you waiting for? Apply for the Mass Media fellowship already. If you have any questions at all, don't hesitate to contact me (ellenle@utexas.ices.edu).

Readers can learn more about the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship program at aaas.org/mmfellowship/ .



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