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From the lab to the media

Course in California transforms scientists into science journalists

From Santa Cruz

ESTEVAN PELLIEvery year, many promising young biologists, astrophysicists and engineers drop out of their chosen scientific careers to learn another skill in Santa Cruz, a small coastal town 120 kilometers south of San Francisco. Santa Cruz is famous as one of the surfing capitals of the world and for being the home of a University of California campus. In Santa Cruz, these young professionals take one year off to work in the Science Communication Program, the formal name of a course whose objective is to train researchers to become journalists specialized in writing articles on scientific topics. “Our course is for scientists who want to change careers”, explains Robert Irion, coordinator of the program and a former participant – he attended the program in 1988. “Most of the classes are practical classes; the students participate in at least two internship programs at media companies and they don’t have to write academic papers”.

The program is almost 30 years old. More than 250 former scientists have been trained in journalistic skills under the program, which has become known as one of the best practical courses in science writing in the United States and is probably one of the best aspects of the science-writing course taught at New York University. Science writing is the name of the work done by professionals who write articles on scientific topics. The writers can be journalists working for newspapers or other forms of media or professionals who work in the field of communications at universities, museums and research institutes. The web site of the Santa Cruz course has a quote from New Scientist, the renowned British science journal, stating that the University of California’s academic program offers the “best training program in the United States for science journalists.”

Judging from the number of graduates from the Santa Cruz course that have already been hired as employees or that work as freelancers for the aforementioned journal, its statement does not sound farfetched. To exemplify, Maggie McKee, the current editor of the New Scientist, and Rachel Courtland, special reporter – both of whom have a degree in physics – attended the Santa Cruz program. Other former students include people who write articles for such prominent science journals as Nature, Science, Scientific American and Discover.

The approach of the program, for which only 10 candidates are selected every year, is very different from the academic format of traditional journalism schools. In fact, the University of California in Santa Cruz does not even have a journalism school and the program is entirely independent from the university’s academic structure.  To be accepted into the program, the candidate must have a science degree in any field – preferably, biology, physics or engineering – and must have worked as a researcher for at least six months. “This is the only program in the United States that has this pre-selection requirement”, says Irion. “Approximately 40 percent of our students have a PhD, 70 percent are women and most students are in their early thirties”. The candidates must also write well to apply for the program, but not necessarily in journalistic language . The main objective of the course is to learn science writing.

Practical classes
The program begins in September and the academic year is divided into three quarters. The tuition is approximately US$ 14 thousand for residents of the State of California. The program is based on two main pillars, both of which are of a practical rather than a theoretical nature. Students take courses at the university two mornings a week, for eight hours. They get the practical experience by working as interns at communication media companies. Irion, who has a degree in planet and earth sciences, is a science writer; the classes are taught by visiting professors, all of whom are media professionals from the San Francisco Bay Area.

The course load includes classes on how to write articles for different communications media (newspapers, magazines, and the internet) and how to assign, write and edit specific journalistic texts, such as short news comments, in-depth articles on a specific topic, profiles, and essays. The students also learn how to develop investigative journalism and how to produce short videos and podcasts for the internet. To get hands-on newsroom experience, the students must go through at least two part-time internships at partner media communication companies, such as those that publish daily newspapers and magazines, web sites or universities which have broadcasting facilities – all of these companies are located in or around San Francisco. Instead of producing a paper at the end of the course, students have to take part in a third longer, full-time internship program at another media company. “This internship is the entrance ticket to the labor market for many of our students”, says Irion.

Maria-José Viñas, a 33-year old veterinarian from Spain, hated the profession she had chosen. As soon as she graduated from the Santa Cruz science-writing course in 2008, she went to work as the public information coordinator at the American Geophysical Union (AGU). “The program has excellent professors who helped me choose my internships wisely”, says Maria. “I was very lucky. I applied for a summer internship at AGU and was offered a job right away”.

Jane Palmer, a 42-year old student from England and the oldest student in the program to have concluded the Santa Cruz course – she graduated in 2010 – has a degree in cognitive sciences and a PhD in computational molecular biology. She decided to switch to science writing. Today, she is working as an intern in the journalism department at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (Cires), in Boulder, Colorado. She does a little bit of everything: she produces press releases, podcasts, and short videos and writes articles for the institution’s journal. “The course was the launch pad for my new career”, says Jane. “I love to learn, talk to scientists, and write. I think I have the key ingredients for working in the field of journalism and I can learn everything else I need during the course of my internship.”