PIOs: From Rocks to News and Information


When exactly did I decide I had no future as a geologist? I think I felt the first inklings at field camp, lost in the terrain I was supposed to be mapping, trying in vain to identify the sedimentary rocks around me by-they told us to do this-chewing on them. The real understanding came later, while I was working in my sedimentology professor's lab. During this year of perpetually dirty fingernails and a never-ending supply of North Atlantic mud to analyze, I realized that my enthusiasm for learning about how the Earth worked had been replaced by a fixation with details and a narrow focus on one particular research topic-not to mention a literal distaste for sedimentary rocks.

Hoping to find a way to stay in contact with the world of science without getting so deeply entrenched in one particular specialty, I enrolled in the science journalism master's program at Boston University. The most exciting thing about the program turned out to be its focus on science's own peculiar sociology and how journalists help shape public attitudes toward science. These were eye-opening discussions for someone who'd been studying geology, a field that doesn't usually affect the public's daily lives the way biomedical or environmental research does.

I wish I could say with conviction that while earning both of these very expensive degrees, I was acquiring exactly the knowledge I would need to be successful in my current position as a science writer in the News and Information office at AAAS. But the connections haven't been quite so direct. Here are a few of the most obvious ways that my background helps me do my job, which is to write press releases and other materials that help reporters cover papers in Science.

First, I know good science when I see it. Only a few of the papers I write about are geology related, but I can still tell when a study has an elegant design, or when the results strongly support the conclusion the authors are making. A semester of studying floods and landslides taught me plenty about p-values and why they're important.

Because Science is a general science journal, one of the biggest challenges of my job is learning about research that covers everything from molecular biology to materials science. In these situations, it's not the geology degree per se that's useful, but rather the experience of staring at a text with no clue as to what it's about. Calling up the patience and resourcefulness to figure out these puzzles is a skill I draw upon almost every day.

The journalism degree, on the other hand, gave me practice at paring down a lot of information to answer the question, "What are the key findings here?"--inevitably followed by "Why are they important?"

The worlds of journalism and public information have important differences, but there is some overlap. Ultimately, in any public information office, the goal is to anticipate the needs of reporters covering our stories. My path to the AAAS News and Information Office was a little circuitous, yes, but it's brought the fun back into science and learning about the workings of the natural world.

Kathy Wren is a science writer with the News and Information Office at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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