Getting to Gotham

Nearly 6 years ago this week, I walked through the doors of Montreal General Hospital--a looming, redbrick edifice worthy of Gotham City--to begin a master's degree in neuroscience at McGill University. Now, I spend my days working as an editor in the heart of New York, the real Gotham City, farther away from those days in Montreal in terms of my career than I could have imagined. One of the things that helped me to get here was the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) Graduate Science Writer Scholarship.

As a graduate student in science, I often felt like an impersonator, as if I was role-playing in science and had become an unlikely member of a rather talented theater company. I felt different from the graduate students I shared bench-tops with; a little bit inferior, a little reluctant to give myself over wholeheartedly to the pursuit of science. This difference didn't manifest itself in an obvious way--I worked as hard as any other graduate student and my work was on par with most. (I guess you could say I played the role well and fooled my audience.) But I realized very early on in my master's degree that I wasn't in it for the long haul.

Two years later I submitted the final version of my thesis and said good bye to my crowded bench, ceased my daily trek over Mont-Royal from my apartment in the city's "Plateau" neighbourhood, and headed westward on Hwy 401 to Ryerson University, to begin a 2-year graduate program in journalism.

My intention was to become a science journalist, a goal that had gradually taken form as I awakened to the realities of a career in science. I don't remember a specific turning point, a eureka-like moment of sudden clarity when I knew I had to write. Rather, I slowly came to realize that it was the big puzzles in science that attracted me and that I wouldn't be content working to fill in just a piece or two. The change in career paths didn't strike me as too dramatic. After all, don't good journalists and scientists share an essential characteristic--that of curiosity? I thought so, and saw that requisite quality in myself. Furthermore, science journalism offered the opportunity to combine my long-term interest in science (an accumulated 6-plus years of study in physiology and neuroscience) with my desire to write.

These two observations became my mantra, the lines I repeated both to convince my friends and family that there was method to my apparent madness, and to assuage my misgivings when confidence waned. At other times, I waxed philosophical and reminded myself that journalism and science were really just different ways of trying to understand the human condition, two methods of inquiry at the opposite ends of a spectrum. My only hope was that my newly chosen role would feel more genuine than had the last.

After a year spent at Ryerson studying print reporting, magazine writing, broadcasting, copy editing, and Web design, among other things, I was awarded a Graduate Science Writer Scholarship by CIHR ( Editor's note: CIHR is a sponsor of Next Wave Canada). As the name suggests, the award is designed to support students with an undergraduate or graduate degree in science who are retraining as science writers.

When I first heard about this program, my primary reaction was one of relief. It represented proof that someone in Canada had finally recognised the need to encourage science-literate individuals to become science communicators. (The United States, unlike Canada has a number of well-regarded journalism programs dedicated to science communication, as well as several fellowship programs in place to train scientists in media and media in science.) Several other young Canadian science journalists I know experienced the same sentiment. The application consisted of several writing samples pertaining to science, reference letters from my professors at Ryerson and McGill attesting to my ability to write, and a short essay on why I thought science communication was important.

I was awarded the scholarship in September 2001, a little more than a year after the Medical Research Council (MRC) of Canada was dissolved and reborn as CIHR, a new biomedical funding agency for the 21st century (the so-called "biocentury"). Knowledge translation was written into CIHR's mandate, marking a paradigm shift in government thinking of dramatic proportion, and the scholarship was one of CIHR's first initiatives to see the knowledge translation portion of its mandate fulfilled. MRC had supported me during my master's degree, so I was acutely aware of how unusual it was that an agency that had funded my science training would then support my choice to leave science behind in favour of journalism. That distinction may not seem profound, but as I said, there were very few mechanisms in place to encourage such a transition. Coming full circle in this way felt both comforting and auspicious.

More important in some ways than the monetary support (and the freedom it gave me to focus on school), winning the scholarship gave me confidence in my choice and abilities. At Ryerson, I was a bit of an anomaly in a program in which most students had liberal arts backgrounds and many had prior experience in journalism. Although I was an avid consumer of media, and science media in particular, I hadn't cultivated my writing skills in a nonacademic environment for more than 6 years. In the course of two degrees, I'd hardly written more than my thesis, an occasional physiology paper, and a CanLit essay on The Truant, an EJ Pratt poem. (Curiously, when I reread The Truant recently, I was struck by the quantity of scientific language Pratt employed. I guess it really wasn't much of departure, after all.) At journalism school, however, I assembled a collection of clips on a wide range of topics and became increasingly assured in my writing. It was a tremendous boost to have my work validated by CIHR's peer-review committee of science journalists, just a year after leaving the lab.

The scholarship also allowed me to focus on my second year of studies with the necessary vigor. By then, I'd chosen to specialize in print reporting and would spend the first semester completing two demanding internships--one as a general news reporter at The Guelph Mercury in Guelph, Ontario, and the second as news editor at The Ryersonian, Ryerson's weekly student newspaper. A more consequential aspect, in retrospect, was that the CIHR award enabled me to do an unpaid editorial internship at SEED, a science and culture magazine based in Montreal. After 2 months as an intern at SEED, I was hired as an editor and then relocated with the company to New York City.

I've been at SEED for more than a year now and have been catapulted into the world of magazine publishing in its Mecca. My position within the company has evolved right along with my editing skills, and I've been continually challenged intellectually. I've also witnessed a young magazine mature into an authoritative voice in science media, while experiencing the growing pains of a start-up. Least expectedly, I've come to see science journalism in new ways.

When I left McGill for Ryerson, I had a very narrow and, I suppose, naïve view of science journalism. I thought of it in terms of translation--that is, making research findings clear and comprehensible to the general public. In my mind, the focus was on presenting the results of scientific research and demonstrating the value of research to the public. Looking back, this point of view is relatively easy to explain. It reflected the perspective of the science journalists who's writing I was consuming at the time and hoping to emulate, as well as the fact that I was on the inside of science--a researcher among researchers whose work was highly specialized and difficult to penetrate. What little scientific work I read about in the mainstream media was often misinterpreted or misunderstood.

I still view translation as an important aspect of science journalism but feel that presenting the results of research without the appropriate context renders them meaningless and sometimes deleterious. Broadcast news items and newspaper articles reading, "Scientists have discovered ..." are largely devoid of the necessary context. They also dehumanize scientists and, consequently, science itself.

This brings me to the question of what qualifies as science journalism. Beyond reporting on the results of research, there are numerous events, intriguing people, influential and controversial ideas, as well as ethical dilemmas in science that warrant coverage. Isn't this the fodder of journalism, in general?

At SEED, we are trying to present science in a way that emphasizes the impact it is having on our culture, and conversely, the way that science is influenced by our culture. This takes us to a broad range of sources for stories, including the arts, entertainment, politics, current affairs, and business, and in my experience, important science stories abound in these places. I've come to adopt the SEED worldview in this respect but haven't done so blindly. Each day, I'm persuaded by the news I read and the people I talk to that the sciences, the arts, and the humanities are becoming increasingly interconnected. And that, more than ever before, scientists are emerging as an intellectual force in our society and shaping our culture.

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