Science Reporter

Laura Helmuth
Smithsonian Magazine

As a science reporter, I’ve needed some of the same skills you learn in grad school: how to keep up with the latest research, draw interesting connections among various studies, ask key questions and navigate a crowded poster session. Becoming a science writer and eventually a science editor feels like a smooth process in retrospect, but of course it took some time and a bit of agonizing.

I started out as a chemistry, or maybe philosophy or maybe biology major at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla. One of the advantages of being at a small, liberal arts college was that I could design my own course of study. I took a lot of psych classes and other science classes and called the combination a biological psychology major. I got a Ford Foundation undergraduate research grant and did a small study on stress. I expected to be doomed to go to med school, but somewhere along the way I figured out what grad school was (Eckerd didn’t have grad students, and I wasn’t at all clear on what a PhD meant), and research sounded like a much more fulfilling career.

I had a great time in grad school at the University of California, Berkeley. I was in the psych department studying cognitive neuroscience, but I also took a lot of classes and went to a lot of talks in other departments: linguistics, philosophy, molecular and cell biology, zoology, even paleontology. That was a clue: as much as I enjoyed my research, and as well as it was going, I didn’t want to concentrate on any one field to the exclusion of others. I also took on a lot of different projects, and I got a grant to study for one year at a lab in Germany — all signs of an attention span that was probably too short for academia.

One summer, I got a job writing for a travel guide. I’d never written for the public before (only for scientific publications), but I caught on quickly and enjoyed the process, despite the grueling hours and constant hassle of trying to find out everything a traveler could possibly need to know about Slovakia and the Czech Republic. After that, I decided that being a writer would be an even more rewarding career than being a scientist. I took journalism classes at Berkeley while finishing up my dissertation, and then I entered the University of California, Santa Cruz, science writing program.

Like science, journalism usually requires a long apprenticeship phase. I interned at a newspaper in Salinas, Calif., called The Californian, while in the UC Santa Cruz program. Then I interned at a Department of Energy lab in Idaho, then Science News magazine in Washington, D.C., and finally Science magazine’s news department (which is independent of its scientific publications side).

My first job-job was at Science. I wrote about life sciences research part-time, which meant that I kept up with major journals, attended five or more scientific conferences each year, read a lot of press releases from professional organizations and universities, and pulled together story ideas that I proposed to the editors of the magazine. For the other half of my time, I edited Science’s online daily news site, ScienceNOW. I scoured journals for papers that would make for amusing or important short news stories, evaluated story ideas that freelancers proposed, and edited three to five stories each day. After a few years, I took a job as an editor in the news department of Science. As an editor, I got to help decide which stories the magazine would cover and which writers would write them — as I had done for ScienceNOW, but for a wider audience and handling much longer stories.

Editing requires some of the same skills as reporting, but it also calls upon some management and social skills that psychologists should be familiar with. Working with freelance writers, in particular, can be a bit like doing pro bono therapy. Some are crippled by insecurities and need encouragement, others have a hard time meeting deadlines, and others work at home and just need to make some human contact with their editor.

In 2004, I took a job as science editor of Smithsonian Magazine. I’m responsible for all of our science, nature and environment coverage. It’s been a challenge to venture from fields I know well, like neuroscience and social sciences, and to figure out how to cover, say, geology and physics. Here, it’s not enough for a story to explain new and important scientific findings — our stories also have to have compelling narratives, colorful characters, interesting scenes and be photogenic. My job is to make stories about science appeal to the non-scientist.

(Originally published in the December 2004 issue of Psychological Science Agenda, the newsletter of the APA Science Directorate.)