As an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan, Robert Mitchum studied the effects of cocaine and amphetamines on the human brain and spent the past five years working toward a neuroscience doctorate at the University of Chicago. Yet he's about to hang up his lab coat and pick up a reporter's notebook.
Mitchum made the leap from the lab to the Chicago Tribune newsroom as one of 22 science, engineering and math students who participated in this year's American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Mass Media Fellowship Program. Each summer, 20 to 25 graduate and postgraduate students spend 10 weeks gaining experience communicating science news to the public. In addition to learning reporting skills, each fellow receives a $4,500 stipend funded in part by APA and other science and math organizations.
The fellowship seeks to bolster science reporting and give graduate students a window into a career they might not have otherwise considered.
"Student scientists, whether they remain in a lab or go into a science communication career, need to be able to explain scientific findings and why they are important to the general public," says Stacey Pasco, who manages the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship Program. "AAAS's goal with the Mass Media Fellowship is to create communication skills within a student population that might not otherwise get that training."
The program meshed with Mitchum's desire to convey scientific news to the masses.
"It was the most perfect situation I could dream of, an internship designed for exactly what I wanted to do," he says.
Mitchum was originally attracted to neuroscience because the field holds so many unanswered questions about the human brain, but he found the work of gathering usable neural data from rat brain slices to be tedious.
"Whenever the lab got especially frustrating, I would lose myself in the fantasy of 'maybe I'll be a science writer,'" he says.
In January 2002, during a two-year stint working in a National Institutes of Health lab between undergraduate and grad school, Mitchum got his first professional writing experience--reviewing albums for the music Web site Pitchforkmedia.com. The gig was the direct result of Mitchum's unorthodox approach.
"Basically, I sent Pitchfork a few clips and a nasty e-mail saying I could do much better," says Mitchum. "The editor wrote me back immediately and said, 'You're right, why don't you write for us?'"
The site was just starting back then, but now a quarter of a million people read Pitchfork's reviews, news and feature articles each day, and the site has become so popular that its opinion can make or break an up-and-coming band.
Pitchfork's hip, smart-alecky tone appealed to Mitchum, but unlike his work in addiction labs, he didn't see how music reviews could benefit society.
"So, I thought a good way to merge all these writing talents I'd developed with my other areas of experience was to move toward science writing," he says. "I also felt there was a niche lacking for the kind of casual, irreverent writing like Pitchfork does, but about a topic like science, which people tend to treat like it's almost this sacred, staid intellectual object."
The leap from writing music reviews to science reporting wasn't easy, says Mitchum. He took writing classes and attended panel discussions on how to break into the field, and he even joined the National Association of Science Writers to troll their job postings.
"Eventually, I came to the realization that there were no entry-level science writing jobs," he says.
Once again tapping the power of Internet publishing, Mitchum and a few friends launched Litmus, (www.litmuszine.com), a webzine that, according to its mission statement, purports to "handle scientific research without rubber gloves, writing about science in a way that's critical and irreverent."
Some of the features Mitchum wrote for Litmus tread what is for him familiar ground. He's written pieces on drug use in song lyrics, the science of Muzak and research into using music for pain relief. These articles helped him dip his toe into the world of science writing and led to his selection as an AAAS Mass Media Fellow.
"Rob's great because he has a real maturity about him and a depth of knowledge," says AAAS's Pasco. "I knew he would be a great fellow as far as what he knew and what he could bring to the Tribune's news staff."
Science for the masses
Working for Pitchfork--where he wrote two, 800-word reviews each week--taught Mitchum to write fast. However, early in his fellowship, Mitchum learned to pick up the pace even more when a story he was working on about the discovery of a new dinosaur got rushed to press due to a broken embargo.
"I sent my rough draft and it went straight to the Tribune Web site," he says. "Now I know to write better first drafts--fortunately it didn't have any glaring factual errors, but it was a good education in how fast the news business works."
Mitchum's dinosaur story--in a fleshed--out form-then made the Tribune's front page, as have eight of the 22 articles he wrote during his fellowship.
"The front page stories are a sign of the quality of Rob's work and his grasp on difficult issues," says Tribune environment reporter Michael Hawthorne, who's worked with Mitchum during his fellowship. "The front page is very coveted real estate, and reporters all over the country and world are vying for that space."
Mitchum's now written about such disparate topics as the domestication of housecats, vasectomy and tubal ligation, and religious doctors. But his favorite story thus far was an article on music festival medical tents. He went to the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago and interviewed people who tend to concert goers debilitated by dehydration, cuts and drug use.
"The story was the perfect combination of everything I'd done prior," he says. "It was everything coalescing."
Mitchum's been so successful at the Tribune that, although he'd like to finish his neuroscience doctorate, he plans a permanent career switch to science writing. The teaching experience Mitchum got as a graduate student may be particularly useful as he goes on to educate tens of thousands of newspaper readers about science.
"Teaching a core bio class for nonscience majors really helped," he says. "It's the same audience [as the Tribune's], and it's trying to make science interesting for people who thought science was boring."
“There was a niche lacking for the kind of casual, irreverent writing like Pitchfork does, but about a topic like science, which people tend to treat like it’s almost this sacred, staid intellectual object.”
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