As an undergraduate neuroscience student at the University of Rochester, Jill Sakai studied the inner workings of the garter snake's olfactory system. But when she decided to pursue a doctorate in the field, she changed both species and topic, joining a lab that investigates how zebrafish embryos grow connections from their eyes to their brains.
"A lot of beginning students come in and do what they know...they play it safe," says Sakai's adviser, Mary Halloran, PhD, a zoology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "[Jill] was eager to take this risk and completely change areas within neuroscience."
Over the last few years, Sakai has immersed herself in the neurological development of zebrafish. She even discovered that a particular molecule guides axon growth from the animals' retinas to their brains, a finding reported in a March issue of Development (Vol. 133, No. 6, pages 1,035-1,044). But despite her success in the field, she is, once again, thinking of trying something new. Instead of continuing as a bench scientist, Sakai wants to communicate findings like hers to the general public. So, in June, she joined the staff at the Richmond Times-Dispatch for a 10-week taste of science reporting.
Sakai is one of 14 science, mathematics and engineering students placed in newsrooms around the country this year, through the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Mass Media Fellows Program. Each year, the program gives 15 to 20 graduate and postgraduate students a crash course in science communication, and then sends them out into the field. As the psychology fellow, Sakai received a $4,500 stipend funded by AAAS and APA to get hands-on experience trying out a new career. APA supports the program because it bolsters popular knowledge about psychological science, says Rhea K. Farberman, APA's executive director for public and member communications.
"The media fellowship program affords a future behavioral scientist the opportunity to learn more about how the media works and at the same time brings more psychology news coverage to the media," she notes.
For her part, Sakai appreciates the opportunity to indulge her curiosity about many areas of science and technology. Just a few weeks into her fellowship, she had written about smoking behavior, the durability of materials in space and military communication technology.
"One of the things I really enjoy about it is being able to get into so many different topics," Sakai says. She also likes getting out of the office and talking to researchers. For the military technology story, for example, Sakai traveled to Northern Virginia to watch engineers vie to win military contracts for new technology. Sakai ended up focusing on new developments in communication technology, though radios and cell phones are well outside her area of expertise. However, her ability to communicate with researchers and cut through jargon carried her through, Sakai says.
"In terms of talking to scientists and researchers, I have a common background," says Sakai. "I understand research culture; I know what it means to run an experiment."
And while Sakai had no professional writing experience outside of academic publications, she's a natural at applying the pared-down newspaper style to science findings, says her supervisor, Pauline U. Clay, the Times Dispatch'shealth and science editor.
Making the transition from academic writing to newspaper writing wasn't effortless, however, says Sakai. For instance, news stories tend to take the form of an inverted pyramid--with the broadest facts first, and with details coming later. Research papers, on the other hand, lay a foundation of details first, Sakai says. Additionally, while research papers will use a particular word again and again for precision, a newspaper writer will try to vary language to keep reader interest, she's found.
But the most striking difference between the lab and the newsroom, says Sakai, is the pace.
"Research is incremental, and it takes a lot of time and a lot of painstaking work that doesn't always work out," she says. "Here I get to skip all that stuff in the middle and go straight to the punch line."
Sakai knows first-hand about the slow pace of research. Her own recently published research on zebrafish took hundreds of hours in the lab.
First, Sakai created a substance with the power to disable a particular part of the zebrafish's genetic code. Then she injected the molecule into fish embryos, using a microscope and a tiny needle. Once the embryos began to develop eyes, Sakai then injected a dye into the nascent retinal cells and time-lapse-photographed their growth over 24 hours. The entire process required precise lab technique, and even with Sakai's steady hands, cells went undyed and some embryos never recovered from the procedure.
"Getting even one embryo through all the steps is very challenging," notes Sakai's adviser Halloran.
Despite the setbacks, Sakai got dozens of fish through all the stages of the experiment. The result? She found that the protein known as Sema3d guides axons across the fish's midline--connecting the right half of the brain to the left eye and visa versa. It's just a small part of the story of how animal's bodies come to be reverse-wired, but it's satisfying to make a permanent addition to that literature, Sakai says.
"The cool thing about research is that...you're really in there, making some contribution to that huge sea of knowledge," says Sakai.
After earning her doctorate--Sakai defends her dissertation in October--she plans to pursue a career in journalism. She predicts she'll miss that feeling of accomplishment, though having a much larger audience for her articles will probably make up for it, she says. And while Sakai's specific knowledge of Sema3d's function in zebrafish eyes will probably not come up in future stories, she expects that other aspects of her doctoral training will translate well to the newsroom.
"You don't need to have a PhD in neuroscience to be a journalist, but...I wanted to learn about how to think and ask questions," she says. "I felt the specific topic of my research was not as critical."
For more information about the AAAS Mass Media Fellows Program go to ehrweb.aaas.org/massmedia.htm.