Talking about scientific research with non-scientists can be hard. Scientists and researchers usually know a lot about their areas of expertise, but struggle to effectively communicate their work to the general public. The AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellowship strives to fulfill this mission. Bridging the gap between scientists and journalists, the AAA Mass Media Fellowship places scientists, engineers, and mathematicians at various media organizations across the United States to learn how to communicate their technical knowledge to the public.
We spoke to Dr. Vanessa Vieites to learn how her AAAS Mass Media Fellowship helped her transition from an academia-focused career path to becoming a successful science writer.
Tell us about your background and professional journey. What led you to the AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellowship?
It’s been a long and winding road, but the short answer is that I’ve always had an affinity for writing–ever since I was a kid journaling in my diary, writing poems about unrequited crushes and middle school woes, and thinking standardized writing tests were fun. In high school, I wrote for the school paper for two years and briefly thought I wanted to be a journalist. I guess I’ve come full circle now. But I set my sights on earning a PhD when I took an AP Psychology course in my senior year of high school. I liked the idea of being an academic and a scholar. Looking back on it, I was a little naïve about the academic job market, to say the least. But I loved learning and challenging myself intellectually, so I aimed to earn the highest degree possible, a doctorate. As I progressed in my doctoral program, I became more and more jaded about my academic job prospects. I struggled with figuring out what I wanted to do after I graduated. Did I want to aim for the ever-elusive tenure track professorship or leave academia altogether, lest I be relegated to being a perpetual postdoc like a few of the academics I knew?
One day, I came across an article on the American Psychological Association’s (APA) website titled, Becoming a Science Writer. The best part was that it was written by someone with a similar educational background as me. From that article, I learned about the National Association of Science Writers (NASW) and that science writing was a viable career path for psychology PhDs. I started thinking more about the importance of scientific outreach and realized I didn’t want to remain insulated within the Ivory Tower for my whole career. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if I could write about science for people who don’t have science backgrounds or access to academic journals?” I figured I could still use the research and critical thinking skills I had been cultivating in graduate school and channel them into a writing career outside of academia.
I began my venture into science communication back in the fall of 2017 when I was invited, along with my graduate advisor, to write a lay summary of one of our research studies for the website Atlas of Science. That experience made me appreciate writing about my work using less jargon and more colloquial language for a change. I wanted to make my research and that of other scientists more accessible to non-academics. So I joined the NASW and NPR SciCommers, made connections in the world of science journalism, and sought as many opportunities as I could to write for general audiences.
I learned about the AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellowship at the 2019 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Washington, DC, which I attended thanks to a travel grant from the National Association of Science Writers (NASW). NASW had set up a “speed dating” style informational session so that attendees could have five minutes to sit individually with representatives from various US news outlets (e.g., NPR, The Washington Post, Nature News, Science News, etc.) and learn about their science writing internship programs. Inspired, I soon joined my university’s newspaper, FIU News, as a writing intern reporting on university-related affairs. I also did some freelance writing for a publication on Medium called SciShortform, which showcases short-form science stories. However, the first time I applied for the AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellowship I didn’t make it past the semi-finalist round. I was crushed, but I spent the next year honing my journalistic writing skills by continuing to write for FIU News, as well as freelance writing for publications such as The Open Notebook, Massive Science, Temblor.net, and NASW.org. I reapplied to the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship for the summer of 2021 and was placed at The Conversation US, where I wrote about my own research as an expert in children’s spatial development as well as co-edited other scientists’ pieces.
Can you describe what a week in the life of an AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellow is like? How did this opportunity allow you to advance your career and expand your professional network?
My AAAS Mass Media Fellowship experience was different from that of previous fellows. For one, I did my internship remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Otherwise, I would have had to move to Boston, where The Conversation US is based, for 10 weeks in the summer of 2021. Fortunately, AAAS flew me out to Boston a couple of times that summer so I could mingle with editors and work alongside other staff at The Conversation. My fellowship experience also differed from that of other AAAS Fellows in that I was writing for a publication whose writers are made up of researchers and academics, not journalists. The Conversation has a unique model of journalism where editors recruit experts in their fields to comment on or explain national affairs that are relevant to their work. That way, the public learns about a topic, say Covid-19 deaths or AI tools for students, straight from the horse’s mouth as opposed to a third party. As a fellow at The Conversation, I didn’t interview sources for my main story; I was the source.
Because my fellowship was mostly remote, a typical week involved a lot of Zoom meetings! I attended weekly news hub sessions where I heard the stories and pitches editors were commissioning that week. I also helped editors recruit scholars to write about newsworthy topics the editors were interested in featuring on the website. I met several times a week with my editor and fellow interns, to discuss the newsworthiness of recently published articles and what we liked about them. I also had weekly one-on-one meetings with my supervisor, during which we discussed my progress, concerns, and pending assignments.
As part of my fellowship training, I learned how to make a formal story pitch to an editor. Using The Conversation’s pitch form, available to researchers and academics at affiliated institutions, I pitched the significance and key points of a piece about my graduate research on the development of spatial navigation skills from childhood to adulthood. I received multiple rounds of feedback on my pitch until my editor approved it. My story was then overseen by the editor of the Education section of the publication. After receiving several rounds of edits, the final piece was published in The Conversation and republished in dozens of news outlets, including The Washington Post! Eventually, I had the opportunity to co-edit three pieces on specialized cells that maintain healthy pregnancies, how couples may mitigate romantic conflicts, and work dynamics between engineers based on gender. I also helped translate two pieces from English to Spanish, making sure that those translated articles made sense to Spanish-speaking readers. Furthermore, at the end of the summer, I gave a 20-minute, oral presentation on some of the myths and misconceptions in Psychology. Presenting this information to a group of non-psychologists was another way I honed my science communication skills that summer.
My placement at The Conversation also offered me extra professional development opportunities that I may not have gotten at a different site. For example, my fellow interns and I attended weekly science journalism workshops where we listened to professional journalists discuss topics such as how to successfully pitch a story to an editor, structure a news story, and write a compelling lede. As aspiring science writers and journalists, we also sought career advice from the speakers.
The AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellowship aims to increase the number of scientists who are able to communicate complex ideas and report accurate scientific stories to the public.
Why do you believe this mission is important? How has the training you received during your AAAS Mass Media Fellowship benefitted you in your professional life?
I pursued a career as a social scientist because I wanted to study and educate others on human cognition and behavior. But as I made my way through graduate school, I became disenchanted with the fact that much of my writing was only meant for other academics, not the average person. I thought to myself, “How can I expect my work to reach a broad audience when I’m only writing for those with a PhD?”
Then I came across that article on becoming a science writer, which happened to be written by Siri Carpenter, the previous president of the National Association of Science Writers (NASW). As I read about Carpenter’s journey from doing science to writing about science, I decided I needed to branch out of academia if I was going to speak, on a broader scale, to those who don’t have advanced degrees or access to academic journals, which are often behind paywalls. I’ve always heard that knowledge is power, and I agree, but I’d like to add that with such power comes the responsibility to disseminate information wisely. And that includes having the ability to communicate accurately and effectively, no matter who your audience is.
As for whether the Fellowship has benefitted me professionally, that still remains to be determined as far as my science writing career goes. I still have one foot in academia and one foot out. I don’t think I’m ready to give up research just yet. But generally, I think people are impressed when I tell them I was an AAAS Mass Media Fellow; they see my science communication background as an asset to my skill set as a developmental scientist (my postdoc supervisor certainly does!). I’ve since taken a break from formal science journalism to focus on my postdoctoral fellowship, but I continue to engage in science communication in one way or another. For example, I teach a general psychology course and mentor several research assistants in my lab. I’m always searching for ways to share my knowledge with others, whether it’s the people I work with, my family and friends, or strangers online.
What advice do you have for others applying for the AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellowship?
Find ways to write about science outside of academic journals. I would say the easiest way to do this would be to start a science blog or write for your university’s newspaper. Once you’re there, ask your editor if you may cover stories about the novel research that’s being conducted at the university. You may not always be assigned science stories, but at least you will learn how to write and report like a journalist as well as accumulate writing clips.
I also highly recommend you join The National Association of Science Writers and attend their annual meetings. Thanks to NASW, I was able to network with science writers and journalists, who gave me advice about science writing as a career path. And check out The Open Notebook, an organization I found through NASW, which is dedicated to providing tools and resources to help science, environmental, and health journalists (and aspiring journalists) sharpen their science writing skills. Join NPR SciCommers Writers Program as a peer writer and editor. Each month, the program mentors choose one NPR SciCommer’s pitch and help them develop their story and publish it in a science news outlet, such as Massive Science. NPR SciCommers also gives members the opportunity to peer edit the selected writers’ stories. Thanks to NPR SciCommers, I could write on my AAAS application that I had media writing and editing experience.
Because the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship is highly competitive, you will boost your chances of being selected if you already took part in one or more other writing internships, such as NASW’s David Perlman Virtual Mentoring Program for graduate and undergraduate students. I participated in the summer of 2020 (while I was working on my dissertation), during which I worked with an editor to write and publish a story on how psychologists have begun to classify non-consensual porn distribution as a form of intimate partner violence. Thanks to that internship, I added another published writing clip to my repertoire, not to mention gaining a new reference for future jobs and fellowships.
You’ve received multiple fellowships. How have these opportunities supported your professional growth?
I believe each fellowship has strengthened my curriculum vitae and increased my chances of winning the next fellowship or award I’ve applied for. I’ve also had plenty of networking and professional development opportunities (e.g., research conferences, science journalism workshops, Rutgers Center for Cognitive Science colloquia) thanks in large part to these fellowships.
Interested in applying to this fellowship? Bookmark the AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellowship to your ProFellow Account.
Dr. Vanessa Vieites earned a PhD in Developmental Science at Florida International University and a BA in Psychology at Smith College. She is an alumna of the McKnight Doctoral Fellowship, AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellowship, and Rutgers Inclusive Excellence Postdoctoral Fellowship. She currently serves as the first Inclusive Excellence Postdoctoral Fellow at Rutgers University’s Psychology Department, where she teaches a general psychology course and is a postdoctoral researcher at the Cognition and Learning Center, where she investigates how young children’s understanding of the spatial and numerical relations between objects is connected to their fundamental math abilities. Her research interests include individual and gender differences in spatial and mathematical reasoning, as well as early indicators of success in STEM fields.
© 2023 ProFellow, LLC all rights reserved.