From the lab to the newsroom
Instead of traditional careers in the sciences, students in UCSC's Science Communication Program work to make complex subjects accessible to the public
By the time Camille Mojica Rey graduated from UC Berkeley with a Ph.D. in integrative biology, she had decided a career in academic science was not for her. She wanted to be a writer, but she also wanted to use her knowledge and training in biology. UC Santa Cruz's Science Communication Program showed her how to do both.
Rey completed the program in 1997, worked as a medical writer for the San Jose Mercury News and the Monterey County Herald, and is now associate editor of New York-based Latina, a bilingual magazine for Hispanic women, where she oversees the health section.
"I love it," Rey says. "I feel like I'm putting my scientific training to work and having more of an impact than I could from behind a lab bench."
The Science Communication Program, launched in 1981 by director John Wilkes, actually comprises two separate tracks, one in science writing and another in science illustration (see sidebar). Both are one-year graduate programs leading to a certificate in science communication. Though each track only admits ten students per year, UCSC has become known nationally and internationally for producing science writers and illustrators of the highest caliber.
Some students, like Rey, come to the program with Ph.D.s from major research universities, while others come with bachelor's degrees from small liberal arts colleges. The rest fall somewhere in between.
"All of our students, I think it is safe to say, could have had a career in academic science if they had chosen to continue on that path," Wilkes says.
"Santa Cruz turns out more high-quality journalists in the science writing area than anyone else," says Justin Mullins, San Francisco bureau chief for the international science magazine New Scientist, who has several graduates of the program either on his staff or freelancing for him.
Ellis Rubinstein, editor of the weekly journal Science, agrees. "I don't know of another program that has had as many outstanding graduates year after year," Rubinstein says. "It has produced some of the best science journalists we have."
program he runs. Applicants must also show an aptitude for writing. Perhaps because of his literary background, Wilkes has a knack for spotting applicants with writing talent.
"I like being a talent scout, finding people out there who would not be able to get into the profession if it were not for a weird program like mine," Wilkes says. "They would not go to journalism school--they do not want to be journalists--but they do want to write for the public. Sometimes they just don't realize that's journalism."
With neither a science background nor much journalism experience, Wilkes drifted almost by accident into the teaching of science writing. In 1976, he was a part-time lecturer at UCSC (where he had received all of his degrees), teaching a three-quarter sequence in English Romanticism.
He had also begun writing articles about cars ("the one
technical area I felt comfortable in") for Road & Track
magazine and was getting excited about being a freelance
writer. So when he heard through a colleague that the
Division of Natural Sciences had hired a lecturer to teach
"This was a real newspaper editor who had become a magazine editor, and he knew a lot and was willing to share it with me," Wilkes says.
Lewis only stayed for one quarter and Wilkes managed to
get the job of teaching the next science writing course that
spring. To a great extent, the Science Communi-cation
Program owes its existence to the students who signed up for
the first science writing class Wilkes taught. They
"I was so delighted with everything that was happening in that class, I wanted to get the students out into the world and see what they could do in a professional setting," Wilkes recalls.
He managed to place several of them, including Murphy and
Stayton, in internships at the California State Assembly's
Office of Research in Sacramento. They did such a great
In those early years, his students included Shannon Brownlee, now a senior editor at U.S. News and World Report, Dan Warrick, now an editor at Health, and Richard Harris and Joanne Silberner, both now reporters for National Public Radio.
Then, out of the blue, Wilkes got a telephone call from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) inviting him to apply for a tenure-track job as director of MIT's new master's degree program in science writing. Wilkes ended up spending two years at MIT before coming back to UCSC to establish the campus's own graduate program in science communication.
In designing UCSC's program, Wilkes wanted to make sure his students would be firmly grounded in the realities of professional journalism. For that reason, internships have always been a critical component of the program. They give students ex- perience in writing under real-world deadline pressures. Each internship also yields a handful of all-important "clips," published articles the student can show to prospective employers.
Wilkes regards science writing as a fine art as well as a craft. Every piece of student writing goes through multiple drafts and gets scrutinized by fellow students as well as by teachers. Students also learn by example, closely studying articles written by the best science writers in the business.
According to Wilkes, some editors at major newspapers remain convinced that scientists can't write and refuse to even consider his students for internships.
"We're still hitting a wall of prejudice against scientists that I vowed to break down 20 years ago, and I'm still beating on it," he says.
As the program's reputation keeps growing, however, that kind of attitude is steadily fading. "My students all seem to get pretty good jobs, and they even turn down jobs because they're confident they can make a living freelancing," Wilkes says.
In fact, about half of the program's graduates have chosen to work on their own as freelancers.
Between the graduates of his program and the connections he has made with other writers and editors, Wilkes sits at the center of an extensive network reaching into every corner of the science writing world. No aspiring science writer could ask for a better resource.
Wilkes has been a staff book reviewer for the Los Angeles Times and has written articles for Health, Psychology Today, Technology Review, and other magazines. For years, however, teaching has taken precedence over his own writing. "For a while it grieved me that I didn't have more time to write, but it grieves me less now than it used to," he says.
"The fact is," he adds with a laugh,"I found my students' work more compelling than I found my own."
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UCSC's science illustration program specializes in training artists like Rollings, who graduated in 1996. Students have come from as far away as Japan, Germany, and Portugal. Programcoordinator Ann Caudle says most of the students enter the program with a degree in science and an aptitude for art.
pursued that because it seemed more practical," Caudle says.
In fact, there is a real need for illustrators with a solid grounding in science, according to Ed Bell, art director for Scientific American.
About a half-dozen graduates of the program have worked for Bell as interns or on staff, and he has hired two for the position of assistant art director. He hired Jen Christiansen (class of '96) less than a month after she started her internship. In 1998, Christiansen left to become assistant art director at National Geographic, and Bell hired Heidi Noland (class of '98) to take her place.
"I have always thought that a good illustration is worth its weight in diamonds and rubies," Wilkes says. "I still think there's not enough use of illustrations, but I'm pretty happy with what we're doing to remedy that."