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

John Wilkes, director of UCSC's Science Communication Program

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.

Camille Mojica Rey ('97) is associate editor of Latina magazine.

The science writing program (the better known of the two tracks) takes in students trained as scientists and turns out writers who can make the esoterica of science understandable and accessible to a general audience. Its graduates--about 180 so far--include writers for major metropolitan newspapers and national consumer magazines, designers of exhibits for aquariums and museums, and authors of popular books. Some have gone into radio and television work, others work in the news offices of universities and national laboratories, and still others have ventured into the brave new world of multimedia communications.

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.

Erik Stokstad ('96) is editor of ScienceNOW, the online news service of Science magazine.

The writing program guides them onto a very different career path, with remarkable success. Editors who have worked with graduates of the program are among its biggest fans.

"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."

Rosie Mestel ('91) is health writer at the Los Angeles Times.

The program only accepts students with science degrees and research experience. Wilkes likes to point out that, with his Ph.D. in English literature, he wouldn't even be considered for the
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."

Ava Ferguson ('84) and Melissa Hutchinson ('87) are editors and exhibit developers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

In January, UCSC Chancellor M.R.C. Greenwood hosted a reception for Wilkes at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), a meeting Greenwood presided over as AAAS president. She presented Wilkes with a plaque honoring him for "outstanding contributions to public understanding of science."

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 an
undergraduate science writing course, he decided to audit it.

Graduates from both tracks of the Science Communication program work together on college-level educational multi-media products at Archipelago Productions in Monterey: Andrea Foust ('97), scientific illustrator and designer; Alejandro Cruz ('97), scientific illustrator and designer; Tracy Washburn ('97), content director and writer; Sheila Foster ('94), content director and writer; and Carleton Eyster ('97), scientific illustrator and designer.

The lecturer was Richard S. Lewis, editor of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and formerly the city editor of the Chicago Sun-Times. For Wilkes, who soon became friends with Lewis, it was his first real exposure to the world of journalism.

"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
included Pat Murphy, now head of publications for the Exploratorium in San Francisco, and Bob Stayton, now head of technical writing at the Santa Cruz-based computer company SCO.

"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 job
producing reports on technical issues for the state legislators that the assembly passed a resolution honoring them. This recognition, once news of it got back to the campus, helped ensure that funding for science writing courses would continue.

Lisa Davis ('85) is articles editor at Health magazine, San Francisco.

Initially, Wilkes thought he would only teach for a couple of years while he got his own writing career off the ground. But the classes were so much fun and the students so good he kept at it.
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.

George Wuerthner ('85), on assignment with daughter Summer, is a freelance writer, photographer, and author of over 20 books, including a guide to California wilderness areas.

The program starts off with a crash course in the fundamentals of journalism--how to report and write news stories. The instructors are all practicing journalists. After the first quarter the students seek part-time internships, mostly at local newspapers, and they complete the program with a full-time summer internship.

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.

At the weekly magazine Science News, Laura Helmuth ('98) is a science writing intern, Peter Weiss ('90) covers physics and technology, and Corinna Wu ('95) covers chemistry and materials science.

Wilkes's students benefit almost as much from his guidance and connections as from the training they receive. He follows their careers closely and is always available for consultation and advice, even years after they leave the program. News and job announcements are relayed to graduates via e-mail. Wilkes takes a personal interest in every one of his students, and the walls of his office are decorated with photos of former students and their children.

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."

--by Tim Stephens

Tim Stephens graduated from the science writing program in 1990. He joined the UCSC Public Information Office as campus science writer in 1998.

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Visualizing science

Portia Rollings ('96) recently illustrated a National Geographic article about evidence that birds descended from dinosaurs.

Portia Rollings earns her living doing what she loved most as a child--drawing and working with animals. A full-time staff illustrator for the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Rollings takes photographs of specimens and produces detailed drawings for the museum's curators and for use in exhibits and museum publications. She also does freelance work, including illustrations for National Geographic and Scientific American.

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.

Jen Christiansen's ('96) illustration for National Geographic shows bottlenose whales' remarkable diving habits as revealed by time-depth recorders.

"For many of them, art was a very big part of their lives, but they also liked science and
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.

Illustrations of marine life by Portuguese native Pedro Salgado ('89) grace these Portuguese postage stamps.

"There are certainly art schools preparing illustrators, but none that are preparing science illustrators in the way the UCSC program does," Bell says. "It's a big help to magazines like ours, because we don't have to give science lessons to the illustrator on each project."

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.

The process of photosynthesis, is illustrated by Andrea Foust ('97) in the Archipelago Introduction to Biology, an educational CD-ROM.

John Wilkes, director of the Science Communication Program, says he created both an illustration track and a writing track because he thought most publications were not making good use of illustrations to accompany science stories.

"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."


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