Young science communicators interview campus scientists

Students from the next generation of science communicators got a chance to practice their interviewing and visual storytelling skills this month as 12 UMass Amherst researchers volunteered to serve as subjects for Smith College’s summer science writing course for pre-college women, “Narrative and Imagination in Science.”
Faculty participants Craig Albertson, Cristina Cox-Fernandes and Duncan Irschick of Biology, Mark Leckie of Geosciences, Jim Holden of Microbiology, research assistant Amanda Libertine of the Freedson Kinesiology lab, Ruthanne Paradise of the Tyson Chemistry lab, Matt Romoser of the Human Performance Lab, Scott Garman of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Adrian Jordaan of Environmental Conservation, Jeff Boettner of the Elkinton Entomology lab and Nilanjana Dasgupta, Psychology, each spent part of a morning with two of the 26 young women enrolled in the course. It is taught by instructor Naila Moreira of Smith’s Jacobson Writing Center, who is also a freelance science journalist.
Leckie says, “I really enjoyed the opportunity to speak with such intelligent and inquisitive young women. They are very engaged in the topic about global change today, and they were fascinated to learn about analogous ancient rapid global warming events from the geologic record. They asked great questions and we could easily have spent the day considering data and discussing possible repercussions and implications of the real world global warming event that we are living today.”
The science writing course is part of Smith’s Summer Science and Engineering Program for high school students. Approximately 100 students take two intensive, two-week college-level courses such as genetics, exercise science, women’s health, science writing and others, Moreira explains.
The 26 beginning science writers, from as far away as Beijing and as near as Northampton, were assigned to first ask for a sit-down interview, then to request a glimpse of the scientists at work in their laboratories. Most brought tape recorders to help them check facts and use accurate quotes; many also used video and still cameras to relate their stories.
Each team wrote an article and prepared a short PowerPoint presentation for their peers and faculty. They prepared several drafts of their final profile article and presentation, which were shared with an audience of more than 100. As a group, the students also wrote and illustrated their own newspaper.
“Interviewing scientists to learn about their work first-hand has been among the great pleasures of my own science writing career and I’m excited to give these girls the same experience,” says Moreira. “They were able to hone their science communication skills, whether for future careers as writers or scientists.”
The students, who range from age 14 to 18, emerged from their experience with a new appreciation for the life of a scientist, she adds. Many were able to ask the researchers questions not only about their about methods and findings, but how they had gotten into their chosen field. “One-on-one time with a person whose work you admire can mean so much,” Moreira notes. “These faculty have provided the motivated students of our program with an experience that will stay with them forever.”
Photo: Duncan Irschick, Biology, gives Tegu, the Argentine black and white tegu lizard, a bath while Smith summer student Katherine Wang looks on