Thinking of applying for the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship? Get inside tips from former fellows

A Q&A with four Massive Consortium members and Mass Media fellows

Maddie Bender

Microbial Disease Epidemiology

Yale University

The AAAS Mass Media Fellowship is a summer fellowship for science, engineering, and math students who want to gain experience communicating science to non-experts. Fellows spend 10 weeks at media organizations around the U.S. The 2020 fellowship application opened October 1, 2019 and closes on January 1, 2020.

Massive spoke to four consortium members and former fellows about their experience and any advice they have for applicants. Their responses were lightly edited for clarity and length.

Maddie Bender: When did you know you wanted to transition from research to science writing?

Berly McCoy, 2019 fellow at PBS NewsHour: I think my path has a lot to do with the lifestyle I wanted to live more so than the career. I live in rural Montana. My husband owns a fly-fishing outfitting business. We knew we wanted to live in a remote place and there were research options, but I always had it in the back of my mind that I might not be able to continue in research.

I think it was probably years three or four out of six in my PhD, where I was seriously considering an "alternate career path." But it wasn't until the last year that I think I was really active in making the switch.

Jenny Howard, 2019 fellow at National Geographic: I'm still not positive, 100 percent, about being in science communication. I really want whatever position I have after grad school to incorporate science communication, and that's something that the summer helped me figure out. I started thinking more seriously about it last fall.

Joan Meiners, 2018 fellow at the New Orleans Times-Picayune: I think that I sort of always wanted to be a writer. I think I was always interested in writing and science. And I never really realized that I could do them both; I kind of thought that I had to pick. And so I picked science and I went down that path because it was, I think, a little bit less scary-seeming than just deciding outright to be someone who writes things, because where do you start with that? 

During my PhD I don't really remember what gave me the courage to do it, but I just pitched an article to write freelance and they accepted it and told me to file on Thursday and I was like, "OK, what does file mean?" 

Jerald Pinson, 2019 fellow at Austin American-Statesman: This was a hard decision for me. I got a master’s degree in biology, then proceeded with a PhD in the same field, and for years, I never really questioned that I wanted to pursue a career in academia. But about halfway through my PhD, I started a popular science blog, which became a sort of guilty pleasure, since it was taking up a large portion of my time. But once I started, I found that I enjoyed writing a lot more than I enjoyed thinking about and doing research. I started freelancing for an outlet called One Green Planet, then moved on to Massive Science, devoting more and more of my time to writing. After about two years of that trend, it abruptly dawned on me that I wasn’t really interested in academia anymore and told my advisor, who was really supportive of my decision. I mention that last part because advisors aren’t always supportive of their students leaving the flock, which can cause a lot of friction. Don’t be deterred, though. It’s an uphill climb, but worth it to end up doing something you’re truly passionate about. 

MB: How did you go about choosing and reporting out your writing samples? 

BM: For the sample news piece, I always wrote a brand-new piece which I then tried to get published. The first one I didn't really know how to do that, so it never got published, which is a bummer because it was about sperm, and it was really cool. But the second one I eventually got published with Massive.

I spent a good amount of time choosing the article that I wanted to cover. The first one was about how sperm, before they fertilize the egg, release these hormones that rejuvenate the egg. The egg is almost like an overgrown garden and then when these hormones hit the egg before this sperm's even there, they reverse time and clean up all this damage. And I later found out, I think, Carl Zimmer covered it. But I spent a lot of time finding something that I thought was a really cool story that also had science that I thought both would be really cool to explain and also kind of difficult. And that's where I walked the line both the first and second news pieces. And the second one, I think I went even further and I was kicking myself like, "Why did you pick such a hard concept?"

So the problem with that is if you get too deep in a paper, you're committed to it, you know, it's like, December and you can't switch your paper now and you're freaking out because it's some mathematical model that you don't understand. Pick a concept that isn't super straightforward, but not too hard that you can't explain it. And then you can show off how good you are at explaining complicated science. 

JH: I decided to submit samples that I'd already published because I'd already gone through the editing process and I'd already gotten feedback on them. I chose one piece that I'd written for Massive for the general example of writing, that was one of my Science Heroes, and then another piece I was working on with Hakai Magazine, and it was a study that qualified for the "has to be published within 6 months [requirement].”

For the news story, it seems like they might place you at the outlets based on a little bit what you write about. And so I think me writing about an animal, how it's impacted by some anthropogenic causes, I think that story gave me a leg up to help my application be sent out to NatGeo. I'm not positive because the whole process was a little bit mysterious.

JM: I had taken an environmental journalism class at the University of Florida, the same year that I applied, but it ended up working out that I used the piece that I wrote in that class as my evergreen writing sample. And then the other one was just a paper that had come out from a group in my department that I had covered as a science news story.

MB: Did it feel weird to interview people not knowing if the story would ever see the light of day?

JM: Yes, definitely. And I think it definitely felt awkward to me to introduce myself over email to someone like as the person who is writing something, or like even as a journalist, I think I didn't use that word for myself for a while, I think I was a little bit shy about calling myself a journalist. I think I would email people and say, "Hi, I'm an ecology student. I'm doing this project where I'm writing about this thing. Can I talk to you?"

JP: I chose a piece I’d published in Massive that I was particularly proud of on population turnover in penguins and sea lions in New Zealand. I thought this was a strong piece because there was a lot of really cool history behind the story (the little ice age, human habitation in New Zealand, oscillating patterns of expansion and retreat, etc). I’d recommend choosing something that you think tells a good story. Applicants are PhD students, so those doing the hiring will assume you know the science well; what they want to know is whether or not you can craft a compelling story based on the data you present.

For me personally, it was easier picking an article in my field. There’s something to be said for the insight you can bring to a field that’s completely alien to you, but I wanted to play it safe. 

Some tips: this is a short news type article, so you want to make sure you have a good lede right off the bat. Keep your intro paragraph short (but informative), to the point, and compelling. If writing a news story is something new to you (like it was to me), it wouldn’t hurt to ask previous fellows whether they’d be willing to share their pieces with you. I’m embarrassed to say I actually didn’t interview anyone for either article, but I definitely recommend doing so.

MB: Walk me through what happened in between the second you submitted your application and when you were told you had been selected as a fellow. What should people do to take their minds off the wait?

BM: So once you submit the application, go have a beer or like a tea. Good job, you. That was really good for you to put all that together, and it's a lot of effort. And then as much as you possibly can just completely forget about it.

JM: How did I take my mind off of it? I don't think I did. I think I was like looking at all the publications and reading them and getting to know the ones that I didn't know already and like imagining myself in those places, doing all the things that you're not supposed to do because then you're devastated but you don't get it.

What do you think made your application stand out?

BM: Through the [NPR Scicommers] office hours program, my first year I got a Scientific American publication. My second year applying for the Mass Media Fellowship, I got an NPR The Salt publication. So I think those were actually pretty big pillars because I used each of those for my first and second articles. Because really at the heart of the Mass Media Fellowship is, "Can you write?" and those two samples are so important. Practicing and getting feedback I think are really important, too.

JH: I honestly don't know. I feel really lucky. I'm guessing my commitment to science communication — I'd been doing it for over a year at that point, so I had this demonstrated interest. I think having that and a more polished news story, that probably helped my chances.

JM: The piece that I submitted for the evergreen piece was a data journalism project about hurricanes. And I think that that was probably why I ended up getting placed in New Orleans. So I think that I think the placement process works a teeny bit differently now, but we didn't have any say in it. 

If you have your heart set on working at one particular place, you really, really want to gear that evergreen piece toward something that you could see being published by that publication, in terms of style and topic and content.

MB: What was a typical day/week in the life for you at where you were placed?

BM: We were on the weekly embargo schedule. We'd make a little document shared between the science desk which was all of three people. And we’d say "I want to write this story." We get the go ahead to do that, and as soon as I got to go ahead and write a story, usually Friday, I'd send out emails to everyone I wanted to interview. Hopefully I'd get those interviews on Monday, maybe Tuesday, then I wrote the article Tuesday. So it was really fast paced.

Then I’d write the article, submit to my editor, he'd give me edits, it would go back once or twice, and then it would go for a copy edit. And then we’d brainstorm headlines on the whole Slack workspace, which is a ton of fun. Like bring in a bunch of people who have no idea what the articles about except for the few sentences you've told them. And then you come up with the stellar headline and then it goes live. And then you immediately start working on the next story.

JH: It was really busy. It was exciting, it was really fast-paced, which is something totally different from my research pace. So that was a little daunting at first, just like getting into a rhythm with that, where it could go from like I'm searching actively for news stories to all of a sudden, I'm working on two different news stories and coordinating interviews with like 10 different people and then trying to write it. I was told that my experience at NatGeo was almost as if I was a hired staff writer like jumping in and figuring stuff out from day one. So they definitely treat you like you're a writer like you get some coaching, some mentoring, but it's also a lot of like proactive, figuring it out on your own, and asking questions.

JP: I worked at a local newspaper, so my experience was different from those who were selected for national or science outlets. I was also the first AAAS fellow that the Austin-Statesman had hosted, so no one really knew what to do with me. This ended up working out really well for me, though. I’d contacted the head press officer at UT Austin before I arrived, and my first day happened to coincide with their monthly meeting, which they invited me to sit in on. I got a lot of great ideas just from the initial meeting. 

A regular day would be spent researching ideas for pitches, contacting potential leads, writing up articles, and traveling to get interviews. Occasionally, I’d go out with one of the photographers to get images for a particular place featured in an article. There’s a lot of travel involved if you get placed at a local newspaper, so I highly recommend having a reliable mode of transportation. 

MB: What’s your favorite story/project that you worked on over the summer?

JH: I have a couple. One was about fish eggs not hatching because of light pollution, because it totally disrupts their rhythm, and another one was about corals eating plastic over their own natural food source. I'm overall really interested in marine biology topics. Also, I had a really great time interviewing those sources. They were genuinely really interested and passionate and excited to talk about their research and that made it way more fun.

JM: The piece that that was probably the most notable from my AAAS summer was I ended up writing about feral cats and the environmental consequences of them. And that was totally just because I was walking around New Orleans and I was like, "Oh my god, there's a lot of feral cats here." And then I went to newsroom and was like, "Do you guys know how bad feral cats are for the environment?" And everyone was like, "What are you talking about?"

JP: I wrote one particular article, for example, on a group of naturalists who had partnered with Texas Parks and Wildlife. Once a month, they’d go out to ponds in the Austin area to record the amphibians they found, which they’d upload to iNaturalist. 

Another of my favorites (since I can’t pick just one) was on the yearly migration of purple martins, which roost in the hundreds of thousands in just a few trees in developed areas, usually near strip malls. I can’t remember how I learned about the migration, but I got in contact with Audubon and ended up meeting some really cool people, including a 12-year-old who had spearheaded a project to get purple martin houses set up at his elementary school (purple martins rely heavily on man-made structures to nest in for several reasons), which I ended up writing about later in a separate article.

MB: Do you have any tips on how you figured out how to pitch studies?

JH: It definitely requires some self questioning like, "Ooh, this is really cool." Okay, why is it cool? Is it cool to just me? Would it be cool to my boyfriend? Would somebody else want to pick this up, would it pique their interest? I think asking some of those additional questions will help you figure out like, should I pursue this or should I dig a little bit deeper and find out how good of a story this is?

JM: I wrote one piece that was about this statistical algorithm. You train it based on some musical signatures of some Beatles songs. And then you have it analyze other Beatles songs, and it can tell you who the likely author was, and I was really excited about this, and everybody else in the newsroom was like, "It's cool. We like the Beatles, too. But why are you writing this?" And then I was able to, like, change it, I think, enough so that it, it was really I kind of just magnifies the fact that "Yeah, I know, I'm trying to tell you about statistics...but, like, bear with me, and I'm going to convince you why it's cool." I think that ended up being one of my better pieces because I acknowledge, like, okay, probably no one cares about me, but I'm going to convince you in this piece that this thing is cool.

MB: What was the best advice you were given about the fellowship?

JH: Some of the advice I got was from a staff writer at NatGeo who had been a [Mass Media] fellow. She suggested I print out several stories that I liked from NatGeo and annotate them, like highlight what the lede is, highlight the nut graf, like just go through and figure out what each piece in the story is. Where it was effective, why it is effective, to help me understand better how to write my own stories. That's actually something similar to what The Open Notebook does.

MB: Is there anything you’d want to tell anyone who doesn’t get the fellowship?

BM: If you don't get it, it's not the end of the world. While this is a great way into the field, it's not the only way.

JH: Apply again, apply the next year. Figure out what the fellows that did get it, what they had done maybe what you need to do differently to maybe boost your resume or your science communication experience.

JM: Apply again, if you are eligible, and there are lots of ways to get into science writing so it's kind of a crapshoot, I think, to some degree who gets selected for this because they only have so many spots. So don't be discouraged. And if you really want to be in science writing, just keep writing about science.

JP: Don’t sweat it. They get a lot of applications each year from some very qualified people. And there are a ton of science writing internships out there that you can do instead of or in addition to the AAAS fellowship. Keep applying to these, and don’t limit yourself to your particular field of science. If you’re a biologist, for example, don’t hesitate to apply for a physic magazine internship if that’s something you’re interested in. You can always learn the science as you go; your skills as a writer are what’s going to get you where you want to be.

MB: Anything else you’d like to tell Consortium members?

JP: Feel free to contact former fellows if you have questions. The 2019 group are a friendly bunch, and most of the profiles on the AAAS website have links to our Twitter accounts, so you can find us even if our emails have changed (goodbye academia!).

MB: Do applicants necessarily need a portfolio?

JH: I don't think so, because there were definitely people there that hadn't published clips before. Or at least in my cohort, they hadn't published clips, but they'd been blogging, or they had done outreach, or they were doing science communication, like Twitter, Instagram, social media for their department, lab, etc. I think the important thing was probably to, really, sell how you have communicated science in whatever platform, you have that experience.

MB: What was the worst advice you got about the fellowship?

JH: We were told, like, expect to not sleep, and I think it freaked everybody out a little bit and was like, "Oh my god, I should be like, working all the time." And it's not necessarily what you have to do, like some people, they might want to do that. But I know other fellows treat it like a nine to five job. They had a great time. They still got their stories written. I don't think you need to not sleep for this fellowship. It becomes what you put into it. So sleep and have a great fellowship.