Views From Our Media Fellow: Communicating About Science

Jill Kester was selected as the APS/AAAS 2001 Mass Media Fellow. Her internship is with the Richmond Times Dispatch in Richmond, VA. Below, Kester describes her background and offers her views on the importance of communicating science to the public.

Kester

I did my undergraduate work at Pomona College in southern California, and received a BA cum laude in 1996. I started out as a math major, briefly toyed with biology, and ended up in psychology for two main reasons: One, the course schedule allowed me to study abroad in Prague for a semester, and two, I found a wonderful mentor in the psychology department, Deborah Burke. She claimed to see some kind of talent in me, took me under her wing, and introduced me to the challenge, fun and creativity of research in cognitive psychology.

Throughout my undergraduate career and during the time I took off before graduate school, I was involved in diverse areas of science and technology. I worked with my father, Keith Kester, a chemistry professor at Colorado College, on a book of “alternative” periodic tables of the elements. As a volunteer for a non-profit environmental group, I developed a curriculum for teaching elementary school students about the water cycle and water pollution. Between undergraduate and graduate school I worked for the National Renewable Energy Lab, helping provide expert advice for people interested in developing small scale renewable energy projects.

I started graduate school at the University of Toronto in 1997. I have completed my master’s degree and am currently working toward a PhD. Working with Fergus Craik, I have specialized in human memory and aging, doing mostly behavioral studies, but dabbling a bit in neuroimaging (PET and fMRI) and patient studies.

Over the years, I have become less interested in doing research and more interested in the process of communicating about science, both with scientists and the general public. Other than learning the ins and outs of formatting journal articles properly, the development of communication skills is not particularly emphasized as a part of graduate training; at least that has been my experience in psychology. I am often struck, particularly at conferences, by people who conduct brilliant research, but are unable to communicate about their results in a clear (let alone engaging) manner.

Personally, I relish the challenge of taking complicated scientific findings and rendering them interesting and accessible, especially to people who know nothing about the field. Furthermore, I feel that there are several important reasons for scientists to communicate with the public about their research. Much scientific research is funded publicly, and scientists therefore are obliged to share the results of their research with the public. Such communication can help to foster continued funding for future research, and stimulate discussion about the value of scientific research to the more general public.

Scientific research often relates to important social issues, such as environmental degradation, genetic modification of foods, alternative energy technologies, diagnosis, treatment and prevention of illness, and so on. Even basic research, if described effectively to the general public, can stimulate interest, particularly among younger adults and children, who may go on to pursue a scientific career. Television shows such as Nature and Nova on PBS, and publications such as National Geographic, played a large role in fostering my own interest in pursuing science.

My interest in communicating about science has led me to consider scientific journalism as an alternative career to academia. One aspect of graduate school that I have found frustrating is the emphasis on academic career paths. It is assumed that if you are getting a PhD, you are going to continue doing research and teaching, and there is very little encouragement or guidance for people like me who are interested in alternative careers.

I took it upon myself to contact the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation about internship opportunities in scientific journalism. They in turn directed me to the Mass Media Fellowship Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). At the time this is being written, I haven’t even started the internship yet (it begins in September), but it has been great just meeting the other fellows participating this year, as well as alumni from previous years who have gone on to pursue a career in journalism. For the first time I was able to talk with people who share my enthusiasm for science, but also like me, feel that staying in the lab doing research is not enough. I am very grateful to APS for sponsoring my fellowship, and would like to help get the word out there to other student members that this opportunity exists!

For additional information about the APS/AAAS Media Fellowship, including details on applying, please visit www.psychologicalscience.org/apssc/default.cfm or contact Brian Weaver at APS (bweaver@aps.washington.dc.us; 202.783.2077 ext. 3022.)
Observer Vol.14, No.7 September, 2001

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