Giving Science a Life Outside the Lab

Jill Kester Locantore

Editor’s note: This report is part of a continuing series of updates from Locantore during her Media Fellowship at the Richmond (Virginia) Times-Dispatch.

In some ways, newspaper writing is very ephemeral. I’ve already begun to forget what I wrote about a few weeks back. And who will ever refer to those stories again? On the other hand, it’s rewarding to know that thousands of people are reading my articles. My news stories may be short lived, but they exist in the world in a way that my scientific writings never will. This is what journalism can do for science-give it a life outside of the lab.

Terrorism continues to loom large over the newsroom at the Richmond Times-Dispatch. We received our first suspicious piece of mail, addressed in a childish scrawl, not unlike the handwriting on the envelopes delivered to NBC and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD), taped up along the seams and affixed with a Christmas stamp. A crowd of people gathered around and peered at it for a while. Some laughed nervously. Eventually, a brave person decided to open it, perhaps motivated by the notion that the Times-Dispatch is too small-time to attract the attention of terrorists. Thankfully, it turned out to be nothing – a letter written by a seemingly eccentric but benign fan.

The world does move on, though, and scientists continue to do newsworthy things for me to write about. For example, the National Institutes of Health sponsored a conference in Bethesda, MD, to celebrate 50 years of brain research. Conference highlights included a panel discussion with four Nobel Prize winning neuroscientists, and a speech by Christopher Reeve.

Of course, I was sent to cover Reeve’s speech. (Reeve is unaccountably popular in Virginia, perhaps for the somewhat odd reason that he broke his neck while riding in Virginia horse country. It’s unfortunate that tragic movie stars are considered more newsworthy than Nobel Laureates, but not surprising. My only hope is that people who would never think of reading an article about neuroscience were attracted to the Reeve story, and learned something about spinal cord function.)

The biggest challenge of this assignment was the timing. Reeve spoke at about 4:00 p.m., after which I hurriedly interviewed a neuroscientist about treatments for spinal injury, and took the subway back to my apartment in D.C., arriving about 6:00 p.m. That gave me exactly one and a half hours to write the story and file it via e-mail with my editor by the 7:30 deadline.

It was all very nerve wracking, but I managed to pull it off. During this time, I made the helpful discovery that telemarketers will back off if you yell at them that your story is due in 5 minutes. My efforts were rewarded by placement on page A2, about as good as it gets in wartime.

In contrast, I’ve been working for weeks on my first feature story, which I finally submitted the other day.1 After writing a dozen short “daily” stories, the 45 column inches I was allowed for the feature story seemed like an ocean of space. And to think, the last academic paper I wrote was 90 pages long.

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