This week I am interviewing Louise Ogden, a science blogger on our own community blog Student Voices, which is hosted on Scitable by Nature Education. Louise also has her own science blog, It’s All Relativity, where she talks about space missions, climate change, exoplanets, solar eclipses, and much more!
Louise is currently finishing up her Masters project at City University in London, which will earn her an (exciting!) degree in science journalism. As a career changer (from lab research to writing) and prospective PhD journalism student myself, I was thrilled to be able to hear Louise’s perspective on her path into science journalism and her outlook on her field. Many a student contemplating a path into science communications and/or science journalism will enjoy her responses and her advice!
Me: Tell me a bit about your background in mathematics and astronomy!
Louise: I graduated from the University of Glasgow last summer with a Bachelors of Science (Honors) in Applied Mathematics and Astronomy. I really enjoyed my degree, but ultimately I always knew I was never going to be an astronomer or a mathematician. The two parts of my degree were completely separate, although obviously there was some overlap.
Astronomy was much more of what I would call a ‘typical science’, in that we had to complete a certain amount of lab work and presentations, in order to complete the course. It wasn’t all exams – something I was very thankful for! The research I did, however, was not exactly groundbreaking. The labs were mostly there to teach us how to use the equipment, including the different telescopes and the (rather complicated) software that we used to analyze our results. However, I know that Glasgow does run a very successful PhD program at the Physics and Astronomy department, where it is possible to work with data taken from observations across the globe.
Mathematics, as you might expect, was much more theoretical. Although I studied Applied Math, the course focused on studying the theory around the application of mathematics, such as in financial modeling or fluid dynamics. However, I did have to complete a research project in my final year. I was quite different from many other people in my year, in that I opted to work in a Secondary School in Glasgow, teaching maths to teenagers. There were only about 10 of us who did this. We then wrote up a 7,000 word report on an issue or topic we had come across during our time at the school. I chose to look at the gender discrepancy in mathematics for elective secondary school classes. (This might not make a lot of sense, as I suspect the British school system is quite different to the American one, but in short, in Scotland, in your final year of school, students can opt out of certain subjects and complete what is known as their Highers or Advanced Highers in the subjects of their choice.) The rest of my class (not working in a school) chose to do their report on, say a prominent mathematician or Euler’s theory of motion, which were much more technical than what I decided to write about.
Me: Very interesting Louise! Teaching must have been a unique part of your educational experience!
Me: If you did perform scientific research in the lab, or in the field, do you ever miss it? Are you still involved in scientific research?
Louise: I worked in the astronomy labs throughout my time at uni, although I wouldn’t necessarily class this as scientific research. In a way, I miss it. Labs were certainly my favorite part of the course, as they were much less structured than, say, the lectures. However, this was also the reason I didn’t enjoy them. Often I felt totally out of my depth, and unsure of what I was trying to achieve. We were encouraged to think for ourselves and make our own choices about where we wanted to take our lab projects, but I found this very difficult. I think this was probably down to my lack of confidence in my knowledge of the subject. However, when I spoke about my work or wrote up my findings, I was nearly always top of the class. I put this down to my good communication skills. In all honesty, I love talking about science, but I just don’t think I’m very good at it.
Me: I think myself and many other researchers, even the best researchers, can relate to your feelings in the laboratory environment sometimes. In any case, you are certainly wonderful at talking and writing science!
Me: Can you give me five words that best describe yourself and your interests?
Louise: (This is tough!) Curious, chatty, geeky, committed and fun!
Me: What do you want to be when you ‘grow up’?
Louise: When I was a kid, I wanted to be a doctor. In my mind, it was a career that had the perfect balance between science and communication. As I got older, I realized that medicine wasn’t going to be for me, for a variety of different reasons.
Until very recently, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be. I only made the decision to go into journalism a year or two ago. It was something I never thought I could do, as I thought journalists should really have an English degree. Now, I feel much more confident in my career choice.
Me: We sound very similar… I had many of the same feelings, wanting to be a doctor as a child (oh yes, as well as a writer! But I never thought of putting them together when I was 7 years old!), growing up as a biomedical researcher, and finally realizing that although I never took a single English class during my undergraduate education, I simply LOVE to write. And I am determined to make it happen, whether I have ‘talent’ or not, because it just seems right for me.
Me: What originally prompted you to pursue a MA in science journalism at City University London?
Louise: When I was at uni, I wrote for the university newspaper as well as helping to establish a mathematics magazine for the maths department. However, I did these things not because I was thinking of my CV, but because I enjoyed writing. I wanted to write for these publications, even if it was at the expense of getting my studying done. (Me: You go girl!)
It was only once I started to think, “What the hell am I going to do after I graduate?” that journalism came to mind. But in all honesty, I didn’t know whether I would be good enough. I applied to a few courses, but City stood out for me. The course offered a chance not just to learn about science communication, but also to learn how to become a competent journalist, including knowing how to spot problems in scientific research and to understand the workings of science policy and funding.
I decided to do the course as I didn’t think it would be possible for me to get into the field without a qualification. Also, I knew that the course would allow me to make contacts within the community, something that it obviously very important for someone starting out in journalism.
I believe that science communication is hugely important and there is certainly a place for it in a lot of situations. (Me: I agree!!) However, I also believe there is a distinction between science communication and science journalism. A journalist’s role is to report the truth and in some cases this can mean uncomfortable questioning or exposing poor judgments. This is true in all areas of journalism, not just science, and it is important that there are people who are willing to ask the difficult questions, about scientists, their research or their funding, otherwise who will?
In essence, that is why I chose science journalism, over say, science communication. I want to make sure that science is reported well, and most importantly, it is being conducted appropriately. (Me: More power to you Louise!)
Me: How did you make the choice between MA or doctorate in science journalism?
Louise: A doctorate was never really an option for me. I had my degree in maths and astronomy, a four year course in Scotland, and I wanted to get into a career as soon as I could. The course at City is only ten months and offers a huge number of internships at many reputable publications and outlets as part of the course. For me, this was the best option to get a foot in the door of journalism.
Me: Do you have any ‘specialty areas’ in your science journalism degree and/or are you performing a research project? Can you describe what you do to in layman’s terms?
Louise: In the first term, everyone on the course learns about the four different media: TV, radio, print and online. We are assessed on our abilities in each medium separately, as one of the course’s aims is to make us multimedia journalists. This includes knowing how to use a camera, how to frame an interview or edit your film, being able to use recording equipment and editing software, running a science website as a team, and knowing how to write for a magazine, newspaper or other publication.
In the final part of the course, we all complete a project in any one of these mediums. I am currently working on a radio project, an area of journalism that I never really considered for myself, but I have grown to love over the last ten months.
I am producing a 15 minute documentary about the Standard Model of Particle Physics and the search for the Higgs Boson – a pretty dense subject, but one that is very interesting and often reported badly in the media.
(Me: I hope we can hear it when you finish!)
Me: Do you have any advice for students contemplating a degree in science journalism?
Louise: If you’re a scientist looking to communicate science, then I would suggest a communication course rather than a journalism course. I think with a journalism course you need to be prepared to ask tough questions. I would say journalism is not about just educating people, although there is a place for that sometimes, and that if you are a scientist thinking about moving into journalism, than you need to be aware that you won’t always be a scientist’s best friend.
I’ve found that the course I’ve been on has been much more practical than a lot of the communication courses offer, but I can only speak from what I have heard from other students who have taken these courses.
If you’re looking to become a journalist, and don’t have much experience in the industry or how it works, I would suggest a science journalism course of some sort, whether that be a degree, doctorate or diploma. I’ve learnt a lot over the past few months, and I’m not sure I would ever have been able to make it in the field without the training I’ve received at City.
Getting experience can never be recommended enough, whether that is writing for your student magazine, helping out at your university’s radio station, or trying to get some work experience at your local newspaper. Not only does it show a commitment to working in the industry, but it will also give you a chance to understand what it is like and to hone your writing skills.
Me: Thank you for your time Louise! A very inspiring interview if I do say so myself.
Alison Wright (2010). High-energy physics: Top of the class
Nature Physics, 6 (644) : 10.1038/nphys1783