Author: Joshua Tusin
Date: September 2005
Camille Mojica Rey, like many of her colleagues, did not plan on being a science writer. As a minority and a woman who showed an interest in science, she was encouraged to pursue engineering. Nobody noticed that she was also acing her honors English courses. How did she go from an engineering track to a science writing one? Even more importantly, what has she learned that can be shared with a budding science writer?
Mojica Rey stresses the importance of hands-on experience, but she emphasizes that there is no single way to become a science writer.
In order to get an internship, students have to demonstrate writing ability. "Anybody who wants an internship needs to be preparing for it," explains Mojica Rey. "You need to have clips." This gets to the heart of experience.
There are a variety of ways to get these initial clippings, but finding places to volunteer your services can be vitally important. Volunteering for the school newspaper or "Anybody who will take your writing for free," is Mojica Rey's suggestion for demonstrating to potential employers that you can write well.
This is a reasonable start on a career path, but it is very different from how Mojica Rey found her passion for science writing. "Everybody has a different story," she says as she shares her own story. For her, it all began with a simple love of reading and writing. "I always kept a diary," recalls Mojica Rey, "and I read a lot."
As a child, Mojica Rey was exposed to a lot of natural history. Her grandparents lived on the Texas coast, and so she got to experience a countryside teeming with critters and interesting geology and ecology. Going into college, Mojica Rey was on a biomedical engineering track, and encouraged by mentors who promised she would be able to "name her own price" once in the job market.
But the promise of financial stability was not enough. "It was a disaster," says Mojica Rey. The realization that engineering was the wrong course of study was a pivotal decision in Mojica Rey's education. She quickly went back to biology - her true interest - and found the inspiration she craved. "I took animal behavior and evolution courses that were really stimulating intellectually," she recollects.
Soon she began volunteering in labs studying the evolution of fish behavior and established relationships with her professors. Her new mentors encouraged her to go to graduate school, and so she did.
Although Mojica Rey attended the University of California at Berkeley for a Ph.D. in integrative biology, she is the first to admit, "I'm pretty sure you don't need a Ph.D. to be a science writer." However, Mojica Rey completed her Ph.D. studying fish behavior.
"I was not too comfortable with the way my career was going," explains Mojica Rey. Though she enjoyed teaching, being a research professor or even a professor at a liberal arts college held little appeal. "I didn't feel like I was out in the world enough," Mojica Rey explains, "There was something huge missing from my career path."
She finally decided that writing novels appealed to her more than anything else. The trouble was she didn't want to give up the world of science. "I wanted to make a difference in the world."
Finally, a friend said to her, "Why don't you be a science writer?" The light bulb turned on instantly and Mojica Rey found herself enrolled in the University of California at Santa Cruz's Science Communication Program.
While at UCSC, Mojica Rey began focusing on medical writing, emphasizing Latino health issues when possible. "I found medical writing to be a good way to give back to the community," explains Mojica Rey. The work was very rewarding, but did not last forever.
Now Mojica Rey finds herself doing general science writing and is still quite happy. Although she does some freelancing, she has one requirement, to "at least write for people I respect." She currently writes for Stanford University, the University of California at San Francisco, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, as well as for a variety of other outlets.
For people interested in becoming science writers, Mojica Rey suggests that while gaining experience, be sure to answer an important question: "Do you know what the world of science is about?" Research experience is also useful in order to understand how labs operate. Having a working knowledge of the scientific method makes for a smarter story.
Also, it is important to keep your options open. It is often better to start out general, maybe not even writing science, and then specialize as your career progresses. This is especially important advice for people interested in newspapers.
"Newspapers are very tied to tradition," Mojica Rey cautions. "They're not set up to take scientists." This means that journalism experience, not necessarily science writing, will get you your first job at a paper.
Often, it is thought to be easier to teach reporters how to cover science than it is to teach scientists to report. This is not something everybody agrees on. Mojica Rey makes it very clear, though, that being a "scientist first really helps."
Staying connected as a science writer means knowing about a few important organizations. Mojica Rey suggests the National Association of Science Writers (NASW) as an important resource. She also points out the Council for the Advancement of Science Writers (CASW). Their focus is on educating writers about important science in progress, so that reporters are educated about the topics before having to report on the breakthrough while on a tight deadline.
Mojica Rey also recommends that writers should always be familiar with publications. It is beneficial to see where science writers are hired and keep that in mind when looking for internships and jobs. There are a variety of general publications like the weekly newsmagazines, but also more specialized press like Discover. Mojica Rey also points to field-specific periodicals such as GeoTimes as good sources with which to be familiar.
When assessing your skills and experiences, Mojica Rey says, "You can always make up for what you don't have." She explains that if you're lacking research experience, you can volunteer in a lab for a while. And, if you don't have writing experience, there's always someone who will let you write for free. There are ways of filling in the gaps.
Mojica Rey emphasizes that young writers should keep writing and getting experience. Look into various science writing programs. There are several, including the ones already mentioned, at the University of California at Santa Cruz, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Johns Hopkins University, Columbia University, and a new one at Duke University. She also suggests looking into NASW for possible programs or internships. If having the science first is not appealing, it is all right to go to journalism school and pick up the science later on. But the moral of Mojica Rey's story is that there are a lot of ways to become a science writer, and everybody has to figure out their own path.