Communicating Discoveries: The Career of Science Journalism

Author:  Hriday Bhambhvani

Institution:  University of Alabama

In our modern information age, communication of data is rapid, and increasingly innovative and impactful research is being conducted and published at a tremendous rate across the world. Simultaneously, the general public is growing more interested in science, with prominent scientific personalities such as Stephen Hawking being catapulted to fame on a global stage. Science journalists hold a crucial role in this dynamic as they seek to bridge the gap between groundbreaking discoveries and the general public.

Among the specialties encompassed within the larger umbrella of journalism, science writing may perhaps be one of the most fulfilling and challenging. On one hand, science journalists encounter an eclectic array of material – machine learning, genomics, particle physics, and more. Indeed, science journalists work with this heterogeneity on a daily basis, and the career can offer a rich and varied professional lifestyle, though not without difficulties. 

The frequent challenge for science writers is that of translation – how does one decode and disseminate the often esoteric works of researchers in a manner that is accessible, interesting, and accurate? Science writers tread a fine line among these three attributes. In an example of good science journalism, the Los Angeles Times described CRISPR using a metaphor: “a molecular Swiss army knife: It’s part genome scanner (like a magnifying glass tool on the knife), part scissors to cut the DNA, and part pencil to re-write the genetic code”1. Additionally, it is important for science writers to place their stories of discoveries into political, sociocultural, and fiscal context. As such, science writers play a crucial role in promoting a global sociopolitical dialogue about science through their reporting.

The pathway to science journalism is as variable as the career itself. Usually, employers expect a college degree in either science or journalism, and classes to supplement the major – science majors should take journalism classes and vice versa. During college, it is advisable to get involved with the school newspaper or an undergraduate research publication (like JYI). Furthermore, many institutions, such as Johns Hopkins and MIT, offer one-year masters degrees in science journalism, which many employers prefer. Apart from learning to write, aspiring science journalists should acquaint themselves with common social media outlets and photo/video editing software. Working as a general assignment reporter can also be a great way to gain valuable experience and eventually specialize in science.  

The paths to becoming a science writer are numerous and often rigorous, but many find the career tremendously fulfilling in today’s climate of exciting science. As renowned science journalist Christina Szalinskihas said to those following in her footsteps: “This is an exciting time to be a science writer. Old school journalism was stodgy, slow, and insanely hierarchical. It was hard for a newcomer to break into.”2 The field is constantly changing, and provides a niche for those individuals who have a harmonious love for science and writing alike.