My best tips for your AAAS Mass Media Fellowship application

I was a fellow at WIRED magazine this past summer, so for any of you applying now, here’s what I remember from my own application process.

1. A lot of the final selections are down to fate. Last year, I worked on 2 fellowship applications. I really wanted one of them. I spent 5 months perfecting every essay and briefing my recommendation writers and stressing over every last thing. My application was spat out the first round. For the AAAS mass media fellowship, I was much more ambivalent. I put my application together in 4 days, tops, spread out mostly in early January before the application was due – and asked for recommendations in a somewhat off-hand manner. From sundry clues and intuition, I got the sense that I breezed through the selection process. And I can tell you that I was just as qualified for the fellowship from which I was tossed as this one. So keep in mind no matter what you do with your application, the final decisions are not in your control. If you’re not chosen, possibly your application wasn’t strong; but more possibly the devil was sitting in corner cackling at you being heartbroken. Sad but true.

2. Follow the format of their sample resume. I was able to obtain a sample resume from AAAS to see how to format my own (you can probably email the contact to get one, too.) The resume sections they suggest are: a qualifications summary, Educational and Professional Experience (in a quick list), Professional Societies, Science Writing (a list of publications), Science Outreach and Mentoring, Online Outreach, University Teaching, Awards/Honors/Fellowships, Professional Service, Poster Presentations in Science Outreach, Peer-reviewed articles, Science Abstracts. *These suggested sections were also listed on the Application Tip Webpage, but it was still very helpful to see the actual sample resume.*

I mostly stuck with those sections in my application resume, except I did it a little differently at the end: Qualifications Summary, Educational and Professional Experience (in a quick list), Professional Societies, Science Writing (a list of publications), Science Outreach and Mentoring, Online Outreach, University Teaching, Awards/Honors/Fellowships, Professional Service, Presentations and Talks, Peer-reviewed Articles, Poster Abstracts. In all, my application resume was 3.5 pages.

3. Science writing samples can be locally or personally published. I had eight pieces listed under the “Science Writing” resume section. These are pieces that you’ve already published aside from the two pieces of sample writing you submit. Now, none of my pieces were published in very prestigious places. In fact, two of them were personal essays that I had just published as online PDFs myself. Three I had published in my University/community newspaper. And three others I had published on a science graduate school blog at my university, that pretty much accepts any submission. So don’t worry about where you’re publishing, just as long as you’re publishing.

These were my eight:

The Governors of Bonn: http://www.dailytarheel.com/article/2017/11/summit-talk
Fossils that slumber in the mountains and the mud: http://www.thepipettepen.com/feature-article/fossils-that-slumber-in-the-mountains-and-the-mud/
The Women of Bonn: http://www.dailytarheel.com:8080/article/2017/11/summit-entry-eight-real-1116
Arctic tales of icy trails: http://www.thepipettepen.com/blog/arctic-tales-of-icy-trails/
The making of Mr. Turtle: http://www.thepipettepen.com/blog/mr-turtle-gets-sick/
A trip to World Water Week: https://issuu.com/nejlike/docs/swea_3
An EcoPark in Jordan: https://issuu.com/nejlike/docs/ecopark
Curie and Brontë as BFFs: http://www.dailytarheel.com/article/2017/04/column-curie-and-bront-bffs

I submitted them just as they look above, and in the same order: the title and the URL next to it. I didn’t want to risk embedding the URLs in the titles as hyperlinks and then the links becoming corrupt. And I also realize, looking at it now, quite a lot of my articles were not necessarily super science-oriented, but had a lot of personal reflections involved, too. I included 2 articles where I’d interviewed someone — I think that’s important to include as interviewing scientists is a big part of the work when you’re on the fellowship. And I guess it goes without saying none of these samples should be boring technical writing!

4. It doesn’t all have to be about writing. I stressed about this, since on the one hand, it is called a “Mass Media Fellowship”; but on the other hand, nearly all the work of past fellows at their sites has been science writing, rather than videos or illustrations. So did I want to include science outreach activities that were not strictly science writing, and how much emphasis should that get? Looking back over my application, it looks like I ultimately decided that my science writing experience would get top billing, and everything else was relegated to the second half of the application questions. For the questions, “What in your background has prepared you for this fellowship?” and “Have you had previous media-related experiences?” I focused on science writing, without much mention of science animations or science outreach in schools. But then the science animations and the science outreach made up the bulk of two later questions: “Describe activities, other than previous media experiences, you have undertaken that increased public understanding of science” and “What community outreach or educational activities have you participated in, science-related or otherwise?”

5. How to answer application questions that seem repetitive. It seems like the questions we answered last year are still the ones required now. The main six are:

  1. Why are you interested in this program?
  2. “What in your background has prepared you for this fellowship?”
  3. How do you think the skills learned will impact your future career?
  4. “Have you had previous media-related experiences?”
  5. “Describe activities, other than previous media experiences, you have undertaken that increased public understanding of science”
  6. “What community outreach or educational activities have you participated in, science-related or otherwise?”

I don’t know about you, but I spent quite some time puzzling out how I wasn’t just going to repeat myself for some of these. I mean, #1, #2, #4, and #5 kind of flow together. I did end up repeating myself, but I tried to keep it to a minimum:

For #1, I tried to answer the question without falling back on, “well, I’m interested in the program because I’ve already done science writing for x, y, and z organizations.” I wanted to avoid that, because you’ll just be listing all those organizations again when you get to question #2. Instead, I tried a more overarching approach: I like science writing, these are some of the key insights I’ve learned so far, and being part of this fellowship will help me to learn more.

Or, I guess you could also flip around my answers to questions #1 and #2. Just as long as you’re not answering with the same material!

For #2 and for #4: yes, these were tricky! In fact, in my notes below question #4, I wrote: “what can I say that I haven’t said in other sections?” I ended up describing briefly 3-4 different science writing experiences for question #2; and for question #4, I chose one of them and expanded on it.

For questions #5 and #6, I described science outreach that wasn’t focused on writing. For me, this meant either making science animations or working with kids. Of course, the wording of question #5 somewhat threw me, since science animations definitely are a “media experience”, no? I tried to wiggle out of that one by pretending the question referred to not “media” as in books and digital material, but “media” in terms of a “formal media organization.” Which was honestly just a racket on my part, because that would imply the media experiences I listed for question #2 and question #4 were very formal, and they were not. Just a graduate school blog here, a student-run newspaper there.

Any case, for question #5 I ended up describing mostly science animations, and for question #6, I described science outreach with kids. This seemed true to what the questions asked for. Although things definitely overlapped, because some of the science animations I wrote about in question #5 were actually completed with a group of kids; and some of the science outreach with kids described in question #6 involved making a video.

In conclusion: having written all this out, I’m no longer quite sure that my application was actually very well organized, but I think it would be true to say that there is a certain fluidity to the questions, and it’s possible to answer a question in multiple ways. An answer to one question could also work as an answer to another. I guess just mix and match things as best as you can and try not to repeat yourself! Just convey the depth of your experience and your interest in the fellowship at every turn.

6. The “sample news story” writing assignment. I was at the AGU conference in December, 2017, and while wandering around the exhibition hall, picking up as much swag as I could, I was offered an issue of “Science.” It’s kind of funny because I am just now realizing this must have occurred at the AAAS booth (which both runs this fellowship and publishes “Science”.) I wasn’t going to take the magazine at first (oh, I’ll just toss it) but then I did, and when it came time to write my “sample news story” for the application just weeks later, I remembered I had the magazine and flipped through it to pick the story that seemed most interesting to me. And I think this was more efficient than trawling through whatever thousands of articles I could have found on an online database. The story I chose was about dinosaurs, so not even my field of expertise, and it took me a while to understand the article, but that was okay.

7. Do connections help? I don’t know if I’m now making up this memory, but I feel like when I was at the AAAS booth picking up that issue of Science magazine, they must have also mentioned: hey, and we have this fellowship you can also apply to! Maybe I picked up a hand-out about it, I don’t remember, but I didn’t “sell” myself or even exchange names, or grandly hand them a resume. So it looks like that’s not necessary.

But then, very randomly, I met up with a friend for dinner during the conference, and her other friend also joined us. This other friend had been a AAAS mass media fellow in summer 2017, and while we were at dinner, she told me about her experience, I asked her some questions, etc. I never thought much of it, but these days, I’ve been getting emails from AAAS about helping to judge the 2019 year’s crop of application. Apparently, once you’ve done the fellowship, you can be part of the selection panel. I have no idea if the woman I met was on the selection committee, but maybe she was, and maybe she saw my name and gave me a good word? But probably not. Very likely the application is “blind”, meaning they don’t know the name of the person they are judging.

So in conclusion, I would guess that connections don’t help that much, it’s just you and your application.

8. Don’t worry too much about labels. This goes along with what I said earlier about my science writing publications having been exclusive to community/student newspapers and university blogs. You don’t need to have published in a big name organization. Also, which I think is interesting, one of my science outreach activities in question #6 was taking place between myself and kids in the apartment complex I lived in as a PhD student. There was no fancy-sounding name or non-profit attached to this, it was just something I did after getting to know some kids who lived around me. I hesitated to include it, because I think often we perceive “community outreach” as something that happens within the fold of a formal organization, like a school or a museum, where there’s some sort of higher-level supervisor who can back up that you volunteered there. When you’re doing the same activities with your neighbors, it suddenly doesn’t count; and there’s no official “volunteer log” that lists your hours. Well, I ended up mentioning my apartment outreach anyways, just a sentence in question #6. Granted, it was packed alongside many other more ‘official’ sounding activities. But by the time I was applying, I had put aside the more official-sounding outreach. So being able to talk about the apartment outreach gave things a nice, continuous ring. It showed I still had heart in the game, that these weren’t activities I had just given up on.

And I think that’s the major insights I can provide based on my own application. Good luck, and if you have questions, feel free to post in the comments and I’ll try to answer them.

Finally, I actually started blogging when I was a fellow, so you can read my posts from my time at WIRED here. If you click on the link, you’ll see all the posts are in backwards chronological order. There’s everything from my first day at WIRED, to the thrill I felt when I published my first article,  to my favorite moments, to various heart-aches and disgust and failures and tantrums scattered throughout. It was an interesting summer.

 

How the WIRED summer went

After our fellowship was done, we were all flown back to D.C., and we had a “poster fair”. All of us fellows who had been placed at newsrooms pasted and arranged our articles on posters, and then we had some very nice and supportive guests tell us what a good job we had all done.

My poster:

IMG_20180820_113702

And then all of us fellows spent the rest of the two-day “wrap-up” sessions joking, giggling, eating, and having each other’s back. It was great.

Now that it’s all done, here in no particular order are the stand-out moments as a AAAS media fellow:

1. We gave each other certificates for “superlative awards” (like what you do in high school year books), and one of the fellows brought along her childhood sticker collection to decorate the certificates with. They came out looking glittery and glamorous!

2. I got to email, call, and interview people at the Sweden UN office. I also talked to someone at the Swedish consulate.

3. And I got to interview the presenters of an Arabic science show that I’ve watched for years!

4. Seeing my name on the WIRED home page, my name coupled with the article I wrote. It never got old

5. Biking across the Golden Gate bridge.

6. Writing my favorite article of all, which was full of good people, quiet, storied forests, and voices that are heard less often.

7. Writing about Sweden, Arabs, and North Carolina (in three separate articles)

8. The apartment I sublet in Berkeley, with the attic bedroom where you can climb out the window onto the roof, and sit and read in the sunshine

9. The Ghirardelli ice cream store right by my train stop

10. Emailing most any scientist, activist, or natural resource worker and having them be eager to get back to me and be interviewed by me (though this did not extend to government people, especially in Maryland)

Ninth piece for WIRED

This was an article about an Arabic science show I’d had my heart set on writing, but when I talked to my editor about it, she seemed a little skeptical. But somehow during my last week, I did the research to convince her otherwise, connected with whom I needed to connect, interviewed who I need to interviewed, and wrote it up and got through edits.

I thought this would be the pinnacle of my WIRED-writing career – a wonderful way to sign off. But I honestly can’t stand how the article came out. I was really really sick the last day when it was being edited. So I couldn’t push back the way I normally would have. And the whole article just has this really gross, slickly oily feel that is ridiculous.

I had interviewed an Icelandic man who had been featured on this Arabic technology show. And I was so so excited that I would be writing an article about both Arabs and almost-Scandinavia, all in the same article. But then, during the editing, they took it all out 😦 I was so mad – except I was so sick I honestly couldn’t even get up the energy to be mad.

So here is my guillotined, mutilated, and sickly-fakely article, trying to be all glamorous but really glamor-less.

Eighth piece for WIRED

I wrote about a meteor camera network that NASA uses to track fireballs through the heavens. Those cameras will see lots of meteors on the night of the Perseid showers. It was a quick story, and what I liked was I got to interview people from North Carolina. I was looking at the map of the camera networks, and I noticed a dot placed in my own state. I found out that dot is hosted by PARI, or Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute. I got to call them and talk to them, and I was really happy that North Carolina could be part of my WIRED adventure.

 

My favorite article for WIRED

My favorite article I wrote was about a group of American Indians called Karuk who live in North California. I liked this piece so much because it was like interviewing hero after hero. Not flashy heroes, just really good, dependable, wonderful heroes. Everyone had done so much reaching across aisles, and doing what was needed so people could trust each other.

Native tribes are taking fire control into their own hands

I first found an article about the Karuk and their forests on a government website (actually, not just the Karuk, but also the Yurok and Hupa people, all of whom historically lived as neighboring people in the forests and along the rivers). It mentioned someone named Bill Tripp, and I don’t remember quite how, but I eventually found an email of his. Then I found a Karuk newsletter, and articles about fire control in it mentioned Vikki Preston. I searched and found her email, too. They both got back to me pretty quickly, and were so nice to talk to. Bill Tripp I spoke to three or four times and two of those times it was for over an hour. When I first talked to him, I couldn’t tell how enthused he was, because he talks very slowly, and also in a kind of reserved voice. But he was very patient with me, and answered all my questions over and over.

Both Bill and Vikki mentioned other people that I could talk to, so I did that. The trickiest part was when I had to try to get in touch with the Forestry Service. That’s a federal agency, so you have to first find the district office you’re looking for; and then try to find the press contacts on that website. You email them, but they can’t get back to you right away, they first have to get approval for the interview with their Washington DC headquarters.

I thought, oh, great, but it didn’t end up taking too long, after all. I think they got the approval the next day (a Thursday or Friday), and we scheduled the interview for Monday. So that was how I came to talk to Nolan Colegrove. I didn’t end up using quotes from him, but I just had to make sure that all the different stories from the different parties were aligning.

Well, while talking to Bill Tripp, Will Harling, and some other people, they kept mentioning the name of Randy Moore, who is like the head supervisor at the Forestry office in Northern California. He’s the one who, soon after he joined the office around 2009, at a time when everyone was mad at each other, hired two Hupa members to the Forestry Service office. That single act helped to bring down a lot of the mistrust that the American Indians had of the Forestry Service. Now, you know that most people in his position wouldn’t have bothered to try to to do that, wouldn’t have cared – would likely even have thought it was his role to keep the Forest Service lording it over everyone else. Randy Moore seemed special, and I wanted to talk to him.

But I couldn’t find his email online, at all; and he is not part of the office where my interview request was going through, he’s in the office over that one. So I feared I might have to get additional approval. But I decided to try anyways. I noticed that all the forestry people’s emails go something like this: firstname.lastname@forests.gov, or something like that (I don’t remember the exact configuration). I put Randy Moore’s names into the correct spots, sent him an email, and he emailed back just a few hours later, I think! And he didn’t mention anything about needing an approval process. We set up the interview either for the same day or the next day, and I spoke to him before I ever spoke to Nolan Colegrove. It was a great interview. Randy Moore seemed like such a high-quality, high-class person, and it really is an honor to get to have spoken to him. And that was how I got the backstory of how he came to hire two American Indians to his team.

Everyone in the story that I talked to was like that – big-hearted, hard-working, patient, and kind. And after I wrote it, there were hardly any edits!! And I loved the descriptions of the beautiful forest. It was just a nice story in every way, and I kind of can’t believe that I got to write it!

Interviewing Arabs

It’s my last few days here, and I’m interviewing Arabs.

I’d had the idea for a while – to write a story about a science and technology show that airs on the BBC Arabic. It’s called 4 Tech, and I’ve watched it a whole bunch, and I think I probably blogged about it some, back when I was religiously keeping up with the Arabic news. But when I first mentioned it to my editor a few weeks ago, she asked: so is this the only show of its kind in the Arab world? What’s the broader context? Hmmm … I had no idea.

This week, while scrambling to try to find one last topic to write about, 4 Tech came back to mind and wouldn’t budge out. I contacted the single online email I could find for one of the presenters; and then I contacted a few scientists in Iceland whom they’d had on the show; and a bunch of professors who specialize in monitoring Arabic TV. I did it all sort of mechanically, just so I could tell myself I’d given it my best shot. I didn’t expect everyone to get back to me quickly enough so I could pull off all the interviews I needed, and then do the writing/editing/fact-checking, all by the end of the week.

Looks like I’m going to make it, though! Hopefully. By some weird magic, the 4 Tech people got back to me Tuesday early morning, after I’d emailed them Monday afternoon. They’re in London, and like 8 hours ahead of me in California, but they said they’d all three be available to talk at 7:30 pm London time, 11:30 pm California time. Now, this availability to talk immediately never happens – and definitely doesn’t happen when you’re trying to interview 3 people at once. And two of the people in Iceland got back to me, too. And I interviewed all the media experts today, and wrote up the article.

Things have been moving too quickly for me to take it in, but interviewing the 4 Tech people is really special to me. I’m not one to be interested in science and technology shows in the least. But I liked this one a lot! It’s so upbeat. And they’re always showing things that I didn’t expect – not just gadgets or stuff from the most famous universities. Like 2 years ago, I watched them do an episode in Ghana. I was really tickled, because my hero Mr. A is from Ghana. Well, yesterday I got to ask them all about it. And I got insight into another episode I’d really liked, which had focused on technology making life in Syrian refugee camps easier. And I finally got to the bottom of how they managed to seamlessly ask their scientist guest a question in Arabic, which the guest answers directly in English, without cutting the camera or anything.

Dalia is the female presenter. I always liked watching her especially – she’s been kind of like a role model/character study to me! She’s so approachable and friendly, but also confident and focused, on the show, and I loved to wonder about her. I never ever could have thought that I’d be interviewing her. Though when I first heard her voice through the Skype call, I didn’t gush, or even have the inclination to gush; or even realize that gushing was one of my options. I just sailed in with the interview, being all cool and calm. It doesn’t seem right, because I know a part of me should have been gushing.

This has been my second unexpected surprise, I-can’t-believe-I’m-interviewing-these-people experience while at WIRED. The first was when I interviewed people at the Swedish UN office. I’ve been spamming them (lovingly) on Twitter for a long time, and I couldn’t believe I had a sure-fire, valid excuse to contact their media department and bother them some more. I never, ever could have dared to hope that I’d stumble upon a story idea that would give me such an excuse. Which is just as well, because when I hope for things about Sweden, they never happen. But same thing with 4 Tech, interviewing Sweden UN was just too wonderful of a thing for me to really grasp it. It should have been such a sweet and giddy moment. But it wasn’t. I’m all strict business over here, it appears.