So you got a AAAS fellowship. What’s next?

A follow-up to: My best tips for your AAAS Mass Media Fellowship application.

If you got it, congratulations! If you didn’t, you know what? Screw everything. Life sucks. I’ve definitely been in the same boat with other fellowships.

But any case! Here’s my top ten list of things you should know as you prepare for your summer:

1. The airplane ticket situation at AAAS is TERRIBLE!

Take heed. Getting your airplane tickets for your placement will be the first order of business, so it’s the first thing on this list, too. When they contacted me about getting the fellowship, they asked me if I wanted them to take care of buying the airplane tickets first to Washington DC (for orientation) and then to San Francisco (for the fellowship). My other option was to arrange flights myself, pay for everything, and then get reimbursed. Well, I didn’t want to have to deal with extra responsibility, so I told them to handle it. They picked out my flights, sent them to me to check over, and like an idiot, I agreed.

My flights sucked. Liked sucked so much. I had the worst flights out of everyone in the whole group. First, I was already at a disadvantage because along with the rest of the fellows placed in California, we had the greatest distance to travel. Now, as this is just a consequence of geography, I didn’t really care that much — at first. Because of the way my flights were set up, I actually had to leave the last day of orientation a few hours early. Again, this was a bummer, but again, geography — what can you do? So on the last day of orientation, I found the other person who had been placed in San Francisco. I figured that we would probably be on the same exact flights out. I told her: isn’t it too bad that we have to miss part of orientation, and do you want to take the metro together to the airport? That’s when I found out that she — although headed to San Francisco as well — was in no danger of missing any part of orientation. Not at all. Instead, she had been given a direct flight out. She not only was going to depart from Washington D.C. after me, she was also going to arrive in San Francisco before me. That’s when I got really mad. I was like just completely screwed over for no reason. If she got a direct flight, why didn’t I?

The answer I got from the program director, who really didn’t like me from before she ever met me for some reason, was that airplane tickets were purchased as fellows were placed. The placement process is an on-going thing, and it’s based on — I guess — how quickly any given editor makes their choices about what fellow they want. Apparently, when I was placed, the cheapest flights sucked, and when the other person going to San Francisco was placed, the cheap flights were far more favorable. That or the program director (who’s no longer working there, so don’t worry about it) wanted to make me miserable. And yes, I was miserable. Not only did I miss the last part of orientation; not only did I have like a 10-hour trip across the country; but then I also got to San Francisco super late at night. And to top it all off, after spending like an hour extra on the public transportation to get to my apartment in Berkeley, I ended up at a train station that was still a few miles from my final destination. It was close to midnight. I was hungry, had heavy bags, was super tired, and in a place I’d never been before. I took a taxi to cover the last bit of distance, and that taxi driver was a big jerk.

Same thing, by the way, happened on my way back from San Francisco going to the wrap-up in Washington D.C. Again, I had to leave super early; and I arrived super late. And the other person in San Francisco, her trip back east only lasted about half as long as mine. And I completely missed all the first night of wrap-up activities. I was like the only one who missed it all.

So key advice: no, don’t accept the stupid flights that they give you. Yes, do insist on direct flights. Yes, you are getting screwed over on your flights when someone else is not. Yes, make a big fuss and argue with them about it.

2. Do what your editor tells you to do … or not?

During our wrap-up in August, 2018, one of the speakers asked us, “so of course, if your editor assigned you a story, none of you turned it down … ” and every one nodded sagely, while I thought, oh, darn it. Because of course I had done just that. This is something very touch-and-go, of course. Every editor is different. My editor at WIRED was a little chill and didn’t micromanage or dictate over my head too much, so we had a certain hands-off dynamic between us. And furthermore … you don’t want to be part of the further erosion of power in the American labor force, do you? You’re getting paid $500 a week (at least, we were) and you’re basically free labor for WIRED or wherever … the media company isn’t paying you, your sponsor is paying you. So there is really no cause to bow down to every command from your editor too, too much.

3. Really, should you suck up that much?

I mean, you don’t want to wreck your reputation. Some of us (not me!) got jobs and stuff at the same media organization or another one shortly after completing the fellowship. But just think of it this way … you might spend all your time sucking up to your editor and the other hot-shot writers around you and you still might not get any job. So wouldn’t you rather leave with your dignity in tact? All I’m saying is, don’t go in there breathlessly in awe and anxious to please.

4. Maintain a healthy work-life balance.

This is obviously up to you, but in my opinion, and you can see it is in line with my previous notes, you don’t need to make this as stressful as writing your dissertation. Work your 40-hours — oh, I stayed a bit later now and then when I wanted to finish something up — but again, you’re getting paid for 40 hours a week. And when you apply for jobs afterwards [**at least, the kinds of jobs I applied to, which were mostly science communication jobs at universities or organizations ***], they are going to ask you for THREE writing samples max. They’re not going to ask for 10 or 20 writing samples. Often, they might just ask for one or two. So just get a few good stories out there. Don’t break your back working 60 or 80 hours a week. First of all, you’re not getting paid enough, second of all, do you really want to be free labor for anyone, third of all, do you really want to further diminish the power of the American worker? NO! Leave at a proper hour and enjoy the city you’re getting to live in! Enjoy your life! My editor was pretty good about this. Once I did stay really late and come in early to finish an article on a deadline, so she gave me a free afternoon the next day. If your editor is not like that, honestly … forget that editor. They have no right to demand even more free labor from you.

5. The people at AAAS are not deities upon whose every word you should hang.

AAAS publishes ‘Science’, the top-tier journal. We got to meet and endure long presentations by some of the people in charge. They had just come off of a big lapse in judgement for an op-ed they had published. The op-ed maybe had a good point hidden in it somewhere, but it was not very well written, so it came across as jealousy. Wouldn’t a good editor have caught that and stopped it from being published? Well, the AAAS editors did not, I think because they’re mostly male. And the reason I think that especially is because one of the people in charge, while he was giving us a four-hour-long lecture that I’m sure he was very proud of, said something very off-color and gender-biased. I called him out on it (yes, I did, because as I say, AAAS people are not deities whom you should suck up to), and he still DIDN’T GET IT!! In fact, he relentlessly kept making the same joke on and on, just to really drive it in. Big surprise, honestly, coming from people who published this.

6. Don’t expect your news room to enclose you in a big hug.

Some news rooms did do that. Mine did not. I mean, every one was very nice, and bent over to make my experience fulfilling … like my editor who let me write stories I had pitched and cared about … or the guy from the artwork department who let me fulfill my dream of making 3D imagery to go along with my article … or the established science writer who let me bore her one lunch as I asked her questions. So in all the important ways, I was supported. But in the meantime, over on Slack, I was reading about the experiences of other fellows, and they were all like [okay, not all, but it felt like that] “OMG! I was thrown a big surprise party today!” and “OMG! I got taken out for lunch and ice cream.” Etc etc. When we all re-congregated in D.C. for the wrap-up, we were talking and those of us who’d gotten no parties or ice cream commiserated together. So see, it’s not you. It’s just that particular news room.

7. National newsroom, or local paper? Well …

They will tell you that all the sites are equal, blah blah blah. But let’s face it, when you get placed at NPR, or the Washington Post, there’s an extra ‘WOW’ factor in place. Let’s just say that out-loud so we can get past it. It comes out in some really snooty ways. Like for example … some hot-shot someone-or-other was a speaker at our Wrap-Up. And later he tweeted a thread about “check out the cool articles the MMFellows wrote this summer!” Well, all the ones he tweeted were from the Post, NPR, PBS NewsHour, etc … all the well-known, national places. Forget him.

8. You’re new to this, not a professional; so don’t let anyone stress you out.

I know there’s always the profile out there of some person who, with no experience at all, shows up and does everything better than all the people already working there, and comes with great insight and great energy, etc etc. Well. If you’re that person, great. But the majority of us should accept that we are not. You are going into a professional newsroom, and you’ve probably never worked in one before. Don’t put pressure on yourself to “know everything” and to appear polished and well-experienced and like you’re going to hit the ground running. Obviously, also don’t go around telling everyone, “OMG! I don’t know what I’m doing!” Just use whatever gumption you can summon to get you through, but also be honest about what you think you can handle, and what you need help with.

9. Forget about everyone else.

Some people published 20 or 30 articles during their summer. I published 8. That was one of the lowest numbers. But I was super happy with that, because they were eight articles that I cared a lot about, and I’m proud of them. So proud, I encourage you to find my favorites and read them! Yes, there was a bit of time during the middle of the summer when I still only had 3 or 4 articles and the edits on my next article were so slow in coming, and every time they came back there were more problems I needed to address, and I thought, I’ll never get another article published! And there were so many other topics I wanted to move on to… eventually, I did! Literally, this is a case of “you do you”. If you want to publish a lot of articles, then do that. But don’t do it just because you’re trying to keep up with some threshold. If you feel bad, just remember I published 8. Compare yourself to me.

10. Are you the oldest fellow of your cohort? Don’t worry!

I was either the oldest or one of the oldest. And yes, going into it, I did feel like I would be out of place, or feel behind everyone .. but as soon as I got to DC, all those feelings melted away. Everyone was super nice and welcoming and no one worried about comparing age. And maybe even because I was older, I wasn’t as willing to sacrifice every single minute of the summer to this fellowship and this fellowship only.

11. Last but not least, AAAS MM Fellows are the sweetest …

I can be quiet and reserved, but pretty much everyone in my cohort acted like I was their best friend anyways. Especially by wrap-up, when we’d all congregated back in D.C. again (when I FINALLY made it there — see point #1 above). They were all so lovely, and I have very nice, warm memories of how included and cared-about everyone made me feel.

(This is a follow-on article from My best tips for your AAAS Mass Media Fellowship application.)




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:
Fossils that slumber in the mountains and the mud:
The Women of Bonn:
Arctic tales of icy trails:
The making of Mr. Turtle:
A trip to World Water Week:
An EcoPark in Jordan:
Curie and Brontë as 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:


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:, 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.


Fifth article for WIRED

I published 3 articles within 8 days! But there are two extra weeks you should count at the beginning when I was working on them and didn’t publish anything.

One was about air pollution in a mostly Black neighborhood in Maryland. Oh yeah, I mentioned that here before. It’s the one I did the GIS analysis for.

Click here to read it. I was super excited to write this story because I felt I was being very noble in helping people who very rarely get their voices heard in the national media. [You see, my motives are not exactly altruistic, rather self-flattery.] I wanted to do a story that brings out the fact that we don’t seem to care if we place all the polluting factories where Black or other minority children will get sick with asthma or other diseases.

wired article 5 image

For this article, I also got artwork credit. I made the smoke coming out of the smokestacks in Blender. I think I will always be a little pleased to think that I got to make some real actual published and credited 3D art. It took me hours of plodding through a “quick smoke” tutorial, and 16 rounds of edits and modifications to the smoke before I was done with it. But the art department was very happy.

After the article got published, two of the people I interviewed emailed back to say they liked it a lot; the third did not. S/he pointed out something I wrote at the very beginning as being very offensive, and declared that s/he didn’t read past that point, and s/he’s always disappointed by journalists!

Years ago, an email like that would have sent me into a tailspin. I would have been both incredibly angry at the person; and also beating myself up for having done something that could cause such offense. Perhaps I might have thought: I will never bother to help you again! You just enjoy yourself with the polluting factories! Clearly, you don’t want my help! All followed by a grim determination to do something so good, that the offended party would hear of it and realize they had totally misunderstood!

I felt all that this time, too – obviously, I’m writing a whole blog post about it. But the feelings were more subdued. I wasn’t in utter despair at myself; I was more annoyed like at a mosquito bite.

I checked back through my notes, and decided I hadn’t done anything wrong, I had written the truth. But .. and here was another truth … I could very well have worded things in a way that would have satisfied the truth to the other person. That I neglected to do so was of course not maliciously done or anything. But that neglect came at the cost of something incredibly important to that person.

So something that does feel like a personal disappointment is: I usually pride myself on being sensitive to other people’s wishes. It is a personal disappointment to know that I am so far removed from the atmosphere and life of the person who wrote me so as to not notice or take care of something important to them. I dismissed their anger with a roll of my eyes, and cheapened their offense by likening it to a mosquito bite.

So despite the noble smirks I was giving myself, and the GIS fact-checking, and my Blender3D artwork, I feel pretty flat about this article.

Making maps

I had to verify a fact for my article I’m working on now. It’s about a bunch of polluting power plants being built in a neighborhood in Maryland where mostly Black people live. Having lived in Maryland, I can tell you that this is exactly the sort of thing that Maryland would do.

What the community activists told me was: there is no other place in the United States where you have 3 natural-gas power plants of that size within 2.9 miles of each other. So of course, I wanted to include that in the article, it’s a pretty powerful statistic.

But, no one could show me any report that backed it up.

All I got was a fact-sheet prepared by the non-profit Earthjustice. That fact-sheet said: after all 3 power plants are built, Brandywine will have more power-generating capacity than 99.9% of the country.

This was, first, a more confusing statistic – a lot less clean – compared to the first version. Second, I didn’t have any idea how they’d come up with that figure.

So, I got out my own nifty mapping and GIS skills. I felt so smart!! I have done GIS stuff for 10 years; and the particular program that I used, Google Earth Engine, I used almost every day for the last 2 years of my Ph.D. work. But I haven’t really touched it since I graduated in May. When I pulled it open, I kind of just stared at the screen. I couldn’t remember how to do anything. And it’s only been two months!

But soon I was coding up a storm:

power plant map code

I found a big spreadsheet from the EPA that lists all the power plants in the US. Somehow, I managed to upload that in Earth Engine. Then, I found a shapefile (computer map) of Maryland. Then, I was able to search through the giant EPA spreadsheet, and first pull out only the power plants in Maryland, then only the large ones, then only the fossil fuel-powered ones. It was super great! I’d forgotten I could do all that in Earth Engine, so it was like getting surprise presents one after the other.

Then my script crashed. So I had to redo everything, and I made sure to express my anger in the new script title.

Then, I mapped it all:

power plant map

The black dots are the power plants with a capacity of over 200 megawatts, of all fuel types. There’s one place that has two such plants, by Riviera Beach (the blob south of Baltimore). And the string of 3 black dots, with the red line over them, are the three power plants set to be running in Brandywine by next year.

So the statistic I was able to safely use in the article is: there is no other community in Maryland that will have as many large power plants as Brandywine. It would have been nice to go further and see if this was true for the whole US, but I didn’t have time to visually examine the map; or alternatively, I wasn’t sure how to get Earth Engine to do those calculations for me.

But any case, I’m really happy I was able to do this little bit. And it was worth it for sure to give the article a stronger backing.