SIAM News Blog

Communicating Science as a Mass Media Fellow

By Anna Lieb

Anna Lieb as a Mass Media Fellow for NOVA Next, the website of PBS NOVA. Photo credit: Tim De Chant.
As an applied mathematics Ph.D. candidate, it is not inconceivable that I would need to learn about one of the following: the hydrology of dam removal, the algorithms behind computer-generated surrealist art, the subtleties of friction at small scales, or the population dynamics of sex-reversed lizards. But during the summer of 2015, as a SIAM-sponsored AAAS Mass Media Fellow, I had the remarkable opportunity to explore all of these subjects and more by spending 10 weeks writing features and news stories for NOVA Next, the website of PBS NOVA.

The AAAS Mass Media Science & Engineering Fellows program places students in science, engineering, and mathematics at science desks in media outlets around the country. The program seeks to foster stronger communication skills among scientists and promote public understanding of science. I am quite keen on both of these things, and for the past three years have spent much of my free time writing and editing for the Berkeley Science Review, a University of California, Berkeley publication with similar goals. I was therefore delighted at the prospect of working with and learning from professional science writers and editors as a Mass Media Fellow.

On my first day at NOVA Next, I arrived a touch disheveled after unwittingly biking through half of Boston. My editor got me started writing immediately. I covered advances in ecology, physics, medicine, computer science, and astronomy, among other topics. One day I’d be chatting with a physicist about how to make graphene; the next I’d be traipsing through a field to get a look at the oldest dam in the US. I enjoyed seeing numerous facets of scientific research and exploring how they related to history, economics, and policy. I had cause to call up to all sorts of fascinating people and request a conversation—and they were usually happy to oblige. I spoke with dozens of scientists, the Director of the California Academy of Sciences, and even the Deputy Secretary of the Department of the Interior.

In an article entitled "Friction Fighters," Lieb discussed the subtleties of friction and the fact that even the smoothest surfaces resemble mountain ranges up close. Photo credit: John Town/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND).
Covering these diverse subjects solidified my conviction that effectively presenting scientific information to the general public is a challenging and intriguing endeavor in its own right. Writing for popular audiences is not simply a matter of “dumbing down” complex material. Distilling the key ideas in a scientific finding—and reporting them without the crutches of equations or jargon—is no small task. My training in applied mathematics complicates my efforts as a writer; due to many years of coursework and research, my vernacular and frame of reference contain elements that are quite foreign to most people. For example, when covering the science of friction at small scales, I nonchalantly explained that the ratio of atomic spacings in two different surfaces was an irrational number. My editor pointed out that many NOVA readers would not immediately know what the term “irrational number” meant, even if they were actually familiar with some irrational numbers like \(\pi\). I extended my description and added a visual representation, making the article more readable and thus more accessible.

I learned to step outside of my own experience in order to see the broader appeal in a scientific story. In that regard, my colleagues were especially helpful. I was just around the corner from the office of the “Gross Science” team, whose entire job consisted of digging up disgusting (but also fascinating) scientific topics and making short videos. These folks, and the rest of the NOVA Next team, helped me understand how to present a story in a way that was compelling or humorous without sacrificing accuracy. For example, when I struggled to come up with titles, my editor reminded me that titles are “promos, not promises.”

In Lieb's first feature, an article about sustainably-sourced palm oil, she reported on extensive mangrove forests in the Sundarbans (pictured above) that protect the region from coastal flooding. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.
I did sneak some math into my writing – for example, in my first feature I used published findings to calculate the average number of long-tailed macaques a consumer would save if he/she paid a 60-cent premium for sustainably-sourced palm oil (spoiler alert: it’s on the order 10-6 macaques for every 500 mL of oil). The piece contained a link to an iPython notebook that tabulated the assumptions and ran the numbers, an addition some readers thoroughly enjoyed. I found that although general audiences may approach mathematics with some hesitation, well-chosen numbers provided compelling details that made a story really stand out. I kept this in mind while writing my piece on the science of dam removal, where I illustrated the distribution of US dams with both numbers and interactive maps.

My summer as an AAAS Fellow taught me how to vary my writing from the crisp, energetic tone of a reporter to the more musing style of an essayist. I learned to size up my audience and offer them engaging material as compensation for the time they devoted to reading my words. Writing is actually an important component of applied mathematics, whether we’re communicating results to peers or applying for grants. The opportunity to focus on writing will thus prove very useful within the context of my field, and likely the fields of other scientists. I’m also coming back to my Ph.D. program with a new appreciation for the importance—and challenge—of compellingly communicating science and mathematics to the general public.

If you are a student (undergraduate or graduate) and any of this piques your interest, I encourage you to apply to be a Mass Media Fellow in 2016. Applications are due January 15th.

Anna Lieb is a fifth-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley. She is interested in fluid mechanics, numerical methods, optimization, and applications, and works on modeling urban water distribution under intermittent supply.

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