Posts Tagged ‘science writing’


life goals: ACHIEVED.

November 9, 2011

Well, okay, not really, but y’know.

Last night, a NY Times writer and award-winning author and blogger added me on Google+.  Now I just need to actually use that profile for something.  And, well, yeah, write something ever again.  The good thing about being employed?  I get a paycheck and insurance.  The bad thing about being employed?  I don’t have much time to write.

But for now, I can just be star-struck.  It’s kind of like being added by Lady Gaga.


confidence, you elusive thing you

October 21, 2011

You know how sometimes you’re absolutely and utterly terrified of doing something, because you don’t know what you’re doing and you’re afraid you’ll get completely shot down by your peers and/or superiors?  And you put it off and put it off and keep putting it off until it’s not just terrifying, but seems like the scariest single thing in your life?

Okay, maybe it’s just me.

But then you actually just grit your teeth and look away and hit “SEND” on the email doing this scary thing?  And you sweat and sweat and sweat …

… until the answer comes back: “Yes!  Please!  Do write lots and lots for us and we will pay you money!  We love you and miss you and want your byline in our paper!  I’ve attached a contract so we’ll be ready to go!”

Yeah, so now I feel silly.  But mostly just awesome.

I was absolutely terrified of trying to get my bearings as a freelance and putting myself out there for the first time, but some excellent advice I got from one of the ex-staff writers at the regional paper combined with the confidence boost of having people welcome me wholeheartedly at a writing conference made me finally just suck it up and do it.  And now I’m feeling pretty glad I did.

It’s been a good week.  Except I’m getting sick and the start date for my new job got pushed back again, but other than that, a good week.


the coolest thing about being a journalist

July 21, 2011

I have a reporter superpower.  It’s called “the phone.”

It’s amazing.  These days, if I have a question, I can just look up an expert and call them.  BAM.  Done.  Instant answers.

Or, well, voicemail, voicemail, email, BAM.  Done.  Almost instant answers.

Case in point: my fun allergy situation the other night.  I think I’ve tracked it down, and actually it makes a funny reporting anecdote if I’m right (and my doc thinks I am), so I’m writing a column about it for the paper.  This means that I have full license to wave around my press credentials to get access to world experts … who I then will ask about the science behind an allergy that I (am pretty sure I) have.

This is awesome.


all grown up

June 15, 2011

Hi internet!  I’m back!  After a whirlwind month in which I’ve slept in beds in five different states and one district (nine cities all told), I am settled and in one place again, roughly speaking.  I also started my summer gig on Monday.

You may eventually get accounts of road trips, moving, more moving, the farm, more moving, and then a crash course in journalism, plus lots of beer with old friends, but for now, you just get to hear about my job.  Which is awesome.

I’m working for a regional paper — it’s no NY Times, but it ain’t exactly the Bumfuck Weekly Herald either — and effectively, I am their science desk.  This isn’t so great for mentoring and such (I’m accumulating outside mentors), but it’s fantastic for learning to track down my own stories and be an independent reporter.  I’ve had a bit of the “how the hell did I get here?” feeling going on the first few days, though, because I pretty much skipped all the steps I feel like you’re “supposed to” go through.  Granted, I’ve read a lot about science reporting now, and got a 3-day crash-course from some of the best people (that was my visit to DC), but that’s not much in the way of training.

It’s been amazing to start working, though.  Everyone is thrilled to have a science reporter back at the paper, and all the local science press officers (there’s a whole ensemble of them, given the amount of research that goes on in this area) are practically salivating to send me things.  I felt incredibly valued and important to the paper before I even did anything.  And even better, I don’t feel pressured, since usually science doesn’t have the front-page, must-be-first news value that things like murder trials and congressional veto overrides do.  I love this job.

And today, I made the paper.  No idea where I am in the hardcopy (haven’t checked yet — I’m going in a bit later since I stayed a bit later last night seeing my brief little story through the editing process), except that it’s somewhere in the B (local) section.  It was a crazy experience to write my first little piece, turning the whole thing around in less than a day when the scientists I talked to worked on it for years.  Crazy, but fantastic.  I actually wanted to stay and work on it.

This is such a novel change from graduate school that I’m not really sure I’ve processed it yet.  Working furiously and staying late because I like what I’m working on?  Turning around something for publication in less than eight hours from start to finish?  Being able to learn about Parkinson’s disease one day, and about methane emissions the next?

I.  Love.  This.  Job.

P.S.  If you want to stalk my stories, just ask, and I’ll send you a link.  I got a link from the homepage today (yay!).




as good as it gets

April 11, 2011

I just got a phone call.  It was from the AAAS.  Apparently, someone wants me to be a science writer for them this summer, as part of the AAAS’s Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellows program.

This someone is my hometown newspaper.  The real one, not the cute quaint one.  This someone is also located 45 minutes from my parents, only 6 hours from where my partner will be living this summer, and 3 hours from my brother’s permanent duty station.  It puts me as close to all of these things as I could possibly hope to be out of all their fellowship assignments.  I also have a ton of folks I adore who are still in the area.

The only sad part is that it means I’ll be leaving Colorado for good this May (don’t worry, I’ll be back to visit … just not on a long-term basis).  That will be a very sad part indeed.  But, I would have been leaving eventually anyway, even had I gotten the Colorado fellowship assignment.  This just moves up that permanent departure date by a few months.

I’m pretty friggin’ happy right now.  A few days ago I got a master’s degree, and now I get to use it doing something I think I’ll love for the summer, while getting a chance to spend time with some of the people I love, too.

Happy April!  Hope yours rocks as much as mine does right now.


in which our heroine acts like a real writer

January 13, 2011

As a part of applying to the AAAS Mass Media Science Fellowship, I was required to write a 750-word news story about a technical journal article.   I had a blast doing it, and it was an interesting opportunity to tackle an article that made a splash in my field back in October, which I was especially keen to do since the media that picked it up did such an abysmal job with it.  After writing this, I definitely have a little more of an idea why scientists hate science journalism so much, and why it’s not 100% fair to science journalists to trash them for it.  To break complex research down in a limited amount of space, a writer has to leave a lot of information out, and some of it will no doubt be important information.  In the article below, I had to ditch a few concepts that are absolutely crucial, and it killed me to do it.

At any rate, at the end of this exercise, I was left with what I think is a decently well-written article about an important achievement in my field.  What’s a girl to do but share it with her loyal blog stalkers, many of whom would really like to hear more about my research (research related to it, in this case)?  With no further ado….

Solar energy breakthrough: two for the price of one

Solar technology is a cornerstone of our transition to renewable energy, but traditional solar cells can never be more than about 30% efficient. New solar innovations may one day break that limit, and now a team of researchers based at the University of Wyoming has demonstrated one way that it might be done.

All solar cells operate on the same basic principle: they convert energy from sunlight into electricity. By putting a little bit of light in, we get a little bit of electricity out. It turns out that “a little bit” has an exact meaning here: both light and electricity are “quantized,” meaning they only come in specific amounts, like packages at the store. In traditional solar cells, we can use one package of light – one photon – to buy one package of electricity – one electron. This price is what ultimately sets the upper limit of 30% efficiency.

One way researchers can beat that limit is to try to change the price, which means changing the material used. In strange materials known as “quantum dots,” electricity is buy one get one free: one photon of light can buy two electrons of electricity. Unfortunately, there’s a catch: there has never been a way to extract those electrons. We can get electrons for cheap, but we can only take advantage of the deal if we never leave the store with our purchase.

In a new study published in Science, a group led by Bruce Parkinson at the University of Wyoming has found a way to change that. His team has developed a quantum dot solar cell where one photon of light can produce two electrons of electricity, and for the first time, that electricity can be collected and used outside of the cell.

Their solar cell is radically different from the familiar rooftop devices we see today, which consist of a single slice of solar material – usually silicon – connected to metal electrical leads. Instead, Parkinson’s team uses a thin slice of titanium dioxide as an electrical contact, and applies only a thin coating of the solar material, lead sulfide quantum dots. Sunlight is absorbed and converted into electricity in the quantum dots, and the electricity is then extracted through the titanium dioxide.

This solar cell design is actually nothing new. Known as “sensitized solar cells,” these devices originally used a coating of molecular dye to convert sunlight to electricity. Because good solar materials tend to be expensive, a sensitized solar cell can reduce costs by using less material than a more traditional solar cell. They also require much less energy to produce, and can be manufactured into lightweight and flexible sheets.

One of the most attractive things of all about sensitized solar cells is that the design makes it possible to separate the jobs of converting sunlight and of conducting electricity. A traditional solar cell needs a material that is a good converter and a good conductor, and these two properties are almost always in conflict. A sensitized solar cell, however, can use one material to do the conversion, and a different material to do the conduction, taking advantage of the best properties of each.

The trick to making a good sensitized cell lies in building the connection between the converting material and the conducting material. The converting material does all the real work of the solar cell, but without a good connection to the conducting material, the generated electricity can’t go anywhere and will eventually dissipate as heat. This has long been the problem for quantum dot sensitized solar cells: quantum dots offered buy one get one free prices on electricity, but lacked a good connection to the conducting material, meaning none of that cheap electricity could leave the store.

Now, Parkinson’s team has discovered how to build a good connection between lead sulfide quantum dots and titanium dioxide contacts. Using a chemical called mercaptaprionic acid as a bridge, electrons in their solar cell can cross efficiently between the lead sulfide quantum dots where they are produced into the titanium dioxide where they are collected.

Unfortunately, despite the remarkable efficiency of the quantum dots themselves, other problems make these cells less efficient overall than traditional solar cells. Huge challenges remain before the technology can be scaled up for mass production, and quantum dot sensitized solar cells have a long road ahead before they can compete with traditional technology. Regardless, Parkinson’s team has taken an important first step.


sentences need verbs, yo

August 10, 2010

This is the first sentence of the abstract of the paper I just printed to read on the bus:

To get a real understanding on the complexity of origin and mechanism of visible emission for ZnO quantum dots (QDs), we systematically property of visible emission of ZnO QDs with tunable diameters in a range of 2.2−7.8 nm synthesized via a sol−gel route using self-made zinc−oleate complex as a precursor.

If this is the first sentence of your abstract, you have no business publishing in English.  None.  How does this shit get past review?  Don’t journals have editors working for them?