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ScienceOnline Interviews: Jessica Morrison, Science Journalist and Crystallographer

Last year, I crowd-funded my attendance to ScienceOnline2012, an un-conference for people communicating about– and doing– science on the internet. In exchange, I offered to interview one attendee for every $100 I raised. In the lead-up to ScienceOnline2013, I’ll be sharing those interviews. Based on feedback from Twitter, I decided to interview student attendees in the sciences.

My third interviewee, Jessica Morrison, is wrapping up her PhD in Civil Engineering and Geological Sciences at the University of Notre Dame, while ramping up a career in science journalism. A woman of many talents, she shares her passions at ihearttheroad.com and recently started blogging for Figure One. She heads to the Charlotte Observer as a Kaiser Health intern in June. You can also follow Jessica on Twitter (@ihearttheroad).

Morrison_Jessica1) You started off as a geology student, but are ending up pursuing a career in science communication. How did this happen? Can you tell me a little about the path you took?

I actually started off as a journalism student! I had very little interest in science as a child and into adolescence. I took all the advanced math and science classes in high school, but I filled my schedule with as many extra literature, history, writing and art classes as possible. It was only in my second semester of college that I discovered geology for the first time and decided to switch majors. Why? Why would I make such a drastic switch? Well, it was simple. I was in college, and I wasn’t thinking about ever getting a job, and the geologists went on field trips. <shrugs> Seemed like a good idea at the time, and I still love to travel more than anything.

2) What advice do you have for first-time attendees of ScienceOnline2013?

If you have time, figure out who you want to talk to now. Take a few hours, read their stuff and reach out on Twitter. I didn’t do any of these things the first time, but I should have.

3) There have been several scientist-versus-science communicator debates in the last couple of years (to grossly oversimplify the two categories). As someone who straddles both worlds, what do you think is a promising way forward for improving science communication and outreach?

Wow. This is tough, and I hardly feel qualified to offer a way forward, but communication is obviously key. As a scientist moving into journalism, I haven’t had any less-than-desirable interactions with the scientists that I’ve interviewed. I’ve mostly found them to be very open to the process, and I haven’t been in a situation where someone asked for an article in advance. In most cases, I don’t announce that I’m a scientist, too. I did, however, once jump in to save an organic chemist who was trying to explain chirality — thought maybe I should let her know I’m a crystallographer.

4) What is the most important skill you picked up as a scientist that will help you as a science communicator? Vice-versa?

Becoming a scientist has meant learning what it means to be in academia. As a first generation student, I think that having the experience of working in science directly has really given me a chance to see what it’s like on the other side. I’m not intimidated by scientists. I’m not afraid to call or email to request an interview or ask questions if I don’t understand something. Being a journalism student and then a scientist and now a journalist has changed the way that I ask questions. I never, EVER worry about sounding stupid. I do my homework diligently before interviews, but I also try to keep the conversation loose enough to get the good stuff. :)

5) Who are your #scicomm mentors? What writers do you look up to?

Steve Silberman was the first science writer I followed on Twitter. He was the first person from Twitter who I met offline, and he was the first person that I said out-loud to that I might want to be a science writer. Bora gave me a chance to write for the Guest Blog [at Scientific American] and talked to me on the phone when I had a scicomm idea that I never followed through with and promoted my work at every turn. I haven’t had a chance to be mentored by Deborah Blum, but I absolutely love everything about her — especially the creepy parts. Maggie KB is the best thing ever. She let me follow her around like a puppy at my first AAAS meeting. She introduced me to all her BAMFing friends and shared a room and tons of advice with me at NASW. If she’ll have me, I’d call her my mentor. John Timmer sat me down at AAAS and taught me how to plan my attack. He’s also been a great source of advice when I’ve asked for it. Deborah Shelton at the Chicago Tribune made my fellowship experience extraordinary. She had lunch with me almost every day, shared her sources, shared her stories, shared her city and helped me on my way to my next newspaper gig. David Dobbs is a fantastic writer, and he makes me want to be a for-reals journalist more than anyone else. Speaking of for-reals journalists, Michael Hawthorne is pretty cool, too. Although I didn’t get to spend as much time getting to know him at the Trib as I would have liked, I will never forget how loud he cursed while I was on the phone with sources or the time we had our lunch interrupted by an enterprising brewery friend. David Biello, Christopher Mims, Alex Witze…

I am nothing without the people who’ve given me a chance.

6) What’s the twitter-version of your dissertation research?

Actinides are the radioactive elements on the bottom row of the periodic table. I grow radioactive crystals & study their atomic properties.

7) What’s one stereotype of scientists or science communicators (or both) that you’d like to see eradicated?

Scientists can’t communicate. Science communicators can’t do science. I can do both, bishes. And I’m not alone.

8) Would you rather time travel to the past, or the future? When? Why?

The future. I want to go to Mars. I never had any interest in going to the Moon, but Mars blows my mind. I want to go there. [Blogger's note: Having just finished Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson, I want to go to Mars, also. Make it so, NASA.]

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Jacquelyn Gill

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