Astronomy Senior (Science Journalism Pre-Grad Intern) Sienna Irwin

Sienna IrwinOne fine day last spring, around the end of March, I very suddenly came to the realization that I did not want to become a research scientist. Ever. Seconds later, I had a second epiphany: all those classes and homework and research experiences and extracurriculars and everything astronomy or physics related that I had been pouring myself into for the past three years was now all moot. And it was a little late to think about changing my major if I wanted to finish school before the new decade hit. And so I began what psychologists are now calling a "quarter-life crisis." What on earth was I going to do with my life? What kind of career options are there for astrophysics degree holders who no longer want to do astrophysics? Had I just wasted three years of my life?!?

But wait. Calm down. I had a chat with another astronomy and physics friend of mine. After pouring out all the stress and anxiety my body could hold, he sighed, patted me on the shoulder, and asked, "Why don't you just write about science instead?"

And that was it. That was the answer. It struck me like lightning, but instead of shocking me, I felt that I was now safe because of the insulation this new idea provided me. It was perfect. When I applied to college, I was unsure whether I wanted to enter as an astronomy major or an English major. I high school I had gone to the UIL State competition three years in a row for Literary Criticism. I had been a voracious reader my entire life. As early as age four, I had thought about becoming a writer when I grew up, and had told teachers this very idea all throughout elementary and middle school. Now why hadn't I thought of this before? A combination of my two loves - science and writing. Brilliant.

Thanks to that wonderful friend, and the astronomy graduate coordinator who happened to know about the IE Pre-Grad Internship program, I now had a new plan. I was going to see if I could make it as a science journalist.

I had so many questions coming into this internship. Dave Garlock, my mentor, had worked on a few different magazines previously and was now teaching journalism at UT. The first time we met, he asked me what I wanted to know about journalism and how he could help. So from there, at each week's meeting, all I had to do was come prepared with a new topic or question about journalism and he would do his best to answer it. Considering both of our super-busy schedules - his as a professor and mine as a graduating senior - this informal arrangement worked well.

My first topic was graduate school. I had spent most of my undergrad years learning about what grad school in astronomy or physics would be like, and had at this point become about as much of an expert in the scientific graduate student experience as I could be without actually having experienced it. So now all my previous assumptions had to be reworked or thrown out entirely. Journalists did not do research in the sense of the word with which I was familiar. I learned that there's this thing called a professional Masters that, like any other professional degree, gets you a head start in the field. I did a little research on my own, and found two schools that specifically offer a science journalism program - MIT and Johns Hopkins. It had only taken me one morning of banging my head against a computer screen last summer to learn that news writing was definitely not for me; the only news I want to write about better have some heavy duty Latin or Greek jargon involved as well as plenty of mathematical equations that no one really understands. And I learned that whereas scientists are required to go to grad school before a research institute or university will even think of hiring them, journalism only cares if you write well and can get your stories in on time. I now know that graduate school for me is a smart choice but not an unspoken requirement, if I want to become a journalist. Good to know.

The next topic we tackled was journalistic style. After my brief news writing stint, I knew that I did not know what that is. So Dave went into a few generalities about how magazine writing tends to be on the informal, conversational side - much like this essay - and not to worry about it. He asked for some writing samples of mine, and I supplied him with an essay on the Australian Drover's Wife tradition, some random haikus I had written during finals one semester instead of studying, and the web address of my blog. He, in turn, supplied me with half a dozen book titles written by journalists turned novelists. And I, in turn, was no longer worried about having to change my writing style that I had taken these past two decades to develop. The greatest moment for me was when Dave skimmed through a few posts on my blog, and, chuckling at some humorous turn-of-phrase I had used, said that I could make it as a journalist, no problem. Coming from someone who has been out there, in the so-called journalistic trenches, and who had been trained to spot good writing at a glance, this was amazing praise of my writing style. I beamed all the way home that day.

Next question: how does one break into writing as a career? I had had a vague idea of submitting an article I'd written to some magazine editor, and somehow magically being published there. But now I know the real process. First, of course, is coming up with an idea for a story. Do a little research, choose an angle, write a hook. Have an outline in mind of how the rest of the article will pan out. Or write it all out ahead of time. Either way, most of the story should already be planned or written by the time you write the all-important query letter. (Dave fortunately handed me a packet of how-to's and do's and don'ts and all things query letter-related for my future reference.) More research is required before the query letter is written. This research entails finding a magazine to make the pitch to, making sure that they publish what you're writing about, and figuring out whom to send it to at that publication, or publications if you decide to cover a few other bases while you're out there. So. Query letter. Should contain why I'm qualified to write this article, why this article should be published, why the public should know about this stuff, and what exactly this stuff is that the public should know about. Send it. Wait. Send article if accepted. Get published, or get paid a cancellation fee. Done.

Along these same lines, Dave gave me an amazing book called Science Writing that tells about how other people broke into different fields of scientific journalism, from newspaper to TV to internet sites. I'm still working my way through it, but it's got some great information for someone like me who's just beginning to get their feet wet in the giant journalism pool. It's also very encouraging to learn that those now very successful folks became writers via very different paths and with very different backgrounds. So it's good to know there's no one right path and I can pretty much do what I think is best and probably still make a career of it.

The last thing I really wanted to get out of this internship was experience. I told Dave that if possible, I would really like to be published by the end of the semester. And we're still working on that. I'm currently in the process of researching and writing a thousand-word article on dark energy. Dark energy is makes up 70% of the universe and is the stuff responsible for the acceleration of the expansion of said universe, but which no one knows much else about. There are four scientists and professors here at UT who are working on fixing this, and I think folks should know about how cool their plan is. With the help of Dave and Rebecca Johnson over at StarDate magazine, I'm going to work up the article, send out a query letter to probably either Discover or Science magazine, and, fingers crossed, get published.

So despite the fact that I don't feel like it's been a very productive semester, I know I've learned a lot. I have a much better idea of where I want to go with my career now, I'm planning on going to graduate school in science journalism and I know that I'll make it through just fine. As far as making it as an honest-to-goodness science journalist, who knows. Like the physics community is currently excitedly awaiting news of the Higgs boson from CERN, I guess I'll just have to run a few experiments of my own and wait and see what happens.