Please tell us about yourself
Ferris Jabr is a writer and journalist currently based in New York City. He is enrolled at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, in the Master’s Program in Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting. He is also an intern at Scientific American Mind. Ferris has written for Nature Publishing Group’s Scientific American and other publications including Psychology Today, Popular Mechanics, and Environmental Health News.
An occasional blogger but more serious tweep, Ferris enjoys writing about a wide array of topics — from bugs, plants, and marine biology to neuroscience, dinosaurs, and evolution. Check out his website for a peek at his gorgeous travel photos and links to his online articles.
This weekend, Ferris was presented with the Society for Neuroscience’s Student Journalism Award, a prestigious honor which encourages the pursuit of a career in science or medical journalism. I spoke to Ferris some time before about why he does what he does, why he likes it, and what his advice is for us budding science writers.
How did you end up in an offbeat, unconventional and exciting career of a a science writer?
When I was younger, my father the physicist regularly entertained endless questions about how the world works, which my brothers and I flung toward him like boomerangs — we always had another question; he always had another answer (until, you know, we got to stuff like what happened before the Big Bang and why existence exists in the first place). Our house had a lot of books, too, and I took a strong liking to written language. In high school, my favorite subjects were Biology and English, hands down. I assumed I would pursue a career as a research biologist, but I soon realized that my mind was far more suited to learning about and explaining science, rather than designing ingenious experiments. I ended up double majoring in Psychology and English in college, working in a social psych lab, writing for the student newspaper, and completing a couple science media internships at Psychology Today magazine and the PBS show NOVA. When it came time to make postgraduation plans, I applied to several science journalism graduate programs because they seemed like the perfect way to combine my dual interests. That’s how I got to New York University.
What do you hope to achieve by writing about science?
I see science as one of the most effective ways to discover and explain how the world works (alongside art). And I see writing as one of the most effective means of communication. So, for me, science writing is an incredibly effective away to communicate how the world works. I also hope to write pieces that people enjoy reading. If I can write something that is pleasurable and makes someone think something they didn’t think before, then in my book I have succeeded.
Science journalism is seen as a tough profession to get into. Would you agree?
I think journalism is a tough profession, science journalism included. It’s tough in the sense that you’re not exactly going to stumble into your ideal job right away (unless you know the recipe for liquid luck). Lots of people want to write and there are only so many publications capable of paying their writers well. But journalism is certainly not the only profession with tough job competition. Compounding the competition factor is the revolution factor. Many people (a precise number, I know) agree that journalism’s business model is broken. As more and more publications move away from print towards the web, we cannot rely solely on advertisements for revenue. We need a new model. Journalism is a tumultuous field right now (although it’s kind of always been tumultuous). But the people of today are focused on the big changes happening now. Some people are losing their jobs. Others are seizing new opportunities. It’s exciting, it’s scary; it’s hard and it’s promising all at the same time.
I firmly believe, however, that we will always need people who can lucidly and entertainingly explain science to the public. Especially as science and technology increasingly influence society, politics, and people’s everyday lives. Exactly how science journalists will be doing this explaining, what media they will use, and how they will make money — well, many smart people are scrambling to adequately answer those questions.
As a student yourself, what do you think are the major qualities that students should develop to become good science writers?
- Tireless curiosity: Nourish your intellectual interests, no matter how vague, weird or niche they might seem. When you’re sincerely excited about something, you will excite others too.
- An insatiable appetite for writing and reading: If you want to write, you’ve got to both write and read. And not just journalism. Read fiction, poetry, biographies, memoirs, cereal boxes. Bathe your brain in all kinds of language.
- Interpersonal bravery: As a reporter, you need to get over your fear of calling up and interviewing people who have no idea who you are and are probably too busy to speak with you. Convince them they should with unmistakeable confidence.
- Pattern recognition: Learn to see the connections in everything because many of the best articles are built around links that most others fail to notice.
When you tell people that you’re a science writer, how do they react?
Most of the time it goes something like this:
Curious Person: So what do you do?
Me: Well, I’m trying to be a science journalist.
Curious Person (furrowed brow): . . .
Me: I like to write about science, health, the environment, technology, etc.
Curious Person: . . .
Me: You know, like National Geographic, Scientific American, Popular Science, Wired — that kind of stuff.
Curious Person: Oh, yeah, I think I’ve heard of some of those. So what have you written about?
Me: [Insert overexcited explanation of recent article and mind blowing science here]
Curious Person: OMG THAT SOUNDS AMAZING! CAN I BE A SCIENCE WRITER TOO?!?
You have written for a wide variety of publications. Do you choose them or do they choose you?
Both. Also, chance and luck like to toy with the fate of my articles. I have been fortunate to get published clips through my internships. Other articles I have freelanced to publications of my choosing (or, really, a mutual choosing, since I pitched them and an editor accepted them for publication). Still other articles were class assignments eventually self-published on our student-run webzine, Scienceline.org.
What’s your favorite science magazine publication?
I am a big fan of New Scientist. Every week they summarize the latest research findings in concise and usually well-reported news stories. They entertain me with interesting feature articles and they do it all with style and a great sense of humor. I like a magazine that informs me and makes me smile at the same time.
Different people have a different view of what a science geek is. How would you define a science geek and do you consider yourself as one?
I think a science geek is simply someone who has an obsession for something science-y. I definitely fit this definition. I am obsessed, for example, with unusual plants like the Venus flytrap. I am obsessed with how the brain works. I keep a biology textbook on a shelf right next to my bed for those moments when a question seizes my mind and I must satisfy my intellectual thirst immediately or lie awake in the thrilling agony of unquenched wonder.
Finally, any tips you’d like to share with those who want to go into science journalism?
Start writing right away. Become an active member in the online science journalism community. Nothing prevents you from starting a blog, joining Twitter, or freelancing. Find out what subjects interest you most. Call up some scientists. Write a story. Pitch it, blog it, Tweet it. Repeat.