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Science Journalists Study at the Institute

By Eva Moy
News Editor

Hidden among the thousands who arrive at MIT each fall are a group of the world's most accompished science journalists. This year, 13 such journalists from around the world have come to MIT to learn, research, and write about science and cutting-edge technologies. These Knight Science Journalism Fellows spend nine months auditing classes, attending seminars by leading MIT researchers, and conducting individual research.

Now in its 10th year, the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships are hailed as an excellent mid-career program for journalists committed to the reporting of science and scientific issues. "While at MIT, [the fellows] are able to widen greatly their acquaintance with front-rank researchers and to deepen their understanding of the challenges facing journalists who cover technology, medicine, and science, and of the impact of these fields on society," according to the program's literature.

This is the only full-fledged science journalism program in the entire world, according to Fellowship Director Victor K. McElheny. It is the scientific equivalent of the prestigious Neiman Fellowships at Harvard University, he said.

Robert Whitaker, a science and medical writer at the Albany Times Union, saw the Knight Fellowship as an opportunity to "improve deficiencies in my basic science education."

The Fellowships began in 1983 as part of the Science, Technology, and Society program with grants from the Alfred P. Sloan and Andrew W. Mellon Foundations.

With an additional grant from the Knight Foundation, the program is guaranteed to continue for many years to come, McElheny said.

Taking a step back

David Baron, a 1989-90 Fellow who reports on science for National Public Radio affiliate WBUR, described the program as "being given a year to do whatever you want to do.... The whole idea is to stop being a journalist for a while and to take a step back."

During his year at MIT, Baron studied biology to supplement his physics and geology education from Yale University. As part of an independent study, Baron went to Antarctica twice with a National Science Foundation research team. His work culminated in a NPR series and an American Association for the Advancement of Science prize in 1992.

This project would have been "difficult to do if I had a daily deadline," Baron said. The best part of his year was "arriving at the South Pole [and] standing there at the bottom of the earth," he said.

The fellows can "get away from the daily grind and do things that they have wanted to do for a long time," said Whitaker.

"The tough part is returning to your former life," with its attendant responsibilities and deadlines, Baron added.

Science topics introduced in seminars

The fellows participate in twice-weekly seminars which are "designed as a selection of hot fields. Leading researchers come in and talk to the fellows about the area of their own work," McElheny said. After each presentation, the fellows ask questions in an intensive group interview, he added.

Seminar topics this year included attempts to detect gravity waves and work on ultra-small transistors made of futuristic materials.

Fellow Cordula Klemm, a magazine editor and environmental and medical reporter from Germany, said that the seminars are "interesting because they deal with very different topics." She added that a good science journalist needs to have a good science background, but at the same time has to be able to write at the level of the audience.

The seminars help provide ideas for new stories to write in the future, Whitaker added.

Fellows choose focus area

In addition to the seminars, each fellow explores a specific topic through a combination of classes and independent research.

Several of this year's fellows are focusing on biology-related topics, McElheny said. "People tend to watch or read news about their health ... [so] news coverage will have a biological stance to it," he said. He also cited environmental issues and astronomy as areas of "popular interest."

Fellow Gianna Milano, a senior editor at the Italian magazine Panorama, said her recent reporting on the Hubble space telescope sparked her interest in astronomy, a subject she is studying here. She is also learning about vision and the brain, the environment, and technology.

Klemm said she is "interested in finding out how the United States deals with problems" relating to biology, toxicology, and environmental topics. She noted that in Europe, the social implications of science and technology are openly discussed by the public, while in this country there is "more discussion within the scientific community."

Tania Ewing, a senior staff reporter for the Australian-based Medical Observer, has a different emphasis than the other fellows. Since she already has a strong background in science, she is concentrating on science journalism, auditing journalism classes at Boston University. She also continues to write short news stories and feature articles for publications in Australia.