People gather at the Washington Monument before participating in the March for Science on Earth Day.

Hilary Swift/The New York Times

September 30, 2019

Cornell Biology Seminar Gives Students Hands-On Experience in Science Journalism

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Miyoko Chu is the senior director of communications at the Lab of Ornithology. But aside from her main job, Chu is also one of four professors teaching BIOG 1250: Try Your Hand at Science Journalism, a one-credit, seven-week course offered through the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

The course, which is targeted at first-year students, seeks to teach “a really different style of writing than is often used in the classroom,” Chu said. “We’ll help people walk through each step … what’s the difference between a topic and a story angle? How do you go out and report? How do you get quotes? How do you do the research?”

Chu said that all the instructors of the course — Gustave Axelson, Jay Branegan ’72 and Hugh Powell, along with herself — are professional science journalists, but they each arrived at this profession through differing academic paths.

“Hugh and I started out as scientists and then we learned science journalism and now have a career in that field,” Chu said. “Jay started out as a physics major at Cornell but spent so much time for The Cornell Daily Sun that he became a professional journalist. Gus came into journalism school and then ended up having a career that went into conservation and science.”

Although they all come from different backgrounds, they share an important, common experience that helped them succeed, as journalists, in the end.

“As budding journalists, we had mentors ourselves who showed us the craft… this is one way we can give back what we learned to a new group of students,” Chu said.

This is the first year this course has been offered, although the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has always had internships and workshops for students interested in science journalism. According to Chu, a “generous endowment” from Branegan — who shared a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting at The Chicago Tribune — and his wife enabled the lab to provide hands-on opportunities for students in science journalism.

“There’s an awful lot of important stuff that needs to be communicated to the public and we need professionals who are good at it, certainly [dealing with] climate change and other environmental issues are all dependent on the public’s appreciation for science,” Branegan said.

Branegan said he doesn’t expect everyone in his class to become a science journalist, but the end goal of the course is to make them better writers who can clearly communicate their ideas through writing.

“I always believe scientists really have an obligation to communicate their work clearly to the public … and if they want to do something in some third field, if they go into that field as better writers and better researchers I think that would be a success too,” Branegan said.

Although the course is run through the Lab of Ornithology and focuses on birds, it allows students to learn disciplines transferable across many fields, according to Chu, as the topic of birds alone involves many other issues, including policy, education, law, and social sciences.

The course, which is slated to begin in late October, is still accepting students by application. “We really hope to have fun, this course should be fun, science is fun, communication is fun, writing is fun, and so we expect to have a really good time,” Chu said.