SoCal Science Writers Symposium

IMG_6396On Saturday, May 18, nearly 90 science communicators made their way by plane, train, and automobile to the tony 226-acre campus of the University of Southern California, three miles from downtown Los Angeles.

The daylong second annual SoCal science writing symposium, organized by the SoCal Science Writing group (with help from SANDSWA) and sponsored by USC, its Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and its Viterbi School of Engineering, included a plenary session, morning and afternoon panels, three lab tours, an editor meet-and-greet, and happy hour.

(An additional tour on Sunday of the USC Dornsife’s Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies on Catalina Island had to be postponed due to choppy seas.)

The plenary session, on science video, featured Derek Muller, the creator of the five-million-plus subscriber YouTube channel Veritasium; Jess Phoenix, volcanologist and founder of the nonprofit Blueprint EarthMegan Chao, documentary producer, editor, and adjunct professor; and Kyle McClary, chemistry PhD candidate and president of the Bridge Art + Science Alliance, whose mission is to “create connections and catalyze collaborations between artists and scientists.”

The panelists all emphasized the importance of storytelling to effective science communication, with Muller saying his basic formula is “ask a question, tell a story, answer the question.” Jess Phoenix, who has appeared on Discovery channel programs, CNN, and been quoted in the New York Times,quipped that being a media subject-matter expert is “not super lucrative” but it’s more important than ever for scientists to communicate with the public.

The morning panels were on investigative journalism and science reporting fellowships. I attended the investigative journalism panel, which was moderated by Linda Marsa, cofounder of SoCal Science Writing, Discovercontributing editor, and formerLos Angeles Timeshealth writer. Panelists were Chinyere Amobi, community editor for the Center for Health Journalism and digital editor for Radiant Healthmagazine; Jon Thurber, editor and publisher of Alhambra Sourceand former Los Angeles Timeseditor; freelance journalist and former Los Angeles DailyNews reporter Susan Abram; and USC Dornsife sociologist Ann Owens.

Amobi walked the audience through various training, grants, and fellowships available through the Center for Health Journalism, Marsa mentioned The Open Notebookas a valuable resource for science writers, and Owens introduced the Social Explorerwebsite as a user-friendly tool for using census data in reporting.


After lunch there were two panels (climate change and data journalism) and three lab tours (assistive robots, cancer, devices to fight diseases) to choose from.

I attended the climate change panel, where I was thoroughly impressed by the articulateness and humor with which paleoclimatologist Sarah Feakins and planetary scientist Essam Heggy spoke about the importance of science communication in combating climate change. Heggy, who (among other things) studies water scarcity, said journalism is important to educate and inform people, but also to fight ignorance, which is a significant problem in his country of origin, Egypt. This article encapsulates what he talked about pretty well.

Robert Hernandez of the Annenberg School for Communication was unable to attend, but sent a video illustrating how he and his students use virtual reality modeling to tell news stories in immersive new ways under their brand JOVRNALISMTM, such as a story about homelessness that takes viewers inside the tent of someone homeless.

I toured the lab of Professor Andrea Armani, which “develop[s] advanced materials and integrated optical devices that can be used in portable disease diagnostics and telecommunications.” Armani, who is almost stand-up-comic-level funny, described the work that went into the lab’s development of a lightweight, portable diagnostic device for malaria and showed our group some of the 10,000 square feet of gleaming lab space her lab encompasses.

The editor meet-and-greet was at the same time as the lab tour, so I did not attend, but from what I saw in passing, it appeared to be reasonably well attended, as did the Happy Hour.

Because I have food sensitivities, I did not eat lunch or anything during the two coffee breaks, but the food selection looked amazing (gourmet-type sandwiches; delectable desserts; mouth-watering fruit) and my co-SANDSWA member (and fearless president) Ramin Skibba, who did partake, said the food was very good.


The SoCal Science Writers set a high bar with their symposium, but I’m looking forward to SANDSWA’s in 2020. Stay tuned for a survey in late summer about programming content.





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