Sally Ride Research Vessel Tour: Part II

By Melissa Miller (See also Part I of this tour recap by Xochitl Rojas-Rocha)

I learned how to be a science writer and communicator aboard the research vessel Sally Ride, which is why it was very special for me to share it with you, my SANDSWA peers. Networking with and learning from this talented pool of people is helping me level up, and I am pleased I was able to give back to the group by way of a tour.

Continue reading “Sally Ride Research Vessel Tour: Part II”

How to Use (And Not Abuse) Direct and Indirect Quotes, Part One

This is Part One in a two-part series on using direct and indirect quotes. Check back soon for Part Two!

By Tiffany Fox

Quotations (also known in journalism as direct quotes and indirect quotes) help to humanize science and often add much-needed emotional contrast. They provide a sense for the “characters” in our stories – what drives them, how they speak and how they relate to the world. Many times – especially when a source is particularly charismatic or cantankerous – the use of quotes can mean the difference between a stuffy, boring technical piece and a story that vibrates with life. But it’s important to know how to use quotes effectively, and for that, we offer these tips: Continue reading “How to Use (And Not Abuse) Direct and Indirect Quotes, Part One”

Miniature Tornadoes and Other Joys of the Fleet Science Center

By Xochitl Rojas-Rocha

San Diego’s Fleet Science Center, it turns out, is full of delightful secrets as well as science.

The San Diego Science Writers Association turned out on a chilly January evening to start 2019 with a tour of the city’s popular science museum. We began with a brief overview of the science center itself, and then were released (and encouraged) to find a partner and play alongside the children at the exhibits.

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SANDSWA members check out the Fleet’s wood shop. Photo: Steve Murray

The fun bit about science is that you’re never caught up; there’s always something you haven’t explored. The exhibit floor was home to a display with alternating hot and cold coils that taught you about how your body senses differences in temperature; the iconic whisper dishes that demonstrate how a murmur can pass undisrupted over the heads of screaming children from one side of the room to the other; and even a display that uses vapor to show the formation of a tornado, in miniature.

Yet, the highlight of the tour might have been traveling behind the scenes to see how the museum’s IMAX dome theater worked. According to the museum’s website, where you can find a list of current showings, the theater screen can generate images nearly eight stories high. But it’s the machinery behind it all that is so surprising. Two huge reels have to be loaded with the physical film before the audience can enjoy their show. The projector itself is equally massive, and rises from the floor with a deafening rumble. No one makes this technology anymore, which makes the film itself incredibly expensive to replace if it’s damaged. The IMAX dome theater at the Fleet is the last of its kind.

original imax projector circa 1970s
Original IMAX projector, ca. 1970’s. Photo: Lynne Friedmann

Moving into the future, the museum’s goal is to push for stronger connections between existing science education programs. Staff described an ongoing collaboration in Barrio Logan that provides the community with information on whichever topic they want to learn about, including nutrition. Also arriving at the museum in the coming months? An exhibit about the science behind magic — think levitation and invisibility. How would those magical acts work, if they were real?

The human brain loves newness, and so I love visiting places I’ve never been most of all. The tour of the Fleet Science Center was a treat. I’ll be coming back again, just to watch that IMAX projector in action!

On Being Freelance

Setup
That work space looks unusually tidy

I was laid off from my communications job at Sanford Burnham in 2011, the collateral damage from a grant funding crisis. Theoretically, I could have gotten a similar position at Salk, TSRI or UC San Diego, but I was concerned the same funding issues would catch up with me. When my risk-averse wife gave her blessing, I decided to go freelance.

A number of people warned me against it, but they were all former journalists and knew it would be challenging to make a living pitching publications. I had a different model in mind: working for universities, research institutes, biotechs and nonprofits. I occasionally perform random acts of journalism, but mostly I work for organizations.

The slow economy was a concern but that may have been an advantage. Companies lay off full timers, but they still need the work done. Signs are pointing towards another economic downturn, which could really test that hypothesis.

In the Beginning
I started by calling everyone I knew who could either hire or refer me. Not really a pitch so much as just letting them know I was freelancing. I hated calling like that, but almost everyone was supportive, and I was incredibly fortunate to get a project that week. Networking is a long game – some of those calls generated business two years later – but it’s good to be lucky.

When people want advice on freelancing, I always ask what their Rolodex looks like. My experience with Sanford Burnham, and Scripps Health before that, gave me lots of contacts who knew my work. Otherwise, it’s just pure cold calling. Some people are good at that, even enjoy it. But if that’s not you, give it some thought.

I also ask what kinds of samples prospective freelancers have – prospective clients will definitely want to see your work. There’s lots of ways to create samples: blog, volunteer at a nonprofit, write random spec pieces.

The Work
My first rule is: Always show up. That means meeting deadlines, responding to calls and emails within a few hours, communicating with clients if there’s a problem and generally being transparent.

This may seem like no-brainer advice, but it’s not. There are lots of flaky freelancers. Every couple of years, I get a call from someone who has lost their writer – they have literally gone MIA – and the deadline is coming up. I always say yes, it’s a function of my hero complex.

As a consultant, my job is to solve my clients’ problem(s). That means showing them the work is in good hands. From the moment they make the assignment, I want them to feel confident they can cross it off their list.

What I’ve Learned

Dodger
Long-suffering colleague

Working at home was hard at first, but it’s grown on me over the years. Being alone means fewer distractions. As an FTE, there are always meetings, urgent email strings, birthday parties, fires to put out. Sometimes, it’s hard to get to the actual work, even if you love it.

Some people worry that being at home will present its own distractions. Fortunately (or unfortunately), I’m not the type to clean my house to avoid work.

The flexibility is wonderful. My kids were 10 and 7 when I went on my own, so I got to be there when they came home from school, or I could carve out 20 minutes for an impromptu game of street football, or take them to the orthodontist. It all worked, as long as I got my projects done on time.

Is it feast or famine? Sometimes. Being slow is frightening. Nobody likes waiting for the phone to ring. Being busy can also be scary. Sometimes multiple deadlines fall on the same day. But fear is a great motivator, and it has made me a better writer. On a professional level, that may be the best win of all.