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.





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

two woman sitting on bench near the table
Photo by on


This is Part Two in a two-part series on using direct and indirect quotes. Read Part One here.

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 Two”

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.

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!

What’s Happening at SANDSWA

Happy Folks
Josh, Ramin and Steve bring home the hardware at the recent SD Press Club Awards

There’s a lot going on at SANDSWA, and so little time to cover it, so here’s a quick summary to keep you up to date.

The 45th Annual San Diego Press Club awards ceremony was held on October 30 and SANDSWA members swept the Magazines, Science/Technology/Biotech category. Congrats to Steve Murray, Ramin Skibba and Josh Baxt (now referring to himself in the third person). Steve earned multiple honors that night, and Ramin – our fearless leader – received the Rising Star award.

The National Association of Science Writers (NASW) conference was held this past October in Washington, DC, and Heather Buschman, Patricia Fernandez, Lynne Friedmann, Katherine Leitzell and Ramin Skibba kindly reported out during our most recent happy hour. Here are some highlights:

  • Delegates from 12 regional groups attended the first science writer group congress. They discussed funding sources, events, recruitment, mentoring and leadership.
  • How do we teach scientists to communicate clearly? No surprise, scientists like data.
  • How do we write about gloomy problems like climate change? People may not like the raw science, but they will respond to characters, narrative and suspense.
  • Make sure your writing is culturally competent. Try to walk in another culture’s shoes. Proper spelling means including the appropriate accents (In Spanish año means year; ano means anus). No “Columbusing,” check your writing for references that might devalue formerly colonized people.
  • Embrace video (show, don’t tell)

Of course, this is a summary of a summary, so a tertiary source? Anyway, I know you want more, so check out our fabulous slides.

The Society for Neuroscience conference is having a press reception at the convention center on Sunday, November 4 at 4 pm in room 22. SANDSWA is plotting to pack the event. You can apply for press registration here.

SANDWA’s next awesome happy hour will be held at AleSmith on Tuesday, December 4, at 5:30. You know the drill: drink, chat, eat, network.


Happy Hour at White Labs

Erik Fowler styles us out with information and beer.

Beer is four things: water, barley, hops and yeast. We hear a little about barley and a lot about hops – it’s San Diego and we’ve been IPA’d to death. But yeast, not so much. Maybe we’re a little squeamish because it’s a microorganism.

Regardless, a squad of intrepid SANDSWArs paid a visit to White Labs last Wednesday to learn about the company, the yeast and the beer. Continue reading “Happy Hour at White Labs”

Happy 4th

Image by Tom WalshI hope everyone is having a pleasant and relaxed 4th of July week. I’m reading about liquid biopsies, which is my idea of a good time.

Anyway, a couple of quick reminders. Our Kick-Off Happy Hour is coming next Wednesday at Farmer & The Seahorse. Start time is 5:30. You should register, I guarantee nothing better is going to come along.

Also, we have a Twitter page – @SANDSWA2. You should follow. We promise we won’t troll you about anything, except maybe the Oxford comma. Serious divisions there.

Okay, in summary, come to the happy hour, follow us on Twitter, have a great 4th.