“More than just dinosaurs”: adventure, oil, and the human side of science

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Bridget Menasche, 3rd year PhD candidate in Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology
Roni Dengler, 3rd year PhD candidate in Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology

The country is buzzing with news about Pluto thanks to pictures and data streaming back from NASA’s New Horizon’s spacecraft - a jolt of science journalism for the masses.

This week at the University of Colorado at Boulder, we dug into the nitty-gritty of science journalism with NPR’s science correspondent, Richard Harris, in a special seminar, “Science Journalism: Much more than Dinosaurs”.

Throughout his career, Harris has found the fun amidst serious inquiry. Thinking back to Dr. Richard Muller’s hyped-up hypothesis from the 1980’s that an undiscovered planet could cause periodicity of extinctions on Earth, he says, “What more could you ask for? It was the story that had everything.” While reporting a sobering story on melting glaciers, he found funky faces in cryoconites, columns of melted ice created by the industrial schmutz settling in patches on the surface.

Though many assignments showed him the adventurous side of science, he also learned early on that science journalism has an important role in public life.

His account of the story he’s most proud of, “Gulf Spill May Far Exceed Initial Estimates,” on the 2010 BP oil spill, revealed Harris’ enthusiasm, thoroughness and sense of responsibility to the public.

After the spill from BP’s Deepwater Horizon in 2010, he talked to a scientist friend about the spill who happened to study natural oil seeps – and became suspicious about the size of the spill being reported. The standard method for estimating the size of an oil spill worked well for previous catastrophes like the Exxon-Valdez in 1989 – spills that happened from ships on the surface of the ocean. But these methods of studying surface oil couldn’t account for what happens when oil spills from the sea floor a mile down.

Harris’ excitement for science had kept him in contact with curious people across disciplines. So he called around, ultimately talking to a microfluidics expert, a marine geophysicist, and an astrophysicist. Using different methods, they each analyzed the available images and videos of oil gushing from the pipe deep in the Gulf, and found that it was likely ten times the official estimates – and ten times what BP was prepared to tackle during cleanup.

The entire story from NPR is here, if you’re interested in hearing it.

Throughout his seminar this week, Harris stressed that while the results of science are important, it is also a human endeavor. Science is one way we channel our creativity, our inquisitiveness, our passion. When reporting a story, he looks for passionate people exploring what excites them. To Harris, science is not just a field that solves problems. Science is also a celebration of both the fascinating and the unknown. He focuses on characters that can convey that thrill and get the audience excited about science.

Harris himself got me excited about both science and journalism. His balance of enthusiasm and care struck me the most. When reporting on the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill, he was curious about the methods used to make the estimates he reported. He contacted multiple experts across fields to ensure the work was accurate. He also stressed his focus on working with scientists to make his reporting both correct and accessible. Ultimately, his goal is “to reveal something interesting about science, people, and the world.”


Interested in pursuing a career in science journalism? Richard Harris shared the following advice during a career Q&A after his seminar.

Fourteen Tips on Science Journalism from Richard Harris

1.   Discover what excites you – If you’re excited about the story, it’ll be good.

2.   Find the human story – Science is a human endeavor.

3.   Capture enthusiasm - Stories exist in the passion people have for their projects.

4.   Weave the human story with how the science works - The science and the humanity are inseparable.

5.   Ask the “dumb” questions – Don’t be afraid to feel ignorant; it’s better in an interview than in print.

6.   Make sure you’ve got it right – Explain yourself as clearly as possible. Ask scientists, Let me make sure I’ve go that right… Then paraphrase what they’ve just told you.

7.   Complete the circle- Report the broader impact and, when possible, get the other side from diverse viewpoints.

8.   Bring it together – Every story needs to follow a linear path with a beginning, middle and end.

9.   Think like your audience – If you heard your story on the radio or saw it in print, would it hook you?

10. Write! – Can you string words together in a compelling way? If not, take some classes or look into the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship.

11. Start small-  Build a habit and develop a following.

12. Ignore online comments – Comments are often ill-informed. Don’t put too much weight in these.

13. Read ­broadly – So as not to view the world through a pinhole.

14. Make it yours: There’s nothing that has to be covered. Pick stories that reveal something about people or science or the world around us.


Find out more about Harris and listen to his recent stories for NPR here: http://www.npr.org/people/2100631/richard-harris, or check out overall NPR science coverage here: http://www.npr.org/sections/science/

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