Writing About Science: Helen Fields in the Field

by Xinyi Zhou '10

Helen Fields ’93 (http://heyhelen.com/) is a globe hopping science writer. After graduating from the Magnet, she majored in biology at Carleton College, spent several years in Norway and Japan, started a PhD in biology at Stanford and then was inspired to become a science journalist. She received a certificate in science writing at UC Santa Cruz, then moved back to the DC area for staff jobs as a science writer at US News & World Report and National Geographic. She has been freelancing full-time since 2008, writing for places such as Smithsonian, Science, The Chronicle of Higher Education and New Scientist. Fields chats with the Foundation about her journey to becoming a science writer and her adventures documenting science.

What do you remember from the Magnet?

I remember learning a lot of stuff and being surrounded by really very intelligent people. My favorite class was marine biology, because we went on really great field trips. And that was -- I wasn't that interested in biology when we took it originally, as like, biology, but when it was marine biology and it was actually being out in the field and seeing organisms and stuff, it suddenly became really cool and real and relevant. Then I majored in biology in college, so, it worked.

Did you guys do a Wallops field trip?

Yeah we did, so they're still doing that. That was super fun. I remember wading around and a marsh and old shoes. I sort of always felt since then that I should keep a pair of old shoes just in case I had to wade around in a salt marsh. And you don't know. Sometimes you have to wade around in a salt marsh and they smell really bad.

Did you do Silver Chips (the school newspaper)?

No, heck no. But right, something that is totally unusual about me that I forgot and should mention. The Communication Arts Program (CAP) wasn't a Magnet officially yet, but it existed, and I was in the second year of it. I went to Eastern for middle school and did the program there, and when I went to Blair I continued so I was in both. I had the math and science and the computer science and the English and journalism was a required class there, so I did actually take journalism but I was never involved with the paper or anything.  I went through all four years doing half of my classes in the Magnet and half of my classes in the CAP. I think a year or two after that they got sick of arranging the entire schedule around the two kids a year who would do both programs and they said you have to pick one. But it worked out awesome for me because I feel like being in those two programs prepared me for one career path and here I am, writing about science.

You started studying to become a biologist, but then switched to science writing. How did that work?

Articles by Helen

The Frog That Roared, Smithsonian, January 2013: The red-eyed tree frog is the world’s cutest amphibian–and a very cool example of the flexibility animals use when they deal with life’s challenges.

Crayfish Harbor Fungus That’s Wiping Out Amphibians, National Geographic News, December 2012: Scientists have found a reservoir for the fungus that’s been causing a worldwide frog catastrophe: crayfish.

Changing Oceans: Viewing Coral Reefs Through a Cultural Lens, Science Careers, June 2010: Josh Cinner is a human geographer who studies coral reefs and the people who depend on them. “You don’t manage fish. Fish swim and they do their own thing. You manage people. Managing ecosystems is really about managing people and understanding what motivates them and their behaviors.”

Polar Discovery Expedition 5: Bering Sea Ecosystem, April-May 2009: I spent six weeks on the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy in the Bering Sea. Every day photographer Chris Linder and I posted a set of pictures and a story. I wrote about some of the many science projects going on aboard the ship–and about topics like how you feed 122 people for six weeks without a port call.

Dinosaur Shocker, Smithsonian, May 2006: Probing a 68-million-year-old T. rex, Mary Schweitzer stumbled upon astonishing signs of life that may radically change our view of the beasts that once ruled the earth. This story was selected for the Best American Science and Nature Writing 2007 anthology.

Find more of Helen's work: http://heyhelen.com/clips/
So I majored in biology in college -- I went to Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, which is a small liberal arts college and it was great. I loved college, I loved biology, I really enjoyed the classes that I took. After that I went overseas for three years: I was in Norway for a year on the Fulbright, then I was in Japan for a couple years, and got to thinking, gee, I should go back to America and figure out what I am doing with my life. So I applied to grad school in biology and I ended up at Stanford studying ants, in a PhD program.

After a year, I didn't really know what I was doing, I wasn't really that excited about the behavioral ecology of ants […] I started to think -- I don't really have a particular reason for getting a PhD, I don't want to be an academic, and I have one deadline and it's 5-6-7 years away from now. I was feeling pretty discontent, basically; I didn't know what I was doing or what I should be doing. I was sitting, talking to my friend at lunch one day and I was thinking, all I really want is to become a reporter at NPR. And she said, "Then do that," and I was like, "Oh." It never occurred to me that being a science reporter -- that that was a job, that people did it, that you could do that for a living -- it totally never crossed my mind.
 
It happened to just be about registration time for the fall quarter. So I signed up for a beginning reporting class and I just really liked it. I took an opinion writing class the next quarter and really liked that. I started talking to a bunch of people who are science writers to find out how it worked, how their career path had worked, how you find jobs […] and found out that there were graduate programs in science writing. And there is this great program run by the AAAS, The American Association for the Advancement of Science, called the AAAS Mass Media Fellows program, where you can spend the summer working at a news organization. It's for science students -- they place you in a news organization for a summer, and you write stories and get edited by professionals. So I applied for that and less than a year after that conversation I was reporting on science at NPR, which was awesome. Not how I thought that was going to play out! So I spent the summer at NPR.

There's a really good science writing program at UC Santa Cruz which I went to, which is a one year program and I learned all about reporting, which I didn't know anything about, like interviewing people and coming up with story ideas. I knew that I liked writing and I liked telling stories about science, but I never really thought about where the stuff comes from in the stories, which is the reporting. I got an internship at US News and World Report, which is how I moved back to DC, which turned into a job, and then I was a science writer.

How common is it for folks planning to go into science careers to go into journalism, and vice-versa?

It's a really common career path. I don't know percentages but I know a ton of people who started in science and though that writing about science would be fun, would be a cool thing to do. I know some people who have a journalism background or English major background and got into science writing that way, but most of the people I know got into it from science.

How does being a freelance journalist work?

Some days better than other days. To catch up with how I got involved in freelancing, I actually started a little bit on the side while I was at US News, I wrote a feature for Smithsonian magazine and did some freelancing for Science. I was at National Geographic for a year and a half and got laid off there which was great timing because I had been thinking maybe I'd rather quit and start freelancing instead and then they laid me off and I was like, yay I get to do that now, without making a decision to do that.

So, how it works: I work for a bunch of different places, sometimes I propose the story, sometimes I'm proposing them to people I know, sometimes I'm trying to get into new places. Most of the time I'm proposing stories to people I know, like I'll have something on the Science website on Tuesday that I emailed yesterday and I was like, here's this thing, you want this, and he was like ehh -- I wanted him to take it at 600 words but he's taking it at 200 words which means less work and less money. Sometimes stories come to me -- I've done about 5 features for Smithsonian, and one of those I proposed, and all the others were assigned to me by an editor. I do work that I both consider journalism -- all of that work is journalism work -- and work that is not really journalism, like writing press releases. I wrote a bunch of stuff for a website about how to take care of your trees last year, which was kind of interesting. I did [a story on telemedicine] for the GW magazine, which is sort of, some people would call it journalism, some people wouldn't. The people who were in the story get to review the story, so that to me moves it out of the strictly journalism realm because they are reviewing and approving what was in it. But it's the same kind of thing that I do in my other work; I go and interview people and write a story. And basically I work in my office, which is my living room. Send things out and get checks in.

How do you afford to travel so much -- do you get any sort of stipend when you pitch a story and they agree?

Yeah, that's how it works. So there was a story at the Smithsonian about [...] frog research in Panama. About four years my editor, which I worked for several times as a friend, was like hey, I'd really like to do a story about phenotypic plasticity, and here's someone that might be good to focus on […] She sounded great and she worked in Panama.

Once we decided this person was interesting, her work was interesting, she was willing for me to go in the field with her, they asked me to figure out about how much it would cost to go and then wrote up a contract that said here’s the story, here’s how long it’s going to be, here’s how much we’re going to pay you and we’ll reimburse you for up to some amount of expenses […] so now I just had to keep track of receipts. 

It wasn’t a particularly expensive trip, it’s pretty cheap to fly to Panama and I was staying in some cheap place. I was sort of nervous because the place where I was eating lunch was this place that we’d all go over there together for lunch, and it was a woman that would serve these amazing, fantastic meals out of her kitchen. And she did not have receipts. [laughs] That was not part of the deal. You paid like $2.50 for your plate of food, but, fortunately, they counted those; they were okay with that.

How do you report on controversial science?

Yeah, totally. My second story for Smithsonian was about a researcher who had found soft tissues in dinosaur bones, which is pretty wild, right, we don't think that's what happens with fossilization but she found things which were springy in the middle of the bones and it's sort of making people rethink fossilization. And I haven't looked at this topic since 2006 or so, and I know that there’s been new science on it and I don’t remember what it said. Anyway, creationist websites had seized on this as: we told you, dinosaurs are only five or six thousand years old or however old dinosaurs are supposed to be if you subscribe to that particular set of beliefs. And she found that really upsetting because she is a born-again Christian herself and felt like these people who were supposed to be on her side in a way, were using her science in really wrong ways.

I've certainly written about climate change. But I don't write about it in a way that has anything to do with controversy; it’s just fact of the world that these organisms live in. The frog story had to do with their reproduction and how frogs could have evolved the ability to lay their eggs out of water. Some frogs lay their eggs in water and they think their ancestors lay their eggs in water, but some frogs now can lay their eggs out of water. And [the story] talked about how climate change could change the amount of rainfall and seems to be increasing the intensity of storms, and what that can mean for frogs in an evolutionary way. But I've never done any reporting that’s been engaged with the climate change, yes or no? question, it’s just not stuff that I cover. The things that I’m writing about are people being like, so, climate changing, what does that mean for the species that I’m studying.

You write both stories intended for the general audience, and also stories that are more likely to be seen by scientists, such as for ScienceNOW. Do you approach the stories differently?

I feel like I do approach them pretty differently but I don't know if it has to do with the audience; it has to do with what kind of story they are. I'm always trying to get really vivid details. I'm always trying to get some interesting or funny observation, comment, something about doing the research and I'm always trying to reveal a bit about the process of doing the research, and doing science and thinking about it and where people get inspiration from, how they actually do things. So that, that is always true, whoever the audience. It probably is a bit easier, in a way, to do the things for Science because, I don't need to think as hard about explaining them. I can leave a bit more stuff unexplained. But a story for Smithsonian I work on for months, usually months […] But I have to do a lot of going back to people and asking them to explain things again. And for those I'm actually meeting with people, and I'm in the field with them and can describe things, and see funny thing happen. That's something I don’t get to do when I'm doing a news story in three days.