Girlhack STEM Jobs: Astrophysics NASA Writer & Media Specialist

by Meg on January 31, 2012

Welcome to the second installment of Girlhack STEM jobs.  If you want to submit about your own job or have someone to recommend, please send an email to info@girlhack.com

 


Whitney, who roller skates in her spare time, is seen here at her local roller rink.

Whitney Clavin

Media Relations Specialist and Science Writer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

 Writing is regularly posted at: www.jpl.nasa.gov and www.nasa.gov

Personal twitter: @whitnutt

 

What is your current job and career field?

I’m a science writer and media specialist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. My “beat” is astrophysics, which means that I help get the word out about cool research being done at JPL on everything from budding solar systems to voracious black holes. Other media reps in my office cover Mars and other planetary topics — we each take our own slice of the universe! I cover several space missions, including the Spitzer Space Telescope and the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE.

What sorts of jobs did you have leading up to this? aka What is one example of a path to get where you are today.

Before my current job, I was a science writer at Rockefeller University in New York, New York. There, I wrote about cells and molecules — really tiny things as opposed to really big things.

 

Everyday is probably different, but what general tasks are you responsible for? What sort of technology do you use?

I do a lot of coordinating via email and phone calls, and I write stories using Word. We’ll first learn about a new research paper coming out, for example, and then it’s my job to help translate the science and get the story out in a way that’s engaging and easy to understand. This involves writing a news release and captions, as well as overseeing the development of graphics and sometimes videos. But it also means a lot of planning and coordinating with several parties — the scientists, other institutions’ press officers, NASA Headquarters, Web and social media teams, etc. Then, once a story goes out, I help answer reporters’ questions and set up interviews.

What schooling do you need for a job similar to yours?

I have a master’s in science journalism from New York University, New York. And before that, I worked for about five years in various molecular biology research labs. My bachelor’s degree is in Biochemistry. But there are many paths to becoming a science writer, or a media representative. Others in my office have journalism backgrounds, for example, and didn’t develop their science-based interests and careers until coming to JPL.

In your industry, what are typical entry level jobs and pay?

Media representative, or press officer, jobs probably pay between about $50,000 and 90,000 per year.

What is cool about what you do?  What do you enjoy the most?

My favorite part of the job is getting to learn so much science! Sometimes I can’t believe that I’m getting paid to learn about how rockets work, for example. Equally as exciting is the next step after learning the science — figuring out new and fun ways to tell the general public about the research. The research can start out extremely technical, but if I take the time to wrap my head around it, I can usually find a way to explain it in more of a big-picture way. I get to share my excitement with the world.

Whitney and her friend dressed up "80's" for work on Halloween.

What are common assumptions or mistakes people in regards to your field?

Because I work in a public relations office, people sometimes think we put the “spin” on things. But with science, the best way to sell it is simply to explain it in clear, engaging language. It sells itself if you do a good job of translating it.

Do you have any organizations, websites, or internships you can recommend for ladies who want to learn more or get connected ?

If you want to go into science writing, probably the best thing to do is start writing. Other tips are to take journalism classes, try to get your writing published if even on a small website, start a blog, and definitely read! If you don’t have much science experience, then taking classes could be a good way to test the waters. Even if you hated physics as teenager, you might find you like it as an adult, and  taking a class would help you figure out if you really want to spend good chunks of time with science.

 

There are a handful of journalism master’s programs that focus specifically on science. Examples include programs at NYU, Boston University and UC Santa Cruz.

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