How my science degree helps me in journalism

A behind-the-scenes look at the talk I\’ll take to class

Tomorrow I get to return to my alma mater, to talk to first-year Science students. This is pretty exciting for me because I really enjoy teaching, and visiting campus brings some nostalgic joy too. They invited me because I use my degree in science in a non-traditional way.

Here’s a sneak peek at the Prezi I made for the talk.

It’s not that rare to be a reporter with a background in science; we have a few in our local newsroom. But it’s still uncommon enough that when people I encounter on the job learn I studied biology, they’re surprised.

Many ask whether it was my plan all along to learn about science, then report on it. (Not at all —I really thought I was going to be a biologist).

And, I often hear, “Oh that must really help you on scientific stories.” (Absolutely! But not in the way you might think.)

Bring on the data!

The fact is, the facts I learned don’t help me much. Even if I remembered every nephron and neuron I scribbled down in a final exam, my information is more than a decade out of date.

What’s important about what I learned is it gives me the faith that even complex things can be understood, and it’s my job to make sense of them, and use that information to critically evaluate what people tell me.

A three-spined stickleback. Image from Dolph Schluter\’s lab, where I once measured fish tails.

That helps on science stories, but not just on science stories.

Being unafraid of numbers and spreadsheets is good too. I learned Excel spending many hours volunteering in a lab measuring millimetres of stickleback tails. Now on the job, I use a spreadsheet at least once a week to sort data and make calculations.

How do you know that?

The focus of my talk is evaluating sources of information. Scientists and journalists work in very different ways — it’s always fun to shock first-year students with the kind of deadlines I operate under — but we both have to think critically about the evidence a claim is based on.

I’ll be encouraging the students to ask: “How do you know that?” Should be fun.

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