Figure One

Science. Communication. Community.

#AAASmtg 2012 Flashback with John Timmer

The annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (the parent organization of the Mass Media Fellowship) brought many Figure One contributors together last week in Boston.

by Jessica Morrison

JohnTimmerFor early career science writers, AAAS is a chance to dive into the press process, shadow veteran writers and make important editorial connections. Last year, I shadowed and then interviewed Ars Technica science editor John Timmer for my personal blog, I Heart the Road. His message about the trials and triumphs of science writing are just as relevant today as they were a year ago. So I share with you, a flashback to #AAASmtg 2012 with John Timmer:

This post originally appeared at I Heart the Road on February 23, 2012. 

Scientist Finds Pen Mightier Than Pipette

VANCOUVER—If the field of journalism is struggling, you wouldn’t know it at the 178th meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The conference, held Thursday through Monday in Vancouver, British Columbia, brought together nearly 8,000 attendees — with press representing just under 10 percent — to share and promote science under the theme Flattening the World: Building a Global Knowledge Society.

News stories from the sessions in Vancouver have appeared in The Vancouver Sun (story no longer available), BBC News and The Telegraph, touting results in everything from studies of infectious diseases (story no longer available) to underwater volcanoes that bubble carbon dioxide from Jacuzzi-like vents. Highlights of the meeting popped up quickly all over the social web in places like and Twitter (#AAASmtg).

Pushing back against the long-held belief that scientists are poor communicators, much of the reporting coming out of AAAS is at the hand of current and former scientists.

“At the risk of sounding cliché, this is an exciting time in science journalism,” says John Timmer, former biologist and current science editor at Ars Technica.

Like many of his peers, Timmer has a background in science. He received a Bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from Columbia University and earned a Ph.D. in molecular and cell biology from the University of California at Berkeley.

“My interest in science started as a kid with things like dinosaur fossils, natural history museums and Jacques Cousteau specials,” says Timmer. “It was just a question of ‘This is interesting—How does one go about having a life doing that?’”

While he’d known from a very young age that he wanted to be a research scientist, which meant he’d need to earn an advanced degree, he had no way of knowing the turn that his career would take after he finished his doctorate.

Following the death of his mother and professional upheaval caused by departing academic advisors, Timmer began to focus on writing. By this time, he had already started to write for Ars Technica, a technology news and information website created in 1998.

As consistency began to wane in his research career, Ars began to offer him more responsibility—talking about making him a full-time writer, bringing him into the editing process and eventually putting him in charge of their science section. He says writing brought a satisfaction that he was missing in research.

“Research is incredibly time-consuming and emotionally involved—you get committed to your projects. There are times when you will have weeks where everything is a disaster,” says Timmer. “When you write, you also care about that deeply. There are times when it’s a disaster there, too. You might say something that you think is obvious, but for other people it reads differently than you intended. You get this horrifying derailment. It can be a train wreck.”

Timmer says that writing is a constant learning process on every level. He sometimes looks back in horror at early pieces of writing, but he is optimistic about the sanctity of the process.

“With news writing you get the chance the very next day to try again to do better, and chances are you will do better,” he says. “I look back at some of the early things that I published and I’m horrified by them. They’re just bad.”

For students and scientists looking to break into science journalism, Timmer says pay attention to social media, work on time management and make friends with science writers.

“Being integrated with the science writing community has been fantastic,” says Timmer. “They’re a great bunch of people, they are incredibly smart and they share their ideas. Everyone cares about science being communicated well, so they want everyone doing it to do brilliantly.”

He warns that science journalism should not be pursued as a way to escape the uncertainty of a career in scientific research. He calls the last decade one of crisis for both science and journalism.

“[Science journalism] is something that you really have to want to do because it’s going to be tough,” says Timmer. “That said, the opportunities for experimenting with communicating science are light-years ahead of where they were 20 years ago. The career path that I took just wasn’t available then.”

On pursuing science journalism in the realm of new media, Timmer says, “Use the opportunity to experiment wisely. Start doing it and find out if this is something that you care about enough to put up with the career uncertainty that goes with it.”

If you’d like to know more, you can follow John on Twitter at @j_timmer or read his work at Ars Technica: Nobel Intent.


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This entry was posted on February 21, 2013 by in Science Journalism and tagged , .
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