Mikayla Mace is a science writer for the University of Arizona. After attaining a bachelor’s degree in Neuroscience and Cognitive Science in 2015, she went on to earn a master’s in Journalism at the UArizona. At the time of this interview, Mace was a writer for the Arizona Daily Star, where she covered science, health and higher education.
What’s the best part about covering science as a journalist?
It’s getting to ask my own questions—I’m very selfish about it. I love that I can just knock on any researcher’s door and just be like, “What’s up?” Once I get in there and they trust me, I can keep asking really fun questions, even if it doesn’t go into the article. Also, it’s really cool getting to talk to all these people who are foundational in a lot of fields. A lot of science was started in Tucson and Arizona, like the modern study of ecology, dendrochronology.
What are your goals when writing about science or research?
I hope I can share my own excitement in my articles. People who read about science are probably already excited, but I hope that maybe they’d share it with other people who aren’t, yet. Or, people might pick up a paper and start reading my story, and they can tell that I’m excited and say, “oh well this is actually kind of interesting.” On the story side, I just really want to learn what you’re doing, so I can share it with people. You know what I mean? That’s kind of how I propose it when I don’t have a solid story idea and I just want to talk to someone. Can we just meet up and talk about your research broadly? That makes them, I think, a little more comfortable, knowing I’m not going to write a story right away.
Do you think some scientists are uncomfortable because journalists aren’t being straightforward when approaching them?
I’m sure that happened to some of them, but I don’t think that’s why people have responded negatively. I think it’s more they’re nervous of making themselves look bad in front of their peers and their bosses, rather than about what the people think. It’s going to sound so bad. But honestly, I just think they’re scared to be misrepresented, which is totally fair, you know? They have a message, they have a very specific way of saying it, and if you mess with words that they think are very precious to the message, then they might be hesitant.
Do you think having a background in science makes a difference in how we communicate about scientific topics?
It helps me because I feel like I can go into interviews more confidently. I know a lot of journalists don’t want to write about science because they’re nervous. It seems really simple, but nerves can keep you from doing a story. So, having a science background helps me, I guess, speak their language. I already know the jargon and I can translate without being intimidated by it. If there’s an unfamiliar word, I know at this point to be like, “I need to stop you. What does that mean?” But at the same time, journalists who don’t have that background ask really good questions that I don’t always think about asking. I can ask technical questions to write a deeper story, but that’s not always what readers want. Sometimes I get caught in the weeds because I want to ask the next question instead of just focusing on the basics.
How do you think science writers can get past that to put out content that’s interesting for readers?
I think the right writer can make any topic more interesting. There are a lot of good books on physics that really turned me on to physics because the writing was really good and really interesting. They ask these deeper questions that are just fun to ask. As long as you can show people that it’s important—maybe not important to their lives—but that we’re looking into it, then they’ll accept it. I have a hard time with that one, because I think everything is exciting.
So, where do you see the future of science communication?
I have no idea; I’m just riding this wave. There are so many different mediums right now, so there’s something for everybody. I think science is getting more accessible. The Internet alone makes things more accessible. Before, it was just scientists publishing from universities, and you could read about their work in newspapers. There weren’t a lot of science journalists, or writers with degrees in science who were writing about it for newspapers. Now, there are more programs at universities to help scientists communicate, and I think that’s a really big, really significant thing. Not every scientist wants to talk to the press, but I think that it’s becoming more of a thing. That’s kind of cool, watching that happen.