Midway through a doctoral program in physics, Sophia Chen began taking journalism classes. After earning both an undergraduate and master’s degree in physics, Chen changed her mind about pursuing a PhD and decided to follow her love of writing. She later received the AAAS Mass Media fellowship, and was hooked. Although Chen’s writing is mostly physics-focused, she’s written for a wide variety of media, from articles in Wired and Science to scripts for the popular YouTube channel, Physics Girl.
What inspired you to start doing science journalism?
I’d always enjoyed writing and I always enjoyed science. I didn’t really write about science. It didn’t really occur to me to merge them until I took a journalism class and started working at AZPM on campus. There was this journalist there who was covering a lot of mental health, and I helped her on one of her projects. I thought it was really cool. It combined two things that I enjoyed and had experience in. For me, I’ve found a lot of meaning in doing science journalism, but at the time I went into it, it was kind of an experiment.
What’s the best part of your job?
I really like talking to people. One of the things that I have really enjoyed about science journalism is that scientists are so passionate and so excited about what they do. Talking to anybody about something they’re really excited about is fun, because that excitement is contagious. I also enjoy writing. Interviewing people and writing are two very different things. They really use different parts of your brain. I just like so much about science journalism. I like knowing that people read it. When I was working in science, nobody read what I wrote. It’s nice feeling like I’m providing a service for the reader.
Do you think that having a science-heavy background influences the way you cover scientific topics?
I think it gives me a different perspective when it comes to the types of stories that I choose. I don’t think it makes me a better science journalist. I have a relatively easy time translating the technical details and that sort of thing, but I think that there are a lot of things that a scientific training glosses over when it comes to journalism. These are usually in the arena of ethics and the overall meaning for society. As a scientist, you’re trained to think in a very specific way, and while some of that is useful in talking to scientists, it’s not always useful in writing and engaging an interesting story.
Has your audience ever influenced what you choose to write about?
Yes and no. Some of the sites that I write for, I can see which articles do well. Nobody is pressuring me to write specific things, but when I get feedback like that, I probably subconsciously gravitate toward writing about more popular things. I wouldn’t say that’s the main factor in how I write my stories. I try to pick things that I think are interesting and worth covering.
What about the other way around—do you think that the way we cover science influences public opinions?
I think it does. I think science is really important, in the sense that science is in everything in our modern life. We rely on technology. You don’t really need to know how a phone works or how a laptop works in order to use it. I write a lot about basic science, so I write about physics and data science. A lot of the things I tend to write about are very esoteric, and if I didn’t write about it for Wired, for example, or I also write for this YouTube show, there aren’t that many places that do write about it for a more general audience. I think there would be even less awareness about those topics. I know that as a reader, I read a lot about things like climate change, and it influences my opinions.
How important is it for scientists to communicate about their work?
Science literacy is really important. It’s important for everybody, not just scientists, to have a grasp on all the ways that science is in their lives, so that they can have an informed opinion about it. Whether they like it or not, science will have an effect on their life. Climate, or medicine, or technology—all these things are in their life. To have that sort of general audience writing makes this accessible to people. The more technical stuff is very jargon-y. People are really smart, but you have to talk to them in the language they understand. The high-level stuff is important too, for people at high levels to talk to each other. I think that scientists are not always trained to talk to different audiences. I know a lot of scientists who are great communicators, and a know that a lot of scientist work at it, but I would definitely say that a lot of scientists have challenges with communication.
What are your thoughts on the general state of communication in the U.S.?
There’s a very rich science communication environment because of the Internet, right now. There’s lots of really cool YouTube shows, lots of very cool online magazines, different outlets. I think the business model for science communication is evolving, so you’ll see these places coming out with paywalls. What was formerly free is not sustainable anymore. I totally get why there are paywalls, because writers need to get paid for their work. But I also think that science communication should be broadly accessible to people. Regardless, I see a lot of very talented writers out there and a lot of really cool publications. I don’t lack things to read.
Is there anything you would change about the way we communicate science?
It would be cool if scientific publications would have more open access journal articles. I know that money is the issue there, but it would be really cool if the peer-reviewed journals could be accessible to everybody. There are so many types of science communication. I’m of the mind that the more writing the better. People will find the good stuff. would be nice if there was more time and money for a more robust fact checking system. There are subpar blogs and things that just aren’t fact checked. I’ve written plenty of things that are not fact checked, and sometimes I have to do error corrections and retractions. It’s really not the norm for online news.
With that in mind, where do you see science communication going in the future?
What I do is find interesting stories and characters or experiments that will catch people’s attention. In terms of what other people can do… when I was a graduate student, we would always go and volunteer at science fairs. I think things like science fairs are really important for kids to get interested in science. Citizen science gives people a basic language to talk about. If I’m describing something like an electrostatic phenomenon, I can use the example of rubbing a balloon on someone’s head, since people know that. When I make these analogies, I have to assume that people already know the references. The more science education they have, the more types of references I can make to then explain a more complicated phenomenon. It lays the groundwork for people to understand more complicated things later.