Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Interview with Draper Alumna Brooke Borel

Brooke Borel graduated from Draper in 2007. Since her graduation, she has embarked on a successful career as a freelance science journalist. Brooke took the time to answer some questions about her career path and her time at Draper.

For those who may not be familiar with the field, what kind of stories does a science journalist cover, and for what kind of publications?

I write for a few different publications: Popular Science, Cosmos, and G: The Green Lifestyle Magazine. The latter two are based in Sydney, Australia, and I interned with them there around a year ago, which is how I got started in the field. I also do research and fact checking for Science Illustrated, which is a sister publication of Popular Science here in New York.

Science journalists write about a number of different topics-- basically anything science related. Some have specialties, but right now I'm writing about any science topic that I personally find interesting. My undergraduate work in biomedical engineering covered a wide range of areas, from chemistry and biology to mechanics and electronics, so I feel pretty comfortable covering a number of different fields. My work for Cosmos has been mainly reporting on basic science. G is an environmental magazine, so all of my articles for them are green-themed. And for PopSci, I've done a number of different projects, including consumer product reviews, a book review, and basic science coverage. I write fairly regularly for their blog at, and I have an article coming out in their May print issue, which is the first time I'll have a byline in a print magazine here in the US (I've had a handful in Australia). It's a pretty small piece, but check it out if you see it on the newsstand!

As social awareness and interest in topics such as climate and environmental issues increases, it seems likely that scientific reporting will be increasingly in demand. How do you think the field is changing and developing, and how do you see yourself involved in that development?

I think that there has been a vast improvement in science journalism over the past decade or so, and it is continuing to improve. I think the main challenge is finding reporters who both understand the science that they are covering and can write about it in ways that the general public can understand. I see myself as part of a larger movement of people with science backgrounds who have moved to journalism as a way to participate in science communication and to bring science news to the public. I think the current issues today, from climate change and other environmental issues to medical breakthroughs and controversies, will really impact people's lives directly, and that more people are realizing this and are seeking ways in which to become better informed. Hopefully this demand will continue, and the need for people like me will continue to grow with it.

How has your interdisciplinary background been useful in your career?

Although I really liked many things about my undergraduate program, and it covered a wide range of topics in science and technology, it was a pretty narrow program on a larger scale. I had hardly any opportunity to study anything outside of science and math. I think we were required to take a total of six social science or humanities courses during our entire four years as undergraduates. I don't think this gives students a broad enough view of the world, or the opportunity to see how their field might connect with other, seemingly disparate fields.

My work at Draper allowed me to explore so many different areas of study, including the history of science and science's relationship to both social and cultural forces. I think this gave me a unique perspective on science, and I'm not sure I'd be where I am now without that perspective. Also, just on a personal note, I liked that each Draper student had a unique curriculum, yet we were all able to take classes together. Each person really brought an interesting set of skills to the table. There aren't many programs out there that allow for such a broad set of academic interests.

What were your research interests when you started at Draper? Did these change throughout the course of the program?

I was actually pretty unfocused when I first started-- all I knew is that I wanted to write and that I wanted a better basic understanding of the humanities and social sciences. After a semester or so, I started realizing that I could pull from my experiences with science in both my writing and my research at Draper. I mainly took science studies and gender politics classes, as well as some science education classes outside of Draper. At the time, I hadn't considered the possibility of being a journalist, otherwise I probably would have tried to take classes at SHERP, which is a great program. Instead, I was focusing my work on the debate on gender bias in university science and engineering faculties and labs, which is what I wrote my thesis on.

So yes, my interests evolved during my time at Draper, and they are still evolving. I think it takes some time to figure out exactly where your niche is in the world.

What advice would you give current Draper students, particularly those who are interested in pursuing a career in your field?

This is actually advice that was given to me by Andy Jewett, my thesis advisor. He said this during a seminar at Draper a couple of years ago: be tenacious. And he's right. It's easy to get discouraged when you are looking for jobs, particularly in the current economic climate. But you just have to keep trying, submitting your resume and letters of interest, networking. Something is bound to come from all of that, but you have to keep trying in order to make it happen.

For those interested in pursuing a career in science journalism, or any kind of journalism for that matter, I think the best thing you can do is find an internship. One way to get jobs is to show what you've done in the past, which means you need published clips. But it's sort of a Catch 22, because in order to get published, you first need some sort of writing job. Most internships give you a chance to write, and you have a handful of bylines by the time you are finished, as well as some good connections. After that, you just have to be tenacious until you find solid work. Also, I know the climate isn't that great right now, particularly in publishing. But even if print is dying, there is still a need for people to write content for websites and other electronic media, so don't be discouraged. Just get your name out there and see where it takes you.