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MIT student blogger Melis A. '08

Combining the Arts and the Sciences by Melis A. '08

Some of the best science writing is happening at MIT. Find out how to get involved.

If you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it well.
Most of the fundamental ideas of science are essentially simple, and may, as a rule, be expressed in a language comprehensible to everyone.
Everything should be as simple as it can be, yet no simpler

Albert Einstein

Ever heard of Alan Lightman? He’s one of the most famous professors at MIT, with a unique talent for both writing and astrophysics. Perhaps you have heard of some of his books: Einstein’s Dreams (1993), Good Benito (1995), Dance for Two (1996), or Reunion (2003). In 2002, he cofounded the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing and is now an adjunct professor.

Last Thursday, I attended a Science Journalism panel sponsored by the MIT Careers Office. The panelists were:
– Phil McKenna, who received his Masters in Science Writing through the program that Lightman established.
– Joe McMaster, a NOVA producer and Knight Fellow (a program that allows journalists to spend nine months immersed in MIT science classes)
– Gita Dayal, who graduated from MIT in 2001 from Brain and Cognitive Science and Comparative Media Studies. She is now a freelance journalist and teaches science journalism at Fordham University in New York City.

It was an interesting panel where the speakers shared their insights about the ins and outs of being a science journalist. I went there just to get a feel for what a career in science journalism would be like.

Even at the undergraduate level, there are plenty of opportunities to learn about science writing. One of the (many) graduation requirements is to get a “concentration” in the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (HASS). Basically, you can pick three or four classes in one of the following subjects:

American Studies, Ancient and Medieval Studies, Anthropology, Archaeology and Archaeological Science, Black Studies, Comparative Media Studies, East Asian, Studies, Economics, Ethnic Studies, Foreign Languages and Literatures (Chinese, ELS, French, German, Japanese, Spanish), History, History of Art and Architecture, Labor in, Industrial Society, Latin American Studies, Linguistics, Literature, Middle Eastern, Studies, Music, Philosophy, Political Science, Psychology, Religious Studies, Russian Studies, Studies in International Literature and Cultures (SILC), Science, Technology, and Society (STS), Theater Arts, Urban Studies, Visual Arts and Design, Women’s Studies, and Writing.

I chose to concentrate in Science Writing. In Spring 2006, I took an Introduction to Technical Communication (21W.732) class that focused on Perspectives on Medicine and Public Health. We had several major writing assignments, including a narrative essay, critical review, review article focused on a public health issue, and final report on the same topic. We also got to read a lot of really good articles from the New England Journal of Medicine and Annals of Internal Medicine.

Last Fall, I took a Science News Writing (21W.778) class taught by B. D. Colen, a Senior Communications Officer at Harvard and former writer, editor, and columnist for The Washington Post and Newsday. He offered a wonderful insider’s perspective and spoke very frankly about the ethical and practical challenges of American journalism. We had many opportunities to practice writing news stories under time pressure, through frequent in-class assignments. Additionally, we interviewed and wrote stories about two Harvard scientists and their cutting-edge research.

This semester I’ll be taking a Science Essay class. Should be fun =)

Is anyone interested in Science Journalism? Questions about HASS concentrations?

11 responses to “Combining the Arts and the Sciences”

  1. Alyssa says:

    First post! Woot I just had to say that once.

    I’m not sure about science journalism, but I can see where this is coming from! I love science and am planning on pursuing something related in college, but I also have a love of music. I never thought of the two disciplines as connected, but I suprised myself when I was finding similarities all the time. The interdisciplinary idea is something that I appreciate very much!!

  2. Bianca '11 says:

    Science Journalism sounds like a really interesting course. I’m pretty sure that I would want to have a concentration in either Foreign Languages or Comparative Media Studies. If I decide on a Foreign Language concentration, would I be able to take more than one language (French and Japanese in my case)? If I can’t, is there another way that I could have two language courses?

    Thanks and good luck with your classes!

  3. arch es. says:

    would the field of science writing include books on scientific concepts…like
    “A Shortcut through time: The path to the quantum computer,” or
    “Faster than the speed of light,” or
    “Simply Einstein”
    Those are all books I’ve enjoyed….they basically discuss the history of and the science behind several modern theories.

    Well, I am definitely interested…I’d want to take Dr. Lightman’s class. Getting in to MIT is the only hindrance.

  4. Science and Arts…..combined….

    I w’O’nder who influences the dream of human here?

  5. Science journalism is an effective mechanism for bridging the esoteric or complex, with simplicity…and hence more rapid understanding, within a wider audience.
    Journalism is much maligned by science researchers and “purists”, and needs to be seen for what it is – a valuable conduit to mass understanding, which, ultimately benefits everyone.
    Terry Hill, sociologist

  6. anonymous says:

    Bianca, MIT does have classes in French and Japanese, and there are different ways to do a HASS concentration in foreign languages. Here’s a page that gives some details: <a>http://web.mit.edu/shass/undergraduate/hass-req/concentration/fields/cfll.shtml</a&gt;

  7. Melis says:

    Thanks, anonymous. Yes, you can take more than one language class, it’s totally not a problem.

  8. Michelle says:

    I’m just tempted to say (after looking through the Science Journalism website), that it sounds absolutely scintillating.

    Science. Writing. Combined.

    That’s just really, really awesome. smile

    Could you explain a bit more about the program please? What type of writing do you participate in – fictional? Non-fiction? (Is there a way that you can incorporate science into fiction?)

    Thank you, Melis! I hope to hear a reply soon. smile

  9. Melis says:

    Hi Michelle,

    I’m not sure which program you are referring to. If you mean the undergraduate science writing classes, then the type of writing is highly dependent on the specific class. It is all non-fiction, but the Science News Writing class focused on shorter, newspaper column-like articles, while the Intro to Technical Communication focuseed on longer pieces.

  10. Sarah says:

    I thought that this article was very good! Even though I am only a freshman in high school, I still really appreciate the fact that you respect the arts and sciences. Keep up the good work!
    Sarah~~

  11. John says:

    Hey Melis,
    I didn’t know you (or MIT for that matter) had a concentration in science writing, but that’s great that you do! I took journalism junior year and then abandoned formal writing for the flippancy of blogging.
    Science and technology writing will be increasingly crucial as rapid advances in bionanotech and computing revolutionize life in our century. There’s no getting around LCDs, PCRs, and AIs anymore, and their integration into everyday life will not come easily. So more people will need to be the communicators between the world of science and popular culture – hence the need for competent science writers.