The 2018-19 Knight Science Journalism fellows arrived on campus last August with big ambitions, and now they’re leaving with even bigger accomplishments. During a three-day Showcase in May, the fellows’ drive, creativity, and journalistic talents were on full display.
“I came here in search of the perfect empathy machine,” recalled Pakinam Amer, referring to a term commonly used to describe augmented and virtual reality. At MIT, Amer set out to discover for herself the technologies’ potential for science storytelling. Through an intense crash course that included hackathons and hands-on class projects, Amer built working virtual reality experiences, including a climate-change inspired adventure that challenged users to escape from a supermarket of the dystopian future, and a physics experience that put the user at the helm of a CERN-like particle collider.
Like Amer, Jeff DelViscio also spent much of his year immersed in the world of AR and VR storytelling — an intense experience he described as a “concentrated shot of new learning.” And like Amer, DelViscio had a lot to show for his efforts: He dazzled guests with VR experiences that took users into the mind and laboratory of Santiago Ramón y Cajal — the Spanish scientist and Nobel laureate known for producing the first detailed drawings of neurons — and to the depths of the mid-Atlantic ridge for an up-close look a striking landscape of calcium-deposit towers known as the lost city. DelViscio said he envisions an “impossible aquarium,” a virtual experience that would allow users to explore the hidden creatures of the deep sea. Through the magic of AR, he brought one of those creatures, a deep-sea jellyfish, to life on the conference room table.
Neither Amer nor DelViscio are convinced that augmented and virtual reality will become newsroom mainstays, but they both agree that the immersive experience — if done right — opens up new possibilities for storytelling.
If journalists are to have any hope of incorporating technologies like AR and VR into their storytelling toolkit, they’ll need the help of developers, said Magnus Bjerg. But Bjerg believes that journalists need developers for much more than that. “I would argue that we also need them to stay alive,” he said. Bjerg spent his year at MIT exploring the journalist-developer relationship — and devising best practices to improve it. He interviewed two dozen thought leaders from some of the world’s top newsrooms and digital media producers, including BBC News, USA Today, The Guardian, and The Washington Post. His takeaway? Much of the friction between journalists and developers stems from cultural differences, but good communication, good team building, and good product management can break down those barriers.
In a presentation that brought new perspective to the opioid crisis, audio journalist Elana Gordon showed herself to be a master of multimedia production. She blended audio interviews, visuals, and expert narrative into a story that had the feel of a live podcast production. During her fellowship year, her research on addiction took her from the halls of MIT, to the streets of Boston and Lynn, to Mexico, where she visited clinics and hospitals to learn about the country’s healthcare system. She weaved those threads together into a gripping oral history of drug use and policy, told largely through the lens of a person who helped create some of the first syringe exchanges in Massachusetts.
The syringe happened to also be a central character in Jason Dearen’s fellowship work. Dearen spent his year uncovering the story behind the worst outbreak of fungal meningitis in U.S. history — an outbreak traced to tainted pain medication prepared at the New England Compounding Center, just outside Boston. Epidural injections of the drug sickened 850 people and claimed more than a hundred lives, Dearen said. For his deep dive into the outbreak and the shadowy drug industry that caused it, Dearen spoke with victims’ families, sat in on courtroom trials, took courses on epidemiology, and boned up on federal regulatory policy. The story may be coming soon to a bookshelf near you: Dearen recently signed a deal with Avery, a Penguin Random House imprint, to write a book about the outbreak.
This much was true of Rachel Gross’s year at MIT: She wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty. Her fellowship exploits included dissecting sheep brains for an anatomy lab, watching a live birth from the delivery room, and shadowing a surgeon during a procedure to remove of a dermoid cyst. But the apple of her keenly observant eye was the female clitoris. Through the captivating story of the relationship between French author Marie Bonaparte and Sigmund Freud, Gross how ignorance about the clitoris — a widely misunderstood “iceberg organ” that lies mostly under the surface — has contributed to some of humanity’s most horrific and sexist practices, including genital mutilation.
To say that most of us are confused by blockchain and bitcoin would be an understatement. But Talia Bronshtein isn’t most people. The economics professor-turned-data journalist spent her year at MIT developing tools to demystify the concepts behind decentralized computing. In her presentation, she demonstrated a those tools with professorial skill: Using a pair of scissors, a stack of Post-It notes, and a page from a “Where’s Waldo?” children’s book, Bronshtein walked her audience through the basics of cryptography and blockchain. The crown jewel of her work was a self-updating database of more than 2000 experts in the field of decentralized applications. She plans to use the tool to curate news from the world of decentralized applications — and hopefully take some of the mystery out of a technology that’s sure to play an increasing role in society.
How to make the complicated plain? That question — which has vexed many a science journalist — provided the backdrop for Amina Khan’s fellowship year. Khan wasn’t interested in just any old science question; she dove head first into the search for life on other planets — a topic, as she describes it, at the “nexus of physics, chemistry, and biology.” In her quest to find ways to make the material approachable and memorable to the lay public, she came up with enough ideas to fill any vision board: Evergreen explainers that would serve as “connective tissue” between breaking news content, games that reinforce basic concepts, and even educational comic strips.
From art exhibits like Ai Weiwei’s “Frankenstein Tree” to city hall debates about tree-protection ordinances, trees have taken on a new life in this era of heightened concern about climate change and resilience. Lisa De Bode dove right into the thick of the topic during her year at MIT, chronicling the growing environmental personhood movement in Cambridge and beyond. She explored the deep and — in some cases, troubling — roots of the movement, whose members range from neopagans who share a ritualistic relationship with trees, to people struggling with climate grief who feel that “nature has become an extension of their bodies,” to academics.
Though people may disagree over whether trees should have legal rights, there’s little dispute that the climate is changing, and Tim De Chant wants to help ordinary people do something about it. His project was to build a new digital publication focused on the transition to clean energy — or, as he put it, to build a model of sustainable climate journalism. After months working through the inevitable kinks and questions — Where will the funding come from? What will the magazine look like? — he was able to debut a beta version: A handsomely designed site that he describes as Wirecutter for climate conscious consumers. The new magazine, Future Proof, will feature a mix of product reviews and investigative journalism. A soft launch is planned for this summer.
De Chant closed his talk by mentioning how invaluable it was to have the support of a tight-knit cohort of fellows, a sentiment echoed by many of the other fellows. After the showcase wrapped up, fellows geared up for the year’s final two events: A graduation ceremony with MIT President Rafael Reif, and a farewell dinner with family, friends, and KSJ staff. The dinner marked an end to one chapter and the beginning of another: The fellows’ plans for the coming year are varied, but all are set to soar to new heights.