The Science News reporter is digging into what makes mice and other pests so successful at living with humanity, despite the lengths we go to to get rid of them.
Three years into her Ph.D research on drug addiction and the brain, Bethany Brookshire started to experience the “grad school slump.” Biomedicine wasn’t quite working for her.
So one day, Brookshire snuck away from the lab to attend a lunch on alternative careers. She kept it a secret. “To admit you were pursuing alternate careers,” she explains, “was to say that you were failing at your plans.”
More than a decade later, Brookshire is anything but a failure. An accomplished science writer and podcast host, she’s spending the 2019-2020 academic year at MIT as a Knight Science Journalism Fellow, studying human-animal interactions at the urban and suburban interface. And it all began, as she tells it, with her surreptitious lunchtime excursion.
At the event, Brookshire remembers running into an editor of Scientific American and boldly asking if she could write for the magazine. “To his credit, he did not laugh in my face” she says. It was 2008, and the editor suggested she start a blog. She did. Successfully. Her second blog post, on Sigmund Freud’s experience using cocaine, ended up in The Open Laboratory’s anthology of the best science blogging of the year.
In 2011, things came full circle when Brookshire’s blog, written under the pseudonym Scicurious, moved to Scientific American. By then she was doing postdoctoral research with mice at the University of Pennsylvania. Writing under a pseudonym allowed her to keep her alternate career as a science writer secret. But in a May 2013 blog post, Brookshire decided to let the cat out of the bag. A few months later, she announced she’d be taking a new full-time job with Science News. Her secret side gig was now her main gig.
Despite leaving her mouse research behind for a career in journalism, Brookshire continued to be intrigued by vermin. Before coming to MIT, she published an article on the self-domestication of house mice, which launched an interest in writing about pest-human interactions. “I love the idea that there are animals in this world who have moved in and taken advantage of what we leave behind,” she says.
At MIT, Brookshire has been digging into what makes mice and other pests so successful at living with humanity, despite the lengths people go to to get vermin out of their lives.
Brookshire credits supportive mentors at Science News for helping propel her career to where it is now. As a multi-media science journalist for Science News for Students — Science News’ digital magazine for young audiences — she writes, creates audio segments, and makes videos to inspire middle schoolers. Brookshire is aware that her work has the potential to inspire future scientists. So during her year at MIT, she has been working to become a better mentor. “I never want to say no when someone says ‘Hey can we have a phone call?’” she says.
Brookshire says she is especially interested in mentoring women and underrepresented minorities. “By the time I am old and retired and quit and decide to become a fancy mouse breeder in my old age — I want the world of [science communication] and science journalism to be the least white male place you’ve ever seen.”
This is the ninth in a series of profiles of the 2019-20 Knight Science Journalism fellows, written by students in MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing.