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Interview: Karen Zusi, Broad Institute

9 min read, August ‘19

Hi and welcome to the second edition of Figurative Coffee! Today, I’m sharing a conversation I had last summer with Karen Zusi (@kzoosi), Media Relations Manager at the Broad Institute, a genomics research center at Harvard and MIT.

I originally conducted this interview for Science and Us to help student readers learn about careers like science writing and journalism.

Thank you to Karen for helping copyedit and revise this article as I repurpose it, and belated thank you to my friend Rebecca Swernosfky for proofreading last week’s article! As always, you can read this article and past/future ones on Substack.

Kat: What do you do?

Karen: My official title is “Media Relations Manager.” At the Broad Institute, that involves talking to researchers about new exciting work, getting the important messages down, writing up an interesting summary of it, posting it on our website, and sending it to journalists.

Another chunk of my work is processing requests from journalists. For example, “I heard about this cool thing you’re doing called the Metastatic Breast Cancer Project, and I want to write about it.” Sometimes they reach out directly to a researcher, who might loop my department in.

We try to make it known around the Broad that we’re available to help sketch out and refine people’s messages, especially for researchers who aren’t as comfortable talking with the media. We sit down with them and offer pointers: “Here’s what you can expect and some questions they might ask. What do you want to journalist to know?” We help the researchers get into that mindset.

There are always other responsibilities that come with working in an institution, like helping refine what our key messages should be as a whole, updating our website, or writing part of a newsletter. Keep everything that goes out to journalists and to the public in alignment is a team-wide effort.

Kat: What’s an interesting project you’ve worked on as part of your job?

Karen: Last spring, we invited twenty-some-odd journalists from media outlets across the country for an intense two days of learning about the science happening here. Planning the event took a lot of effort, and one of our goals was to build relationships with those members of the journalism community. It was personally exciting for me as science writer to meet journalists writing for outlets that I read and admire. Professionally, relationships are important, and having these connections has helped us do our jobs.

Although I’ve changed my trajectory from journalism to institutional communications, I still interface with journalists, so my journalism experience is very important. It helps me give them what they need. If we have a radio reporter do a story here, I know that means, “I want to tour the lab with a microphone and a recorder and record sound effects that the machines make to create a cool scene.” And I know that because I’ve worked in radio before and have done sound stories.

Kat: What’s your background?

Karen: I wanted to be a wildlife biologist. That was the goal. As a kid, I loved animals, and when I was younger, the only animal-related career I knew was a veterinarian. During high school, I got really into bird watching. One of my classes required a months-long project, on the scale of what you might do for a science fair, and so I looked at whether birds preferred cheap or expensive bird seed — which my parents thankfully financed. I learned a lot about backyard birds, and had a revelation that people study wild animals for a living — I thought, “That’s really cool, maybe I could do that.”

I majored in biology with a focus on ecology, worked in an ornithology research lab, and did a liberal arts program, which mostly involved literature and philosophy courses, that Villanova University offered. I knew I didn’t want to get my Ph.D. — I wasn’t planning to go into academia and run a lab, and I didn’t think I needed the degree to be a wildlife biologist somewhere else. But was pretty sure I needed a more specialized Master’s.

For a variety of reasons — mostly because I studied abroad the first semester of my senior year, which is usually when people are applying to grad school — I ended up taking a year off between undergrad and grad school.

I got a bunch of seasonal jobs, one as a naturalist at a state park in Connecticut, where I grew up. For seven or eight months, I led tours, ran educational outreach activities for adults and children, and helped take care of animals. I volunteered with local Audubon Society chapters doing seasonal migration bird studies, then with the Natural History Museum at Yale, and did an internship with the Student Conservation Association. These filled my time as I was working on my grad school application.

Then in grad school, I switched my research focus from birds to mammals. I went to Frostburg State University in Western Maryland. It was in a gorgeous mountain town in the middle of the Appalachian Mountains, and I loved living there. For my master’s thesis, I studied river otters in Costa Rica.

Kat: How did you learn about science communication?

Karen: Honestly, I remember sitting in my parents’ living room once and just Googling “science writing.” I don’t know why I did that, but I discovered all those Master’s programs in science journalism and science writing and I was like, “Oh, people go to school for this!”

I didn’t read much science writing growing up. National Geographic would have been the only one. I kept an album of really stunning animal photos from National Geographic magazines. I had two binders full of cool wildlife photos. The glossy wildlife magazines were what I subscribed to. I didn’t read a lot of science news or popular science books, but I still loved science and figured, “Yeah, I’m not bad at writing, so maybe I can potentially combine these.”

Kat: How did you shift your career to science journalism?

Karen: In the biology world, I had wonderful academic mentors during my undergrad and graduate work, and I was very focused on taking the right classes — but I really wasn’t sure if I was acquiring the practical skills that I needed for my goals. I knew all of the skills I had collected were great if I chose to go on for a Ph.D., but that wasn’t what I wanted.

Looking back, I definitely should have made more use of my connections during the various internships and seasonal positions, and even in grad school — I was working with folks in so many different areas of wildlife biology, and I should have set aside time to specifically ask about their career paths and any advice they could share. “Informational interviews” have become the bread-and-butter of career education, but the concept at the time didn’t even occur to me!

I ultimately started getting concerned that I was reaching the end of this nebulous “career preparation time” in school and internships without having acquired the right marketable skills to work as a biologist outside of academia. I had already been thinking about science writing and science communication as another potential goal, and I remembered the science journalism programs I had found — so I thought, “Well, I can do school. Why not a one-year crash course to get those skills?”

To have a better shot at getting accepted to a journalism program, I wrote for the campus newspaper at Frostburg, which was really weird because it was mostly undergraduates, and here I was, a college graduate student, saying to the editor, a senior at the time, “I want to write for the campus paper!” For a semester, I wrote some general articles for them. Then they let me do a science column for fun, where I would write about 500 words on whatever the science news of the week ways, or cool animal behavior studies I had read: dolphin-dolphin communication or taming Siberian foxes. They gave me free range to write about whatever I wanted, and that was the closest thing I had to any clips in terms of being able to say, “Here’s my published writing.”

Toward the end of my biology program, I applied to the science writing program at Boston University. I remember, after getting my acceptance notice, I got a phone call from one of the co-directors of the program. He basically said, “What can I tell you to make you come to our program? We really want you here.” I replied, “You’re the only one I applied to, so I’m coming.” He said, “Oh, great! Well, what can I tell you?” It was a really funny conversation!

Kat: What do you think was the most challenging part of going to school for science journalism?

Karen: Getting people to return your emails as student journalist. If you say, “I’m writing an article for The New York Times,” almost everyone will answer your emails. But if it’s just for a homework assignment, then it’s tough to get people to respond to you in a timely fashion. Student journalists, at that point, are dependent on the good nature of researchers.

Also, people in these programs might have spent five years coming up with a bunch of cool topics to explore as a writer. But once you get to the second semester, you’ve already used up a whole bunch of them for your assignments, and there’s more time pressure to come up with fresh ideas and learn where you need to go to find them.

Kat: Do you think it would have been helpful to know about this career when you were a kid or in high school?

Karen: Yes, absolutely! I really wish I had known about it much earlier. If this had been my goal from the start, I would have probably double majored in biology and journalism in undergrad and tried to get those skills under my belt as early as possible, as well as some multimedia skills along the way — like video or even coding, to help put together interactive web features.

Kat: What do you think is the best way to teach current students about these opportunities?

Karen: Career exposure in general is so important. For 17-year-olds applying to college and being expected to pick a major, pick a school, pick a career, it’s especially hard if you don’t know what your options are, and you can end up going down a path that is ultimately not the one that will make you happy.

People come who are interested in science or writing might not know that there are opportunities to combine them and get paid to do so. Teachers can play a big role in changing that. My science teachers never talked about potential careers in science — I think they were very focused on getting us to learn about the cell cycle and photosynthesis — but in this day and age, it’s so important for budding science communicators to know that it’s very much an option.

It can take a lot of different forms, too: it can mean outreach work for a non-profit, working at a museum or an aquarium or a zoo, or going to Capitol Hill to work on science policy. Journalism can be a tough lifestyle, especially freelancing, and it’s not for everyone.

Kat: Do you have any advice to students interested in science journalism?

Karen: First of all, learn that it exists. The first hurdle is just figuring out that people do this, and it’s cool and fun. Reading science news is important, if only to see that you have to talk to people. Many writers are introverts, and if you read a science story, you’ll see people quoted, so know that it’s not necessarily just sitting alone at a desk.

It’s important to show people that you have an interest in the science and that you can write. For the latter, it might be writing in the school or community newspaper, so you have something to show that says, “I know how to write. People will publish my writing somewhere.” Another option is to start a personal blog.

Most colleges have an office of communications. If you’re in college, you have a unique opportunity to take advantage of those resources. Introduce yourself and your interest in science writing, and ask if there are any ways you can get involved or help out, or even just have an informational conversation with someone in the office whose work you’re interested in. Once you graduate, those resources aren’t exactly at your fingertips anymore.

Throughout my journalism master’s programs and internships, I built relationships with a whole bunch of editors who I’ve been able to freelance for, so that was very important in terms of being successful. The way I came to work at the Broad was through connections. One of my supervisors had a friend who worked here and let me know that there was an opening for a science writer.

I’m personally always happy to be an informal mentor and talk about the field with students who are interested. A lot of my science writing career was shaped by great mentors. Lastly, people break into science writing in a million different ways, so recognize that there’s not just one guaranteed path.

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