Science three questions

Celina Zhao ’24 shares her journey in science journalism

Zhao explains navigating her place at MIT and finding her passion for science journalism and communication.

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“What is a honeypot ant?”
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Celina Zhao ’24, a 21W major at MIT

Celina Zhao ’24 is a 21W (Writing) major. She intends to pursue a career as a science journalist and sat down with The Tech to share her path to science journalism at MIT, her favorite writing projects, and her perspective on the importance of communication in science. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

What sparked your interest in science journalism?

Science journalism wasn’t a straight path. I came to MIT during my junior year of high school for a summer program called Women’s Technology Program (WTP), a summer program designed to introduce girls with no experience in mechanical engineering or computer science to such fields. But I was so bad at everything. I felt like I didn’t belong at MIT.

But on one of the last days, there was a presentation by a few Course 2s, and I saw one table that had a little robotic bug. They were designing the shape of beetles that could fly, and they told me how the robotic beetles could be used for search and rescue missions.

I didn't think much about it at the time, but I went back home and finished my senior year. I came across the New York Times science writing contest. It was the first year they held it. There was no precedent for what type of story to write or what they were exactly looking for. But I thought back to the little robot bugs and ended up writing a piece on microrobots. That was my first story in science writing, learning how to concatenate sources and make cool science topics interesting to readers.

I ended up winning the contest, and it was published in the Times. That is what sparked my interest in science writing because it is a field that is not widely known. Most people don’t know what science journalism is. When people hear that I am a writing major focused on science journalism, it’s their first time hearing that.  

21W was always supposed to be a minor. I first declared 20, then 1, back to 20, then 7, and finally 21W. I was fully committed by junior fall. What held me back was the question: why would I come to MIT for a writing degree? I have so many class credits above the minimum credit because I have taken so many classes, but it has helped me in writing. For instance, I wrote about bee tongues last summer, and my knowledge from Fluid Mechanics (1.060) was useful.

How has being at MIT influenced your interest in science journalism? How have your background and past experiences influenced how you communicate science?

MIT has been the perfect environment for developing this. At the undergraduate level, there’s no actual major, but the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing is super developed. All the graduate instructors teach undergraduate courses. 

In my freshman spring, I took Science Journalism (21W.778) taught by Professor Levenson; I loved that class so much. This class gave me the start to get the clips needed to apply for my first internship. Prof. Vivek Bald teaches two documentary classes. One of them is the Short Attention Span Documentary (CMS.335). This class teaches you how to make short films, around the length of a TikTok video or YouTube short, because everyone’s attention span is so short these days. You make video projects on a topic of your choice and learn how to edit videos in Adobe Premiere. One project I did was following this paper about how much of your dog’s personality is determined by genetics. Are golden retrievers nicer than pit bulls? It was a useful and productive class. MIT emphasizes the “doing” part of things. It’s not just analyzing films. You get to learn how to make a video yourself, which is a super valuable process that goes into the projects and skills for future jobs. 

There’s also the institutional communication side, where I had an internship at the MIT Biology department, writing student and faculty profiles the following year. A lot of science journalism is education-based, specifically reaching out to communities who don’t have access or privilege. For example, I did GTL Korea for two years. DynaMIT is also great because the program reaches out to underprivileged students from the Boston area. 

A lot of my experiences were outside of MIT. If I could redo anything, I definitely would have written for The Tech. There’s also the MIT Undergraduate Research Journal. I submitted one of my pieces from Prof. Levenson’s class. People are really willing to help you and create opportunities. For instance, I made my job at the MIT Biology Department a UROP. You can reach out to the MIT Technology Review because they are willing to work with students. I wish there were more people interested in science writing.

My first internship was at Cell Press, which publishes Cell and more than fifty other journals. I was a science communications intern. Before the papers are released, they go to the press office. I chose the papers and interviewed the scientists, such as the main author, then wrote up the press release, which is “why, as a journalist, I should cover this topic.” Press releases are the step before writing science journalism for the public.

That summer, I wrote ten press releases and got to interview people across the world. There was a standout piece about a tortoise that chased and caught a baby bird. I also wrote about the first case of the bubonic plague and a device that uses sweat from fingers to harvest energy.

This past summer, I was at Science Magazine on their news team, which is editorially independent of their publication site. This means that we don’t have to write about news only from Science Magazine. The news can be from any journal or be a broad societal topic. We followed the most recent papers, which involved reading the press releases and turning them into content that was more digestible and exciting for the general public. There was a big cyber attack on the International Gemini Observatory telescopes last year. Generally, we covered the most recent news that people who are interested in science should be paying attention to right now.

In between journalism and communications, I also worked at NOVA for two internships. NOVA is a documentary, but it straddles the line between teaching and critical thought. My first internship was with the digital video side, so I chose snippets from the hour-long documentaries and decided what to put on social media to make people excited about this documentary. I also made a video on hidden microbes that can travel through wildfire smoke in the West, which is an interesting problem given the wildfires. My second internship at NOVA involved fact-checking for the documentary series. I’d review 50-page long scripts and provide 200 pages of notes back to the researchers and say that some things required double-checking or more support for their claim. This was my early career exploration of science journalism.

I come from Georgia, where a lot of people didn’t believe in COVID and masking. My response to the question about distrust in science is: how do I make people trust me? That comes from identity. As someone who grew up in this environment, I try to reach out to them, to this shared relationship. This makes science writing more personal; it’s about who we are as connected members of society. Journalism is an interactive field. 

What are your favorite writing assignments so far? 

The first one was about these ants in western Australia. They are called honeypot ants because they make honey. The ants suck on the excrement of aphids and produce honey in their bodies. Look up pictures. They swell like grapes.

The indigenous people in Australia have known this for thousands of years: honeypot ants are a medicinal treatment for skin wounds and sore throats and stuff. But Western science has never really looked into that. There was a paper this summer in which Australian scientists looked at the microbial properties of honey, and what these people have been doing has been supported by science. It has chemical reactions that allow these indigenous people to take care of their wounds.

This writing assignment is an important reminder that as much as we think that institutionalized science is the golden standard for justifying whether something is accurate, there was a lot more knowledge spread before the advent of institutionalized science. We can learn from other populations that have been practicing these things for a long time. 

My second favorite would have to be this big story this summer about a fossil uncovered in China that preserved a snapshot of a reptile biting the ribs of the dinosaur. Suddenly, volcanic mudflow engulfed them both. The controversy is that this area in China has been known for forgeries in the past, so experts are like, “Oh, I don’t know about that. There might be some forgery going on.” I was really interested in covering this story because I knew that every other outlet would probably jump on it.

But the corresponding author listed on the paper, who was Canadian, said he’d never seen the fossil in person. I felt it’d be cool to talk to the scientists who had actually seen the fossil, which was in China. But this guy was super hard to find — I ended up tracking him through WeChat and calling Chinese universities. When I finally got a hold of him, I interviewed him in Chinese. After collecting all this information, it seemed more like a cultural issue. These forgeries are normally done by farmers in the area who dig up the fossils because if you find one and sell it, it’s a year’s worth of income. But there wasn’t any sign of malpractice here. It’s just a cultural difference. For example, American or European paleontologists typically like to do every step of the process by themselves. I got to straddle these cultural differences and talk to both sides of the argument.

These two experiences opened my eyes to how big the world is and how many people can be doing science. I think there’s a way for all this to come together and for us to understand these differences, despite them.

I think science journalism is easier than you’d expect. Readers are pretty intelligent, more than we give them credit for. The key is not overexplaining and trusting that they have the critical thinking to make connections. In my classes, I learned to make science writing like a book, but the character doesn’t have to be a person. The topic you’re explaining can also be a character, and make it as engaging as possible. For me, this is more important than making it explainable in layman’s terms because you want to make sure that people want to read it in the first place. If it’s boring they aren’t going to read it, no matter how explainable you make it. I prioritize highlighting the cool parts and trusting the readers to do the rest. 

[Joke] How can we recruit you to The Tech’s Science section?

I’ll write something — that will be my goal. For my bucket list.

If you want to read more science journalism, here are some of Celina’s favorite sources:

Undark (a science and society magazine by the Knight Science Journalism Fellowship Program at MIT)

New York Times Trilobites (“fascinating morsels of science”)

Atlas Obscura (mythology and culture, unusual and obscure travel destinations)

Favorite science journalist: Emily Anthes (NYT, graduated from the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing!) She wrote about these former lab chimps who are now in sanctuaries where they can live out the rest of their lives. The piece was well-written, and I got a look into how scientists should treat lab animals and take care of them after their research. She writes niche stories I wouldn’t have asked questions about. When you read them, they are super immersive. I always learn something new.