“When the King enters, you stand,” our guide says. He will nod, and you will state your mission to the translator, but do not look up. Then you offer the translator your tribute [a bottle of Hennessey purchased from a well-placed liquor store across the street from the palace] and sit down. If the King approves, he will tell the translator, and the translator will tell you. You will stand up and address him, and he will decide if he would like to speak with you.”
Right. Got it. The aide turns on his heels and clicks down the hallway.
I am in the Ghanaian jungle to interview the King of the Akyeam tribe about the natural resources within his domain. After all, Ghana has just discovered oil, and the national debate that will ensue over the next year will largely determine whether the country goes the way of its resource-cursed neighbors (see: Nigeria) or continues its upward economic journey. It’s a fascinating story at the intersection of geopolitics and environmentalism, tinged with a bitter historical legacy – a far cry from the sterile lab benches where I spend most of my time as a graduate student geobiologist at the California Institute of Technology.
Suddenly the King enters, wearing a thick white robe covered with geometrical splotches of orange and red draped over one arm. The other arm is bare except for a golden armband the size of a dinner plate. I struggle through the protocol –
successfully, apparently – and tap “record” on my tape recorder.
Olympic skiers, Chinese artists, a headphone opera, and Dubai’s energy market may not seem particularly connected, but there’s always a scientific angle.
My moonlighting as a writer began while on a scientific expedition to Antarctica. Scientists often have access to some of the most remote, unexplored regions of the world, and I was eager to share the experience with a broader audience – after all, exploration is a fundamentally human endeavor.
I soon found, to my surprise, that there was an audience for these dispatches from the front lines, and for my colloquial, people-centered treatment of scientific issues (Insider tip: readers often love to learn about science, but in the end, people want to read about people.) When well-respected news organizations began supporting my journalistic endeavors, I expanded my repertoire.
Olympic skiers, Chinese artists, a headphone opera, and Dubai’s energy market may not seem particularly connected, but there’s always a scientific angle. The range of topics I’ve covered provides a continual reminder that science pervades every aspect of modern life. And as a practicing researcher, my inquisitiveness, need for evidence, and critical thinking were helpful journalistic traits.
Insider tip: readers often love to learn about science, but in the end, people want to read about people.
Scientific research is a slow and deliberate process, and while nothing matches the thrill of discovering new things about the world, it’s occasionally nice to shorten that timeline by investigating a topic, synthesizing findings, and communicating them to a mass audience in days or weeks, instead of years. Journalism provides an ideal outlet in this sense, with the added bonus of helping researchers communicate their results to the world. Research and science journalism are synergistic endeavors, and it’s an honor to contribute on both fronts.
Jeff Marlow (LA'07, earth and planetary sciences) splits his time between graduate studies at the California Institute of Technology and writing stories for such notable outlets as The New York Times, Wired, and NASA.