During her final year at MIT, Course XII (earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences) major Alexandra Witze ’92 had a revelation.
“I realized that I didn’t want to be a geologist in either academia or industry,” says Witze. Although she enjoyed science, she also had a penchant for writing. So with encouragement from her writing professor, she applied to and was accepted by a graduate program at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) that was geared toward science journalism.
Voila: A science writer was born.
“I went to UCSC directly after MIT and have been working as a [science] reporter ever since,” says Witze, who notes that her MIT training “has been very helpful in giving me a solid technical grounding so that, for instance, I can read a research paper and understand what it is trying to say.”
An award-winning writer, she has covered science for publications including the Dallas Morning News, Earth magazine, and Science News, and has done freelance work for many others. She is currently a correspondent for Nature, having earlier served as the magazine’s Washington, DC Bureau Chief.
Among her favorite stories: a 2013 profile of the CalTech physicist who is the project scientist for the Voyager missions, a feature on the earthquake phenomenon known as “slow slip and tremor,” and another feature on the science of lightning. She reported the latter in part from a “lightning lab” outside Socorro, New Mexico.
A fan of both science and journalism, Witze appeared in a video produced by the American Geophysical Union about interacting with journalists. In the video, she gives a number of tips for how scientists can work successfully with journalists to communicate their research to the public. For example, she lists the standard set of questions she runs through for almost every interview. Ultimately, she concludes, “If you spend enough time with a journalist, if you provide them with the information they need, the story that comes out is going to be accurate and fair.”
2014 brings new accomplishments and adventures for Witze. She’ll spend February at the Santa Fe Institute as an inaugural recipient of a journalism fellowship in complexity science. And in March she’ll publish her first book, with husband Jeff Kanipe, on the 1783 eruption of the Icelandic volcano Laki. Island on Fire describes how the eruption “changed the history of science and the history of Europe,” she says.