Denis Schluppeck bio photo

Denis Schluppeck

Neuroscientist, vision, fMRI

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In the summer of 2016, I spent a month working as a science journalist at the Financial Times. This blog post is a brief vignette of my fantastic experience with the FT. It’s also a pointer to the British Science Association’s Media Fellowship scheme, which has placed scientists like me with media hosts since 1987.

My mentor was Clive Cookson, the FT’s Science Editor, and I was sponsored by The University of Nottingham.

Was it a good experience? I absolutely loved it. As I told one of my media fellow colleagues, it felt like I had accidentally walked into a journalism master class and just never got found out.

If you get a chance to do this or a similar placement, go for it. Working with (and as) a science journalist will give you a unique insight into how and why science stories get into the news. And the experience will help you make your own work more approachable and relevant for others.

View from my desk across the 2nd floor at the FT

What did I do? I got dropped in at the deep end. Already on day one, I started writing for the newspaper - and the work just kept going until the last day of my placement.

In my four short weeks as a media fellow, I managed to get ten stories published in the FT. All those articles went up at and about half also made it into one of the newspaper’s print editions. Only a couple of things I wrote remained in my drafts folder.

I covered topics from archaeology to astrophysics. (The full list of stories is here, but reading the articles requires a subscription.) There is also a report for the British Science Assocation about my fellowship, which contains a bit more detail about a typical day at the office.

My first piece in print - about Tudor skulls

So what have I learnt? A year’s worth of experiences were packed into those four short weeks. But two ideas stuck out:

1. Clarity of writing and relevance to the reader are the top priorities for a good science story.

Journalists and editors have an amazing ability to maintain the perspective of the reader when looking at a piece of writing. They are harsh (but fair) critics - of their own work, too.

2. The Level of detail and the amount of available time are the two things that distinguish how journalists and scientists work.

Scientists are trained to love the former and have quite a lot of the latter - at least on the timescale of the daily news cycle. I am a scientist myself and feel pretty busy most of the time - so I don’t say this lightly.

Journalists on the other hand often can’t afford to include too much detail in their writing. They rely on the inherent motivation of the readers to stay with the story. If the story gets too confusing or uninteresting, readers are likely to turn elsewhere.

“It’s ok [for the readers] to have some intellectual callisthenics every now and then”, said the commissioning editor of one of my pieces. But his advice was clear: it’s the writer’s responsibility to make the story compelling, informative and easy to follow.

As for the time scale: many newspaper stories need to be written within 3-4h, sometimes less. There are publication deadlines, phone interviews that need to be done, scheduled press briefings, and so on. Experiencing a normal day at a newspaper has really helped me understand the time pressures there. And it is now blindingly clear to me why responding to an 11am press request at 5pm cannot usually work for the journalists. But I also know that on the academic timescale, lectures, lab classes and work in general gets in the way.

My culinary analogy is this:

If a good scientific research paper is a 5-course menu at a Michelin starred restaurant, a well-written newspaper article is the perfect serving of sushi.

The 5 course menu is carefully planned by a chef: there is a gentle starter and you only get to the main course (the actual results) after you have spent some time with the palate-cleansing “methods” section. Preparing and consuming it takes time.

The piece of sushi - the newspaper article - is carefully but quickly crafted. It contains all you’d really want from a small serving. Nothing more, nothing less. If you like the particular kind of sushi you were served, you’ll probably want more. But you will have to order it.


One of the real pleasures of doing the media fellowship was the opportunity to meet some really interesting people. I met quite a few - but a handful of them deserve a special mention:

Clive Cookson was a very thoughtful mentor with a fantastic sense of humour and huge amount of insight into everything from astrophysics to zoology. I sincerely hope I will get a chance to work with him again.

At The University of Nottingham, we are lucky to have Lindsay Brooke, the eternally optimistic media relations manager for the Faculty of Science. She was key in securing the funding for the Nottingham fellows and a great person to talk to about promoting our university’s research and the importance of public engagement.

All the people at the British Science Association. Amelia Perry, the main contact person for the media fellows, kept us all in check and to schedule - with a smile - not an easy task with 12 independently minded academics.

And last but not least, there are my media fellow friends (see photo): Spencer, Jessica, Rob, Nicky, Vanesa, Rowenna, Ivor, Jon, Theo, Petra, and Howard. The plans for a post-fellowship reunion started immediately after we met for our “final” debrief in London.

Would I do the fellowship again? In a heartbeat.

The 2016 BSA Media Fellows (at our first meeting)

There is also a flickr album with some more photos from this time.