UM J-school grad student Shanti Johnson hits her stride

Just more than midway into a summer job teaching six undergraduate scientists how to communicate their research to laypeople, University of Montana J-school grad student Shanti Johnson sees her lessons sinking in.
“That makes me feel good,” she says.
When Johnson learned in May that she’d been hired as a “science communicator” by the UM Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry through a National Science Foundation grant, she felt nervous. The Colorado native had completed an internship and one year of UM’s graduate program in Environmental Science and Natural Resource Journalism. But she wasn't yet confident in her ability to demonstrate the nuts and bolts of reporting to the young researchers in the NSF Research for Undergraduates program. 
"So I sat down with our advisor (J-school professor Henriette Lowisch),” Johnson recalls. “And I was like, ‘Where do I even start?’”
Shanti JohnsonLowisch directed Johnson to remember the students were starting from scratch. As such, she said journalism basics, including teaching the importance of using simple words and compelling sounds and images to convey primary themes, were in order. “I was trying to get really technical,” Johnson says. “And (Lowisch was) like, ‘No, no, no.’”
Johnson appreciated the tip. And just five weeks into her science communicator job, it’s become apparent she’s a qualified teacher. This summer, Johnson has facilitated meetings with veteran Missoula journalists Rob Cheney and Gwen Florio, in addition to John Twiggs, a Montana PBS television producer and J-school adjunct instructor who’s filming a science documentary. The students are also writing blogs and building a website.
Johnson knows the lessons learned by the students this summer will prove vital when they’re pressed as professionals to explain their research in grant applications and over coffee. “No matter what they’re going to be doing in their life, they have to know how to talk about why their work is important,” Johnson says. “Even if its science for science’s sake, well, there’s got to be a value in that—there’s got to be a philosophical value.”
The NSF’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates program admits small groups of students in host sites such as UM across the nation and abroad. Each host site offers a different focus. UM’s is on environmental chemistry. In addition to taking journalism, Johnson’s students are spending a significant amount of time conducting research projects in campus labs with UM Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry professors.
UM’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates Program Director Aaron Thomas, who also serves as UM’s indigenous research and STEM education director, says the journalism component of the Missoula program makes it “unique.”
Another component of UM’s program that stands out is its emphasis on American Indian participation. Four of Johnson’s six students are indigenous, all of them enrolled in Browning’s Blackfeet Community College. Thomas explains that the idea behind encouraging American Indians to enroll is to provide them an entryway that has too often been closed. “The primary reason is there aren’t quite the opportunities for Native American students to do research,” he says.
This week, Johnson is preparing her students to deliver presentations that will be delivered at the program's end later this month. Among their current tasks is to record two-minute radio pieces. Johnson says she told her students to get creative, and choose their own style for the project. “Is it like a Radiolab piece," she asks, "where we have cool sound effects?”
As Johnson watches her students not just grasp journalism, but produce it and enjoy it, she says her case of nerves is fading away.
“Having gone through this year (of graduate school) and being able to now actually successfully communicate the ideas of journalism has been pretty cool,” Johnson says. “It’s been really gratifying that they understand what I’m saying—and they’re excited.”

Posted July 7, 2015