'Tech Nation' taping enlightens CoS students, faculty



"Tech Nation" taping in progress at Purdue's Mackey Arena.

Dr. Moira Gunn shoots with worldwide dignitaries on the matter of technology and science every week as host of “Tech Nation,” a weekly Public Radio program.

Over the years, Gunn has interviewed more than 2,000 scientists and other notable figures like Sen. John McCain, Ralph Nader, Dilbert creator Scott Adams, Intel’s Andy Grove, and Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google.

Gunn has worked computer and technology jobs for NASA as well as IBM, Lockheed-Martin, Rolls-Royce, U.S. Navy and several more. Before her stellar career, Gunn received a Computer Science masters degree from Purdue.

So it was a bit of a homecoming when Gunn brought her show to Purdue campus on Nov. 8 for a live taping in front of about 20 students, staff and faculty. Purdue’s WBAA is a longtime carrier of “Tech Nation,” which airs at 11 a.m. Sundays.

The Purdue episode featured six science journalism laureates from around the world to talk on the topic of “The Future of Science Journalism.” Gunn said the show would air on WBAA “in a few weeks.”

With a loose format, Gunn got all of the panelists involved but still allowed for spontaneous interaction between the science writers as well as a lot of laughs. Gunn easily finds the lighter side of science while keeping the show informative for veteran scientists and the casual technology fan alike.


The panel of six journalists included Financial Times science writer/editor Clive Cookson, science blogger and former science editor for Nature Sandra Aamodt, freelance science journalist Nuala Moran, biotechnology writer K. John Morrow, “Tech Nation” contributor and freelance science writer David Ewing Duncan, and Joan Leach, a science writer based out of Brisbane, Australia.

Most of the panel extended optimistic viewpoints throughout the 90-minute recording, which will be whittled down to an hour. Cookson stated that more scientists are becoming media friendly and are better at communicating now more than ever, siting the trend of blogging scientists that share their work with the world themselves. A science journalist for the British publication Financial Times for more than 20 years, Cookson has found a formula of presenting “fun” science stories to balance the hardcore science and technology writing.

Cookson also spoke on the emergence of “science media centers” that have become useful and prominent in the United Kingdom and Australia. It was revealed that a similar science media center is being established in Washington, D.C.

The panel agreed that interest in science is on an upward trend and writers must catch this wave.

Duncan shared some of the challenges of becoming an established science journalist after having a more political writing background for years. He had to work to gain sources, double-check the science he was writing about and sift through data that could prove useful.

The panel did recognize current economic hardships for journalists and the overall squeeze on full-time journalists. In the science field, proven writers are being passed up for more general writers or sometimes even the regurgitation of press releases from science-based companies and institutions.

But as Moran noted, some of the biggest stories of 2012 in general news has been science-based; the Higgs boson, the Mars Curiosity rover, super storm Sandy have all been huge stories in all forms of media and all were science-based news.

Science and mainstream media are becoming tight.

Patrick Dolan attended the “Tech Nation” taping. A Biological Sciences graduate student, he has helped make science more palatable for the Greater Lafayette community with his organizing of the “Science on Tap” series held at the Lafayette Brewing Company. The informal events offer scientific presentations that lead to discussion between audience members and science experts, which are often College of Science faculty.

Dolan said the topic of science journalism was intriguing. Communication with the public is essential as many labs and research is public funded.

He added that Science on Tap is in the same vein. It’s a communication tool created with the general public in mind.

Laura Kingsley, a graduate student in medicinal chemistry, agreed with Dolan about the importance of scientists communicating their work with the public. This notion also helps scientists strive to produce important work.

After listening to the panel and the discussion, Kingsley came to a clearer realization how the scientific media can “hype” certain science stories over others and if they choose to cover the “fallout” of the science events.

Frederi G. Viens, Professor of Statistics, was among the wide range of faculty in the taping’s live audience. Viens helped represent the College of Science but there were professors from Communication there as well.

Viens said he learned much from the taping.

“It was particularly significant to hear Nuala Moran's remarks regarding the disappointing new trend by which many so-called science journalists are taking university and company press releases and publishing them almost verbatim,” Viens recalled. “I think her words were ‘They are just slapping a headline onto the press release.’ In the age of the Internet, it’s easy for those who want to become the source of science and technology news to put out their own takes on their work. Undiscerning journalists are not helping the matter by not analyzing the impact of new discoveries, inventions, and technology transfers. It seems that true science journalists, like the ones on the taping's panel, are a threatened group.”

Viens was proud to have “Tech Nation” visit Purdue and he saw it as a good opportunity for students and faculty to be in the same room with several science experts at the same time. The university’s reputation for science and technology makes it a “natural” spot for the show to visit, he believes.

“Next year, if and when ‘Tech Nation’ decides to tape a show at Purdue, we will encourage more science and engineering grad students to come and listen,” Viens stated.


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