Thursday, March 24, 2011

Advice from Sheri Fink

While this semester of grad school has been somewhat challenging, today I got the opportunity to enjoy one of grad school's biggest perks: access to amazing writers and resources. Pulitzer Prize winner Sheri Fink spoke at UW today, and while I wasn't able to attend her talk because I was in class, I was still able to meet her this morning and discuss my work and career thus far. 

Sheri Fink's article The Deadly Choices at Memorial is a great piece of investigative journalism that takes an in-depth look at how a lack of emergency preparedness led to unnecessary death at Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. The article won the Pulitzer Prize and had an impact on the establishment of new guidelines for how emergencies should be handled. 

At 13,000 words the article is very long, but very compelling. It raises important questions about what should be done in an emergency, but also makes you question what you would do if you were in the situation the Doctor's and Nurses at Memorial Medical Center found themselves in. The answers aren't as clear cut as you might think, even when you are sure of what is right and what is wrong.

The opportunity to meet and talk to a writer of her caliber is something I'm sure I wouldn't have if I wasn't back in school. She was wonderful to talk to because she really seemed interested in where I am in my career and what I hope to accomplish. As I was explaining myself she stopped me and told me that I was being too humble. She told me that I was an expert in science communication and I should own it.

I tend not to think of myself as an expert in anything, but with a Bachelor's in science writing, one year of professional experience, and now half of my Master's program under my belt I can say that I'm an expert in science communication. I hesitate to make a statement like that because it makes it seem as though I have nothing else to learn. I always feel like there is more that I can learn and ways that I can improve. Working with the sciences, I've found a willingness to learn to be a critical component to writing good articles.

Right now I'm more comfortable with "expert in training," but maybe once I finish grad school I'll be more comfortable owning the title of expert outright. Regardless I appreciated her encouragement, it was a good pick me up. 


  1. That's great that you got to meet with her, Erin. Sounds like she was a fantastic resource! And I completely agree that there is always more to learn, especially in a field like science communication where things are always changing.

  2. Beauty of this sort of thing is that writing will always improve. Even the most seasoned veterans talk of continued progress. For me though, it seems the more you learn, the less you really know.

  3. I second Eric's sentiment. Science writing is filled with more humility and curiosity than anything else, in my opinion.

  4. I agree completely, I think realizing that you can always learn from others is an important element of science writing, but on the other hand it is important to come across as confident. Having to sell yourself in this business I appreciate what Sheri Fink had to say in terms of owning your profession. I think you just have to create balance in your approach!

  5. Thanks for sharing this experience, Erin! I agree with you on this specific perk of being in grad school - great access to phenomenal resources!

  6. Great post, Erin! It really is amazing the people we're fortunate enough to meet while enrolled in the J-School. Since I've been in the pro-track program, I've met Jeff Zeleny, the New York Times's White House Correspondent (and he and I still exchange e-mails every now and then in discussing what's happening in politics ;), I've met Jim VandeHei, the founder of Politico, and most recently I met Anthony Shadid, a foreign correspondent for the New York Times (and also one of the journalists recently released from captivity in Libya - thank goodness he's okay).
    Very cool that you got to meet Sheri Fink! :)

  7. She was terrific, right? Meeting her was a highlight of my week. I too was struck by her genuine interest in others. I was able to attend her evening talk and really liked it.