Carol Kaesuk Yoon, Science Journalist
From an “Ecologist Directory” maintained by the ESA Education Office about 2004-2011. Profile circa 2004.
I realized, this is what I should have been doing all my life! If I hadn’t gone to grad school, I might not have found a way to discover science writing. It would have been impossible for me to start a Ph.D. project if I thought I wanted to be a journalist at that time.
Ph.D., Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Cornell University
B.S., Biology, Yale University
Dr. Yoon writes about science for the New York Times; see her archived articles here. She also wrote obituaries for Ernst Mayr and Stephen Jay Gould for the Times. Her 2009 book, Naming Nature, won the 2010 Washington State Book Award and was a finalist for the 2009 Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Science and Technology.
Learn more about Dr. Yoon’s life and work on her website.
Carol Yoon’s career path is as roundabout as it is interesting. Not the sort of scientist who traces a love of bugs and plants back to childhood, Carol first became interested in ecology during college. Her introductory course in ecology focused on the conceptual and theoretical basis of the science, and her instructor’s enthusiasm made it seem as though these issues were the most important things in the world. Carol says she completely agreed with him by the end of the course.
Positive experiences with field work and further encouragement from instructors led her to see the natural sciences as an area in which she could succeed. Carol completed a bachelor’s degree in biology and a Ph.D. in molecular evolution, but wasn’t exactly sure how she wanted to use her scientific background as a career path.
Carol had always been interested in writing, so “on a lark,” she accepted a position on the staff of the Portland Oregonian newspaper as a Science and Engineering Mass Media Fellow supported by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. After about a week or two, she felt she had found her professional calling.
“I realized, this is what I should have been doing all my life! If I hadn’t gone to grad school, I might not have found a way to discover science writing. It would have been impossible for me to start a Ph.D. project if I thought I wanted to be a journalist at that time.”
Her Oregonian experience landed Carol a position with the Science Times section of the New York Times, where she writes primarily about ecology, conservation biology, and evolution. Although her supervisors occasionally come to her with story ideas, she often gets to choose her subjects from stories and articles she discovers in journals or in conversations with scientists. She is also working on an introductory biology text book for students not majoring in the science. Some friends from graduate school asked her to join them as they create a book they hope will be more reader-friendly than many existing biology textbooks.
Carol admits that her average day spent working on a story might not sound too exciting. If she’s starting a story, she spends her time reading to educate herself about a particular issue. If she has questions, she calls experts in the field who can help her better understand the topic. She contacts the researchers most closely involved in the work on which she’s reporting, and asks them about their research, why it’s interesting, and what challenges they’ve encountered along the way. To find out what their peers think of the research, Carol then contacts other scientists knowledgeable about the work she’s investigating. She addresses questions that may arise, and then sits down to present this information in a way that the public will understand. Her editors in New York respond with additional question and comments, and “then I write and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite,” Carol adds.
For Carol, science journalism has been an extremely positive career choice. Science writing is a great way for her to do what she finds most interesting.
“My feeling about whether you’re going to be happy in your chosen career has a lot to do with your personality. Being an academic biologist requires being able to focus on one particular thing for a very long time, forsaking breadth for depth. A career like journalism is just the opposite. You have to give up depth, but what you get is breadth. You learn about a lot of things and talk to a lot of people in many different circumstances.”