The Quill Blog: Get Ready, Get Set, Get Writing!


On Nov. 2, Earthzine launched its first Writing Club in an effort to support emerging science writers and students who are passionate about communicating the complexities of the world around us. These are their stories.

Jan. 7, 2015

Get Ready, Get Set, Get Writing!

By Jenny Woodman

Image Credit: Princeton Writes

Image Credit: Princeton Writes

We’ve turned the corner and the finish line is in sight. Students have developed and pitched their ideas, researched, and gathered information. Now, they are beginning the arduous process of crafting their individual stories. In the meantime, we’ve rounded up some solid advice to set the Writing Club students up for success.

Barbara Hofer, associate editor for Earthzine, offered feedback about transitioning from academic writing to writing for the public:

“The challenge of writing for a broad audience is to find the right level of generalization of a topic. The readers need to be able to relate to the text and not be confused by a multitude of foreign words or details.  The necessary abstraction of details needs a solid expertise in the respective subject such that facts are not distorted (which is why interviewing experts helps).”

When one is an expert in a particular subject domain, it can be difficult to change the mind-set when interacting with non-experts rather than colleagues. In the academic field, we are trained to express our work in concise terms and to highlight the contributions of our work, which are usually very specific. (Here is a nice illustration of how academic knowledge relates to general knowledge: The illustrated guide to a Ph.D.) It helps me to ask what the vision behind what I am doing is and how I can put my research into a story. Usually, that requires a good amount of thinking. Some presentations at science slams are great examples of how complex topics can be rephrased in stories one will remember.”

Managing Editor Jeff Kart shared this incredibly sound advice on beginning the daunting, but crucial first draft:

“When do you know if you are finished with your interviews and information gathering? It’s probably after you’ve finished looking through your notes. ‘Yep, I have it. Time to write.’ So write. Don’t look at your notes. Write from memory. Think about the story that you want to tell, in your head. Write it down. Write it from your thoughts. You’ll likely remember the most important, most interesting items from your story without consulting your notes. Looking at your notes to put in every fine detail can slow you down and take you off track, as your mind races to get to the next part of your story.”

Our new Science Editor Kelley Christensen offered tips on fact checking and editing:

  1. Read your story out loud to yourself. Does your tongue stumble over any sentences? If you are tripped up by your writing, your reader will be too. Channel your inner Earnest Hemingway and shorten those sentences.
  2. Go hunting for passive voice. Have you used “to be” or “being”? Rework those sentences! A perk: Tighter, refined writing.
  3. Have you followed Alun Anderson’s method? (Also known as inverted pyramid.) Remember: The news in the first paragraph. Its significance/so what (also known as the “nut graf”) in the second. Third paragraph: How the news was discovered. A kicker quote as the fourth graf. Then proceed with the facts/quotes, each becoming less important than the previous. Journalists use this method to counteract short attention spans.
  4. Put your writing away for a day and come back to it. You’ll read it with fresh eyes and probably find some errors, too. Does the story flow best the way you’ve organized it?
  5. Are there any unanswered questions? If you think there might be, your reader will think so too.

We’re looking forward to reading drafts and helping our students refine their work in the coming weeks, and sharing their efforts with you. Thanks for following our progress and stay tuned for more news from the Writing Club.

Dec. 11, 2015

Story Pitch:  Mapping Wildfires in Colombia

By Juan Pablo Barrero

NASA MODIS Rapid Response Team mapped wildfires in South America. Image Credit: NASA/Goddard, Lynn Jenner

NASA MODIS Rapid Response Team mapped wildfires in South America. Image Credit: NASA/Goddard, Lynn Jenner

In Colombia there is a great deal of vegetation not only in the countryside, forests and jungles, but also around cities. Because of the droughts caused by El Niño, there have been numerous forest fires.

I find this topic particularly interesting because it has a major impact on our way of life, not only because it diminishes the number of trees and the amount of wildlife, but also because it harms the people living in these areas.

In this research, some of the most important things to have in mind are: How can the wildfires be mapped or detected? And what is the technology that is currently being used to do it? I have found that in the U.S. and Canada they use a piece of technology called GIS, which stands for Geographical Information System and is used to analyze data recovered from satellites and other Earth observation tools to trace and map fires.

Some of the figures that come from the use of GIS can be found on the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service Web page. There are other methods that I have found, but not yet explored profoundly, such as one used for a NASA DEVELOP project called ‘Using GRACE-derived Water and Moisture Products as a Predictive Tool to Better Forecast Fire Risk across the United States’ that one of my colleagues in the Writing Club recommended.

The previously mentioned methods can help guide the investigation toward what can be done with these tools and the type of alerts that can or have been implemented by the authorities in these countries. More specifically, what have Colombian leaders and climatic institutions done with these tools or, even more importantly, do they pay attention to them? It also would be interesting to compare one of the countries that has already developed and implemented these methods to what is being done in Colombia.

Dec. 8, 2015

Planting Trees: A Possible Solution to Reducing Global Warming or an Atmospheric Aggravator?

By Kayla Townsley

Friends of Trees is a nonprofit in the Pacific Northwest; since 1989, they’ve planted 500,000 native trees in Oregon and Washington. Image Credit: Friends of Trees

Friends of Trees is a nonprofit in the Pacific Northwest; since 1989, they’ve planted 500,000 native trees in Oregon and Washington. Image Credit: Friends of Trees

Public opinion for planting more trees seems to be overwhelmingly positive, and many believe this may be part of the solution to reducing global climate change. Campaigns run by numerous organizations, from the global World Wildlife Fund to the Pacific Northwest’s Friends of Trees, spread this conventional wisdom by encouraging people to plant more trees.

However, trees arent always our friends. Different tree species emit varying levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are natural pollutants. VOCs are organic chemicals with a high vapor pressure at ordinary room temperature due to a low boiling point. Because of their high vapor pressures, large quantities of these molecules evaporate and enter the surrounding air where they can interact with methane, nitrogen oxides (NOx), or other pollutants to form tropospheric ozone, increasing the greenhouse effect.

Trees that emit high levels of VOCs, such as poplars and oil palms, are usually a major agricultural resource for countries of lower socioeconomic status. According to the European Palm Oil Alliance (EPOA), oil palms are native to Western Africa and 85 percent of oil palm products are exported from Malaysia and Indonesia. Many governments and corporations promote oil palm plantations as a developmental agent for poor, rural regions, especially in Borneo and Sumatra. Unfortunately, the industry can be linked to human rights violations, including child labor in some remote areas. Oil palms also replace diverse ecosystems with acres of high-VOC emitting trees.

Monitoring the levels of VOC emission in various regions is crucial to assessing the impact of using these trees for bio-fuel on both regional and global climate change. However, recent research on this conundrum has revealed a potentially promising solution — genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that emit significantly less VOCs.

I think this story is a good fit for Earthzine because research on GMO trees with reduced VOC emissions is still in the works, making it a very current and exciting area of exploration. It also has major implications on global climate change and how we are using Earth observation. There is a recent call to action to not only focus Earth observation on global climate impacts, but to also analyze local and regional changes to determine how those may be affecting different communities.

Dec. 7, 2015

My Idea: The Impact of Earth Observations on Epidemiology

By Annabel White


A screenshot of, which allows users to track reports of diseases.

After delving a bit deeper into this topic, I’ve found that it is rich with potential. From my brief initial research, I have found reports on how Earth observation data has been successfully used to map and help control disease outbreaks. There also are many recent scientific articles on the topic.

For my article, I’d like to start out by mentioning the recent Ebola outbreak in Africa and the scare it created in many other countries. This would give readers something that is rather fresh in everyone’s minds to which they can relate. I’d also like to extend the discussion to epidemics in general to show people how Earth observations are being used, and can be used in the future, to help plan for and prevent the spread of disease.

One article I stumbled upon in New Scientist was about how a group called the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team was able to update data on a severely under-mapped area of Guinea in West Africa using freely available satellite imagery. These detailed maps allowed health workers to focus their efforts more efficiently as they tried to combat the Ebola outbreak. This same group also is involved in similar projects.

Other organizations, such as HealthMap, use data from multiple sources to create near real-time maps that track disease occurrences and risks on a global scale. This information is made available for free to the public. Groups such as these are great examples of the different ways freely available data can be used to fight the spread of disease.

Understanding the spread of disease is crucial to preventing it. I’ve become aware of how cell phone data can be used to map human movement patterns. Tracking movement patterns into and between areas can help show where and how rapidly a disease is likely to spread. I also found articles regarding how environmental factors such as vegetation, temperature, elevation and effects on known disease carrying fauna  can be used to provide risk assessments for disease outbreak.

Dec. 3, 2015

Pitching the Story

By Jenny Woodman

How do you find the story? How do you take the information you’ve gathered and give it deeper meaning and context? How do we entertain and inform readers?

These are questions our Writing Club students have been asking each other as they work on generating story ideas to pitch to the Earthzine editorial team. The students watched presentations, read and critiqued science articles from the popular press, and researched independently. Then, they presented three story ideas and gave each other feedback, tips, and leads on potential sources. From there, the students generated their final pitches, which were approved over Thanksgiving weekend. The only constraint provided is that the articles need to examine the socioeconomic benefits of Earth observations.

Amy Hutton will be writing about the Western Sage Grouse Initiative, a massive effort to integrate best practices for grazing and ranching while maintaining habitat for a wide range of species living on the brink. She plans to bring her own experiences as a livestock manager together with emerging and existing technologies to shed light on this important area of Earth observation.

Martha Sayre will be looking at landslide hazards with a focus on California’s efforts to create early warning systems and address risks created by the combination of drought, wildfire, and excessive seasonal rainfall.

We are excited about the stories in the works. Stay tuned for more of our student pitches!

Nov. 21, 2015

Meet the Students

By Fall 2015 Earthzine Writing Club

Image Credit: Juan Pablo Barrero

Image Credit: Juan Pablo Barrero

Juan Pablo

Hello! I am Juan Pablo. My biggest interests in life are sciences, reading and writing; this is why I’m studying physics and philosophy at the Universidad de Los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia. I have always thought that one of the most important things a scientist should be able to do is to communicate the knowledge and ideas he has and produces. That is why I am so excited to take this course.



Right: Juan Pablo Barrero (right) on a recent surfing trip in Hawaii.

Image Credit: Kimberly Berry

Image Credit: Kimberly Berry

Kimberly Berry

My friends call me Kim and I’m a recent graduate from South Dakota School of Mines with a B.S. in geology. Currently, I am a Geoinformatics Fellow working in Virginia with NASA DEVELOP. I am actively seeking a master’s program to study geologic natural hazards like earthquakes and the subsequent effects: landslides, liquefaction and tsunamis. I spend my free time looking up schools and writing adventure/fantasy novels.



Left: Kimberly Berry during a summer NASA DEVELOP project mapping sinkholes in Radium Springs, Georgia. 

Image Credit: Scott Fowler

Image Credit: Scott Fowler

Chandra Fowler

My name is Chandra Fowler. I was 25 when I decided to stop being a vagabond and start my freshman year at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. There, I was encouraged to research an endangered plant species, study marine biology in Costa Rica, and intern at an environmental consulting firm. After graduating, I spent a few months travel blogging in Central America before becoming a researcher/writer for NASA DEVELOP in Fort Collins, Colorado.


Right: Getting ready to record a video for my blog in front of a cabana in Tamarindo, Costa Rica.

Image Credit: Amy Hutton

Image Credit: Amy Hutton

Amy Hutton

Hello! My name is Amy, and I’m a sustainable farmer and a teacher. My specialty is heritage hogs and dairy sheep, though I also raise cattle, goats, poultry, and rabbits.  I have a master’s degree in resource management and a background in permaculture, and strive to rebuild soil and ecosystems through my ranching. I also teach sustainability, agriculture, and science courses at Colorado Mountain College, and am excited to connect with a larger audience through Earthzine.


Left: Amy Hutton with some of her spring piglets in Sedalia, Colorado.

Image Credit: Antoinette Machado

Image Credit: Antoinette Machado

Martha Sayre

My name is Martha and I’m a recent graduate of UC Davis with a B.S. in environmental science and management. Currently, I’m working at NASA DEVELOP  on a project that is researching the connection between dengue fever epidemics and  environmental variables. In my spare time, I love to explore the outdoors through  kayaking and photography. I hope that through Earthzine’s Writing Club I can explore my voice in science writing.


Right: Martha Sayre exploring in Guatemala.

Image Credit: Cassandra Seltzer

Image Credit: Cassandra Seltzer

Cassandra Seltzer

I’m Cassandra, and I am currently a student at the University of Michigan pursuing a dual honors B.S. in History and Geology. In the spring of 2016, I am excited to be joining Earthzine as a full-time technical writing intern. When I grow up, I want to be a real-life science writer.



Left: Cassandra Seltzer hanging out in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Image Credit: Madison Hinze

Image Credit: Madison Hinze

Kayla Townsley

My name is Kayla. I’m an undergraduate at Portland State University majoring in micro/molecular biology and minoring in art, with a focus on drawing and painting. My current research interests include the relationship between developmental origins and socioeconomic inequalities. Additionally, I am interested in interdisciplinary work and love identifying areas of intersectionality. I find that science writing often reveals complex, yet underlying, intersections within science and I am excited to begin my own exploratory journey with Earthzine.   

Right: Kayla Townsley during a summer hike at one of her favorite spots, Oak Creek Canyon in Sedona, Arizona.

Image Credit: Annabel White

Image Credit: Annabel White

Annabel White

My name is Annabel. I live in Southwest Virginia, and I am studying electrical engineering through Arizona State University. I started out as majoring in biology, but I switched gears to engineering when I realized a deep love for math and physics. I stay happily busy striking a balance between school, various career related pursuits (currently at NASA DEVELOP), and spending time with family.

Left: Annabel White at the birthplace of Thomas Edison in Milan, Ohio.

Editor’s Note: Nine students were chosen for the Writing Club. One of the nine had to leave the course due to time-related issues.

Nov. 20, 2015

The Launch

By Jenny Woodman

Why did we start the Writing Club?

For five years, Earthzine has had a healthy and fruitful relationship with NASA DEVELOP. Via this partnership, we have worked to provide a platform for students to engage with the public and experts, and incorporate NASA’s rich pool of Earth observation data in ways that address real world problems.

We also have worked to develop emerging student writers through internships that offer experience creating scientific journalism with the added bonus that the work takes place at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

As a former intern, I believe that one of the benefits of volunteering and writing for Earthzine is that you are able to grow as a writer, build a portfolio of clips that demonstrate your skills, and, depending on your story, access some of the world’s most brilliant scientists.

During my internship and subsequent year writing for Earthzine, some of my sources for stories included: the chief scientist for the International Space Station, the head of Google Earth Outreach, several key experts in ocean research, NOAA’s chief scientist, and the deputy director of a NASA center. To say this experience has been a professional game-changer would be an understatement.

Last summer, when Earthzine Editor-in-Chief Paul Racette asked me to help design a writing club, I jumped at the chance to help build another opportunity for students to engage with Earth observation and science writing.

Working with Barbara Hofer and Anthea Lacchia, our talented and dedicated volunteers, we designed a 10-week online program, recruited guest presenters, and launched a campaign to recruit applicants.

After receiving close to 30 outstanding applications from all over the world, we reviewed each carefully. It took three rounds of judging in order to select the final nine. We launched the club on Nov. 2, and look forward to sharing our work in the coming weeks.

The first assignment for those selected is to watch three presentations from our outstanding panel of professional writers: Alun Anderson, Paul Collins and our own Jeff Kart. Each presentation focuses on a different element of craft. From there, the students will develop three story ideas to pitch to Earthzine staff – the only restriction being that the ideas must focus on the socioeconomic benefits of Earth observation. I can’t wait to see what they come up with, and hope you will join us to learn about this new Earthzine effort.

Stay tuned for introductions from each club member, progress updates, and articles from this talented group of writers!