Finding the stories and growing the next crop of science journalists

We get a lot of press releases about new research and products. But one recent missive caught our attention. It got us thinking about how handguns created by a 3-D printer could be used as a type of phantom gun, to evade traditional criminal investigations. We knew just the person to check it out: intern Carolyn Wilke.

Wilke recently graduated from Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., with a Ph.D. in environmental engineering. She knew that 3-D printing has the potential to make all kinds of manufacturing, from medical devices to food, cheaper and more accessible.

But she was surprised to find out that some people are using the printers to make plastic guns that could skirt standard law enforcement techniques, and she was intrigued to learn how chemistry plays into this new area of ballistic forensics.

“You’re always one step behind the people pushing the technology,” she says. To keep up, “you really have to get into the lab.”

Her article details that work, with researchers in Mississippi and Lausanne, Switzerland, printing plastic handguns and firing them in the lab to identify the guns’ chemical fingerprints. Fortunately, 3-D printed guns aren’t in wide use, but the risk they pose illuminates the unintended effects of new technologies, and how scientists might respond.

Wilke’s article is just one example of how interns help make Science News. Our interns work as professional journalists from the day they walk in the door, and they work hard. In return, we put a great deal of effort into helping them build skills, gain experience and learn about career options.

Over the years, many of our former interns have gone on to become leaders in science journalism, including Laura Helmuth, the Washington Post health, science and environment editor who is also on the board of Society for Science & the Public, our nonprofit publisher. A few other notables include Nadia Drake, contributing writer for National Geographic; science reporter Dan Vergano at BuzzFeed News; and William Broad, senior writer at the New York Times.

I’m always sad to see interns go, but I gain comfort knowing that I’ll be able to watch them thrive and prosper for years to come. Fortunately, we’ll have Wilke with us a bit longer. She’s now working for Science News for Students, our news site for youth ages 9 and up, while staff writer Bethany Brookshire is on sabbatical as a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT. When I asked Wilke why she decided to leave research for journalism, she had three words ready: “Love of learning.” Rather than being an expert in one thing, she relishes being able to learn about many different fields of science.

That pretty much sums up what I love about journalism, and about covering science in particular. I learn something new every day, not just from sources but also from our writers, who know so much about so many things. Best of all, we get to share what we learn with you.

Nancy Shute is editor in chief of Science News Media Group. Previously, she was an editor at NPR and US News & World Report, and a contributor to National Geographic and Scientific American. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers.