RIP Science Writing at Johns Hopkins

Last summer I hiked to the Burgess Shale in Canada's Yoho National Park and covered the trip for EARTH magazine, a dream assignment for this life-long fossil nut.

Last summer I hiked to the Burgess Shale in Canada’s Yoho National Park and covered the trip for EARTH magazine, a dream assignment for this lifelong fossil nut.

I don’t just write for fun; I make my living as a freelance science and travel writer. How does one go about getting such a fantastic job? Well there are many roads, but I started out with a background in science as a self-designed Evolution major – focusing on geology, ecology and genetics – and then, after stints on an organic farm and in a genetics lab, I got a master’s degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.

Science journalism is a rare art and an increasingly indispensable one. Climate change, fracking, earthquakes, tsunamis, epidemics, invasive species, GMO agriculture, evolution, genomic medicine–chances are if you’re at all interested, informed, or concerned about anything rooted in science, you’ve probably come across the work of a science writer. Our job is to translate the jargon published in scientific journals into language that everybody can read and understand. I love my job. I learn something new everyday. Just this past week I have written about supervolcanoes, coelacanths, comets vs. asteroids, dinosaur embryos, Arctic ozone, and our ancient ancestor, Australopithecus sediba.

Now aspiring science writers have one less program for learning the art of writing about science: Katherine Newman, the Dean of Arts & Sciences at Hopkins, has axed the graduate program in science writing. Apparently, the numbers weren’t adding up. How can a place like Johns Hopkins underestimate the importance of communicating and disseminating the very scientific research that has made it rich and famous?

Only four schools offer an equivalent degree: MIT, NYU, Boston University and UC Santa Cruz. All great programs, but they lack Ann Finkbeiner, the long-time director of the Hopkins program, who has now resigned. When I was applying to grad schools, I thought the program at MIT was my first choice. Then, I met Ann. Ann is a fantastically engaging writer and an even better teacher. I loved every minute of my experience at Hopkins and can’t help but feel sorry for the incoming class, who were told just last week they need a Plan B, and for future science writers everywhere, who won’t get the same opportunity I had to learn this ever enlightening craft.

Links to my science stories can be found on my professional website: Also check out Ann’s wonderful science blog: The Last Word On Nothing. Onward and upward, Ann!

About theblondecoyote

Mary Caperton Morton is a freelance science and travel writer with degrees in biology and geology and a master’s in science writing. A regular contributor to EARTH magazine, where her favorite beat is the Travels in Geology column, she has also written for the anthologies Best Women's Travel Writing 2010 and Best Travel Writing 2011. Mary is currently based in western Colorado. When she’s not at the computer she can usually be found outside -- hiking, skiing, climbing mountains and taking photographs. Visit her website at
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17 Responses to RIP Science Writing at Johns Hopkins

  1. Ann Finkbeiner says:

    Oh you Mary, you. Thank you for your kind words. It was a splendid program and that’s all the fault of people like you. And Devin. And, and, and.

  2. You’re very welcome, Ann. By the way, I avoided writing “there are” not once but twice in this essay! That’s all you. 🙂

  3. Erin says:

    I always wondered how you ended up in this field!
    I’d love to do what you do…minus the science part 🙂

  4. The loss is much larger than it may seem — the deteriorating writing skills of our younger generations, and the declining interest spans of our sound-byte society need people who can write in an articulate, engaging manner, with the ability to support their thoughts and hypotheses with research or observations. How fragile our world will become if Twitter-type “writing” becomes the norm.

  5. gtonthenet says:

    It’s a shame about the science writing, because communication *is* important. I’m also incredibly jealous you got to see the Burgess Shale – a locality I would love to visit.

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  7. patriciaddrury says:

    Those fossils are incredible, thanks for sharing! So sad about Ann and the science writing program. You were blessed to be a part of something you have so much passion about. At least the art will not be lost because you, and those who pursued it when it was available are out and roaming the countryside seeking… for those of us who soak it up.
    Thanks for your travels and your writing skills. Fascinated and a follower…

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  13. Linda P. says:

    What a loss!

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