Spotlight on Stephen Ornes, ’06

In August, GPSW chatted with alumnus Stephen Ornes, Class of 2006, about his life and work since graduation.  Steve’s writing has appeared in CR Magazine, NewScientist, Discover, onEarth, and Science News for Kids, and in 2010 he was given an award by the American Association of Healthcare Journalists.  His thesis, “If it Quacks Like a Sphere,” described Grigori Perelman’s work on the Poincaré Conjecture. His website is stephenornes.com.

 

 

 

GPSW: Where do you live and do you like it there?

Steve: I’ve lived in Nashville, Tennessee, for about two years. I do like it here, and I’m hoping that one day my children will cut an album on Music Row. The city isn’t a science powerhouse, like Cambridge, but there are interesting things happening and stories worth telling in this part of the country. Nashville is a city with personality, and I like that.

GPSW: How would you describe your work life?

Steve: It’s hectic but rewarding. I’m always either working against a deadline, or pitching and selling new stories. There’s always something to do. In theory, I could be working all the time, so sometimes it’s difficult to turn it off and do other things.

I work from an office shed in my backyard. My window overlooks a garden, a large walnut tree, and a chicken coop. I do almost all of my interviews by phone or skype, and I do almost all of my writing in the shed. Over time, my career has turned into something resembling a patchwork quilt: I have pieced it together from a number of different types of writing and writing-related jobs. In addition to writing, I do a considerable amount of freelance fact-checking, and I write for other media, including radio scripts. A lot of my writing at the moment is for Science News for Kids, which I think is a great resource for parents and teachers.  I’m particularly proud of an article I did for them about dark matter and dark energy.

As a freelancer, I’m my own boss. That also means I’m the research guy (who finds the stories), the sales/marketing guy (who has to sell the stories), the writer, and the bookkeeper (who makes sure I get paid). Though I love working for myself and by myself, I sometimes wish I had a staff.

GPSW: What’s been your favorite project so far?

Steve: It’s hard to say. My academic background was in math, and I thoroughly enjoy writing about the subject. I wrote two pieces for New Scientist about the work of a Louisiana State University mathematician named Rick Mabry. One was about the mathematics of sharing a pizza fairly; the other was about the game of pool. Mabry is a rare bird: He weaves humor into his peer-reviewed publications, he tackles serious math as well as more offbeat projects, and he’s fun to interview. Those pieces came together nicely.

GPSW: What do you do for fun?

Steve: I run, I garden, and I make up stories about adventurous astronauts for my kids. I used to aspire to play the acoustic saw, but I stopped practicing. Same goes for the ukulele.

GPSW: How do you balance being a journalist and having small children?

Steve: It’s tricky. I work part-time and take care of my kids the rest of the time. I don’t have set hours, and it can be difficult to turn off the work and switch into family mode. On the other hand, it can be hard to stop playing with my kids and get to work. But I’m deeply grateful to my children because I was very undisciplined before they arrived. I used to waste a lot of time; now, I’m more efficient—largely because if I don’t finish a project at a particular time, it might be awhile before I can get back to it. I often feel the pressure of deadlines looming, and it’s a terrific motivator. I still waste time, just not as much.

GPSW: Where do you see yourself in ten years?

Steve: In ten years, I’d like to be writing longer features and, providence willing, books. I’ve written short news blurbs, short features, and medium-length features. I can’t see myself in any other occupation, but things can change quickly.

GPSW: Anything else you’d like to say about being a science writer?

Steve: One thing I’ve learned by talking to other science writers is that most of us can’t imagine doing anything else. Some writers are forecasting doom and gloom for journalism in general and science writing in particular; many good journalists have even made their names by blogging about the “end of journalism.” As far as I can tell, no one really knows where the field is heading, or what “science writers” will be doing in ten years. The job is constantly changing. It’s an exciting occupation (or, if you’re a romantic, vocation), and it’s an exciting time to be doing it.