By Aaron R. Conklin
First published here.
Stephanie Blaszczyk can trace the origin of her current career trajectory straight back to her mother.
But not quite in the way you’d expect. Like a lot of moms, Blaszczyk’s deployed her fair share of eye-rolling mom-isms to guide her children’s behavior, such as telling Stephanie that if she swallowed her gum, it would stay in her stomach for seven whole years. Or that the path to curly hair involved eating her bread crusts. Ten-year-old Stephanie was more than a little skeptical—and she wanted to know the truth.
“I knew the science wasn’t always there behind what she was saying,” says Blaszczyk. “And I’ve always been interested in accurate information.”
That interest eventually led her to combine two areas of study that are fundamentally concerned with accurate information: science and journalism. Blaszczyk, a graduate student in the Department of Chemistry, just wrapped up a prestigious American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Fellowship, which gave her the opportunity to spend the summer working as a science reporter in the newsroom of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Working under the direction of deputy managing editor Tom Koetting, Blaszczyk produced and published a sizable list of attention-grabbing science-based stories about topics like pediatric asthma, aquatic invasive species and the irresistible pull of puppy eyes. And, of course, her favorite piece: A story about how cows keep cool in the summertime (think bovine Gatorade and a cow car wash).
“I went into the fellowship thinking that science communication was stories that included the nitty-gritty details that explored how fireworks work,” she says. “What I learned is that it’s really about bringing these scientific issues to the attention of the public.”
That’s not an easy task in today’s polarized media and political environment. While public trust in scientists seems to be growing—a recent Pew Research Center poll put it at 86 percent—high-profile attacks by politicians and public figures on science have created controversy and confusion. Meanwhile, media outlets across the country, including the Journal Sentinel, continue to struggle with budget and staffing issues. That’s one of the things that makes science communicators like Blaszczyk, individuals who have a foot in both the scientific and the journalism world, so important.
“It’s rare that you have scientists who can look at a study, know it’s important and be able to convey that to a general audience,” says Blaszczyk. “Also, as scientists, we’re not viewed as warm, fuzzy people. And scientists aren’t always great at telling a story.”
After her first two years of undergraduate work at UW-Madison, Blaszczyk took a year off to give birth to and raise her daughter, Emma. She then enrolled at Rockford University, in Illinois, with a new purpose and direction.
“I learned I was really good at organic chemistry,” she says. “So I switched my major from history to chemistry.”
Blaszczyk lives in Rockford with her family and commutes to UW-Madison each day, where she works in the chemistry laboratory of professor Weiping Tang in the School of Pharmacy. She develops new ways to make carbohydrates so that scientists in other disciplines, such as biology, can use them to better understand key processes in the body, such as immune response and cell signaling.
Tang remembers being impressed with Blaszczyk’s ability to handle a full slate. When she first began working in his lab, she asked his permission to participate in four different communication/outreach projects, in addition to her lab work.
“I thought it would be impossible for her to be productive in the laboratory while engaging in this many other activities,” Tang says. “But I still encouraged her to pursue what she would be most passionate about. It turned out that I was completely wrong. After working in my laboratory for about two years, she has published seven co-authored papers and has two in preparation. Among these nine publications, she is the first author for five of them.”
As she returns for the home stretch of her chemistry graduate program — she’s set to complete her Ph.D. in 2021—Blaszczyk will be using her newly honed writing skills to promote the Department of Chemistry’s research and programs. After she completes her degree—”It’s critical to satisfy my own sense of determination,” she says—she’d like to pursue a career as a public information officer or science reporter.
“I have seen the rifts between science, academia and the public firsthand,” Blaszczyk says. “There’s a huge knowledge gap between what we know and what we’re able to communicate to the public. There’s a legitimate need for more science communication.”