An Interview with Courtney Humphries

In 2017, Courtney Humphries received the David Perlman Award from the American Geophysical Union for a story that takes an in-depth look at the suburban forests surrounding Boston.

Humphries has always been fascinated with urban ecology, and in 2015 she became an MIT Knight Science Journalism Fellow to strengthen her background in this area. She loved the experience so much that she decided to return to school and delve deeper into specific topics. Then came news of the award, which was thrilling but made her somewhat hesitant about returning to school. Today, she balances school with her career and expertise with journalism. 

Here, Showcase talks to her about her recent award and wandering career path. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Let’s first talk about the AGU award. Were you surprised to learn that you had won?

Yes, I was surprised and thrilled! I got the email after I had boarded a plane and just before shutting off my cell phone. I was glowing for the rest of the flight. It’s so easy to forget to apply for awards like this, or assume nothing will come of it, but you never know.

I was surprised to see that you did on-site reporting for such a short news story. Is this something you try to do often? Or did you feel it was necessary for this story, in particular?

Where Forests Work Harder

Humphries’s story about the effect of developed areas on trees won an award given by the American Geophysical Union in 2017. Read it here

Most reporting I do for news stories happens over the phone. But I have the advantage of living in Boston where a lot of good science happens, so I try to take advantage of locally based stories when I can. Often it’s just to visit a lab, but this story lent itself to meeting in the field. I had reported on this lab before, and the first author was willing to meet me at one of their study sites, a small forested area near Boston. The carbon dynamics of suburban forests don’t necessarily grab headlines, and I don’t know that anyone else covered this paper. But his willingness to take a couple hours out of his weekend to walk around with me absolutely made this story and helped me to sell it as a freelancer.

It looks like it happened at an interesting time in your career — just after your KSJ fellowship and before your decision to return to school. Did it have an impact on your decision to return?

I actually found out about the AGU award after I made a decision to return to school. In some ways, it made me more hesitant to go in a new direction. I was nervous about losing the career as a freelance writer I had worked so hard to build, especially at a time when my work was being recognized. But it also gave me recognition by an organization that was highly regarded in my field of study, so that was a great boost.

Why did you decide to return to school?

The KSJ fellowship definitely reminded me how much I like taking classes. I spent a lot of my time during the fellowship learning about ecology, urban sustainability, and other environmental topics. As a writer, I have never had a beat and have always bounced around from topic to topic — the novelty has always been exciting to me. But I found myself getting more and more interested in a set of questions or problems in the urban environment. An opportunity presented itself to apply to a transdisciplinary fellowship at the University of Massachusetts Boston focused on coasts and communities. To be honest, I never planned on getting a PhD, and I wasn’t sure it was right for me. But it seemed like a way to start going deeper into the areas I was interested in and to do my own research rather than always writing about other people’s research.

How has the transition been? Do you find that it’s hard to be both a student and a writer?

I’m really enjoying being in school again. But the transition is certainly challenging. Logistically, I’ve just been so busy. I took a very full course load my first year and tried to do enough writing to keep my name out there. I’m a feature writer, so at least I usually have a few weeks or more to write a story. I can squeeze in interviews and writing time here and there. On top of the busy schedule, shortly after I started school I became pregnant, and I gave birth to my daughter this summer. So now in my second year I’m balancing school, baby care, and some writing. My life is crazy right now. But I feel very lucky to be able to pursue all these experiences at the same time, and to have great support.

Eventually I’d like to write some pieces from a position of expertise, which is a different approach and mindset than being a reporter. I still have to figure out how to navigate that. But there are wonderful writer-experts out there who can serve as models. 

I think a lot of journalists can relate to the sentiment of wanting to go deeper — but you’re right that writing from a position of expertise is very different from writing as a reporter. I know you said you still have to figure out how to navigate that… but I’d love to dig into this a little more. Do you have a particular goal in mind?

It’s a tricky issue. I think that a person can be both an expert and a journalist, but it requires thinking through what your role is for each piece. I find that in the science world there’s a lack of appreciation for the role of a journalist and how it differs from “science communication.” Scientists have their own “groupthink,” and it’s very important to have journalists writing about science from an outside perspective.

So I would still like to function as a journalist, but at least for a specific topic area I’d like to be able to write with expertise, which I think lends itself to certain kinds of pieces — essays, books, op-eds, and certain kinds of features. I would love to write books for a general audience, or even a general academic audience, about cities as ecosystems. I’m very interested in the history of urban infrastructure, how it changes our relationship to the environment, and the problem of adapting the built environment to cope with climate change. I’m focusing my dissertation research on these topics, but I would love to write about them for a non-academic audience. For instance, I’m teaching a class to older adults through the extension school at UMass Boston about the past, present, and future of Boston Harbor, where I emphasize ecological relationships between the city and nature. In academic parlance I’d call it a “coupled human-natural system,” but I don’t have to use that kind of language in the class — it’s just understanding where you live better. 

On a similar note, do you find that you look at science journalism differently — perhaps through the eyes of an expert and not a reporter? If so, would you change anything about science journalism?

In environmental science (and other areas of science) there’s a strong emphasis now on systems thinking. But science journalism is very much driven by a narrative perspective, and often uses a limited set of narratives. I would like to explore ways to bring some of the tools of systems thinking to journalism — not as a way of replacing storytelling but as a tool for understanding systemic problems we cover and finding new angles for covering them more fully.

Have you found that school has helped you as a science journalist? How so? 

Yes, the ability to spend time studying the topics I’m interested in and starting to see some of the research from the “inside” has been invaluable. Being in school for environmental science has also let me gain skills that are useful these days to journalists, like statistical analysis, GIS mapping, systems thinking and analysis, and just learning to do research in a more systematic way. Graduate school also turns out to be good for learning some of the “soft” skills that I don’t always practice as a writer: making presentations, public speaking, and selling your ideas and your work.

What is your advice for aspiring and young science journalists?

When you’re starting out, a lot of your focus is on mastering the format of a science story, writing accurately, and making the writing vivid and clear. You read good writers and imitate what they do. But it’s important to also start thinking critically about the topics you’re covering and paying attention to your own insights about them. For me, it’s always been important to offer editors and readers smart, original perspectives and deeper insights on familiar topics. It’s a way to stand out as a writer.