Off the beaten path: chemistry alumna’s recent journalism awards show the rewards of a nontraditional career

Date

05/02/19
Photo credit: Christine Herman

Illinois alumna Christine Herman (PhD, '12, chemistry; MS, ’14, journalism) was recently recognized with two first-place awards from the Illinois Associated Press Broadcasters Association. Her story “Out of Options, Parents Trade Custody for Treatment” won Best Hard News Feature, and “Continuing Mental Health Coverage” won Best Series or Documentary.

Herman became interested in science writing during her graduate studies at Illinois with chemistry professor Ryan Bailey. While a grad student, she began blogging for Chemical and Engineering News (C&EN) about nontraditional careers for chemists and other career-related topics. She also became increasingly convinced that a career in research was not for her. Shortly after receiving her PhD in 2012, she received a fellowship to join the College of Media’s journalism program, completing her master’s in 2014.

Since 2015, she has worked at WILL (Illinois Public Media) in Urbana, first as a producer and now as a reporter. Her stories have been featured on Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered and online through NPR's Shots blog. She received a Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for mental health journalism for 2017-2018 to support her reporting on issues pertaining to children's mental health.

“As a journalist, I cover all sorts of issues, but I specialize in health. That means I regularly dig into health and medical research studies. My training in science is immensely helpful for that. I am able to ask critical questions, understand the significance and the limitations of research findings, and my journalism training has equipped me with the ability to translate all of that into language that makes sense to a lay audience.”

Herman’s chemistry degree also gave her a better appreciation for the behind-the-scenes work that leads to the scientific breakthroughs she often covers.

“I used to be one of those people trudging away in the lab doing the not-so-glorious day-to-day work that's required for any scientific advance.”

As a reporter, Herman’s goal is to make complex issues easier to understand and give people the opportunity to tell their own stories.

As a parent, her goal is to ensure her own children aren’t afraid to create the future they want for themselves, even if their path is, like hers, nontraditional. She and her husband Geoffrey Herman, a computer science professor here at Illinois, have three children.

“I'm just so happy Geoff and I have the opportunity to show our kids they can pursue their dreams AND be loving parents, if that's what they choose. Especially my sweet daughter whose dream, for now at least, is to be ‘a ballerina and a mom.’ She LOVES babies. I tell her—you can do it!!”

That affirmational message is a recurring theme in Herman’s (now archived) C&EN blog posts, which highlight chemists who crafted their educational and life experience into such varied careers as science illustration, medical writing, web development, and even jewelry design.

And for those currently in grad school trying to figure out their next step? Perhaps Herman’s advice can best be summed up by the title of one of her 2011 blog posts: “do what you are.”

You can find Herman on Twitter @CTHerman.

 


Christen Mercier

 

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