Award-Winning Spouses Collaborate, and Compete, on Science Beat

Michael Werner and Katie Campbell
Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Plenty of scientists marry scientists, and journalists often marry journalists.

But science journalists who marry science journalists? That’s pretty rare. And a AAAS Kavli award-winning journalist married to another AAAS Kavli award-winner? Rarer yet.

However rare, our close personal and professional lives have been a joy, reflecting the natural evolution of our relationship. Our shared curiosity of the world brought us together.

It all started back at the beginning of our journalism careers when we were both writing about the environment for non-competing newspapers in Florida. We had recently started dating and would send each other story tips, read each other’s drafts, recommend scientists to interview and share fascinating facts we’d learned.

After 15 years, we haven’t run out of topics to nerd out on. To give you an idea, here’s a recent text exchange:

Katie: I gotta tell you what I learned about the basal ganglia at dinner tonight.

Michael: Say what!? Ok, as long as I can tell you about how octopuses have nine brains.

Katie: Can’t wait!

At the dinner table we often talk through story ideas to gauge whether to pursue them. If one of us says, "If you don’t want to do it, I’ll do it!" — That’s a sure sign it's a good idea. Thankfully we have a dinner-table rule: No stealing someone else’s idea. Plus, in the realm of science, there are always plenty of cool stories to go round. We found that to be especially true when we moved to the Pacific Northwest for graduate school. The possibilities felt endless because of the region’s plethora of cutting-edge research related to such topics as oceans, volcanoes, wilderness, endangered species, animal behavior, technology and climate change.

Michael Werner meets cougar cub.
Credit: Brian Kertson

And the people of the Pacific Northwest are especially interested in the environment, so there was a big appetite for local stories about the natural world.

Michael: There were so many interesting projects on animals in the Pacific Northwest, I ended up focusing on a different animal each year. I became known as the Wolf Guy, then the Sea Otter Guy, then the Crow Guy and the Shark Guy. I gotta say I loved it.

Katie: I became passionate about science journalism when I realized how poorly the average person understands science. People typically learn about new developments in science, for better or worse, from the media. Many journalists feel intimidated by science and avoid covering it, or they oversimplify the findings to the point of inaccuracy. I feel a responsibility to produce stories where the science is clear, understandable, accurate and relevant to people’s lives. I’m particularly drawn to subjects that might seem simple in concept but with twists that are fascinating to explore – such as how levees can protect one community while imperiling others. 

In graduate school, we shifted to documentary film, which is a much more collaborative medium. Sometimes we found ways to work together to support each other’s projects. When one of us was in the role of producer/reporter, the other served as photographer/editor. We were lucky to develop relationships with the public broadcasting stations in Seattle and Portland where we were given the space and time to tell in-depth stories and were never pressured to sensationalize.

Katie Campbell filming model of levee system.
Credit: Michael Werner

Michael: Telling stories with video is an entirely different species from telling stories with words. Just like an ethologist who studies apes would have to think about behavior in a dramatically different way for an octopus, so too it is with video and print—You have to think about the whole process entirely differently. It starts with what makes a good story.

With video, you still need to find people to interview, people who know the subject matter. But you can’t just pick up a phone and interview them. You must persuade them to speak on camera. Secondly, the person has to be someone who can clearly articulate the subject. I can’t paraphrase like I can in print. Having a charismatic interview subject is critical.

But if I don’t have something to show, scenes to film, then I don’t have a story. With print, we can paint a picture with words. Video requires dynamic visuals.

In shifting from writing to videos, we discovered another challenge: Scientists are often unwilling to share their work with journalists until they have a paper that’s ready to publish. That isn’t necessarily a problem when you’re writing. You can describe what happened in the past, such as crucial fieldwork, even if you didn't witness it.

With video, if the fieldwork is over, the most visually compelling part of the story may be impossible to show the audience. We had to convince scientists to allow us to document their fieldwork before the research was complete.

Katie: There is a moment that I’ll never forget while I was covering the sea star wasting epidemic. I met up with Ben Miner, a biology professor at Western Washington University in Bellingham, early one morning as his team was collecting sunflower stars in Puget Sound. We filmed the researchers gathering the stars underwater and transporting them to an aquarium-filled lab. In each tank, they placed one sickly star in with one healthy looking star. The goal was to figure out how the disease was being transmitted.

As he surveyed the stars in the tanks, Miner said, “Now we wait and see.” A smile spread over his face. His excitement was palpable. “This is why scientists become scientists,” he explained. For me, this illuminated why capturing video of moments like this is crucial. It shows non-scientists what science is all about. Those hold-your-breath moments tap into the scientist in all of us, into our universal sense of curiosity.

As it happens, the sickly stars died within 24 hours, their arms dropping off and innards spilling out. Their healthy neighbors died soon after, leading Miner to conclude that all of the stars his team collected likely were already infected. Scientists eventually identified a densovirus as the culprit for the wasting disease. 

The Road Ahead

The challenges we face changed dramatically when we recently moved to New York City. Although our interest in science storytelling burns strong, the opportunities have changed—We went from working on local stories centered in the Pacific Northwest, to national stories based around the country and the world.

In the Pacific Northwest, we each had become known for our science journalism work. We got the scoops on the big news coming from the region’s major research universities. We had built trust within that scientific community and among the public media stations and their audiences.

In New York, we’re starting from scratch, building new relationships with East Coast scientists and media outlets. But we’ve brought our AAAS Kavli Science Journalism awards with us. These awards helped us make this transition and expand our journalistic horizons. The AAAS Kavli award is one of those bona fides that lets scientists know we are serious journalists who will take the time to carefully convey their work accurately.

We still feel honored to have received these awards and we display them prominently in our Brooklyn apartment. They remind us that while the competition in New York City may be fierce, we’re already among the nation’s top science journalists. And we will always have each other’s backs.

 

Credit for associated homepage image: National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, Northwest