In this undated photo, Jessica Beard Morrison, who earned a 2012 summer internship with the newspaper, stands outside The Chicago Tribune in Chicago, Ill. (Photo submitted)
For someone who could not even have imagined having anything to do with science just a few years ago, Jessica Beard Morrison has some impressive science credentials.
The 2008 alumna is pursuing a doctorate in aqueous geochemistry at the University of Notre Dame following a summer internship covering science stories for The Chicago Tribune.
Her 10-week internship was made possible through the Advancing Science Serving Society Mass Media and Engineering Fellows Program.
Morrison said nothing really prepared her for working under the deputy editor of the investigative reporting and consumer watchdog team at one of the most prestigious newspapers in the country.
“Walking in and out of this Gothic building on Michigan Avenue every day was amazing,” she said.
Morrison’s articles have tackled subjects such as recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regarding hepatitis B screenings and inaccuracies in vitamin B testing.
But two other subjects propelled her byline to the front page.
One of those front-page stories detailed a project in which ants were collected in three cities to find out how the critters were migrating in urban areas.
The collectors would attract the ants with Keebler pecan sandies and then suck them into a jar through an aspirator.
The other front-page story examined the use of elective sedation in dentistry.
This project took a little longer because patients who used elective sedation generally were unwilling to be observed by a reporter and a photographer, she said.
Her ability to establish trust with scientists is even more amazing than making the front page of the Tribune twice.
Some journalists have established themselves with scientific subjects.
Jay Barbree, who has covered NASA for decades for NBC News, and his colleague Robert Bazell report scientific issues without hyperbole.
But many scientists simply don’t trust the media to explain science to a lay audience.
“There’s a lot of conversation about that in the science community,” Morrison said. “It’s sort of like learning another language.”
She said most journalists aren’t technical, but most scientists, at least those involved in research, don’t write and speak for lay audiences very often.
“A lot of times scientists’ strong points are not their communications skills,” Morrison said. “So, you don’t have a lot of people traditionally going from science into communications.”
For Morrison, she said it was just the opposite.
While attending MTSU, she switched majors from advertising to journalism to geology.
At Notre Dame, she is studying the chemistry of uranium and neptunium and their interaction with gypsum and calcite, the building block of limestone.
“The work we’re doing is to try to figure out … when you do have a release of radioactive material, how does it interact with the environment?,” Morrison said. “How does it flow in groundwater? How does it interact with rocks and minerals?”
Although her dissertation work is important, even dangerous, Morrison said she now wants to work as a scientific journalist after she graduates.
Thanks to a pivotal decision she made at MTSU, she’ll be well prepared to do so.