A European Commission Traineeship as an American

An unsolicited email to a LinkedIn connection holding the title “science communicator” led me to the European Commission. My journalism master’s thesis was now complete, and I was in hasty pursuit of a career in citizen engagement of science. An employee of the Geosciences department Chloe Hill responded to my spontaneous request for career direction and forwarded me the running list of traineeships at the Commission. I quickly spotted a perfect fit. It was my field and it was stationed in Italy. That posting would become a dream come true.

The European Commission posts its trainee and contract vacancies through a running portal (https://recruitment.jrc.ec.europa.eu/). The site constantly updates with new jobs in every field of science and level of staff management. For recent grads like myself, I recommend first applying to a trainee position. Unless you have a PhD with a very related focus and five years of experience, it can prove difficult to secure a well-salaried research position. A traineeship offers you a chance work and learn how to navigate inside the European Commission. Once here, you the support system and connection to pursue a career. Without inside experience, the hiring process can be daunting. There are a handful of contract types each with its own unique application methods. Best bet: apply for a traineeship. The exposure, community, and connections that you will receive at the European Commission as a trainee will equip you with the acumen and insights needed to build a career at an international organization.

With luck and time on my side, the Joint Research Centre’s (JRC) Exploratory Research Unit was recruiting a native English speaker for their science communication traineeship. The project leaders appreciated my interest in EU public understanding of science evident in my research and Erasmus Mundus journalism degree curriculum. Unfortunately, my nationality posed a problem. The EU generally doesn’t typically hire Americans. Traineeship applicants, however, can come from anywhere. The hiring process can take a few more signatures and steps for non-EU citizens. My future boss sought and secured permission from the higher-ups to grant my traineeship position. After a few months in bureaucratic recruitment limbo, I was in.

What did my supervisors want in an applicant? Aside from my language skills for their writing position, my interviewers were looking for international experience, adaptability to multiple tasks, and willingness to contribute new ideas. I cannot imagine a more diverse place than the JRC. Language, research field, nationality, and experience were common factors in daily operations. My interviewers wanted to know how well I could collaborate in an environment with teams from diverse nations, backgrounds, and scientific fields. Their call for adaptability to multitasking is not a euphemism for a coffee get or a “wasserträger”. The JRC has a myriad of projects that often overlap with other departments, therefor contributors must know how to switch tasks effectively and work with multiple timelines. Finally, many teams want a trainee who can deliver a new perspective. Trainee are seen, unofficially, as a source of spiritedness and vibrancy to the hyper-focused scientific output machine that is the JRC. This anticipation of ingenuity from trainees opens opportunities for them to make their mark on projects by contributing their perspective and expertise. I recommendation interviewees demonstrate their professionalism, exemplify their adaptability, highlight one or two related experiences, and let their enthusiasm for his or her field and community shine.

Orienting myself as a science communicator

european commissionThe role of a science communicator depends largely on the financial relationship between researchers and their benefactors. Sponsorship warrants visibility. In the US, the prominence of research from universities and private labs creates a need for science communicators who can write grants. This cloistered audience has its own rigid guidelines for messaging and interaction. In the EU where supranational labs directly inform policy decisions, communicators must engage tax payers and the policy makers. That means science communicators here get to write to diverse segmented populations split along lines of political parties, borders of members states, and social boundaries among citizens. This dynamic environment invites creative and strategic messengers. A space I could grow into.

Life as a JRC trainee

I arrived at the JRC in Ispra, Italy with no indication of what my actual duties would entail. The original recruitment expression of interest was as vague as I was eager. Quickly though, I was set to my tasks and made an integral part of my unit. Work was fun and challenging. From week one, I was authoring reports, designing workshops, and envisioning communication strategies for groundbreaking science projects. As time went on, my advisor gave me the opportunity to choose my own projects that supported our unit mission. I bridged my background in climate science communication and media production to catalyse engagement efforts in nuclear safeguards, ocean conservation, and automated vehicles. The workplace mobility that I was afforded and significance of my contributions made me feel useful. That impression doesn’t always happen with a traineeship or internship. Work gripped my curiosity and I followed with fervor.

P1360461Life at the JRC is easy. The Commission has organised the initiation process and living situation so that employees can hit the ground running. Trainees get a loaner bike, a snazzy apartment across the street for cheap, free language courses, health insurance, and to the envy of UN interns… a livable stipend. Best of all, people are welcoming. The first day I was greeted alongside 15 other trainees from across Europe with the warmest of welcomes. My HR adviser picked me up and drove me around the research site to point out important buildings and ground me in my new home. This convivial atmosphere would continue throughout my traineeship.

Life at the JRC is fun. The self-hailed “traineeland” community comprises all trainees and involves daily get-togethers on and off campus. Traineeland provided ready-made friendships and opportunities to invest oneself into the JRC and local Italian community. Throughout my five months, we hosted and attended educational events across campus, did Saturday yoga on the lakeshore, ran as a group through the forests, cooked common dinners, hiked the alps, and always went to Mensa on Wednesdays. It was truly heavenly, as I often commented during gatherings.

Saying goodbye?

In an effort to network outside my unit, I wrote and delivered a short speech on science communication. Several units allowed me to speak at their monthly meeting.  I wanted to show others how sci comm could improve their output visibility, as well as demonstrate the utility of someone with my skillset. I took this effort further by drafting communication strategies in my free time for units without one. I often got as a response, “I wish you were staying, we have some interesting projects coming up.” I wished so too.

After a fast and full five months, I completed my traineeship. As I prepared to shut down my computer for the last time, an email popped up. It read that I had been accepted as an external expert for one year. An audience member from one of my past speeches recalled my purpose and had recommended me for the position. I was and am ecstatic. There is no one way to secure a position here. Aside from traineeships, I recommend familiarizing yourself with a JRC initiative and aligning yourself with their efforts. Connect with people through LinkedIn, on collaborative international projects through university connections, and by applying on the vacancies list. Familiarise yourself with European Commission projects by following EU Science Hub social media channels. Also, feel free to reach out to me any time.ISPRA

I expect that each new work day will continue to surprise me and hope that every new connection could be one for life. The JRC gave me the opportunity to pour my acumen and education into projects that, from my limited perspective, made an impact on the lives of EU citizens. I am eager to get going again.

Journalism Needs to Get Political About Plastic Pollution

Professional big wave surfer and businessman Jeff Denholm sailed from Miami to New York to bring big money into the solution of marine pollution. By personally delivering a new yacht to a billionaire from K2 Ventures, Jeff secured three days together at sea to convince the venture capitalist to invest in his company. Jeff’s business, Atira systems, has engineered a toxic free alternative to traditional flame retardants used by firefighters across the U.S. Follow the chemicals downstream and many end up marine ecosystems across the nation. Waterways permeate a soup of man-made toxic waste that bond with plastic debris, causing physical harm throughout the entire food chain. Jeff created his company to solve one particular source of human waste, and works with other power players to solve bigger environmental threats together.

Journalistic coverage of marine plastic pollution rarely leads with an industry-centered story like Jeff’s. A picture of a decomposing albatross with a stomach full of plastic usually sums up the problem for readers. Images of trash wounding an animal help readers connect their consumption to the problem a world away. However, the solutions proposed by journalists focus on a select group of readers who have the time and money to live a socially conscience lifestyle. Clean up the beach. Live plastic free. Bring a shopping bag. Socially conscience solutions help, but most people lack the time of day to make choices with the ocean in mind. Journalists bring the fight to basic human behavior, instead of to the polls where ordinary people make eco-friendly a right.

Jeff explains, “Most people don’t have the bandwidth to look at global environmental issues. They’re not looking at what big corporations are doing. They’re just trying to get by.” Jeff’s past work as a marine archeologist has taken him around the world. He has witnessed first-hand the way countries from all over the world pollute the land and sea. Since then, Jeff has focused his career and connections to combat toxic pollutants. Outside of work, Jeff serves as an ambassador for 1% For the Plant to convince companies to invest in environmental nonprofits and brand themselves as eco-minded. Toxins and debris caused by overconsumption and waste continue to threaten California’s ecosystem and natural beauty, but rallying support from industry and consumers remains an uphill battle.

The enduring issue of marine debris that pollutes the world’s oceans has been covered for the past twenty years by journalists who must frame an issue with seemingly little impact on its readers, to one that seems relevant in their daily life. To illustrate the immensity of the problem, the majority of journalists appropriated the metaphors “Garbage Patch” and “Plastic Island,” embellishments used by seafarers to characterize the mass of man-made flotsam particles that accumulate in oceanic gyres. These bizarre metaphors captured the imagination of readers, and motivated them to propose legislation, start organizations, and invent solutions to address the issue. However, the metaphors were just that, not facts but weak representations of the actual thing, and their inherent misdirection caused nearly every attempt to solve the issue to fail. The public’s power that existed in information from journalists was rendered feeble.

The use of imagery and solutions that target consumer lifestyles demonstrate the American news media’s reliance on a model that champions individualism. Journalism researcher James Carey claimed as far back as 1996 that, “American Culture is ‘individualistic’. This overreliance …is a pervasive weakness of American Journalism.” The major drawback to proposals for individualistic solutions manifests when only a small percentage of readers have the ability to take action. Lifestyle changes from a group of readers will not solve humanity’s plastic crisis. Contrast marine debris coverage from the ‘Huffington Post’ or ‘CNN’ with France’s democratic model evident in outlets such as ‘Le Figaro,’ and the difference becomes apparent. French sources focus primarily on proposed legislation and the positions of politicians around the issue instead of ways for readers to solve the problem themselves. Journalists who assert legislation as the principle method for fighting marine debris tap into existing political and environmental advocate groups. Only galvanized collectives of politically active individuals and industry stand a fighting chance against the status quo.

Major news outlets dropped the “Trash Island” metaphor as data mounted against it, but one young man from the Netherlands continues to champion the idea and build an organization around it. That man, Boyan Slat, has gathered together investors and scientists to combat marine pollution with a massive floating filtration device that skims parts of the “island” surface from the ocean for recycling. After millions of dollars and years of testing, his team has had no proven success. Still, news outlets like the Huffington Post champion his work as a solution to marine debris. Boyan’s approach presents a simple solution to an over simplified issue. In order to develop new solutions to this persistent issue, concerned citizens need to look beyond the world of environmentalism.

“Just because the guy doesn’t’ have the same politics as you doesn’t mean you should alienate him, as a matter of fact you need to be closely aligned with him,” Jeff says about his wealthy prospective investor. The billionaire from New York didn’t invest. Jeff’s company was too far outside the venture capitalist’s field of expertise. Jeff spends money and time away from his company to gamble on meetings with certified investors. His company’s advisory board has renowned environmentalists and leading scientists, but they aren’t the only experts Jeff wants on his team. “Say I have a meeting tomorrow with the biggest environmental attorney in the world, or I (could) have lunch with the CEO of EXON. Guess who I am having lunch with?” “Exon,” I replied. “Exon…Those are the people who need to hear the story,” he explained.

Jeff’s adventure sports side career (yes, he has that going on as well) and charisma helps him gain an audience with big investors. High-end outdoor apparel company Patagonia took notice of his unique story and brought him on board as a brand ambassador. Jeff explains, “True influence, like what Patagonia is trying to do, comes from financial success, and leveraging your model of success which is more examined and more in balance with humanity and the environment than others, and proving to others that it can be done. That’s where the change is going to start to happen.” He is proposing a top down model to environmentalism, but that doesn’t mean consumers lack an important role.

At the consumer level, environmental groups and journalists suggest people become socially responsible consumers to combat pollution. American’s have begun to see social consumerism as a political act, one that replaces voting, according to a dissertation study published in 2013 by the University of Pennsylvania. That study found that people who cared about an issue were willing spend a 20% more on an alternative socially responsible product. What’s more impressive is that, “individuals who say they don’t care about an issue have a more than a 70% probability of choosing a socially conscious product if it is of equal cost as generic alternative.” Savings motivate consumer choices in general. For most, the environment only weighs in when price becomes irrelevant. That means, however, that prosocial consumers have less of an effect on industry than if they prioritize a top down model. Purchasing power helps, but voting hits the top levels of the problem hardest. To affect widespread change, voters can impact consumer options for disposable plastics when they vote on legislation that bans throw-a-ways or provides incentives for innovative environmentally conscience industry. Law can bind the ocean’s health to the profit of companies, something industry must adapt to.

Californian’s environmental legislation currently leads the Nation’s towards widespread use of alternatives to plastic food packaging and disposables. In Jeff’s hometown of Capitola in California, 12 ordinary citizens on the city’s volunteer Environmental Commission proposed a ban on polystyrene takeout containers. The ordinance was brought to city council and passed in 2009. On a larger scale, California’s ban on plastic bags took a collective effort from average voters, city councils, and state legislators. What began in cities became a statewide movement to end the use of potential sources of plastic pollution. The ban was met with pushback from Industry players. Major cities across the state were sued multiple times by a conglomerate of plastic manufacturers called Save the Bag. Some cities even had to vote to ban bags twice. The plastics industry argued jobs were at stake, and that legislators used questionable evidence to support environmental arguments. They were right, to a degree. Trace back sources of evidence used for city-led initiatives to stop plastic pollution and you will find a 1984 article on the impact of fishing nets on marine mammals. Californian voters didn’t need to wait for an updated and encompassing study on the harmful impacts of bags, the evidence was on their beaches and in their waterways. The proposition holds today.

Nonprofits aimed at tackling marine pollution have sprung up across the country in the past decade, and have brought a new level of research and advocacy to the issue. Journalists turn to environmental nonprofits like the California based 5 Gyres organization to shed new light on the fight against marine debris. 5 Gyres has focused years on researching the scope and impact of plastic pollution in the ocean. Now, they have begun a community advocacy program called 5 Gyres Ambassadors to give ocean-minded individuals the tools and contacts to catalyze change in their community. 5 Gyres asks individuals to begin with a pledge against plastic consumption. Next, the organization suggests methods for political action. On the homepage of their website, visitors find charts to look up their community’s current plastic legislation, links to email their state representatives, and a guide to create a plastic ban Kickstarter. All proven methods. However, political solutions rarely make it into news stories. Too often do media savvy individuals like celebrity/activist Adrian Grenier or the ill-fated solutions of Boyan Slat, both who lack significant contributions to the plastics issue, get the final say in a news article.

For “average” people, Jeff says, “I think the most baseline success humans can have on this planet would be to examine their own consumption rate.” Traditional news media agree with Jeff, but for different reasons. Jeff recognizes the bank account needed to enter the ring with the plastics and oil industry, but hopes averages citizens take the small meaningful steps available to them. Conversely, news idealistically presumes their audience can solve plastic pollution alone. Readers need to understand the role of big business and lawmakers in the issue of marine debris if journalists want to see their proposed solutions follow a top down model. Again, France has found success in their democratic media model. France remain the only country to ban both plastic bags and disposable cutlery. The more politically contextualized the issue becomes, the more avenues for change become available to citizens.

Jeff recently took a small group of billionaires skiing to get a moment alone with them, but spent of half of his rare time with investors to talk business. The other half he spent advising his wealthy audience to combine their charity efforts together. He explains, only a, “unified power elite…focused on just a few common issues,” can truly disrupt the status quo. That’s how Jeff operates, way beyond his own interests. For journalists who want to open up the discussion of marine pollution, the task won’t come easily. The already complex topic must now include policy and industry analysis. Fortunately, after two decades of coverage, the news media appears to have crafted a solid and foundational understanding of the issue to build upon. For the rest of us, we just need to remember that our problems are down stream and up Capitol Hill.


Defining The San Lorenzo River

Locals often characterize Santa Cruz by the beaches and artistic vibes that adorn the city, but few ever refer to the river than runs through its heart. The San Lorenzo River provided a space for birders and fishermen, but landscape was not inviting to the general public. Then open space began to change though, when one of the many organizations who’s efforts seek to improve the quality and accessibility of the river gathered together all of the working groups to redefine the river’s role within the community. This video introduces the San Lorenzo River Alliance who is making significant changes to the levee environment with a diverse team of people. Check out the video, then see how you can get involved, and what the SLRA has already accomplished, at the website: http://coastal-watershed.org/sanlorenzoriver/

It Took This Village. The Nueva Vista Community Center.

The Nueva Vista and Beach Flats Community Centers in Santa Cruz provide an after school program with a focus on community involvement. Local youth spend three hours after school doing homework and hands on learning activities with help from volunteers and Youth Coordinator Edgar Landeros. Community members can donate their time to touter children or teach them about a specialized subject. By sharing their expertise, like baking or swimming, the community provides an educational experience that the youth wouldn’t otherwise get exposure to. In the end, these skills and wisdom enable kids to better navigate the their own career path and foster a respect for the diversity that makes up this unique city.

This video about the Community Center was made for a halftime presentation for the Santa Cruz Derby Girls, who made a financial contribution to the center.

I had never interviewed kids before. The experience was also new to many of them, which made for a nonlinear Q and A session that promoted sincere answers. As with any interview, the most important thing was to get them talking. They did, and were kind enough to open the doors of the Center, and their little world, to the rest of the community. This receptiveness makes it an easy place to volunteer at, so call Edgar at 831-423-5747 and stop by.

The Leveelie Ladies of Santa Cruz

A group of women known as the Leveelie Ladies clean up the San Lorenzo river mouth twice a week. They tally every piece of trash and use this data to excite citizens and politicians to support the restoration of a levy that is both a rich ecosystem and beautiful public space.

The most important journalistic aspect of this video for me was to ensure I did not portray the relationship between the homless population and Leveelies as a battle. No single group is responsible for the river debris, nor its cleanup. The Ladies encourage everyone to join regardless of class or level of commitment. Every little conversation they have with the myriad of people who use the Levy slowly changes the atmosphere. Restoring the river takes more than cleaning up debris; it takes getting the entire community’s respect and appreciation. Their attitude of humility towards service has proven to me that only together can we create a space for the entire community to use.

Volunteers Who Slay Dragons

The voice of the Dragon Slayers Animal Therapy Program director Joseph Rivers will send you back in time. His loquacious and annunciated speech are a reflection of his own upbringing and confidence in his work which gives people with disabilities an alternative method to bring themselves up.

The program is free to anyone who commits to a regiment that they and Joseph agree upon. Animals are paired with students based upon their disability. Homing pidgins, giant tortoises, and mini chickens play crucial roles in developing the skills of students. Parrots provide alternative speakers to speech therapists. The back of a bull serves as a platform to practice stability, while its personality teaches confidence. Decades of work and feedback have shown Joseph that giving the students a choice to be there and choose the animal they wish to work with fosters a committed relationship. The results have been extraordinary, and you can read them here: http://josefriversdragonslayers.org

Everything, including the animals themselves, is donated to Joseph. Even the landscaping company who maintains the grounds returns for free every week because they believe in the good work being done there. The program always needs volunteers. You must be at least 21, a maturity requirement, and commit to some amount of time every week. You can reach the Dragon Slayers at: 831-688-6699