From reporting on the bee populations in urban areas to the commercial trapping of freshwater turtles in Missouri, Eli Chen has spent the last nine months teaching us about the scientific and environmental issues that affect our region and our lives. She was kind enough to spend some time with us this month so that we could learn more about her and her incredibly interesting work.
What does it mean to be a Science and Environment Reporter at St. Louis Public Radio?
I’m still trying to figure this out. On one level, it simply means that I should share new findings from scientists in the St. Louis area, explore research that applies to St. Louis issues and report on topics relating to energy and environmental issues in eastern Missouri. That seems fairly straightforward. But my job is to really explain complex issues - like most beats, actually - and one thing I’m constantly up against is the fact that most scientists are terrible talkers who have a hard time talking outside of their laboratory lexicon. Ninety five percent of the time I ask someone what their work is about, I get a really convoluted answer - an answer I don’t believe they’d actually tell their kid, their grandmother or on a first date (if you do, good luck). Scientists don’t exactly have the greatest public reputation right now -- Googling the words “scientists are…” will auto fill-in “stupid” and “liars” when it really should be “brilliant” and “awesome.”
Tell me about your path to St. Louis Public Radio. Why did you choose to come here?
I’m first and foremost a science journalist. Radio just happens to be the medium I’m most comfortable with - and the one that keeps hiring me, apparently. The short answer is that I came here to do both at a member station that’s been nationally recognized for high quality, innovative reporting. Not a lot of NPR stations have science reporter positions and I’ve been lucky enough to have worked at two.
When I went to get my master’s in journalism, I got to intern at Science Friday and that’s where I really came to enjoy talking to scientists, writers and historians about science. I continued to do this as I wrote articles for magazines and at my first full-time job after grad school, which was producing events at the World Science Festival in New York, where I interviewed countless neuroscientists and roboticists who had such interesting ideas and perspectives. But radio just felt more special to me than any other medium - listening to podcasts, after all, did help me get over my first breakup. So I really came here to tell the best possible science stories I can - to connect the general public with what’s going on inside laboratories or out on field expeditions and to help the public get to know scientists as people (as opposed to just talking heads). There are real human experiences involved in the quest for knowledge - and radio, done well, can capture that beautifully.
What’s the one thing you can’t work without?
Snacks. Thankfully, people here seem to worship Cheez-Its enough to keep replenishing them.
There must be dozens of stories you could tell each day, how do you choose/prioritize?
The environmental stories tend to get first dibs over science research. That’s just because for example, if there’s something in the air or in the water, people will definitely need to know more about that than, say, astrophysicists finding a bunch of new exoplanets (though that is pretty cool). After that, it’s really just based on what I think is the most interesting to people or has the most impact. The local universities here produce a lot of research - and a lot of it is definitely important, but if I can’t reasonably fit it into a 45-second piece, which is our time limit on the newscasts, then I don’t bother with it. I always think of my partner’s 70-ish year old mother when I pick stories. She’s a smart, resourceful lady who used to be a school principal and now spends her days making wine and tending to her backyard honeybee hives. She likes to learn - but of course has no background in science. If it’s not something I can’t easily discuss and engage with her on, then I don’t do it.
Once you have chosen a story, what is the process for developing it?
Basically, I hear that someone is doing something that seems relatively new - the city is starting to treat trees for emerald ash borer or scientists are studying a billion-year-old crack in the Earth, and I will typically set up a time to chat with them and take it from there. The actual process depends on the story. If it’s a science story that’s on the fluffy side - like the story about using brainwaves to study love that I did recently, then the process is pretty straightforward. I interview the researcher(s) involved, I get a scene if I can and I try to get another voice to discuss the significance of the research - but if I’m low on time, I mention other perspectives in place of other voices. I’m working on a couple of more investigative pieces right now and those definitely take more time, depending on how willing people are to discuss the issue. I’m also a very methodical worker - meaning that I agonize a lot over the right way to talk about a subject and then agonize over whether I should be covering that subject at all.
How do you find sources?
I start with press releases and see what people are posting on social media, or I’ll tweet out a request myself. I get coffee with environmentalists and public relations folks from universities--the really good ones will have a boatload of experts to recommend. Then after meeting some of the people I contact through those means, I ask if they know anyone else who’s working on projects that are worth covering. Or for my environmental stories, I try to ask for help in getting in touch with stakeholders. And then I hop from person to person from there. Especially for science stories, people are always happy to share colleagues they know who are doing good work. Also, and this might sound weird, but doing things like volunteering at a local dog shelter or joining a rock climbing club has value too, as long as you’re a good listener. You might hear something good or meet someone who has an interesting profession.
Outside of public radio, where do you turn for Science news?
The New York Times, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Nautilus, New Scientist, Nature, Science Magazine, Space.com, Vice, Audubon Mag, National Geographic, Undark, NRDC, Scientific American, Popular Science, Aeon, and the list goes on.
Let’s talk favorites!
- Who is your favorite NPR reporter - Robert Smith from Planet Money. That guy knows how to report and have fun.
- Favorite holiday - Fourth of July. It happens to sit right next to my birthday and there is little more I love than warm weather, fireworks and barbecue.
- Go to Pandora/Spotify station - This changes seasonally, but lately, I’ve been listening to Brazilian soul music from 40 years ago. I’ve been listening to Tropicalia artists since I was in high school, but over time that’s evolved to the point where now I listen to folks like Tim Maia.
- Favorite person/entity to follow on social media - @AnneWHilborn. She studies cheetahs and promotes excellent animal science hashtags.
- Favorite STLPR story/feature/article (What’s YOUR Driveway Moment?) - When I first arrived at the station, I thought that it was hilarious that my former grad school classmate, Willis Arnold, did a feature about finding the best doughnut in the city. But I like stories where you’re just hanging out and having an adventure with someone super engaging. That’s one of the cool benefits to doing radio stories.
Is there a story or two that you are particularly proud of or enjoyed reporting?
I did some reporting a couple months ago on these scientists at SLU who study wild bees. I never knew that there were so many different kinds of bees, outside of honeybees, and that they are such great pollinators. And better yet, I’d never heard of the fact that a lot of wild bee species have been showing up in more numbers in urban environments. That was the story. The researcher and his graduate student were really wonderful personalities who just loved to talk about bees and I think it really came through in the piece.
Recently, I also reported on student scientists who came to St. Louis from Iran, one of the 7 predominantly Muslim countries named by the president’s executive order on immigration. I had to produce that story fairly quickly, within a couple days, while the issue was still highly relevant. But that was a story that wasn’t so much about research as it was about something that could really damage research in St. Louis. It saddened me to hear how anxious these young people were feeling about being basically stuck in the U.S. and grappling with the idea that they may not see their families for a while due to such policies. And I think there needs to be more stories like these, where scientists are given the opportunity to express how much they love the work they do and how that’s complicated by the systems we live with.
When you’re not working on a story, what are you up to?
- What’s the last movie you watched - Hidden Figures
- What’s the last book you read? - Double Cup Love by Eddie Huang via Audible
- Do you play a musical instrument - I did 8 years of piano growing up and about three years of violin. I currently take guitar lessons and I’m really bad at the harmonica.
- Do you own pets - No but I’m jealous of everyone in my office who has dogs. My partner and I definitely plan on getting a dog in the near future though and naming it Laika, after the first canine cosmonaut.
- Music artist currently in heavy rotation on your music player - In my car? Definitely The Clash.
What’s the hardest you’ve ever laughed at STLPR:
I don’t know if it was the hardest laugh, but once Durrie Bouscaren, who sits next to me, did this story about STD rates in the STL region and she yelled at Joseph Leahy across the room to ask if he was “okay” with saying “gonorrhea, chlamydia and syphilis.” Of course, she was just asking if he needed pronouncers for those words, but it was really just Durrie’s trademark vibrant bluntness that made the moment.
What’s next? What can members look forward to hearing from you in the coming months?
I don’t like to give specifics on stories I haven’t produced yet, but speaking generally, my docket has a story on green buildings, another on water quality. Hopefully another on botany if I can get a certain researcher to return my emails. I’m also collaborating with our development staff to produce a couple of science events. I’m particularly excited about our partnership with the St. Louis Storytelling Festival to bring Story Collider here to St. Louis for the first time. That’s a podcast focused on telling science stories live on stage - so basically like the science version of The Moth. I’ve been talking to a number of researchers here about being a part of this lineup and I’ve never seen a group of people so excited to share experiences that they might only really tell their friends after a few beers. That event will take place this May.
If you want to support the important work of Eli Chen and the other St. Louis Public Radio reporters, you can make a contribution today!
Do you have questions you’d like to ask St. Louis Public Radio Justice Reporter Rachel Lippmann? We will be sitting down with her for next month’s edition of Membership Matters. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line: Membership Matters.