On the air, 2020: Julia Rosen was interviewed on Live Wire radio about her Atlantic story on invasive earthworms. Photo by Jennifer Baker for Live Wire Radio.
Science Journalist Julia Rosen Recognized with 2021 Early- to Mid-Career Alumni Award
Writing at the intersection of "what science can tell us and what we as a society decide to do about it"
Michigan native Julia Rosen, ’05, has always loved being outside. During summers at her family’s lake cabin she spent hours on the rocky shore collecting stones and fossils. And, when the weather was bad, she read—voraciously. Today these dual passions are earning her national recognition as a writer with a special gift for connecting people to the natural world.
On October 22, Rosen was honored with Stanford Earth’s 2021 Early- to Mid-Career Alumni Award. The award recognizes alumni who have made highly significant and long-lasting contributions in the civil, government, business, or academic communities within 20 years of receiving their Stanford degrees.
“Julia Rosen is an independent journalist covering science and the environment whose work has contributed greatly to the public understanding of many complex socio-scientific issues,” said Stephan Graham, the Chester Naramore Dean of the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences, as he presented the award. “She writes clear and eloquent stories about how the world works and how humans are changing it.”
From the shore to the mountains
Rosen’s childhood interests in the natural world, science, reading, and writing were early clues to her eventual pursuit of a PhD in geology and a career as a science journalist. Supportive English, math, and science teachers in her hometown gave her the confidence to consider pursuing STEM courses in college. She wanted a rigorous academic experience, one that would also support her serious study of classical voice. While there are a lot of great things about Michigan, in Rosen’s estimation, one thing that is missing is mountains, and the West beckoned as a college destination.
Rosen may have thought that her undergraduate experience would lead to further study at a conservatory of music, but it quickly became apparent that the breadth of her academic interests at Stanford were going to pull her away from that musical path. She took a huge range of courses in the humanities, writing, philosophy, and science, and she distinctly remembers reading the foundational texts of nature writing in her first-quarter class on the history of nature. Briefly an Earth systems major, Rosen recalls that her first geology class with Elizabeth Miller stretched her mind in ways no class had before. She was drawn to the “messiness” of geology; that “you had to be a detective to understand what the geologic record was telling you.” It was part of a long-term intellectual journey of becoming more comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty, which serves both scientists and journalists well. Anne Egger, undergraduate program coordinator for the Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences when Rosen was a student—and the person who nominated her for the alumni award—remembers Rosen asking for her input on early drafts of her undergraduate thesis. “It was already exceptionally well written,” Egger says. “It’s pretty unusual, but Julia had a really intuitive sense for what needed to be part of that paper.”
Her developing interest in using core samples to decipher Earth’s history led her to seek out Professor Rob Dunbar, whose support, in turn, put her in touch with graduate students doing research in the field and led to her own summer research opportunities in Peru. Dunbar remembers her being highly motivated and focused. “Julia was intrigued by high latitudes and high altitudes and took a great deal of initiative in seeking out anyone who was doing sediment and ice core work,” he says.
Outside the classroom, Rosen shared her love of the mountains by being an instructor in Stanford’s Outdoor Education Program. After graduating in 2005 with a degree in geological and environmental sciences, she followed her passion by moving to the Sierra and working as a ski patroller. Coupled with summer work as a field technician for biologists studying frogs, she happily spent the years before graduate school in Mammoth Lakes.
The curiosity connection
In the PhD program at Oregon State University, Rosen continued her study of ice cores, specifically looking at bubbles in the ice to understand how the atmosphere and greenhouse gases have changed over time. She also realized that she probably wouldn’t pursue a research track upon completion. She recalls, “I was feeling that I wasn’t spending my time thinking about the questions that had driven me to go to graduate school in the first place.” She began reading science journalism online and the idea of a career writing about science began to take form. “Once I started to realize that it was a potentially viable career path,” Rosen recounts, “I started to lay the groundwork to make the transition when I finished my PhD.”
That groundwork included writing a blog about food. “Miraculously,” she says, “the food blog helped me get an internship at EARTH Magazine,” where she wrote a series of articles on topics ranging from the fossil discovery of the massive Barbaturex morrisoni lizard (named for the legendary Doors singer; more about Rosen’s continued interest in music later) to the conclusion of the long debate about the origins of Arizona’s Meteor Crater.
Finishing her PhD in 2014, Rosen was awarded a prestigious Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellowship from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The fellowship landed her in the newsroom of the Los Angeles Times, where her desire to go into journalism was cemented. She recalls: “I saw a lot of parallels between the curiosity that makes you want to be a researcher and the curiosity that makes you want to be a journalist. That’s something that is shared between the two disciplines. … I want to know something that’s not readily available.” In addition to covering the stories assigned in the weekly editorial meetings, she developed her own features, including one of her first experiences doing field reporting. Smiling, she says, “I wrote a story about the people who volunteer to clean the fossils at the La Brea Tar Pits in LA. I got to hang out in their labs and watch what they were doing, which is the really fun part of journalism.”
Fellowships at The Open Notebook and the European Geosciences Union, and a residency at the Wrangell Mountains Center in McCarthy, Alaska, followed, enabling Rosen to establish the contacts and portfolio to work as a freelance journalist from her home in Portland.
Opening pathways for understanding
Today, Rosen focuses on projects that can take months from conception to publication. She is interested in the relationship between humans and nature. “I’m really interested in the complex circumstances in which we find ourselves,” she explains, “and how we grapple with the choices we have in front of us. The topics may seem disparate but the philosophical question that unites a lot of my work is how we relate to the natural world.”
It’s at the root of why Rosen went into journalism from science. She believes there is a gap between what science can tell us and what we as a society decide to do. She explains, “That’s something I found as a scientist, that science can take us part of the way but not all of the way. There’s huge room for nuanced conversation around the questions I am drawn to. It’s an area where we need some serious effort, and I wanted to contribute what I could to that conversation.” Egger, now a professor at Central Washington University, understands this about Rosen from working with her, most recently on open educational resources for undergraduate-level science learning. “I’ve seen how Julia pursues lines of inquiry to better understand the evolution of a scientific idea, being able to get into the details of it and digest it in a way that becomes a compelling and understandable story,” she says.
Rosen’s work has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic, Science, National Geographic, and High Country News, among other publications, and has been recognized with numerous prestigious awards. Most recently, her feature on invasive earthworms published in The Atlantic was anthologized in the 2021 edition of The Best American Science and Nature Writing and was a finalist for the Society of Environmental Journalists’ Outstanding Feature Story Award. She enjoys the flexibility freelance writing affords her to target different audiences. “We need a buckshot approach,” she says. “We need to try different types of stories and talk to different types of audiences to open pathways to talk about the challenges we face.” Egger feels Rosen is able to do this successfully because she is a geoscientist and researcher who brings creativity to her journalism. As Egger wrote in nominating Rosen for this award, “Julia speaks the language of scientists while artfully conveying the significance of their work in ways that connect with people. In less than a decade she has already made long-lasting, significant impacts on environmental journalism.”
Does she hear from her readers? “Yes,” she affirms, “and it’s interesting; I get far fewer angry emails from climate change deniers now than I did a few years ago. I get a lot of emails thanking me for making things accessible or engaging or highlighting solutions, which is something I try to do in my work. And I get a lot of questions asking for ‘more about this’ or ‘where would I go to look for that,’ which is very rewarding.” She describes one particularly gratifying outcome stemming from a story she wrote about the long history of humans using phosphorus. The story ends with some researchers in Washington who are developing a mobile unit to extract and recycle phosphorus from cow manure as a way to reconnect this loop that’s broken. The researchers told her they themselves had heard from readers, thanking them for the work they’re doing.
Rosen feels the most important job of science journalism right now is to help readers understand that all the stories that seem disparate are actually connected: Climate change is connected to COVID and inequality and racial justice. The challenge is to explain the deep connections and how they affect different people in different ways. You have to reach people with the stories they care about and will engage with. “It gets back to the question that motivates me,” she explains. “What is our relationship to the planet and systems that sustain us and what is our obligation to other living creatures, including future generations of our own species?”
In the spring Rosen will take up her Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at MIT, where her project will explore the origins of Earth’s grasslands and the threats they face today. “There’s a lot of really practical stuff about climate change and conservation that the project is focused on, but there’s also just a sense of connection,” she says. “Everyone has a connection to grass. Everyone has experienced grass but often overlooks it. I’m hoping to find a way to talk about a lot of these questions in a wonder-based way, through an unexpected but very familiar lens.”
Look beyond the pre-paved paths
Rosen’s message to students is that if there is something they think they want to do and it doesn’t exist, they should try to make it exist. “Think creatively about what your ideal job would look like,” she advises. “There are so many ways to be a scientist. There are so many ways to be a writer. And there are so many combinations. Look beyond the pre-paved paths. It’s not impossible. There are a lot of people doing just that.”
Back to the role music has played in her life. The classically trained singer did perform in an opera while at Stanford, played in bands as a counterbalance to hours in the lab at Oregon State, and recently released an album with her husband. The most direct link between her science and her music may have been the country-western breakup song she wrote about the gas chromatograph that made her life difficult in grad school. “We were adapting it to our ice cores, which meant we were asking it to work way outside of what it is designed to do,” she explains.
“It gave me endless headaches, so I broke up with it.”