“Science isn’t black and white, it’s never definitive, and you are always building your body of knowledge,” says Lisa Stiffler, who enjoys “…always finding out about new research and what the hot issues are in science.”
Lisa Stiffler has taken her biology background and melded it with a communications degree, to land herself an enviable position - she is now a reporter for the Seattle Post Intelligencer, Environmental Watch. She and co-reporter Robert McClure “cover environmental issues from the region and beyond,” including global warming articles, stories about endangered species, how wildlife in this region is affected by urbanization, energy issues, and the ecosystem of Puget Sound. She provides an important way for science to reach the public – and to raise our awareness of the environment we share in the Pacific Northwest.
Her career path began after receiving her first degree in Cell and Molecular Biology in 1994. Stiffler took a job in the Schubiger Lab – yes, many other alumni remember this lab of flies – but after working with drosophila for a whole year, she began to yearn for a broader purpose. Every day National Public Radio (NPR) was broadcast throughout the lab…and it inspired Stiffler to take a chance with journalism.
In 1998, Stiffler decided to go back to school part-time to take a stab at a communications degree. She got to try out the new skills she learned by volunteering at the KUOW radio station and writing stories for the radio show host. She quickly excelled in journalism, and was able to participate in the UW Communications Partnership program by teaming up with reporters in the legislative session of ‘99, which got her foot into the door at the PI as a temp. Although she didn’t get into science reporting right away, Stiffler knew that it was her competitive edge and the best way use her biology background. In 2001 a second space opened-up for an environmental reporter, and she took it.
At first, she was nervous about being “new on the beat” yet she quickly found that her background in science made the people she interviewed feel more relaxed. Scientists worry about reporters getting their story wrong, but since Stiffler actually had experience working in their field, they knew they could trust her to get the science right. She would always read peer reviewed articles or drafts of what the scientists were publishing, and knew to look at the methods and materials section before writing her article. She contacted old colleagues from the UW for good leads on new stories, and found herself back on campus a lot.
One of the things she has noticed about science today is that it has become so politicized. From ethical issues around stem cell research and developmental biology, to global warming issues, and debates about salmon and agricultural pesticides, it’s disturbing to see so many lawsuits and controversy. It is also a change to see so much science being applied to real world issues today rather then being done more for academic research.
“The hard thing about writing is that you’ve got to be fair,” said Stiffler, about her stand on some controversial issues. As a reporter she has to stick to the facts.
“You are trying to find the truth – and trying to find the science. It’s complicated, where is the science behind the emotional part? The research provides the evidence.”
But even statistics can be manipulated to support certain goals or to find different results. It’s important to have objective reporting so that the whole story can be told. To write the most complete story, Stiffler will interview people from both sides of an issue, and do some research of her own to fully understand the subject matter.