Astronomy master’s student launches career in science writing with prestigious communication programs

By Meghan Chua


Erika K. Carlson
After graduating in May, astronomy master’s student Erika K. Carlson will pursue a newfound passion for writing about science through the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Mass Media Fellowship.

Erika K. Carlson thrives on the sense of wonder that comes along with learning about the universe.

The self-described science nerd is fascinated with the wild and weird phenomena scientists are exploring in physics and astronomy, and she wants to share them with the world.

“I’ve loved the fact that as a science student and as a graduate student researcher, my job has basically been to learn about cool science things full-time,” Carlson said. “I want as many people as possible to get to experience this, at least a little bit.”

After she graduates in May with a master’s degree in astronomy, Carlson will go on to two highly regarded science communication programs, pursuing a newfound passion for writing about science.

Her next stop is a summer internship for Discover Magazine through the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Mass Media Fellowship.

Then, in September, Carlson will start a one-year science communication program at UC Santa Cruz, where she will explore various forms of science communication through multiple internships. She has also been awarded a Taylor/Blakeslee University Fellowship from the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing to support her training.

For Carlson, the journey leading to a career in science communication started with a different goal in mind. When she came to UW–Madison, she was interested in teaching, and the resources at UW–Madison such as the Delta Program made the campus attractive.

But in addition to gaining teaching experience, Carlson kept her eyes open for opportunities that aligned with her interests. In particular, she wanted to get involved in science outreach – an opportunity she found in the astronomy department.

A kid looks through a telescope during Universe in the Park
Then-University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate student Paul Sell introduces guests to the workings of a telescope during a Universe in the Park (UitP) event held outdoors at Governor Dodge State Park in Dodgeville, Wis., in 2012. The outreach program, led by UW-Madison’s Department of Astronomy, includes nearly 50 such events at multiple state parks throughout Wisconsin from May through October. (Photo by Jeff Miller/UW-Madison)

UW–Madison astronomy students run a weekly radio segment called Radio Astronomy on 89.9 WORT FM. In the summers, students take telescopes to state parks to show campers the stars and planets during Universe in the Park.

“Part of why I chose to come here was I had opportunities to practice sharing science with other people through these outreach events,” Carlson said.

Carlson has helped write and present Radio Astronomy and has reported on science news for UW–Madison. In her work so far, Carlson has covered topics such as the sea level of liquid methane lakes on Saturn’s moon Titan, magnetic fields in distant galaxies, and the Perseid meteor shower.

For her research, Carlson worked with Professor Robert Mathieu, studying how star systems influence the evolution of the stars they contain.

“Communication about science is about the content, the inquiry process, and the significance,” Mathieu said. “With her rich experience doing scientific research, Erika will be able to speak to all of these with both knowledge and passion.”

Carlson said taking advantage of as many opportunities as she could to explore what interested her contributed to her success as a graduate student.

“Doing what I can to learn more about what I’m interested in is ultimately what helped me make my decision for what I wanted to do, and also helped me build up the skills to show that I have the potential to do this,” Carlson said.