Demystifying COVID-19 vaccines and variants
Who Dr Jackson Ryan, CNET
What Much of Dr Jackson Ryan’s recent reporting has explored new vaccine technologies, dispelling myths about safety, addressing fear mongering about virus variants and explaining how science will see us through to a "new normal" post-pandemic. In addition to his work on the coronavirus pandemic, Jackson’s long-form story Journey to the Dragon Palace — which follows the Japanese Space Agency’s mission to return ancient asteroid samples to Earth — has been recognised among this year’s top science journalism entries.
Finalist in the 2021 Finkel Foundation Eureka Prize for Long-Form Science Journalism and the 2021 Australian Museum Eureka Prize for Science Journalism
Were your sights always set on a career in science journalism, or did you think you would pursue something else when you were younger?
I definitely liked to create, learn and write when I was younger, but I was never set on science journalism, I was definitely more likely to become a scientist. I had great mentors at the University of South Australia during my doctoral studies, but my heart wasn’t in it. Then I thought back to my time at high school, where I’d go to the library at lunch to read New Scientist magazines — and remembered how much that inspired me and made me think about the world in a different way.
I bounced around a bit and wore many different hats before getting to where I am: I was a medical scientist, a researcher, a kid’s TV show host and I used to write about video games, too. The common thread, I realised, was communication and about five years ago I got the chance to make that a full-time job. I haven’t looked back, much to the chagrin of my darling mother who still sends me job notices for academic positions.
It’s no surprise that we’re all so confused. It has really shown that we need to be better at conveying the scientific process and uncertainty to the public. Things do change as new evidence emerges. That’s what science is all about!
A lot of your recent writing has focused on the coronavirus pandemic. What are some of the obstacles you’ve faced while covering COVID-19?
There have been so many obstacles! I think the major challenge is just the deluge of information (and misinformation). The pandemic has been a story that has, at times, changed by the hour. Our understanding of the virus has changed daily. Research into new variants or lockdowns or vaccines or mental health … There's just so much! It’s no surprise that we’re all so confused. It has really shown that we need to be better at conveying the scientific process and uncertainty to the public. Things do change as new evidence emerges. That’s what science is all about!
In Journey to the Dragon Palace, you follow the Japanese Space Agency as it plans to return ancient asteroid samples to outback Australia. How did this story get started?
I’d been following the Hayabusa2 mission by the Japan Aerospace eXploration Agency (JAXA) for a few years and watched on as it achieved several historic firsts. Hayabusa2 was able to bomb an asteroid and then grab rocks from its surface. It always felt like big news to me — if NASA had been doing the same thing, it would be all over our social media feeds! Knowing the mission was going to return samples to Woomera, in South Australia, I always hoped I could embed myself with the JAXA team and follow the mission to completion in 2020.
What really hooked me was an ancient Japanese folk tale that provided the name of the asteroid, Ryugu. This folktale was a vivid and intriguing story about a young fisherman who visits a palace under the sea — the “Dragon Palace.” The tale has been interpreted in several different ways over the past 1,000 years but the one that resonated with me was the idea that once you leave home, things aren’t the same when you return. This was exactly what the Hayabusa2 mission to the Dragon Palace would be! As soon as that piece fell into place, I did everything I could to learn from JAXA and establish relationships with their scientists and engineers. I am incredibly proud of how the story turned out!
Are there any topics that you would like to focus on through your journalism in the future?
In the short-term, the most important topic remains the coronavirus followed closely by the climate crisis. We’ll be reckoning with both for a long, long time.
Further into the future, I really want to make sure that long-form science journalism can thrive in Australia. I think the pandemic has shown just how important explanatory journalism is — but the most impactful and affecting stories are still stories. You can wrap the facts up neatly, but people really listen when the story resonates with them on a personal and emotional level. I hope there’s a place for that kind of storytelling in the future and I hope to build a place for Australian writers to flex that muscle. That’s the dream, anyway.
You can wrap the facts up neatly, but people really listen when the story resonates with them on a personal and emotional level.
What have been some of the highlights in your career as a science journalist?
When I took on the role of science editor at CNET.com, I wrote that I really wanted to bring research from people “much smarter than me” to our audience. I think that’s the most rewarding thing about this job: Being able to learn from experts and impart that sense of wonder and joy of discovery to an audience. I get highlights every day when readers email me and say they learned something from a piece I’ve written.
I have to say Journey to the Dragon Palace was certainly the most rewarding writing experience I have had so far, but I have some cool opportunities in the next year that I am really looking forward to — and can see them making the highlights list, too.
I was also fortunate enough to be a finalist for a Eureka in 2020! That was a highlight. Unfortunately, the brilliant ABC Coronacast team of Norman Swan, Tegan Taylor and producer Will Ockenden got the gong. They’ve made a mortal enemy out of me, and I am looking for revenge (but not really: I totally love what they do!).
In addition to CNET, where do you consume your science news?
I don’t think people fully understand how marvelous the science journalism and writing scene is in Australia. We have a truly impressive array of talented freelancers working across huge global sites like Nature, WIRED, Scientific American and a number of really great staff at some of the major mastheads across the country. We also have more “indie” titles like Cosmos, Australian Geographic, Space Australia … all these places rule. I keep my eye on as much of this work as possible and think everyone else should too!
You can also read the best of the best every year in The Best Australian Science Writing anthology, which is 11 years old and highly recommended – and in 2021 it’s edited by another Eureka Prize finalist, the incredible Dyani Lewis!