Stanford grad trades STEM for storytelling

Stanford scientist and graduating doctoral student Irena Fischer-Hwang made a new discovery during her studies at Stanford: a passion for data-driven news. She will be coming back to the Farm in the fall to pursue a second degree; this time, a master’s in communication.

For new Stanford graduates with a PhD in electrical engineering, their next move could be working as a researcher in an industrial lab, joining a Silicon Valley tech startup or, for new grad Irena Fischer-Hwang, learning to become a journalist.

Fischer-Hwang, who will receive her doctorate in electrical engineering this weekend, is coming back to the Farm in the fall to pursue a master’s degree in the Communication Department’s journalism program.

Irena Fischer-Hwang in the space (room 069 in the Packard Electrical Engineering building) that she created to record the podcast The Informaticists. The podcast created and launched in the Autumn 2018 quarter.

Irena Fischer-Hwang in the space that she created to record the podcast The Informaticists. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Fischer-Hwang said she realized early in her graduate studies that it was important to communicate science to wider audiences.

“There’s an unexpected side to science that is really fun to communicate to people,” Fischer-Hwang said. “I think if we can make science more approachable, it could really help people understand why scientists do what they do.”

Little did she realize that her earlier interest in science communication would lead her to a new career path.

Fischer-Hwang’s first foray into storytelling was through Goggles Optional, a humorous science podcast written, produced and hosted by Stanford graduate students. For the past two years, Fischer-Hwang has written and hosted dozens of episodes of the show, including one about lucid dreaming and another about how sound can hack smartphones.

“In academic science, not a lot of people will be able to understand what you are working on,” Fischer-Hwang said. “But the whole goal of journalism is to take difficult concepts and explain them to the public in interesting ways.”

Fischer-Hwang’s doctoral adviser, electrical engineering Professor Tsachy Weissman, was so impressed by her journalistic leanings that he asked her to help him launch a podcast about his own field of expertise, information theory. Fischer-Hwang produced the pilot episode of the series and then trained 14 students in the new freshman seminar EE25N: The Science of Information to write scripts and edit audio so they can continue producing the series.

Turning data analysis into storytelling

In addition to creating podcasts, Fischer-Hwang was curious about other ways she could tell stories.

She signed up for several classes across campus, including a food-writing course and a computational journalism seminar with communication Professor James Hamilton. In Hamilton’s class, Fischer-Hwang discovered how journalists and computer scientists are overlapping as many reporters are now turning to big data analysis to help them with their reporting.

“There’s an unexpected side to science that is really fun to communicate to people. If we can make science more approachable, it could really help people understand why scientists do what they do.”

—Irena Fischer-Hwang

PhD Graduate in Electrical Engineering

Fischer-Hwang found that the skills she honed during her graduate studies – sorting and evaluating data, managing large amounts of information and running statistical analysis, for example – are as relevant in the newsroom as they are in the lab.

“Now, finally, I feel like I’ve found a great way to combine my love of human stories with my rigorous training in STEM through journalism,” Fischer-Hwang said. “I’ve had this creative streak for as long as I can remember, but until recently I didn’t know what to do with it.”

Through Hamilton, Fischer-Hwang met computational journalist and Stanford scholar Cheryl Phillips, who invited her to join Big Local News, a new initiative at Stanford to help local newsrooms with the data collection and analysis needed for investigative reporting.

For the past year, Fischer-Hwang has helped the Big Local News team roll out various data-driven projects – including an in-depth investigation into the costs of U.S. wildfires, with a focus on why costs are higher in California than in some other states such as Oregon and Washington. Their findings were published in several media outlets, including KQED.

Fischer-Hwang played a pivotal role in developing “story recipes,” guides that show other reporters how to replicate the team’s data analysis or customize the dataset for their own work.

“One issue with data analysis is that not only can data be hard to collect and clean, it can also be really hard to understand what someone else has done to manipulate the data,” Fischer-Hwang said. That’s where “story recipes” come in. Fischer-Hwang meticulously documented her process for gathering, sorting and analyzing data that was then posted, along with the datasets, to the open-source website Github.

Fischer-Hwang plans to continue working with Big Local News on other data-driven projects when she returns to campus in the fall, while also honing her reporting skills through her studies.

This summer, Fischer-Hwang is headed to the Dallas Morning News to work as a features-writing intern.

“For the last decade, my day-to-day has been centered around biology, statistics, coding and math,” Fischer-Hwang said. “But starting in a few weeks, my daily grind will revolve around interviewing, talking to people, proofreading and editing. It’s going to be a starkly different working life, but honestly, I can’t wait!”

Fischer-Hwang, who is from Scottsdale, Arizona, earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.