Science writer leaves behind succulent, new department

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During her four semesters at the Daily Texan, Ellen Airhart wrote Science Scene, the science column in Life&Arts, and worked as the Science&Technology editor.
Photo Credit: Rachel Zein | Daily Texan Staff

Editor’s note: A 30 column is a chance for departing permanent staff to say farewell and reflect on their time spent in The Daily Texan’s basement office. The term comes from the old typesetting mark (-30-) to denote the end of a line. 

The words “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?” are written across the glass on the managing editor’s office in the Daily Texan basement. I was looking at these words when the fall 2015 Life&Arts editor, Danielle Lopez, made the following offhand comment:

“Hey, you and Eva and Maluly are writing a lot of stories every week. Wouldn’t it be funny if y’all had your own department?” 

Little did she know, I was already plotting. 

The then new, now legendary, managing editor Amy Zhang miraculously bought my pitch for a new department, even though it would have been much easier for her to say no. The brilliant Eva Frederick agreed to be the associate editor — without her, the department would have been like a seedling trying to sprout with no sunlight. 

Thank you to everyone who listened to me recount the story of my encounter with the 3-D nipple printer approximately 400 times during recruitment. Thank you, Kat Sampson, for letting me title that story “Nipping: the next frontier of bioprinting.” 

To my continued delight, writers soon joined me in the makeshift new department under the mosquito net, even though I obviously had no idea what I was doing. Most of these writers were in the same position as I was when I started — science majors who love to talk about cool research. Together, we’ve created a space where we can do exactly that. 

As editor of the Science&Technology department at one of the greatest research universities in the world, I am thrust constantly into the future. We’ve covered self-healing batteries and self-driving cars. We’ve flown drones, watched robots play soccer and written about bee guts. I had never heard of graphene before this year, but now I know it’s the next big thing. 

Every other department has made sacrifices and worked harder than usual in order to make this dream a reality. So has our adult advisor, Peter, who supported us the entire way. 

This column would be remiss without mention of Robert Starr and Paepin Goff, who started Science Scene and mentored me when I arrived to the basement. Robert, Paepin, Danielle and Kat taught me everything I know about journalism. 

When I interviewed for this position, associate managing editor Nick Castillo asked me a question I couldn’t answer. 

“What would the ideal Science&Technology page look like?” 

Five months later, after the discovery of gravitational waves and solutions to stop the spread of Zika virus, I can finally answer that question. Students and faculty at UT are slowly, deliberately changing the world using the scientific method. It’s been my privilege to write about it.

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