Connecting with a Like-Minded Science Communicator

Last week, I took the bus to Chalandri, a suburb of northern Athens, to meet with Theo Anagnostopoulos. Anagnostopoulos is the cofounder of SciCo, a nonprofit organization that aims to facilitate communication of scientific topics in a creative and interesting way. After spending more than 10 years developing a background in genetics and cancer biology in the U.K., Anagnostopoulos, who is also the president of the board of the Onassis Scholars’ Association, chose to pursue a career in science communication even though, in his words, “there was no market for it” in Greece.

“How do you survive in a field that has no market?” he said. “You have to open the market.”

The (somewhat hidden) entrance to the SciCo offices in Chalandri.

At SciCo, Anagnostopoulos helps run various programs that enable science communication in Greek society, though he also hopes to expand internationally. This includes the Athens Science Festival, which was started in 2014 and now draws 30,000 visitors each year, and the Thessaloniki Science Festival, which was instigated shortly after. They also have developed a program called Mind the Lab, which places research demonstrations in Athens metro stations for one day each year in order to integrate science into everyday life. Volunteers are an important part of making these programs a success.

Theo Anagnostopoulos, general manager of SciCo, at his desk.

Anagnostopoulos says that SciCo has two main pillars: communication and empowerment. “A lot of the issues that drive global attention involve science,” he said. “Once [people] leave the festival, hopefully they will engage with something scientific afterwards.”

This type of work is essential in a world where science research is flourishing but communication and engagement are still lacking.

“We’re trying to create education based on rational steps,” Anagnostopoulos said. He says it’s important to help people navigate the science communication landscape in what’s been called the “infobesity” era. “There’s so much confusion about the masses of information coming out on the same topic. I think the more you have, the more confusion is created. You need someone who is balanced.”

Employees working at the SciCo office.

Anagnostopoulos is passionate about creating engagement on crucial issues like global climate change. However, he also admits that Greece’s ongoing financial crisis has created a distraction from dealing with these issues firsthand, as have the ongoing antics of the U.S. government.

“You get distracted by the U.S.’s position,” he said. “You feel as though you’ve got an Olympic Stadium full of water and you’re using a coffee cup to empty it, but you have someone throwing buckets of water back in.”

As someone who wants to be a science communicator in the U.S., I found that metaphor to be equal parts accurate and depressing. Still, it was fascinating to hear the perspective of someone who’s observing Trump’s actions from the outside, and I was glad to offer my own opinions on the reasons for what’s happening.

While in Greece, I’ve been able to pursue many different types of reporting, some of which I’m already accustomed to and some of which I definitely am not. In the midst of those different experiences, I’m glad to have found time to meet with someone who is in the thick of the field that I hope to make my own career in someday.

Anagnostopoulos says he enjoys science communication because of the “creativity of how you will express what you learn.”

“Whatever tool you use, you are on a stage,” he said. “Being a researcher is an isolating profession. I like having the chance to talk to and interact with other people outside of my job.”

Anagnostopoulos is working on expanding SciCo internationally and says that he would love to have an office in the U.S. someday, so who knows, maybe we will have a chance to connect again. For now, I am excited to move forward with my own goals of helping create more scientific awareness in society with the knowledge that there are people around the world trying to do the exact same thing.


Thessaloniki struggles to promote awareness of environmental initiatives

Here’s my latest story for our team site on recycling initiatives in Greece. It’s a topic I’m glad I got to explore while I was in Thessaloniki.

NU Journalism Abroad - Greece 2017

Recycling and trash bins like these, photographed in a residential area of Thessaloniki, can be found on nearly every corner throughout the city.
Photo by Gwendolyn Schanker

Story by Gwendolyn Schanker ·

THESSALONIKI, Greece – Large plastic blue bins dot the streets of Thessaloniki, intended for citizens to dispose of their plastic, paper and aluminum. The ubiquitous – and often chock-full – receptacles signify rising awareness of recycling initiatives, but Greece still has a long way to go in embracing environmental awareness.

The EU has set a goal of recycling 50 percent of household waste by 2020. According to theEuropean Environment Agency, only 19 percent of municipal waste was recycled in Greece in 2014, the last year for which data are available. That number has risen by nearly 10 percent over the last decade, but is still low when Greece is compared to other European countries: For example…

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Run Around

Last night as I was having dinner with Luke, Paxtyn, Hsiang-Yu, and Suma and we were recapping our days, Luke, who had spent his day tracking down sources for a story on LGBT refugees, mentioned that he loves this part of journalism: working on deadline to the point where you have to literally track people down in order to get them to talk to you. “I think I gain energy from this type of reporting,” he said over our dinner of pork legs and pasta.

This morning, I reflected on that conversation as I set out to track down a representative at the Greek Ministry of Migration and Policy to talk to me after I wasn’t able to get through to them on the phone. What was supposed to be a five-minute walk turned into an hour of wandering the streets looking for the right government building. I kept being sent from one building to another, all of which contained nice, helpful people, but unfortunately, none of those people were available to answer my questions.

Finally, one particularly accommodating woman at the Department of Citizenship gave me the correct address of the Ministry of Migration (quite different than what I had pulled up on my Google Maps) and the name of someone to talk to. As I set off in the opposite direction, I realized I was sending myself a series of negative messages along the lines of:

I hate this part. I don’t understand why I even want to BE a journalist if it involves going up to random people and asking for directions and what is even the point of being here if I don’t even LIKE talking to people at all? In fact, after this is over I’m never going to talk to anyone ever again. 

If you haven’t already picked it up from reading this blog, I can be a little melodramatic.

It’s true that unlike Luke, I don’t thrive in these type of reporting situations. My favorite kind of reporting is when someone responds to my email saying they’d be delighted to talk to me and suggests an exact time and place. I don’t like the back-and-forth, I don’t like being rejected, and I especially don’t like tracking down people unplanned.

Here’s the part I do like. Once I arrived at the Ministry of Migration and found the right floor, the representative started looking up potential information that would be useful for my research. I struck up an informal conversation with her about the subject of refugees integrating into Greek society, which turned into a 15-minute interview where I took down notes on the piece of paper she’d just handed me.

My journey had not been in vain, as I had feared while walking along in the drizzling rain. Instead, I’d struck up a rapport with a new person and gathered information that would hopefully prove useful. Leaving the building, I felt triumphant.

“Sounds like journalism,” was my mom’s response after I described my morning of running around. It is journalism. But do I like it or not?

Sometimes, these types of reporting escapades are entirely unsuccessful. Today, Paxtyn took an hour-long train ride out of the city for an interview, and her interviewee stood her up. Even though finding someone to talk to made my trip today a small success, I would have had to be okay with the winding journey even if I had come up empty.

Part of the reason I don’t enjoy cold calls or tracking down sources is because I have a fear of failure. My general strategy as a reporter is to feel like I can’t until I do. It would be great if I could skip the I can’and go right to the I do part. That goal is a work in progress, but coming on this trip has brought me closer to achieving it by putting me in situations where I ultimately feel more capable as an international journalist. I still don’t enjoy wandering the city to find sources, but I’m starting to realize that I can. 



Blue Skies and Gorgeous Sunsets

Yesterday was our third full day in Athens. So far, my impression of the city is that it’s much larger and more bustling than Thessaloniki, but in a good way. Every time I turn a corner I see a cute coffee shop I want to try.

I have really enjoyed my time in Athens so far, but very little of it has been spent in the city. On Friday, I took the tram one hour from the downtown area to Glyfada, where the ARCHELON Sea Turtle Rescue Centre is located. During the very crowded tram ride, I listened to music as we passed by some lovely beaches that hopefully I will get to before the end of the trip.

The reason for my trip to Glyfada was to film and take notes on the release of a sea turtle, Angelliki (Greek word for “angel”), back into the ocean. Angelliki was found with a head injury and rehabilitated for about seven months at the rescue center before she was declared ready to resume her life in the ocean. The release was amazing to watch, and I also really enjoyed talking to some of the volunteers at the rescue center – who come from countries all over the world – about their experience so far. Stay tuned for my upcoming story about sea turtle research and conservation in Greece.

Two of the volunteers at ARCHELON just before releasing sea turtle Angelliki into the ocean.

The trip to Glyfada was also a great opportunity to see a couple of different beaches here in Athens. The release of the sea turtle took place in collaboration with the Aqua Divers Club, which is about a 45-minute drive from Glyfada. I’m really glad I had the chance to visit such a beautiful place, and the drive there was absolutely breathtaking. Not to mention the brief but exhilarating boat ride.

The beach at the Aqua Divers Club.

My ocean tour continued yesterday when we took a group field trip to Aegina, one of the closest islands to the mainland. We took cabs across the island to visit the Marina Beach, one of the largest beaches on the island. Lying on the beach and swimming in the ocean provided some much-needed relaxation, and by the time we left around 6p.m., everyone looked sun-kissed and happy. I also got to try some of Aegina’s famous pistachio ice cream!

Enjoying the ferry ride on the way to Aegina.
Marina beach on the island of Aegina.
Aegina is known for its delicious pistachios, as Pavlos Tsaros, rescue network coordinator at ARCHELON, told me during our car ride to the Aqua Divers’ Club on Friday. I’d say the pistachio ice cream lives up to the hype.

The best part of the day, though, was the ferry ride back to the port of Piraeus. Our timing on the 7:30 ferry was perfect, and we got to witness one of the most incredible sunsets I have ever seen. Watching the sun set over the Aegean Sea is an experience I will never forget.



Not pictured: dolphins also enjoying the sunset in the distance.
Pure happiness. Photo by Suma Hussien

I know we only have about a week remaining in Athens, and I think that by then, I will be ready for a vacation. But moments like the sunset last night help remind me just how lucky I am to be here.

Smiles and Paradigm Shifts

On Monday night, Carlene called and asked me to come down to her room to discuss whether I wanted to work with Paxtyn to write a story about the current state of the refugee crisis in Thessaloniki and Athens. It will serve as an accompaniment to the stories that Olivia, Ellie, and Suma are working on based on the trip they took last weekend to the island of Chios with Professor Mike Beaudet. If you want to know more about the conditions in Chios and the work these three are doing, Ellie’s emotional account is a challenging but important read. 

Paxtyn’s and my job is to tell the story from the perspective of the refugees living on the mainland, some of whom live in camps on the outskirts of cities and some of whom have been relocated to apartments. Many of those refugees are Syrians who are fleeing from a war-stricken country, while others are from countries like Algeria and Iraq. It’s a complicated story with a lot of different angles, partly because many refugees are constantly in transition between different living situations in Greece, hoping that they will eventually be relocated to other countries.

Carlene called me on Monday around 7p.m., and by 7:30, Paxtyn and I were on the phone with Alix, a Syrian refugee slash journalist who approached Bridget last week when we were all reporting at the protests. Alix frequently spends time with refugees living in Thessaloniki, and set up an interview for the very next afternoon with an eight-person Syrian family living in an apartment less than a kilometer from our own housing. Bridget and Danny joined us to shoot photos and video, respectively.

The next afternoon we traveled with Alix and some of his comrades to Softex camp, where we met with another family that lives in one of the many isoboxes – containers kind of like RVs that function as small apartments, sometimes for groups of 5, 6, or 7 people – that make up the camp. We interviewed the parents in a family of six and also logged notes about the conditions. This time, Sydne and Mike came with Paxtyn and me, while Danny continued to fulfill his role of videographer.

I consider myself to be an experienced reporter, but I have never before dealt directly with tragedy like the Syrian refugees in Greece have had and are still experiencing. I wasn’t sure what to expect from these interviews, except that I would need to keep my own emotions in check.

The Almahmods have six children that range in age from infancy to 12 years old. The family lives in an apartment with one bedroom. There is one bed, and one large open room with pillows, where those who cannot sleep in the bed sleep on the floor. Then there is a bathroom and a small entranceway with couches, where we conducted the first two hours of our interview. The second two hours were conducted outside while we simultaneously played monkey-in-the-middle with the younger children and the oldest, Selma (third from the left in the below photo), did my hair.

Myself, Bridget, Danny, and Paxtyn with the Almahmod family.

 The family we met at the camp has four children. The youngest, Maria, has the same name as the youngest Almahmod child. It’s a Christian name dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and is one of the most common female names in Greece. The isoboxes consist of two rooms with a long hallway between them. There’s a bathroom but no running water. We sat with the family for two hours on cushions on the floor as the rain beat down outside. Halfway through the interview, there was a pause while the mother brought us juice boxes and fruit.

Interviewing Alix at the camp.

“Interview” means something different in this context. It does not mean asking questions and getting answers. I didn’t leave feeling like I did a good job or that I got exactly what I needed; I left feeling exhausted, sad, and hopeful that our presence had a purpose.

While I have previously felt powerful with my reporter’s notebook in hand, these past few days it has felt like an inadequate tool for telling stories about lives that are so different from my own. The skills that have proved useful to me thus far – articulating interesting questions and writing quickly – are not that important when it comes to these types of interviews. So I have to turn to other tools. 

I like smiling. When I don’t know what to say, my instinct is always to smile. Needless to say, I’ve smiled a lot on this trip, sometimes from the pure joy of sunshine or delicious new food and sometimes – like when we were conducting interviews this week – because I am not sure how else to communicate that I am here and I care. And also because the kids are really, really cute.

Paxtyn captured this series of photos of us playing with the Almahmod children during a break in our interview. 

This week, my smile has been my greatest tool. It helped me make a connection with Selma and her siblings. It allowed me to ask complicated questions without – hopefully – seeming aggressive or like I was engaging in “parachute journalism.” And it allowed me to create normality in a situation that is entirely foreign for myself, my colleagues, and the people whose stories we hope to tell in a meaningful and purposeful way.

This week marked a paradigm shift in my philosophy as a journalist. I learned that just because I know how to take notes and ask questions, I don’t have all the skills needed to tell such a difficult and multifaceted tale. Fortunately, mine isn’t the only voice that these families can use as a microphone through which to tell their story. From our team alone, you can read perspectives from Ellie (linked above), PaxtynOlivia, Danny, and Bridget. There is also some exceptional journalism from The New York Times and The Guardian, among many others.

I am glad that I have been given the opportunity to be one of these many voices, and hope that my contribution will be worthwhile.

The notes Selma passed to me during our interview earlier this week. She’s had no formal education but knows words from six languages. I will keep them forever.

A Few Updates

The past few days have been some of the busiest I’ve had so far in Thessaloniki. I can’t believe there are only four more full days before we board the bus to Athens, which promises to be a completely different experience and city. I’m still processing some of the experiences I’ve had since the weekend, but before I delve in further, here’s a short overview of what I’ve been up to.

I have a lot on my mind, as you can tell from this photo Suma took on the bus to visit Thessaloniki’s open markets. See more photos from Suma here.

Audience with the mayor

Monday’s lecture at the American College of Thessaloniki was cut short so that we could get back on our bus and meet with the advisor to Thessaloniki’s mayor, Leonidis Makris. Not only did we get to have a long discussion with Makris, the mayor himself, Yiannis Boutaris, set aside a few minutes to answer student questions. If you haven’t heard, the mayor of Thessaloniki is a pretty cool guy. He wears an earring, has tattoos, and leans far to the left on social issues. He also speaks openly about being a recovering alcoholic and has been called “a beacon” of hope for the city.

I asked a question about the status of recycling initiatives in Thessaloniki, since it’s a story I’ve been pursuing since before we arrived in Greece and since recycling has been on the mayor’s radar since he took office in 2011. It’s clear from my research that public awareness of recycling initiatives has picked up in recent years, despite ongoing problems and distractions. Boutaris concurred:

“We have now a goal of having around 50% of garbage which has to be reused…I think we are doing a good job. People are started to understand that treating the garbage [recycling] brings money to the state.”

Many dissolves make one great guitar video 

On Monday night, I stayed up until nearly 2a.m. to finish editing the video component of Cody’s story on Giannis Paleodimopoulos, a classical guitar maker based in a village outside Thessaloniki. My first draft came out a bit shaky, but Mike Beaudet, journalism professor at Northeastern and resident videography expert who’s now joined our team, helped me improve the video by adding transitions and creating a stronger ending.

I’m really happy with how it turned out, plus it was kind of fun to stay up late with what Carlene called “team guitar.” Like Cody wrote on his blog, the “late night journo jam session” made me feel like a real journalist. Perhaps a member of Mackenzie McHale’s reporting team on Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom – which I pull up YouTube clips of whenever I have a free moment here. And when I have a free moment pretty much anywhere. Lame but true.

Anyway, read Cody’s story here or watch the video here.

Reporting on the refugee crisis 

This is another thing that I’m doing, but I don’t want to lump all of my thoughts into a post about updates. So, more coming soon.

Finding Common Ground

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to go with Cody and Sydne to the house of a guitar-maker not far from Thessaloniki. Cody was reporting for a profile on the craftsman, Giannis Paleodimopoulos, while Sydne’s job was to take photos. My job was that of videographer, a role I’ve only fulfilled a couple of times before. I’m not exactly experienced at shooting video, as evidenced by my frequent calls to Danny about how to set up the audio and where the headphone jack was located. But you can’t learn how to do something without putting yourself in a situation where you actually have to do it, so I stumbled down the stairs with my giant tripod and tried not to feel too embarrassed by my inability to detach the camera from the tripod at the end of the shoot.

Looking more professional than I feel with my giant camera. Photo by Sydne Mass

After a 20-minute car ride, we wound up in a part of the countryside that I have never been to before, but that strongly reminded me of a past visit to Frýdek-Místek, Czech Republic that I took with my family about seven years ago. During that trip, we had the chance to visit the home of a colleague of my mom’s, Drahomira. I remember eating homemade onion soup and taking silly photos in her backyard, and feeling perhaps the most content that I have ever felt.

Town square in Frydek-Mistek, Czech Republic. Photo by Wikimedia Commons

Arriving at Paleodimopoulos’ house yesterday immediately brought back memories of that experience. Even though this time, I was visiting someone’s house in a professional capacity (and I had a giant camera with me), I immediately felt at home. Paleodimopoulos’ wife made coffee and brought out a delicious feta-and-zucchini bread that I can’t remember the name of but which our translator, Theo, called “their take on tiropita,” or cheese pie. As I downed my espresso and consumed several pieces of the delectable breakfast treat, Cody, Sydne, and I chatted with Paleodimopoulos and his friends, some of whom were also musicians.

Giannis Paleodimopoulos. This photo’s from his website because I want to save the photos Sydne took for when Cody’s story is published. 

There’s no denying that there is a language barrier here. I can only remember about five Greek words at a time, so two-way conversation in Greek is essentially impossible. While Paleodimopoulos spoke semi-fluent English, several of the other people we had breakfast with did not. I’ve discovered that in those situations, there are always ways to find common ground. Maybe it’s using a single phrase in Greek, or discovering a mutual love of espresso, or just sharing a smile.

Sometimes it’s an unexpected connection. As it turns out, our photographer Sydne is fluent in several languages, and while Greek isn’t one of them, German is. As we were having a disjointed conversation in Greek and English – with Theo helpfully translating – Paleodimopoulos’ wife, Katerini, used a phrase in German that I would never have caught, but Sydne did. Soon, the two were chatting away in another language that, like Greek, is completely unfamiliar to me. Later, we captured video of Katerini explaining in German how to add the “rosetta” – the design around the guitar – which Sydne will soon help me translate and caption.

Not only did Sydne’s multilingualism come in handy yesterday, it also demonstrated something amazing about spending time in another country. Hearing three languages spoken simultaneously in the same room – Greek, German, and English – was a somewhat indescribable experience, but I think it comes down to the fact that there is always common ground. For me yesterday, it was the fact that the Greek countryside felt just like Frydek-Mistek, and that I was handed an espresso right when I needed one. For Sydne, it was finding someone who she could communicate with in a way that none of the other reporters in the room could. It’s hard to be far away from home, but it’s nice to know that mutual connections can always be found.