As a department, Environmental Sciences is relatively new. In the late 1990’s, the pre-cursor, along with the former Geology Department, to the current department was the Human & Natural Ecology (HNE) major and it was the interest and passion of these students that helped shape what has become one of the most popular departments on campus today! It is an honor to have been part of the lives of our alumni and it is particularly meaningful to see how their careers have evolved since graduation. Recently we had the pleasure or catching up with Joshua Zaffos (C’98), who graduated as an HNE co-major with Political Science. Josh’s career as a science writer is an illuminating tale of how your interests set you on a path of experiences that become a meaningful career. We are grateful to Josh for his willingness to share his story and look forward to his continued success as a writer.
1. How did your interest in your major evolve at Emory?
I came into Emory interested in government and politics and was drawn toward Human & Natural Ecology after taking two intro courses, and as I got into hiking and camping. After a semester abroad in Spain to start my junior year, I came back pretty focused on environmental studies and added an HNE co-major (and became more active with the campus student environmental awareness group). I also landed a great internship with Georgia Wildlife Federation, observing and assisting their political staff at the State Capitol during the legislative session. That ultimately opened a lot of doors for me in terms of contacts and future job opportunities. I’ll mention that the connection with GWF came from Dave Mizejewski, class of 1997 and a friend who now is something of a celebrity naturalist for the National Wildlife Federation.
2. Can you talk a bit about what your remember best from the HNE (ENVS) department?
Overall, I really enjoyed my HNE experiences and courses. I remember we had an issues seminar where we got to learn and talk about all these still emerging or relatively novel concepts and challenges—global warming, biodiversity conservation, urban sprawl— which obviously remain issues that still dominate policy, management and planning discussion and efforts.
My most formative experience and relationship from HNE was working with Carl Brown (ENVS Adjunct lecturer) who served as my thesis adviser (Back then, we had to do a senior thesis for the co-major). I wrote on the environmental politics of Spain, and Carl was a sage mentor who helped me improve my writing (I remember him waving a worn copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style at a seminar group the first day!) and critical thinking skills. And he encouraged me to follow my itch to head West and keep on writing about the connections between people and the environment. Ultimately, he was one of the major influences on who and where I am today.
3. What has been your post-Emory experience?
I spent my first year out of school in Atlanta at several valuable but short-term jobs: working as a camp counselor at a nature center, organizing media and field outreach for a land-preservation fund ballot-initiative campaign, and reporting at the State Capitol, producing a weekly newsletter on environmental legislation for a statewide network of environmental nonprofits and government agencies. Then I moved to Idaho after landing an internship with The Nature Conservancy, doing environmental education at a visitors center on a preserve about 15 miles outside Yellowstone. My boss told me day one: “Call your parents and tell them you’re never coming home,” and he was basically right. I spent another year in Idaho and Montana writing on environmental policy and learning about conservation planning – and fishing and backpacking whenever I could – with plans to then go to grad school.
I went to the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and focused on conservation policy and river management. After graduation, I applied for a load of Western jobs, including an internship with High Country News, a Colorado-based newsmagazine that focuses on Western environmental and social issues. That internship set me on my writing career, and while I never specifically planned to become a writer, it was always something of a (really modest paying) dream job for me.
A link to Josh’s superb collection of work with HCN is available here.
4. How have you forged your way as a writer? Do you have topics that you are most interested in covering? What advice do you have to those students who are interested in a career in the media?
I have mostly worked as a freelance writer and really enjoy pursuing long and short articles and following stories that catch my attention. I compare freelancing to surfing, because it requires learning how to ride the waves between being hyper-busy and twiddling your thumbs (it is seemingly always one or the other), so the pace and lifestyle isn’t for everyone. That said, I’ve traveled the Western US and abroad through my work and I love being able to explore and learn about different careers, research, issues. I have worked as a reporter and editor for local altweekly newspapers, too, and I will say it’s a great feeling to immerse yourself in your community and help inform and challenge citizens. Most of my writing has covered the policy and science of environmental issues – water, energy, public lands, and climate change. I also like diving into justice, travel, and geology stories every once in a while. Since 2012, I have also supplemented my income as an adjunct professor at Colorado State University, teaching a natural-resources communications course, which I really enjoy.
My internship at High Country News was really key and I strongly suggest students considering media careers go find an opportunity where they can learn the ropes of reporting, writing, and producing stories—and not just fact-check or run errands for staff. It should also be mandatory to get edited rigorously and ruthlessly as a young reporter or student.
Finally, I’ll add that if students want to pursue media careers, while it’s certainly valuable to take journalism, writing, and communications courses, I also know many great writers and radio producers who, like me, began having taken limited journalism courses, but went into the field with an academic background and curiosity for the environment and science and a desire to be a great communicator or storyteller. That can be a great path into writing and media production.
5. Do you have a favorite Emory memory/tradition?
I remember visiting Emory while in high school and walking onto McDonough Field during a concert and just feeling welcome so I always loved days spent on the field. My friends and I used to spend a lot of time in Lullwater, too. Off campus, I miss Fat Matt’s Rib Shack.