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UC Santa Cruz 50th Anniversary

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John Wilkes: turning scientists into communicators

John Wilkes John Wilkes studied literature, but the intellectually open environment at UC Santa Cruz inspired him to establish a graduate program that’s produced some of the best science journalists working today.

When UC Santa Cruz opened in 1965, Wilkes was there as a transfer student from San Francisco City College. He stuck around, earning B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees in literature, then teaching a three-quarter course in English Romanticism. Ultimately, however, Wilkes made his mark not in literature, but in science journalism, establishing the internationally acclaimed graduate program in science communication at UC Santa Cruz.

The University Library’s Regional History Project has now published an oral history in which Wilkes tells the story of how he came to create the Science Communication Program, which takes students trained as scientists and teaches them journalism. The program had its roots in undergraduate science-writing courses Wilkes taught at UCSC before being hired by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to run their new master’s degree program. Chancellor Robert Sinsheimer invited him to return to Santa Cruz, and Wilkes said he used his two years at MIT to figure out what to do differently in setting up a science writing program at UC Santa Cruz.

Sarah Rabkin, a Science Communication Program alumna and member of the UC Santa Cruz Writing Program faculty for many years, conducted the oral history interview with Wilkes, who retired in 2006. In her introduction, Rabkin wrote:

Wilkes credits UCSC’s “freewheeling liberal arts atmosphere” with the personal, intellectual and professional flourishing of his students…. At UCSC, he says, they learned to “relax,” to think more expansively, and to report and write about science with curiosity and enthusiasm.

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