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In Her Element at Popular Science

Wombat poop is cube shaped. An octopus has nine brains. Composting human remains is, apparently, a thing.

Weird but true facts like these are all in a day’s work for Jess Boddy (A&S ’16), an editor and podcast producer at Popular Science.

Growing up in the Chicago area, bitty Boddy was very much the kid getting dirty in the backyard, befriending “herps” (that’s herptiles—amphibians and reptiles) and excavating what she was convinced were fossils. Her elementary-teacher mother nodded, tongue firmly in cheek, and took her to the Field Museum for a second opinion.

Boddy was a well-rounded kid: outgoing, athletic and fond of writing as well. She wrote poetry and made her own travel zine as a tween. But when it came time to shop for colleges, finding one academic home for her many, seemingly disparate interests was tough.

Then she visited Pitt.

“It felt like home,” she said, swooning for Pittsburgh’s almost Midwestern charm. What’s more, Pitt’s reputation for excellence across a wide range of science disciplines wowed her. “I thought, ‘Look at all these avenues I could explore.’” She enrolled in fall 2012 on a volleyball scholarship and majored in biological sciences.

When an injury benched her for good halfway through her degree, Boddy looked for new ways to fill her time and sharpen her gray matter. She added a minors in creative nonfiction writing and chemistry and also covered sports as a staff writer for The Pitt News.

Boddy’s creative nonfiction writing instructor, Peter Trachtenberg, recalled her rare ability to convey her enthusiasm for science to the lay reader with “infectious” urgency.

“I’m still grateful to her,” he said. “No one since E. B. White has made me such a fan of spiders.”

In her junior year, Trachtenberg told her about the internship program at Pitt Med magazine, an award-winning leisure read from the health sciences. She applied and got the gig; Pittwire’s own Robyn Coggins, then associate editor of Pitt Med, hired her and mentored her throughout the term (as did this writer). 

There, alongside her very first steps into science journalism, Boddy learned industry standards; what goes into a story; how fact-checking protocol works; and how to handle even delicate situations, like contacting next of kin for an obituary. The experience “was foundationally informative for my entire career,” she said.

With encouragement and proofreading help from Coggins, Boddy then applied for an internship at Science magazine—which she landed. During her first six months out of school, she worked on site in the Science editorial offices, part of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C. (The magazine, by the way, was edited at the time by Pitt’s own Jeremy Berg.)

At this point, Boddy was on a roll, lining up one stellar internship after another: the NPR Science Desk, Gizmodo, New York Magazine and Popular Science. In between, she earned a master's in journalism from New York University in science, health and environmental reporting.

Boddy’s breadth of experience instilled a deep appreciation for the collaborative effort that goes into putting stories together—and not just through the written word. Hungry to grow her skills, she kept raising her hand at every turn: Could she step in for the podcast producer, do some on-the-job learning and give them a break? Could she help the video production team by filling in as scriptwriter and host?

She also asked her colleagues a question that not many up-and-comers in publishing think to ask: What makes a good editor? Boddy’s mentor at Gizmodo, Rose Pastore, was especially supportive of this curiosity, teaching her the delicate art of preserving a writer’s voice through the trials of bringing their draft across the finish line. Boddy’s NYU mentor, Ivan Oransky, guided her as she edited the graduate program’s student publication, ScienceLine, where she honed leadership skills and learned tact under pressure.

As a Popular Science intern, Boddy said, she found her voice. “I remember talking on the phone with my mom, and she said, ‘I love your stories—they sound just like you!’” As Boddy was wrapping up her master’s, a full-time position opened up at PopSci, and she got the job (following in the footsteps of another noteworthy alum of Pitt and Pitt Med magazine: Rebecca Skloot).

Boddy started out at PopSci as an editorial assistant, a role that expanded naturally as she kept raising her hand to help out through the crunch time demands of a publication with a growing multimedia presence.

Today, as associate editor for special projects, she produces the podcast The Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week—a conversation-style show in which the magazine’s staff share gems from the cutting room floor. She also produces their new podcast, Ask Us Anything—a bite-sized explainer show—and edits PopSci’s space coverage online.

And, in an especially entertaining side gig, Boddy leads fact checking for NPR's science podcast for kids, Wow in the World, which is how she learned about the curious shape of wombat feces. “Some of the kids will call in and tell me facts, and I’m like, ‘There’s no way that’s true.’ And then I fact-check it and … what?!”

Boddy is grateful for the college experience that nurtured her amphibious nature—truly at home in both the arts and sciences—as well as the pivotal internship that pulled all of her course work together and put it into practice.

She said: “Pitt Med opened my eyes to a career that finally felt perfect for me.”