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‘State of Minds’ Puts Research in the Spotlight

• April 20, 2011 • 4:00 AM

“State of Minds” scours the University of California for important research and then does something special: It makes it interesting.

One of the pleasant aspects of being the editor of Miller-McCune is regular and often unexpected contact with people and entities that are working to improve the world by introducing some small piece of it to factual reality. Look, for just one instance, at the network of investigative reporting and transparency nonprofits — from ProPublica and the Texas Tribune to the Sunlight Foundation and the Center for Public Integrity — that has grown in the last decade or so, and tell me your old daily paper used to do accountability journalism better.

Another hopeful part of the media future involves a shift of responsibilities. Reportage dealing with important information that is not particularly “sexy” in Web terms is moving from media organizations that no longer have monopolies, and so cannot force readers and viewers to consume their public-interest vegetables, over to entities that have the means to disseminate complex and important information, even when it is Beyoncé-free. Those latter entities may not be exactly what most people think of when they think the word “media.” One of the higher-quality examples of this shift that I’ve run across is a video magazine, State of Minds, broadcast by University of California Television. If the original purpose of the Internet was to share scientific data among government and university researchers, State of Minds expands the mission, among other things interpreting research done at UC’s 10 campuses for a general audience.

May-June 2011 I realize that what I’ve just written reads like a public service announcement touting the vital (insert yawn here) importance of academic research, so I’ll turn quickly now to the executive producer and host of State of Minds and senior producer for public affairs at UC San Diego, Shannon Bradley. She’s a veteran journalist who, among other accomplishments, worked as a political reporter in Washington, D.C., for the PBS show then known as The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. From the way sentences and paragraphs spill from her mouth when the subject is broached, Bradley’s also obviously passionate about State of Minds, a quarterly magazine show that, she says, tries to find stories on the 10 UC campuses that are good, in the journalistic sense of the word, and that will therefore have an audience beyond the university.

Because it is independent, reporting administratively to the academic side of the UC system rather than to its public relations operation, the show works more like a news organization than the PR shops usually tasked with spreading news of the ivory tower’s good works. And because of the shrinkage of legacy news operations, quality journalists have found homes throughout academia, including, Bradley notes, on University of California campuses. “I have a pretty good circle of people at the campuses who pitch stories,” she says.

Bradley’s passion and her colleagues’ talent show in a lot (if not all) of the product. The winter 2011 State of Minds, which debuted in March, opens with ho-hum/rah-rah segments on UC Berkeley students still joining the Peace Corps after all these years (roll the JFK tape) and a new arts center at UC Riverside. But the subjects of the three main features for the program — the major role UC Riverside’s research has played in improving air quality in the L.A. basin; stem cell research at UC Davis; and a UC Santa Cruz researcher who played a significant role in proving that humans and Neanderthals sometimes mated — are all newsworthy and engagingly presented.

And when I say news and presentation, I mean in the big-league sense of the words. The human-Neanderthal segment covers ground explored in a significant piece in The New York Times but extends and deepens the discussion, giving a video lesson in “Genomics 101,” showing a drill as it makes Neanderthal “bone powder” from which DNA is extracted and then taking the viewer inside a center where machines sequence nucleotides for analysis. The package on UC Davis stem cell research similarly goes beyond what you tend to see even in high-end television news nowadays. It sets out the basic information — stem cells have the ability to transform into any kind of cell, raising the prospect of all sorts of regenerative therapies — but also explains how advances in hydrogel “scaffolding” give stem cells a place to attach and be nourished in the body, so they can grow and — and heal a horse’s fractured leg!

Of course, the implications of the segment all aim at the hope that such scaffolding materials can help stem cells grow in and heal humans, and human trials are mentioned. But the surprise factor — X-rays of a horse’s leg fracture, which was of a type that almost never heals, transposed against video of the horse subsequently frolicking about a show ring, its leg made new — is what makes this not just an important story, but brilliant TV.

UCTV is billed as a 24-hour, noncommercial satellite television channel that’s available on the Dish Network and on cable TV systems in California and across the country. Launched in 2000 — that is, as the dot-com boom was becoming the dot-com crash — UCTV could not have been explicitly an Internet play. And State of Minds started in 2003, also before the Web started its most vicious disseverations of legacy news companies.

Still, Bradley says, nowadays what really matters is what happens after State of Minds goes up on the Web where it’s available as streaming video to anyone with a computer. All the same, she says, the show’s primary audience continues to be the citizens of California. “We want people to support UC without us saying, ‘Hey, see, we’re great,’” she says.

I’m not here to vouch for the rest of UCTV programming or to say that you should drop 60 Minutes from your TiVo lineup, but the University of California system has, over the last five decades or so, been one of America’s main innovation factories. As a Miller-McCune reader, you must have some interest in solving public problems, and if you want a pleasant surprise — that is, a substantive and interesting media experience served up on the Internet — you might let State of Minds take you back to school every now and again.

As long as I’m heralding substance and schooling, I should mention a book that went on sale in March — The New Cool by Neal Bascomb. There are several reasons to mention the book: Its protagonist, Amir Abo-Shaeer, is a physics teacher in Goleta, Calif., just 10 minutes down the highway from Miller-McCune world headquarters, and he’s the first public high school teacher ever to win a MacArthur Fellowship, often known as the “genius award.” One of the three primary researchers for the book is Mike Traphagen, a brilliant Miller-McCune staffer. (But aren’t they all?) And the book describes a national robot-building-and-operating competition among high schools across the U.S. And robots are, by my definition, cool.

But the real reason you might want to read The New Cool is because it isn’t really about robots; it’s about doing whatever it takes to get kids excited about science, technology, engineering and mathematics and whatever else it takes to get them to work together and excel at a professional level. In short, the book is about transferring some of the passion society focuses on high school sports over to high school learning, and it’s a good reminder that in this time of straightened educational finances, the most important factor in lighting a student’s mind isn’t money — though money is important — but a passion for excellence that only the best journalists keep over time, and only the best teachers impart — for lifetimes.

 

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John Mecklin
John Mecklin was the debut editor-in-chief of Miller-McCune, serving from its birth through May 2011. Over the last 15 years, he's also been: the editor of High Country News, a nationally acclaimed magazine that reports on the American West; the consulting executive editor for the launch of Key West, a city/regional magazine; and the top editor for award-winning newsweeklies in San Francisco and Phoenix that specialized in narrative journalism. In an earlier incarnation, he was an investigative reporter at the Houston Post and covered the Persian Gulf War from Saudi Arabia and Iraq for the paper. His writing has won national acclaim; writers working at his direction have won a panoply of major journalism honors, including the George Polk Award, the Investigative Reporters and Editors certificate, the John Bartlow Martin Award for Public Interest Magazine Journalism and the Sidney Hillman Award for reporting on social justice issues. Mecklin holds a master's in public administration degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a bachelor's in psychology from Indiana University.

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