Keith Winstein won 3rd place in the 1999 Intel Science Talent Search. Keith went on to work as a staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal and is now back at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology pursuing his PhD. Below he gives tips to young student researchers about communicating with the media.
What was your experience being an Intel Science Talent Search finalist like?
It was a great experience. The other finalists were a friendly, diverse group from all over the country and were working in all sorts of different fields. We had the opportunity to have a lot of fun- hanging out and sharing notes, attending receptions, and I had the opportunity to meet my Senator. I think I tried to lobby him about patent policy but he mostly wanted to talk about his 1st grader’s science project.
The group was surprisingly cooperative. There was a sense that we were all in this together, and I don’t think anybody really treated it like a competition. I’m still friends 14 years later with some of the other finalists. Natalie Portman was a semifinalist that year but unfortunately we didn’t get to meet her.
Of course it was a lot of fun and I felt very special flying in a private jet to New York City after the ceremony to be interviewed by the press along with some of the other winners. I haven’t been on a lot of private jets since then! Ok, none before or after. My mom also recognized the CEO of Intel in the airport afterwards and she went up and thanked him profusely. I’m not sure he knew what she was talking about but he was very gracious. Of course I was somewhat mortified.
Can you provide a short description of your research project and how you initially became interested in this topic/science in general?
My project was a computer program that could hide secret messages inside of an article or essay. It used the synonyms of certain words, for instance, instead of saying “clothes,” it might substitute “clothing” to encode a bit of information. Then you could feed the modified essay to another program and it would spit out the secret message.
I called it lexical steganography — steganography being the science of hidden messages. I had gotten the idea after reading “Patriot Games,” the Tom Clancy book, where he describes a similar idea to “watermark” different copies of a document by using different phrasing in the most vivid paragraphs. At the time there had been a lot of work on steganography to digitally “watermark” pictures on the Internet, but nobody had published a way to do the same thing with plain text. Then a bunch of people took my work and published papers on all the flaws they found in it. But that’s science.
How did doing original research and participating in events like the Intel STS affect your career trajectory?
It was great at 17 to suddenly be exposed to people excited about learning in all these different fields. The world isn’t just about computers, and being around people passionate about biology, math, physics, etc. helped me get interested in fields of science that weren’t my own area.
In 2005, I interned at The Wall Street Journal. And in 2006, I went on leave from my PhD program at MIT to work full time as a reporter there. Having an engineering background and exposure to different fields of science was really helpful in my job. Journalism allowed me to be nosy and learn as much as I could. The environment at The Wall Street Journal was very intellectually stimulating, almost more so than MIT because you had to find something new every few weeks and learn about it and be grilled on the subject by the editor, sometimes for days, and then explain it to two million readers. The other reporters were extremely talented and several of them won the Pulitzer Prize while I was there, so it really was a special place and there was a great amount to learn from my colleagues. Now I’m back in graduate school working on my PhD, trying to make the Internet faster and better.
Having been both a reporter and a scientist, what tips do you have for students sharing their research with the media?
Practice talking about your work to non-specialists. Tell your mom, your friends not in the same field, and anyone who asks what you’re working on, and see if you can explain it easily. This is good experience because people have widely different backgrounds. Part of the job of the press is to tell stories. You have to be able to tell a story about what you’re doing and what makes it interesting.
Before the interview, make a list of the three top things you want to communicate. Before answering any question, count to 3 and think about what you want to say. What do they really want to know? How can I relate my answer to the three things I’m trying to communicate? Don’t be nervous, you aren’t on a firing line. You’re trying to share something with people, and part of science is communicating results.
Do you have any additional advice for young students at this year’s Intel STS?
Take it all in. The week goes by so fast. Keep a journal. Make friends and learn. I found Intel STS an incredibly broadening experience. Lots of people are working on cool things that are not your cool thing. Drink it all up. Get email addresses so you can stay in contact. Be open to new ideas about the things you are working on. I’m still working on ideas from years ago. It’s an amazing privilege to be selected as one of 40 high school seniors picked to go to Washington, DC and talk about my work. I feel fortunate and lucky to have experienced it.
The Intel Science Talent Search 2013 will be held March 7-12, 2013. The public is invited to attend the free Public Exhibtion of Projects held on Sunday, March 10 at the National Geographic Society in Washington, DC.