We had the good fortune of connecting with Alex Ip and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Alex, what’s something about your industry that outsiders are probably unaware of?
There is also a lot of impactful, timely, and cool science reporting to do in the American South! Borrowing the works of Undark Magazine, The South has a “frequently wondrous, sometimes contentious, and occasionally troubling” legacy of science. For every rolling foothill, every inch of black earth, and every mile of the golden coast, there is a racist institution, a failing harvest, and a polluted waterway.
Our job as science journalists and storytellers are threefold: at our best, we are mediators between the people who do science and the people who are impacted by science. We communicate new discoveries and ideas in a way that is captivating to a general audience without “dumbing down the science”; we look into how our lived experiences and biases shape academia and industry; we respond to our readers to hold those with power, money, and knowledge accountable. It requires a lot of empathy, vulnerability, and courage to do the craft of science writing right.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
I was born and raised in Hong Kong, and grew up speaking Cantonese Chinese, before coming here for college. I loved science growing up, in particular the beauty and elegance of the natural world, so I became the more horrified when I realized that there’s a small but extremely vocal contingent around the world, in particular in the Southern States that rejected science, fact, and truth. I couldn’t understand at the time how they were so proud of their anti-intellectualism — “my ignorance is as good as your knowledge!” — and how many of them had the audacity to claim that they belong to the same faith as I profess.
Through studying the research from prominent science communicators and social scientists, it grew on me that facts are not enough to make hardened science skeptics leave their entrenched positions, but personal stories provide a lot of promise to build bridges. However, the projects that had existed prior to The Xylom’s founding in 2018 were predominantly white-centric, exclusively in English, and based in large coastal cities. I decided that we needed a space for personal stories of science and humanity that is built from those who’ve had their voices marginalized.
A huge challenge was to build a network from scratch. I was a first-generation student, coming to the States with nobody I know, and with a very limited understanding of the South. It didn’t help that my college had very limited resources to support my new career aspirations. Fortunately, by being authentic, vulnerable, and flexible, The Xylom has grown 3,000 followers and subscribers by scratch; our storytellers come from 25+ countries and regions, are >2/3rds non-male and >2/3rds nonwhite, and write in five languages (Italian, Spanish, Chinese, and Nepali). I kept joining workshops, conferences, and science communication groups to learn from my peers and mentors. This year, I was proud to be selected as a Diversity Fellow from the National Assocation of Science Writers.
One thing I learned in my time here is that you can’t do this alone. You can’t solve climate change or COVID-19 or environmental degradation by personal responsibility. It requires listening, understanding nuance, and looking out for one another. Similarly, to do science writing and storytelling, there is no one “big scoop” to tell. Instead, elevating a multitude of great stories and the people who do them, regardless of their background, is what can move the craft forward.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
I’m a city person through and through, so Midtown is the place to be. One of my favorite places is Choong Man Chicken on 10th Street; get the Red Hot Pepper Tikkudak! I also spend many of my days working, eating, and chilling at Colony Square; it’s quite impressive how it has reinvented itself after 50 years of establishment. I see that as a metaphor of what Atlanta has been and what it aspires to be — dynamic, international, inclusive. It doesn’t hurt that the jerk chicken and birria ramen at Politan Row are fire! On the way along Peachtree Street from Choong Man Chicken to Colony Square, be sure to take a detour at Cafe Intermezzo and enjoy its signature pastries. Otherwise, Piedmont Park connects to the BeltLine Eastside trail to Ponce City Market — you’ll find me whizzing on my bike from one place to another!
I miss home, so I always relish an opportunity to show my friends a piece of it. That’s why I highly recommend a short drive to Buford Highway and just be immersed in great food and community. There is a big Asian presence there, where I can comfortably speak in my mother tongue and find people who can understand that as well. Another place I find home is at church. Like many Sons and Daughters of the South, Sundays are for worship; I grew up in a heavily religious family and I am now a transplant to the Bible belt! My faith strengthens my commitment to pursuit truth, beauty, and empathy in my capacity as a science writer, so it is my pleasure to invite you to praise the Lord on a Sunday morning.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
Thank God for opening doors everywhere since I’ve come to Atlanta. I’m grateful to every single of our writers, followers, partners, and donors that have supported us in the last 3+ years. I also want to shout out The Story Collider and the Moth for pioneering the concept of telling personal (science) stories! In addition, the supportive networks of SciCommers (@SciCommers_) and the National Association of Science Writers (@ScienceWriters) have welcomed me into the science communication and storytelling scene. Some great publications I recommend you read are The Bitter Southerner (@BitterSouth), Southerly (@southerlymag), and Undark Magazine (@undarkmag).
Personal photo: Alex Ip poses with Krishna Sharma (right), an AAAS Mass Media Fellow (and proud UGA grad!) in Washington D.C. in August 2021. Alex and Krishna met up to discuss the direction of an ongoing collaborative project.