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Meek School Magazine Highlights Kristen Alley Swain

Photo by Mark K. Dolan

When Kristen Alley Swain first enrolled at the University of Mississippi, her field of study was biochemistry. She had loved doing science fair projects in high school and wanted to follow in the footsteps of her father, State Chemist Earl Alley, at Mississippi State University.

After a couple years in pre-med, however, she was pretty sure she didn’t want to be a doctor. Then a new program in the journalism department, Samir Husni’s magazine program, piqued her curiosity. Even though she had already taken intensive science
courses, she was excited to start communicating about the things she had learned about science.
Husni helped her land an editorial internship in the building and remodeling department at Better Homes and Gardens magazine in Des Moines, Iowa, and she later interned as a writer for Southern Living magazine’s travel department in Birmingham, Alabama. She also served as a reporter for The Daily Mississippian and The Oxford Eagle while at Ole Miss.
After graduating from UM, the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo hired her as a reporter; then, after two years, she was named senior reporter at the Tuscaloosa News. One ofher trusted sources, neighborhood association representative and journalism professor DeeDee Riffe, lured her into teaching writing courses at the University of Alabama journalism school. She went on to receive a master’s in journalism there, then a Ph.D. in mass communication from the University of Florida.
Swain fondly recalls serving as a managing editor and instructor for the world’s first online campus newspaper, SUN.One, in Gainesville, Florida.
“The readers had to use floppy disks to log on, and dial-up was painfully slow,” she said. “But it was the first time those residents got to read local news on their computers. Then a couple years later, along came the internet like a tidal wave.”
Her dissertation identified innovative ways to promote AIDS prevention through black churches. She plans to apply for a grant for a follow-up project in the Mississippi Delta, to find out what has changed during the last two decades. She then wants to draw on both studies to write a book about overcoming barriers to HIV prevention in high-risk African-American communities.
After leaving UF, she went on to teach in science journalism programs at Texas A&M University and the University of Kansas. She also taught health communication at the University of Arkansas Medical School and directed a science journalism center at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg.
While at USF, she was an investigator on a multi-university NIH grant that prepared different kinds of communities for bioterrorism threats. She then led a second NIH grant about how the news media framed the anthrax attacks.
Today, Swain is an associate professor in the Meek School of Journalism and New Media. She teaches news reporting, integrated marketing communication writing courses, media ethics, health communication, and communication theory and research methods.
Swain also is passionate about sustainability issues, and lives in an experimental, passive solar house her architect husband Brent designed for them and their two children, Madeline and Gabriel. She received the university’s first Sustainability Leadership Award in 2010. Over the last six years, she has coordinated student production of more than 300 sustainability videos for PlanetForward.org and serves as the UM coordinator for the international Planet Forward University Consortium.
At Ole Miss, Swain won a teaching grant to develop a local social media sustainability campaign and a second teaching grant to develop a new health communication course and a set of explanatory writing assignments for three core journalism writing courses in the Meek School.
“No matter what environmental, science or health topics they choose to write about, journalism students should be able to effectively explain ideas, concepts and numbers about things they are unfamiliar with — and people in the sciences should be able to explain their work in language the public can understand,” Swain said.
“Both sides have a responsibility to help bring their two worlds together, because many Americans don’t understand how science is ultimately a life-and-death story that permeates every aspect of our society,” she said.
Swain said health communication is her favorite course because she helps students apply their journalism and IMC skills to in-depth, community health campaign design and explanatory multimedia stories about complex medical and science issues.
“It also gives me the chance to introduce students to our sister field of public health and the numerous exciting career opportunities it offers,” she said.
In her other writing classes, Swain enjoys using social media for sharing and service learning activities. For instance, her IMC students develop creative campaigns for local businesses and organizations. She said that she is seeing more IMC students who are entrepreneurial or want to be, and who are using her class to build their own businesses.
Risk communication, especially risk framing in the news, is the central focus of Swain’s research. Her grant projects have examined health communication campaigns, crisis communication about bioterrorism and transportation toxic spills, and environmental justice.
During the last three years, she has served as the sole investigator on research grants totaling $133,000 from the U.S. Department of Transportation. The first project explored how transportation companies respond to serious toxic spills through social media and the news media.
“I was shocked to discover that only 3 percent of the 5,555 most serious spills in a decade received any news coverage, and none of the transportation companies involved communicated anything directly through social media,” she said. “The ‘invisible’ accidents included fatalities, explosions, poison gas, radioactive waste, and other localized threats the public never heard about.”
She is completing a second grant, a national survey of journalists and transportation officials, to identify reasons for this extreme dearth of coverage.
“She is making a difference in her scholarship on media and science and in her work with Planet Forward,” said Will Norton, Jr., dean of the Meek School of Journalism and New Media. “It is encouraging to have a professor who is intrepid in pursuing grants. She has been a bridge for the Meek School with the research efforts of the sciences.”
Norton also was a professor of Swain’s, and he recalled her being a hardworking student with life ambitions that she worked diligently to achieve.
Swain also serves as assessment coordinator for the Meek School. Swain facilitates evaluations by university and international accreditors by gathering and distilling data on what students are learning in Meek School classes. Assistant Dean Charlie Mitchell works closely with Swain on outcome assessments.
“The most important aspect of this essential work is that it allows faculty to ‘assess’ strengths and weaknesses in the instructional program and make needed adjustments,” Mitchell said.
In reflecting on all her efforts, Swain said, “Years from now, I want to be able to look back and see that my work has made a real impact – not just on the public’s understanding of science, but also an enduring impact on the lives of my family, students and colleagues.”

Marlen Polito contributed to this story. Polito is an integrated marketing communications graduate student from Green River, Utah.

The Meek School Magazine is a collaborative effort of journalism and Integrated Marketing Communications students with the faculty of Meek School of Journalism and New Media. Every week, for the next few weeks, HottyToddy.com will feature an article from Meek Magazine, Issue 4 (2016-2017).

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