Getting to Know the 2014-15 Knight Fellows

Life isn’t a rehearsal for something else. If you don’t step onto the stage and play your part, you’ve missed your chance.

That’s what I kept telling myself this week. It was orientation week for the 2014-15 Fellows at Knight Science Journalism at MIT, where I’m the new acting director. This is a one-year gig for me: there will be no do-overs. So for me, the first orientation where I’m in charge is also the last. There will only be one first seminar, one first field trip. Remembering this makes everything a bit more poignant.

I’ve always been prone to what you might call pre-nostalgia.  When I look at my niece and nephew, who are 3 and 6, I sometimes think to myself “they’ll never be this cute and fun again.” I started to fret about what it would be like to live without my wonderful dog Rhody years before he actually died in 2013.

I try not to let this kind of kind of in-the-moment regret tip over into true sadness, but I think a small dose of it is useful. It helps me pay attention to what’s happening right now.

So this week’s flurry of Knight program orientation events will stay vivid in my memory. On Friday August 15, Bianca Sinausky, Patrick Wellever, Eric Strattman and I threw a wine-and-cheese reception where the Fellows (or at least the ones who had already arrived in Cambridge) met the KSJ staff, and each other, for the first time. Then came three days of orientation activities, from August 20 to 22.

The schedule included formal welcome presentations from me, STS Program Head David Kaiser, and KSJ founding director Victor McElheny; a campus tour and MIT library orientation; a day and a half of introductory presentations from the Fellows themselves; a presentation about opportunities around MIT for the Fellows’ spouses and partners; an animated two-hour conversation with former Knight Fellows about the challenge of selecting course at MIT and Harvard; and lots of eating and socializing at places like Commonwealth restaurant and the Muddy Charles Pub (where we’ve already gotten to know the manager quite well).

I’ve quickly grown fond of this group of Fellows, who seemed to be beaming with relief and anticipation this week. It’s easy to understand why they’d be so happy to be here at MIT, after a whole spring and summer spent working on application paperwork, arranging time off from their jobs, dealing with the logistics of moving to Cambridge for the year, and wondering what the Institute, their fellow Fellows, and the KSJ program itself would really going be like once they arrived.

They’re all easing into the Fellowship year quickly, like the talented and outgoing people they are. It’s going to be my privilege to arrange a year of activities to enrich their thinking.

I thought I’d relay a few fun details from the Fellows’ personal presentations this week.

Rachael Buchanan is a medical producer for BBC News who claims to be camera shy but does just about everything else that goes into a compelling radio, TV, or online piece: storyboarding, directing, shooting, editing, graphics. While she gets a kick out of producing graphics-rich stories about subjects like DNA or cosmic-ray detectors, she says the best stories are about real people, such as a piece she directed about a girl born with several missing vertebrae. Rachael isn't shy about mountains: on weekends she’s a rock climber.

Scott Huler, this year’s Project Fellow, has written books on NASCAR, Odysseus, the Beaufort Wind Scale, and the infrastructure that makes urban neighborhoods work. For his Knight project, he’s retracing the journey of early eighteenth-century explorer John Lawson through what’s now North and South Carolina. He sees the Lawson project as his first truly multimedia effort, mixing text, audio, video, blogging, social media, and (ultimately) book writing.

Ibby Caputo has worked as a health reporter for WGBH, but like many of the Fellows, her route to news reporting was intriguingly circuitous. At Princeton she was a nationally ranked fencer. She moved to New Orleans to try her hand at fiction writing, and witnessed Katrina first hand. After a letter to the editor of a New Orleans newspaper led to the removal of a forgotten trash barge, she got hooked on journalism; and she found a focus for her writing after a 2009 leukemia diagnosis and bone marrow transplant, which provided what she calls “an immersive education in the healthcare system.”

Ian Cheney got interested in food-related environmental activism as a student at Yale. After school he gravitated to documentary filmmaking, which he says he loves because it lets him “combine art, politics, activism, and my love of shenanigans.” He learned to shoot, interview, and edit at the “film school in the corn fields” during the making of his first documentary, King Corn. He’s since directed half a dozen more films, including The Search for General Tso, Bluespace, The Melungeons, The City Dark, Truck Farm, and The Greening of Southie.

Gideon Gil is the medical editor at the Boston Globe. He got his start as a paid journalist covering municipal politics at the Quincy Patriot-Ledger, where one of his stories was about the copy shop where Daniel Ellsberg duplicated the documents that would come to be known as the Pentagon Papers. He moved on to gigs in Trenton, NJ, and Princeton, NJ, where he started writing about science and medicine; he got hooked after landing a job at the Louisville Courier-Journal just as Louisville-based Humana announced it was opening a center for artificial heart transplantation. Back in New England, at the Globe, he led an investigation that used government records (obtained after years of FOIA requests) to show a pattern of over-prescription of anti-psychotic drugs in nursing homes.

Giovana Girardi (pictured on the blog page) writes about science, health, and the environment for O Estado de S. Paulo in Brazil. She has traveled widely to report on issues like malaria in the Amazon, high suicide rates among tobaccco farmers affected by pesticides, and climate-change negotiations in Qatar and Poland. She says writers face an uphill battle placing science and environmental stories in Brazil, where most newspaper editors still see these subjects as fluffy entertainment. Emphasizing the serious, sometimes frightening nature of health or environmental problems can help, but it can also backfire. When it comes to communicating about big issues like global warming, “scaring people is not working, and I’d like to find a new way,” Girardi says.

Matt Kaplan is a science correspondent for The Economist in London. After studying history and literature at university, he discovered a passion for paleontology, and spent time as an exhibit designer at the Museum of Natural History before heading into science journalism. He’s written for New Scientist, Nature, and National Geographic, and recently published The Science of Monsters, which looks at the modern-day research that may validate or explain some details of mythology and folklore about dragons, vampires, and other creatures. Kaplan’s monster book will soon have a sequel: The Science of Magic.

George Musser’s childhood passion for astronomy eventually led him to graduate work in planetary science at Cornell; unfortunately, he says his studies kept him so busy that he never had time to look at the night sky (he thought of Cassiopeia as “the McDonald’s constellation” since it looked like the Golden Arches). He was drawn into publishing via at job at the Astronomical Society’s Mercury magazine, which led to a longtime position as space science editor at Scientific American. He saved up enough vacation time to write The Complete Idiot’s Guide to String Theory in 2008, and he’s about to publish a second book on space-time curvature.

Kathleen McLaughlin has spent the last 12 years reporting from China on business, labor issues, and fashion. She grew up in Montana and got her start as a journalist covering politics in the state capital, Helena. In Shanghai and Beijing, she’s written for Bloomberg, GlobalPost, The Economist, the Gaurdian, and other publications about issues like “silicon sweatshops”---the poor working conditions within the network of electronics suppliers who contribute parts to the digital devices we use every day. McLaughlin says her most rewarding (and most widely read) recent story was “The AIDS Granny in Exile,” a long-form story for Buzzfeed about a gynecologist who exposed how AIDS was spreading in one part of rural China.

Oriana Fernandez writes about the environment, health, and science at La Tercera, a large-circulation liberal newspaper Santiago, Chile. She’s covered environmental stories such as air pollution in the Patagonian city of Coyhaique and the controversy over the proposed Aysen hydropower project nearby. She’s spent time interviewing scientists at places like Chile’s Paranal Observatory, but she says they’re often shy and suspicious toward journalists. She plans to spend her year at MIT learning more science, so that she’ll have a better chance of drawing them out.

Olga Dobrovidova built up a huge social-media following as a reporter for the Russian newswire Ria Novosti, where she covered science, environment, medicine, technology, and public health. Ria Novosti closed down unexpectedly last year, so Dobrovidova is busy with a number of projects relating to astronomy instruction in high school, women in science, and climate change. She’s a big comic book fan (Marvel, not DC) and has degrees in finance, advertising, and translation. She says of science writers, “We’re professional fools---we don’t know much, but we have to be professional about it, and we have to be entertaining.”

Bob Young is former research director for the Congress Watch division of Ralph Nader’s group Public Citizen, and is now the marijuana reporter for the Seattle Times in Washington state, where marijuana possession and cultivation was legalized in a 2012 referendum. Marijuana has been covered largely as a political and cultural issue, Young notes, but there are big medical and scientific components to the story, from the huge carbon footprint of indoor-growing technology to the brain science of intoxication and impairment. He plans to spend his time at MIT “getting scienced up” so that he can bring deeper perspective to his future coverage.

All of the Fellows have clear and specific hopes for their year, and part of my job is to make sure they get introduced to an enriching set of researchers, labs, classes, and events at MIT and Harvard, so they can learn as much as possible while they're here. But the Knight Fellowship isn’t a one-way street. MIT benefits enormously from the presence on campus of a dozen top science communicators, who’ll ask tough questions, build new professional connections, and take their understanding of the Institute with them when they return to their writing dens, newsrooms, and editing suites.

And I’m sure I’ll learn much more from them than they’ll learn from me. That’s why I don’t want to let a moment slip by unappreciated.