Episode 10: Conversation with Apoorva Mandavilli

Hosts: ASN E-board

On May 4th, 2021, Amherst STEM Network (ASN) hosted a conversation on science communications with Apoorva Mandavilli. As the Health and Science journalist for The New York Times, Mandavilli has been key in disseminating crucial information about COVID-19 this past year. Through this podcast, she answered questions regarding the rewards and difficulties of her career, her path to this career, and much more.


Podcast Overview and Introduction (0:01)

How did you get into science journalism? What was your career path? (3:46)

How did your liberal arts education play into your journey to science journalism and finding what you wanted to do? (5:56)

How do you make complicated topics accessible and engaging to a large audience? (7:19)

Could you talk a little bit more about what Spectrum is and what inspired you to create it? (9:28)

What inspired you to start these diversity initiatives, and how can we improve diversity in science journalism? (13:24)

What does a typical day as a science journalist look like? (18:54)

What story have you covered that you’ve been most passionate about? (21:21)

How do your New York Times story ideas come into being? Are they pitched or assigned to you? Or are your stories your own ideas? (23:50)

Has the degree of diversity and inclusion in the science reporting field finally become better? Or is it still changing? Has that diversity brough any changes in what’s reported on and how it’s reported on, or general reporting attitudes? (26:12)

How much time do reporters get on a story that you write for a newspaper? And then after you write that story, what is the process before it is published for the New York Times? (29:06)

How would you compare the experience of being an editor and being a reporter, and which did you enjoy more? (32:35)

Are there any specific challenges related to being a woman in science journalism, whether that’s from your own personal experience or those of your colleagues? (35:52)

What has it been like for you to keep your productivity up during COVID? Do you have any advice for writers who are kind of dealing with writer’s block, working from home, and attacking this problem? (38:12)

Can you describe your own reactions to disheartening news about COVID and having to share that with the public after we’ve held on hope for so long that herd immunity will be our way out? (40:30)

As young scientists and doctors grow into their careers, what can they do to educate the public on the benefits of science? (44:04)

How do you decide what sources to reach out to and source your pieces? (45:40)

What are the cons that Twitter, or other social media platforms provide you with? (48:18)

What’s something that you were only able to do in your life because you are a science journalist? (51:26)

What’s the most rewarding part about being a science journalist? (53:49)


Aditi Nayak  00:02

Good evening, everyone and welcome to tonight’s q&a on science communications with New York Times health and science reporter Apoorva Mandavillia. My name is Aditi Nayak, I use she her pronouns, and I am the president and editor in chief of Amherst stem network. I will be moderating tonight’s discussion with Grace.

Grace Geeganage  00:21

Hello, everyone. My name is Grace Geeganage, I use she her pronouns. And I’m the media coordinator for ASN and I will also be moderating tonight’s talk. Tonight’s event will be an hour long q&a, we will begin with questions for you to learn more about Apoorva’s story and her approach to science journalism. Then we will turn to audience questions. If you have a question for Apoorva, feel free to put it in the chat at any time. Aditi and I will ask questions from the chat during the audience q&a section. If you’d like to unmute and ask a question, please wait until the audience q&a section where we will explain how to do so.

Aditi Nayak  00:56

This event is hosted by the Amherst stem network. Now for context, ASN is the college’s student run online science communications platform. ASN is dedicated to making STEM research opportunities and resources on campus accessible to everyone regardless of their scientific background. This mission to make science understandable and exciting motivates our team and the articles, podcast, graphics, and videos we create. Tonight, we are incredibly excited and grateful to welcome Apoorva Mandavilli, a role model to many of us as she makes complicated science topics accessible to a wide audience daily.

Grace Geeganage  01:34

Apoorva is an award winning scientists science journalist for The New York Times, where she mostly writes about infectious diseases. She’s also written for the Atlantic, The New Yorker online, Nature, Scientific American, among many other publications. She’s the 2019, winner of the Victor Cohn prize for excellence and medical science reporting. Additionally, she has won awards from the Association of healthcare journalists, the American Society of journalists and authors, the society of environmental journalists, the South Asian Journalists Association and news Women’s Club of New York.

Aditi Nayak  02:08

We could go on and on about Apoorva’s accolades and impact but we only have one hour. So we’ll leave it here and say thank you to a Apoorva for joining us tonight.

Apoorva Mandavilli  02:20

Thank you all so much for that very kind introduction. It feels a little strange to hear your self described as a mentor or role model for anybody because it doesn’t seem like that long ago that I was an undergrad in a liberal arts college much like you are. In fact, one of my college classmates is listening is Grace’s father. So it feels like it wasn’t that long ago that I was at college. But as they mentioned, I am a reporter at The New York Times, and I cover science and global health, which at the moment is really just COVID. But once the pandemic winds down, I’ll start to go back to reporting more about HIV and TB and Malaria and other infectious diseases. But before I came to the New York Times, which I really just joined last May, because of COVID, and to report on COVID. I had been freelancing for the New York Times for a couple of years, but I was running a new site on autism science. So I made a pretty big switch from neuroscience to infectious diseases. But infectious disease has always been my first passion. That’s how I started out in journalism. And I’m happy to answer any questions about how I went from being a liberal arts college student with a major in chemistry and then went to grad school in biochemistry and have somehow ended up as a journalist of the New York Times. So take it away with the questions.

Aditi Nayak  03:46

That’s incredible. So to start, we would love to know how you got into science journalism in the first place. Did you always know you wanted to be a science journalist, or what did your path to this career look like?

Apoorva Mandavilli  03:58

So I did not know that I wanted to be a science journalist. In fact, I was pretty sure that I wanted to be a scientist. I was a chemistry major in college, I did research every single summer. I applied for grad schools and went to the University of Wisconsin Madison for biochemistry, and I was all set to get a PhD and spend my career as a research scientist. But somewhere along the way, I realized that research just didn’t really excite me – that it was a little too unsocial and a little narrow in focus that I would become just an absolute expert in cholesterol transport, which is what I was studying, but I wouldn’t know very much about the rest of science. And it seemed like a real shame to give up all the things that I was interested in learning about science for this one niche topic. And as I started to sort of tap into why I was so dissatisfied, I had some clues. And really, thanks to having been at a college where I took a lot of different classes. I remembered that you know, I had taken a senior level seminar in Milton, and as a class on the English novel, and all these classes that only English majors took, but I just talked my way into. So that was a clue that I really wanted to be doing something with science and English or literature or something along those lines. And I did not know at the time that there was such a thing as science journalism. This is in the era when the internet was very new, because I mentioned. So it didn’t really occur to me that this is something I could do for a living. But I came across Deborah Blum, who’s a Pulitzer Prize winning science journalist, and now a friend. But at the time, I was just awestruck and starstruck by her and I came across a book she had written, and I was just blown away, and really, quite enamored of the idea that you could do this for a living. So that’s how I ended up in science journalism.

Grace Geeganage  05:56

That is very cool. So you touched on this a little bit. But so for undergrad, you went to Augustana College, which is a liberal arts college in Illinois. So how did the liberal liberal arts education play into your journey to science journalism and finding what you wanted to do?

Apoorva Mandavilli  06:14

I think there’s really nothing more important than when you’re young than trying to figure out what you want to do to take as many different classes as you can. I mean, I had this idea that I already knew what I wanted to do, I was pretty single minded, I was, you know, extremely sure of my career path. But as I discovered a little bit later, not even that many years later, it was really not enough for me, and it wasn’t going to satisfy me intellectually or emotionally. And I think if I had not had a very broad based education, where I had allowed my brain to absorb and be exposed to lots of different things, I wouldn’t have had a really good sense of what I like and don’t like what I’m good at and not good at. I would have only known about the science and nothing else. So as it was, I could sort of look back and think about what classes do I find the most exciting where was I the most alive and interested and engaged. And that really helped me figure out this amalgam career path that I didn’t even know existed.

Aditi Nayak  07:19

That’s incredibly reassuring to hear about your path from a liberal arts college to where you are today. Now, at Amherst stem network, we find that a very difficult part of science reporting is making complicated science topics accessible, especially when you as a reporter, are learning about these topics for the first time while reporting on them. So we must ask, how do you make complicated topics accessible and engaging to a large audience?

Apoorva Mandavilli  07:48

I mean, this is the million dollar question. If I knew the exact answer to that, I wouldn’t need an editor and I could just, you know, sit down at a desk and I would pour the best prose. I think the key is to really think about what the reader doesn’t know, to never assume that they already know what you know, to start with the very basic questions and to think about also what they don’t need to know. I think one of the the problems in early science journalists that I’ve seen, and that’s mainly because I’ve spent most of my career as an editor, rather than a reporter, is that people want to tell you everything they know in a story. And they want to tell you all the technical details they heard about and every single nitty gritty sort of niche item that caught their fancy. And so it’s super important to step back and think about, what is it I want the reader to know from this and what does not matter. It doesn’t matter that I think it’s interesting, but this really isn’t relevant to the story. So it’s, it’s just helpful to to picture or reader. So this is something we do all the time, and I’ve done a lot when I’ve freelance for different publications, is you try to think about who is the target audience for that publication. And you try to picture in my case, now that I’m at the New York Times I think about, I don’t know, a 35 year old man in Iowa, and what does he want to know about when I’m writing about this particular topic, and I try to go only as deep as that and satisfy that much curiosity, and don’t sort of nerd out too much.

Grace Geeganage  09:28

That’s very interesting, finding the balance between what you think the public needs to know and what you’re excited about. So switching gears a little bit. You mentioned this before, prior to writing about COVID, you also founded Spectrum, which is the news platform that focuses on sharing accurate autism research. Could you talk a little bit more about what Spectrum is and what inspired you to create it?

Apoorva Mandavilli  09:52

Yeah, so I was at Nature, which is a science journal, which you might all know if you’re part of a STEM program, and I was the news editor for Nature Medicine, which is a sister journal. And I did a lot of writing for Nature as well. And I was doing a lot of reporting on infectious diseases, editing and writing both. And I had been there for about five years. And this is where, you know, it really starts to intersect with how you balance your life as a journalist, when you are a woman with how you want to have a family and you want to have children. So that was a point in my career when I didn’t want to be traveling two weeks of every month, I really wanted, you know, I was engaged, I wanted to get married and have children and be somewhat available with my family. And around that time, the Simons foundation, which is a nonprofit that funds a lot of science approached me and offered a job as a communications director. And I don’t know if you all are aware of this, but communications is very different from journalism. It’s basically where you’re a mouthpiece for the organization. And that is not something I wanted to do. So instead, I pitched them the idea of a news website that would do what they had wanted to do, which is disseminate information about autism research. And I said, I could do that, but with journalism, and that it would be more credible, because it didn’t come with the bias of the organization itself. And they bought it. The Simons Foundation is funded by billionaires. It’s funded by an endowment from from Jim and Maryland Simon’s who are two of the richest people in the country. And so they had a lot of money. And they were very interested in serving this community. And it started out with just me and a few freelance writers a couple really to begin with. And then it grew as the website gained credibility, and they could see that it was gaining a real audience and that scientists in the community really appreciated the information that they were getting, they gave me a bigger and bigger stuff. And by the time I left, in May, it had grown to 13 people. So it’s a website that delivers autism news to autism researchers, but also just neuroscientists in general. And this is, I think, another thing that’s unusual about my background, but I find actually has been very helpful to me in my career is that in journalism, trade press gets a bad rap. It’s this is when you write for scientists, or you write just for businesses, or something like that, a very niche sort of journalism. But I’ve found that as a science journalist, there could have been no better training ground because I learned how scientists think, I learned what is accurate and what’s not accurate. And to be extremely careful when you’re writing for scientists, there is zero room for error, or you lose your credibility completely. So I think that made me a very careful journalist, it made me very aware of all the concepts in science and how to get them right, and how to ask the questions to get the information I needed from scientists. Basically, it helped me learn their lingo. I’ve handed that off now to Ivan Aranski who is a fantastic journalist, and the founder of a website called Retraction Watch, which if you don’t know what you should check out, it’s basically where they track all the retractions in scientific papers, which is pretty cool. And yeah, so he’s the editor in chief of Spectrum now.

Aditi Nayak  13:24

That’s incredibly insightful to learn. And, again, switching gears a little bit to one of your other endeavors. So in addition to being a science journalist, you started many initiatives to increase diversity in science journalism. For the audience, you are a member of the National Association of science writers, where you were a founding co chair of the Diversity Committee, with your colleague, Nidhi Subraman, you also launched Culture Dish, a nonprofit dedicated to enhancing diversity in science journalism. So what inspired you to start these initiatives? And how can we improve diversity in science journalism?

Apoorva Mandavilli  14:03

So there’s a neat little origin story to those organizations. And that is that I’m gonna say in 2014, or maybe 2013, I went to a meeting of the National Association of Science Writers, and this is, you know, this, this membership group of all the science journalists across the country, or not all but a lot of science journalists across the country. And every year, this meetings, the sort of ground for people to make new connections, if you’re a freelancer, to meet editors to see your friends in the community, and I had gone almost every year, but I had had a couple of kids and so I hadn’t gone in two or three years. And then I went to this meeting, and I think it was 2013. And I had been in the business already at that point, you know, 13/14 years, so I knew a lot of people and I was making my way around and saying hello to everybody. And as I did that, it occurred to me that there was not a single brown face or black face near me. It was just all just a sea of white. And I wrote a story after I came back from that meeting called alone in a room full of science writers. And it was basically about being the only brown person in this Journalism Conference. And I knew for a fact that there were more of us. And as I started to talk to people in the community it became very obvious that some of them had actually come to previous meetings, felt very unwelcome felt, you know, like a fish out of water, and had never come back. And it turns out the times journalism was very cliquey, and it was particularly cliquey back then. So this article that I wrote really struck a nerve, it made the National Association of science writers very defensive, I had all the past presidents reach out to me to say, we’ve made a lot of efforts over the years, you know, it just hasn’t taken for whatever reason. Note, though, that all the efforts were made by white people, so of course it didn’t. And they were just not really giving me good answers for how they made people feel welcome when they came to this meeting. And one of the people who reached out to me after that story came out, was just a huge outpouring from the community of like, thank you so much for reading the story. This is exactly how I felt and things like that. And one of them was Nithi Silberman, who’s now a reporter at Nature. And she said, you know, she really related to that. We talked on the phone, we really hit it off, and we decided to create Culture Dish, and became this organization where we could highlight the work of other, you know, journalists of color, showcase sort of job opportunities, you know, give people a place to sort of connect and just know that they’re a part of something bigger. And as the National Association of science writers felt a bit, I think, bashed by what we did, a little embarrassed. And they reached out to us and asked if we could actually start this diversity committee and fold culture into that. We weren’t quite comfortable with doing that entirely. So we kept Culture Dish separate. Well, we did start the committee, and now they’re linked. But if ever Culture Dish were to feel like the association no longer represents its best interests, they could still separate. So that’s kind of how we set it up. So we started this diversity committee, and we did a bunch of things in the few years that Nitha and I were co chairs, we started a diversity mixer, which happens on the first night of the conference, so that, you know, everybody who is a minority, and people who are not, can come to the diversity mixer, and it gives people okay, you know, you’ve made a few connections to smaller group of people, you meet some people, and now those are the people that you might see elsewhere in the conference, and you feel like you have a friend or a familiar face, at least, that started out. And the very first year, we had, I think, 80 people there. And the next year, it was like 200. And it became sort of a fixture of the conference, to the point where the association made it a permanent part of the agenda and set aside budget for that mixer. So that was really great. The first year, we had to apply for a special grant to do it. And after that, it became sort of part of it. The other thing we did was started a scholarship fund, we started a sort of fellowship fund for anybody who independently got an internship, but just couldn’t afford to move to New York and live on nothing while they did that internship, because the pipeline was a huge problem. So we started that with two fellowships, and now it’s grown to four. And we’ve handed off Culture Dish and the diversity committee now to I think it’s on its third set of co chairs after we left. So it’s, it’s become a really sustainable, fabulous committee. They’ve done more and more work, and they’re just doing a really great job.

Aditi Nayak  18:50

That’s absolutely incredible. And I think I speak for all of us when I say I really admire and appreciate you putting in that work to diversify science journalism. Now that the audience has had some time to get to know you a bit more, we would like to transition to questions from our audience. Now, as Grace mentioned earlier, feel free to message any questions you may have in the chat. And we will ask these questions on your behalf. But if you would like to unmute and ask for a question yourself, please use the raise hand function on Zoom. And we will call on you to ask this question. Now, while people are asking questions, we were also wondering, what does a typical day as a science journalist look like?

Apoorva Mandavilli  19:04

That really depends on the day. Every day is variable. I mean, the the most striking thing about being a newspaper reporter and a daily newspaper reporter is that I never know what I’m doing from day to day. I just don’t have any you know, information about what my week looks like a few weeks from now. So you know, I have a lot of have events like this one where I’m on a panel or I do a radio show or whatever things like that, that are a half an hour here an hour there. But the bulk of the day, I really don’t know what the day is going to look like until I’m almost there. Or maybe even on the day itself. So yesterday, for example, I had a very sort of big story break, and I spent a lot of time on Twitter, responding to people’s questions, and I started to work on my next story. Today, I basically spent my entire day doing radio. So if I’m a little tired, that’s partly why, I’ve been talking pretty much all day. And tomorrow, I will spend my entire day working on my next story, which is about the need to have patent waivers for these vaccines that are not available to the majority of the world. So and then, you know, Thursday and Friday, I might spend more time reporting on the next story after that. So every day is a bit of a mix of a little bit of writing a little bit of reporting, some days are more reporting heavy, some days are more writing heavy. And some days, I’m just recovering from a blitz of reporting and writing and just sort of in a coma on Twitter for most of the day.

Aditi Nayak  21:09

So it looks like we have a question from Sarah. So what story have you covered that you’ve been most passionate about?

Apoorva Mandavilli  21:33

That’s a really good question. And it’s hard to pick, it’s like picking your kids. There are a few, I suppose one of the first ones that I wrote, you know, what I don’t know if you know the difference between long form and sort of shorter news articles. So now I’m writing mostly news. And I don’t write a lot of longer things. But for a few years, I was doing only long form. So these are stories that are, you know, three, four or 5000 words, and they have people in them more protagonists that you can sort of follow along. And when I was at Spectrum, I wrote a story about women with autism called the Lost girls. And that was, I’ve never really that story has never left me because it was a story where I met this young woman called Maya, who lives in the UK. And she is on the autism spectrum. And she did not know that until she was in her, you know, 20s. And so through her story, I was able to sort of talk about how autism is under diagnosed in in girls, because people are really thinking about it only in terms of what it looks like in boys. And it actually presents differently in girls. And so she went through her life with all these different diagnoses, misdiagnosed, prescribed the wrong kind of medications, really thought something was wrong with her but didn’t know what, depressed, anorexic, suicide attempts, you name it, like she just went through hell. And it took forever for her to get to a point where she was actually diagnosed. And that made all the difference, all of a sudden, she understood herself. So she was the main protagonist in that story. But I also talked to a couple of other people, one of whom was a young girl at the time. And another one who was in an institution in her 20s, but cared for by, you know, people in that institution and by her mother. And so I was trying to sort of showcase people across different parts of the spectrum from somebody who needs very little support, like NIH, to somebody who needs round the clock support. And that’s where we had a big impact. But also it was just, I think, very moving for me to be allowed into that kind of experience, and to really learn about somebody’s life so thoroughly.

Grace Geeganage  23:50

That’s very interesting. Moving on to there’s a question from Don, just how do your New York Times story ideas come into being? Are they pitched or assigned to you? Or are your stories, your own ideas?

Apoorva Mandavilli  24:05

Most of them are my own ideas at this point, especially. I think when I started in May, there was so much news. And we as a team, as a desk, you know, there’s about a dozen people who were all covering COVID at the time. And as the desk, we needed to make sure that we were covering all these stories that were happening very, very fast. So for about a month and a half after I started, there were a lot of stories that I was getting assigned to like, you know, sit through this world health organization meeting and, you know, see what they’re saying or go to the CDC briefing, which you know, there weren’t that many at the time, but just things that we needed to report basically and it was sort of all hands on deck, but that’s really not my strength. I do best with enterprise stories. It’s not that I don’t dwell on the daily stories, but it’s you know, it’s a waste of my I think what I can do. And so I basically talked to my editor, and we shifted, so that there were other people whose job it was to listen to those things. And I spent most of my time trying to think of science ideas that nobody else was going to be looking at think that, you know, I had an advantage as somebody who does understand science to be able to sort of think about story ideas that the average newspaper reporter wasn’t necessarily going to go after. So I’ve been able to keep that up since then. And so I, I have a Google Doc that I share with my editor. And basically, up until I would say, six weeks ago, it had a minimum of 14 stories at a time on it of things that I wanted to get to. Now finally, it’s down to like nine or 10. Working on at any given time, so become a little less ambitious, but it’s still a lot of stories. So if you’re thinking about going into journalism, this is actually a good tip, if you don’t want to be assigned stories have so many ideas that your editor doesn’t have time to assign your story, you are just too busy producing stuff of your own.

Aditi Nayak  26:12

That is a very great tip. Thank you for letting us in on the secret. We have another question here from Nicholas, which is has the degree of diversity and inclusion in the science reporting field finally become better? Or is it still changing? Has that diversity brought any changes in what’s reported on and how it’s reported on or general recording attitudes?

Apoorva Mandavilli  26:35

I think it has changed for the better, but, you know, it is still changing. And we still need a lot to happen. I think there is a lot more diversity, but it’s primarily among Asian Americans. There’s not as many black Americans, for example, there’s hardly any Latin American, Latin X people in the science journalism community, there are some but most of them are actually in Latin America, there are not that many in the US who are working. And it’s still just very small numbers. And that affects what stories we tell. So for example, in this past year, you know, we’ve heard a lot about racial inequalities and racial disparities and how COVID affects different populations. And we’ve we’re now looking at how, you know, the lack of vaccine access is playing out. But I’ll give you one very simple example. And that’s very current about how this plays out. There is a myth now, and I think it’s finally going away. But there has been a myth for the last couple of months that the reason there are such low rates of vaccine uptake in communities of color is because they are inherently mistrustful of the establishment that they very legitimately are, you know, afraid of the vaccines, et cetera, et cetera. No doubt that plays a role. But the real issue is actually that the government has not made very good attempts to get the vaccine to those communities. Every time they have actually tried to have a pharmacy in a community like that offer vaccines, the white people from nearby neighborhoods have actually driven into those neighborhoods and gotten the vaccines. There are no mobile units. In most of those communities, there are not even enough pharmacies at a local level in those communities. And there have really not been enough outreach efforts from people that that those communities trust, to tell them, you know, this vaccine is good, I’ve taken it, it’s okay, it’s safe. That’s really what needs to happen. So there was a lot of blaming the mistrust, and assigning all of the low vaccine uptake to that as the issue rather than addressing these much more practical and severe disparities and who can afford to take a day off work and who can afford to go stand in line and get a vaccine. And that’s something that only a reporter who knows something about those communities would probably think about, it took a lot longer for most magazines and papers to get there.

Grace Geeganage  29:06

Yeah, that’s definitely something that we as a society need to work on in general. Another question from China. First two part question. First of all, how much time do reporters get on a story for that you write for a newspaper? And then after you write the story, what is the process before it is published? For the New York Times?

Apoorva Mandavilli  29:27

Okay, so the first question, how long do I get, that really depends on what the story is. So I’m pretty fast at writing a new story like a very straightforward this happened, kind of story. So some of those, it’s like, same day, you know, this is happening, and I might tell my editor, I saw something on Twitter and I immediately start to text my sources and I have filed a story as quickly as an hour and a half or an hour after I heard about it. You know, a long story. If it’s short, if it’s 300 words, we have this thing called Live briefing where we just write these little blurbs of what’s happening, if it’s just something like that, that’s 350 words that can happen in 15 minutes. So it depends on what it is, if it’s fully reported stories, let’s say 800-1000 Words, and you actually have to call some people and get it together an hour, an hour and a half is the shortest, otherwise, maybe a day. For a news story, that’s about as long as I take anyway, because usually what I like to be working on is these enterprise stories that are stories that take a little more digging, or a little bit more insightful, and, you know, take more time. The story that I wrote, that went into the paper yesterday, because it was a front page story, and because there was a lot of interest from the New York Times, masthead, something like that gets a little bit more time. So I had, you know, week and a half, two weeks to report that one. And what happens after you file the story. So that also depends on how long it is, if it’s a straightforward news story, it goes right to my editor, he edits it, and then it goes to what we call a second read, which is somebody who’s not even associated with the science desk, and just reads it for clarity, and grammar and style and all that. And then it goes, it gets published with something like the story from yesterday, because it’s a front page story, it goes through like, a lot of people. It was edited by my editor, it was then edited by the Sunday paper editor, because originally it was supposed to go on Sunday, then it was looked at even though I don’t see these comments directly, they’re all talking to my editor. There are other editors, you know, managing editor and Dean Beck, who was the editor in chief editor in chief, like, everybody looks at a story like that. And all those comments filter to my editor who very kindly shields me for most of that, and makes the changes but it, you know, there are a lot of cooks in the kitchen for something like that. So it really varies.

Aditi Nayak  32:03

Sounds like you and your editor, just make a great team, while you’re putting all these articles out there.

Apoorva Mandavilli  32:09

He’s really wonderful. I think having a good editor is like the number one thing to being happy at a place like The Times it’s you, you can have an editor who really gets you and who’s supportive and you know, knows enough science to not completely ruin your story. Or you could get a you know, an editor who’s really hard and harsh and and could make your life hell. So I’m very lucky, I have an amazing editor. 

Aditi Nayak  32:35

Now, you mentioned earlier that you were actually an editor yourself before you had gone into reporting. So how would you compare those two experiences in which did you enjoy more?

Apoorva Mandavilli  32:45

Well, I definitely enjoy being a reporter more. And I’m kind of puzzled as to why it took me so long to come back. Because, you know, I started off as a reporter. And as with many fields, when you’re good at something, you just keep getting promoted. And you have to really stop yourself at some point and think, do I even want this promotion? Do I want to go up the ladder, because in journalism, that ladder only goes towards editing, you know, there is no ladder for reporting, you are either a reporter or maybe you’re a senior reporter. And you get to pick your assignments, but there’s no you know, career path per se for that. So I became an editor just because that’s where my, my career and my ambitions and the people that I was working for led me. And before I knew it, I was you know, editing new sections. And then I was I started Spectrum, I was sort of leading up to that. And the last few years, when I was at Spectrum, I started to realize that I just was not satisfied with just editing other people’s copy. Like I just really wanted to be reporting and writing my own story. So, you know, my, my kids were still young when I started writing again. So I started to do these long form stories about one a year, I started out kind of slow. And then I started to do more and more digital on the side freelance while I had a full time job. And then I would say, two or three years ago, I started writing news for the New York Times again, and I just remembered how much I love news and how much I love writing fast and breaking stories and having scoops and, and so when when they wanted me to come join The Times I I really, you know, didn’t wasn’t sure that I wanted to because of financial reasons, but the call of reporting was very strong. 

Aditi Nayak  34:39

That’s that’s incredible to know, especially for many of us who might be considering a career in science journalism to know the different avenues. So thank you for sharing.

Apoorva Mandavilli  34:48

Yeah, you know, I think actually, it’s very useful even if you’re going to be a reporter to have a little experience editing because I get along with pretty much all my editors, and I don’t mind being edited and I think it’s because I’ve been an editor, and I know that it’s teamwork, as you mentioned, you know, we’re my editor and I, our team. I said to him once, something like, you know, thank you so much for making the story better, or something like that. And he said, my job is to make your rivals quake when they see your byline. It’s such a lovely way to put it. But that’s, you know, it’s rare, you really have to think about it that way that it’s teamwork, because I do see a lot of young writers who come through who are very precious about their voice and don’t want to be edited and take it very personally take it as a personal attack when anything has changed. And that could not be further from the truth, most editors are just trying to help you, and trying to make it clear to the audience. So I think it’s helpful to have that, that lens so that you don’t react so strongly to every edit.

Aditi Nayak  35:52

I absolutely love that imagery of your editor saying I want your rivals to like quake, when they read your byline. That’s quite the dynamic duo from how you’re painting it. Another question that Deepak asked in the chat is, are there any specific challenges related to being a woman in science journalism, whether that’s from your own personal experience or those of your colleagues?

Apoorva Mandavilli  36:16

Um, I mean, there are, you know, what field are there not challenges for a woman. There are challenges in sort of disparity in pay. That has come up a bunch. So I have learned over the years, partly also from having hired people, and knowing how the negotiation goes from the other side, to be very tough about making sure that I get paid what I’m worth. So, for example, when The Times wanted to hire me, I said no, at first because I just didn’t I mean, it was it was real, I wasn’t just playing a game, I just didn’t think that I could make it work for what they were offering, because it would have been a substantial pay cut from what I was making before. But they found that money, they always do. But I think that I you know, I don’t know this for a fact, but it’s generally true that people do offer a woman a lower starting salary than they would to a man. The other thing that I think happens a lot is that women don’t get as many of the plum writing jobs, you know, the the best beats and the sort of the starring spots. You know, at a newspaper, it might be who gets front page stories, or, you know, if you’re on a radio show, it could be you know, which producer gets most of their stories approved. Just about you know, in any, any career that happens, and there’s just a, the mansplaining is pretty intense when you pitch stories, because if there are other people in the room, you know, you could pitch a story as a woman, and that may not fly, but then a man pitches the same damn thing, and it’s like, whoa, brilliant idea. So that does happen.

Grace Geeganage  38:05

Yeah, that’s very frustrating. Julia, would you like to ask your question? 

Julia Zabinska  38:11

Yeah, sure. Hi, Apoorva, I’m Julia. I’m also on the board for ASN, I just kind of wanted to ask what it’s been like for you to keep your productivity up during COVID. And if you have any advice for writers who are kind of dealing with writer’s block, you know, working from home and how you kind of attack this problem?

Apoorva Mandavilli  38:33

That’s a really good question. It has not been easy, I will say, but, and I’ve said this in other places, but I think it’s really true. For me, I have been able to keep up my productivity during the pandemic, because it’s my job. It’s sort of like I have compartmentalised to the point where my entire relationship with the virus is professional. This is a beast that I write about that I want to know everything about that I just think about in this objective, sort of cool, detached way. Because I think the reason a lot of people are blocked, and the reason that it’s hard to get work done when you’re at home, when this pandemic is because it is overwhelming to think about what we are all going through. And I know a lot of writers who actually have quit, especially in the last few weeks, there has been just a an epidemic of people leaving journalism saying I am burned out after the last year, I can’t do it anymore. And I personally know of like seven or eight people that have done that in the last few weeks. So it’s a real issue, to be reporting on something as you’re living it. And there have been moments where it’s been really hard like I’ve, you know, I have two children who are in school and I was writing about how the virus affects or doesn’t affect children and what that means for schools and meanwhile, my own kids were out of school and I really wanted them to be in school. You know, and right now my parents still live in India and I have an uncle in the hospital. And, you know, I was worried about my parents getting vaccines. And while I’m writing about that, I’m also writing about India and about a variant that’s circulating and how hard it is to get vaccines to India. So it can be all very murky and confusing and overwhelming, but I just tried to keep those things as separate as I can. And think about it as this is my job. This is what I write about.

Julia Zabinska  40:30

To follow up on that a bit. We just got news a few days ago, and I read the COVID briefing, as well, that we might not ever reach herd immunity. And that no matter how many vaccines we make available there, you know, these variants that are occurring, there’s vaccine hesitancy, where herd immunity might not be a concept that is even relevant anymore. Can you describe your reactions to finding that out and to having to share that with the public after we’ve held on hope for so long that herd immunity will be our way out?

Apoorva Mandavilli  41:05

Yeah. And the answer to that question actually touches on a bunch of questions you all have asked me, because that’s one that I had the idea for a while ago, in March, actually, I emailed my editor and said, I want to kind of look at herd immunity again, what’s going on with that? And what are the vaccines? You know, that, you know, we’ve vaccinated so many people, how far are we from herd immunity? What about kids? What about variants, et cetera, et cetera. And when I pitched it that way, I was not thinking, we’re not going to get to herd immunity. I didn’t know, I just thought it was time to check back in with my sources. So I started to call them I kept getting put off by other stories. So I didn’t really get started in earnest until a couple of weeks ago. And this was one of those joint things where I had an idea, but then the masthead got really interested and wanted me to do it a certain way or, you know, wanted it at a certain time. They went, Oh, this is great. We want you to do it in the next, you know, can you do it in the next week, that kind of thing. And so I stepped up my reporting, I put everything else aside, and I really sort of focused on that. I called a bunch of scientists that I talked to often and some new people I had never talked to, I called about 14 people. And every single one of them said herd immunity is not attainable. The thing I was most surprised by I think, you know, when I really sat back and thought about what they were saying, it makes sense, it makes sense, because we know that there’s a lot of hesitancy and because we know that there are more contagious variants and herd immunity threshold is the calculation is based on contagiousness, you have a more contagious variant, the percentage you need to vaccinate goes up. So it all made sense. But I was not expecting to hear in such stark terms that we’re not going to get there. And I was also not expecting to hear their certainty. But they had all been thinking this for months and had not bothered to tell the rest of us. So that was the thing that really surprised me. So I called Tony Fauci, who was my last stop. And I asked him like, how come you all haven’t been talking about this? And, you know, he said, “Well, we have. If you go back and listen to all the White House briefings that I’ve done in the last two months, I’ve been saying, you know, forget about herd immunity, we should really just worry about vaccinating the highest risk people.” And it’s possible that he said that. But because I didn’t go back and listen to all the White House briefings, for sure. But I think it’s fair to say just based on the massive reaction that article has had, that that message didn’t come through, we all didn’t know that. Herd immunity is not really an achievable goal anymore. So that’s the kind of story that is completely unexpected. And you think you’re writing something you think you’re just going to write like a status update sort of thing about this is where what people are thinking right now, and it actually turns out to me, Oh, wait, by the way, this goal that we were all working towards for more than a year is not a thing anymore.

Grace Geeganage  44:04

Wow. Yeah. That’s very incredible that all of the scientists were so so stark about herd immunity not being attainable. On a kind of related note is a message or a question: So a lot of the students on this call will want to be scientists or doctors. So as they grow in their careers, what can they do to educate the public on the benefits of science?

Apoorva Mandavilli  44:33

Number one thing that scientists and doctors can do is answer reporter’s calls. You know, of course, they have a responsibility to talk to the public on their own every time they talk to a patient, you know, in the case of a doctor, or every time they get a query from directly from a lay person to a scientist. Of course, you want to sort of share that information, you know, give talks, do all of those things, you know, if there’s a science communication sort of workshop or class that’s offered by your university, please take it because they do help you figure out how to talk about your research in ways that are really accessible. But really the number one thing you can do is when journalists call you, take their call, because even if you don’t have the time, or you don’t have the ability, or you think you don’t have the ability to talk about your work, they will be able to. So yeah, I would say really take that as a civic responsibility.

Aditi Nayak  45:40

I guess now on the flip side of that, so it would be helpful for doctors and scientists to answer your calls as a science journalist, but as a science journalist, how do you decide what sources to reach out to like, how do you go about sourcing your pieces?

Apoorva Mandavilli  45:54

That’s a really good question. It’s been actually a little challenging during the pandemic because there were no Coronavirus experts to begin with. So I was looking for people who had studied other coronaviruses, obviously not this one, or people who are biologists in general. And it turned out actually that a lot of my sources from the HIV world switched to working on the Coronavirus, so I knew all those people already. And Twitter was incredibly helpful in figuring out early on who the people were who knew what they were talking about. I think one thing that’s happened a lot during this pandemic, which I’m sure you guys have heard about is that there’s a lot of armchair expertise, a lot of people not staying in their lane. You know, nutritionists talking about infectious disease, Epidemiology, oncologists talking about viruses, all kinds of stuff. And there are a lot of journalists who are not science journalists at various publications who are doing their best, but who often called the wrong kind of scientist. And if they’re good scientists, if they are really principled, they should tell the journalists right away that they are not the ones who are qualified to talk about this. But that doesn’t always happen. So in my case, you can always look them up, you can look up their work on PubMed, you can see what kind of papers they’ve published. And if they really know what they’re talking about, and then, you know, only call the people who are actually relevant for that part of the story. So I would never ask, for example, and immunologist to talk about the, let’s say, how widespread the virus is, and I wouldn’t ask a virologist to talk about epidemiology, it’s, you know, you have to sort of pick the right person for the right question. One, I will say that I’ve been trying to call more women, I’ve been trying to go at least half. But sometimes it’s impossible, because the men are just so much more eager to talk. So they’re much faster to get back to you. And when you’re on a deadline, it just ends up not always working out. But I have tried to make an effort to include more minorities more women in my sources.

Grace Geeganage  48:14

Do you do you want to ask your question? 

Jiwoo Han  48:17

Hi, I’m Jiwoo I’m also on the ASN eboard. I know you talk a lot about how Twitter was a helpful tool for you. I was wondering if there was like a on the flip side, like five cons that Twitter like, or other social media platforms provide you with?

Apoorva Mandavilli  48:34

Where do I begin? Twitter has been really at times a nightmare. For me, it’s been, you know, I wasn’t on Twitter very much at all. I really started using Twitter because of this job. I didn’t use it as an editor very much at all. And if I did, I just lurked, I just looked at what other people were saying, but as a reporter, and as a reporter who wanted to make sure that I was visible to scientists to experts who I might need to contact and to be visible to readers so that I can get more story ideas, see where the misinformation is or disinformation is to sort of lean into that and explain that in my stories. I wanted to be visible. So I’ve gone from having like, I don’t know, 3500 followers to 50,000. And my experience has changed remarkably over the last year. It’s just the number of trolls that I have to deal with is insane. People love to hate on the New York Times, and people love to hate on brown women. So I’m like a prime target. And we actually recently did this experiment, not on purpose, where Carl Zimmer, who is a friend and a colleague also writes about very similar things. And he wrote about a variant that was starting to circulate in California. And then I wrote about one that was starting to circulate in New York. Almost identical stories, you know, It was like, unintentionally, we basically replicated the same kind of thing. And he got no pushback, nobody challenged him. Story was fine. I wrote about the same thing. And I had people yelling at me about how irresponsible I was How dare I write about this variant. Including some scientists, and a lot of people in my mentions yelling at me. And it was just the the contrast was so stark. And Carl actually ended up tweeting about it today to show like, how nice and polite people were when they talked to him, and how absolutely nasty and ugly they were, when they talk to me that the contrast even among scientists was just shocking. So there’s a lot of that on Twitter, and I’ve learned to just either block people, if they are profane, or anyway, they start to swear at me or they are insulting, or they call me insane or dumb, or, you know, any of those, like, they started to get nasty, I would just block them. If they are just annoying, I just mute them. But I have learned to block a lot of people, because there are also some threats. You know, I’ve gotten a couple of really nasty threats by email, but also on Twitter, and I just, like report them to our security team, but I also just immediately blocked those people. 

Aditi Nayak  51:25

I am terribly sorry that that’s something that just happens in this world. But that it’s something that has to be your reality, because of it. I suppose on a lighter note, what is something that you were only able to do in your life because you are a science journalist?

Apoorva Mandavilli  51:48

I mean, certain stories, you know, like I, when I was 11, there was a big huge Gas Tragedy in in Bhopal, India, where there was a gas leak that blinded a lot of people that killed a lot of people. And there were all these really striking pictures of the children and the people who died. You know, I was just about at an age when I was really starting to pay attention to the news. And it just those pictures have never left my mind. And I’ve always wondered what happened there. But as a science journalist, I was able to go, I went to Pope Hall, I went to look at what the aftermath was. And it turns out that there are still people living near those abandoned factories, and the chemicals from those factories have now leached into the groundwater. And so the communities that live really close to the factory, people have, you know, lots of deformities, kids born with deformities, intellectual disability, fertility problems, all kinds of health issues, there’s actually not a single house that isn’t touched by this contamination in some way. And so, you know, this is the kind of thing where you know, of something that happened, that was grossly unjust. Most people have never gotten compensation for what they went through. They’ve gotten like some very piddly amount like $300, from Dow, which is the company that owns the factory over there. And they’ve never gotten their reparations, but I was still able to at least go tell their story and to, to talk to them and to present it. I wrote about this for the Atlantic. Nothing changed, to be honest, after that story came out, but at the very least a lot more people became aware of it again. And, you know, people learned about what these people’s lives are like. So that’s something I wouldn’t have been able to do on this hour journalist.

Grace Geeganage  53:49

It’s certainly something that’s very important to do. Kind of related to that. What’s the most rewarding part about being a science journalist?

Apoorva Mandavilli  53:58

I get to ask questions, honestly, I mean, I’m very curious person, and I’m a little bit of a nosy person and a gossipy person. And when you’re a reporter, those are strengths. So I can lean into all that stuff. I can ask questions endlessly, I can satisfy my curiosity. You know, it’s just an amazing blend of creativity and energy and impact and all these things that are just I find, you know, very exciting and energizing. So I feel like I have license to be as stupid as I want to when I ask these questions to be as naive as I want and ask whatever I’m thinking about.

Grace Geeganage  54:44

Oh, we are almost out of time. So I just want to say thank you so much for taking the time to be with us tonight. And thank you to everyone in the audience for joining and participating. Feel free to use the chat to thank Apoorva for her time and information.

Apoorva Mandavilli  55:00

It’s really my pleasure. You asked amazing questions. And I have to say I was particularly impressed with how you navigated from a question that was big picture to small picture to emotional to professional to, you know, sad and happy, very nice job balancing those things. Thank you for being great journalists.

Aditi Nayak  55:23

Well, that’s what we’re practicing to do. At the same time, we would also like to thank Joy one for behind the scenes tech supJiwoon Han and Julia has it been scoped for their help in organizing this event, as well as all the members of ASM for helping to share this talk.

Jiwoo Han  55:38

So we’re sending links in the chat right now where you can explore promos pre pandemic, and also pandemic writing. If any other students in the audience would like to try their hands on science communications with the ASN resources are also being sent to the chat.

Julia Zabinska  55:58

And we’re also we’d also greatly appreciate it if you could fill out this short follow up form just to thank Apoorva for her time and provide us with feedback on the events format.

Grace Geeganage  56:15

Thank you everyone so much, again for joining us and we hope you have a great rest of your evening.

Apoorva Mandavilli  56:20

Thank you so much. Well, for all of you for listening, and for having me here.