It took more than 3,000 miles for Jane Qiu to travel around Tibet.
For a major article in Nature, Qiu, a freelance journalist based in Beijing, crisscrossed the nation to speak with government officials, herders, and researchers about the changes, both good and bad, affecting the grasslands — a vast area where nomadic people graze herds of livestock.
The article, “Trouble in Tibet,” appeared in January 2016. Qiu says it’s one of her favorites. The problems of the grasslands — an area about a quarter that of the U.S. landmass, spread over multiple regions affected by different climates — can’t be addressed with sweeping generalizations.
“Ultimately,” Qiu said, “I hope the article can influence policies about the conservation of the grasslands,” and lead to changes that will benefit its people.
Qiu recently traveled again for journalism, this time almost 7,000 miles from Beijing to Cambridge, Massachusetts. She’s currently one of the 10 Knight Science Journalism fellows at MIT.
She didn’t start out as a journalist. She has a doctorate in cancer genetics and has completed two postdoctoral fellowships, including one in New York about nerve regeneration. So how did a scientist with degrees in life sciences come to write about grasslands in Tibet? It had to do with a newspaper and a former inmate.
Qiu was completing her second postdoctoral fellowship in London when she came across an article about Eric Allison. A habitual thief, Allison spent most of his life behind bars and became an activist, campaigning on issues of racism and abuse in prison. After writing endless petitions and campaign leaflets, he realized that writing gave him a buzz similar to the one he got from stealing. Eventually he became The Guardian’s first prison correspondent.
Reading about his life was an epiphany for Qiu, who by then had realized she did not want to pursue a career in academics. “I knew I enjoyed writing, but I never really thought I could make a career out of it,” she said. Allison’s story “in a way changed my life. Writing is a calling I cannot resist.”
After spending two years as an editor at Nature Reviews Neuroscience — which afforded valuable insight into publishing — Qiu began freelancing full time in 2006. Since then, she has traveled around the world and filed stories from far-flung corners of the planet — from the Arctic to the Antarctic to the peaks of the Himalayas. Besides Nature, her work can be read in Science, Scientific American, and The Economist.
Stationed mostly in Beijing, Qiu is passionate about development and environmental issues in China and other Asian countries. And though she rarely tackles life sciences these days, her education as a scientist allows her to better understand science and the scientific mindset — along with the fact that scientists are fallible no matter how accomplished they are. “I think the nuances are really important,” she said. “Science is complex and often controversial.”