The Nature Middle East Editor wants to use virtual reality to help people understand today’s scientific issues.
Every journalist discovers their passion at a different age. Pakinam Amer started younger than most — she was only 11 when she decided to create a magazine in her home in Cairo, Egypt. She recalls writing out every article by hand, slowly and neatly, so that the photocopies made for friends and family would look as professional as possible.
At the urging of her parents, Amer studied math in high school, and later began college at the American University in Cairo as a physics major. However, she didn’t stay on that track for long — enticed once more by writing and current affairs, she switched to journalism.
She graduated in spring of 2004 with a bachelor’s in journalism and a minor in psychology. She stayed at the university to begin a master’s in TV journalism, but she soon found that she preferred the field to the classroom. After a six-month internship at the Associated Press and several years at Cairo-based newspapers and wire services, Amer returned to graduate school with a Chevening scholarship to complete a master’s in Investigative Journalism at City, University of London.
Both during and after the program, Amer carried out investigative work for Egypt Today. She says that work felt important — when teenagers were massacred in a drive-by church attack, for instance, the story needed to be told. Eventually, though, the darkness she witnessed became overwhelming.
“There is this saying — you stare into the abyss, and the abyss starts staring back after a certain point. And I felt I was on the precipice of that,” she says.
By the time Amer completed an award-winning investigative report on a missing Egyptian journalist, the glare of the abyss had become untenable. Amer submitted her resignation from Egypt Today. She considered a position at Nature Middle East, the regional edition of Nature magazine, but ultimately felt she needed time away from news reporting altogether.
She went to study Kung Fu in a Shaolin temple in China, intending to stay for only a month or so. But she stayed for a year. When she returned, she knew she wanted to reinvent herself. She had wrestled with enough darkness.
Nature Middle East reached out again. The position for an assistant editor had re-opened. Though she hadn’t become a full-fledged Zen Buddhist, it sure felt like a sign from the universe.
Within a year, she felt at home at Nature Middle East. Her knack for journalism melded with her childhood interest in science, and she rose to deputy editor and then editor-in-chief. The importance of the work was still present. The abyss, less so.
After coming across an award-winning VR experience in which the user is able to experience the growth and life of a tree — including the turmoils of forest fires and deforestation — Amer was determined to incorporate such technology in the newsroom. What better way to make people understand the scientific issues of today than to give them a way to experience them firsthand? During her year as a Knight Science Journalism Fellow, she aims to begin turning this idea into a reality.
This is the third in a series of profiles of the 2018-19 Knight Science Journalism fellows, written by students in MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing.