“It’s important to tell a story. But it’s equally important how you tell it.”
The city of New Delhi, where Sonali Prasad grew up, rests on a series of fault lines and is intermittently shaken by earthquakes. A few hundred miles to the northeast, the colliding Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates slowly force the peaks of the Himalayan mountains toward the sky. “You have these beautiful mountains, but people don’t realize that it’s because the earth is moving,” Prasad explains. “If you didn’t have earthquakes, you wouldn’t have mountains.”
As a journalist who’s reported in depth on the human toll of earthquakes, Prasad understands all too well how seismic forces can shape social, psychological, and physical landscapes. Now she’s spending a year at MIT as a Knight Science Journalism fellow, and she wants to try telling these stories in a new way: through art and performance.
The shift has been years in the making. Prasad got her start writing as a reporter for her campus newspaper, while she was an undergraduate student in Singapore. She became chief editor during her sophomore year, and by the time she graduated with a degree in computer science, her penchant and passion for writing were well developed. She went on to earn a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University, where she later worked as an investigative journalist. She began to win plaudits as a writer, receiving fellowships and grants such as the Google News Lab fellowship and the Pulitzer fellowship.
But it was a “Magic Grant” from Columbia’s Brown Institute that proved pivotal in Prasad’s career as a science journalist. The grant funded a project called RE(ef)SOURCE, in which Prasad and other reporters distributed underwater cameras to scuba divers, who used them to collect images of coral reefs in the Florida Keys. By analyzing the colors in the photographs, the team could collect original and autonomous data about the reefs’ health.
“I love the written form,” Prasad says, “but when I got to work with the Magic Grant … I realized that you can do storytelling in a different way.” She says the experience showed her that she could mesh her technical background and her journalism to “do something very innovative.”
Now Prasad is turning that innovative eye toward earthquakes — in particular, the risks they present to vulnerable communities. She says most people think of earthquakes as natural disasters, but she advocates for them to be considered through a social and structural lens. As she sees it, the destruction resulting from an earthquake is typically more related to the collapse of human infrastructure than it is to the quake itself. “We have devastation because we are not good at managing the hazard, which turns into a disaster,” she says. To Prasad, reframing that narrative provides an opportunity to think critically about how we organize society and adopt practices that support human well-being during earthquakes.
At MIT, Prasad is splitting her time between science and art classes. She plans to create an immersive, multimedia exhibit that engages audiences with earthquake science. “I really love the idea of performing your journalism, whether it’s an art piece or an installation,“ she says. “It’s important to tell a story. But it’s equally important how you tell it. So, you know, I work on pushing the craft as much as I work on telling the story.”
This is the fourth in a series of profiles of the 2019-20 Knight Science Journalism fellows, written by students in MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing.