The road to the small fishing village near Lake Turkana, Kenya, was so rough that Rosalia Omungo’s car broke down — air hissing from the punctured tire. On the day of the incident, Omungo, a producer for the Kenyan broadcaster KBC TV, was on her way to investigate plans to build a dam on the Omo River, which would decrease the flow of water to Lake Turkana and jeopardize the local fishing industry. Just a typical day on the job for a reporter and current Knight Science Journalism fellow.
Each year, the KSJ program at MIT provides 10 established science journalists with the opportunity to take classes and participate in a broad array of activities, trips, and workshops over the course of nine months. On Sept. 8, a few weeks after the fellows arrived on campus, the program held its annual “Soundings” meeting, in which they gathered to share career highlights and their expectations for the year ahead.
Robert McClure, an environmental journalist and executive director of InvestigateWest, shared excerpts from his piece “Lost in the Deep Dark Swamp,” describing his expedition through the alligator-infested Everglades, published in the Sun Sentinel during the mid-90s. Since that time, McClure has been honored as a Pulitzer Prize finalist and named one of Seattle Magazine’s “most influential” people.
Maura O’Connor, a Brooklyn-based freelancer, has explored popular false statistics and the biases that inform them. She said she’d learned to “question what we accept as fact.” For a forthcoming article on Haiti’s forests, for example, she discussed how outsiders’ views of Haitian culture distorted perceptions of the country’s environment. She’s at work on a book about human and animal navigation.
“My story is about stories leading to other stories,” said Meera Subramanian during her presentation. A print journalist specializing in environmental issues, she began her journey on a 40-acre land trust in the Oregon wilderness. Despite her passion for nonprofit work, Subramanian eventually ventured to New York City for graduate school. Here, her impulse to locate the wild among the urban led from falcons in the financial district to declining vulture populations in India, and finally to her first book, “A River Runs Again.”
The path of Italian science writer and editor Fabio Turone had “less space for dreams,” at least early on. “Those came later in my career,” he said. Still, as he realized his writing held promise for social change, he became committed to supporting international science journalists, as well as improving rapport between writers and researchers. He is now director of the Erice International School of Science Journalism and leads the professional organization Science Writers in Italy.
Chloé Hecketsweiler writes about the business side of health care for the French newspaper Le Monde. She investigates pharmaceutical companies, writing about marketing strategies, lobbying, and conflicts of interest. She has traveled to Africa to investigate why medical drugs aren’t getting to the populations that need them. Lately she has become “obsessed” with genetic engineering and its potential to redefine the human identity.
Iván Carrillo, a Mexico City-based science journalist with a background both in print and television, boasts the earliest foray into the field, having started a school newspaper at age 8 — and later contributing to National Geographic Magazine LA, Newsweek Magazine en Español, CNN en Español, and SPR News. At “Soundings,” he displayed images from his time as editor of the magazine Quo, as well as video clips from the science-based TV program Los Observadores de TV Azteca, which he currently hosts.
Bianca Vázquez Toness, a Massachusetts-based journalist, spoke about how her experiences reporting on technology and development in India gave her a new appreciation for the importance of the internet for quality of life and economic development.
Lauren M. Whaley, a California-based multiplatform journalist focusing on health care policy, likes “putting a human face on health issues.” She has photographed people with mental illness, produced a video profile of a young child with lead poisoning from paint, and even reported on her own medical issues to “make it easier for others to talk about theirs.” One of her radio and video pieces led to “a side gig in birth photography.” Whaley also likes “finding stories that are hidden in plain sight.” When other reporters were writing about the anti-vaccine movement during the 2015 measles outbreak in California, she sifted through kindergarten entrance records and discovered that many under-vaccinated children came from families that didn’t necessarily oppose vaccination. Schools granted conditional entrance based on “plans to vaccinate,” and families either forgot to get their children the rest of their required shots or had trouble doing so. Talking about what she wants to accomplish at MIT, Whaley expressed a dilemma common to many fellows: “I want to do that and that and … and …”
Mark Wolverton, a Philadelphia-based freelancer and author, began his “Soundings” presentation with a look at the bigger picture. When asked what it takes to become a science writer, Wolverton says he often replies that it’s nothing short of an Olympic feat — and not in the sense of the Games. He quoted one of the first full-time science writers, William Laurence, who once proclaimed: “True descendants of Prometheus, science writers take the fire from the scientific Olympus, the laboratories and the universities, and bring it down to the people.”
While these journalists may not make the trek to and from the scientific Olympus, the KSJ Fellows seemed to agree that their job is to bring both the knowledge of fire and the fire of knowledge to the masses — which may entail a few flat tires along the way.