The LA Times reporter has been exploring ways to encourage science literacy by harnessing people’s natural curiosity about the origins of life.
It took Amina Khan almost a decade to find her perfect journalistic niche. After cutting her teeth as an opinion writer for her high-school and college newspapers, the Northern California native tried on a medley of job titles: She was an editorial intern and web assistant at the LA Times, she wrote for Forbes, and then she returned to the LA Times, where she began to cycle through beats. When she finally landed at the newspaper’s Science and Health desk, she knew she was home.
“I loved it,” she recalls. “I got to write about dinosaurs and all these interesting things, and I got to talk to people who actually wanted to talk to me — people who were either changing the world or changing the way that we saw the world.”
Khan has now been at the LA Times for nearly nine years. She describes herself as a generalist: She’s written about climate change, Mars rovers, a three-year-old boy undergoing a risky surgery to regain his hearing, and more.
But Khan’s most ambitious project fell into her lap out of the blue — specifically, the cerulean blue of Twitter. In 2012 a publishing editor, who would later become her agent, direct messaged her and asked her if she wanted to write a book. She accepted the offer and wrote “Adapt,” a book that explores the ways humans can solve problems by learning from biological systems. For example, sea creatures hold clues for designing medical devices that work inside the salty, watery environment of the human body; termites, one of nature’s most dynamic architects, offer lessons on efficient construction.
In 2017, Khan took a brief leave to write for the Netflix series Bill Nye Saves the World. “[It] was a totally different way of looking at writing and thinking about writing,” she remembers. “You’re sitting around a table with other writers and … you talk a lot about structure. You spend like 80 percent of your time talking and 20 percent of it writing.”
During her nine months as a KSJ fellow, Khan has been exploring ways to encourage literacy on basic scientific topics by harnessing people’s natural curiosity about the origins of life on Earth and the possibility of life on other planets.
“I’m trying to use astrobiology as an educational prism to make people who love reading about that stuff learn more of that basic science and chemistry that they missed in high school,” she said. “I want to bring that sort of that basic science literacy up by engaging people in a subject that they find inherently fascinating.”
This is the ninth in a series of profiles of the 2018-19 Knight Science Journalism fellows, written by students in MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing.