When the Knight Science Journalism Program’s 2019-20 fellowship class gathered in the KSJ offices on March 12, 2020, they had no way of knowing it would be the last time that year the group would meet face-to-face. News of the novel coronavirus had been circulating for weeks by that point — almost as quickly as the virus itself — but life in Cambridge, Massachusetts, remained mostly unchanged. Businesses were open. Kids were in school. President Trump had yet to declare a state of emergency, though he would do so the very next day. The pandemic still felt far away.
“I remember talking with the other KSJ fellows about the coronavirus as an interesting scientific issue, but not one that would directly affect our lives,” said Tony Leys, who spent more than 30 years as a reporter at the Des Moines Register before joining the fellowship program in the fall of 2019. “It quickly became clear that it would.”
Since 1983, the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT has welcomed hundreds of gifted science storytellers into its ranks. While the program has evolved a great deal over the decades, each of its alumni are forever connected by the shared experience of spending a year learning and honing their craft in Cambridge. However, the experience of the 2019-20 class stands apart from the rest: As the first — and hopefully last — fellowship class to have their year disrupted by a deadly pandemic, these 10 science journalists bore witness to an extraordinary moment in the Knight Science Journalism Program’s history.
Just days prior to that fateful meeting at KSJ headquarters, the fellows had assembled for what would turn out to be their final in-person seminar — a tour of STAT, a digital health and life sciences magazine based out of the Boston Globe’s offices in downtown Boston. Even then, for at least some of the fellows, the writing was on the wall.
“The pandemic had hit Boston and was growing exponentially,” said Molly Segal, an audio journalist and podcast producer. “After the visit, we all went out to a restaurant and sat around over food and drinks, I think knowing that it would be the last major in-person event together, yet not wanting to really acknowledge it.” Two days later, she says, “we were having a group discussion about how the rest of the fellowship would run,” Segal said. “It all evolved that quickly.”
Like many university programs around the country, KSJ was thrust into uncharted waters, confronted with a barrage of questions that had no easy answers or established precedents. International borders were closing fast; some U.S. cities were going into lockdown. And there were growing concerns about the personal safety of the fellows. MIT, in an effort to help stem the spread of the virus, had just asked its undergraduates not to return to campus at all after the upcoming spring break.
“We made a difficult decision to pivot to remote learning,” recalls KSJ associate director Ashley Smart. “And if fellows felt they needed to leave Cambridge early — to return home while they still could — we said we’d help cover the travel. We could tell they were experiencing a lot of anxiety. We all were.”
The semester’s remaining seminars would take place over Zoom, rather than in the conference room the fellows had grown accustomed to. Courses the fellows were auditing at MIT, Harvard, and other universities in the Cambridge area also went remote.
According to Bethany Brookshire, who had taken leave from her post at Science News to join the fellowship, the days and weeks that followed were “surreal.” The fellows faced a gut-wrenching choice: stay or go. Soon, one by one, they began to depart.
“It was a rush, helping many of the international fellows leave the country,” Brookshire recalls. “Thiago [Medaglia], Sonali [Prasad], Molly. Everyone agonized over their decision. We were desperate to hug each other — and terrified it was the wrong thing to do.”
For Richard Fisher, now a senior journalist at BBC Future, the initial transition to online learning was a difficult one. Fisher had spent all year developing a fellowship project on the importance of long-term thinking, and the dangers of being trapped in the short term. However, he says that preparation was of little use as the pandemic took hold. “Like everyone, I was trapped in the short-term pressures of a burgeoning crisis, and for a while I found it very difficult to work, write and attend lectures.”
For some fellows, things seemed to calm down once they got past the onset of the crisis. “I soon realized that shifting gears because of the pandemic did not change much,” said Andrada Fiscutean, a technology journalist who made the difficult decision to return to her native Romania for the final months of the fellowship. “Yes, attending online classes was a different experience, but it brought us together. I ended up attending more classes than I registered for.”
German reporter Eva Wolfangel, who had spent her fellowship year exploring new uses for virtual reality, found that her project was tailor-made for the social distancing era. “The project grew a lot after the fellowship,” she said, “because people were very open towards meeting virtually, and everybody was tired of Zoom.”
Today, the pandemic continues to cast a pall over day-to-day life, and several of the fellows are in areas of the world where Covid-19 is still raging. Yet the group has managed to continue pursuing ambitious journalism projects. Anil Ananthaswamy, a freelance science journalist who had already published three books before joining the program, is now working on his fourth effort — a book on the mathematics of artificial intelligence. Fisher is currently writing a book on long-term thinking, and Brookshire inked a deal with Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins, to write a book about pests.
Meanwhile, Segal has been working with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on a climate-focused radio show and podcast called “What on Earth.” The program was recently named the winner of the new Canadian Journalism Foundation Award for Climate Solutions Reporting.
Although the fellows are now dispersed across the globe, they’ve kept in touch and hope to gather again one day.
“Every so often I daydream about how maybe someday we’ll be together again, have another big dinner,” said Brookshire. “All of us at a long table with plenty of wine, Molly’s excellent cheese plates, Thiago’s caipirinhas, Eva’s bread, Tony’s turkey, and those cheese rounds Andrada got us all addicted to. I know it’s very unlikely, but it gives me hope.”