When Science magazine’s Kelly Servick found out in the spring of 2020 that she’d been accepted to the Knight Science Journalism Program, the good news was tempered with an unfortunate caveat: The start of her fellowship would have to be delayed by a full year. With Covid-19 lockdowns sweeping the country, the program had made the difficult decision to put its in-person fellowship on pause.
As the pandemic dragged on, the one-year wait turned into two. A winter coat Servick had bought in anticipation of the move from Washington D.C. to the Boston area hung, new and untouched, in her closet. When she finally arrived on campus this past August to join four other journalists in the program’s 2022-23 fellowship class, the moment had been years in the making.
“I had my interview [for the fellowship], possibly the last day that I was in the office at Science before we all went remote in February 2020,” Servick recalls. “So, it was definitely something I’ve been looking forward to.”
As a staff writer, and now associate editor, for Science, Servick has primarily covered biomedical research and policy. But recently she’s found herself wondering about overarching systems of care and the winding paths that people diagnosed with psychiatric disorders must often take to get diagnosed and treated. So during her time at MIT, Servick is exploring big picture issues related to the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness — and learning about the experiences of patients who are navigating those processes. It’s the kind of broad and important context, she says, that “doesn’t always make it into my reporting around an individual study or a new drug candidate.”
“It takes time to try to get a handle on these bigger social questions and policy questions,” she adds. “That’s kind of what the fellowship has afforded me.”
Before becoming a science journalist, Servick studied cognitive science and comparative literature at the University of Georgia. But she liked that science journalism presented opportunities to learn and explain, and she eventually enrolled in the University of California, Santa Cruz, Science Communication Graduate Program. Afterward, she landed an internship with Science magazine, which led to a full-time position.
There’s always kind of a bigger picture and a lot of history and a lot of context that is important to know — to try to know.
One of Servick’s most memorable moments at Science came early in her career, on a 2016 reporting trip to Brazil, where she was covering designer mosquitos that were created to help stop the spread of infectious diseases. On the trip, Servick spoke with researchers and community members who had first-hand experience with infectious diseases, to get their perspectives on the new technologies used to fight mosquito-borne diseases. It dawned on her that the story was about much more than entomology and laboratory techniques; it was also about public health, community needs, and socioeconomic conditions.
“That project sort of impressed on me that explaining the technical details in the science is really not enough and is not the whole story,” Servick says. “And there’s always kind of a bigger picture and a lot of history and a lot of context that is important to know — to try to know.”
At MIT, Servick plans to create audio stories that examine various facets of treatment and rehabilitation for people with severe mental illnesses. Among the stories she’s working on is a feature that will take a historical look at the movement of deinstitutionalization in the U.S.
When Servick is not reporting or editing, she’s often flexing her creative skills with strings. A violinist and budding cellist, Servick for years played and sang for Near Northeast, a melodic indie experimental band based in D.C. “I’m not actively playing with this band right now, and so I’m in kind of a transitional time, creatively. And I’m kind of like working on an EP of solo material,” says Servick. “But also, being in a new place has really underscored like how important collaboration and community are to make music meaningful.”
In addition to her science classes, Servick is auditing a course called Leading Music in Ritual at the Harvard Divinity School. “I’m trying to just sort of consume a lot of different things and think about how to integrate that into my life.”
Elizabeth Gamillo is a student in the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing. She was previously a daily correspondent for Smithsonian and wrote for Science magazine as their 2018 AAAS Diverse Voices in Science Journalism Intern.