By Indulekha Karunakaran
Confident, creative and risk taking- this unique blend of terrific traits make Apoorva Mandavilli a true leader. After all, ‘Apoorva’ in Sanskrit means ‘unique’ and she has stayed true to the meaning of her name throughout her successful career spanning 20 years. During this time, she has juggled various roles- journalist and editor, award winning science writer, professor, and mother of 2 children. Ask her the recipe for success and you’ll receive the reply- “Do what you love to do rather than what you are supposed to do”.
This courage to follow her passion made her drop 4 years of graduate research to take up science journalism. Several other bold decisions that were crucial for her current success followed, including choosing to leave big banners like ‘Nature’ and ‘Nature Medicine’ to start ‘Spectrum,’ an innovative news site for autism. Her award winning feature on girls with autism is intense and hard-hitting and exemplifies her as a sensitive writer and a human being. It is for all these reasons and many others, that the Scientista Foundation invited her to be the keynote speaker at the 2017 symposium. Excerpts from an interview with Apoorva are below:
Indulekha Karunakaran: Have you always wanted to be a Science Writer? Or did you want to be a scientist, but end up becoming a science journalist?
Apoorva Mandavilli: I actually did think that I was going to be a scientist and I was all set to go down that path. When I was in graduate school, I realized that I am a pretty social person and I liked talking and writing about science more than doing it. When I was 4 years into graduate school in the University of Wisconsin, Madison, I decided that it was not for me. I enrolled in a journalism program in New York City and ended up going to the NYU journalism program because it was more specifically focused on science journalism.
IK: And from the way your career has shaped up, are you happy about that decision?
AM: I think I was happy about it right from the start. Honestly. Because when I was at NYU, I had a part-time job as a tech at the NYU medicine lab and I was much happier when I was in school learning about journalism than I was doing the bench work. That made it feel right just from the start. I have been in this profession for the last 20 years and this success did not come immediately at all; it has taken many years.
IK: What is most rewarding about your job and what drives you?
AM: I think I really like storytelling. I like talking about and discussing science and I have a lot of different interests. What I did not like about research is that you have to specialize and you end up becoming an expert in this one small area. I hear this also from other colleagues. You love science and you love all of science. You don’t just dream of working on one protein. Being a science journalist, I get to write and learn about lots of different things, and once I am done writing about something, I move on; it’s done. The payoff is also much quicker.
IK: Do you remember the first magazine you worked for? How was the journey from that magazine to Nature and Nature medicine?
AM: Right out of journalism school, I actually started at a community newspaper. I thought I was going to be not just a science journalist, but a journalist. But, I wanted to write about health. So, after graduation, I worked for About.com where I was a health editor. After that I went to BioMedNet which really was the first online news site for scientists- we were still early in the internet news era and—and then Nature news started soon after that. They are actually contemporaries and I did daily news reporting. I loved that job because I learned so much about writing quickly and writing on deadline. At Nature, I was ‘mostly an editor and sometimes reporting’ which was a transition from ‘mostly a reporter and sometimes editor’. It was just a step up the ladder. But the content of what I did there was not much different- reporting on biomedical research.
IK: What was the motivation behind leaving a career at famous banners like Nature and Nature Medicine to start Spectrum?
AM: One of my colleagues, a manuscript Editor at Nature went over to the Simons Foundation to be in charge of the funding aspects and they were looking for someone to start this news website. He recruited me, and I thought autism would be fine because I had been writing mostly about infectious diseases and I wanted to write about something completely different. It started out as a small operation with just me and a few freelancers. But over the years, it has grown and now we are a team of 11 members. I like to just start things. Even at Nature medicine, when I started, there weren’t very many pages of news. Nature had a very big news section, but Nature Medicine only had 2 or 3 pages. I grew that to 11 to 12 pages and enjoyed doing that. I like to be a leader. I liked the idea of starting something completely from scratch. Spectrum is a nonprofit news site funded by the Simons Foundation. We don’t do any PR or marketing and we are completely independent. There are a very few news sites that function like that. It was a new model, a very innovative way of doing journalism and I was very intrigued by that.
IK: “The lost girls” is such a compelling piece that got wide attention and accolades. When you wrote it, did you think that it would be widely appreciated?
AM: I really didn’t. You never know. You put everything you have into a story and you really don’t know what kind of impact it will have. With ‘lost girls’, I knew that I had really powerful material. I knew that Maya’s story spoke to me and I was hoping that these stories of all of the women and their journeys resonate with all other people.
IK: How did you stumble upon the idea?
AM: Through a series of papers. For two or three years we were starting to see more and more papers about women with autism. There were also some commentaries or casual conversations on how we don’t know anything about women with autism. Nobody is able to find them for studies and even when we find them, maybe in women autism looks different, and it was clear that it was an emerging hot topic. So we wanted to do something big with it. It took a while. It took me almost a year to write the piece because I have a very busy job and I wanted multiple people on the story.
IK: What is more important, a nose for good stories or engaging writing?
AM: I think both are important. But if you ask me what’s more teachable, I think good writing is more teachable. A nose for stories- you have to have this hunger to find the stories and also guts. Often, the stories that you chase end up making somebody upset. So you have to be bold and have thick skin and be OK with people not liking what you write. I think that’s harder to teach. Writing, like everything else is a craft and the more you practice, the better you get. You can learn from people who are better than you and see what they do and try to emulate that. There are ways to learn how to be a better writer and I am always trying to be a better writer. The nose for stories, is very specific to people and it must be in your character.
IK: How do you manage the versatility in your writing- from AIDS to Alzheimers to Apes, Sandy to Scientific fraud to Sleep apnea?
AM: I don’t do very many stories. I average like one or two stories per year. I take a long time. I have a very busy job and I have kids. I am lucky enough to have a job that pays my bills so that I can be very choosy. I can take my time thinking about what really appeals to me. Not all writers have that luxury. Because they are often on deadline and how much they make depends on how much they write. For instance, my shock therapy story happened when I was at a dinner sitting with a scientist and he was saying that shock therapy is still really practiced and even practiced on kids with autism. That set me off on that story. It really depends on what is intriguing.
IK: You wear many hats- freelance journalist, Editor-in-Chief of Spectrum, professor and above all, a mother of two children. How challenging is it to manage all these roles?
AM: Well, I am not a professor anymore. I have learned to recognize when I am taking too much. I have not mastered the balance-it is something I am constantly evaluating and re-evaluating. I go through a couple of months of non-stop business and I realize that I am too busy; I have to step back and give up something. Then I go through a period where I am itching for something to do and then I take on new projects. So, it’s a constantly shifting balance. I have little kids who require a lot of time and energy, but they don’t yet require a lot of mental energy. I am not having deep conversations about life with them quite yet. As they get older, I may have to do that. I don’t know. I am just guessing.
IK: What would your career advice for aspiring Science writers?
AM: Not just for aspiring science writers, I think you should just find something you love to do. It is a lot easier to be successful if you figured out what you really like to do and input all of your energy into that rather than doing what you think you are supposed to do
IK: Could you give a statement about your involvement in the conference?
AM: I am thrilled to be asked to be the keynote speaker. I can’t think of a better way to spend a Saturday morning than to speak to a couple of hundred amazing young women who are interested in careers in STEM. I am deeply honored and I really hope I can offer something new to them.
About the Author
Indulekha Karunakaran is currently a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Bonn, Germany. Her current studies revolve around neurological disorders and type 2 diabetes. Apart from her research, she is passionate about communicating science to the common man and hence ended up as a blogger at the Scientista. She is either curled up with a book in her leisure time or thinking about ideas to blog.
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