This is a series of Q&As with new, young and up-and-coming science, health and environmental writers and reporters. They - at least some of them - have recently hatched in the Incubators (science writing programs at schools of journalism), have even more recently fledged (graduated), and are now making their mark as wonderful new voices explaining science to the public.
Today we introduce you to Alyssa Botelho (Twitter).
Hello, welcome to The SA Incubator. Let’s start from the beginning: where are you originally from?
I’m from a small college town in North Carolina called Davidson. Three years ago, I migrated north for college. I’m now in my last year at Harvard, where I study molecular biology and history of science.
How did you get into science and how did you get into writing? And how did these two trajectories fuse into becoming a science writer?
I’ve always felt an internal kick to get to the bottom of things. It was the feeling that drew me to science when I was old enough to read, and sparked a fascination of biology—how and why we work the way we do—when I hit high school. I come from a family of classical musicians, and trained in ballet for fifteen years. So when I was little, I lived a sort of double life: that of a young scientist and a ballet dancer.
It was because I missed ballet that I discovered journalism. I was in my first year of college—training three or four hours a week in the dance studio instead of thirty—and frustrated. A friend pushed me to join the Arts section of the college paper. I would get free tickets to watch Boston Ballet if I wrote reviews. So I joined. And that’s how my parallel educations in the biochemistry lab and the newsroom of The Harvard Crimson began.
In the lab, I learned that doing science means being comfortable in a constant state of not knowing enough—of trying to distill details, getting the big picture, judging competing interpretations of data, and worrying, “Is this true?” It is a way of working that I discovered as a scientist—and fell in love with as a reporter.
What professional experience you have had so far—publications, internships, jobs? Feel free to include a bunch of links here! What is your current job?
After working as an arts writer for two years at the Crimson, I transitioned to hard news and science journalism. This December, I finished a year-long run as a general news and science editor at the paper. Two classmates and I directed the paper’s bi-weekly science section together.
In 2011 I worked at the Nieman Foundation, where I had the chance to write about a number of leading global health journalists. Last summer I worked as a science and health reporting intern at The Washington Post. Next summer, I’ll be a reporting intern at The Boston Globe. For now, I’m focused on writing my thesis, and graduating.
How do you see the current and future science media ecosystem, how it differs from the past, and what role will new, young science communicators like yourself play in building it and making it the best it can be?
Scientists tell us new stories about our world by meticulously collecting and weaving together bits of hard-earned data. A Post journalist once told me that this work, in essence, is evidence-based reporting. From the storytellers of the laboratory, I believe, comes a model for sharper, more rigorous news reporting. Science writers can lead the way.
With every new app and interface comes the opportunity to make this evidence-based reporting more vivid and more democratic. But no matter how the facts are presented—through photos, videos, data visualization, 140 characters or 14,000—the standard for accurate reporting and tightly crafted narrative will remain the same. It is a daunting task: to do more, and faster, without sacrificing the principles. I’m eager to learn, and join in the challenge.
What is the favorite story you’ve written?
Last spring, I had a chance to interview E.O. Wilson for a story about his newest book, The Social Conquest of Earth. In the process, I was able to speak with James Watson and Richard Lewontin. These three biologists are starkly different thinkers—but all are avid writers. Hearing their stories was an honor. That week of reporting is one of my favorite college memories.
I also had great fun reporting on AIDS vaccine research for the Post and writing about a mysterious sleep disorder in the blind for the Globe.
Do you write a personal or science blog? How much do you use social media networks, e.g., Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, Tumblr, Pinterest, Flickr, YouTube etc., to promote your own and your friends’ work, to learn and to connect?
Last summer I sat across from the prolific Post reporter Joel Achenbach, who started blogging in 2005. (Achenblog was around even before blogs were cool.) He inspired me to give it a try, so I’m blogging this year at www.alyssabotelho.com as a sort of senior project. There you can find my clips, a stream of posts, and updates on my thesis research. I’m writing about a battle in 1976 over the construction of a lab at Harvard dedicated to work with recombinant DNA. The technology, which allows scientists to swap genes between organisms, is now commonplace. But in the 1970s, recombinant DNA drew sharp divides around the country—and among Harvard’s own biologists. In my thesis, I’m trying to piece together a local history of the recombinant DNA fight in Cambridge. It's turning out to be a rather amazing tale about the rise of biotechnology in counterculture-era America.
I keep track of science-y happenings through Twitter, the blogosphere, and word-of-laboratory. But I tune into the radio and read a newspaper whenever I can.
Thank you so much.
Previously in this series:
Noby Leong and Tristan O’Brien