Why I chose journalism over science

Warning: You are about to become victims of my introspection 

The motivation for writing this is the conversation that was spurred by a post on why doing a PhD to become a science writer is a bad idea. While those conversations helped me crystallise my thoughts for this post, it was not where they first began.

Earlier this year I submitted my PhD thesis. While graduate students go through common experiences (that Jorge Cham so beautifully portrays in PhD Comics), every doctorate is unique because everyone has different reasons to pursue it.

I applied to graduate school because it seemed like a very attractive option. First reason was the prospect of studying in a university that had people from all disciplines and not just chemical engineering, as happens to be the case in the Institute of Chemical Technology where I studied before.

Second was the desire to master a subject. My undergraduate degree was a menagerie of subjects across engineering, chemistry and biology (I specialised in pharmaceutical sciences and technology). While that was great, I just did not have enough time to be able to fully appreciate how amazing each of these subjects were.

The first two reasons might seem to contradict each other, but they don’t. It is rare to be able to appreciate the messiness of science without a broad understanding of arts and humanities. While many from my undergraduate days might feel that they got that broad understanding in the four years they spent in Mumbai, I felt that my education was incomplete.

That is why the third reason sealed the case. I had an offer letter from Oxford. Just in a short few hours that I spent in Oxford in 2007, I had fallen in love with the city of the dreaming spires and the idea of the knowledge powerhouse that lay hidden behind those stony walls. It was a place that would allow me to widen my horizons and still focus on mastering one subject.

At the end of four years of having made that decision, even though in the process I have decided to not go down the academic path, I feel that I have somewhat succeeded in achieving my goals. But I would not have said that a year ago.

When I started the PhD, apart from “completing” my education, I knew that I wanted to be an academic. The profession lured me because I felt that it will give me the freedom to pursue all my intellectual interests; that it will allow me to mingle with the best minds of the world; that academics are not bothered by the administrative hurdles of other jobs…

Another bubble?

The bubble broke just after a year of being in the lab. While I still have immense respect for what scientists do (I wouldn’t write about science otherwise), from up close I could see that the profession faces the same challenges that many other professions do. What sealed my decision to not go down that path, though, was the question: do I love my subject enough to be able to dedicate my whole life to it? I wasn’t so sure.

I am a restless person with many interests. I knew few young academics who were able to pursue more than just one interest (ie their own subject) with their full heart in it. I’ve also heard many horror stories where people have spent 15-20 years waiting to secure that dream job of having their own lab, but never got there.

But as it happens, on leaving academia, I chose journalism—a profession that commands a lot less respect (compared to scientists who command the most), has fewer permanent positions, offers smaller compensations, is known to have poorer career progression and, finally, most importantly, I do not have “proper training” for.

Will I regret this?

It is not such a mad decision, after all. I chose to be a journalist because I loved the job, but I am also a pragmatist. Each of the criticisms of a journalistic career over a scientific one can be dealt with.

Although people have less trust in journalists, it is a statistical average. An honest journalist is often well-respected, and great journalism also happens to command a lot of influence over its audience.

It has far fewer permanent positions, but it is also a career that has a lot of freelancers. Although freelancing early in the career is hard, there are ways to reach there which have been tried and tested.

It offers a smaller compensation, but I am happy to balance that with job satisfaction.

Although there are many trained journalists out there, many of the top journalists I have spoken to have told me that journalism is more a craft than a science. A lot of the people who do a master’s in journalism have the same experience. So as long as you have your fundamentals in place, you can become an excellent journalist through practice and apprenticeship.

And, finally, if you think about it, scientists and journalists are in someways doing the same thing. Both aim to decipher how things work and disseminate their findings to the world, just at vastly different timescales. Where as things in the sciences are considered objective, that in reality is a subjective notion.

But the decision wasn’t that straightforward. Those defecting research, especially having pursued a PhD or post-doc, are viewed as failures. As Jenny Rohn, a cell biologist who is considering leaving academia, recently wrote: scientists may consider such defectors “as turning away from the “right” path to something that is more lightweight, more flimsy, less worthy of their talent and effort.”

It is sad that some scientists are that small-minded to consider their work to be superior to that of many others. And, yes, that happens even in a place like Oxford which is full of brilliant people on either side of the divide.

PS: Yes, I haven’t failed to see the irony in that. At the end of my PhD one of my aims was to “complete” my education…

Failing again and again

Hugh McLeod never gets it wrong

There was some frustration in the undergraduate labs yesterday. A particular experiment has been failing to give the desired product more number of times than we’d like. When it happens a few times, we have no qualms in blaming students’ poor skills. But when it happens too many times, it is usually a sign that we need to revisit the procedure.

When one of the student doing that experiment left us with a fallen face yesterday, my senior remarked, “After a long day in the lab, it’s not nice to leave with nothing.”

My immediate response to that was, “What will happen to them if they think of doing organic synthesis for their PhDs!”

As I write my thesis I realise that it’s mostly a narrative of what did not work. A long list of negative results with some positive spikes. Yet, at the end of three and a half years, I feel I have done something – placing a handful of atoms together to make something that no one has made before. In the process, I have learnt from my failures and added a few bricks to this large construction called science.

One thing they don’t tell those who are thinking of going to grad school is that you need patience, a lot of it. The undergraduate’s frustration reminds me of my own. But in the name of science, I failed, got up, and failed again. I persevered.

As I look to enter one of the toughest markets for a graduate student (science journalism), I realise that I will need patience and perseverance in large doses. The stories of science writers aren’t those of indulgence, fortune, and success but those of moderation, hardship, and failures. Yet those stories are inspirational because whatever little fame and success came their way was worth it’s weight in gold.

When (and not if) I fail, I will need to be reminded of all these stories. Failure will have to become my muse, again.

Picture credit: gapingvoid

The truth about antioxidants and its coverage in Indian newspapers

Times of India (TOI) published an article today which claimed that guava is the healthiest fruit and pineapple is the least! 

The claim is based on a study that evaluated ‘the amount of natural antioxidants level of [sic] 14 fresh fruits commonly consumed in India’. The article cited the study that was published in Food Research International, an Elsevier journal. But surprisingly when I looked up the paper it appeared that the results of the study were published in May 2010!

Antioxidants have been featured as a healthy choice for a long time. An article in Slate mentions that the story began in the 1940s when Denham Harman proposed that ‘the same free radicals that were cutting into petroleum industry profits could also simply and completely explain the phenomenon of aging. Better yet, he said, their effects could be ameliorated by something called antioxidants’.

As tempting as the theory seems, unfortunately as the same article points out, there is no evidence of antioxidants inducing any health benefits. Instead, a meta-analysis of studies that assess the effect of antioxidant supplements on mortality showed that ‘treatment with beta carotene, vitamin A and vitamin E may increase mortality. The potential roles of vitamin C and selenium on mortality needs further study.’

Having previously read the article in Slate, when I came across the article in TOI it struck me as odd that a 18-month old research paper suddenly seemed to surfaces in not only Indian newspapers but also in a British and a Malaysian newspaper within 24 hours. I got in touch with the lead researcher on the paper, Dr. Sreeramulu, congratulating him and expressing my surprise. He responded quickly and said, “Yesterday they contacted me about the work (and) today (the) article appeared in Times of India. (In the) morning my friend informed me about this.” I also, asked him who funded his research, to which he said, “I am a regular staff member of NIN (National Institute of Nutrition), Hyderabad. Our Institute funded the work as (an) intramural project.”

I asked him about the funding of the project given that the antioxidant market worldwide is pretty big. According to a report it has been growing at ~4% annually with reported sales of $3.7 billion in 2007 (the slate article calls it a $23 billion industry but I couldn’t find the source for that). Having not got any satisfactory answer to the reason why TOI showed sudden interest, I thought it might be worth looking at what the coverage of antioxidants in top Indian newspapers.

Here are the search results for ‘antioxidants’ on TOIHindustan Times & The Hindu websites.

Sure enough I got plenty of articles mentioning the many studies that show antioxidants do wonderful things and many that reported the extraordinary antioxidant content in some foods. But amongst all that noise I found only three articles that mentioned studies showing adverse effects or no effects (here,here & here).

The lack of coverage of the studies showing adverse effects or no effects can be attributed to the fact that may be fewer such studies are reported but that would be a mistake. That alone cannot account for the dismal numbers. The answer then may be lies in the fact that the media has a bias towards publishing ‘feel-good’ stories, especially in the health section. But it might also be equally due to some media houses doing favours for big supplements manufacturers.

I wouldn’t lament about all this much if only next time when an article about antioxidants is written they give the reader a balanced view. A simple sentence such as, ‘conventional wisdom claims the positive effects of antioxidants but many studies have shown no-effect and in some cases, harmful effects in the use of antioxidants’ can be included to that effect.

Alas! I cannot expect such things from Indian newspapers, can I? And, of course, the mystery of why world media suddenly showed in the story also remains unsolved.