As a child, I enjoyed writing poetry. My father was a geologist and would take the family along on field trips to remote locations in Rajasthan, India. All that I could do for entertainment here was write about my surroundings — a snake slithering past a camp tent, an evening excursion with my father to survey rocks for wolframite — a tungsten-bearing mineral that glowed sky-blue under UV light.
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What did you study?
When I finished high school, I decided to study engineering because that’s what a lot of bright kids from middle-class India were doing at the time. I had not the foggiest idea what I was getting into. Three years into my coursework in chemical engineering, I realized that technical study was sucking the soul out of me. I wrote poetry for relief. The running theme in these writings was the gulf between a scientific and emotional understanding of the world, which I naively believed I could bridge through my poems. In the fossil of an archeopteryx, I imagined a reptile striving for transformation. In the oily shimmer of rain-drenched streets Mumbai, I saw miniature rainbows that reflected a technologically-inflicted abuse of the environment.
Where did you work initially?
After college, I worked at a cement company for six months — a disaster. Writing was the only thing I could do. I became a reporter for a newspaper in Calcutta, covering everything under the sun. About three years later, I landed a science writing job at a competing newspaper which had a science section. I went into science writing because I realized that I couldn’t write poetry about science AND make a living; science writing was the next best thing to do. It’s been 13 years since. I have spent the last 7 at Science, where I have terrific colleagues and the opportunity to tackle fresh topics every week. I’m still learning to write.
Advice to aspirants who want an unconventional, offbeat and unusual career such as this??
My only advice to aspiring science writers is that subject matter expertise will not make you a writer. Studying and practicing the craft of writing is really what it’s all about. Knowledge of a subject is good, but by the very definition of news, you’ll invariably be writing about things that you — and by extension, most of your readers, don’t know much about. (Otherwise it would be old news, right?) It’s only by writing stories that you will realize what questions to ask your sources, what material will breathe life into your piece. Whatever you do not know or understand, you will be able to know by asking the right people. But the writing part — that you’ll have to teach yourselves.