Please tell us about yourself
Meera Subramanian, an award-winning journalist, newly published author, and Metcalf Institute alumna, has been passionate about the environment since the age of 19, when she spent four months aboard a cruise ship navigating the globe through the Semester at Sea program. She witnessed a world both infinite in experience and very finite in natural resources. The voyage helped set Subramanian on her career path.
“It was just an amazing eye opener,” said Subramanian of her sophomore year visiting 10 different countries. “I remember seeing people in eastern Asia fishing for the tiniest fish because overfishing depleted large fish populations.”
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Please tell us how you ended up in such an offbeat, unconventional and interesting career?
You have to be curious to do this job! You need the trait for both the science part and the journalist part. I always had an interest in the natural world, but pursued the humanities in college and then went to work with environmental non-profits throughout my twenties. That’s where I started to become scientifically literate — by working on the land, growing my own food, learning Latin botanical names and soil science and forest ecology. In my early thirties, I carried that interest into journalism, somehow getting into NYU’s graduate journalism program
What did you study?
Meera did her BA (Anthropology) from University of Washington and Masters (Journalism) from NYU.
Please describe your career path?
She began her career writing stories about environmental issues for nonprofits before her desire to dig deeper led her to pursue a graduate degree in journalism from New York University. In an effort to strengthen her knowledge of science, Subramanian attended Metcalf’s Annual Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists in 2012 and a Metcalf Climate Change and the News Seminar focusing on climate change adaptation in St. Louis in 2015.
“Just trying to make stories accessible to a general readership can be really challenging,” said Subramanian. “The better I understand the science, the easier it is for me to figure out how to write about complex issues in a way that people can understand.”
Tell us about your work.
Subramanian’s work as a freelance journalist has appeared in The New York Times, Nature, The Wall Street Journal, Smithsonian Magazine and other national and international publications.
A Fulbright-Nehru Senior Research Fellowship helped Subramanian take her writing to a new level when she spent five months conducting research about ordinary people in India as the country sought to bring itself back from environmental disaster.
“It was amazing because I have such a strong connection to India,” said Subramanian of her father’s ancestral homeland. “The part that I loved was how much it brought together so many threads of things I’ve been working on since I was 19 years old.
She returned from India brimming with ideas, just in time to be snowed in during one of the coldest New England winters on record. “It was really long days of isolation, and I just wrote, digesting all the information and weaving it together with academic research to balance out the anecdotal stories.”
What are the skills needed to be a Science Journalist?
While I dig deep into the science of stories — whether understanding how chill hours affect peach production or the impact of black carbon on human health or the atmosphere — I try to be a really good listener when I go out in the field and talk with people, to understand not only what they believe but why they believe it. I listen to their stories, and then use the scientific knowledge I’ve learned combined with the strong narrative gathered while reporting to share those stories.
How difficult is it to translate scientific research into an article that’s accessible by the greater number? And why is it so important?
I don’t think it has to be that hard. Over-research any topic, so your own knowledge is solid, and whenever you have questions, find the people who can help you answer them. This is the great thing about being a journalist — you can call up anyone and ask to speak with them! Read the peer-reviewed literature, track down the authors and the people who disagree with them, and always finish every interview by asking who else you should be talking to. Then, corner your friends, your family, and your seven-year-old niece, and see if you can explain what you’re working on. Write to make a scientist not squirm and an average person sit still, pause over their coffee, and keep reading.