Please tell us about yourself

Smitha Mundasad initially trained and worked as a doctor before joining the Masters in science journalism course at City University, UK. Since then, she has received a number of awards, including the Society for Neuroscience Student Journalism Student Award in 2010. She has been published in New Scientist and Independent on Sunday amongst others. She currently works in radio at BBC Radio 4 and World Service Science Unit where she does research and reporting for various science programmes.

The former paediatrician Smitha Mundasad admits that friends sometimes think she’s mad to have made the transition from medicine to broadcasting. So far she has no regrets:

In spite of her busy schedule, Smitha readily agreed to answer some questions about her budding career in science journalism.

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Tell us about your initial career path

As far back as I can remember my head was buried in a book, gobbling up tales of new worlds without pause – or I was watching the news wide-eyed as Huw Edwards introduced lives and places that were new to me. I always knew I wanted to be a journalist.

But, coming from a tribe of doctors, another universe tugged at me steadily. Mealtimes and most times were spent chatting about patients, intricate operations and saving lives. From a very early age I had a keen fascination with the mechanics of the human body and a desire to know how to fix it. One of the first things I learned to draw was an (almost) anatomically correct cross-section of the eye. My primary school teachers didn’t recognise it, but my dad was very proud.

Deciding between the two paths was very difficult. But after endless deliberation I took my parents’ well-founded and unyielding advice about the indescribable process of being a doctor and helping people.

Having qualified and worked both in the UK and abroad I realised my parents were right. There is absolutely nothing else like medicine, and I really enjoyed it. I was lucky enough to secure a seven-year contract working as a paediatrician in London.

When I stumbled across the BBC Journalism Trainee Scheme I had to give it a go. It was incredible to be taught tricks of the trade by people I had until then only met in 2D.

And I’ve been at the BBC ever since. I have had the chance to work in lots of different parts of the organisation – from writing for the BBC News website to reporting on World Service radio programmes, and even coming up with an idea for the BBC Two children’s science series Curious Cat.

I now work with the health and science newsgathering team as a health reporter and video journalist. This involves finding new stories and reporting on health in the satisfyingly wide sense of the word – for radio, television and online. I am lucky enough to have brought both my worlds together.

My medical degree and the time spent navigating the maze of the NHS and other global health systems has definitely helped me day to day. After years of learning about them at university I am no stranger to critiquing medical research papers, and having heard medical jargon all my life I am somewhat practiced at decoding it. Though it is nice to no longer have to do this at the dinner table.  And of course I have a huge wealth of contacts, friends and teachers I can call on, and frequently do.

But most of all I remember the questions patients and relatives ask in accident and emergency, intensive care or when their children are admitted to the ward. Some about why illnesses befall us; some about why the health system is sometimes wonderful and sometimes fails us. And I hope these experiences help drive me to ask the right questions at work. 

It was a scary transition though. Leaving behind a world I knew quite well, and a satisfying job with that rare thing called security, was not easy. I still have people asking me if I am mad for making this choice.

At the moment journalism certainly looks like a difficult field to get into without previous experience to draw on. It was definitely a smoother transition for me knowing I have another career I love and a journalistic specialism I am very passionate about.

Only time will tell whether the buzz of the broadcasting bubble will one day burst and leave me wishing I was still travelling the world with stethoscope in hand. But one thing is for sure: I’m truly glad I am trying my hand at it and I haven’t looked back.

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and exciting career?

But I always wondered if in some way I’d taken the easier route for me. I’m at risk of being misinterpreted here – the skills needed, the harsh realities of many of the lives of the people you meet, the sacrifices made and the emotions invested and involved in medicine can make it a very difficult job at the best of times. But I knew I’d taken the road more familiar and less scary to me at the age of 18. And I was missing the way the world feels so vast when surrounded by news. I wondered what could be.

I don’t actually remember sitting down and thinking I’d like to write about science today but writing has always been  one of my favourite activities. I’ve always been fascinated by words and how they can suddenly collide to create even more beautiful things.

Science to me is all about being a little kid again, staring with open-mouthed- awe at the world, and letting all those spontaneous Ws—why? whoa!.  etc. I’ve always enjoyed wandering about how the world works, so bringing these things together seemed like a good idea!

If you want the short answer though (!) the first time I actually recall writing something specifically science based was while I was as at school, trying to combine science and arts A Levels. For one English assignment I remember attempting to write poetically about carbon..  Luckily that poem has not survived!

You actually qualified as a doctor before jumping into science journalism. What motivated you to make the jump?

I think for anyone who knows me, it was never really a jump. I’ve always wanted to be a journalist as well as loving medicine—so I had to find some way of making both happen.   I  get very excited to find out about how the body works and all those questions that are still unanswered about what it is to be human, what this intangible thing we call health actually is.  I’ve subjected enough friends to overly enthusiastic explanations about different offerings of the gastrointestinal tract  and various tropical infections! I imagine they are quite glad I can finally put my tendency to to share this information to possibly  better use!

How does your training as a doctor affect your work as a science communicator?

My training as a doctor, I think, has helped me to absorb new information quickly and to always question the evidence for what I’m doing, reading, writing or saying.

I don’t think you can be a particularly  good doctor if your patient goes home not really understanding what’s gone on and why they are feeling the pain etc.  My experiences on the wards have definitely highlighted how important it is to communicate with accuracy and integrity and to make sure the person does not leave until their questions are answered to the best of your ability.   Those moments are  definitely at the back of my mind when I’m writing about the latest health news—what does that person waiting in that crowded emergency department actually want to know?

Being on the other side now, having to ring up scientists and ask for further explanations about their papers etc,  I can completely understand how bizarre scientific terms may seem if you don’t work in that particular field.

Working at the BBC I’ve been lucky to see how some of the best journalists communicate and I’ve most definitely learnt a lot in the last year or so!

Doctors save lives, which obviously is important. Science writers, on the other hand, communicate science. How important do you think that is?

I think that is a really difficult question. I think the world would be a very strange place indeed if there was some sort of hierarchy of importance of different jobs. Clearly they are all important in some respect – science communication, I think, for several different reasons.

The sharing of new discoveries that are being unearthed in labs across the world is really important—everyone, I believe, has a right to know about the work scientists are doing. The work of science is one of the key things that makes each century different to the last and hopefully also makes lives easier for some people – new technology, new medication etc. I think encouraging people to see science in the popular press keeps people aware of this, can help to fund science further and I hope enthuse people to try it out for themselves.

You are currently working in radio with the BBC. From your experience, how different is it to communicate science on the air rather than by way of words? What are the distinct benefits of communicating science on the radio?

The way you craft a piece is quite different when working with the written word. You can link to further sources of explanation, or other recent developments and add in illustrations to help ensure clarity. Radio is a really powerful tool for science communication too—I love the way you can give a sense of the place the research is coming from by including the buzz of the machines in the background or the clinking of cups in the busy cafe that that particular piece of research was first thought about.  I like the fact that lots of different voices can be heard in one piece—and you can often hear about research straight from the mouth of the person who conceived it and can really capture their enthusiasm and motivation.  What I like about the radio stations I’m currently working with is that you can devote a fair amount of time to each story, allowing there to be a depth in the discussion that is sometimes not possible in print.

Which story of yours (regardless of whether it was for radio, print or web) is your favourite and why?

At the moment the piece of work I’m most excited about is a science documentary series for 5-8 year olds, Curious Cat, that goes out on BBC 2.  A few of my friends, Hannah King and Ed Cave and I were eating pizza trying to think of new children’s science TV when we came up with the idea of starting with something familiar such as a woolly scarf for example, and taking two intrepid young investigators right back to the sheep it was made from. It was a really fun series to work on – it was great to capture the natural inquisitiveness of our young investigators and a real challenge to distill the glass making process, for example, into a format that is entertaining and informative for little viewers.

How do you go about finding potential stories to report? Burst of inspiration? Casual web surfing? Active research?

Increasingly, as I talk to researchers about their most recent publications, they tell me more about other experiments they are working on or other areas of science that are concerning them.. I quite like wandering around research labs too – you stumble across the most exciting things! Sometimes I hear questions on the bus or in a hospital waiting room and realise that there could be a gem of a story waiting to be uncovered.

What are your plans for the future?

Finally a short answer for you! I’d like to carry on reporting health and science news. Fingers crossed!