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9 October 2014updated 12 Oct 2023 10:41am

The 2014 Wellcome Trust Scholars at the New Statesman

The first two winners of the Wellcome Trust Scholarship at the NS write about their experiences on the placement.

By New Statesman

Ajit Niranjan

This summer I worked as a science writer for the New Statesman, a weekly British magazine that is famous for its progressive take on politics, arts and current affairs. I had a Wellcome Trust scholarship that enabled me to complete an internship programme for aspiring science writers at the magazine.

In an attempt to combat the lack of diversity in science journalism, the placement is only open to students and graduates from ethnic minorities. I know this doesn’t sit well with many people – I certainly wrestled with the idea of accepting any form of positive discrimination – but if you’re an eligible candidate I’d strongly urge you to apply. Schemes like this are essential to levelling the playing field.

I joined the online team at the start of June and was thrown straight into the deep end, writing four articles in my first week and conducting phone interviews with researchers in the UK and abroad. Essentially, I was given the same level of independence as the rest of the staff. My day-to-day role was finding interesting developments from press releases or the news, find a ‘science-y’ angle (there usually is one) and write a blog post that a school child would be able to understand.

It’s a simple formula that works pretty well. Every article was edited before going up online and so I got feedback on my writing on a daily basis.

During the two-month placement I learned a great deal – not just about writing and journalism, but also about areas of science I’d never studied before. The scope is huge. Topics that fell under my remit as a science writer ranged from opinion pieces on drugs policy to reporting on the latest gadgets in the tech world – which even saw me trying Google Glass when it first launched in the UK.

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Alongside the regular short blog posts, I did a couple of longer pieces including a 3,000-word essay on China’s growing environmental issues. Having the New Statesman’s name behind me meant I could confidently approach important figures for interviews, including CEOs of tech companies and even my local MP (and scientist) Julian Huppert.

Outside of the regular writing, New Statesman kept me busy. I attended all the editorial meetings, spoke on the weekly podcast about science and technology, and joined the political editor on a trip to Westminster for Prime Minister’s Questions.

Best of all, I was allowed to pitch ideas for publication in the printed magazine’s Observations section. The work was always varied and the perks – including free tickets to New Statesman events including a Laurie Penny/Mary Beard debate and the incredible Latitude festival – just added to the excitement of working in London.

The staff at New Statesman invested time in training the interns up. Helen Lewis, the deputy editor, set us a challenge popular in journalism schools, to give us some reporting practice – to take the Tube out to a nearby station and cover a local story on the ground in a single afternoon. A daunting task, but well worth it for the feedback we received.

Mainstream media, more so than any other profession, really suffers from its artificially homogeneous make-up and ethnicity is just one area that is disproportionately represented in what is overwhelmingly an old boys’ club. The Wellcome Trust Scholarship provides an imperfect solution to a very serious problem of a lack of diversity in journalism. It’s a tricky issue for a number of reasons but I strongly recommend checking out this piece by ex-New Statesman writer Rafael Behr for a bit of background.

There’s a lot you can get out of the placement if you choose to apply, and the application process itself is pretty straightforward – simply write an 800-word blog post on a recent scientific development. My advice is to choose a topic you’re genuinely interested in.

Working at the New Statesman this summer was hugely educational and I’m now very set on pursuing a career in journalism. If you’re thinking of applying in future I’d be happy to answer your questions on Twitter.

 

Fiona Rutherford

Interning as a science writer for the New Statesman magazine was an overwhelmingly positive experience. Over the course of eight weeks, I worked alongside the web and magazine team, and was supervised by Ian Steadman, the staff science writer.

Each day, I was asked to come up with at least three ideas for what I’d like to write about. I was shown different ways of searching for interesting stories using a range of social media sites, news sites and blogs. Being able to select the topics myself was something I particularly enjoyed about this placement. Having the freedom to choose meant that my articles reflected my scientific interests and curiosities.

At times I was asked to write about subjects that I wasn’t so familiar with, like space exploration and paleontology – this was probably the most challenging aspect of the internship. Though, my supervisor was always very supportive. By encouraging me to step out of my comfort zone – through writing about topics on which I had only a basic knowledge of – it definitely helped me to improve my science writing skills and gave me a real taste of what science journalism is like.

At times I was even approached on social media to write articles. On one occasion a few open access advocates contacted me via Twitter, to ask whether I could write an article concerning the launch of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS) new journal, Science Advances. They believed that the journal failed to fully embrace open access principles, and therefore would stifle the sharing of scientific knowledge. This was clearly an important issue, and the New Statesman was more than happy for me to write about it. Once the article was published, it received a lot of attention on social media; my article was even picked up by popular scientists such as Ed Yong and Daniel MacArthur – something I was very excited about at the time, and probably one of the highlights of the placement.

From the very first day, I was really impressed with how much I was treated like a member of staff, and not an intern. I was always invited to staff meetings, asked to participate in the weekly podcasts, given the space to get on with my work, and never felt under too much pressure or stress to meet deadlines. I was never bored, or left with no work to get on with – there was always something interesting to do, and the eight weeks went by extremely quickly.

My supervisor showed me how to construct a science article, explaining the key components, and the style it should be written in. The feedback and editing for all my articles was superb, I was always left with fair and constructive comments. Though, alongside writing articles, I also would’ve liked to learn what goes on behind the scenes of a magazine – the editorial and production process, for example. Since I previously had no experience or knowledge in journalism, it would’ve also been useful to learn how to pitch articles to other media platforms, and perhaps have the chance to practice pitching while I was there. Additionally, I would have liked to learn more about how science influences politics, by visiting parliament, and learning about science-based legislation.

My task of writing a long feature article was an excellent way of getting me to think creatively and practice my interviewing skills. The task was something that I found challenging yet enjoyable, as it gave me the chance to interview a range of interesting scientists and researchers.

During my time at the New Statesman, I wasn’t constricted to writing about science – another aspect of the placement I was particularly pleased about. Helen Lewis, the deputy editor, gave me the opportunity to write about a wide range of topics, including politics, culture and even the Scottish referendum –I felt that this really helped to build my overall confidence in writing. I was even asked to interview BP’s chief scientist, Dr Angela Strank, in light of a new report on the lack of women in engineering – this was very exciting, and a real confidence boost.

Britain’s media is in desperate need of more brilliant placements like this. I believe it’s always important to give all types of minority groups the opportunity to have their voices heard on large media platforms – this is especially crucial for science communication. A researcher I interviewed for one of my articles told me, “we’re in an age when all people need to be scientifically literate”. For me, this stresses the importance of why schemes like this are vital. People from all walks of life, with a wide range of perspectives, interests and opinions, need to be reflected in science communication – just as politics should be diverse. There are many important scientific matters that might not be heard or acknowledged because they impact minority groups in society, which do not have access to large media platforms. However, placements such as this one can help to address the problem. 

Although I’ve always loved writing and have a background in neuroscience and psychology, I don’t think I would have considered science writing as a viable career path if it wasn’t for this placement. On my first day, I had no experience as a journalist, and so I wasn’t sure what to expect. However, eight weeks later, I definitely feel that this internship has given me the experience and knowledge that I needed to make a decision as to whether a career in science communication is for me.

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