Ready, Set, MIT

This post is, in a sense, seven months late. Were I more transparent and possessed better writing habits, I would have written in January about the process of applying for journalism fellowships. That would have followed in March and April with posts about interviewing in Ann Arbor, Cambridge, and via Skype for said fellowships. And this space certainly would have featured a post on my birthday in May about receiving one of them (much to my shock and delight).

Of course, those posts remained locked in my head and not unleashed on this site. Likewise the never-written posts in May, June, and July that would have described the thrill and stress of finding a place to live, packing up a house, and moving a family (with dog) to a new city and a new life.

But, as the saying doesn’t quite go, what’s not done is done. So let’s begin now and I’ll work the past into the future. Agreed?

It starts

This past week was my first as a Knight Science Journalism fellow at MIT. I and nine other journalists are spending 10 months in Cambridge, Mass., where we will take classes, join seminars, and journey to local research centers. It’s all part of a program that looks to help journalists better operate at the intersection of science, technology and human culture.

Ever since the list of 10 fellows was announced in early May, I’ve been eager to get to know my fellow travelers on this epic journey. They represent a diverse array of journalists. Of the 10 of us, four are from outside the U.S. Several are known for their books, while others have had successful freelance careers or are affiliated with top-notch science publications. All (except me) have exceptional credentials as science writers. I know many people suffer from imposter syndrome, but being listed among this group turned mine to 11. I was excited — and nervous — to meet them all.

And so on Monday, Aug. 14, at 4:30 p.m., we came from Texas, Vermont, London, New York, Colorado, and Arlington, Virginia to a spacious office suite on the 6th floor of building E19 on MIT’s campus. The staff of the KSJ program, the staff of the program’s incredible online science magazine, Undark, 9 of the 10 fellows (one wouldn’t arrive from abroad for another day — thanks, State Dept.) and a handful of family members finally got a chance to say hello in person. By the end of the night, my nerves had eased — perhaps helped by the free wine and soft cheese — but my imposter syndrome had broken the meter as the needle searched for 12. As the other fellows spoke brilliantly about their interest in bioengineered genetics, researching the history of science-related conspiracy theories, or their work reporting on pharmaceuticals, Mark Twain’s voice echoed in my head: “It’s better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than open it and remove all doubt.” Shhh.

On Tuesday, orientation began in earnest. We introduced ourselves officially and started to learn important details about the program. “Tuesday and Thursday seminars (DO NOT MISS)” I wrote in my notebook and underlined twice. “Send speaker suggestions” I jotted down. “MIT has tech discounts!!” I wrote as if visiting the MIT online Apple Store was somehow going to save me money.

Seth Mnookin, the director of MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing spoke to us about his program, students and books. I found myself thinking, “wow, I’d love to be in his program!” only to remember that his students have to pay to be at MIT while MIT is paying me to be here. It’s still hard to believe.

On Wednesday we submitted ourselves to a photographer for head shots (Only one person needed two rounds to get an acceptable shot. I don’t want to embarrass that person, so I’ll just use his initials: JH.) followed by lunch with former fellows.

The former fellow foursome came to impart their advice. Don’t worry, they said. You can’t do everything. You will be overwhelmed. The time will fly by. Accept FOMO. Just accept it.

They rattled off the names of brilliant professors. Susan Solomon. Richard Wrangham. Daniel Lieberman. Kevin Eggan. Sophia Roosth. Sara Seager. They advised diving into shopping week — the first week of classes when you can dip in and out of classrooms to find the topic and professor to light your spark. They said to do whatever you wanted (but don’t miss the seminars). They said you can’t do everything you wanted. My mind reeled at the possibilities and the decisions. So many classes. So many opportunities. Mind blown.

Then it was time for a tour of campus. More on that next time.

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