From micro to macro: How I walked from a lab to a newsroom

When my 12th std mark sheet revealed that I had scored well in Chemistry and Biology, I decided I’d study B.Sc Biochemistry – my 17-year-old brain could only think that much.

I started sending out applications, and I saw another exciting course, ‘microbiology,’ and gave it a try. Microbes seem to love me more, so I graduated in Microbiology from Madras Christian College and did my post-graduation in Marine Sciences from Bharathidasan University.

During my M.Sc, I did a summer internship with the Council of Scientific And Industrial Research–Centre For Cellular And Molecular Biology, Hyderabad. I thoroughly enjoyed my three months in the lab! I distinctly remember calling my parents and saying I was studying a bacteria that came from Antarctica.

Though I messed up every single day – repeating PCRs, letting my DNA run off the gel, failing basic math – I had so much fun. This internship showed me how much I loved being a part of a lab and doing science, spending hours pipetting, looking at colorful cells under the fluorescent microscope. I was sure I would become an award-winning scientist.

As part of my M.Sc, I sailed 35 days onboard Sagar Kanya, one of India’s most prominent research vessels. We collected ocean buoys that were deployed the previous year to gather information about the ocean. After collecting the data from the buoys, we sent them back to the waves. We drew water samples from different ocean depths, studied the ocean floor, and hunted the sky for different constellations at night. I loved the experience and told myself that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. Study the vast and mysterious depths of the ocean.

For my postgraduate dissertation project, I worked at the National Institute of Oceanography, Goa, and studied methanotrophic bacteria that lived near mangroves.

I joined Pondicherry University’s Microbiology department as a project Junior Research Fellow (JRF) to study sponges. I was planning to write the entrance exam to enroll for Ph.D. and steer my life as planned. But my life had surprises in store.

Sometime during this period, a colleague walked into the lab saying, “You are good at storytelling. I am sure you will become an awesome teacher. But I have something more awesome you should do.” She showed me the call to apply for the Science Journalism Workshop organized by IISER, Pune, and British Council. That was the first time I heard the word ‘science journalism.’

Channeling my creative writing skills, I filled the application form and was selected.

The two levels of this workshop taught me everything about science journalism, beginning from reading a scientific paper to presenting it to the general public. The first tricky thing was to let go of jargon. The trainer asked us to know our audience and write accordingly. Write like a reporter, read as an editor, and re-read it as a layman to perfect your pieces.

Following the workshop, we were asked if we would like to take up science journalism internships. I quit my job and started interning at The Hindu, Chennai, for nine months, where I wrote articles every Sunday for the Science page of the newspaper and the website.

Though the sudden transition from lab to newsroom was intimidating, I was fortunate enough to be guided by Dr. R. Prasad, the newspaper’s science editor.

With loads of hard work, determination, and tireless reading of research papers, I was able to earn my first byline
I still have the initial mails I sent to Dr. Prasad.

  • I mail him a ‘Version 1’, he replies with questions.
  • I mail ‘Version 1 edited’, which returns with more edits
  • Finally, ‘Version 5.1 edited’ gets approved.

This is just my story, how I learned. I know many other science writers have taken different paths and come from entirely different areas of expertise.

I was appointed a SubEditor for The Hindu’s website, where I published general news, handled the social media platforms, and produced videos for the Youtube channel. I continued writing for the Science page and occasionally for the Sunday Magazine.

After spending four years at The Hindu, I moved to The Indian Express, Kochi, in July 2021. My work involves handling the science section of the website and curating content for the science Twitter handle. I also write science explainers every Sunday.

Having a scientific background does come in handy. If it is a biology piece, I know the basic scientific concepts, understand the methods, and read research papers better than other journalists.

I never thought I would have hundreds of articles with my byline. My dad still has the newspaper clippings with my name. Every science article I have worked on had excited me as much as it had excited the researcher when he/she carried out the experiments. And I try my best to propel the excitement to my reader.

I have had so many exciting conversations with scientists who tell me about their work and interesting snippets from the lab and why they do what they do. I have visited a few interesting research institutes, traveled to several cities, including an international one as part of my job.

There have also been scientists who ghosted me, gave me rude replies, and just bluntly refused to talk to me. It has all been a learning experience. I am trying out new things every single day.

I am now participating in the ‘Challenge of the Climate Crisis Program’ for journalists and learning how to report on the ongoing climate crisis.

Each day brings new surprises and the goal, for now, is to remain curious, skeptical, and open-minded.

P.S: I sometimes still think about that award-winning scientist and may trade the pen for the pipette in a couple of years or decades.

About author: Aswathi Pacha is a science journalist with The Indian Express. As her Twitter bio points, she was on her way to becoming a scientist, but spacetime warped, making her a science communicator. Aswathi studied B.Sc microbiology and M.Sc Marine Sciences before moving to science journalism. She has over four years of experience with two national newspapers, The Hindu and The Indian Express.

Edited by: Vikramsingh Gujar

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