- Environmental journalist and Mongabay freelance contributor Ignacio Amigo started his career as a scientist.
- After realizing that he was reading science features and studies outside his area of expertise, he realized that he really wanted to be a reporter.
- This post is insider content, which is available to paying subscribers.
When I was growing up, I always thought I would become a writer. I loved reading and writing, and excelled at both from a young age. But when I was 15, I had problems at school with a literature teacher. He was arrogant and pompous, and showed contempt for his students. I failed his class, and that pushed me away from the humanities into science. It’s amazing the influence that a teacher can have on a person’s life at that age.
Two years later, when the time arrived to choose what course I wanted to study in university, I went for biology. As years passed, I became more and more fascinated about the mechanisms that underlie life on the planet. I kept writing some things to myself, but I put the idea of becoming a writer on hold.
Once I was on the science track, it was easy to just keep going. I graduated, did a doctorate in molecular biology and later moved to Brazil for a post-doc. By the time I realized it, I had spent 15 years of my life on campus.
Quitting the bench
Doing science can be rewarding. When you manage to set up an experiment that wasn’t working or when results confirm a hunch, you feel at the top of the world. And going to meetings where you share your results and learn what other people are doing is also very exciting. I always considered it a great privilege having a job where one of your main duties is to constantly learn new, interesting things.
But science also has a dark side. More often than scientists would like to admit, experimental work can be tedious and frustrating. A lot of experiments fail for no apparent reason. Even worse: sometimes things work the first time you try them, but never again. And you end up wasting weeks or months trying to reproduce that first experiment. You need a thick skin to survive in the business.
All of that weighed in my decision of quitting the bench, but there was something else. My curiosity was bigger than my research area. Scientists work on very specific topics. And unless you are a group leader, with three or four people working on different but related projects, you rarely have the opportunity to see the big picture. Also, it is not easy to move between fields.
Once you become an expert on something, your scientific career depends on capitalizing on that expertise to make your way to the top.
One day, I realized I was spending an increasing amount of time reading science features and studies outside my area of expertise than working on my own research. I was still fascinated about science, but had lost enthusiasm about doing it myself.
I started writing about science for the general public whenever I had a chance. I published a few stories and got hooked on the whole writing process: finding a story, crafting it, getting back the edits, see how it grows from an idea into an elaborated piece. I got very good feedback from my first stories, and that encouraged me to continue. When my post-doc fellowship was about to end, I decided I would give writing a try. I had very limited experience and didn’t know anyone in the business, but I thought it was worth the shot.
I started pitching and writing. I read a lot about journalism to learn the best practices and avoid common mistakes. At first I only wrote about science, but eventually expanded into other areas. Somewhere along the way I fell in love with environmental reporting, a love that lives to this day.
I also analyzed a lot of good stories to identify what made them so great. The Open Notebook and The Science Writer’s Handbook helped me a lot. I later worked in a newsroom and eventually specialized in science journalism, but I can say that most of what I know about journalism I learned it doing the job — with the invaluable help of my editors.
Doing what I always wanted to do
When you approach journalism from science you notice a lot of similarities. In both fields you need to be rigorous, ask good questions and get all the facts right.
As a writer, I keep doing many of the things that I did as a scientist. I still write in a way that every statement in the text can be traced back to a piece of solid evidence, for example. And studying and learning new things is still a central part of my daily routine. So I feel like I kept the best parts of the job.
But there are some differences too. One of the things that I enjoy most about being a writer over being a scientist is having the prerogative to ask all the dumb questions. When you are a scientist, experts are still, in a way, your colleagues. And you want them to respect you, or at least you don’t want them to think you are an idiot. It makes sense, because those experts may eventually review your manuscript for publication, evaluate one of your projects for funding, or offer a job position you’re interested in.
Instead, as a writer I feel I am not supposed to know anything about a topic when I talk to a source. If I don’t understand something, I just ask it again. I don’t need to look smart, I need to understand what they are saying and write a solid piece; that’s all that matters. My responsibility is to my editors and my readers, not my sources.
A lot of people ask me if I miss the bench. And while I wouldn’t mind doing an experiment now and then, I feel like I am where I always wanted to be since I was a child. It just took me longer than I expected.
Banner image: Journalist Ignacio Amigo on his way to Ilha Anchieta to report a story for Mongabay. Image courtesy Ignacio Amigo.
Ignacio Amigo is a freelance journalist based in São Paulo, Brazil. You can find him on Twitter at @IgnacioAmigoH.
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