Healthy Journalism

Friday, June 20, 2014

A shout out to my mentors

The Physical World: Discovered by a wall of men, memorialized
 in the foyer at MIT's Building 6.  Surrounded by women during
Solutions Summit 2014: Women in Science Writing.
Ever since last weekend’s Solutions Summit 2014: Women in Science Writing conference, I’ve been thinking about people who gave me a boost during the decades I spent covering science, health and medicine.

“Anyone who has gotten to a certain level of success has been helped multiple times formally or informally,” panelist Laura Helmuth said during a plenary session on mentoring. Helmuth is the science and health editor of Slate magazine and serves on the board of the National Association of Science Writers, which paid for the women in science writing conference at MIT.

Although the idea of veterans helping less established journalists was universally hailed as a good thing, two caveats surfaced again and again: Participants were urged to seek female mentors (to reduce sexual complications) and advised not to become friends with their mentors (unclear to me why).

Fortunately, nobody gave me this advice when I was a grasshopper.

As a result, I went out to dinner with Ben Patrusky decades ago, on break from a giant medical meeting in Miami, and learned that far from being alone and uniquely incompetent, I was typical. Every science writer worries about getting the facts wrong, Ben told me, and we all get anxious when we start a new story. Every time.

Welcome to science writing: a profession filled with people who oscillate between hubris and imposter syndrome.

Ben was the first of several men who’ve been wonderful mentors, sponsors and – wait for it – friends during my working life. DonGibbons, Victor McElheny, H. R. Shepherd and Dr. William Ira Bennett are some of the others. (A sponsor, I learned at the conference, is a highly placed person in your organization who helps you get a promotion. As opposed to a mentor, who offers mostly advice.)

Some of my mentors are older than me, some younger. Summit speakers emphasized that age is irrelevant and what matters is listening, then knowing what to say and when.

My first and most important mentor was a woman. Willa Shovar, my ninth-grade homeroom teacher, took an interest in me because I was 13 years old and reading a battered paperback copy of The Tin Drum.  As soon as I graduated from high school, she announced that I had to stop calling her “Mrs. Shovar,” and that we could now become friends. She gave me the chutzpa to become a writer.

Fast forward to the AIDS catastrophe, when I met Ann Giudici Fettner in the pressroom at the first International Conference on AIDS. Fearless and profane, she wrote smuggled vials of blood from Africa to U.S. labs and wrote scientifically brilliant coverage for the Village Voice and The New York Native. Much later, she emboldened me to write my own book about the search for an HIV vaccine.  

A few years after Ann and I met, my AIDS reporting helped me win a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at MIT. Once in New England, I began traveling to Bar Harbor, Maine, every July for the mouse and human geneticscourse run by Johns Hopkins and the Jackson Laboratory. There I met BarbaraCulliton and Joanne Rodgers, who told me we were sitting at the smart table.

Not knowing any better, I became friends with most of these folks. Time and distance have taken a toll, as has death. Every one of these people has enriched my career and made my life better.

Good mentors are hard to find. I hope younger women in science writing won’t go through life afraid that every male is a sexual predator.  Some are, most are not.

And I hope up-and-coming women science writers won’t be wary of friendship, which is much less abundant than it appears.

During the conference session on mentoring,  scientist and Wired blogger Gwen Pearson eloquently described a mentor as a door opener, “someone who takes things unknown and secret and reveals them to you.”

Who doesn’t need that?

So do good work, fight back when you’re dissed and take an interest in other people. Open a door whenever you can, and thank people who open one for you.

For excellent summaries of the conference, see Maryn McKenna's Storify and Cris Russell's CJR story

For data about women in science writing presented at the summit, click here.