A career worth doing, a life worth living
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By Nadia El-Awady
What does it mean to be a science journalist?
I get asked that a lot, especially by science graduates looking for a career change.
Science journalism is not an easy field to get into. It’s not enough to have a degree in science, as you also need to have a clear understanding of journalism. A good journalist can write about almost anything. They have the tools and skills that are needed to ask the right questions and formulate a strong and coherent news story. Scientists have a strong understanding of the foundations of science and their specialisations, but it takes a significant amount of skill to know how to communicate a scientific news story to a lay audience.
After I finished my degree in medicine in Egypt and the subsequent year of internship, I devoted my full attention to my growing family for many years; I have four children. But eventually I decided it was time to look for work.
I began my career in science journalism in 2000 when a friend said she was working in a new media organization and they needed someone with a strong science background and excellent English language skills. I thought: why not give it a go? I developed my skills as a science journalist by working full-time in that media organization for many years. I learned by doing. I also decided to arm myself with a strong theoretical background in journalism and got a master’s degree in journalism and mass communication.
I discovered through my work that I have a very strong passion for covering news stories in the media. I loved every aspect of the work so much that I helped found the Arab Science Journalists Association (ASJA) with colleagues. I believe that work played a role in growing the field of science journalism in the Arab world. I was ASJA’s first president, from 2006 to 2008, and later, from 2009 to 2011, I was president of the World Federation of Science Journalists. During those two years, I was responsible for co-organizing the World Conference of Science Journalists held in Doha, Qatar in 2011. I actually met Maggie Pokar, CEO and co-founder of Asia Research News, at a World Conference of Science Journalists. It was so long ago now that I can’t recall which one!
Since the very beginnings of my career, I also freelanced as a science journalist and writer with many organizations all over the world. The network that I built over the first 13 years of my career is really the only reason that I have a job now. In 2013, I moved from Egypt to the north of England due to family reasons. I couldn’t find any jobs for science journalists in Leeds, where I live. And back then, work from home wasn’t an option for full-time employment with media organizations. I was getting frustrated with the job search and happened to voice my frustration on my blog. Maggie read my post and got in touch. She was wondering if I would be interested in writing for Asia Research News. I honestly think that Maggie saved my career at a time I was feeling significant career frustration. I will always be indebted to her.
And that is how I started turning myself into a business. I set myself up as a self-employed science writer and editor in the UK once I started writing for Asia Research News. After settling into work with Maggie for a while, I also began getting work from Nature. They have offices all over the world and provide writing services for clients. I have been one of their freelance writers for many years now. I was eventually also offered the opportunity to be the editor of Nature Middle East, a Nature-affiliated media platform that covers scientific research with authors based in the Arab region. Much more recently I also started working as editor of Univadis.com, a Medscape-affiliated website that provides the most recent medical news to healthcare professionals.
In addition to all that, I have also taught journalism at undergraduate university level, was director of communication at a large science institution in Egypt, and got involved in journalism training programs in Egypt, the Arab world and Africa for many years.
I have been so fortunate in my career, somehow always finding myself in the right place at the right time. I think a lot of that has to do with my natural skills at networking. But so much of it is also luck.
My career has also opened up so many other doors for me. While covering environmental stories over the years, I found myself going off the beaten track and discovering a love of nature. This made me realize that I wanted to see more and more of nature, but to do that properly, the way I wanted to, I had to get fit. That’s what got me into sport. I eventually built up my fitness so that I could go hiking, climb mountains, cycle alone across Europe, swim in open water, walk across countries, do triathlons, and I even managed to finish an Ironman!
Science journalism is such an amazing career. I hope you can “hear” the passion I have for it. But it’s not an easy one. And it’s not something you just stumble into. It takes years of learning and dedication to become good at it. It’s a cut-throat field with somewhat limited work opportunities. You have to be really good at it to make a living from it.
I often get asked where one starts if they want to become a science journalist. I think the best place to start is to study journalism. Take some courses, get a degree. You need to be a good journalist if you want to be a science journalist. Then you need to write. Write, write, write. Build up a portfolio of articles you have written. Editors will want to see your work before asking you to write for them. It takes a lot of hard work and learning to be good at this job. But for those of us who have a passion for it, it’s absolutely worth it!
From the Asia Research News team
Nadia El-Awady, Editor and senior science writer at Asia Research News
Nadia is a science journalist with 23 years of experience. After studying medicine, she went on to earn a master's degree in journalism. She is a past president of the World Federation of Science Journalists and the Arab Science Journalists Association. She has spent most of her career writing about science developments in the Middle East, and more recently about research from institutions all over Asia. She is also now involved in covering medical news for healthcare professionals in Europe. When she is not writing at lightning-fast speeds, she is hiking, diving and triathloning. She is the proud mother of four grown children.