Behind the Byline • APOORVA MANDAVILLI
Behind some of The Times’s vital journalism on the coronavirus is a reporter who speaks seven languages, holds a master’s degree in biochemistry and, OK, has a weakness for “Bridgerton.”
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As a science reporter for The New York Times, Apoorva Mandavilli knows the world of research, labs and technical papers. It’s helpful that she’s trained in science, with a master’s degree in biochemistry. She brings that knowledge to her current beat: Covid-19, including the immune response to the coronavirus and the variants that have emerged.
Here, she talks about when she realized she didn’t want to be a research scientist, what it’s like to send her own kids back to school and her favorite lowbrow television.
How did you start working as a science reporter?
I went to graduate school for biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin, at Madison. I was there for four years, and I would have gotten a Ph.D. if I’d stayed one more year. But I realized that being a lab scientist was just a little too slow, a little too specific and a little too antisocial for me. I went to journalism school at N.Y.U.’s science journalism program, and I’ve been a reporter ever since. My mom is a writer. She’s a poet and a short-story writer, and I’ve been around literature my whole life. So my job has married two very different parts of my brain — science and writing.
How do you think your science training influences your work?
It’s very helpful in a lot of ways. I’m not writing about biochemistry, so the exact subject matter doesn’t help, but I understand the basics of biology. Much of my career, I’ve actually written for scientists, who can be exacting readers. They want things to be clear, but they never want things dumbed down. That has pushed me to always be accurate.
I also think it is helpful to understand the business of science, like how universities operate and how the tenure system works and why scientists are so desperate to publish. All those things help anchor my understanding of where researchers are coming from and what sort of critical lens to have when looking at a paper.
Where do your story ideas come from?
Every day, I look at all of the research papers and preprints — studies that are released before undergoing the standard peer review process — that have to do with Covid. I scan the long list. Often, I see trends, something that’s emerging that more people are talking about, either on social media or because these papers are coming out.
Sometimes, an idea can come from a sentence in somebody else’s article. Sometimes, it can come from reading anything that stirs a question in my mind. For example, my article about whether you still need to wear a mask after you’re vaccinated came about because I wondered that in early December, a few weeks before it became the national obsession.
What is the biggest challenge in doing the job?
I never have enough time. I have worked mostly as an editor, assigning stories to reporters, so I find it easy to spot stories that I want to write. I’m trying to write as many of them as I can.
You previously worked on a website that focused on the autism spectrum. How did that inform your work?
That was a site that was intended for scientists, but it was read by a lot of nonscientists as well. I think that’s one of the places where I learned to hone this fine balance of being technically accurate and being clear and simple at the same time. Also, I learned the skill of identifying stories and seeing trends. Autism is a pretty small niche, and we had to be able to spot small and interesting things and be able to develop them into full stories. So I’ve had a lot of practice doing that.
You frequently write about the science around the decision to send kids back to school. How are you navigating that in your own life?
I have two kids. My son is in middle school, and my daughter is 8. My kids are in school two days a week. Now they do this hybrid schedule, but I know how much they miss being in school full time. I know how much they miss the company of their friends, and I worry for their physical safety, and I worry for their mental health. I understand the parents all over the world who are desperate to have their kids in school.
How do you disconnect when your beat is Covid?
When I get away from the computer, my kids are right there, demanding my attention, wanting to be read to, fighting, yelling, being annoying and loving. They take up a lot of time. I also watch TV. I am extremely forgiving of my lowbrow tastes. I used to read a lot, and I have not been reading novels at all, which is kind of sad, but I just don’t have the attention span right now. I do a lot of crosswords, and I’m addicted to The Times’s Spelling Bee game.
What is your favorite lowbrow television?
Well, I really enjoyed “Bridgerton.” There was a period of time last spring when I even watched “The O.C.” for a couple of months.
What would readers be surprised to learn about you?
Maybe that I speak multiple languages — I’m fluent in four Indian languages, plus English, and can speak conversational French and Japanese. I grew up in India until I was 17, so English is not my first language.
If you were to choose another job, not in journalism, what would it be?
Somebody asked this question on Twitter, and I said I would still be a journalist. I can’t imagine not being one, because I have so many questions about how things work. I can’t imagine being able to ask those questions, and holding governments and institutions accountable, in any other role.
What keeps you coming back to the job?
I’ve never stopped learning. I’ve learned so much this year. Covering Covid, I’ve had to learn viral evolution and deep immunology and epidemiology. It’s just endlessly interesting.
The Times has reported on the challenges faced by working moms during the pandemic. How have you managed child care when you’re reporting as much as you are?
I have an extremely supportive husband. He is a squash pro, so he’s not working at the moment. He has taken over the caregiver roles quite a bit in our house. There are some things, of course, for which the kids still want me, but he does a lot. He takes care of all of the food, for example, which is a huge help.