Grad Life: Dreams of MIT—On Becoming a SciWriter

by Bennett McIntosh, Science Writing '17 on December 14, 2016 · 0 comments

in Grad Life, Student Life

12-14-16_bennettmcintoshgradlife_crop “You’re studying science writing? Is that, like, writing journal articles?”

I’ve gotten used to the question and its variants, though I still wince as I answer “not quite.” MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Journalism, or SciWrite, is less about scientific journals than science journalism—the all-important, oft-neglected task of communicating the facts and stories of science to the general public.

I can’t begrudge the question, though. When I first decided I’d go to MIT, I had no idea what SciWrite was. Or even really what MIT was. In fairness, this was fifth grade, when I had also decided to get rich off inventing something called flexi-steel, buy an NFL team, and retire to Hawai’i at age 40.

Seven years later, when I first applied to MIT, I did at least know where it was. But I still didn’t know about SciWrite, despite learning all I could from an admissions tour and Kevin Spacey’s film 21. My dreams had changed a little too. A high school debate captain and aspiring chemist, I imagined I’d become a rare and important breed—a politician with a science education, or a scientist with political power.

However much my dreams had matured in those seven years, they were unprepared for seven months of rejections. In May 2012, MIT rejected me, (fine, I’d already committed to Princeton). In September, Princeton’s Model UN team rejected me (fair, I’d auditioned opposite the son of India’s UN ambassador). In November, after the ugliness of my first presidential election, I rejected a future electoral politics (if 2012 left me disillusioned, imagine how 2016 feels).

So I found new dreams. As a chemistry major, I found I enjoyed not just chemistry, but the conceptual and mathematical threads connecting all the sciences. Writing for the student newspaper, and then the student science magazine, I discovered that I enjoyed writing to start conversations more than debating to finish them.

It still took me three years to figure out what that all meant—I thought I’d join my chemistry peers in moving straight to a PhD. But in my senior fall, I balked at committing five years to something I wasn’t sure I wanted to do, and began applying to everything from technical jobs to fellowships and master’s degrees. I wasn’t looking for SciWrite, but when I asked journalist and visiting professor Jennifer Kahn what options might be out there for a scientist interested in writing, SciWrite found me.

And this dream, MIT accepted.

Had you asked me in fifth grade, twelfth grade, or even a year ago, where I would be this fall, I could in no way have predicted this. Yet here I am, learning formally the writing craft I enjoyed informally for so many years.

SciWrite isn’t just about journalism. Our alumni write for labs, universities, museums, or work as teachers or researchers. But every graduate is another bridge between science and a world which craves, now more than ever, to understand it.

My newest dream is that, one way or another, I’ll be one of those bridges too.

Grad Life blog posts offer insights from current MIT graduate students twice a month on Slice of MIT. 

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