Pulitzer recipient advises students to follow their passions
By Mehr-Zhara Shah
Lisa Song, reporter at InsideClimateNews, walked up to the stage at the Clinton School, to talk about “The Dilbit Disaster” series she helped write, which won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting. Song was dressed in a cobalt blue shirt with casual grey pants with her hair pulled back neatly. Her voice exuded her calm and simple style. As she stood behind the podium, her head barely reaching above the MacBook in front of her, her demure style gave way to confidence and insightfulness, and a riveting speech on one of the biggest oil spills that most people have never heard of.
“She’s probably the youngest reporter ever to receive a Pulitzer Prize,” an audience member said. In fact, it was only four years after she started her career that she received the prestigious award.
Song received her undergraduate degree in earth sciences with a focus on the environment from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“I was always sort of vaguely interested in it [environmental science],” Song said. “It was either that or chemistry, and after I took organic chemistry and I decided not for me.” During her senior year, she realized she did not want to be a scientist.
“I was a bit impatient with spending eight hours a day in the lab,” she said, “but I knew I really liked to write.” It was then that she decided to get her Master’s degree in science writing from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It was a good way to combine my interests in environmental science and writing,” she said.
Song began her career in 2009 with freelancing and internships. She came across InsideClimateNews, the nonprofit environmental news organization she reports for, in 2010 while she was browsing journalism.jobs.com. InsideClimateNews put out a call for freelancers who wanted to focus on a specific area in climate.
“I wrote them a letter and said, ‘I want to freelance for you, and am particularly interested in water quality issues,’” she said, and within a few months she was hired.
Song started writing three stories a month for them, and in 2011 she became the newest addition to their staff.
InsideClimateNews is a perfect fit for her passion in a sense her dream job. When asked who she would choose to work with if she could work with anyone in the world, she said she could not think of anyone besides her editor. “I just really like working where I am,” she said.
Song admitted that she was a bit nervous when she moved into science writing because after getting a science degree, it seemed like she was running away from science. InsideClimateNews, however, provided the perfect platform for her to do what she really wanted and use science as well. “I am lucky to work for InsideClimateNews because of the science background in me,” she said. “I like to be very meticulous and take my time and double and triple fact check everything and InsideClimate gives me the time to do just that.”
While describing her perfectionist personality, she pointed out that whether or not you are a scientist, you need time to analyze the context properly before you report on a topic anyway. Song did note that it is harder to report scientific events because a lot of people in the public do not understand the scientific research process, and “that means its sexier to report like that, but if it is not true then you can’t do that,” she said. “You have to do it right so that scientists continue to trust you so you can report more stories in the future.”
Her advice to those writers is to “explain why the discovery is important even if it does not cure cancer or send us to the moon,” and she noted that sometimes it is worthwhile to say we are unsure where the topic will lead, but provide interesting questions that arise from it. “Not every scientific discovery deserves a story,” she explained. “It just doesn’t happen this way.”
Perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of Song is her prominence as a female science writer in a STEM field where female are continuously underrepresented.
When asked about the disparity, Song chuckled, saying, “I’m probably not the best person to talk to about this.” That is because her entire college and graduate education have been exceptions. Even in some fields such as physics and electrical engineering, where there are far fewer women represented even at MIT, she “happened to be in a dorm where many of them were females majoring in physics.”
To females who are interested in such fields, Song’s advice is: “you just have to do it; you have to do whatever gets you excited and whatever you are interested in.”
Song’s advice to college students is to “do what you are passionate about and do it well.” Do not be afraid to switch fields if you do not think you are doing the right thing, she advised. She herself is the perfect exemplar of her statement.
Song describes herself as “one of those people that when I really like something I get really obsessed with it, and if I don’t like it I grumble.” By pursuing a field she loves, she is able to interview fascinating people, work with an enthusiastic staff and share her findings with attentive audiences. Her very enthusiasm and passion for her field has awarded her with the most prestigious award in journalism, the Pulitzer Prize.