Baccalaureate 2008 Keynote Address: Gina Kolata

Story posted May 23, 2008

Keynote Address
by Gina Kolata, honorand and New York Times science writer
May 23, 2008

It's such an honor to be here. My husband is here, too. I've never given a baccalaureate address before. I called President Mills and asked him what I should talk about; he said talk about your life. It's a story about myself, and it focuses on my career, but there's so much more to life than a career. The friendships formed here, the volunteering, it's all so important. I'm going to talk about my life as a science writer, but, again, there's so much more to life.

Gina Kolata200.jpg
Gina Kolata

The day I graduated from college, the University of Maryland, I knew exactly what I was going to do. I had a plan for the rest of my life. I was going to go to graduate school, MIT, and I was going to get a Ph.D. in molecular biology. Then I was going to do a postdoc, then I was going to be an assistant professor on a tenure track. I'd get tenure and I'd run a lab and teach. I'd have an interesting life, intellectually stimulating and rewarding.

Was I wrong. If anyone had told me that I would end up at The New York Times, a senior writer, covering serious and compelling issues and discoveries in science and medicine and, as of this year, also writing, as a sort of a sideline, a column about exercise for people who are serious about exercising, I would have been incredulous. I did not even read The New York Times. I read the Washington Post in those days, and the first section I turned to was the comics, followed by the advice columnist, Ann Landers. I had never taken a journalism course, never worked on a school newspaper.

Yet here I am, with a career that seems made for me. And while, as a science reporter, I know the perils of generalizing from a single example, an n-of-1, as scientists call it, I think there are lessons in my career path that may help some of you as you find your way.

Why, for example, was I going to graduate school to get a Ph.D. in molecular biology? You might think I was following my true passion. But, in fact, I was not exactly thinking things through. I'd never liked labs. And here I was, about to devote my life to a field, molecular biology, that was the epitome of a lab science. It was all experiment in those days, no theory to speak of.

I knew what I really enjoyed. I liked to read contemporary literary fiction — in fact I still do. I was and still am something of a compulsive reader. Not only do I always have a book with me, but I can't stop myself from reading everything that passes in front of my eyes. Instructions on toothpaste tubes, ingredients on shampoo bottles, every sign in the train station, every poster in the gym.

And I liked to write papers for my classes. I always finished them way ahead of time. I loved those assignments and could happily spend hours and hours in the library, doing the background research, and hours and hours with my voluminous notes, writing my paper, working on my prose. But where, I wondered, was the career in that? I could not imagine one.

Better to find a sure thing. Molecular biology was an intellectual frontier and I decided I would like lab work if I was doing my own research. In my courses — I was a microbiology major — I thought the labs were tedious but, I decided, that was because they were not explorations but instead were demonstrations. I knew what the results of every lab experiment were supposed to be so why bother doing the experiments?

The first year of graduate school was terrific. We spent our time in seminars and we had to write papers that were like review articles of the material. But then, near the end of the second semester, we had to choose an advisor and get started in the lab. Immediately, the tedium began. Experiment after experiment, going nowhere, changing tiny properties of the protocol, hoping something interesting would turn up. And it was not just me. One of my friends, a few years ahead of me, actually started two Ph.D. projects, reasoning that he would go with whichever one worked.

That summer, I managed to get a fellowship to go to Woods Hole, a biology enclave on the beach. We first-year graduate students were to work on our written exam, which consisted of what I recall as ten questions — we were to choose something like three of them — and look up what was known and write papers on the questions and how to address them. I loved it, of course. The only problem with that summer was that my advisor also was at Woods Hole and I was supposed to spend time in his lab too.

One day, I was lying on the beach, reading The New York Times Sunday Book Review — I'd finally discovered the majesty of the Times — when a guy came by and started talking to me. He said he was a novelist, so I asked him how he'd gotten started. He said he'd written a book review for The Nation magazine, they were very kind to new writers, he said. I decided I would try that too.

When I returned to MIT in the fall, I found a book, The Coming of the Golden Age, by a molecular biologist, Gunther Stendt, and I wrote to The Nation, asking if I could review it. Go ahead and try, they said, offering no guarantees, no money or anything. I started to read and could hardly believe it. No one else, I thought, would ever understand this book like me.

I used to take a lot of odd electives when I was at the University of Maryland, and one course I took was a graduate seminar in the history of physics in the second half of the 19th century. We had to write a paper about someone's ideas, and we had to read their work in the original language. Most of the great physicists were writing in German. I'd never studied German and have no gift for languages, so I cast about for someone, anyone, who was writing in English. That's how I discovered Henry Adams. He wrote about the laws of thermodynamics as applied to history, his family's history in particular. And he decided that his illustrious family was falling prey to the second law of thermodynamics, entropy. He said he was the perfect example of that law in action, he was so much less accomplished than his parents or his ancestors. He supplied charts and graphs to illustrate it. Of course, it was a nonsensical argument, and I had a wonderful time writing about it and about Henry Adams.

But now, in that book by Gunther Stent, I saw a replay of Henry Adams. Stent was arguing argued that molecular biology was falling prey to the second law of thermodynamics. He used the exact same charts as Henry Adams used. And before becoming a molecular biologist, Stent had been a physicist, so he knew exactly what he was doing and he must have known how crazy this was. I was clear also that he took his graphs straight from Henry Adams. Stent was playing a sly joke on the world, and I was probably one of the few readers who would get it.

I wrote my review, The Nation published it as I wrote it, and sent me a check for $25. I decided I had found my calling. So, to my parents' dismay, I took a leave of absence from MIT and tried to become a writer. I found out, however, that with no credentials and only that one publication to my name, no one wanted me. So I took a job as a lab technician to support myself and pondered my next move.

I decided to try again for a Ph.D., but this time in a field where there was no lab — mathematics. MIT did not want me. They said, and they were right, that I didn't know much math and I certainly was not up to their standards for their Ph.D. program. But the University of Maryland took me and gave me a teaching assistantship to support myself.

It did not take long for me to realize I would never make it in math. I decided to quit, but my advisor said that if I kept dropping out of graduate schools, people would think I was stupid. At least get a master's degree, he said. By that time, two years in, I had met and married Bill, a fellow math graduate student, who told me to take the written exam for a master's. It's easy, he said. But I knew I could never pass it. I wrote a thesis instead, which I actually enjoyed.

And I looked for a writing job. I called every place in the yellow pages that might conceivably have use for a science writer. No one wanted me. But Science magazine, it turned out, was ready to hire me, not as a writer but as someone who selected reviewers for manuscripts. It was a boring job but I told them I would take it, not because I saw it as a career, but because I wanted to try to worm my way into their writing department.

Soon, I made my move. How about if I write a research news article, I asked the news editors, on my own time, for free, and you can take it or leave it? Go ahead and try, they said. So I did, and they took it. How about another, I asked? They took it again. And another? Soon I was doing two jobs and before long I convinced them to make me a half time writer, the other half time I did the manuscript reviewer selection. Then, finally, they made me a full time writer.

Of course, I worked at it. I found topics, math in particular, that the other writers there were not touching. And I read everything I could that might help me learn to write. I read a grammar book. I read a book about how to write a novel, reasoning that it was my job to entice people to keep reading, much as a novelist does. I examined newspaper and magazine articles about science, trying to figure out why I was drawn to some and bored by others. I even learned to imitate certain writerly tricks that I liked in things I read.

Yet although I loved writing for Science, and although the job was challenging and exciting and although, in many ways, I'd found my niche, after a while it seemed almost too easy. The magazine only came out once a week. Writing articles for Science was not taking all of my time. With my editors' knowledge and permission, I began doing some freelancing for magazines and newspapers while writing full time for them. After a few years, I wanted to make a move. I wanted to see if I could get a job at what I saw, and still see, as the top in my profession, as a writer for The New York Times.

Bill said he'd move to New York if I got a job there. He was getting bored with his job and said he wouldn't mind a change. We had two children by then, aged six and three, but I was confident that we could get good child care in New York.

I wrote to the science editor at the Times, telling him it was my dream to work for the paper and sending him my resume and some clips.

He called me and said he did not have a job but he would like to meet me. He would fly to Washington, where I lived, we could eat dinner at the airport, and then he'd fly back. I was thrilled, of course. To this day, I remember what I wore for that dinner and what we talked about. I thought it went well, and the next day I wrote him a letter thanking him and telling him how much I'd enjoyed meeting him and saying I was more interested than ever in working for the Times.

I never heard a word. Three years went by. Then, one day, the phone rang. It was the science editor at the Times. "Remember me?" he said. "I have a job." I was totally floored.

And that was how I came to the Times.

Of course, the story does not end there. I've been working at that job since the beginning, trying to learn how to do it really well. In fact, I worked at it before I even started. The editor who hired me said that whatever impression I made on the Times' editors in the first month would be with me forever, so he advised me to start working on my first article before my first day on the job. That way, I could turn in something really great, seemingly overnight, and everyone would be in awe. I did it — and he was right.

Over the years, my job has been changing, getting more complex, more challenging, different. Of course, the industry has changed enormously in the 20 years I've been at the Times. When I came, there was no e-mail, no Internet. Now, readers e-mail us constantly and we are supposed to reply. I do, and it's quite an experience to have ongoing dialogues with readers, some of whom have become regular correspondents. Now we are expected to contribute to the Times' Web site and to help with multimedia productions for many of our stories. And the very nature of my stories has changed. I write many fewer articles based on a paper being published in a journal and many more articles that take a fresh look at a medical issue. I'm looking for stories that stay with you and may change the way you think about an issue. I'm stressing stories that offer the unique content that draws many readers to the Times. It's challenging and ever fascinating and it is why I've never gotten bored at the Times, never wanted to leave. It's not a job for everyone, high stress hardly describes it, but it's the job for me.

There are, I think, some lessons to my story. First, you might want to keep an open mind, a very open mind, about your career and its trajectory. Second, you can make opportunities even when they do not present themselves. You may have to work for free, like I did, you may have to take a lot of initiative, but there are opportunities out there. Third, you may have to work very hard when you get an opportunity — teaching yourself, reading about your profession, becoming obsessed with doing it right.

If you are lucky, as I am, you will find a career that absolutely suits you. And then work will be a joy, added to friends and family and to volunteer work and other pleasures that can make for a very satisfying life.

I know you can do it. The great journey is still ahead of you.

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