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A summer of science journalism with the Wellcome Trust-New Statesman scholarship

28 Aug, 2014

 Earlier this year the Wellcome Trust and New Statesman announced a joint programme offering paid internships to aspiring science writers from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds. The recipients of the first two scholarships spent eight weeks working at New Statesman. Ajit Niranjan, tells us about the experience…

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This summer I worked as a science writer for the New Statesman, a weekly British magazine that is famous for its progressive take on politics, arts and current affairs. I had a Wellcome Trust scholarship that enabled me to complete an internship programme for aspiring science writers at the magazine.

In an attempt to combat the lack of diversity in science journalism, the placement is only open to students and graduates from ethnic minorities. I know this doesn’t sit well with many people – I certainly wrestled with the idea of accepting any form of positive discrimination – but if you’re an eligible candidate I’d strongly urge you to apply. Schemes like this are essential to levelling the playing field.

I joined the online team at the start of June and was thrown straight into the deep end, writing four articles in my first week and conducting phone interviews with researchers in the UK and abroad. Essentially, I was given the same level of independence as the rest of the staff. My day-to-day role was finding interesting developments from press releases or the news, find a ‘science-y’ angle (there usually is one) and write a blog post that a school child would be able to understand.

It’s a simple formula that works pretty well. Every article was edited before going up online and so I got feedback on my writing on a daily basis.

During the two-month placement I learned a great deal – not just about writing and journalism, but also about areas of science I’d never studied before. The scope is huge. Topics that fell under my remit as a science writer ranged from opinion pieces on drugs policy to reporting on the latest gadgets in the tech world – which even saw me trying Google Glass when it first launched in the UK.

googleglass AjitAlongside the regular short blog posts, I did a couple of longer pieces including a 3000-word essay on China’s growing environmental issues. Having the New Statesman’s name behind me meant I could confidently approach important figures for interviews, including CEOs of tech companies and even my local MP (and scientist) Julian Huppert.

Outside of the regular writing, New Statesman kept me busy. I attended all the editorial meetings, spoke on the weekly podcast about science and technology, and joined the political editor on a trip to Westminster for Prime Minister’s Questions.

Best of all, I was allowed to pitch ideas for publication in the printed magazine’s Observations section. The work was always varied and the perks – including free tickets to New Statesman events including a Laurie Penny/Mary Beard debate and the incredible Latitude festival – just added to the excitement of working in London.

The staff at New Statesman invested time in training the interns up. Helen Lewis, the deputy editor, set us a challenge popular in journalism schools, to give us some reporting practice – to take the Tube out to a nearby station and cover a local story on the ground in a single afternoon. A daunting task, but well worth it for the feedback we received.

Mainstream media, more so than any other profession, really suffers from its artificially homogeneous make-up and ethnicity is just one area that is disproportionately represented in what is overwhelmingly an old boys’ club. The Wellcome Trust Scholarship provides an imperfect solution to a very serious problem of a lack of diversity in journalism. It’s a tricky issue for a number of reasons but I strongly recommend checking out this piece by ex-New Statesman writer Rafael Behr for a bit of background.

There’s a lot you can get out of the placement if you choose to apply, and the application process itself is pretty straightforward – simply write an 800-word blog post on a recent scientific development. My advice is to choose a topic you’re genuinely interested in.

Working at the New Statesman this summer was hugely educational and I’m now very set on pursuing a career in journalism. If you’re thinking of applying in future I’d be happy to answer your questions on Twitter.

You can read Ajit’s articles on the New Statesman website and follow him on Twitter as @NiranjanAjit. The Wellcome Trust is committed to supporting a new generation of science journalists – find our more in this blog post.

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