Sonali is a science and environment reporter shuttling between New York and New Delhi. She has a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science and a Master’s in Journalism from Columbia University, New York. Previously, a Google News Lab Fellow in 2016, she is currently on a Pulitzer Traveling Fellowship. She has written on a wide range of topics – from Japan trying to grow a coral island for military purposes to India’s plans of setting up the next Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO).
1. Why did you choose to become a science journalist?
From the very beginning of my education, my parents have taught me that science is a way of thinking, more than just a body of knowledge. I was always a curious child, often caught staring at the zig-zag motion of dust particles while my mother cleaned the room or wondering why figure skaters lock their arms close to their chest while spinning with momentum. The best thing about science is that it is never absolute; it is a boggling riddle that ends with one solution and opens gates to ten other puzzles. It is the never-ending quest for discovery.
In college, I did my bachelors in Computer Science. I was fascinated by how technology can break some of the world’s most complex issues into smaller, solvable problems. However, I also realised that often, scientific proof and research is not communicated effectively to the public. Due to this gap, fact is often overshadowed by misinterpreted opinion. Hence, as a storyteller, I try to write about science using jargon-free, direct yet relatable narratives.
2. What role do science and science communication play in your country?
Science has always been an important frontier of our development as a nation. As India gains strength as an economic and innovative power, science will aid in growth and global influence using solutions that maximise impact while utilising limited resources.
Much of the scientific progress in India has been recognised only within academic circles and specific interest groups. Science is not a topic that is communicated well to the common man. It remains within the confines of published papers and research campuses. But science communication is important in a populous democracy like India. It not only helps base public debates off facts and evidence, but can also inspire our large potential of burgeoning engineers and scientists to work within the country and bring about change.
However, science journalism is a promising and growing stream. With developments like the Indian space program setting new records like its maiden Mars mission, and climate change inducing new challenges in terms of public health, agriculture, poverty and migration, publications as well as readers are slowly showing interest in more mainstream science reporting.
3. What are the main challenges of science journalism in your country?
There are only a handful of specialised science writers in India, hence the biggest challenge for reporters is to write on technical scientific topics for general publications. In order to avoid inaccurate and exaggerated reporting, journalists need training on how to interview scientists regarding their papers, how to report on the findings, caveats and funding of any peer-reviewed research that is published, and other nuances. Stories need to be timely, balanced and as jargon-free as possible. At the same time, scientists and researchers should also receive training on how to develop a healthy and effective communication channel with the media.
4. Where do you see the big societal transformations in the future? What scientific research/discovery will change our world?
Space research, artificial intelligence and antibiotic resistance are three big domains where I foresee many transformational discoveries happening in the near future.
5. What book, movie or song has radically changed your perspective? And why?
There are two documentaries that have guided the narratives in my work:
- Particle Fever – This documentary tells of the search for the Higgs Boson. Making a film on particle physics is as complex as it can get, yet this film at its very core is about the emotional journey of the scientists behind the experiment, the people who have devoted their lives to the discovery of the ‘God Particle’.
- The Secret Life Of Chaos – This documentary erases the insignificant line between science and art. A visual masterpiece, this film is a crash course on the chaos theory. The documentary describes how order emerges from chaos, what it means for science, and how it can not only explain the shapes of nature, but also the origin of life itself.
I have a long list in books, but my current favourite is the The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, a fascinating read about ‘wood wide web’.