Reporter Apoorva Mandavilli Makes Science of Covid Clearer


Behind the Times’ essential coronavirus journalism is a reporter who speaks seven languages, has a degree in biochemistry and, well, has a soft spot for Bridgerton.

25. March 2021

Times Insider explains who we are and what we do, and provides a behind-the-scenes look at our journalistic efforts.

As a science journalist for The New York Times, Apoorva Mandavilli knows the world of research, labs and technology jobs. Fortunately, she earned a master’s degree in biochemistry. She brings this knowledge to her current pace: Covid-19, including the immune response to coronavirus and newly emerged variants.

She talks about the moment she realized she didn’t want to be a researcher, what it was like to send her kids back to school, and her beloved low-rent television.

How did you get started as a science journalist?

I was a graduate student in biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. I was there for four years, and I would have been promoted if I had stayed another year. But I realized that being a lab assistant was too slow, too specific and too antisocial for me. I studied journalism at NYU in the science journalism program and have been a journalist ever since. My mother is a writer. She’s a poet and short story writer, and I’ve been around literature my whole life. So my work combines two very different parts of my brain: science and writing.

How do you think your academic background affects your work?

It is very useful in many ways. I don’t write about biochemistry, so the exact topic is not helpful, but I do understand the basics of biology. For most of my career I have written for academics who can be critical readers. They want things to be obvious, but they never want things to be stupid. It encouraged me to always be precise.

I also think it’s helpful to understand academia, like how universities and the tenure system work, and why academics are so desperate to get published. All of this has given me a better understanding of the researchers’ point of view and the critical look one must take at an oeuvre.

Where do the ideas for your stories come from?

Every day I review all research papers and preprints – studies published before going through the standard peer review process – that are relevant to Covid. I’m scanning a long list. I often see trends, something that pops up that more and more people are talking about, either on social media or because these papers come out.

Sometimes an idea can come from a sentence in someone else’s article. Sometimes it comes from reading something that raises a question in my mind. For example, my article on whether or not to continue wearing a mask after a vaccination was published in early December, a few weeks before it became a national obsession.

What is the biggest challenge in this job?

I never have enough time. I’ve spent most of my time working as an editor and assigning stories to journalists, so it’s easy for me to identify the stories I want to write. I try to write as much as I can.

You previously worked on a website about the autism spectrum. How has this affected your work?

Updated website

March 25, 2021, 5:30 a.m. ET.

It was a site for scientists, but many non-scientists read it too. I think it’s one of the places where I learned to strike that delicate balance between technical precision and yet clarity and simplicity. I also learned to recognize stories and see trends. Autism is a pretty small niche, and we needed to be able to notice little interesting things and flesh them out into full stories. So I have a lot of experience in this area.

You often write about the science behind the decision to send children back to school. How can you understand that in your life?

I have two children. My son is in high school and my daughter is 8 years old. My kids go to school two days a week. Now they do this hybrid schedule, but I know how much they miss studying. I know how much they miss the company of their friends, and I worry about their physical safety and mental health. I understand parents all over the world who are desperately trying to get their children into school.

How do you turn it off when your bit is empty?

When I step out from behind the computer, my kids are there, vying for my attention, wanting me to read to them, arguing, screaming, annoying and loving. You need a lot of time. I watch television too. I am very indulgent of my inferior taste. I used to read a lot, and I didn’t read novels at all, which is kind of sad, but now I just don’t have the attention span. I do a lot of crossword puzzles and I’m addicted to The Times’ Spelling Bee.

What is your favorite series?

Well, I really liked Bridgerton. There was a period last spring when I was really looking at O.K. for a few months.

What would surprise readers if they found out about you?

I speak more than one language – I am fluent in four Indian languages, plus English, and I can speak French and Japanese in conversation. I’m on my 17th birthday. I grew up in India, so English is not my first language.

If you had chosen a profession other than journalism, what would you have chosen?

Someone asked this question on Twitter and I replied that I will always be a journalist. I can’t imagine it’s not, because I have so many questions about how things work. I cannot imagine that in any other role I would be able to ask these questions and hold governments and authorities to account.

What’s stopping you from going back to work?

I never stopped learning. I have learned so much this year. As a replacement for Covid, I had to study the evolution of the virus and its in-depth immunology and epidemiology. It’s just infinitely interesting.

The Times reported on the difficulties working mothers faced during the pandemic. How do you care for your children when you have so much on your mind?

I have a very supportive husband. He’s a squash pro, so he’s not working right now. He took on the role of guardian of our home. Sure, there are things the kids still need me for, but he does a lot of things. For example, he takes care of all the food, which is a big help.

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