How did a Biology major with an acceptance letter to medical school wind up writing for THE Oprah magazine? That is the first question people usually ask after reading my resume. I traded in the white lab coat many years ago for a career of traveling the world in pursuit of stories. Here are the questions people ask me most often about my journey:
- 01. Did you always want to be a journalist?
- 02. What kind of doctor did you think you wanted to be?
- 03. Why did you change your mind about being a doctor?
- 04. How did you transition out of the sciences?
- 05. Did you find a way to fuse biology and journalism?
- 06. How did you start teaching?
- 07. What sets you apart from other professors?
01. Did you always want to be a journalist?TOP
The short answer is no. I have always loved to write, but I did not know I could make a career of it until I was in my junior year of college. I actually wrote my first book, “Betty Goes to the Zoo,” when I was five years old. My mother was talking on the phone and I wanted to tell her about a story I made up in my head. As I waited for her to finish her conversation, I wrote down what I was thinking, so I would not forget. I even illustrated it! When my mother hung up, I showed her the beginnings of my story. She loved it and insisted that I finish it. When I was done, she asked if she could take it to work with her. She brought it back to me, bound with a real cover and a little dust flap. After that, I just kept writing and never stopped. My dad proofread everything and my Mom helped me type. I always say Daddy was my first editor and Mommy was my first publisher.
02. What kind of doctor did you think you wanted to be?TOP
When I was around 11 or 12, I told anyone who would listen that I wanted to be a neonatologist. I liked the idea of helping the tiniest babies fight for their lives. My idol at the time was Dr. Mae Jemison, who was a pediatrician and the first African-American woman to travel to outer space. (I was a pretty nerdy kid.) When I was 14, I interviewed for a job at a pediatrician’s office. Her name was Dr. Marilyn Corder, and she owned several offices throughout the Washington, DC-metropolitan area with her husband. My job was to give children stickers after immunization shots. I also helped file medical records.
03. Why did you change your mind about being a doctor?TOP
When I got to college, I realized that being a doctor was not always about making children feel better. Some children, I learned, were just not meant to thrive, no matter the medical intervention. While volunteering in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit in New Orleans’ Children’s Hospital, three premature babies that I supervised died due to birth defects and other complications. It was a side of medicine that I naively thought I could avoid by treating babies. Before being a NICU volunteer, I thought caring for children meant preserving the cycle of life. Instead, it made me realize that being a neonatologist would often mean accepting that life is but a few days long for some little people. It was a realization that would require me to become desensitized to babies dying, and I just could not bring myself to harden that part of my personality.
04. How did you transition out of the sciences?TOP
I started writing for my college newspaper, The Xavier Herald. I had the best University president, Dr. Norman C. Francis! Without a lick of experience writing for a publication, he let me interview him for the school’s biggest story in its history. Xavier University’s founder, Katharine Drexel, was being canonized at the Vatican that year. Dr. Francis actually made himself available to me for the interview. I remember seeing my byline on the front page of the newspaper. I wanted more of that feeling. I decided to apply to medical school at Howard University and to Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. I told myself, wherever I get in, I will go. Well, I got into both schools. I had a big decision to make.
05. Did you find a way to fuse biology and journalism?TOP
Yes! My first big assignment at a New York newspaper was to report on acid rain. I had to interview then Sen. Hillary Clinton about her plan to reduce it in the Adirondack Mountains. I will never forget the thrill of posing with her for a picture. When I went on to the Medill School of Journalism, I focused on health and science reporting. My first national piece, which appeared in Oprah magazine in 2004, was about the science of nutrition. And even now, as a journalism professor, I have taught HIV-positive girls in Africa how to report on public health.
06. How did you start teaching?TOP
When I was in the newsroom, I kept noticing that it was not a very diverse place. I also remember the feeling of being one of two African Americans in my graduate school program, which boasted more than 100 total students. I decided to start a volunteer program at high schools and colleges, which would expose young people of color to the writing life. I was living in Baltimore at the time, and launched the high school arm at Walbrook High School with a colleague who taught there. Then, I headed over to Morgan State University, which is a Historically Black Institution, to inquire about how best to reach their students. Morgan State actually offered me a job! I stayed there for six years.
07. What sets you apart from other professors?TOP
Aside from my age (I became a professor at 25), I think I have a unique view of modern journalism. I graduated from Medill in 2004, before Google went public and before Facebook was open to anyone outside of Harvard’s community. There was no Instagram, Pinterest or Twitter. The iPad did not exist. The first decade of the new Millennium required me to learn a lot of new technology and terminology very quickly. That is what makes me different though. While I can appreciate the new advances in the industry, I still remember my time in traditional journalism with a pen and a pad, scribbling notes in the office of John H. Johnson who owned JET, the oldest African-American magazine in the country! There was something about my time at JET, where I spent hours poring over Mr. Johnson’s pictures with Malcolm X, Lorraine Hansberry and others, that made me conscious of the efforts journalists of color made to tell stories—stories that could have gotten them killed, in many cases. I can’t wait to see what is next for journalism.