NEW PALTZ – The campus community was introduced to award-winning science and human rights journalist Sonia Shah, New Paltz’s 2014 James H. Ottaway Sr. Visiting Professor of Journalism, with a Q&A session at the Honors Center on Tuesday, Feb. 4.
Shah joins the New Paltz faculty this semester to teach the seminar “Science, Environment, and Disease: New Approaches to Science Journalism.” She answered a host of questions about her career, life, and creative process from both President Donald Christian and an audience of students, faculty, administrators, and local residents.
Shah holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism, philosophy, and neuroscience from Oberlin College, but she started as a pre-med, which she said seemed inevitable as the daughter of two doctors who immigrated to the U.S. from India. But her experience working for her college newspaper, as well as her growing interest in neuroscience, influenced her to change her path.
Since her first post-college job at the Nuclear Times, Shah has authored several critically acclaimed and award-winning books, including “The Fever: How Malaria Has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years,” “The Body Hunters: Testing New Drugs on the World’s Poorest Patients” and “Crude: The Story of Oil.” Her writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Scientific American, and Foreign Affairs, among other publications. Shah is a frequent keynote speaker and college lecturer, and her career has taken her around the globe.
Some audience members questioned Shah about her writing methods. When asked whether she writes about what interests her or what interests others, Shah said she draws “a Venn diagram of what I want to write and what people want to read.” Christian asked if she ever despairs as a writer, and Shah admitted that “I’m fearful that if I don’t keep writing, I’ll lose the momentum and never write again.”
New Paltz journalism professor Lisa Phillips, who organizes the Ottaway professorship and met Shah when they were students at Oberlin, asked Shah how she is able to thrive as an entrepreneurial journalist. Shah credited the advances she receives for book ideas, the foundations that have backed her work (she is a former writing fellow of the Nation Institute and the Puffin Foundation, and has been supported by the Nation Investigative Fund and the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting), as well as her many international connections as the key enablers of her independent success.
Other topics explored at the event included being a woman journalist (“If I was an old white guy in a suit, things would be different”); the risks she’s taken to cover health and medicine issues (“I’m not cavalier about it”) and delicate relationships with her sources (“Scientists feel misunderstood by journalists”).
When asked what she’s working on now, Shah said she’s spent the last several years on “a book about pandemics and where they come from,” specifically noting the outbreak of cholera in Haiti since the 2010 earthquake. The book should be coming out next year, she said.
Shah will make another public appearance at 7 p.m. on April 1 in the Coykendall Science Building Auditorium. The event is open to the public.