Behind the line • APOORVA MANDAVILLI

Behind some of the Times’ top journalists on the coronavirus is a reporter who speaks seven languages, has a master’s degree in biochemistry, and, OK, has a thing for “Bridgerton.”

March 25, 2021

Times Insider explains who we are and what we do, and provides a behind-the-scenes look at how our journalism comes together.

As a science reporter for the New York Times, Apoorva Mandavilli knows the world of research, laboratories and technical documents. It helps that she has a science education with a master’s degree in biochemistry. She brings this knowledge into her current tact: Covid-19, including the immune response to the coronavirus and the variants that have occurred.

Here she tells what it is like to send her own children back to school and watch their favorite TV, when she realized she didn’t want to be a scientist.

How did you start out as a science reporter?

I attended graduate school in biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. I was there for four years and would have got a PhD. if I had stayed another year. But I realized that being a laboratory scientist was a little too slow, a little too specific, and a little too anti-social for me. I attended NYU Science Journalism’s School of Journalism and have been a reporter ever since. My mother is a writer. She is a poet and a short story writer, and I’ve dealt with literature all my life. So my job married two very different parts of my brain – science and writing.

How does your scientific education influence your work?

It’s very helpful in many ways. I don’t write about biochemistry so the exact topic won’t help but I understand the basics of biology. Indeed, much of my career has been written for scientists who can be discerning readers. They want things to be clear, but they never want things to be down. That pushed me to always be specific.

I also think it helps to understand the business of science, how universities work and how the tenure system works, and why scientists are so desperate for publications. All of these things help me understand where the researchers are from and what kind of critical lens I need to have when looking at a paper.

Where do your story ideas come from?

Every day I look at all of the research and preprints – studies that are published before going through the standard peer review process – that have to do with Covid. I scan the long list. Often times I see trends, something that more and more people are talking about, either on social media or because these papers are coming out.

Sometimes an idea can come from a sentence in someone else’s article. Sometimes it can come from something that stirs a question in my head. For example, my article on whether you need to wear a mask after vaccination came about because I was wondering that it would be in early December, a few weeks before it became a national obsession.

What is the biggest challenge at work?

I never have enough time. I’ve mainly worked as an editor, assigning stories to reporters, so it’s easy for me to find stories to write. I try to write as many as possible.

You have previously worked on a website that focused on the autism spectrum. How did that affect your work?


March 25, 2021, 5:55 a.m. ET

This was a page that was intended for scientists, but was also read by many non-scientists. I think this is one of the places where I learned to improve on that fine balance between technical accuracy and clarity and simplicity. I also learned the ability to identify stories and spot trends. Autism is a pretty small niche, and we had to be able to spot small and interesting things and develop them into full stories. So I’ve practiced a lot to do that.

You often write about the science surrounding the decision to send children back to school. How do you navigate this in your own life?

I have two children. My son is in middle school and my daughter is 8. My children are in school two days a week. Now they are doing this hybrid schedule but I know how much they miss being in school full time. I know how much they miss their friends’ company, and I worry about their physical safety and I worry about their mental health. I understand parents around the world who are dying to have their children in school.

How do you disconnect when your beat is covid?

When I get away from the computer, my children are right there, demanding my attention, wanting to be read, fighting, screaming, annoying and loving. They take up a lot of time. I also watch TV. I very much forgive my insignificant taste. I used to read a lot and I haven’t read any novels at all which is kind of sad, but I don’t have the attention span right now. I do a lot of crossword puzzles and I’m addicted to the Times Spelling Bee game.

What is your favorite tv

Well, I really enjoyed “Bridgerton”. There was a period last spring when I even watched “The OC” for a couple of months.

What would surprise readers if they found out about you?

I may speak multiple languages ​​- I am fluent in four Indian languages ​​plus English and can speak French and Japanese. I grew up in India until I was 17 so English is not my first language.

If you chose another job, not journalism, which one would it be?

Someone asked that question on Twitter and I said I was still a journalist. I can’t imagine not being one because I have so many questions about how things work. I cannot imagine asking these questions and holding governments and institutions accountable in any other role.

What’s stopping you from getting back to work?

I never stopped learning. I’ve learned so much this year. Regarding Covid, I had to learn virus evolution as well as deep immunology and epidemiology. It’s just infinitely interesting.

The Times has covered the challenges working mothers face during the pandemic. How did you manage childcare when you report as much as you do?

I have an extremely supportive husband. He’s a squash professional so he’s not working right now. He has taken on the role of carer in our house quite often. There are of course some things the kids still want me for, but he does a lot. For example, he takes care of the food, which is a great help.