World Federation of Science Journalists

Kimani Chege: Amidst confusion is excitement

September 15, 2008

SjCOOP Mentee Kimani Chege from Kenya chronicles his rise in science journalism as a Knight Fellow at MIT, Cambridge Massachusetts, USA
Taking up a nine month-long science journalism fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the USA this month is confusing and exciting.

Confusing: loads of paper work, processes and farewells as you leave your regular life.

Exciting: immersion in one of the world’s best ways to improve science journalism.

I’ve left Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, where a reporter can easily spend an entire week trying to persuade a scientist to sit still for an interview, and I feel like I’ve arrived in the capital of science.

In the Boston region, scientific discoveries are announced almost every week. It is a challenge to live in the city of Cambridge, which boasts that it has world’s the highest concentration of scientists per capita., because of MIT and Harvard University.

It’s the difference between going outside my home at midnight to gaze at the stars, and space travel itself. I find myself finally being one of those stars I gazed at for so long.
SjCOOP Mentee Kimani Chege from Kenya with Phil Hilts the Director Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at MIT.

And expectations are high. The voice of my mentor at the World Federation of Science Journalists peer-to-peer project, Christina Scott, the Africa news editor for SciDev.Net, came loud and clear over the Skype call from Cape Town, South Africa: “amazing!”

“Your career and your life will never be the same again,’’ wrote Bonn-based German radio science journalist Jan Lublinski , who assesses the mentoring programme and keeps us on our toes.

These responses make me happy – and nervous! How can I meet their expectations?

I remember walking straight into the Knights fellowship office to be met by two warm smiles. Phil Hilts - a veteran science journalist whose work has spanned over decades across the globe and who is the current director of the fellowship programme. The other welcoming smile came from the humble and easy-to-get-along Kathleen Boisvert the deputy director and a science journalist of repute. Not to forget Molly Seamans, a helpful hand whenever you need it at the Knights office.

First came the 4 day long orientation course with my 10 fellows. I have to select from over a hundred courses being offered by each university. It’s like being a kid with cash in a sweets shop.

Each course reflects a different aspect of contemporary society: genetics to stem cells, environment to robotics, atoms to oceanography, biotechnology to nanotechnology. Religion is there. So is politics.

I’ve now begun the formal course under the guidance of Phil Hilts.

After as many days attending classes and lectures, the challenge facing me has gone from something vague to something visible.

I am concentrating on how new technologies can boost development in developing countries like my homeland, from cell phones to satellites. Gadgets that can use multiple services - what technology experts are referring to as convergence of technologies. One important course coming up this fall semester is Technological Innovation and Development Policy by Kenyan renowned scientist Prof Calestous Juma.

And I already feel like a mother with a newborn baby, due to lack of sleep. I spend the day in urban America. But after midnight, it’s time to send instant messages and Skype and email to my African brothers and sisters, all of us part of a bigger community.

Maybe I will end up fully equipped with scientific know-how, although science mutates so fast, this seems unlikely. Maybe I will be rushing back to Google common phrases in science! With wireless internet being a reality in America, unlike in Kenya where internet is unfavorable, this provides more chance to dig deep into the science world.

I am now more American than I was. Instead of the Kenchick outlets in Nairobi, there are Starbucks and McDonalds. Instead of the notorious Kenyan taxis commonly known as matatus, there is a subway train referred to as “the T.” I have even done canoeing along Charles River. I have however seen some similarities. Swahili church services on weekend, Instead of nyama choma (roast meat) I see barbeque.