What an AP Science Writer Learned: “The time I wore a skullcap full of electrodes so I could try to control a computer with my brainwaves.”

From an interview by Paul Stevens. who writes the Connecting newsletter for active and retired AP journalists, with Malcolm Ritter, who just retired after 36 years as an AP science writer:

Q. How did you get the AP science writer job?
In 1983 I was working at the Rapid City (SD) Journal, covering science, medicine and religion — the miracle beat. By pure chance the late Jack Cappon, who was then a top AP editor in New York, happened to see a few of my stories while looking to hire a science writer. At an APME meeting in South Dakota, he sought out my boss and said, “I gotta talk to this guy.” And in March of 1984, I went to work at 50 Rock.

Q. So a 29-year-old kid from South Dakota hit the big time. How did that feel?
Sometimes it was frightening. I’d lie awake at night, anxious about whether I’d made some factual error in a story I’d filed that day. Finally, a psychologist hypnotized me and said firmly, “When a story is done, it’s done.” That fixed the problem.

Q. Did you have any training in science?
No. I had double-majored in journalism and economics at the University of Minnesota. Never thought about science writing until, as a general-assignment reporter at the Bismarck (ND) Tribune, I was assigned to help with a special section on alternative energy. I loved explaining how it worked, and that revealed my calling.

Q. At AP did you specialize in any areas of science?
I generally wrote about living things or things that were alive at one time. That meant subjects like the brain, genetics, stem cells, dinosaurs, ancestors and early relatives of our own species, and the first people to enter and settle in the Americas.

Q. What are some of your favorite AP experiences?
Wearing a skullcap full of electrodes at an Albany lab so I could try to control a computer with my brainwaves. (I was terrible at it, but the story came out well). Peering into a boy’s brain while a surgeon worked on it. Operating a robotic surgeon being developed by the Pentagon. (I managed to tie two rubber tubes together). Informing a young woman by phone that her book had just won a Pulitzer; we celebrated together as I collected quotes. Participating in an experiment in South Carolina to see if a brain scan could work as a lie detector. (It worked on me). Doing voiceovers for animations and AP video, which included dubbing in the English for an indignant Chinese diplomat.

Q. Have you fully embraced your new life and left your AP job completely behind? 

Yes. After the three Nobel Prizes in science were announced last week, I emailed coverage suggestions for only the physics and chemistry awards. That’s pretty good, right?

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