How one journalist pivoted her writing during the pandemic

About Bara Vaida

Bara Vaida (@barav) is AHCJ's core topic leader on infectious diseases. An independent journalist, she has written extensively about health policy and infectious diseases. Her work has appeared in outlets that include the National Journal, Agence France-Presse, Bloomberg News, McClatchy News Service, MSNBC, NPR, Politico and The Washington Post.

Stephani Sutherland

Stephani Sutherland

At the beginning of the pandemic, Stephani Sutherland, a freelance writer focused on chronic pain issues, was — like many writers — finding that publications suddenly wanted COVID-19 stories and not much else.

Sutherland, who has a Ph.D. in neuroscience, decided to get up to speed in areas of infectious diseases and virology as fast as she could. As she delved into the research, she learned about an interesting connection between pain research and some of the long-term symptoms being felt by those infected with SARS-CoV-2, such as brain fog and loss of smell.

“I started out as a neuroscientist, and I have been a writer for a long time,” she said in a recent How I Did It interview for AHCJ. “The last few years, I have drilled down on pain research because chronic pain is a huge problem. It affects millions of Americans. As COVID was sweeping the world, I was looking for opportunities to widen my scope, and I saw a lot of correlation with long-term COVID (symptoms) and chronic pain. And so I welcomed this as an opportunity, a topic that is likely to be a public health problem for a long time.”

Her reporting led to three stories in Scientific American magazine in 2020, explaining what is understood about why people lose their sense of smell and experience neurological difficulties like “brain fog.”

“There is a huge question as to why” there are COVID long-haulers, she said. “But symptoms like fatigue and brain fog seem to stem from some sort of disruption to the central nervous system by the virus.”

Finding these stories was initially the biggest challenge for Sutherland since her background wasn’t in infectious diseases. To help her pivot into the infectious disease realm, Sutherland began reading the work of infectious disease research journalists and following virologists, infectious disease specialists and patient advocates on Twitter.

“A lot of my story ideas have come from press releases directly from journals, especially Science, Nature and PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) and reading scientific papers,” she said. “And you follow the trail of breadcrumbs. I talk to scientists and then say: ‘Who else should I talk to?’ And they mention a paper I hadn’t heard of, and so I will go find that paper.”

Those she follows on Twitter include the patient support organization Body Politic and Diana Berrent, who is involved in the patient support group Survivor Corps. She also follows Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, Andy Slavitt, currently a senior adviser to President Biden’s COVID-19 Response Team, and Kizzmekia “Kizzy” Corbett, a viral immunologist at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

To read the HIDI with Sutherland, click here.

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