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Science journalist talks about pivoting during the pandemic Date: 03/18/21

Stephani Sutherland

By Bara Vaida

Like many reporters at the beginning of 2020, science writer Stephani Sutherland didn’t have a background in infectious diseases. When the pandemic was declared, she had to quickly shift gears and use her background as a neuroscientist to cover the topic of COVID-19 “long-haulers,” people who have technically recovered from COVID-19 but still have symptoms. Her research led to three stories in Scientific American magazine explaining what is understood about why people lose their sense of smell and experience neurological difficulties like “brain fog.”

Here she talks with AHCJ about how she made the pivot to a new reporting specialty and how she has been finding new stories during the pandemic:

Q: In your stories about why some people have long-term COVID-19 symptoms, you make a really interesting connection to pain research and what scientists are learning to explain the brain fog, loss of smell and other long-term symptoms caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. How did you make the connection between long-term COVID and pain research?

A: I started out as a neuroscientist, and I have been a writer for a long time. 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 — like people don’t believe it exists, there are no biomarkers for it, and it seems mysterious. And so I starting looking into it. I found there was overlap from the pain research realm ... and COVID (in that) there are similar mechanisms going on with sensory neurons and … these long-term symptoms.

Q: What do we know, at this point, about why so many people are having long-term neurological issues after COVID19?

A: There is a huge question as to why. Doctors first thought it might be that the virus got into the brain … but the evidence doesn’t seem to bear that out. What I have learned through my reporting … is that you don’t have to infect the brain (directly) to have an impact on function. I reported on findings that the virus can infect some sensory neurons, and it certainly can interact with proteins on their surface, even if it can’t get in, and that can have an effect on their function. It could also be that tiny bits of the virus get into the brain or that antibodies made by our body (are attacking our neurons). But symptoms like fatigue and brain fog seem to stem from some sort of disruption to the central nervous system by the virus.

Q: So our nervous system has a very delicate balance that a virus can disrupt?

A: Yes, absolutely, and that disruption can be undetectable but still cause neurological symptoms.

Q: How did you find the COVID long-haulers to talk to for your story?

A: Most of them I found on Twitter. I saw people commenting (on their symptoms). I am following Body Politic, a patient support organization and Diana Berrent who is involved Survivor Corps , a patient support group, and some of them commented so I direct-messaged them and asked them to talk to me. I also put out a call on Twitter and said I was looking for someone with neurological symptoms from COVID.

Q: What were the most significant obstacles reporting these stories, and how did you overcome them?

A: The biggest was psychological. I had my niche and groove. I can tell you a lot about pain research, but I wasn’t reporting on infectious diseases. It was going outside the realm of neuroscience … so it was stepping out my comfort zone from where I was working. Technically, the challenge [was that] I know so many people in pain research and neuroscience, but I didn’t know people in virology and infectious disease. That was probably the biggest the challenge in [shifting to] infectious disease.

Q: I think so many health and science reporters share that experience, that they had to shift to understanding infectious diseases. What advice do you have to reporters who are trying to find stories and sources in infectious diseases who never did so in the past?

A: 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. 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. I follow scientists and public health experts and other science journalists on Twitter and see what they are excited about. Anything with a neuroscience angle really catches my attention.

Q: Who are some of the people you recommend following on Twitter in the COVID-19 realm?

A: Body Politic and Survivor Corps. Ashish Jha, Dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, Andy Slavitt, currently senior advisor to President Biden’s COVID-19 Response Team, Kizzmekia “Kizzy” Corbett, a viral immunologist at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. She is really inspirational. As for science journalists, there are so many — of course, the Atlantic writer Ed Yong has been an incredible voice during COVID, and I love Amy Maxmen, who writes for Nature. I also love the reporting from Usha Lee McFarling, who was my mentor at the Los Angeles Times during my AAAS Mass Media fellowship a million years ago. She has been doing stellar work on how underserved communities have been hit by COVID.