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Bruins in Paris

The Bruin helped me overcome my shyness and let me tell science stories -30-

Leila Okahata stands for a portrait. (Joseph Jimenez/Assistant Photo editor)

By Leila Okahata

June 11, 2023 9:58 p.m.

The first time I ever ordered a meal was in college.

For 18 years of my life, I anxiously relied on my parents to tell the waiter that I wanted the chicken tenders and fries platter as I whispered “No sauce, please” across the table. It took a twenty-mile separation from my family to force myself to interact with strangers.

So if you told my parents that my dream job now is to talk to people and share their stories, they would be utterly confused. The Leila they know is an extremely shy girl.

Before I joined the Daily Bruin, I was at a career roadblock. I initially entered UCLA with the hope to become a scientific researcher. Despite how therapeutic it felt to pipet liquids and streak-plate bacteria, my curiosity for science narrowed when I had to focus on a specific field.

My interest in science has always been broad, embracing both the macroscopic and microscopic. It felt constraining to devote myself to studying only one subject amongst all that science had to offer.

But if research was not what I was going to use my science degree for, what else could I do with it? Was science no longer for me?

Despite these doubts, I refused to believe science was not where I should be.

I fondly remember the excitement I had when I came home from high school biology class and gushed to my parents about how we share over fifty percent of our DNA with bananas and that there are a gazillion tiny microbes crawling all over us all the time.

A passion was ignited inside me every time I tried to explain these concepts to my parents. I wanted to pique their curiosity as much as mine had been and amaze them about how our world or ourselves worked.

Back then, I did not know that what I was doing could be a career until I stumbled upon the Daily Bruin’s science and health beat – students writing about and explaining science. It suddenly hit me that all the science articles I had been reading had an author, and I could be one too.

So I shifted my career goals from researcher to science communicator to do what I already loved doing: learning, sharing and discussing all kinds of science.

But when I joined the newsroom, I had to confront my shyness. I had to contact experts for their thoughts and opinions, and I would stress for hours about writing a good email. But my first interview was the biggest learning curve of it all, to say the least.

I interviewed the author of a research paper and immediately started by summarizing the paper back to her, regurgitating all its interesting findings without a pause and ending my rambling with, “So can you go into detail on how that all happens?”

With a look of surprise, she took a breath and kindly suggested, “I think it might be informative to let you know how we got into that work in the first place since it’s kind of interesting and I’d love to share it with you.”

I was humbled very quickly with the knowledge that that was not a proper way to start an interview. But her polite nudge in the right direction left a mark. Before any interview, I catch a glimpse of this memory and I am reminded of how grateful I am to her.

As I interviewed more people, I started finding comfort in listening to their stories and the sourcing portion suddenly became my favorite part of the writing process. There now was a face – a real person behind this scientific work and I had the opportunity to learn about their motivations, challenges and experiences.

I realized that science communication was not just about making new research and discoveries more digestible, but also about telling the human stories behind them.

Of course, I am still anxious going into interviews, but my trembling and clammy hands today are not because I am scared to interact with someone. They shake because I care.

I have a personal expectation for my work to accurately capture the mind and heart of the fascinating person sitting across from me.

To my first editor, Victoria: thank you for making the newsroom my second home. I am grateful for all the attention you gave in answering the plethora of newbie questions I had and being there for the full hour it took me to write my first tweet.

To my current editor, Aditi: thank you for encouraging me to seek resonant stories and people. Your compliments on my writing and celebratory Slack messages about my articles hitting the print stands make me feel so cherished.

To our incoming editor, Anna: I am saddened that I will not get to experience being a writer under your guidance, but seeing you explore and write for beats outside of science and health has inspired me to write out of my comfort zone. My day was always brightened whenever we stumbled upon each other in the office or on campus.

To all the professors, scientists and students who took the time to speak with me and share your work: I could not write these articles if it were not for you and your amazing research. I am deeply grateful for your time and wisdom and that you’ve trusted me to build bridges between your work and new audiences. Thank you so much.

To the Daily Bruin: thank you for helping me overcome my shyness and giving me a sense of purpose. Whether I am researching, interviewing, drafting or editing, every single step of the writing process reminds me that this is exactly what I want to do.

I am excited to see whose story I will tell next.

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Leila Okahata
Okahata is a News reporter on the science and health beat. She is a fourth-year microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics student minoring in professional writing.
Okahata is a News reporter on the science and health beat. She is a fourth-year microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics student minoring in professional writing.
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