Writer Wudan Yan. Courtesy.

Science journalist Wudan Yan writes about everything from food, to weapons, to the structure of scientific research studies, informed both by her graduate studies in the biological sciences, and by anti-capitalist perspectives.  Yan has written for The Atlantic, The Guardian, MIT Technology Review, National Geographic, The New Yorker, New York Magazine, The New York Times, and others. 

Born in China, Yan left a Ph.D. program in cancer biology years ago to pursue journalism. “I got into academia, because I really wanted to teach,” Yan said. “When I left my Ph.D. program, I was doing basic science, writing and communications work, and volunteering, that wasn’t necessarily science journalism.”  

The whole time, Yan was reading a lot of science journalism. “I love that world,” she enthused. “I loved how you could be on the outside, but having such a deep understanding of the science and the scientific process could help you craft these rich narrative stories.” 

One of Yan’s earliest inspirations was David Quammen’s 2012 book Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic. “He basically predicted Covid, that pathogens from animals could spill over from the animal host, who probably does not have a viral immune response to it, into humans and cause something catastrophic, like a pandemic,” Yan said. “He follows these researchers into bat caves who are trying to study bat droppings and isolate viruses, and I just thought it was so masterful and that’s the type of work that I wanted to do.” 

Journalism offered an entirely different perspective from the lab work Yan was doing. “It really made me think about scientists as people and characters, and the stories that they hold and motivations,” she said. “Anything that got me to share science, and math, like other people, was part of my goal.” 

Eventually, that goal brought Yan full-circle back to her original dream of teaching. “In 2021, I wrote an essay for Poynter, called ‘Journalism Isn’t Who You Are, It’s What You Do,’” she recounted. “When I think about that piece, and how I orient my own identity to the world, I think of myself actually as like a teacher, and teaching other people things in any context has been fundamental to what I do.” 

Part of this, for her, is bringing the world closer. “I see publishing stories from places that most people wouldn’t get to travel to, to shed light on what’s happening there and bring it into broader context, is also education and teaching,” Yan explained. “So basically, I was thinking broadly about how to continue teaching other people about the world.” 

Despite her continued focus on sharing knowledge, Yan herself didn’t get a lot of support in her career transition. “My graduate program wasn’t supportive of it,” she said. “At that time, the conversation about alternative careers outside of academia wasn’t so much in the spotlight, if discussed at all, and people saw science and creative fields as almost diametrically opposed.” 

Yan’s parents, who are first-generation Chinese immigrants, also did not agree with her choice. “My friends in my community connected me with different science writers and journalists who are doing this work professionally, and that was really illuminating to hear about their paths,” Yan said. “If I got support, it was validation from other people’s stories that I didn’t need a fancy degree from journalism school to do what I wanted to do.” 

Much of Yan’s writing spotlights crises in relation to food, weapons, and health. “I do not think about myself as a crisis reporter, I think about myself as a narrative writer, which is very, very, very broad,” she said. “But I have always been drawn to crises.”  

But rather than becoming mired in disaster reporting, Yan has turned her focus to what might be termed solutions journalism. “When I lived in Thailand, there was a migrant situation at the Thai-Burma border that’s only escalated in recent years, because of what’s been happening in Myanmar,” Yan said. “There are these terrible things happening, so let me see what people are doing to turn things around, with systems and institutions that are notoriously outdated or hard to change.” 

Another issue that Yan highlights is the lack of universal healthcare in the U.S. “We are a lot more reactive than preventative when it comes to thinking about health,” she observed. “There’s an insecurity crisis in the US, and what are we doing to help people who are stuck in these systems?” 

This gives Yan a gentler way to talk about crises. “I want to bring to light issues by talking about people who are trying to shake up the status quo and make things better,” she said. “I just think there’s a way to approach these issues that’s more systems oriented.” 

In addition to journalism, Yan engages in a broad array of speaking, coaching, and fact-checking. “Stories don’t really end,” she posited. “Stories have a beginning, middle, and end, but that end shifts as time goes on.”  

And this evolution makes it difficult for Yan to pinpoint any single favorite project among all of her work. “I’ve fact-checked so many fascinating books and podcasts,” she said. “And I love talking to other people and shaping experiences for audiences about works that they’ve put out in the world.” 

Yan also produces and hosts The Writer’s Co-op, an anti-hustle, anti-capitalist business podcast and membership program for freelance creatives. “There’s always this element of hustle, as people are talking about trying to rack up a hundred rejections in a month and always be pitching and, you know, there’s a feast or famine,” Yan described. “As somebody who didn’t go to journalism school, who didn’t really know what I was getting into, I look at these sayings that so many people in the industry just took as truth, and I started asking, do we really have to hustle our way into making enough money to have a good life?” 

Yan decided the answer is no. “We can act with intention in the business decisions that we make and have a financially viable life for ourselves,” she said. “And so, we don’t have to send 100 pitches a day. In fact, I don’t think anyone should be doing that.” 

Passion, for her, is more important than quantity. “Me doing this one thing in my business actually really aligns with my personal values,” Yan emphasized. “Let’s take a moment or two, and think about what we’re really trying to do here, and do only the things that support that.” 

Avoiding excessive work hours is another mainstay for Yan. “That is how I think we can sustain ourselves as freelancers, because there’s just so many ways that we can get burnt out by this work, by business, by clients,” she said. “How can we make sure that our needs are met, that we have the support system in order to do the work that we do?” 

Within the Co-op, Yan emphasizes the importance of community. “I think every time somebody negotiates for something a little more unconventional in a contract, that’s better for everyone,” she said. “They’re the ones who are going to be rethinking their business plan. They’re going to be the ones who are excited to think about marketing and positioning themselves as experts. They’re going to ask for more money.” 

And yet, frustrations remain. “I have so many ideas and not enough time to pursue all of them,” Yan said. “Getting other people to realize that when they ask something of me, that requires my time, that’s also my labor, that’s also my expertise, my time has value, and so that can’t really go to the wayside.” 

So while Yan is encouraging people to explore the world, she is also advising everyday workers to protect their time and the fruits of their efforts. “Running a business has really changed how I view journalism, and my ownership of my journalism,” she said. “Time isn’t free.” 

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