Serendipity Story: Hillary Rosner

Hillary Rosner

Serendipity Stories is The Open Notebook‘s new series dedicated to the idea that you never know what’s going to hit you on the head. That’s true when it comes to story ideas, as previous Serendipity Stories have highlighted, and it’s true when it comes to finding ways to pull off tricky reporting. Here, Hillary Rosner tells her serendipity story:

Sometimes serendipity comes from happening to know someone else with excellent story judgement. In the case of this New York Times story, I take no credit for the idea. It came as an email from an ecologist I’d recently written about.

The note began, “I’m sure you get story ideas emailed to you on a daily basis—here is another one to add to the ‘delete’ folder…” and then went on to say that he had heard recently from two different colleagues who had become allergic to their study organisms. “I’m not sure if this is a widespread phenomenon,” he concluded, “but it could make for an interesting story.” Um, yes.

I did a quick reality check on Twitter.

Attn scientists: Have you ever developed an allergy to the organism you were studying? It happens, and I’m gathering examples.

I relied on the scientists who follow me to reply or retweet it. And soon the replies started coming. I got about a dozen responses, maybe more—not loads and loads but enough to think that there was something to it. Then I contacted an expert in allergies to see what the scientific basis was, since I knew very little about allergies. She confirmed that there was a scientific explanation and that she sees it all the time, mostly in people who work with mice and rats. I wasn’t terribly interested in that angle, so I pursued stories of some more interesting organisms.

The great thing was, the Twitter call also functioned as initial reporting, since now I had contacts for a bunch of scientists who had stories to tell. I didn’t pitch it as a trend story, but more of a curiosity—an interesting and not entirely uncommon phenomenon that you never hear about.

I’ve worked with my editor at the Times for a decade now—and adore him—so I just send a few sentences rather than a formal pitch. In this case I mentioned some of the allergies I’d come across and wrote, “I think it will be a fun little piece, with a bunch of anecdotes, some sense of how widespread the phenomenon is, and a bit on why this happens (from an allergist/immunologist).” Happily, he was interested. Then I ended up in bed with morning sickness for an entire month, so I was embarrassingly slow to get any actual reporting done. And thankfully, he was very understanding.

The only glitch to this story was that because the piece was so evergreen, the Times ended up holding it for months before it ran. After the story was published, I got many more tweets and emails scientists who said they’d had similar experiences.

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