Profiles of scientists in the golden years of their careers take the measure of a life in science and reveal the motivations that have guided the scientist’s work. Conducting interviews for such career-spanning profiles in a way that elicits both the telling little details and the big themes of a person’s life can be tricky. For one thing, a lifetime is a lot of ground to cover. And it can be hard to find the details that truly shed light on a person, and to do so without being unfairly intrusive or resorting to cliché.
Yet these stories can also be deeply rewarding, precisely because the interviewing is often so intimate. When done well, “legacy” profiles reveal something that’s usually hidden: how the swirl of a person’s inner world connects with the accomplishments they make in their outer world.
“A legacy story in my mind is basically an advance obit,” says Jacqui Banaszynski, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who is a professor emerita at the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a faculty fellow at the Poynter Institute. “You’re gathering information when the person still has a chance to reflect on their life.”
The secret to conducting good interviews for career-spanning profiles lies in the questions you ask and the connection you build with your subjects. “We have to turn our story subjects into storytellers—most naturally are not,” Banaszynski says.
When done well, “legacy” profiles reveal something that’s usually hidden: how the swirl of a person’s inner world connects with the accomplishments they make in their outer world.
Where to Begin? (Often, the Beginning)
A successful profile weaves together three parallel timelines that make up a subject’s life, says Banaszynski.
The first is the subject’s basic biography and “résumé stuff,” including—in the case of scientists—basic information about the subject’s most noteworthy scientific accomplishments. The second timeline includes defining personal moments in the person’s life. And the third is the social and historical context of their work. (For a recent example of such interweaving, see Natalie Wolchover’s 2015 profile of physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed, published in Quanta and featured in TON‘s Storygram annotation series.) These strands require different types of reporting—some of which can be done before the interview.
Come interview time, you should already know as much as possible about the first timeline—where the scientist has lived and worked, what their big discoveries were, when they published their key papers. You might even want to write this timeline out and bring it along to your interview, Banaszynski suggests, to use as a jumping-off point into the other two.
It’s easy to let the interview get bogged down in the basics of the subject’s biography or technical details of the science. That material is already accessible in the literature, though, so try not to spend much valuable interview time on it. Instead, keep your focus on the second and third timelines—for example, how or why specific studies became a springboard for the subject’s overall research program, or how starting their career at a particular time or place contributed to their interests.
A scientist’s “origin story”—the beginning of the second timeline—is one obvious starting point for a profile interview, says Robin Marantz Henig, a freelance science writer and a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine. She spends a lot of time on questions such as What were you like as a kid? or When did you first realize you were interested in science?, because people generally don’t talk much about their childhood and early history, so the response to such questions is likely to be relatively unrehearsed. Also, unless you’re speaking to a celebrity scientist, such personal background is likely not to have been reported before, so it can yield some rich material.
But “origin stories” aren’t always the best approach to starting a profile interview. For one thing, not everyone feels comfortable opening up about personal experiences. “Friends of mine have had people say, ‘If you’re going to ask me personal questions, I’m just not going to talk to you,’” Henig says. “I haven’t had that, but I’ve had people who just haven’t had that much interesting to say about their youth.” In such cases, starting the interview by talking about their research or their early-career interests or accomplishments can loosen up the flow of conversation and help build rapport—and doing so can eventually open doors to more personal introspection.
Whatever your take-off point, there are some standard questions that are essential to any career-spanning profile interview. How did you get your start? How do you do your work? What is your typical day as a scientist like? What inspired you to pursue [whatever questions] in your work?
But running through such questions in a rote way can yield stale material, cautions Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, a contributing writer at National Geographic who also writes for The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine. “Scientists generally have pat responses to these questions—they know you’re going to ask them, and they’ve probably said similar things to other journalists,” he says. “Anything you’re getting that sounds clichéd is probably only half true.”
For every answer you get, ask five more questions, says Banaszynski. “The first answer will probably be very general. Stay in the moment and peel it back.”
When he hears anything in these responses that’s unexpected, he’ll drop the script and drill down. “You’ve got to read between the lines,” Bhattacharjee says. “When a scientist says something like, ‘Well, back then this method didn’t work,’” he says, “You can’t gloss over that. Something there might be revealing if you investigate.” Probing further (What do you mean it didn’t work? Why did it work later?) can take the conversation to a deeper place—say, to the topic of perseverance, or of a changing cultural context that affected how the science could be done—and perhaps even open up a discussion about the subject’s personal character and how it ties to their science. “They have to see that you are after something that is not superficial,” he says.
Bhattacharjee’s strategy dovetails with one of Banaszynski’s favorite rules of interviewing: For every answer you get, ask five more questions. “The first answer will probably be very general,” she says. “Stay in the moment and peel it back.” Every answer can be plumbed to go a step further, she says, if the reporter is listening for promising nuggets and willing to linger on them.
Key to the success of this strategy, Banaszynski adds, is allowing enough time for those nuggets to emerge. If the person you’re profiling doesn’t reply to a question right away, don’t rush to the next one. Force yourself to stay silent to provide the space for them to answer, even if it feels awkward; scribble in your notebook if you have to.
Ask about Turning Points, Failures, and Oddball Details
A profile is not just a résumé in paragraph form. What you’re probing for in a legacy profile are the personally meaningful turning points in the subject’s career. “What were the moments that led them to this life, and what was it about those moments that made them special?” says Banaszynski.
As a newspaper reporter and editor, she says, for her those moments might include the first time she saw her byline in print, say, or the first time she got a big scoop; ask about “the science version of that.” Some subjects will need more massaging than others to understand what you’re after, so if you don’t get a satisfying answer, she says, ask a slightly different question that might help them reply in a more interesting way. One variant here might be: What isn’t in your résumé that you think should be, in terms of its importance to you?
Another place where turning points often lurk is in failures, or “moments of stuckness,” Banaszynski calls them. You might say: What were some moments in your career that were especially challenging or discouraging? Tell me about a time when it didn’t seem like your project would work? When have you felt like quitting?
While you’re seeking out these big-picture themes, don’t ignore the close-up view, says Bhattacharjee. “Sometimes I’ll ask these stupid little detail questions, just trying to see if it might lead to an interesting avenue,” he says. For example: Did you get the phone call when you were sitting in the office, or were you somewhere else? “Sometimes they’ll say, ‘Oh yeah, actually, funny story …’” And who knows where that story will take you?
Don’t forget to look around you for details that can liven up an interview, too. For a profile in HHMI Bulletin a few years ago, Henig asked the researcher she was interviewing about a plant in his office that was wearing a pair of sunglasses, and learned that the plant was a gift from one colleague who thought its leaves looked like the mop of hair on another colleague. Henig had been struggling to move the interview into evocative territory, and that detail offered a fun and revelatory snapshot of lab dynamics. “[The researcher] was looking at me askance, like, ‘Why are you asking me so many questions about that? I’m telling you about my brilliant science!’”
Indeed, says Banaszynski, profile subjects often don’t understand what material journalists need. Letting them into the process can help them feel more at ease and in good hands. It may help to explain before or during the interview that some of your questions might seem weird or overly specific, but that the aim is to help you paint a picture in your head so you can help readers to really envision what the subject experienced.
Henig describes having to return to a profile subject because her editor told her she hadn’t brought the scientist to life vividly enough. “I actually told the subject that, which made her a little uncomfortable but turned it into a problem we needed to try to solve together,” Henig says. She explained that she would have to ask more questions to capture the scientist’s response to a particular pivotal moment in her life. Eventually, key details emerged.
Regardless of how you decide to structure the interview or what you decide to ask, do be an active participant. Another of Banaszynski’s rules of interviewing: “Don’t be boring.” Laugh when it’s funny; show your surprise. “Anything you can do to show you’re listening,” she says. In order to move past the subject’s well-rehearsed answers—the predigested story of our lives that all of us have at the ready—you need to spark their interest by engaging with what they are telling you, not just transcribing it at face value.
Dull Interview? Don’t Be Afraid to Shake Things Up
If an interview with a profile subject is going well and you’re getting the material you need, there’s no reason to interfere with the flow. But if an interview seems to be falling flat and you know you’re not getting what you need, you might have to shake things up.
There’s no single way to do so. Bhattacharjee says for him, challenging the subject somehow—even to the point of seeming aggressive—can turn the tide. Or, he’ll frame a bit of pushback as a joke: “How could you have gotten these results in a year? Did you have a bunch of graduate students crunching the numbers while you were in Cancun?”
It sounds provocative, he says, but the idea is to convey that you have a reason to ask what you’re asking. Scientists sometimes don’t have a great impression of journalists, he notes. “They don’t think you’re bringing very much to the table—it’s just that they don’t have time to write their own story.” It’s up to reporters, Bhattacharjee says, to demonstrate that we want “to take a deeper look at their humanity. Once people get it, once they realize that you actually do want that, then something changes,” he says. “They shift gears and say, ‘OK, I thought this would just be a publicity op, but you actually do want to understand me [and] understand the process of science.’”
A less confrontational way to change the tenor of a lackluster interview is to ask the subject to respond to what critics have said—or might say—about their work, Henig says. It can also be helpful to change the subject—maybe by throwing in a more impersonal or less intense question or two. You might hit more fertile ground, and the break can also allow earlier topics to percolate, making them ripe for revisiting later.
If the interview does end up rather flat, remember that you can fill in a lot through interviews with secondary sources—the scientist’s colleagues, mentors, students, or family members. Be direct in asking them for what you need, says Banaszynski. “You can even say, ‘He didn’t want to get personal, so I need some help here.’”
But, secondary sources sometimes need even more guidance on what type of input a reporter is looking for, and prompting them for good material can be its own art. If you simply call at the appointed time and ask, Can you tell me about so-and-so?, you might not get much, Banaszynski cautions. A day or two before you’ve arranged to speak, get the source’s memory bubbling by emailing them some examples of the kinds of questions you might ask.
A Sense of Place … and Time
A major determinant of how your interview will go is where it will occur. “If there is any way to do the interview in person, do that—it makes such a difference,” says Henig. “You ask questions differently. The whole pace is different.”
After the sit-down part, try to get your subject on the move, perhaps by taking a tour of their lab or another place that’s meaningful for them. “If it’s at all appropriate, one great place to get people talking is in the car,” says Banaszynski.
If you’re relegated to the phone, ask setting and sensory questions, says Banaszynski. What does your lab look like? Are there smells to these chemicals? What’s the first thing you see when you step out of the tent in the morning? Also, ask to see artifacts, or photos of them: the tiny gold grill that holds samples in electron microscopy, the moldy petri dish, the DIY tool used to conduct the surgery.
Finally, if at all possible, try to meet a second time. “One advantage is that by then, I might actually have an inkling of what the article will look like—whether it will be a more personal or a more intellectual kind of thing,” says Henig. Coming in for another chat allows her to home in on the details she needs. In addition to giving a reporter a second chance to gather more information, Banaszynski says, the break gives the researcher a chance to mull over the first conversation—and in the meantime, they might think of things they wish they’d said the first time. They’re also likely to let their guard down a bit for a second conversation.
If setting up a second meeting (or even phone conversation) isn’t possible, you can create a bit of the same effect toward the end of your first interview, using a trick Banaszynski calls the Columbo technique. Start to wind down the interview, maybe even say your thank-yous and goodbyes. Then take a breath and say: “I know you have to go, let me just look through my notes …. Oh yeah, remember when you said X? Can you tell me a little more about that?”
Bhattacharjee, too, stresses the importance of time—“not the duration of an interview, but the interactions over a certain period of time, really adds dimension,” he says. If you actually have a few days on site with your subject, create opportunities to cross paths. If you planned to meet for a few hours every morning for three days, for example, find a reason to pop by for a moment in the evening, perhaps to return something you’ve borrowed. “It’s almost like a scientific exposure type of equation,” he says. “With every exposure you’re just increasing your chances of getting better material.”
Alla Katsnelson is a science writer and editor based in western Massachusetts. She has written for Knowable, Quanta, BBC Focus, Nature, Spectrum, and other publications, and she is a contributing editor at The Scientist. Maybe one day she will tweet @lalakat.