University graduates often complain of the gap between what they study in classrooms and what they encounter in the job market. Ola Al-Ghazawy, founder of Planet X, a digital platform she set up to help would-be science journalists, has managed to take her passion for science and make a career out of it.
After graduating from Cairo University’s Faculty of Pharmacy in 2004, Al-Ghazawy worked for three years in a pharmacy, only to find that her job was confined to handing prescribed medications to customers. It was far from chemistry, which she always loved.
“My job was almost completely detached from the nature of my study, which had to do with drug interactions and lab experiments in drug manufacturing. This was not at all what I dreamed of,” she says.
In 2008, Al-Ghazawy quit her job and followed a friend’s advice to become a producer of health programs for television specialized in science and biology.
“The opportunity opened up a new world for me. I saw in it a lot of enjoyment and a lasting passion for new details in scientific articles as the main content for the episodes I produce,” she added.
Her experience in television encouraged her to write for the About Islam website, whose science editor at the time, Nadia El-Awady, wanted to attract contributors with a science background for what was a new type of journalism in Egypt.
Al-Ghazawy had not previously heard of science journalism but after she was introduced to the basics of writing a scientific article, she learned quickly, El-Awady said.
“The chief advantages that helped Al-Ghazawy quickly develop and become an expert in science journalism are her confidence in her work and her continuous appreciation for criticism and conversation with her editor about improving her work.”Nadia El-Awady
Science writer and editor
“The chief advantages that helped Al-Ghazawy quickly develop and become an expert in science journalism are her confidence in her work and her continuous appreciation for criticism and conversation with her editor about improving her work,” El-Awady explained.
Exploring Science Journalism, and the World
Later, Al-Ghazawy enrolled in a two-year training program in science journalism organized by the International Federation of Journalists. She traveled to several countries to write reports on scientific issues and attended a number of training workshops.
Al-Ghazawy believes the most valuable aspects of the program are that it breaks the stereotype of scientific material as dry and out of touch with daily life, and that it encourages participants to look closely at the scientific basis for their reports.
“Science journalism helped me explore the world and open up to the cultures of different countries, and also learn from all my travels after I had been working in a one-square-meter pharmacy,” she said.
One issue that affected her deeply is female genital mutilation, about which she wrote a series of reports from several African countries to document violations against women’s rights.
“I heard psychologically harmful stories during which I learned about the role of religious interpretation in justifying this practice. It is even labeled a ‘Christian practice’ in some countries and a ‘Pharaonic practice’ in others,” she said.
In a recent article for the Arabic edition of Scientific American, Al-Ghazawy outlines the most prominent proposals for a fair distribution of the Covid-19 vaccine and examines the biggest flaws in those proposals.
In addition to her interest in science journalism, she also worked for about five years at Zewail City of Science and Technology where she was in charge of the website’s scientific content and helped develop marketing and communications strategy.
She says that while she was there, Ahmed Zewail, the late Nobel-Prize winning chemist, impressed upon her his keen interest in science communication and the need to make sure press releases were free of scientific errors and exaggeration.
The Pandemic: a Turning Point
Last May, as misinformation about the novel coronavirus and about treatments began to spread in conjunction with the pandemic in Egypt, Al-Ghazawy decided to launch a digital platform dedicated to delivering accurate scientific information to the public.
“The pandemic was a turning point for science journalism in the Arab region,” she said. “The virus captured the attention of the entire world and became the most in-demand subject in different media. Even journalists covering politics and economy wrote reports about the pandemic.”
“Al-Ghazawy’s experience in science journalism and digital marketing have helped her produce content that is attractive to the audience and, more importantly, transform the output of scientific research.”Ashraf Amin
Science editor of the state-run Al-Ahram newspaper
However, she explained that the main drive for launching Planet X was to help young people get acquainted with the basics of science journalism and to provide a training platform for those who are interested but have little experience in that field.
El-Awady, who is also a former president of the World Federation of Science Journalists, believes that what distinguishes Planet X is its use of simple language and storytelling to present scientific content and its interaction with followers’ questions.
“The platform is a solid resource for journalists interested in enhancing their skills to expand their opportunities,” El-Awady says.
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Ashraf Amin, science editor of the state-run Al-Ahram newspaper Amin, believes that Planet X’s advantage is the flexibility in its content and its presentation on various platforms. He says Al-Ghazawy’s experience in science journalism and digital marketing have helped her produce content that is attractive to the audience and, more importantly, transform the output of scientific research.
According to Al-Ghazawy, the platform is still at an early stage. It requires more effort to provide better service to those interested in science journalism.