Photo: Nsikan Akpan ’06, right, interviewing Oliver Steeds, founder of nonprofit marine research foundation Nekton, in Bermuda for the PBS NewsHour show ScienceScope, which Akpan cocreated and hosted.
NSIKAN AKPAN ’06
THE STORY OF SCIENCE
Nsikan Akpan ’06 accepted a position as science editor at National Geographic in January 2020. “It was the very beginning of the pandemic,” he recalls. “The outbreak was starting to become more serious every day. I wrote a story about the novel coronavirus, which is what we were calling it back then. The story discussed how this new virus was showing signs of being similar to other serious viruses like SARS and MERS, and what that might mean.” The piece, which was written for the website, got a lot of traffic. National Geographic put Akpan in charge of its online COVID coverage. He developed a health journalism team, and his desk averaged about four new stories per week. “It was wild to suddenly have millions of people read the stories we were writing,” he says. “We were looking to report impactful stories about the coronavirus. We focused on uncovering stories in the pandemic rather than breaking health news. It was more about finding that second angle to put things into context for people. For example, we examined how socioeconomics played a role in millennials and Gen Z causing outbreaks. These generations spread the virus because they needed to go to work in person, not because they were going to bars or parties. In March, we wrote about how the stress of the pandemic was affecting everyone’s dreams. Several other outlets copied that story. It was a great year. We expanded the scope of National Geographic’s coverage. We were influencing the media landscape, driving the conversation, and complicating the narrative.”
Passionate about communicating complex scientific ideas to a mainstream audience, Akpan ignites people’s curiosity about how the world works. “I try to cover topics that no one else is covering,” he says. “Like a random case of a person who was fully vaccinated for measles and ended up getting the measles. I can take something very technical and explain it to people. It’s about finding the scoops that people are ignoring because they are too hard to tell, sciencewise. A story in plain view. Long-form magazine writing and broadcast are the two forms that pull on me.”
Akpan’s parents came to the United States from Nigeria in the 1970s, when his father won a presidential scholarship to study civil engineering. However, he experienced racism in the program and then funding dried up, so his father left school and went to work in construction. His mother, who was trained as an accountant, also struggled to find a highpaying job, so she worked at a school cafeteria to help support their family. Akpan grew up in the Atlanta suburbs— first Alpharetta and later Woodstock, Georgia—and remembers seeing a bulletin for a KKK rally as a kid, as well as having to navigate other examples of racism. His teachers recognized his talent but had a difficult time getting him into advanced placement or gifted classes. Finally, a program called Duke TIP that seeks out promising students across the country recognized his academic potential. “In freshman year of high school, I got a recruitment letter from Bard College at Simon’s Rock saying we found you through the Duke TIP,” he says. “There was something very attractive about starting college early. Although my mother still tells me I owe her two years for leaving home young.”
At Simon’s Rock, Akpan found many mentors, including David Myers (chemistry), William Dunbar (mathematics), Emmanuel Dongala (chemistry), and Robert E. Schmidt (biology), with whom he spent a summer fishing for eels in the Hudson River on an ecological field research project. At Bard, he majored in biology, played varsity soccer, and continued to develop important relationships with mentors and friends. One of his closest friends was Justin Halsey, whose father is Mark Halsey (vice president for institutional planning and research, and associate professor of mathematics at Bard). “I was invited to their home every Thanksgiving,” says Akpan. “The Halseys were my adopted family while at Bard.” Michael Tibbetts (professor of biology) was his main adviser. “He really wanted us to be able to communicate about science,” says Akpan. “He contributed to my wanting to become a journalist. His exams were essay questions. We needed to know how to explain and to extrapolate to the next step.”
Akpan went on to earn his PhD in cell biology and pathobiology from Columbia University, where he researched mechanisms of stroke neurodegeneration and novel therapeutic strategies. However, he was no longer drawn to a career in academia. “After graduate school, I could tell you everything you wanted to know about apoptosis [programmed cell death], but I couldn’t keep up with politics, a mayor’s race, or even new findings about black holes,” he says. “I wanted to explore a broader world of science.” Akpan often listened to RadioLab while doing lab work. “It clicked in my brain. This must be a job. These people are doing this professionally.” He began working as a science writer at Columbia’s Center for Infection and Immunity while freelancing in journalism on the side. “I pitched a story idea about the impact of government shutdowns on medical research to Robin Lloyd, an editor at Scientific American at the time,” he says. “She told me she’d only accept the pitch if I could file the story that day. When you are a young journalist on assignment, you just have to go. Send out your interview questions. Write quickly and clearly. I appreciate the crucible she put me through.” Once he began freelancing, he knew he wanted to be a science journalist and pursued a master’s degree in science communication at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Akpan eventually landed a job at PBS NewsHour, where he was digital science producer and cocreator, with Matthew Ehrichs, of the NewsHour digital series ScienceScope. “I was flying by the seat of my pants,” says Akpan, “learning how to run and produce a series.” Their first episode, “What a smell looks like” won the 2016 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Silver Award in television spot news/feature reporting. He also worked on the Emmy Award–winning series Stopping a Killer Pandemic as well as the Peabody Award–winning series The Plastic Problem. “One of the cooler experiences I had at PBS NewsHour involved riding in a submersible off the coast of Bermuda while interviewing a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration marine biologist in a second submersible over radio,” he says. “The story was about whether or not coral, namely their eggs, could migrate farther down in the ocean to cooler temperatures and survive. It was a oncein-a-lifetime experience. If I had stayed in the lab, I would never have had that opportunity.”
Akpan says the most challenging aspect of his chosen field has been the lack of diversity: “There are unconscious biases when it comes to science and health, and journalism too. People who are in charge have a tough time hearing a person of color correct their misconceptions. It can be uncomfortable when somebody who is Black is telling them, ’No, this is how this thing works. Here’s the research.’ People aren’t used to people of color being the scientific experts in the room. A lot of times I have to act dumber than I actually am. There’s a lot of kowtowing or eggshells you have to navigate as a person of color explaining science.”
In January 2021, Akpan jumped at the opportunity to be back in public broadcasting. He is now health and science editor at New York Public Radio and The Gothamist. “The editor-in-chief, Audrey Cooper, is very intentional about trying to diversify the newsroom,” says Akpan. “She wants to make the newsroom match the demographics of the city. We are being intentional in hiring BIPOC writers and editors, beyond just entrylevel positions.”
Akpan’s desk covers COVID and climate change, as well as other important science topics that come up. “I want to expose our audience to the broad spectrum of scientific research that is going on all around them just within the tristate area,” he says. “Just walk through Annandale-on-Hudson and there is a lab at Bard studying zebrafish.” Over his career, Akpan has been fine-tuning his sense of what sparks people’s curiosity and feels relevant to their lives. “This pandemic is pushing health and science reporting to a new level,” he continues. “People want serious, fact-based, relevant writing. The last year has shown we can’t undervalue science. If people have a better understanding of how particles work, there would be less debate on masking. They can immediately understand risk levels. Basic scientific understanding can help remove the fear.”
Nsikan Akpan ’06 received the John Dewey Award for Distinguished Public Service from Bard College in 2021.