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How a Little Plastic Radio Changed My Life Completely

Farida Jhabvala Romero reporting in Mendota, CA broccoli field
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What’s the difference between a job you love and a job that’s just a paycheck? It often shows up in your attitude. Do you approach each day with anticipation and excitement? Or are you dragging yourself out of bed every morning?

Here’s a mind-blowingly simple method to help you find your dream career: Pay attention to your surroundings. For Farida Jhabvala, Associate Producer and Reporter at Radio Bilingüe, the answer to her career quandaries came in the form of a small plastic radio. While working in a science lab, she realized that the radio was her connection to the outside world, and the stories she learned from it were far more compelling than the work she was doing in the lab.

We catch up with Farida to learn about how she went from genes to journalism—and why she couldn’t be happier about the decision.

What did you study in college?

I have a BA from Reed College in Biology. My thesis was on estrogen receptors and where they are localized in cells from cats. I made a construct with protein that glows so I could track the movement within the cells.

As far as continuing education, I’ve taken some journalism classes at SF City College and I’ve been awarded grants and fellowships to continue working in journalism.

What did you do right after you graduated? Did you have a break between undergrad and graduate studies?

I worked at a lab that studied breast cancer at Oregon Health & Science University for about two and a half years and then I decided that I wanted to travel in India (where my dad is from), so I went to spend a year in Mumbai.

I had actually applied and been accepted to a PhD program in biology, so I was planning to start that when I got back from my trip.

I was in India during the World Social Forum, and started communicating with journalists who were putting it together, and that showed me more of what I wanted to be doing.

When I moved back to the US, I started working for a firm called Resource Media, taking journalism classes, and working as a freelancer. I worked with El Mensajero and did an internship for Radio Bilingüe. When a position opened up, I applied and I got it.

How did you decide to make the transition from working in a lab to becoming a journalist?

I sort of suspected that I didn’t want to focus all of my time on these little things that nobody else knew about. Not to say that science or research isn’t important, because it is, but being in India put everything into perspective. For the people there, it seemed like what I had been working on wasn’t relevant to them. It made me feel like I wanted to deal with things that affected people in the everyday world at the individual level and I’d much rather work there than at the micro level of microbiology.

I had always liked radio and I had actually worked on a show when I was growing up in Mexico. It was called Fábrica de Colores, I did that for a couple of years when I was 6 or 7 and then I totally forgot about it. When I was at OHSU, I spent all day in the lab, and the type of work I did with pipettes was basically like being in a kitchen, following recipes. I was always listening to NPR and Oregon Public Radio, and listening to those programs that I loved so much kind of started the bug of switching tracks.

What are you currently doing? What types of tasks do you perform in a typical day?

A lot of what I do is organize a national news show that airs Monday through Friday. I help decide what we talk about on air, who we’ll invite to the program. I coordinate getting those people on the show and pre-interview them so the host knows which direction the story will go when they’re on air. I do a lot of research, talking to people, cold calling, trying to get interviews with legislators, trying to find first-person stories and eyewitnesses. For this type of production work, you don’t really write a formal story; you do all the prep work and then give it to someone else.

I also work as a reporter, and in those cases I write stories for Radio Bilingüe and I also do some freelance work for NPR’s Radio Latino USA. The latest stories I’ve done focus on artists, but I’ve also covered the economy, health, and other topics in longer feature pieces. The role of a reporter requires figuring out what you’re going to write about, pitching it to the editor, contacting people who are involved, interviewing, recording audio, writing the story, and putting the audio together so it sounds like a produced piece.

What do you like and dislike about your current role?

I am very curious about many things in the world and I love it that I have a job where I’m paid to learn and be analytical and ask questions even if they might sound stupid.

I also love the fact that I can have the time to learn more about people’s stories; everybody has so much to tell. Every time I walk down the street, I have a new appreciation for what people might be going through. Everybody has a story and it’s a luxury to be able to record that and create an oral history. For example, I recently interviewed traditional indigenous artists from Oaxaca whose music and language is endangered. To get that in audio and have it online… it feels great to be able to catch that.

I enjoy the production, but what I really love is reporting. I have to do a lot of hunting people down, trying to reach them, get them to return my calls. I have to do a lot of calls, sending emails, and I wish I could dedicate more time to reporting.

What advice would you give to current college students who are science majors?

Try to work as much as you can in the field that you think you want to focus on. I think if I’d had more of that practical sense of what it was like to work in science, it would’ve been really helpful for me to decide what I wanted to study.

Things that you hear like “you’ll be able to get a job,” “you’ll make good money” if you study science are true, but that’s not enough to take you to work every day. It’s important to try to find your passion. It might sound cheesy, but it’s true. There are different ways you can convince yourself to do something, but it’s one thing to study something and another thing to actually do that job.

Do you feel like your scientific training comes into play in your current job?

The only way I feel like I’ve used those skills is that I am skeptical and I try to find the background with statistics and facts and get other opinions. As a journalist you don’t want to become a mouthpiece for anyone, so it’s important to fact-check everything included in your story. I’d also say that science gave me an appreciation of statistics and graphs.

Coming from a background where science education isn’t very strong, and going to a place like Reed, playing and discovering nature was a luxury and I thought it was amazing. Trying to find deep-down questions of human existence, those questions just blew me away, so I loved every minute of studying biology in college. But working in a lab, what you’re doing is repeating a lot of experiments over and over again. It was interesting, but not enough to keep me going every day.

Homework time! Farida talks about wishing she’d known more about what the day-to-day life of a scientist would be like before she’d pursued a career as one. Try to find someone who works in the field that you’re interested in and see if you can talk with them for half an hour or so about their job. If you’re not sure how to find someone, ask your family, friends, professors, or career services staff. And don’t forget to search the AfterCollege Blog—we interview lots of different people about their jobs!

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