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Nontraditional Careers

Career Ladder

Career Ladder: Michaeleen Doucleff

A degree in chemistry helps this award-winning journalist and author look at science news with a critical eye

by Bethany Halford
July 29, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 27


A woman stands before a whiteboard that is covered in equations.
Credit: Courtesy of Michaeleen Doucleff
Doucleff solving equilibrium equations during her postdoc


The academic route

Michaeleen Doucleff always loved science, but she traveled a winding path on the way to her dream job. After graduating from the California Institute of Technology with a degree in biology, Doucleff worked as a computer programmer during the dot-com boom of the late 1990s. “I was terrible at it,” she says. “And I hated it, to be honest.” She returned to school, studying grape genomics at the University of California, Davis. She went on to earn a PhD in physical chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, where she used X-ray crystallography and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy to study biomolecules. Next, she moved to the National Institutes of Health as a postdoctoral fellow, where, in addition to doung lab work, she authored her first book, Pocket Guide to Biomolecular NMR.


A woman stands with recording equipment.
Credit: Sanjit Das
Doucleff on assignment in Nipah, Malaysia, for National Public Radio

Turning points

While doing her postdoc, Doucleff moonlighted as a freelance writer, penning articles for health magazines after a day in the lab. Realizing that she didn’t want to be a researcher, Doucleff applied for academic teaching positions and jobs at scientific journals. She decided to take an editing and writing position at the journal Cell. “That’s where I realized I love writing,” she says. But her writing almost got her fired. Doucleff angered her bosses at Cell when, without their permission, she wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal about why Adele’s “Someone Like You” is a tearjerker. Their response prompted Doucleff to apply for an opening at National Public Radio (NPR).


Getting tuned in to radio

Doucleff started out writing for NPR’s social media feeds, but her editors encouraged her to write news pieces as well. She discovered that she had a knack for finding important stories and says her scientific background “helps me keep a lot of ideas in my mind at once and also helps me call BS on a lot of stuff.” Doucleff’s role at NPR shifted in 2014 when she volunteered to go to West Africa to cover the Ebola outbreak. That’s when she learned to work as a radio journalist, and the experience ignited a passion for traveling to cover science.


Best-selling author

A woman and a young child.
Credit: Simone Anne
Doucleff with her daughter Rosy

Doucleff currently covers global health as a correspondent on NPR’s science desk. In 2021, she published Hunt, Gather, Parent, a book about her travels with her young daughter to learn parenting strategies from Mayan families in Mexico, Inuit families north of the Arctic Circle, and Hadzabe families in Tanzania. Doucleff doesn’t regret her days in the lab. “It really teaches you to learn, write independently, and come up with your own thoughts about things,” she says. “That’s helped me a lot as a journalist.”



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