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Announcing the MIT Technology Review Covid Inequality Fellowships

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Announcing the MIT Technology Review Covid Inequality Fellowships


Early in the pandemic, some headlines argued that covid-19 was the great equalizer—because anyone, no matter their circumstance, could catch it. In reality, it was clear that the virus was affecting some groups of Americans in disproportionate, devastating ways. 

Black Americans, Hispanic Americans, Indigenous communities, and other people of color have been affected the most, and are dying at much higher rates. Incarcerated people have been left unprotected, and those in poverty have been among the hardest hit. Schoolchildren from poorer backgrounds are suffering the biggest educational setbacks, with lifelong repercussions. 

We know many of the reasons, including frontline jobs that expose workers to the virus, economic stresses, unstable housing and unequal health care that leads to worse outcomes. But there’s much more to learn, and much more to do about it.

To help explore these issues and help people’s stories get told, we’ve joined with the Heising Simons Foundation to create five MIT Technology Review Covid Inequality Fellowships.

Each fellowship provides up to $7,500 of financial support to help journalists report and produce stories about covid inequality—and how it’s being tackled—in under-covered communities in the US. Applicants will be judged by a panel of experts that includes some of the most incisive journalists and informed experts working today. Fellows will receive editorial oversight and assistance from our award-winning team; and the end results will be published in MIT Technology Review.

Applying for a Fellowship is straightforward: just take a look through our description of what we’re looking for, and then start submitting your application.

Who should apply

We’re offering two kinds of fellowship.

Freelancer fellowships: Apply for this if you’re an independent journalist who is not already attached to a specific publication. You may come from one of the affected communities you plan to report on, or you may know of an important story about a group you have gotten to know well.

Newsroom fellows: Apply for this if you’re a staff journalist working with a specific outlet, who is looking for extra support to follow up on a story that is important to you and the readers you serve.

If you have journalistic experience, and you want to tell stories about the way covid is affecting people—and what’s being done about it—we encourage you to apply.

What we’re looking for

Your story—or series of stories—will focus on a specific group of people and show how they have been affected by covid-19. It will show the human impacts and explore what kind of disparities exist in exposure, safety, treatment, or outcomes. It may look at how communities are using technologies, developing systems, or building alliances to overcome the problems they face.

MIT Technology Review is a publication about emerging technologies and the ways in which they are used, so we are particularly interested in:

  • The impact of vaccines and how they are distributed
  • Contact tracing, exposure notification, and/or the use of health data
  • How the pandemic is affecting the digital divide
  • Workplace virus protocols and surveillance
  • The impact of long covid on communities

Above all, these are human stories, with people at their center and a search for solutions at their core.

To get there, we’re looking for people who are committed to telling stories with care and dedication while applying rigorous standards and maintaining journalistic integrity. You don’t have to have a long track record in healthcare or science reporting, but you do have to be determined, prepared to challenge preconceptions, and be comfortable asking for help and taking guidance.

What we’re not looking for

These fellowships will not produce simplistic disaster narratives that underscore pre-existing tropes, and we don’t want parachute journalism from reporters who have no history with or insight into the communities they’re writing about. That doesn’t mean you have to identify as part of the community you’re proposing to cover, but it does mean you do have to show that you can report sensitively and thoroughly—and without further endangering them during the pandemic.

How we’ll support your work

Successful applicants will receive up to $7,500 to report and publish their stories. Work will be produced in conjunction with MIT Technology Review and published on our website—or co-published, in the case of Newsroom Fellowships. This money can be used to cover any or all costs related to the story, including your own time, reporting expenses, and travel (where it is safe.)  

We’ll provide editorial support to all fellows, with regular check-ins with our editors and advice from our team. For newsroom fellows, we’ll coordinate with your publication’s team to help you get the most out of the project.

Our panel of judges

Entries will be examined by a panel of some of the leading journalists and voices on the subjects we’re looking at. 

Alexis Madrigal is a staff writer at The Atlantic and co-founder of the Covid Tracking Project, which compiles, annotates, and publishes high-quality data about the outbreak. 

Mark J. Rochester is the editor in chief of Type Media Center, and was previously senior news director for investigations at the Detroit Free Press. He has served on the national board of directors of Investigative Reporters & Editors.

Krystal Tsosie is a Navajo bioethicist and geneticist at Vanderbilt University. She is an advocate for ethical genomic research that respects the rights of Indigenous people.

Seema Yasmin is an Emmy Award-winning journalist, poet, medical doctor and author. She is currently director of the Stanford Health Communication Initiative at Stanford University, and a regular contributor on the covid pandemic for CNN.

Gideon Lichfield is the editor in chief of MIT Technology Review. He joined the publication in 2017 after being a founding editor at Quartz and reporting from Moscow, Jerusalem, and Mexico City for The Economist.

Applications for the Fellowships are now open. The final deadline for applications is Sunday March 21, 2021. Selected fellows will be announced in early April 2021.

The fine print

These fellowships are US-only; Fellows must be legally able to work in the United States. Stories must be designed for text: although video and audio can be part of the output, your story will need to center around written journalism, which can include news reporting, narratives, or data. Projects do not have a minimum timescale, but drafts must be completed by the end of 2021. All stories will be subject to editing, fact-checking, and legal review.

Here are some of the key things we’ll require in the first stage of the application process.

  • A well-written outline of your story or project of no more than 750 words. We are looking for a compelling pitch that gives an overview of the people, places, information, and issues that you will be bringing into the spotlight.
  • A reporting plan that includes (a) a proposed timeline and (b) an explanation of how you plan to report in a covid-safe manner on the communities you are focused on. Speed is not a factor in our decision, but it’s good to know how you plan to carry out the task of researching, reporting, and producing your story.
  • A written personal statement (maximum 500 words) telling us about your prior work, relevant experiences and your connection to the community you’re proposing to cover.
  • Three samples of original work. If this is not freely available online (for example, it is behind a paywall, or only available in print) please provide PDF files.
  • Newsroom fellowship applicants will be required to submit a letterhead statement confirming that you have the support of your publication.

Shortlisted applicants will be asked to provide more information, including a breakdown of how they’d spend the fellowship award, answer a questionnaire about the risks their project faces, and supply two letters of recommendation.

If you have any questions about this application process, you can contact senior editor Bobbie Johnson by email.

Click here to apply now

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How Twitter’s “Teacher Li” became the central hub of China protest information

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How Twitter’s “Teacher Li” became the central hub of China protest information


It’s hard to describe the feeling that came after. It’s like everyone is coming to you and all kinds of information from all over the world is converging toward you and [people are] telling you: Hey, what’s happening here; hey, what’s happening there; do you know, this is what’s happening in Guangzhou; I’m in Wuhan, Wuhan is doing this; I’m in Beijing, and I’m following the big group and walking together. Suddenly all the real-time information is being submitted to me, and I don’t know how to describe that feeling. But there was also no time to think about it. 

My heart was beating very fast, and my hands and my brain were constantly switching between several software programs—because you know, you can’t save a video with Twitter’s web version. So I was constantly switching software, editing the video, exporting it, and then posting it on Twitter. [Editor’s note: Li adds subtitles, blocks out account information, and compiles shorter videos into one.] By the end, there was no time to edit the videos anymore. If someone shot and sent over a 12-second WeChat video, I would just use it as is. That’s it. 

I got the largest amount of [private messages] around 6:00 p.m. on Sunday night. At that time, there were many people on the street in five major cities in China: Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Wuhan, and Guangzhou. So I basically was receiving a dozen private messages every second. In the end, I couldn’t even screen the information anymore. I saw it, I clicked on it, and if it was worth posting, I posted it.

People all over the country are telling me about their real-time situations. In order for more people not to be in danger, they went to the [protest] sites themselves and sent me what was going on there. Like, some followers were riding bikes near the presidential palace in Nanjing, taking pictures, and telling me about the situation in the city. And then they asked me to inform everyone to be cautious. I think that’s a really moving thing.

It’s like I have gradually become an anchor sitting in a TV studio, getting endless information from reporters on the scene all over the country. For example, on Monday in Hangzhou, there were five or six people updating me on the latest news simultaneously. But there was a break because all of them were fleeing when the police cleared the venue. 

On the importance of staying objective 

There are a lot of tweets that embellish the truth. From their point of view, they think it’s the right thing to do. They think you have to maximize the outrage so that there can be a revolt. But for me, I think we need reliable information. We need to know what’s really going on, and that’s the most important thing. If we were doing it for the emotion, then in the end I really would have been part of the “foreign influence,” right? 

But if there is a news account outside China that can record what’s happening objectively, in real time, and accurately, then people inside the Great Firewall won’t have doubts anymore. At this moment, in this quite extreme situation of a continuous news blackout, to be able to have an account that can keep posting news from all over the country at a speed of almost one tweet every few seconds is actually a morale boost for everyone. 

Chinese people grow up with patriotism, so they become shy or don’t dare to say something directly or oppose something directly. That’s why the crowd was singing the national anthem and waving the red flag, the national flag [during protests]. You have to understand that the Chinese people are patriotic. Even when they are demanding things [from the government], they do it with that sentiment. 

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Your microbiome ages as you do—and that’s a problem

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Your microbiome ages as you do—and that’s a problem


These ecosystems appear to change as we age—and these changes can potentially put us at increased risk of age-related diseases. So how can we best look after them as we get old? And could an A-grade ecosystem help fend off diseases and help us lead longer, healthier lives?

It’s a question I’ve been pondering this week, partly because I know a few people who have been put on antibiotics for winter infections. These drugs—lifesaving though they can be—can cause mass destruction of gut microbes, wiping out the good along with the bad. How might people who take them best restore a healthy ecosystem afterwards?

I also came across a recent study in which scientists looked at thousands of samples of people’s gut microbe populations to see how they change with age. The standard approach to working out what microbes are living in a person’s gut is to look at feces. The idea is that when we have a bowel movement, we shed plenty of gut bacteria. Scientists can find out which species and strains of bacteria are present to get an estimate of what’s in your intestines.

In this study, a team based at University College Cork in Ireland analyzed data that had already been collected from 21,000 samples of human feces. These had come from people all over the world, including Europe, North and South America, Asia, and Africa. Nineteen nationalities were represented. The samples were all from adults between 18 and 100. 

The authors of this study wanted to get a better handle on what makes for a “good” microbiome, especially as we get older. It has been difficult for microbiologists to work this out. We do know that some bacteria can produce compounds that are good for our guts. Some seem to aid digestion, for example, while others lower inflammation.
 
But when it comes to the ecosystem as a whole, things get more complicated. At the moment, the accepted wisdom is that variety seems to be a good thing—the more microbial diversity, the better. Some scientists believe that unique microbiomes also have benefits, and that a collection of microbes that differs from the norm can keep you healthy.
 
The team looked at how the microbiomes of younger people compared with those of older people, and how they appeared to change with age. The scientists also looked at how the microbial ecosystems varied with signs of unhealthy aging, such as cognitive decline, frailty, and inflammation.
 
They found that the microbiome does seem to change with age, and that, on the whole, the ecosystems in our guts do tend to become more unique—it looks as though we lose aspects of a general “core” microbiome and stray toward a more individual one.
 
But this isn’t necessarily a good thing. In fact, this uniqueness seems to be linked to unhealthy aging and the development of those age-related symptoms listed above, which we’d all rather stave off for as long as possible. And measuring diversity alone doesn’t tell us much about whether the bugs in our guts are helpful or not in this regard.
 
The findings back up what these researchers and others have seen before, challenging the notion that uniqueness is a good thing. Another team has come up with a good analogy, which is known as the Anna Karenina principle of the microbiome: “All happy microbiomes look alike; each unhappy microbiome is unhappy in its own way.”
 
Of course, the big question is: What can we do to maintain a happy microbiome? And will it actually help us stave off age-related diseases?
 
There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that, on the whole, a diet with plenty of fruit, vegetables, and fiber is good for the gut. A couple of years ago, researchers found that after 12 months on a Mediterranean diet—one rich in olive oil, nuts, legumes, and fish, as well as fruit and veg—older people saw changes in their microbiomes that might benefit their health. These changes have been linked to a lowered risk of developing frailty and cognitive decline.
 
But at the individual level, we can’t really be sure of the impact that changes to our diets will have. Probiotics are a good example; you can chug down millions of microbes, but that doesn’t mean that they’ll survive the journey to your gut. Even if they do get there, we don’t know if they’ll be able to form niches in the existing ecosystem, or if they might cause some kind of unwelcome disruption. Some microbial ecosystems might respond really well to fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchi, while others might not.
 
I personally love kimchi and sauerkraut. If they do turn out to support my microbiome in a way that protects me against age-related diseases, then that’s just the icing on the less-microbiome-friendly cake.

To read more, check out these stories from the Tech Review archive:
 
At-home microbiome tests can tell you which bugs are in your poo, but not much more than that, as Emily Mullin found.
 
Industrial-scale fermentation is one of the technologies transforming the way we produce and prepare our food, according to these experts.
 
Can restricting your calorie intake help you live longer? It seems to work for monkeys, as Katherine Bourzac wrote in 2009. 
 
Adam Piore bravely tried caloric restriction himself to find out if it might help people, too. Teaser: even if you live longer on the diet, you will be miserable doing so. 

From around the web:

Would you pay $15,000 to save your cat’s life? More people are turning to expensive surgery to extend the lives of their pets. (The Atlantic)
 
The World Health Organization will now start using the term “mpox” in place of “monkeypox,” which will be phased out over the next year. (WHO)
 
After three years in prison, He Jiankui—the scientist behind the infamous “CRISPR babies”—is attempting a comeback. (STAT)
 
Tech that allows scientists to listen in on the natural world is revealing some truly amazing discoveries. Who knew that Amazonian sea turtles make more than 200 distinct sounds? And that they start making sounds before they even hatch? (The Guardian)
 
These recordings provide plenty of inspiration for musicians. Whale song is particularly popular. (The New Yorker)
 
Scientists are using tiny worms to diagnose pancreatic cancer. The test, launched in Japan, could be available in the US next year. (Reuters)

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The Download: circumventing China’s firewall, and using AI to invent new drugs

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The Download: circumventing China’s firewall, and using AI to invent new drugs


As protests against rigid covid control measures in China engulfed social media in the past week, one Twitter account has emerged as the central source of information: @李老师不是你老师 (“Teacher Li Is Not Your Teacher”). 

People everywhere in China have sent protest footage and real-time updates to the account through private messages, and it has posted them, with the sender’s identity hidden, on their behalf.

The man behind the account, Li, is a Chinese painter based in Italy, who requested to be identified only by his last name in light of the security risks. He’s been tirelessly posting footage around the clock to help people within China get information, and also to inform the wider world.

The work has been taking its toll—he’s received death threats, and police have visited his family back in China. But it also comes with a sense of liberation, Li told Zeyi Yang, our China reporter. Read the full story.

Biotech labs are using AI inspired by DALL-E to invent new drugs

The news: Text-to-image AI models like OpenAI’s DALL-E 2—programs trained to generate pictures of almost anything you ask for—have sent ripples through the creative industries. Now, two biotech labs are using this type of generative AI, known as a diffusion model, to conjure up designs for new types of protein never seen in nature.

Why it matters: Proteins are the fundamental building blocks of living systems. These protein generators can be directed to produce designs for proteins with specific properties, such as shape or size or function. In effect, this makes it possible to come up with new proteins to do particular jobs on demand. Researchers hope that this will eventually lead to the development of new and more effective drugs. Read the full story.

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