Two Mondays ago on February 6th, STEMGeMs, led by Sofia Pardo, organized a speaker event for Michelle Nijhuis (‘96), a Reed alumni who has since gone on to become an acclaimed journalist focused on the science of conservationism. STEMGeMs is a club that supports gender minorities in STEM. The group hosts speakers, and events such as board game nights, and anti-procrastination study groups. Last week, they hosted Michelle Nijhuis.
While at Reed, Nijhuis majored in biology. Although she always had an interest in writing, she did not study it as a student. Beginning her slide show, Nijhuis showed us a picture of herself fresh out of college, at a job in the Southwest using a (for its time) state of the art GPS, a long rod with a mushroom-like cap on the top. Despite having graduated with a biology degree, Nijhuis said, “I was pretty certain I didn’t want to be a conventional research biologist, because I didn’t think I had that kind of focus.” She knew she had knack for learning, and especially for finding connections between bits of information across different disciplines. “The best choice for me was to become a journalist.”
Her first foray into the journalism world was as an intern at High Country News, where she still works today, though now as the Acting Editor-in-Chief. While interning there, she discovered her love for journalism. “I knew for sure this was what I wanted to do,” Nijhuis said, “now the question was how to do it.” Journalism and freelancing are not the most stable jobs out there, and she was well aware of that. “People thought I was nuts,” she joked.
Nijhuis was able to delve so far into journalism and freelancing partly because of the way she lived. When Nijhuis moved to Colorado, her husband (then-boyfriend) had just finished building a beautiful, alternative architecture house right off the grid. Though the income of a freelance journalist (especially one so new) isn’t particularly high, she was able to subsist off of it alongside her husband in that beautiful, solar-paneled house.
Having been a journalist for so long, Nijhuis has written more than a few notable articles. One of my personal favorites, at least from the few I’ve read so far, is “Bilbo Baggins is a Girl” – a story about Nijhuis reading The Hobbit to her daughter with a she/her Bilbo Baggins. The story went viral, and some people were upset. “People were mad about Bilbo Baggins being a girl, and then I would say, ‘He’s not real!’” said Nijhuis.
Alongside the Bilbo Baggins story, Nijhuis has written a series of award-winning articles on conservationism, climate change, ecology, and more. Furthermore, in 2021, Nijhuis also published a book – Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction, a history of conservationism and the people who served as turning points within it. “It’s kind of a relay race from one generation to the next,” Nijhuis said, “We usually read about conservationism as isolated icons working by themselves, and what’s clear to me is that it’s nothing like that. People are working together, learning from each other, and disagreeing as well.”
Some of the relevant skills Nijhuis says she learned at Reed include:
How to read…How to skim a scientific paper.
- How to “trespass” in other disciplines. AKA how to learn from other disciplines despite not focusing on them.
- How to see a project through. (Thesis students, looking at you.)
- How to do hard brain stuff.
- How to eat cheaply. (As journalists often do.)
Michelle Nijhuis ended the event by listing some of the skills she wishes she could have learned at Reed. Among them were how to aspire to anything other than an academic career, as Reed places heavy emphasis on the academic side of things. Further along the academic standpoint, she said she wished she had learned how to write for general leaders, how to run a business and network, and how to work and live in a more “conventional” setting – as Reed is decidedly unconventional. Lastly, she wished she had learned to be a good collaborator. Reed is a very individualistic environment and doesn’t exactly set up students to work with people both ahead and behind them in their respective fields.
Michelle Nijhuis is one of many Reed alum speakers, and only one of the speakers planned by STEMGeMs. If you’re interested in learning about the events ahead of time, consider signing up for their email list at bit.ly/stemgemslist!
By L Urena