St. Olaf alumna Diane Havlir is considered one of the most influential AIDS researchers in the world. Last fall, her alma mater brought her back to campus to give her an alumni achievement award, and St. Olaf alumni magazine editor Carole Leigh Engblom contacted me to cover Havlir’s work and life in a feature story for the magazine. She wanted someone who could convey the importance of Havlir’s work in a way that was engaging and accessible to readers.
For a high-profile alumna like Havlir, it’s critically important for colleges to hire freelancers who won’t just do a great job, but who will represent the college well. No matter who I’m interviewing or what the story is, I know that part of my job is to be an ambassador for a school. In some cases, the writer is the only representative of the school that the source will communicate with, so I take great pains to ensure that their experience is a positive one.
To prepare for my conversation with Havlir on the technical aspects of her AIDS research, I spent hours poring through journal articles, interviews, and newspaper articles. I spent two hours on the road so I could see her give an hour-long talk. And I also prepared for some of the emotionally challenging aspects of Havlir’s story. Despite her massive successes and her critical work propelling the field forward, she’s had significant setbacks. Her front-page appearance on the New York Times, for example, came not after she’d perfected the critical “AIDS cocktail” — but after one of her most promising experiments failed. I wanted to talk with her not just about what it meant to succeed, but how she recovered from setbacks. In the interview and follow-ups, I made sure not to cover her life like it was a highlight reel; we dove deep into what it meant to her when she watched mothers sitting at hospital bedsides, helpless as they watched their young adult sons succumb to the disease.
The 2,500-word cover story covered not just her life’s work, but how her work fit into the larger trajectory of AIDS research, treatments, and someday, cures. Read it here.
Engblom called the finished piece “substantive and compelling,” and made it the cover story for the Winter 2014 issue of the magazine. Havlir was equally pleased with the result, writing, “This is a really well written piece, wow. I am so honored. You captured a part of me that does not surface in our traditional dry scientific biosketches.”
Alumni magazines have incredible opportunities to tell important stories that aren’t told elsewhere. And I believe it’s my job to do the deep work that helps alumni feel comfortable sharing those stories and build even stronger connections with their school.