Life Beyond Reed

Our recurring series on alumni careers.

Michelle Nijhuis ’96 & Ali Nouri ’97 | June 1, 2016

Our recurring series explores how the liberal arts shape the careers of Reed grads

Michelle Nijhuis ’96

Freelance Journalist

Fishers of the Yakama Nation. A new map of the Arctic. The history of wildfires. Volcanic eruptions. Dams on the Mekong River. Ada Lovelace. “Clean coal.” Dust. Snow. Fire. Bats. Michelle has one of the most fascinating jobs you could imagine—writing about science and the environment for National Geographic, the New Yorker, the Smithsonian, and a host of other publications. She lives in the heart of the spectacular Columbia Gorge and is also the coeditor of The Science Writers’ Handbook

Thesis: “Home Range of the Cascade Torrent salamander (Rhyacotriton cascadae) and Its Implications for Conservation.”

Adviser: Prof. Bob Kaplan [bio 1983–2015]

How did you get where you are? After graduation I spent a couple of years working as a field assistant on wildlife research projects in the Southwest and California. I was looking for a way to combine science with my interest in writing. Then I happened into an internship at High Country News, a magazine that covers environmental issues in the Western U.S. It was love at first draft. HCN was my graduate school in journalism—like many (but certainly not all) journalists, I learned most of what I know on the job. I spent four years on staff there and have been a full-time freelance journalist since 2002. I continue to write and edit for HCN as a contributing editor.

What do you like about your field? I love the process of “translating” science and knotty conservation issues for a popular audience, and I love the haphazard, lifelong education that I get as a working journalist.

What lessons have you learned? I’ve had to learn a lot about how good journalism happens, and how it can continue to happen at a time of great and continuing disruption within the profession. I’ve also had to learn a lot about how independent journalists (and other creative types) can keep themselves sane and solvent in the long run.

What else should we know about you? I lived off the electrical grid for 15 years in rural Colorado before returning to the Pacific Northwest in 2013. My husband, Jack, and I have a seven-year-old daughter who is convinced that Bilbo Baggins is a girl. I manage the stress of covering climate change through frequent bouts of British television.

Is journalism a good field for Reedies? Yes, because Reedies rarely care about getting rich! Seriously, I think the breadth of the Reed curriculum does give grads a sense that they can learn something about anything—and for journalists, that’s an essential skill. We’re serial experts and professional amateurs, always poking around where we have no business being.

Ali Nouri ’97 

Legislative Director for U.S. Senator Al Franken

Political turmoil in his native Iran in the 1980s compelled Ali’s family to immigrate to Oregon when he was 11. Back then he never considered a career in politics; he majored in biology at Reed and earned a doctorate in molecular biology at Princeton. He found his calling in public policy, working for the United Nations before moving to Washington D.C. as a science adviser to U.S. Sen. Jim Webb. He is now legislative director for U.S. Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota.

Thesis: “Setting the Limit on Neuropeptide Transport Rate in the Bag Cells of A. californica.” 

Adviser: Prof. Steve Arch [bio 1972–2012]

Why did you choose Reed? We didn’t hop in the car to road-trip to visit colleges. I applied to Reed because of its good reviews and rankings. I remember a conversation with my dad saying one of my cousins attended and went on to be a doctor, so Reed was a good school.

What was your experience at Reed? I switched majors from sociology to biology. I liked the analytical aspects of science—designing and working on experiments in a lab, the joy of discovery. More than anything else, Reed encouraged me to ask questions and not accept anything at face value.

You were going to be a scientist…Why did you change course? My first job after Reed was working as a lab technician at Oregon Health & Science University. I took some night classes, got my name on some publications, and applied to grad school. 

At Princeton I would attend lectures on economics, political science, that sort of thing. I was discovering a bigger world around me—a process that really started at Reed. I realized I didn’t want to spend my career studying the interactions between two proteins in a cell—something that is genuinely fascinating and extremely important—and instead decided to use my experience and expertise in science in making public policy. 

Did your experiences growing up in Iran also influence your choice of career? Politics changed the course of my life. Growing up in Iran during a time of turmoil, we were constantly discussing current affairs, and so I became very aware of the power of politics and the importance of strong leadership and sound public policy. That’s why it’s great to work on Capitol Hill. I work on a wide range of issues, from health care to foreign affairs.

Would you recommend a career in politics for a liberal-arts graduate? I’m a big believer in a liberal arts education because it gives you the tools you can apply to just about any career. Especially in this economy, where people change careers every five years or so, you need a solid foundation. Reed was terrific in that way, and really taught me to be open to new things. I developed a strong sense of curiosity, and not only in my own field of study. I learned what it was like to get out of your comfort zone. I never would have predicted it at the time, but I’m doing what I’m doing because of Reed.

Tags: Life Beyond Reed, Alumni, Awards & Achievements