The faith to follow her heart

Former veterinarian, graduating from UCSC's Science Communication program, trades a scalpel for a pen in a lifelong dream of becoming a journalist

Elizabeth Devitt
Soon-to-be Science Communication graduate Elizabeth Devitt with canine friend Emmy. 

When UCSC's Elizabeth Devitt tells the story of being featured in Oprah Winfrey's magazine, she doesn't talk much about the elaborate photo shoot or about seeing her inspiring story in print.

Instead, the soon-to-be Science Communication graduate talks about the connection she made with Betsy Rapoport, a professional editor and former executive editor at Random House who serves as one of the magazine's life coaches.

"That's a connection that won't go away," Devitt says. "When it's time for me to write a book, I'll have that connection."

The opportunity to make those important links and also to put learning into practice is what drew the 52-year-old veterinarian to UC Santa Cruz's Science Communication Program and a mid-life career change as a journalist.

With internships at the Monterey County Herald, Stanford University Medical School, and the San Jose Mercury News already on her resume, Devitt says the program not only gave her the chance to write breaking news stories — like the discovery of the H1N1 flu virus in elephant seals — but also allowed her to develop working relationships with editors and other writers.

"Any time you get to practice what you've studied, it amplifies what you learned in the classroom," Devitt says. "That's where the rubber hits the road. That's the proving ground, and that's what gives you connections."

Devitt's path to UCSC was a long one. For 25 years, she worked as a contract veterinarian for animal hospitals both on the East and West coasts. She did surgery, worked as an oil spill consultant for avian and marine mammals, and even cared for an elephant once.

But journalism always tugged at Devitt, and that pull grew stronger as she got older.

"I felt like I could have more impact with a pen rather than a scalpel," Devitt says. "I wanted more reach."

When Devitt discovered the Science Communication Program in the town where she already lived, "it was like putting gas to a match," she says. Even though it had been decades since she'd been in school, she knew that's what she wanted.

Helped by a scholarship from the ARCS Foundation and buoyed by occasional work as a veterinarian, Devitt plunged into her new career. As the oldest in her class (the youngest is 22), Devitt says the Science Communication Program is "extremely practical" — a fact that helped her win a prestigious internship at the Manhattan offices of Nature Medicine this summer.

Sitting outside a beach-area coffeeshop, the runner and triathlete says she's driven by her desire to educate people about the ever-changing natural world, to alert humans to coming problems, and to make a difference on a large scale.

One of her passions, for instance, is the One Health Initiative, which links human, animal and environmental health disciplines for a shared purpose.

"People don't share the planet with other animals very well," Devitt says. But the space that divides us is shrinking. And the more crowded our territory becomes, the more chances we have to cause conflicts and trade diseases.

It's high-impact stories like those that Devitt hopes to pursue in her new career.

"It takes faith to follow your heart," Devitt says. "But doors always open when you put your dreams in gear. The hard part is keeping up."