Loose ends or a visitor in her former country

12 Sep

“So do you consider yourself a scientist or a writer?”

An undergraduate student asked me that question last fall when I guest-lectured about communicating research for a social-scientist friend’s seminar course. I immediately said, “A writer, but I write about science.” But I do understand why he was confused.

Even having done it, I wouldn’t recommend a Ph.D. in Chemistry as the direct route for getting on this particular career highway.  But the student’s question made me really sit down at the virtual mirror and process the reflected frequencies of light shooting back at me. And to some extent, I do have a dual identity, but wordsmithing is at the forefront of what I do, no matter in what context.

But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any number of loose ends.

I spent a chunk of the third week in August at the American Chemical Society meeting in Washington, DC. It was my second trip back to ACS since my shift from scientist to scribe.  I navigated that world as a familiar tourist in a foreign country. I went to talks, spent time in the press room, networked with other writers and editors. I also had dinner with a former lab colleague and ran into my Ph.D. adviser.

Then there’s the other weird bit: the last piece– I think– of my doctoral research was just published. It’s been 5 years since I graduated, and longer than that since I actually did an experiment. But there you have it: actual original science research to add to the CV. Another quirk– I’m now a science writer for the very same science journal where the work is published.

So here’s a look back at my past contributions to scientific knowledge– and the way they’ve contributed to the writer geek I’ve become.

  • When I talked about my Ph.D. research to folks outside my department, I said that I made balls of negative charge. (Actually, the harder part was figuring out how to verify that I had indeed made the balls of negative charge). Here’s part of the evidence– the small and medium version of my lipid-like molecules: Synthesis and Characterization of Covalent Mimics of Phosphatidylinositol-4,5-bisphosphate Micelles
  • Hot off the presses: High Affinity Binding to Profilin by a Covalently Constrained, Soluble Mimic of Phosphatidylinositol-4,5-bisphosphate Micelles. But here they are– both the gigantic balls of negative charge and the further work that shows that they actually did something useful. The idea was to use them as tools to understand how they– and the lipid that they’re modeled after– interacted with a protein that helps to regulate cell motility. The big question was whether more than one copy of the lipid interacted with the protein (we thought so). And it turns out we were right.
  • And here’s a trip back to the 1990s– but a clue to my future self. The year studied and worked in a chemistry lab at the University of Giessen in Germany, I edited my colleagues’ English and enjoyed it, having no idea that it was a partial glimpse of my future work: Here’s the paper.

4 Responses to “Loose ends or a visitor in her former country”

  1. Don Monroe September 13, 2009 at 10:57 am #

    “High Affinity Binding to Profilin by a Covalently Constrained, Soluble Mimic of Phosphatidylinositol-4,5-bisphosphate Micelles.”

    Why, it’s almost poetry!

  2. webbofscience September 17, 2009 at 7:09 pm #

    Nothing like chemical terms that just roll off the tongue. When I took my thesis to the bindery (5 years ago– do they still bind dissertations?), the person writing the title down looked seriously horrified.

  3. Amy Rice Doetsch September 18, 2009 at 12:00 pm #

    Your post made me think about what I am! An educator or a scientist? Alex & I have been calling ourselves “science educators” to distinguish/distance ourselves from actual educators, as they truly are a different breed. Is that a cop out? Or did we invent a new career path?!

    On another note, can you believe we graduated 5+ years ago! I was at the ASCB meetings a year ago doing all the same meeting stuff you did at ACS, and found it very empowering to know that 1) I still know enough to comprehend most of the talks and 2) I don’t have to do bench work anymore!

    To complete the longest comment ever, no they don’t bind dissertations. Alex’s is digital.

    • webbofscience September 18, 2009 at 2:17 pm #

      Absolutely not a cop-out. It’s interdisciplinarity! I’ve actually been thinking about that concept a lot lately– science was once this very connected set of ideas that we then divided into subjects: biology, chemistry, physics, etc. And people have recombined those– biophysics, etc. The world needs more people who can think about science and integrate it with other ideas– so let’s create our own categories, as long as they’re meaningful.

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