“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.