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The Origin of this Science Writer

6 Aug

Last week, Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science started a post that’s collecting the stories of how science writers came to this particular career. I finally got around to adding my contribution, which I’m reposting with relevant links.

At 16, I published my first article of science writing, a profile my high school chemistry teacher—also a part-time caterer— for the school’s literary magazine. At the time, I thought of myself as an educational sponge rather than a writer. I was a math and science geek who also loved language and literature. But I had no idea that I could combine the two. Instead, I pursued chemistry, fascinated by the machinery that powered life.

That interest fueled me for almost a decade until I was 5 years into a Ph.D. program at Indiana University. It was 2002, and I felt like academic science was pushing me to learn more and more about less and less. I knew I wanted to finish the Ph.D., but I had to figure out what I would do next.

I read the “alternative careers” books for scientists. I volunteered and later worked on staff at a hands-on science museum. But I also contacted Holly Stocking, a (now retired) professor at the IU journalism school, about her science writing course. That class changed my course completely. Over the next 2 years, I wrote for the campus newspaper, applied for internships, and finished my Ph.D.

A month after my Ph.D. defense, I moved to New York City for an internship at Discover magazine, followed by an AAAS Mass Media Fellowship at WNBC-TV. In the last 6 years, I’ve been freelancing for publications such as Discover, Science News, ScientificAmerican.com, Science Careers, Nature Biotechnology, and a number of science and health publications for children. I’ve also worked on science exhibits, serving as the research coordinator for the permanent astronomy exhibits at Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles.

I love the opportunity to learn about new ideas, talk with interesting people, and put those pieces together to tell a story. I’ve written about my advice to new science writers before—particularly those with extensive training as scientists. More on that here.

Learning by doing: revisiting Epiphanies

14 May

Webb of Science needs a breather, so I’ve decided to repost my inaugural post from the 2009 blogathon about problem-solving in both science and writing. I still love what I do, the puzzle of pulling words together. Last year and this year, blogging each day in May reminds me of old lessons and teaches me new ones: learning isn’t just about thinking but doing. And, on a personal side note, it looks like my husband was right.

iStockphoto/James Group Studios

iStockphoto/James Group Studios

I got a phone call from my husband a few weeks ago when he was away doing dissertation research. “Well, I’ve had an epiphany,” he says. “I’ve realized why what I’m doing won’t work.” This explanation was so logical, delightfully simple. I’m sure he’s right, though he now has to rejigger his experiments.

After we got off the phone, I could have been disappointed (Logically, every partner of a Ph.D. student hopes that experiments will move quickly rather than slowly). But I’ve also slogged through PhD-dom myself, so I was actually excited. Why? Because that moment and his clear idea took me back to the joy of research that kept me going through the slog. Strangely the best moments of my Ph.D. were actually when I somehow managed to step back after weeks, months, or years, and had the clarity to look at the problem from a different perspective. Suddenly, after weeks, months or even years of approaching a problem as the same-old, same-old, I’d know exactly where I’d gone wrong.

Of course, each of those moments led to mounds of hard work, but always taught me something new. I learned new purification techniques and found new collaborations with other smart people. And I was suddenly trying to do chemical reactions in water. Mother Nature is a master at water-based chemistry– human beings, well, we have a few million years to catch up on. Continue reading

A biologist’s take on Mother’s Day

12 May

This Mother’s day tribute is so good that it can’t wait until next year, or even for my Saturday video feature. It’s completely fabulous– the lyrics, the delivery, the biological illustrations, and the solid science backing it up. See more on his YouTube channel. Forward it to your mother, your favorite biologist, or your favorite scientist mom!

Hat tip to my friend and colleague, Tom Hayden.

Piled higher and deeper

2 May

Webb of Science has been on the road this weekend, celebrating a Ph.D. commencement in the family. Congratulations to my sister, the most recent Dr. Webb.

To get to the commencement ceremony, we’re having to dodge the marathon (scheduled for the same day?). But outside of the inconvenience, it’s actually pretty symbolic. I often characterize the process as an “academic marathon.”

I’m awed by actual marathoners, though I’m not sure I actually have one in me. But I understand that need to take on a big project, a project that involves risk, that you worry that you might not complete. Maybe you even despise it in the darkest moments, but when it’s done, no one can take away the accomplishment.

I like commencement ceremonies for that reason. Even if the speeches don’t inspire, stories lurk behind each graduate. At the end of today’s ceremony, confetti (officially sanctioned) exploded into the arena to mark the end of the ceremony. People carrying knowledge and walking out into the world.

Ada Lovelace Day– science teachers and Mrs. Findley

24 Mar

I’m participating in Ada Lovelace Day, saluting women in technology and science. I thought about writing about a particular researcher, but I decided instead to single out the often anonymous heroines (and heroes) of science and technology, the teachers who inspire young minds to pursue science careers. Though their names aren’t remembered by Nobel or on manuscripts published in Science and Nature, the contributions of the best of these teachers echo throughout science and technology.

I was far from the first student in my Florida high school who looked up to Mrs. Findley. Even those who hated chemistry liked her. Somehow when she described how atoms knitted into molecules during my sophomore and junior years, I realized that here was the engineering basis of everything alive, a giant chemical puzzle. I liked being pushed, and I like that she made us think.

But she also showed us glimpses of her life outside the classroom. Her son– in elementary school at the time– sometimes sat at her desk during our 7th period AP class. She moonlighted as a caterer, and my first magazine article described how she blended hard science with a nurturing side.

As a senior when I agonized over my future, forces pulled me back into her classroom for advice. She wrote recommendation letters and offered a listening ear as I agonized over college choices and the increasing tug of my logical, chemical side versus my love of language.

Though I wasn’t the first student to ask Mrs. Findley’s advice, I was probably one of the last– at school, anyway. As I struggled with questions of my future, she was planning a return to pharmacy school. Her decision to reinvent herself made a lot more sense to me nearly a decade later, when after 5 years into a chemistry Ph.D. program, I began considering different career paths that still allowed me to think like a scientist. At 17 I  thought that sometime before 22 I would make a magic decision that would fix the career course of the rest of my life. By 27, I understood the need to alter that course. I’d once looked at myself and thought that changing meant acknowledging a personal failure. But her courage to change made her even more of a role model– she was a terrific teacher, and I’m sure she’s a great pharmacist, too.

We need great science teachers to educate, inspire, and lead some minds to patents, papers, and scientific greatness. But it all boils down to making a difference one student at a time. Thanks, Mrs. Findley, for supporting me in ways that I could imagine at the time.

The role of great sources

5 Jan

influenza virus particle: CDC Public Health image library, Credit: Cynthia Goldsmith; Content Providers: CDC/ Dr. Erskine. L. Palmer; Dr. M. L. Martin

Though my writing life ranges from writing health stories for teens to writing about research topics and careers issues for scientists, the sources that I speak with for the former type of article generally don’t overlap with those for the latter. Until now.

Last spring, I was working on an article about the common cold, and I asked a group of writer buddies: do you know a virologist who could talk about the common cold? I need someone who can leave out the jargon– someone who’s the best of what we all look for in an interview. The recommendation– Ben tenOever— a researcher who actually works on influenza viruses at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. But he gave me a great interview– explaining viruses, how they work in terms that teens could understand. My favorite analogy that didn’t make it into the story: “If you consider the Empire State Building to be the size average cell in the nose, the virus would be the size of a fist.” The resulting story was published in December– in Weekly Reader’s Current Health 2. [sorry, it’s not available online]

But Ben’s also a young scientist on the rise– studying both how the immune system responds to viral infection and a new bioengineering strategy for developing flu vaccines– more on that in my most recent article for Science Careers. Talking with him, particularly in person, I noticed his enthusiasm, about science in general, viruses, and his own research projects. Science is a tough business, but it’s clear from talking with him how much he loves the hunt for new discoveries– combing through new data and figuring out what it means.

It’s incredibly rare that I find a scientist who is so good at tuning his descriptions and who also effuses energy and enthusiasm with every analogy or anecdote. What fun that I get to tell their stories.

Science Writing Resources (Friday follow-up)

16 Nov

Last Friday afternoon, I spoke on a panel about media careers for the “What Can You Be With A Ph.D.?” Symposium held at NYU Langone Medical Center. I talked to several  students and postdocs after the program and wanted to pull together a list of resources related to careers in science writing.

It was a fun session– I learned a lot from my co-panelists and the auditorium was full of people with a lot of interesting questions about careers that blend science and communications– including journal publishing, medical communications, medical science liaisons (MSL– a career, incidentally, that I didn’t know anything about until Friday), and yours truly, who talked about my mix of freelance science writing experiences. The overall symposium program looked  terrific– I wish that I’d had access to a careers program of this size and quality when I was a graduate student.

But back to science writing:

I also got a few questions (after the main session) about freelancing. A few thoughts:

  1. It’s not a good fit for everyone. You’re starting a business, so you have to think about all the issues (and potential insecurities) that go with that: finding health insurance, start-up costs, lack of a retirement plan, etc.
  2. Getting started is hard work, and it will probably take a while to prove yourself. Persistence is key: continue to pursue opportunities, get experience where you can, and build your clip file.
  3. It is possible to start a freelance business even if you don’t have a huge cushion of savings (I didn’t). Think about practical strategies that will allow you to start slowly. Having some source of steady income while you ramp up is essential if you don’t have a nest-egg to fall back on.

UPDATE NOVEMBER 23: For NYC-area scientists interested in learning more about the transition from the bench to a writing career, Science Writers in New York has a program on December 1: Goodbye Benchtop; Hello Laptop.