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Building with my own two hands

24 Sep

I’m looking forward to Maker Faire NY this weekend. I’m not  directly involved, but I love this concept: people coming up with new ideas, building things, sharing what they’ve learned with other people.

Mark Frauenfelder, Editor-in-Chief of Make magazine (the sponsor), describes the educational value in do-it-yourself in the most recent issue of the Atlantic.

Unfortunately, says Gray, our schools don’t teach kids how to make things, but instead train them to become scholars, “in the narrowest sense of the word, meaning someone who spends their time reading and writing. Of course, most people are not scholars. We survive by doing things.”

Even though I earned scholarly academic credentials, one of the satisfying parts of doing chemistry was synthesis, setting up reactions and producing a product. Granted, those products weren’t necessarily exciting or beautiful– on a good day, they were white powders, on messier days, clear sticky oils. (Yes, those are the trials of working with sugary molecules). They weren’t even directly useful, but I’d have to devise the experimental conditions, order the right chemicals, find or borrow equipment, and even draw glass structures that a glassblower would then produce for me. Design and even improvisation provided both a challenge and a reward.

a vase made with my own two hands

a webbofscience original: a vase I made myself

I love to learn, but I love to be able to hold a final product in my hands. As a writer, my work sometimes feels a little too ethereal– I’ve become more of a scholar than I was in the laboratory. I volley with ideas all day, and my written product is often as ethereal as a web page. Ultimately I think that’s one of the reasons that most writers feel like they should write a book at some point. I don’t often get to hold a hard copy of my work and know that my labors produced something tangible. But feeling pages in my hands, printed and bound, that I helped to produce help me feel like I contributed something physical to the world.

People need to build with their own two hands (in the video feature). I’m glad I don’t have to make all my own clothes or furniture. But crocheting a scarf or an afghan makes me feel human. I’ve revisited ceramics in the past year. I’m still learning, but I love the feeling of clay spinning under my hands, a form emerging from the push of my palms, the flex of my fingers.

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.

Saturday Science Video: When Things Get Small

29 May

This Beakman’s World for nanotech video, When Things Get Small,  came out a few years ago, but it’s still a great, entertaining introduction to the world of nanotechnology.

I reviewed the video and interviewed Ivan Schuller, one of its creators and a physics professor at UCSD, at a showing in NYC back in 2006. My story for Popular Science was also picked up by CNN.com.

It is a time investment, but if you’re looking for a way to spend 30 minutes this holiday weekend, it’s worth your time.

An Amazing Race

28 May

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Part of the drama in any race is figuring out which team to cheer for. Looking back on the quest to reach the South Pole nearly a century ago, it’s a seesaw between two teams with different goals. On one side is the single-minded consummate planner, Norwegian Roald Amundsen, who learned about travel and survival from the Inuit and built a village in the ice– sauna included. Then there’s the Englishman Robert Falcon Scott, a man who valued science as well as the bragging rights of being first.

In the new American Museum of Natural History exhibit, Race to the End of the Earth , which opens on Saturday (I got  an early peek at a press preview this week), the visitor gets a chance to follow the journey of those first teams to reach the South Pole. I knew the winner already, but I didn’t know the compelling story of the journey– An Original Amazing Race, without the reality TV trappings. A twisting comparative timeline forms the spine of the exhibit, and it becomes increasingly clear as you traverse it how sound planning and single-mindedness ultimately triumphed. But the exhibit also highlights the achievements of Scott, the man also interested in understanding the science and natural history of this alien continent. The research stations in Antarctica feel like the legacy of the man who came in second.

Scott comes off as the sentimental favorite, particularly when you read his final notes– when he knew he would not survive– to his friends, his colleagues, and his wife and baby son. (Besides getting there first, Amundsen and all his men survived.) But you also wonder at some of his planning choices: bringing ponies to haul sleds in Antarctica? having his men drag sleds laden with food and supplies over hundreds of miles? Hindsight is 20-20, of course, but those choices feel like part folly, part hubris.

The exhibit does the story justice. It’s hard to imagine such bitter cold and nearly intolerable conditions, but at the same time. But I’m thinking of the magic of being among “the first” to see emperor penguins, to traverse this mysterious place and begin to understand its compelling and dangerous secrets.

Scientist hobbies and grand gestures

25 May

Scientific research can seem all-consuming, and sometimes it is. But I think one critical component of creativity is to have an outside hobby that allows you to get your head out of the game for a little while. So, when I saw this article in the latest issue of the HHMI Bulletin, I felt the need to share Harvard Medical School’s Amy Wagers high-flying hobby. I love that she was willing to share her trapeze-loving side of herself. Being a stem cell researcher takes guts, so it’s not all that surprising to me that she likes the adrenaline rush.

Wagers had always loved heights, but her spontaneous foray into trapeze made her curious to try other sky-high stunts. When she and another junior faculty member at Harvard collaborated on their first paper and got positive comments from Nature, Wagers came up with a plan: “If this very first paper for both of us gets in,” she told her collaborator, “we’re going skydiving.” The paper was accepted, and Wagers booked a sky dive in Newport, Rhode Island. Though her collaborator conveniently forgot the date of the booking, Wagers went ahead and jumped. “Then I decided whenever my lab had an important paper published, I would go skydiving.”

Most research laboratories have some way to celebrate major milestones– maybe a champagne toast. I have no personal desire to jump out of a plane, but I really love her approach. Major accomplishments deserve recognition, and skydiving is a grand gesture. If I were her collaborator, I’d probably be tempted to chicken out. But if I did, I also think I’d regret it.

Blogathon Haiku day

24 May

As part of the WordCount Blogathon, today we’re all embarking on haiku posts. I really should let my inner science poet out a little more often. Today, I decided to riff on the my writing process of taking my research– the papers I’ve read, the experts I’ve talked with– and synthesizing that mix into a science article. It’s a dance: you have to process what you’ve learned, decide what to leave in, what to take out, and wrap the whole thing in an attractive flowing package. Doubt lingers every time I begin this journey, but I’m still swimming on the other side.

My haiku:

drowning in detail

pulling the puzzle apart

story now complete

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