MotW: Happy T(ryptophan)-day!

Tryptophan, via Wikimedia Commons
tryptophan structure via Wikimedia Commons

Though the tryptophan rush from turkey is more hype than reality, Thanksgiving is the perfect time to put up the most structurally complex of the amino acids, tryptophan.

The body uses it to make serotonin, and biochemists use its absorbance of ultraviolet light to determine concentrations of proteins in their samples.

Today I’m thinking that it’s much more esthetically interesting than most of its amino-acid pals, at least the naturally-occurring ones.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Sizing it up or down

My scientific world is probably best defined as medium-to-small.  Because there’s usually a tie-in to a molecule, my conceptual world operates somewhere between the slightly sub-nanometer to human sizes of meters and kilometers. Except for my occasional forays into astronomy, I don’t often stretch my mind to light-years or cram it down to subatomic particles. But even then I’m often writing about the chemical stuff in cosmic clouds or the composition of Mars dust. But even the molecular world is maddening when trying to talk about size.

Science writers– particularly when we delve into the abstract– depend on reliable size comparisons. We can spend hours trying to come up with an appropriate size analogy as we desperately dodge  cliches.

But the internet is wonderful, and I’m continually amazed by its power to illustrate. Yesterday, via Amy Rice Doetsch, a science educator friend, I found out about this amazing web resource that bridges the wilds of biological sizes from coffee bean to carbon atom. In this case, a very slick set of graphics provide the equivalent of paragraphs of size perspective.

Then I went looking for even broader comparisons, and found this one– not quite as graphically refined– but one that goes all the way from cosmos to quark. I’d love to hear of other examples. In the meantime, enjoy!

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Traveling the (AMNH’s) Silk Road

Pick up a passport, and travel along an ancient road  with silk, haunting melodies and the simmering whiff of oils and spices.

At its best, the American Museum of Natural History’s  Traveling the Silk Road exhibition evokes as many senses as possible, particularly smell and sound. There’s a wonderful market where you can test your abilities to match smells, and, as a bonus, we also heard music by musicians involved in Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project (performing on Sundays at the museum).

I just found myself wishing that there were a few more things that I was allowed to touch, particularly with beautiful silks, looms and a video demonstrating how weavers transform worm cocoons into stunning garments.  I heard of at least a couple ancient trading posts that I’d never read about, hubs where ancient roads met for the exchange of all kinds of goods and information.

This trading network was the information superhighway of its time– 600 to 800 AD– exchanging science, culture, design patterns. I was enthralled with the water clock and fiddled for a while with the astrolabe, attempting to tell time from the night sky. I gained a whole new respect for ancient sailors– the number of steps it took just to find out where and “when” they were.

I’ve recently rekindled an interest in ceramics, so I spent a lot of time contemplating classic curves and forms of the various pots and vessels– beautiful, functional, ancient and, yet, somehow modern, too. The exhibit was a wonderful experience in seeing connections between past cultures and my daily connections to a distant past.

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Science Writing Resources (Friday follow-up)

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.

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