Chemist or Writer? My Chem Coach Carnival Contribution

Okay, I’ll admit it. I’m late. See Ar Oh started the Chem Coach Carnival for National Chemistry Week last week. While I was at the ScienceWriters meeting this weekend, Chemjobber nudged me to participate. So here’s mine. Better late than never, right?

Your current job. I’m a freelance science writer and editor.

What you do in a standard “work day.” I spend a lot of time in front of my computer, occasionally on the phone. My best days are when I get the chance to meet with scientists in person and hear about what they’re working on. Though I do a lot of reading, writing, and editing, I also spend a lot of time planning and managing my projects and thinking about new clients and my business as a whole.  I also have to do a lot of basic paperwork to deal with billing, checks and taxes.

What kind of schooling / training / experience helped you get there? While I was getting my Ph.D. at Indiana University (in bio-organic chemistry, now chemical biology, I realized that my interests were much broader than the slice of science I was studying. And my slice of science wasn’t even particularly small: I was constantly reading about organic chemistry, biochemistry, analytical techniques, and cell biology. So after 5 years, I decided to look beyond the lab. As I explored options, I took a master’s level science journalism course at Indiana University. That course helped me learn basic interviewing skills and how to write for multiple audiences. At the same time, I also started volunteering at WonderLab, a hands-on science museum, which helped me see how the lay public, particularly kids engage with science topics of all kinds.

I decided to head toward a science writing career and wrote enough articles for my campus newspaper to land a couple of internships in New York City. First I was an editorial intern at Discover magazine, and then I worked briefly in television, as a AAAS Mass Media Fellow at WNBC. I preferred print over broadcast, and while I was trying to stay in NYC, I started to freelance and worked part-time as a freelance fact checker for Popular Science. The museum work eventually came back– I worked with a graphic design firm for almost a year on a large astronomy exhibit project for Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. I developed content for the exhibits, using my science writing and research skills to get images and background information that the designers and the exhibit writer used to produce the exhibits.

For the last 6 years, I’ve worked primarily from my home office on a variety of writing and editing projects. I write for a whole range of audiences: scientists, the general public, and children.

How does chemistry inform your work? While my advanced degree isn’t essential for most of my work, having a broad and deep science background helps me learn about new science topics quickly. I don’t write exclusively about chemistry, but my work often covers research with a molecular component, anything from nanotechnology and even planetary science to neuroscience and biology. Because I have broad interests and a chemistry background, I’m often well-prepared to cover topics that are outside of other writers’ comfort zones.

Finally, a unique, interesting, or funny anecdote about your career A few years ago, I gave a talk about my work to a group of undergraduate students in an honor’s symposium course. They were students majoring in a variety of subjects, mostly the natural and social sciences. I think I confused them, because one asked me about half way through my talk, “Do you consider yourself a writer or a scientist?” At this point, I consider myself a writer. But I think about chemistry and science. A lot.


The Nobel Prize and Fuzziness Between Chemistry and Biology

“When you get into University, you learn that Biology is really Chemistry, Chemistry is really Physics, Physics is really Math.”*

Many years ago, a friend sent me a version of that quote among a whole host of other quotes that he’d collected over the years. When I first read it as a chemistry undergraduate, I liked the way it broke down barriers. Because even though I studying chemistry, I secretly wanted to understand how life worked.
But even though biology motivated me, I never took a single undergraduate biology course. That choice haunted me, particularly when I chose to go to graduate school and work in a biochemistry lab. During my first year of graduate school, I struggled understand the nuts and bolts of gene transcription, while still memorizing nucleic acid and amino acid structures. My note to readers out there: If you’re interested in life, you’d be well served to take some biology even if you don’t want to major in it.

But during Nobel Prize season, chemists sometimes get cranky when a biological topic gets the prize, like this year with the award for G-protein coupled receptors to Robert Lefkowitz of Duke University and Brian Kobilka of Stanford University. Derek Lowe described the work and his own take on this divide on his blog. “Biology isn’t invading chemistry – biology is turning into chemistry.

Even the field I studied in graduate school, then known as bioorganic chemistry, has evolved into chemical biology. As I tried to synthesize my understanding of molecules with an understanding of how cells worked, I hated those shape pathway diagrams in cell biology papers. I didn’t want to understand biology in the context of red circles, blue squares, or green triangles– I wanted to know what that meant chemically. When I was in high school, the last formal biology course I took, I frustrated my mother as I tried to learn glycolysis because I couldn’t just memorize the steps, I wanted to learn something about what was actually going on. A nurse, she dug through her old textbooks to find information that might satisfy me. I soon forgot what we found, but it was the foundation for my chemical curiosity about biology.

Science has to move where the questions are, and some of the greatest questions out there come down to the fundamentals of how life came to be and how it works.  From one perspective, you might say that chemistry could (or even has) become a toolkit for biology. But really it’s more than that. Chemistry has to be part of the biological question, and the GPCR discovery helped to make that fundamental connection between the two.

The names of the prizes are part of the problem, but I really hate the walls that some scientists like to put up around their work. Creativity and innovation can be messy, and it often happens at those  fringes of a field rather than within the safety of the center. Drawing lines in the sand provides some organization and context. Categories are useful, and researchers can easily cross them. But organizational lines sometimes grow into concrete barriers, and the minute that scientists have to pull out heavy machinery to scale those walls, we’ve all lost out.

*Some versions of this also include “and Math is really Hard.” The Math=Hard stereotype has always bugged me.


The Science of Monet

Before we left New York City, we finally made it to the New York Botanical Garden. What finally kicked us into gear to make the trip was a special exhibition about Monet’s Garden at Giverny (It closes October 21).

Though Monet can sometimes loom on the edge of a giant Impressionist cliche, I’ve always been a fan. In college, I slept under a comforter covered in one of his famous garden bridge scenes. And during college, my roommate and her mother went to Giverny on a summer trip. “If you get the chance,” she said, “just go.”

I took her advice nearly 5 years later as I traveled in France with friends. We were in Paris for a few days, and I’d spent time in the city before.  So one day while they did some city sightseeing, I hopped on a train to Vernon and a bus to Giverny.

Though I’m sure the garden is amazing throughout the growing season, it washed over me in waves of color delight in May, like eating a multi-course artisanal meal. Monet harnessed as much creativity in his garden design as he did as he when spreading those paints across the canvas. I’d always imagined that some of the pinks and purples that worked their way into the water lilies were enhancements, creative license that Monet took in his paintings. But the day I was there, the cloudy sky and the surrounding blooms imbued the water with rosy hues that were factual rather than fictional.

My brain didn’t quite make this leap as I wandered through the garden, but over time I’ve realized that– though I’d never describe him that way first– Monet was a scientist. He experimented with a garden, and his paintings are his lucious lab notebook.

The NYBG does a nice job of recreating his garden and framing Monet as a botanist. It’s a stunning exhibit, and a good proxy of the real thing (Though if you’re in France, as my roommate said, just go!). But the analogy is far broader– he was a creative observer. To top it off, almost any art history discussion of Monet talks about his declining eyesight and the increasing abstraction in his work. He’s a classic example when psychologists talk about color perception. Monet was scientist, observer, case study, and an amazing artist all in one.

All photos are mine taken in May 1999 and May 2012.