All posts by Sarah Webb

Another online project: Bracing for Impact, reported by Flux

In case you were wondering, Webb of Science hasn’t disappeared, but I have been busy with a variety of other projects. The Science Writers’ Handbook website continued to publish regularly through December, and I had a baby boy in October.

In addition,  I was part of a team of reporters (named Flux) who launched a crowdfunded reporting project (Bracing for Impact) looking at how communities are responding to and preparing for climate change. We started publishing stories in August, and we’ll be wrapping up our initial run this month. We used the brand new Beacon platform, specifically designed for journalists.

Our leader, Virginia Gewin, wrote a blog post describing “The Experiment” back in July. Crowdfunding is hard work. I have a whole new appreciation for the fund drives on public radio and television, and an awe and respect for artists, journalists, and others who are routinely supporting their work in this way.

At the same time it’s incredibly freeing to be able to create a new project and direct its path without having to make stories fit the exact specifications of an existing publication. I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished, and publishing with this great group of colleagues has sharpened my reporting and editing skills.

I wrote three stories for the project (Some stories may be behind Beacon’s paywall.):

Photo by Sarah Webb, reservoir in Clayton County, Georgia


Adventures in Native Gardening

The humidity of summer is slowly pushing spring out of Chattanooga these days. But before the seasons change, I wanted to share our recent adventures in gardening and landscaping (published in OnEarth).

As recent New Yorkers and Tennessee transplants, we really didn’t know that much about plants when we started to think about our yard, the blank slate. As a graduate student in Indiana and later on our front porch in Brooklyn, I had tried my hand at growing herbs and tomatoes. And while I made plenty of batches of basil pesto over the years, my tomatoes weren’t always very productive. And other than marigolds or a few other potted outdoor plants, I never really invested the time and effort in making green things grow.

But now that we have a permanent home, we’re making the effort. I spent a lot of time reading up on plants, particularly native species. I spent a day at a native plant symposium in March, and we’ve put a couple of weekends of blood, sweat, sore muscles, and blisters into our new yard.

I still hope to put in a raised bed with vegetables and herbs, but right now I have those in pots on our back deck. This year we’re all about the wildflowers, and I can’t wait to see if the bees and birds show up this summer.

More photos in my story for OnEarth.


Signs of Spring

Intermittently, the gray damp of winter is finally yielding to signs of spring. Though winter hasn’t hit my corner of Tennessee particularly hard, on this cold, damp St. Patrick’s Day, the lack of sun leaves me listless.

Other than our early bloomers, red buds and dogwoods and the grass that’s slowly regreening, the predominant colors out my window are still brown and gray. Last week, I took my camera on a short walk to capture the slow change creeping around me. I’ll soon cash in my view of the hills through vacant branches for verdant leaves. I’ll miss my hilltops, bridges, and hints of skyline, but I wouldn’t trade them for my lush summer vista. And I’ll see them again in seven or eight months.

Fortunately plants move much more slowly than my brain does, pulling me out of my daily life measured in seconds, minutes, and hours to think about seasons, years, even decades. Even thinking about them and what I might plant forces me to stop, to breathe, to contemplate soil, shade, and sun, forces and a rhythm that seem constant in an inconstant world.

But for today I’ll hold on to my hibernation just a little while longer, pull the jacket a little tighter around me, and take one last nap before spring.


Strings of Collaboration

Before I became a scientist, I was a musician. I started piano lessons when I was six, despite some warnings to my parents that I was too young. My mother was sick of hearing me ask to learn, so she caved in and signed me up for weekly lessons. That I loved. Sadly, I rarely play today, but Mozart, Bach, Beethoven and Brahms are old friends whom I love to visit.

Last year, we discovered Chattanooga’s String Theory chamber music series at the Hunter Museum of Art. My science geek self can’t help but love the name, and the schedule is top notch. World class musicians who I rarely could have afforded to hear in New York City come to my local art museum and play chamber music for sold out audiences. (I worry about the age of those audiences– mostly men and women a generation older than I am. I’d like to hope the classical music lovers my age are busy raising a new generation, but most of the data out there suggests that interest in classical music has waned dramatically.)

In addition to the sounds that weave together seamlessly, I’m fascinated by the relationships in chamber groups. There are subtle signals, cues, movements, the way that individuals play off of each other. Musicians learn and even intuit each other’s ticks. And it’s hardly surprising that chamber music groups often include people with close personal as well as professional relationships. In December, the String Theory concert featured sisters Ani and Ida Kavafian, and Ida’s husband Steven Tenenbom.

I experienced this subtlety when I played chamber music in my teens. Though I loved to play the piano, I disliked performing solo. Nerves got the better of me at recitals, and though working toward that performance goal was satisfying in certain ways, I rarely came out of a recital or performance feeling happy with the outcome. Then I began taking lessons from Bernice Maskin, a piano teacher who had made it her mission to create opportunities for kids to play chamber music. She knew all the local string teachers in my hometown, and she’d pull together trios, quartets and quintets, based on ages, playing level, and even existing friendships if she knew of them.

Chamber music is the essence of teamwork, where every member of the group contributes a critical component of the tapestry. Unlike an orchestra or concert band, where a weak link can sometimes go unnoticed, every member in a chamber group is vital, essential, a lifeline of the fabric as a whole. Playing in a group wasn’t easier, but it taught me to collaborate. Following a great musical plan, I learned when to charge forward and show off my part and when to dial back and let the cello, violin, or clarinet take the lead. If I faltered, I had to adjust, and my fellow players would adjust along with me. When they had problems, I covered as best I could. The music is both simple and delightfully complex as is the lesson. Keep going, don’t stop, be flexible, and enjoy the ride.

Those lessons have extended far beyond the piano bench, to the chemistry lab and the writing desk. Great relationships and collaboration make good work much sweeter.

Image Credit: Phil Ortenau via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)


Alligators, Spanish moss, and a sense of wonder

Growing up in North Central Florida, I took my environment for granted.

My parents still live in the same house where I grew up. Their home feels familiar, almost a time capsule of my old life. But after years living away, I view everything around them like a tourist. On a visit in December, my eyes traced the outline of the heavy boughs of every live oak, the curtains of gray, Spanish moss weighing their branches like Florida snow.

Half my life later, I realize how little I explored my environment, how little I appreciated the strange beauty that surrounded me. So as an adult, I’m trying to recapture the wonder that escaped during my childhood and show my husband the places I wish had been more important to me. So, on December 26, we went to Paynes Prairie Preserve, 22,000 acres of grasslands just a short drive south of where I grew up, full of birds, bison, wild horses, and, of course, alligators.

Growing up in Gainesville, Florida, in the shadow of the University of Florida and Gator Nation, alligators feel too normal. People occasionally find them in their backyards or their sewer drains. When I was a teenager, my father talked about how a visiting Estonian researcher asked to see alligators. I didn’t get her fascination.

Now I do. My husband and I walked along the La Chua trail on the north end of the preserve, most of it is a wide, mowed strip with few barriers, people of all ages, and signs like this one.


Because of creatures like these, sunning within 10 feet of the walkway.

alligators at Paynes Prairie

We saw dozens of alligators, but no bison or horses. With keen eyes and binoculars we picked out ibises, egrets, a Great Blue Heron, wild turkeys, and hawks. We even heard a hawk, caught next to the trail in marshy brush.

In many ways, the walk was a tiny glimpse of what I hope 2014 will bring. I want to appreciate moments, hear, see and feel what happens around me, and fan each spark of wonder into a steady flame.

Image Credits: Sarah Webb


Georgia’s quest for a sip of the Tennessee river

State lines bring out natural rivalries. New Yorkers like to pick on New Jersey, and when I lived in Indiana, Kentucky seemed to be the butt of most regional jokes. But here in Tennessee the foe is Georgia, and the scuffle may go to court. Over water.

Not just any water, mind you. We’re talking about the mighty Tennessee river, the waterway that writhes its way through the center of Chattanooga, my fair city. The state of Georgia is prepared to sue Tennessee for a chance to tap the river for Atlanta just 100 miles southeast.

It’s not a new idea, and Georgia is already in a longstanding legal feud with Alabama and Florida  for related reasons.

Creeks and streams in North Georgia feed in to the Tennessee river watershed, but the river itself skirts the boundaries of the Peach State, barely missing its northwest corner before dipping south into Alabama and even a tiny corner of Mississippi before turning north toward the Ohio River. (Eastern water rights mean that they can’t tap it because it doesn’t flow through the state.) I can see why Georgia lawmakers might think that the river is taunting them. Continue reading Georgia’s quest for a sip of the Tennessee river


In search of cranes

a stuffed sandhill crane
The closest we got to a sandhill crane. A stuffed bird among the exhibits.

After 6 months in Tennessee, I’m still a little overwhelmed by the number of beautiful overlooks and natural spaces within a short drive. So we’re already compiling a mile-long mental list of places we’ll want to visit, particularly to take a peek at the various animals that live there.  But the tricky thing about going in search of wildlife the way that nature, weather and the animals themselves can thwart your plans.

Case in point, in January, we couldn’t resist a trip up the road to the Tennessee Sandhill Crane Festival, an annual event that celebrates the stopoff of thousands of  these birds. In November and December, they nest and raise their young in Florida. Then the sandhills stop off here, in the gray months of January and February, to feed before spending summers in the upper Midwest.

We wandered through the exhibits at the host school and waited in line for the bus to the Hiwassee Refuge. Except that there were no cranes. Well, to be fair, we might have seen 20. It was a far cry from the thousands that had been munching on corn and grasses in these fields just days earlier.

several sandhills in a field
A few cranes showed up for the festival

Mother Nature didn’t get the memo about the crane festival this year. For several days before, we’d had sheets of rain. The local dams had released water to control the risk of flooding. And, voila, this favorite spot had suddenly become too soggy for the birds. Rangers with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency told us of hundreds of cranes that had moved to nearby farms, so we drove around the country roads before turning our car toward home. No cranes.

But we are determined. And we suspected that the cranes would be back. So, two weeks later, we turned the car north once again.

This time we saw fewer people and more birds.  The sandhill cranes seemed to prefer a small island up the road near Blythe Ferry. But we saw (and heard) hundreds rather than a handful of these majestic birds.

hundreds of sandhill cranes on a small island in the lake
Hundreds of cranes just a few weeks later

We lingered until sunset because we hoped to see an endangered whooping crane. As we were watching the sandhill cranes, we met volunteers with the International Crane Foundation who had just released an injured whooping crane back into the wild. As the sun got lower and the temperature got colder, we shivered but kept thinking we’d see that great white bird among the scores of red headed sandhills.

But alas, the whooping crane eluded us. Maybe next year.

The most interesting part of the video is the sound. These birds make a racket.

Photos by Sarah Webb. Video by Preston Foerder

Share my other online project

Over the last few months, I’ve been spending the bulk of my blog-related time on a new project: the website for The Science Writers’ Handbook. The book, which will publish in April, is a collaboration involving more than 30 science writers. I contributed one chapter to the book about “The Diversity of Science Writing.” I write about the many gigs that science writers can take on to build a sustainable business. I’m also the editor in chief and project manager for this new website. So over the last several months, I’ve been working with a web designer to build that site and working with a small group of colleagues (Hannah Hoag, Stephen Ornes and Monya Baker) to edit that site.

We’re live now, and we’ve been posting throughout January, so there’s plenty to explore. We’re covering the craft, commerce and community of the profession. Already you can get expert tips on interviewing for audio and video, learn about how to handle loneliness when working in an exotic location, and learn how to network at conference cocktail parties. We provide a peek into our writing workspaces and even confess to how a certain corporate caffeinator fuels our work.

So if you’ve wondered what happened to Webb of Science, I’m still here, and I’ll be back here soon. In the meantime, I hope you’ll take a peek around the new site.

I’ll be at ScienceOnline 2013 this week, so if you’re going, I hope you’ll find me and say hello. My colleague Emily Gertz and I will be talking about The Science Writers’ Handbook website during a BlitzTalk on Friday. See you there or on Twitter at #scio13. And, speaking of ScienceOnline, there’s a new interview with me on on Bora Zivkovic’s blog at Scientific American.

P.S. Huge thanks to the National Association of Science Writers for an Idea Grant that funded our book and the website!



My alternate Sandy reality: a love letter from a former New Yorker

I am just under 3 months and just over 800 miles removed from Hurricane Sandy. Watching the news, I’m overwhelmed with relief, distressed for our friends and layered with a veneer of survivor’s guilt. We couldn’t have known, but we made a lucky escape in our move to Tennessee. A part of me longs to be in New York for just a minute, to hug my friends and to embrace the city that was my home for more than 8 years. The combination of news, reports from friends and my experiences of minor crises in the city have left my imagination racing with pictures of what my alternate Sandy reality might be like.

We would have stocked up on water, filled the bathtub and secured our small grill and plants from our front deck, just like we did last year for Hurricane Irene. This time we might have huddled in our narrow hallway overnight, the only place in our two-bedroom apartment away from windows. Our power might have flickered but would have stayed on. We’d be safe, shaken and grateful.

We’d have spotty cell phone service at best right now: a Verizon tower went down in our beloved Bay Ridge. After the storm passed, we would venture out, looking at fallen tree limbs. Our minivan, parked on the streets, would be covered in leaves or maybe damaged  by limbs or crushed by a fallen tree.

I would attempt to resume work in my home office while distracted by details and destruction. My husband would wonder how he would cross the giant transit chasm between Brooklyn and Manhattan so that he could teach on the Upper East Side. His hour-long commute would likely stretch four-fold.

It might be months before we shopped at Fairway again. Our regular stock-up supermarket in Red Hook was flooded. 

A part of me will always live in New York, where I established my career, met and married the love of my life and built relationships with so many wonderful people. New Yorkers sometimes get a reputation as rude and unhelpful. But one of my favorite memories of New York comes from my first days in the city, living in East Harlem. Everything felt foreign, including the neighborhood’s lingua franca, Spanish.  On an early shopping trip in the rain on Third Avenue, my rickety granny cart got stuck in a pavement crack. I pitched forward onto concrete, bruised and disoriented. Two complete strangers stopped, helped me up and made sure I was okay. I was alone in the city, but somehow everything was going to be fine.

New Yorkers are plucky, resilient people, and the city will recover, but also evolve. I hope I will always carry that  strength and resolve with me, no matter where I live. New Yorkers and New York, I love you. And if I could figure out a way to hug five boroughs, I would.


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.