Editing Science for Youngsters


The first literature that attracted my attention to natural sciences was Die Erde--the Earth--when I was in elementary school. It was volume 1 of Was Ist Was, a German series of popular science books written for young readers. To me, the most gripping figure was a diagram showing our planet like a cut open orange with its blue and brown crust and its hot interior. I was also fascinated by films on animals and a reprint of the classical Brehms Tierleben, written by a 19th century naturalist.

At high school (Gymnasium), biology quickly became my favorite subject. And as a teenager, I became aware of the progressive pollution and destruction of our planet. I determined that I wanted to inform people about these problems and thus committed myself to environmental protection as my profession.

In 1979, I enrolled at Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt to study biology and chose zoology, botany, and hydrology as my main subjects. Wherever possible, I put the stress on ecology. During a summer seminar, I learned that one of the main ecological problems we are facing is the loss of species diversity due to the destruction of the tropical rainforests. I decided to write my master's and my doctoral thesis on the ecology and behaviour of ants, which are important predators in Southeast Asian tropical rainforests. Together with other authors, I published many of my results in Naturwissenschaften, Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, Experientia, and other scientific journals. I did not find writing too hard and also enjoyed presenting a summary of my ecological results at an international conference on the biology of social insects at the Sorbonne. When my son was born in 1990, I stopped my experimental work and ecological studies to focus on writing my doctoral thesis and scientific publications.

An important change came following my daughter's birth in 1994. I will never forget how, during a conference on tropical ecology in Hamburg, I was talking to colleagues in front of my poster, holding the 2-month-old baby girl in my arms while my son ran around other research groups' posters. After this distressing experience, I decided to concentrate on child care for a while.

It was not long, though, before I began to miss my scientific work. I started to search for a job compatible with my obligations as a mother of two young children, which is still difficult for academics. I heard that the news editor of the Science International Editorial Office in the U.K. was looking for a freelance writer to report from Germany. After an interview at Cambridge, I got the opportunity to write my first story--on university policy. Other articles followed and I have been in contact with Science's Europe news department and Science's Next Wave from then on.

Science writing to me appeared a very promising alternative from working in a laboratory. But, journalistic writing is a trade completely different from the writing style often used in scientific literature. A journalist has to attract the readers' interest. To learn my new trade, I took a 12-month course in journal editing. Among other things, the 20 academics in the course learned to write different journalistic text forms and to use relevant computer programs (e.g., for layout). In addition to the course, a practicum (internship) at a local newspaper editorial office helped me to unlearn the turgid writing style I picked up at the university. As a freelancer, I am still reporting on the activities of local conservationists or environmental-friendly projects, but I also enjoy writing portraits of interesting people, which I get to do for Next Wave.

For Science magazine, I have followed the development of German policy on embryonic stem cell research from the start and became a member of the ethics' group at the stem cell priority program of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG). I find it very attractive to attend the scientific meetings of a field with such exciting research and medical potential, as well as a controversy concerning its ethical and sociological impact.

In 2000, I was offered a job that brought me back to my former field of research--the insects. An editor for Tessloff Verlag--the company that publishes the Was Ist Was books--was searching for an entomologist to rewrite the insect volume. It turned out to be a great challenge--writing an overview on the biology of three-quarters of the animal kingdom in only 48 pages. I read and summarized hundreds of pages of scientific literature and translated it into a language comprehensible to school children and young persons. I also recommended the right figures and photos to illustrate the book and the order of pages (Seitenspiegel). While writing the insect book, I rediscovered the pleasure of working on longer manuscripts. Subsequently, I revised the Was Ist Was book on spiders, which will be available next month.

I never lost my passion for natural science and have already passed it on to my children. And I hope that by writing, I can pass some of my enthusiasm for nature on to other people--especially to young persons I will never meet in my life.

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