Science Writer in Residence

I love my new job title. It intrigues people and always stimulates conversation. How do you become an SWIR? What do you do? Well, it's a long story of a gradual transition from research scientist to full-time writer, but if you bear with me, I'll try to explain how it all evolved.

I guess I'm a chemist more by genetic determinism than by choice (more scientists in the family than I can count on my fingers, even if I exclude my inquisitive kids). Nevertheless, I have always been torn between sciences and languages, feeling the rift between the two cultures going right through me somewhere in the middle. So it wasn't that surprising that, at the end of my PhD thesis at the University of Regensburg, Germany, I rediscovered writing, which had taken a back seat during the rather intensive years of studies. Unlike most fellow graduate students, I actually enjoyed writing up my first research papers and PhD thesis, so I started wondering what it would be like to write for an audience somewhat bigger than the 500 people who--if I'm lucky--might read my research papers.

Strictly speaking, I first became a freelance translator before I became a writer. Following a speculative application, I translated around a dozen full-length articles for Spektrum der Wissenschaft, the German edition of Scientific American, during the 1990s. In late 1992, as the end of my graduate days was looming, I considered doing a short spell in journalism before going abroad for a postdoc fellowship. I had heard that a national newspaper, the Süddeutsche Zeitung, offered 6- to 8-week internships to people who could write two printable sample pieces for their science pages.

So I wrote two pieces for them, which were duly printed. But somehow, with an EMBO postdoc fellowship at Oxford waiting, and a household of three people and 3000 books to move across the Channel, there wasn't enough time to take up the editors' internship offer. However, I kept on writing at night, to relax from the stresses of postdoc research in a cutting-edge lab. Those topics that were deemed too specialised by the newspaper editors, I placed in the front section of Spektrum der Wissenschaft.

By the summer of 1994, the three-way split between daytime research, family duties, and nighttime writing was well established, and I'd accumulated more than 20 journalistic publications. Most of them dealt with nanometer-scale systems derived either from biology or from technology and I had the idea of bundling them together into a book. The biological topics made one section, which was juxtaposed to another section about the chemical/physical/technical things. Both were sandwiched between a newly written introduction and an outlook section on the potential uses of nanotechnology. My first real book, Expeditionen in den Nanokosmos, came out with Birkhäuser in the autumn of 1995. Sadly, I was ahead of my time. This was way before nanotech really took off, and it went out of print in 1999, having sold only 750 copies. On the plus side, however, the English translation ( Travels to the Nanoworld), which I prepared in 1998, is still available in paperback. In addition I can claim to have given the German language the word "Nanokosmos", which I invented for the book, but which has since cropped up elsewhere.

In case you didn't know, writing is addictive, so as soon as I had finished the Nanokosmos manuscript, I felt an enormous craving to write another book. Knowing that it could be done, I didn't need the crutch of reusing existing manuscripts this time. I found a new topic in my own scientific research. All my research had been in some way connected to the biological adaptation to extreme conditions and to stress responses. In other words, how can organisms resist pressures of a thousand atmospheres, temperatures near boiling or freezing point, or saturated salt brines? This area made both a new focus for my shorter writings and the topic for my second book, Exzentriker des Lebens, which came out with Spektrum Verlag in the spring of 1997. The licence for an English translation was swiftly snapped up by the London representatives of the American publishing house Plenum, such that I could start working on the English version almost immediately after finishing the original. Life on the Edge was published in the spring of 1998 and is still available in paperback from Perseus Press. With more than 5000 copies (compared to 2100 for the German original) sold so far, it is my personal bestseller.

In the meantime, my postdoc supervisor had left the Oxford Centre for Molecular Sciences (OCMS), and I spent my days setting up my own project with a David Phillips research fellowship provided by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). I still followed the same pattern, doing research by day and writing by night, though the e-mail correspondence attached to the writing business was beginning to gnaw a hole into my research time. However, since I've never been one to believe in long holidays, in working hours per year I've probably done just as much research as the average scientist.

Still, I was hoping to be able to continue the trick of balancing journalism and research with the help of a budding research group. But for some reason (my reluctance to go begging for money may have had something to do with it!) the group failed to materialise. In the spring of 1999 the BBSRC summoned me, along with their other research fellows, to a conference to present our results. The committee wasn't very happy with the progress of my research project, nor did they seem to have any inclination to give me brownie points for my activities in public understanding (even though the BBSRC statutes and fellowship guidelines emphasise the importance of this).

Thus, my research council funding came to an end at the close of 1999, and the university (which initially hadn't realised they had to fire me) stopped payments in April 2000. My former boss, Chris Dobson, was however generous enough to allow me to stay on in my old office and to earn my living as a science writer from there. I had applied for a couple of editorial jobs in 1999, without too much success (typically I ended up as one of the last two or three interviewees, at which point the candidate with proper editorial experience was preferred). Thus, finding myself without a regular salary in May 2000, I decided to give full-time freelance writing a serious stab. For a year and a half, I wrote full time from OCMS, mainly contributing to Spektrum der Wissenschaft, Chemistry in Britain, Süddeutsche Zeitung, and the Guardian.

The first year of freelancing was quite disastrous financially (I earned roughly half of what I needed to keep the family afloat). But in the second year some new contacts and a consultancy agreement in the field of nanotechnology with the technology commercialisation company BTG plc brought me back into the black. In my second business year (ending April 2002), I will probably have earned around 2.5 times what I earned in the first. The books only provide about 10% of my required income, so until they sell in five figures rather than four, I will depend on the magazine pieces for my living.

In September 2001, Chris Dobson moved his lab to Cambridge, so I had to find a new home too. I sent out a round robin to a dozen heads of departments in Oxford asking whether they would take me in as a science writer in residence, i.e., offer me desk space, an academic address, and computer access in exchange for some help with PR for their research. "Try again in 2 years" was the best result I got. Most of the others clearly didn't see the point of science writers. At this point, I mentioned my academic homelessness problem to my PhD supervisor, Rainer Jaenicke, who pointed me in the direction of Birkbeck College.

Arrangements with the then head of the school of crystallography, Julia Goodfellow, were swiftly sorted out, and since October 2001 I reside at Birkbeck for 2 days per week (working from home the rest of the time). For the first 6 months of 2002, I am even on the Birkbeck payroll as a 40% employee, helping out with the departmental Web site and with a course taught via the Internet. This two-fifths job very nicely complements the amount of freelance work I can get easily, but on the other hand I also know that I can survive on writing alone if I have to. Which is a very good feeling.

Michael Gross is a Science Writer in Residence at the School of Crystallography, Birkbeck College, University of London. His latest book, Light and Life, is due to be published by Oxford University Press in Autumn 2002. He can be contacted through his Web page at

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