Confessions of a Science Junky


I was supposed to be a biologist. On career day in elementary school, I dressed up as a wildlife biologist, complete with pith helmet, clipboard, and butterfly net. In high school, I took every biology class my school offered. As an undergraduate I was a biology junkie--I loved to read about biology, loved to discuss new research in biology, loved to write about biology. I worked in the biology department and participated in biology-related semester-abroad programs. When I graduated from college years ago, there was no doubt in my mind that I would go on to graduate school, complete a postdoc, and become a professor.

Two years after graduating from college, I enrolled in a graduate program in ecology at a large eastern university. Almost immediately, I felt as though the fit wasn't right. I enjoyed my coursework and discussing papers in journal club--but I just couldn't get excited about my research. After a frustrating year spent studying population genetics, I decided that lab work wasn't for me and I transferred to a mid-western university with more emphasis on field ecology.

The fit still didn't seem right. Although I didn't realize it at the time, I now understand it was science--or, anyway, scientific research as it is usually done--that wasn't the right fit. As before, I enjoyed my classes and journal club, but the thought of narrowing my focus to start my own project left me cold. The key word here is "narrow." I was interested in everything, from conservation biology to microbial ecology to molecular evolution. I even developed a new appreciation for chemistry and physics, just by talking with graduate students in other departments. I began to think that maybe I wasn't doing the right thing--but I had no idea what the right thing was.

One afternoon, I found a feature on the Next Wave Web site about alternate careers in science. There, on the middle of the page, I saw the words "science writer"--and I thought maybe that was the fit I had been looking for. I'd always thought I would one day write about science on the side. I enjoyed writing, and for years I assumed that once I became a professor I'd submit articles occasionally to Natural History or Scientific American. Oddly enough, the thought of having a career as a science writer never occurred to me until I came across that Next Wave feature.

The site profiled a few science writers and included links to several graduate-level programs in science writing. What I found especially inspiring was that several of the writers who were profiled had backgrounds similar to mine. All had started out with the goal of becoming scientists, but found writing about science to be more fulfilling because it gave them the freedom to learn and write about many different fields of science, rather than focusing on one specific area. That night, I contacted every university with a science writing program to request application materials.

One after another, the applications arrived in my mailbox. Reality hit me as they began to pile up: What would I tell my advisor? Since it was only my first semester, I wasn't comfortable with the thought of telling him about my mounting apprehension. Uncertainty aggravated my reticence: I wasn't even sure if I was really ready to change career paths. For years I had seen myself as a scientist, and I wasn't quite ready to abandon that path. I decided to stick it out one more semester.

During the second semester I enrolled in a science writing course offered through the college of liberal arts. I spent the semester interviewing professors and writing short news stories about science at the university.

I loved it. I felt more inspired by that class than any other class I had taken in graduate school. At the end of the semester I told my advisor that, rather than complete a Ph.D. in biology, I wanted to quickly finish up a master's degree, then go on to a new graduate program in science writing.

The shift wasn't easy, and I admit that I lost face with the few department faculty members who were less than thrilled with my decision to leave the Ph.D. program. The change was personally difficult, as well. For years, my identity had been that of a scientist or at least a scientist-to-be. Many of my friends were scientists, most of the professors I knew were scientists, and I thought of myself as one of them. I knew having a career in science wouldn't be easy, but at least I knew what to expect.

But writing? I had no idea what to expect. I didn't even know any writers--and I knew even less about how to make the transition from scientist to science writer.

One of the first--and most influential--steps in that transition was an internship I arranged with a science writer from the university's news service. When I told her of my interest in switching career paths, she suggested I spend a semester in the news office covering research in the school of science. As her intern, I wrote press releases covering research ranging from forest ecology to health science to computer security--and the New York Times picked up the first release I wrote! Soon after, I enrolled in Boston University's graduate program in science journalism.

Some people may believe that writing can't be taught, but I learned many valuable skills at BU: how to prepare for and conduct an effective interview, what elements add up to a good story, how to make my writing less formal and more conversational. The professors were demanding--and the pressure to find a job in a tight market added to the stress of the program--but to this day I rely on the techniques and knowledge I learned from the professors and writers there.

After attending BU I was offered a position as a science editor with an academic publisher in Boston, where I was responsible for researching and developing the content for a middle school science book. I could hardly believe that I was actually being paid to stay on top of the latest news in science, to talk with scientists about their work, and to figure out how to write about it in a kid-friendly manner! I had finally found the right fit.

As I write this, I'm about to begin a new position as a science writer at Purdue University. Today, when people ask me what I do for a living, I tell them "I'm a science writer"--something I wouldn't have imagined saying 3 years ago. And the best part about it is that, even though I'm not a scientist, I still get to be a science junkie.

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