You might have noticed elsewhere on this site that I claimed the title of biological scientist. That falls under the “fact” half of this site. I am, indeed, a practicing molecular developmental biologist. I’ve got my paperwork and everything; it’s hanging in a swanky frame in my home office, right next to my SO’s (we met in graduate school).
“But… but you’re a writer!” you might say. “How did a creative type wind up in a lab coat and latex gloves, doing science experiments for a living?”
To which I reply: scientists are creative types! Lots of scientists I know are passionate about their interests beyond science. My graduate school classmates included musicians, writers, cooks, philosophers, performers, public speakers, bloggers, podcasters (is that a thing?), and painters. Scientists come in all kinds of flavors. I’ll get into the creativity required for the actual job a bit further down. As for how I chose the science route? Well, gather round – it’s story time.
As a child I was always curious about how things work. One of my favorite children’s books was The Big Book of Real Trains (by Elizabeth Cameron and George Zaffo), which contained a cutaway schematic of a steam locomotive. I loved poring over that diagram, identifying all the parts and puzzling over how they all worked together to make the train move. I’ve popped open an empty cassette player just to watch what happens inside when I pressed “play.” Little ten-year-old me even took it upon himself to fix the conveyor belt of a broken toy car playset, examining all the moving parts to figure out why it wasn’t working right.
This interest in the inner workings of things took on a life of its own when it ran head-first into school science classes. Biology, chemistry, physics – I ate this stuff up, constantly hungry to learn more about how the natural world behaves. Biology quickly jumped out in front, though, especially when it zoomed down into the microscopic (and sub-microscopic!) world of cells, DNA, genes, and proteins. A mysterious code written into two meters (6.5 feet for you non-metric types) of DNA, crammed into nearly every cell in our bodies, dictating the way we develop and how we work? And we’re starting to figure out how to change it ourselves? That’s like, straight-up science fiction sprung off the page and into real life. Or at least that’s how it felt for an adolescent nerd. I wanted in.
At the beginning of high school I assumed that a passion for biology would lead to a career as a physician of some sort, but a chance invitation to a summer program for biological research introduced me to an entirely new career prospect. For three summers during college I worked in a neurobiology laboratory, learning not just certain details of how our spinal cords develop but the fundamental process of how to properly conduct scientific research. Those cumulative six months set me on the path to graduate school to earn a Ph.D. in molecular biology and truly begin my research career.
At this point you might be thinking, “Well, that’s nice, I guess, but what does this have to do with writing?” A lot, actually. A research career involves a ton of writing, and not just the thesis at the end of graduate school. Scientists need to be able to communicate, effectively and convincingly, their findings and conclusions to the scientific community and the public, for numerous reasons and in a variety of formats. Primary research articles, published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, are a staple of the career (“publish or perish”). Beyond articles, though? Concise summaries of findings for conferences. Research plans for funding opportunity applications. Experimental strategy justifications for institutional and federal oversight agencies. Review articles summarizing pertinent findings in a given field of study. Non-technical descriptions of our work and our findings for the general public. And the list goes on. My labmates and I constantly critique drafts of each other’s work, helping to revise, reorganize, and distill our thoughts and words much like writing groups for fiction. And though the content and vocabulary are very different from even science fiction, the general rules – e.g. spelling, grammar, clarity, balancing brevity and impact – still apply.
And personally, I find that fiction and fact can be similarly rewarding to write. Both are like puzzles – looking for just the right words, shifting ideas and phrases around, kneading and massaging and hammering until the pieces fall into place and make a nice coherent picture. I’ve even noticed that when I have a significant amount of fact-writing to do, it seems to spark a desire in me to crank up my fiction output at the same time. They sort of reinforce each other and synergize to make me write write write.
Wow, I think I’ve rambled enough for one post. As a reward to everyone who made it all the way to the end, I will now plug two books by a scientist-author whose work needs no plugging from me. If you’re curious about what it is I actually study, or what general biological concepts set my motor whirring, I highly recommend Endless Forms Most Beautiful and Remarkable Creatures by Sean B. Carroll, a molecular geneticist at the University of Wisconsin. The former delves into the mechanisms of genetic change, adaptation, and the variations on themes found over and over again in the body plans of living things. The latter is a more historical account of building the fossil record and solving the mysteries of species diversity. These books are meant for the general public, so please don’t shy away if you feel you’re not a science type!
Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for my next installment, in which I discuss what I feel are the three biggest influences on my writing.