“The real question is, when did I get interested in science,” I say. “I loved writing before I ever thought about liking science.”
I suppose it’s common for scientists to gripe about writing. It’s not unexpected, though- I don’t know of anyone who chose to enter this field because of the amount of writing it actually entails to be a successful scientist. But whether it’s qualifying exams, grant proposals, article reviews, or even communication to the public, much of life as a scientist requires writing. It’s not possible to advance in this career path by solely focusing on bench work- especially in this era when funding is more competitive than ever, it is important that scientists can communicate their work to whomever asks, whether that be a funding agency or a journalist. Yet of all the different aspects of life as a scientist, writing persists as the most complained about task.
So when it comes up, as it often does, that I am a scientist and I voluntarily write for fun, the reactions are remarkable. The most common is, first, a look of shock, followed by some laughter, and finally, the question: “So, why do you like writing?” I’ve gotten used to this by now.
To most people’s surprise, I answer by flipping the question: “The real question is, when did I get interested in science,” I say. “I loved writing before I ever thought about liking science.” This typically propagates the initial reaction I described above.
But that’s the truth. I’ve loved writing for as long as I can remember. The first project my parents remember me bringing home from elementary school (in either Kindergarten or 1st grade) was a “book” I wrote about penguins, made out of blue construction paper. I continued my love of writing throughout grade school, in 3rd grade winning a poetry contest by writing about outer space. When I worked as a day camp counselor throughout middle school and high school, I had a friend who also liked to write, and would bring me chapters of her novel to edit while we sat by the pool. Even in high school, I took creative writing and poetry as my electives during my senior year.
Yet by that time- in fact, by my sophomore year of high school- I had, finally, become interested in science and was confident by my junior year that that was the route I was going to pursue in college. And so in college, while I kept up my interest in writing through a double major in French literature, a few creative writing classes, and a weekly “tea” with the Honors Program Writer in Residence, writing always remained on the periphery.
It wasn’t until towards the end of my first year of grad school (after taking a gap year between following undergrad) that I thought about getting back into writing. I realized that despite loving Pittsburgh and getting engrossed in science that I was lacking a lot of the other activities that I enjoyed, and when I really thought about it, the main thing I wanted to bring back into my life was writing. But how?
Google has all the answers these days! After a bit of looking around, I decided to search for science writing contests. Who knew those existed? Yet it turns out that there are actually a number of annual science writing contests open to trainees at the graduate student level. The stars aligned with the timing of my search and I discovered that NatureJobs was holding a science writing competition with the prize being an opportunity to write more articles for their blog– the deadline was just a few weeks away. Somehow, with no prior science writing experience and in fact never having know much about NatureJobs before, I made it into the top 5 in that contest!
The experience of reporting for NatureJobs and connecting with editors there as well as my fellow competition winners became a jumping off point for me to explore other avenues of science writing. In the past year, I’ve written additional articles for NatureJobs, won a science writing competition held by the American Society for Cell Biology, and have connected with a variety of people with different expertise and experiences to help me move forward with this avenue of my career.
I recently said to somebody that saying you like writing is the same as saying you like science: there are so many aspects to each field that it’s necessary to hone in on a specific avenue to pursue. Though it took many years, I’m happy that I figured out how to make my interests work for me and I am excited to see what the future holds!