Origins of Science Writers…but am I one?

The other day, Ed Yong asked science writers, journalists, bloggers and communicators to write their ‘origin stories’, i.e., how they got into science writing plus advice to people who are interested in pursuing this line of work. He received 100 comments so far which is (almost) 100 responses, from some of the top science writers in the world. I find the entire thread fascinating!. In the end I could not resist, so I posted my own comment, reproduced (with mild edits) here:

I think I need to look at the influence of my family. My grandmother was Czech. She got a degree in Philosophy at the University of Prague (at the same time as Franz Kafka and Max Brod). My grandfather came to Prague from Sarajevo, Bosnia. He received two degrees at the University of Prague: in architecture and in civil engineering. The two met at the University, fell in love, and upon graduating got married and settled in Sarajevo where my grandfather designed and built a number of buildings, some of which (including the first skyscraper in the Balkans) are now under protection as cultural and historical monuments. Being a part of elite circles of Sarajevo, they lived under the illusion they were safe. Thus, unlike their siblings who fled the city (and even the country) at the beginning of WWII, they were caught by the Nazis and placed in the concentration camp where they perished close to the end of the war.

Through smart and fast action of some friends and relatives, their daughter (my Mom) was saved and many years later she wrote a wonderful piece about her memories of the War which was published in a book. At the end of the WWII, at the age of twelve, she was adopted by her uncle (her father’s brother) and brought to Belgrade (then Yugoslavia, now Serbia). Thus it is my great-uncle and great-aunt who were the “grandparents” I actually knew and grew up with. They both had a profound influence on me. She was a Czech-born ballerina, a world-famous ballet choreographer, and the founder of the first and (still to this day) most influential ballet school in Yugoslavia, in Belgrade. He was an Army colonel, with two degrees from the University of Prague: chemistry and chemical engineering. They were both world travelers and fluent in several languages.

My parents met at the University of Belgrade. My mother was studying English, and my father was studying Philology. They both also studied a variety of foreign languages. My mother taught English for a while, but spent most of her working career working in the depths of the Serbian government. My father, together with a few friends, owned the only printing press in Serbia right after the War. After it was nationalized, he worked as editor and copy-editor for various technical publications. Occasionally he would take me with him to the printers, where they treated him like God (“one of the last old-school copy-editors who does it right” they would tell me) and where I could stare for hours at the printing presses, marveling at the engineering, enjoying the sounds and the smells and smudges of ink on my fingers.

Needless to say, both our house and grandparents’ house were full of books (as is my house today). We were all big readers of books (I swallowed massive doses of science fiction as a teenager). And we were all big readers of newspapers and magazines as well. When I was very little, I would just read the comics page, the weekly kids section, the weekly nature section, perhaps the movie and TV schedules, but as I was growing up, I made sure to turn every page and read whatever piques my interest, which was more and more as I was getting older.

My father was a language perfectionist and he made sure my brother and I learned to speak and write perfect, grammatically correct Serbian. My mother made sure we were started on English as a foreign language early on (when I was about 5). My father was also a choir singer and taught us proper diction, which is why my favorite medium is radio.

Both our house and our grandparents’ house were always full of fascinating people. Theater people, of course, from opera singers to ballet dancers to directors to composers to conductors. Artists. Art photographers. Linguists. Mining engineers. Gay couples. Writers. Physicians. Journalists. A professor of anatomy at the vet school. A food scientist who spent her entire career doing research on chocolate. A philosophy professor who later got elected into Serbian Parliament and ran for President. Many an evening the guests stayed late into the night discussing politics and all sorts of other topics, with my brother and me allowed to stay up late and listen and soak up all of that interesting intellectual discourse.

I always loved animals and planned to do something with them, perhaps become a biologist or a veterinarian of some sort. But I was also always reading and writing and discussing stuff, so a career that involved the use of language was not an unthinkable proposition. And I had a brief stint in journalism – in my middle-school newspaper where my job was to draw doodles and line-drawings (usually of animals) as fillers of empty spaces. I translated two equestrian manuals from English to Serbian. And I bought hay and oats for my horse for a year using the money I earned translating Disney comic strips (Mickey, Donald…) for a weekly.

Life interfered – I was in vet school when the war broke out in 1991. I escaped the country a week before, on one of the last trains out before the borders closed, sanctions were imposed, and the country descended into a decade of chaos. I found myself in North Carolina and, after a couple of years of getting my bearings, decided not to pursue veterinary medicine any more, but to go back to basic science – biology at North Carolina State University.

After ten years of grad school, I realized that things I was good at – thinking, connecting ideas from disparate research traditions, designing clever experiments, observing animal behavior, animal surgery, discussing, teaching, placing my work in historical and philosophical context – were going out of fashion. Instead, biology was becoming more and more an exercise in things I was bad at – pipetting all day and running gels, following recipes, doing what I am told to, working at the bench in complete silence for 13 hours a day seven days a week, getting all secretive and competitive.

So I bailed out. While I was still finishing up my last experiments, I started blogging politics. When the Kerry/Edwards ticket lost in 2004, I switched to blogging about science. The rest is history.

While much of what I do these days has something to do with writing and publishing and the media, I still find it strange to think of myself as a science journalist. I don’t even blog about recent scientific papers very often any more. I write more meta-stuff, e.g., about science communication, science blogging, science journalism, science publishing, science education, media in general etc. I have not published any articles in legacy media and while I am open to that possibility, I am not actively doing anything to make that happen – I feel at home on the Web.

Yet just last week I was granted membership in the National Association of Science Writers (my initial application was rejected as they had to follow their old “printed on paper only” rules, but this prompted them to revisit and revise their rules to allow for online-only publications). So I guess I am now officially a science writer (and will be on a panel at the NASW meeting in November).

Advice? No idea what to say. I write what I feel the urge to write, and it seems some people like it and appreciate it. Perhaps that can work for others as well, I wouldn’t know.

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2 responses to “Origins of Science Writers…but am I one?

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