Tag Archives: writing

It began with a snake. Or did it?

Newbury, Massachusetts

My career in science used to begin with a snake, now it may begin with a lie.

The snake is a garter snake. I have known this snake since I was 8-years-old when Mama bought me a book on snake identification. She bought it after I brought home a baby copperhead in my pocket. She knew I wasn’t going to stop bringing home snakes, so she wanted to make sure I knew which ones to bring home and which ones to leave behind.

I have told this ‘copperhead-in-my-pocket’ anecdote for two decades now. I’ve used it in essays and in job interviews as a watershed moment in my development as an ecologist.

But it may be a lie.

Last month I was sitting in an Asian restaurant in Falmouth, Massachusetts, re-reading Old Yeller (I mean, where would you re-read a classic from your childhood?). The narrator, a teenage boy, Travis, describes how his little brother, Arliss, has a penchant for bringing home snakes and frogs. I nodded remembering all the animals I brought home as a kid.

Then I stopped eating my cashew chicken with brown rice when I read the following:

“And once he turned out of his pocket a wadded-up baby copperhead that nearly threw Mama into spasms. We never did figure out why the snake hadn’t bitten him…”

Had I torn a thread from Old Yeller‘s story and wove it into my own? Was this anecdote I’ve told for years a lie?

Mama doesn’t remember the ‘copperhead-in-the-pocket’ story, but she does remember buying the paperback book on snakes. And she remembers books on dinosaurs and fish. She remembers me bringing home snakes, snapping turtles, crawdads, fish, frogs, bugs, and spiders. But not a copperhead in my pocket, baby or otherwise.

Did little Arliss’s life mimic mine or did I steal his?

I will never be able to tell you for sure . All I can tell you is that the snake in front of me is a garter snake. And I know this because Mama bought me a book on snakes when I was 8.

Or 9.

Or maybe I was 10.

Science communication part 3 – should I do it? if so, how?

As a scientist you may ask yourself, Science communication, should I do it?  Yes!  Science communication has multiple benefits:

1)  It increases scientific literacy.  More explicitly, it garners interest for your particular field and explains why it’s important.  Remember, science is often supported via government grants or kind benefactors.  Science communication is voter education.
2)  It makes you better scientist.  Science communication forces you to distill your message to the protein and clarify your own thinking.
3)  Other scientists need to know what you’re doing!  Science communication gets your science out of your lab and into someone else’s.  As Clara Chaisson points out, Science communication fosters better communication among scientists too!
4)  Science communication is your most important tool for outreach, which helps you get jobs and funding.  But you should also do it because it’s part of your scientific philosophy!
5)  It exposes you.  Yes, exposure is terrifying, but it is necessary.  As much as we want to romanticize the hermit scientist cloistered in the lab, the market for jobs, funding, and peer-recognition relies somewhat on marketing yourself.

The next question is, How do I do it?  Write a book?  Give a tweet?  Give a lecture?  Dance a jig?  Yes!  Another excellent point by Clara, Science communication comes in many forms, big (for example, books) and small (for example, tweets). Every level of science communication can be important, so if you are intimidated or worried about how much time it’s going to take, start out small.   

Below are suggestions for getting your science out there.  If you have other suggestions please let me know in the comments and I’ll update the blog and credit you with thanks!


Write a Letter to the Editor
Happy news!  Newspapers still exist! Some even in the analogue form!  Letters to the Editors are typically brief (~200 words) and in response to a previously written article in that newspaper or journal.  This can be a way to get your feet wet.  Go ahead!  Give it a try!

Write an Op-ed
Op-ed means ‘opposite the editorial page’ and is an unsolicited opinion piece you submit vs. the editorials which are written by staff columnists.  These are longer than Letters to the Editor and typically 750 – 1000. 

Start a blog
Blogs are free-form and are as easy to update as your Facebook account.  Sites like WordPress and Blogger will host your blog for free and are extremely user friendly with a lot of options for displaying your content with many tutorials online.  I started my blog to talk about the science I wanted to talk about.  But blogs can take a lot of time and effort.  Not enough time to start and maintain your own blog?  Be a contributor to a blog.  Some group blogs I enjoy include DeepSeaNews (my favorite article is why mermaids can’t exist ) and Southern Fried Science (great freakin’ title!).  Try to find one in your area of expertise.   

Want to Freelance?
Maybe you want to Freelance?  This means you write articles for targeted journals/newspapers/websites either on assignment (i.e., you have a contract to do the work) or you submit the work on spec (i.e., you write the piece and submit it to an editor on speculation).  The essay I recently wrote for the local newspaper was written on-spec.  Take a gander at what Sarah White’s sage advice on freelancing.  Particularly, that you should get paid for it because freelancing ain’t free.

Write a book
David George Haskell walked into Shakerag Hollow in Tennessee, sat down on a rock and observed a patch of the forest floor.  He had a notebook, a hand lens and his senses.  He visited this spot again and again for one year.  Then he wrote The Forest Unseen.  Then he got himself nominated for a Pulitzer.  Sounds simple, but it took him ten years to write the book.  But the idea that the simple act of observation, the first step of the scientific method, could serve as the foundation for a book is inspiring!  Many scientists have written great science books.  Rachel Carson.  Carl Safina.  E.O. Wilson.  Are you next? 

Social media
Social media makes me want to jump into a tornado of angry claw hammers (not the docile ones) dressed as a nine-penny nail.  There’s so much to keep up with.  So instead of writing about it, I re-direct you to marine ecologist Jarrett Byrnes’ post on the matter.  He says things gooder than me do (and I’m busy sewing together this Nail costume).  I will repeat this line from his post, If you are not curating your online identity, someone or something else is doing it for youIn other words, that angry rant you posted years ago about how putting fruit, particularly raisins, in baked goods is abhorrent and wrong (and it is) is still there.  And it can be found by your mama, your boss, and that woman in another lab that you’ve been trying to work up the courage to ask out (just do it already!). With the internet it’s one click and that’s it.  It’s there forever.    


Maybe you don’t want to write but instead express yourself in other ways.  Here are some ideas.

Tell a story about your science
If you’re approached by someone who wants to hear your story, say a freelance writer, don’t be shy!  If you’re really brave, you can tell the story behind your science yourself.  I was recently introduced to The Story Collider.  Story Collider is phenomenal.  The stories are told by scientists and show them as humans with real emotions.  You’ll laugh.  You’ll cry.  You’ll scratch your head.  Imagine the Moth Radio Hour for scientists.  

Guest lecture at local schools
Schools sometimes receive small educational-improvement grants to support guest speakers.  Regardless, biology clubs and science classrooms love guest speakers, especially if you’re a real-live scientist!  I spent two days this month talking to group of middle-schoolers about ocean acidification.  The kids loved sampling the pH of household solutions (did you know milk is slightly acidic at 6.5 pH?) and role-playing chemical reactions.  Lobsters, microscopes, chemistry, and role playing are all things I’ve brought into classrooms to communicate science.  The students usually respond well to them all.  Remember, these are future voters and potentially scientists!

Professor Johnson is learnin' you some ocean chemistry.
Professor Johnson is learnin’ you some ocean chemistry.

Rap or sing or make a music video
Here is a great site for math and science raps and songs.  And here’s a video that tickles me featuring a friend of mine.

Radio broadcast/podcast
In my opinion, Radiolab is one of the best example of this.  If you’re interested in getting into this you might consider participating in the Transom workshops.

Sites like YouTube and Vimeo are great repositories for science blogs.  And they are blowing up!  One of my favorites is Emily Graslie’s video blog The Brain Scoop.  It is friggin’ awesome! And her enthusiasm for natural history great!  I am jealous of her skills and ability and ease of explaining science.  In fact, it is from her that I learned the difference between antlers and horns.  I might have binge watched most them instead of writing a proposal.

In the marine ecology community is Beneath the Waves , a wonderful festival of marine science videos that is shown around the world (not just on the net!).  I’m simply thrilled with what they’ve done.  Take a look and maybe submit a video!  Or find such a festival in your discipline.  Or start your own festival!    

On that note, there is a new ebook, The Scientist Videographer by Karen McKee, a coastal ecologist on videography for scientists.  I haven’t read the book yet, but Karen is a great scientist and communicator so it’s worth a read.  It’s only available on Apple platforms at the moment.  I know, I know.  Me too.   

Dance your Ph.D. I’m just saying. 

Perform a play
Suitcase theater by Beth Nixon about her dad (a marine biologist), crabs, and dinosaurs.  I saw this performance.  Moving, powerful and human.  I wish I could show it to you.  Go see it if you can.  Maybe I will see one of your shows soon? 

Comic books?  Street performances?  Smoke signals?  Crocheting?  Be creative!
Thank you, Clara Chaisson (a science-communication graduate student at Boston University) for your helpful comments and contributions to this blog post.  Check out Clara’s blog.  Do it now!

Science Communication Pt. 2 – freelance ain’t free?

Byfield, Massachusetts

Remember in the last post I began with thinking I should write about trees and their leaves?  Well, I went from thoughts to paper!  A newspaper even!  I just published an article about leaf-color change in the Daily News, a daily newspaper in Newburyport, Massachusetts.  Below are pretty pics for your viewing pleasure.  The article can be found here.

As I shared this wonderful news with my writer friends, I was repeatedly counselled that it’s okay to build up a resume by writing pro bono, but not to let it get out of hand.  David Berreby reminded this David Samuel Johnson of the words of Samuel Johnson.

None but a blockhead ever wrote but for money.

Well, fit me a square hat then because I got no money for the piece.  I got the joy, but no money.  As a scientist I may have been raised this way.

Scientists are complete morons when it comes to monetizing their talents.  Probably because that’s not our goal.  None of us went into science for the money.  For the fame and the sex appeal, maybe, but not for the money.

We constantly write for free.  The model for academic publishing is mind-numbingly and creativity-stealingly absurd.  We write the grants to fund our science (yes, some of our salary is covered by the grant but it’s not quite the same as getting paid to write), then we write the papers/articles on that research and submit them to journals who DO NOT pay us to publish in their journals (if the paper is accepted).  In fact, some publishing companies require US to pay THEM to publish (I’m looking at you Elseveir with severe and narrowed eyes).  And then…AND THEN!  We then have to buy our article back from the journal that we just published in.  The publisher gets FREE! content from scientists and then charges us to view what we just gave them.  It’s a strange bondage of  an intellectual serfdom as service to publishing feudal lords.  Though maybe my economic metaphor doesn’t work because at least feudal lords owned the land the serfs worked, publishers don’t own my data.  Running with the imperfect metaphor:  this intellectual servitude is reinforced by our peers and administrations because publications are the currency that we need to get jobs and promotions.  If that isn’t the most bass-ackward thing you’ve ever heard of, I don’t know what is.  For being smart, we scientists sure do have our heads straight up our ignorant keisters when it comes to publishing models.

I get it.  Freelancing ain’t free.  And I should follow the helpful advice from my friend Sarah White who has been a freelancer for the past decade.  Regarding writing for free, she blogs (in what I imagine is a stern ‘mom’ voice and stamping her foot):  “Right now. I mean it. Stop.”

Sigh.  It’s hard.  I say this as I write a blog without asking any payment from you.  Your support and kind words are all the currency I need right now.  But if you want to send me a big box of cash, my address is The Brilliant Dr. David Samuel Johnson, 297 Newburyport Turnpike, Byfield, MA 01922.  Remember to send large bills.  And some synthetic wool socks (size 9.5 shoe).  It’s getting cold up here.

But not all my writing is paid in love.  Some has real cash.  Like my essay on fracking in Arkansas published earlier this year in Sage Magazine.  Got me rent money it did!

Okay, now back to where I began.  I got published.  Take a look.  No charge.




Science Communication Part 1 – The Identity Crisis

This is part of a series on science communication. Be sure to look at Part 2 and Part 3.
Am I a writer - Ipswich Ale box

I’m staring out the window watching the trees dance naked in the wind.  As it gets colder the trees strip while we add layers.  I should write about that, I think.

If you would have asked me when I was kid what I wanted to be when I grew up I would have said, “I want to have a snake farm and be a writer.”  I was freakin’ adorable then (and devilishly handsome now).  My ‘snake farm’ is now studies in coastal ecology and while I identify myself as a scientist, I pause at the moniker of ‘writer’ despite my constant writing.  I am a scientist and I write about science but am I science writer?

To deal with this identity crisis I attended a science writing workshop with seven other early-career scientists (e.g., post-docs).  The workshop was led by David Berreby, a science writer who’s got chops as he has written for the NY Times, Slate, Vogue, The New Yorker, and a host of other publications that make me slobber.  We stared at Mr. Berreby like hungry baby birds, minds agape, waiting to fed the knowledge to take our science from the dark, recessed electronic shelves of arcane journals to a platform that shines for an audience who is eager to hear them. 

But Berreby didn’t give us knowledge. He gave us permission.  Permission to write not like academics, but as storytellers.  And we told great stories.  Like the one about how single-celled plant-like organisms might alter the weather in Iowa by affecting climate change.  Or the one about invertebrates that desiccate, ‘die’ and borrow genes from bacteria, plants, and animals to reassemble themselves.  The story of how vegetarians can save the marshes.  These are great stories!  But how do we tell them so you don’t fall asleep or click on some click bait about one-weird secret trick to seducing Emma Stone and Channing Tatum simultaneously, losing 47 lbs overnight, gaining Scrooge McDuck-like fortune from the comfort of your couch, and having the whitest teeth all at the same time?

For me, the bigger question is why do scientists suck at communicating science? 

My workshop colleagues and I agreed that it’s not our writing ability that hamstrings us, it’s our fear.  Fear of being wrong.  Fear of losing credibility for using less authoritative language.  Fear of looking like a blanking idiot.  Fear of bringing shame upon our advisors and colleagues for indulging in the rich and evocative aromatics found in the wine of metaphor.  As scientists, we are taught to maintain a tight and controlled message that is informed by the constraints of the data.  There is no room for opinion or imagery.  There are the data and the limited story it tells.  Do not stray beyond the barbed-wire borders of the data or be shot. 

As a grad student, any imagery and literary language was edited out of my science manuscripts.  There was no room for story.  Well, that’s not true.  I argue that scientists are storytellers, it’s just that we have a narrow narrative and a specific language (and science is a continent of disciplines that each have their own language).  And that language and narrative is generally not accessible to a general audience because its arcane and quite simply, lifeless.  I did try to inject some life into the title of my first publication.

Worm holes 4
Worm holes? That sounds cool!  Okay, let’s see…Macroinfaunal annelids?  What the heck are those?  What about the hyperdrives?…in a Northern New England…zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Recently in San Diego I gave a talk at the Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation meeting.  I am a coastal ecologist after all.  I told a story that only I know; a story I know well.  But there was still fear.  Fear that someone would stand up at the end and say I was full of crap.  Fear that I would say the wrong thing.  Fear that my colleagues would find out that I’m a complete fraud.  Most graduate students and young scientists have scorching cases of self-doubt and fear. Scorching, I say!

Thirty seconds before I stood in front of a large screen and a room full of my colleagues I thought, “Okay, let’s do this!”.  I was animated.  I injected humor and metaphor.  And I gave a stupendous talk!  And not a single rotten tomato was thrown. Not everyone agreed with the story, but it wasn’t about pleasing everyone.  It was about telling the best story I knew how to tell.

For me, overcoming fear is a start, but I need to give myself permission to be a better storyteller.  Not to be suffocated by the crushing weight of jargon and instead rely on the wings of metaphor and imagery (even if the metaphor doesn’t quite work).  To be playful.  I need to give myself permission to be a writer.  

Saltmarsh worm (Streblospio benedicti) from the mudflats Notice the banded branchae and the clear feeding palps. Plum Island Estuary, Massachusetts
I am an annelid, aka a worm.

Maybe you don’t understand what I mean when I say I study the effects of bottom-up and top-down control on marsh invertebrates.  Or maybe you say, so what?  But if I tell you that while some people like to study fish, I like to study bait, you have some inkling of what I do.  And I if I tell you that changes in the amount of bait affects the number of fish you might catch, then you have a better understanding of my work.  That I’m trying to understand how human impacts affect the number of worms (ahem, annelids) in the mud, you understand and appreciate the goal of my work.  What you don’t know is that my scientific goal is not to increase the number of fish you can catch, it just happens to be a byproduct of my work.

Maybe instead you want to know more of what it’s like to be a coastal ecologist.  So if I tell you that some of my days were spent standing crotch-deep in the mud collecting samples under a villainous sun as greedy mosquitos and flies take advantage of any exposed flesh you might be standing there right beside me.  And certainly if you replace ‘data’ with ‘baby’ or ‘homework’ or ‘double shift’ you can empathize with staring at data at 1 in the morning wondering out-loud in voice as desperate and strained as three-day-old coffee grounds, “What the #%*@ am I doing?”. [sorry for the language Mama]

I am doing science.  And in that process writing about science.  But am I a writer?  At the moment, the data are inconclusive. 

Within the next blog or two I will provide tips on how to be a more effective science communicator and provide resources to consider.


I learned many great tips in Berreby’s workshop, but by far my favorite is Berreby’s line:  “If you’re building an airplane, you don’t need a periscope.”  What a great example of using imagery to cement a message!  This is a spin on the ‘kill your darlings’ in literary writing.  Apropos to the advice, I removed this paragraph from the essay above.  It was a periscope I didn’t need to fly my plane.  But it’s such a great line that you get it here.