CENtral Science, represent!

The 202 and the 919 stomping terra in the 505. Dr. Lauren Wolf, C&EN Associate Editor and Newscripts blog and print writer, with yours truly and his CENtral Science T-shirt at Bandelier National Monument, Los Alamos, NM, during a break from the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop. The large ceremonial kiva above us is accessed by a series of four ladders that rise 160 feet from the canyon floor. Credit: Some nice guy who used Lauren’s camera but whose name we forgot to ask.

Yes, I’ve tagged this post in my category, “I Can’t Believe My Life Happens to Me.”

During the week of May 30th, I had the pleasure of participating in the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop, a 15-year labor of love run by New Mexico-based science writers, Sandra Blakeslee and George Johnson. This year, about 50 “students” were in attendance, ranging from professional writers like Dr. Wolf at C&EN and Newscripts above to freelancers, public information officers, and other academics like me who are working on improving our skills to communicate science to non-technical audiences.

The resident faculty were simply exceptional both in stature and mentoring skills. The workshop began with David Corcoran, editor of the Tuesday Science Times section of The New York Times. Yes, this is the very same David Corcoran who just signed off after 10 years of also reviewing New Jersey restaurants for the Times. David is also a poet who graced us with several of his works during a faculty reading at Santa Fe’s superb indie bookstore, Collected Works. I don’t know if there’s anything David can’t do. Perhaps windows?

We were also the beneficiaries of the expertise of Adam Rogers, editor at Wired magazine, who held forth on what its like to work with an editor. Adam is also an excellent writer himself – I urge you to read his fabulous Wired story last month on Canadian mycologist James Scott and this history and chemistry of distillation in The Mystery of the Canadian Distillery Fungus. A lovely breakfast with Adam gave us the opportunity to sing the praises of our mutual friend, the writer and all-around wonderful human being, Steve Silberman.

Gareth Cook, Boston Globe columnist, related to us the backstory of his 2005 Pulitzer prize-winning collection of articles for Explanatory Reporting on the stem cell research debate and overseas stem cell clinics. Gareth is a huge advocate of the power of reporting in great science journalism. Being there, Gareth told us, gives you access and insight to stories related to the main story that you could not have possibly known if writing from a distance. Writing about the scene provides an unparalleled richness to any story – science or otherwise. Gareth is also author of a chapter on deadline writing in the excellent National Association of Science Writers (NASW) book, A Field Guide for Science Writers.

At the end of the week, I told Gareth that I learned more from him than I would have in a two-year master’s program in science journalism (I’m on the advisory board of such a program and was only half-kidding). With his signature dry wit, Gareth responded that he’d be happy to take the $20,000.

Cornelia Dean, the remarkable New York Times writer and editor and Harvard lecturer, was the faculty member who I was most starry-eyed about in advance of the workshop. Dean wrote a book every scientist should read and keep in their office or lab: Am I Making Myself Clear? (Yes, this fanboy got his copy signed the first day.) I’m hard-pressed to find another single source for the scientist on how to communicate to the public (although she recommended two others: Escape from the Ivory Tower by Nancy Baron and Explaining Research by Dennis Meredith). Corey is also author of the definitive book on the crisis in coastal beach erosion management and engineering, 2001′s Against the Tide. Moreover, she is a wonderfully warm and soulful human being who I am so fortunate to know.

A special session on the business of freelance writing was also presented by Lynne Friedmann, editor of ScienceWriters, the official quarterly magazine of the NASW. For those of you who understand that running an academic laboratory is like having a small business, her strategies on launching and sustaining a freelance writing career were remarkably similar in principle. Of course, the workshop would not have been complete without sessions from the co-directors.

George Johnson is probably best known among the blogging community for his monthly bloggingheads.tv appearances, primarily with John Horgan from the Stevens Institute’s Center for Science Writing. But George is a strikingly creative writer and thinker who wrote Fire in the Mind and The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments. He’s now turned his attention to a book about cancer, The Cancer Chronicles. To complement his deep capacity for synthesis and resolution of highly-complex ideas, George has shocked Stephen Colbert into cursing on the air and wrote a beautiful essay (PDF) on how taking apart a Fender Deluxe Reverb guitar amplifier led him to a career in science communication. George is one of the most interesting people I have had the pleasure of knowing.

Sandra Blakeslee held forth on the spectrum of interactions she’s had in writing about 10 books with scientists, physicians, and technology innovators. Her most recent is on the neuroscience of magic and our capacity for deception called Sleights of Mind. A third-generation science writer, her grandfather, Howard, is often credited with launching the genre – he received a 1937 Pulitzer for reporting on the tercentenary of Harvard University – and he continues to be recognized today with a named award from the American Heart Association. I was captivated immediately upon meeting Sandy at the opening reception with her interest, support, and advice on a book proposal I’ve been mulling about. The closing reception at her home in the high desert (with partner, Carl Moore) was a fitting close to an energizing week of self-discovery and personal development.

While there were many highlights of the workshop, the most amazing experiences were gained in breaking out into small groups of ten or so for exercises with one of the faculty members. I had the honor of working with Gareth Cook during the week – he has a remarkable gift for helping individuals work toward their personal goals and created an encouraging yet appropriately critical environment for each of us to work together on writing, reporting, and storytelling.

Preparing to offer up our best reporting at the altar of Pulitzer-prize winning Boston Globe columnist, Gareth Cook (to my left in the gray shirt). This photo of our writing group in the Hotel St. Francis courtyard was surreptitiously shot by Katherine Darrow, author of “Wild About Wildflowers: Extreme Botanizing in Crested Butte, Colorado.”

My group with Gareth was full of vibrant, creative people who I know will remain good friends and colleagues for the rest of my career: Robin Arnette, Nancy Barr, Bob Campenot, Emily Frost, Anita Guerrini, Liz Halliday, Molly Josephs, Cindy Salo, and Robin Tricoles. I am indebted to each of these folks for their support, critiques, and friendship. But I was able to also spend substantive time talking with all but perhaps four or five fellow students, all of whom had inspiring lessons and advice. The intensity and quality of the experience has only been matched once or twice in my scientific career at small residential conferences.

The most refreshing message of this workshop that stood out from scientific development meetings is that unlike the grad school/awesome postdoc/tenure-track faculty progression, there is no OneTruePath to becoming a science journalist. Every workshop faculty member pretty much stressed that you start from where you are and just do it, gaining experience in any place you can. Gareth was particularly insightful in telling me that while five years of science blogging was good for developing writing skills for public audiences, I would progress more by beginning to work with editors in trying to get pieces into magazines and trade publications. Indeed, I pretty much write here (and PLoS Blogs and Science-Based Medicine) whatever I want in whatever style pleases me. There’s plenty to think about as I wrestle with how best to make science writing a more significant part of my scholarly life.

The bottom line, my dear friends: If you ever wanted to work on your science writing of any flavor with some world-class journalists, consider applying for next year’s Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop.

Note: Wherever books are mentioned above, I’ve generally hyperlinked to Amazon. Should you wish to buy any of these books, however, I would strongly urge you to seek out an independent bookstore in your community. If you are in the US or Canada but don’t know if there’s one in your area, use this nifty locator at indiebound.org.

Author: David Kroll

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6 Comments

  1. Well, that’s awesome. I’ve never heard of the workshop, but I am definitely interested in science writing. This workshop is now on my list of things to do. Thanks for the heads-up!

  2. This place sounds great! Remind me again next year, I’ll definitely try to go.

  3. I’m jealous! Now I want to sharpen my science writing skills too (and visit cliff dwellings). I wonder how much a workshop like this helps for technical writing.

  4. Great post, David. And I’m not just saying that because you posted a pic of me.

  5. I actually hadn’t known about it but had been asking pro writers all year about where I should go to improve my writing. This was suggested to me by C&EN editors and mentors, Amanda Yarnell and Rachel Pepling, and Carmen Drahl (The Haystack blog and the print magazine) had attended it in the past.

    Namnezia, I’m not sure that this will help your technical writing so much because much of it for us academics was to break out of the pattern of manuscript and grant-writing. So, I actually took vacation from the university to do this workshop. However, I’d say that given your lovely non-technical writing on your blog, you would LOVE this. Moreover, all scientists who wish to communicate their work to a larger, less-technical audience would be well-advised to apply.

    I do have to say that we worked pretty hard. The Bandelier trip was the only scheduled downtime (part of one afternoon on the 5-6 days). If you’ve not been to Santa Fe, you’d be best served by taking an extra few days on either side of the workshop. The entire area is glorious.

  6. “I Can’t Believe My Life Happens to Me.” is just how I felt about the workshop. But you’ve managed to translate my feelings of incoherent gob-smackedness into actual words and a great post! I can highly recommend it to anyone who cares about science writing.