Work Hacks for and from a Young Science Writer

When I entered the ~workforce~ at 21, with a degree in planetary science (the degree where you learn the LEAST practical life/social skills), I had to learn a ton of stuff on the fly. Yes, a lot about science writing and office culture, but also a surprising amount about sweat and spilling coffee. So I made this lil list about the latter, my important corporate life hacks that won’t make you a better writer or anything but that WILL make you a tiny bit less of a frazzled noob.

  1. Always carry a tissue whenever you go into meetings because a big serious staff meeting is when you are scientifically* the most likely to get a loud sniffly runny nose. Same logic behind going to the bathroom before every meeting.
  2. For interviews across campus and/or up stairs, always arrive about five minutes early so that you can go to the nearest bathroom and catch your breath and/or stop sweating. If it’s summer, arrive 10 minutes early. If it’s winter, take your bulky jacket off before you enter the researcher’s office to avoid mid-interview sweats. If you’re just not a sweaty person…. what are you even doing reading my blog
  3. When you go into the interview, if you’re holding a coffee/notebook/phone/jacket/etc, hold it in your left hand because the worst thing ever is that awkward juggle when you go to shake the researcher’s hand.
  4. HOLD HANDRAILS WHEN YOU’RE GOING DOWN STAIRS especially the marble ones in the Broad building my god please trust me on this one
  5. Don’t ask how old people are at the office birthday parties.

Good luck out there, fellow dweebs.

 

*obviously, not actually scientifically

feelings on failure

Being a science writer who was formerly a scientist is hard because it always subconsciously feels like you failed at doing the higher, nobler thing. It feels like you failed at making fundamental discoveries about the universe and now you are just the messenger. And while I think that science writing is important and I think I’m pretty good at it, these “evidences” of failure at pure science are always in the back of my head: The time when I discovered that a very close high school friend had written to the caltech admissions office to say that I should not have been admitted. The time when my research advisor fired me. The time when my grad school admission was rescinded because of low grades.

It’s particularly difficult to accept failure at science because there’s now so much push and motivation to get girls into STEM—and with this new push came, for me, the feeling that any other major, journalism or english or philosophy, anything “less” than science, was so exactly that: lesser; condescendingly expected of a girl. At 17 I really thought I would break all kinds of barriers and norms as a woman in astrophysics at Caltech. But I couldn’t do it. I scraped my way to graduation and exhaled. I couldn’t be the discoverer. Instead I am the messenger. The wingman. The assistant to the regional manager.

It’s hard to break this mindset of being disappointed in myself for leaving (not to mention, it’s probably offensive to other science writers lol) particularly because: writing is “for girls.”* Writing is “supposed” to be what girls are better at and science is “supposed” to be what boys are better at. So I’m not being a revolutionary by being a girl in writing. I’m just a girl that leaked out of the STEM pipeline because science was just too hard—and it makes me feel ashamed. I feel like I failed because everyone knows that girls ARE good at science, girls CAN succeed in science, it’s encouraged and championed and supported in order to overturn those old stereotypes. But I won’t be an example.

I look at the stories that I have published and I’m proud of them. I look at this past year of rapid promotion and growth and I am proud of it. I look at women who are boldly succeeding in science, who are pushing ahead and breaking barriers, and I will stand up and cheer and applaud and support those women. But I am not one of them. And I have to learn to be okay with that, I have to learn that success is not measured by a PhD or by papers published or by other people liking your words. I have to learn.

 

*I don’t actually think this is true

**Edited because some of you haters are real sticklers for proper capitalization damn

This year

If you’ve been watching the news with any regularity throughout the year, it’s understandable to think that 2016 was a disaster. The phrase “dumpster fire” (which I am not a fan of) is flung around a lot. So I felt some conflict about writing about what a lovely year I’ve personally had.

Am I allowed to do this? Does it reek of privilege? This was a hard year for so, so many. And yet I keep coming back to these words by Beth McColl —
“celebrate yourself. speak about your achievements. ask others about theirs. help anyone you can help. be helped.”

For me this year was one of joy and beauty. A year of wandering through big cities and across snowy mountains, of celebrating love loudly and in every quiet corner.

I think that’s all I’ll say. Yes, there are so many reasons for sorrow — external and internal — but still, the sun goes up and down each morning and night. For this I am thankful.

The Necessity of Translation

I recently re-read this satirical essay from the 90s called “How to speak postmodern.” Here are some excerpts:

For example, let’s imagine you want to say something like, “We should listen to the views of people outside of Western society in order to learn about the cultural biases that affect us.” This is honest but dull. Take the word “views.” Postmodernspeak would change that to “voices”, or better “vocalities,” or even better, “multivocalities.” Add an adjective like “intertextual,” and you’re covered. “People outside” is also too plain. How about “postcolonial others”? To speak postmodern properly one must master a bevy of biases besides the familiar racism, sexism, ageism, etc. For example, phallogocentricism (male-centredness combined with rationalistic forms of binary logic).

 

Finally, “affect us” sounds like plaid pajamas. Use more obscure verbs and phrases, like “mediate our identities.” So the final statement should say, “We should listen to the intertextual multivocalities of postcolonial others outside of Western culture in order to learn about the phallogocentric biases that mediate our identities.” Now you’re talking postmodern!

It’s lighthearted, but he’s really making a point here. Most people, I think, understand if a thing is described as racist. That term is common enough.

But how about some other words? Xenophobia, nativism, decolonizing, misogyny, internalization, intersectionality, gaslighting, microaggression. These are very specific words, developed to accurately describe real things. They are important words.

But I think that when we sling these words around, they go over many peoples’ heads. They’re very technical; they’re jargon. Jargon is “a type of language that is used in a particular context and may not be well understood outside of it.” So, sure, when we’re Tweeting about these things, we could tell people to “look it up” or to “educate themselves” (which I have seen people do). But how many people would really take the time to do that?

Often, I have heard Trump supporters say that Trump “tells it like it is.” And, while this is incorrect in a factual sense, it is true that Trump doesn’t use jargon. He speaks at a middle school level.

Let me emphasize that “speaking at a middle school level” is not an insult. It’s kind of what I have to do for work every day. It’s why I wouldn’t describe MRI as “non-invasive imaging with unlimited depth penetration,” because I know that I’ve already lost like half of my readers. (Note that this is a real sentence that I included in a press release, and of course my editors chopped it out.) We have to translate in order to make things accessible.

Look, I am not trying to belittle or look down on any person here. However, very few people have the training or time to understand thick scientific jargon, and it’s the same for ANY kind of jargon — including sociological jargon.

I honestly think it resonates with more people to say: Trump unfairly judges Muslims to be bad people, and he is mean to women when they don’t look pretty, and he boasts about his policies being the literal cure to every problem, and he doesn’t truly apologize for his actions. Discuss the actions that warrant the labels. Discuss the actions that are sexist, racist, xenophobic…

Unpacking what we’re saying includes more people in the conversation. It’s tiring, I know—I do it every day with science. Please don’t think that I’m saying that any of these sociological words are unnecessary—they are so necessary. Just this summer, I had a lengthy discussion with my amazing friend Emily who taught me about the weight behind the word “racism” — how it comes with connotations of power imbalances, and sociologically means more than just “prejudice based on race.” So these words are complex, and wonderful examples of how nuanced language can be. But we have to speak to people who may not understand what they mean, we have to speak to people who feel like we’re talking down to them. We have to talk to each other.

Yet another tribute to cold weather

It’s a sleepy hot Friday and I’m thinking how I am grateful that I did not grow up with snow. I am grateful that I never had to experience the frustration of gray slush, or, I don’t know, all the other complaints that you snow-dwellers have. I’ve been able to preserve the naive notion that snow is a magic thing, while all the cynics and haters are rolling their eyes.

This isn’t a life-long love affair; I only went skiing for the first time last year. I haven’t read all the snow-literature and poems and consequently my own writing will be full of cliches, like a pre-teen writing poems about his deep insights into middle-school love. I have very little originality to add.

But, for me, snow is an overarching symbol of a glorious soft season. Constantly having to adjust the little colored Christmas lights because I scotch-taped them to the wall and they kept falling down. That chocolate babka I baked with the wrong kind of yeast and yet everyone still loved it. Teddy eating that painfully hot pepper at that Mexican place after a long day on the mountain and then realizing that Stefan had cut all his hair off. Walking up Mont Royal alone. Making Armenian string cheese while deer wandered through the yard. Our warm and opening relationship.

2015 was hard and tiring and yet it closed with snow. 2016 has been a sweet, forgiving year, and it too will close with snow—a bookend with books on both sides.

Some thoughts on a cloudy day

Some rambles from the other day when it was cold outside, lol.

I’m writing out on the balcony, in need of an avocado. I’m extremely cozy in my ratty old university sweatshirt with coffee-ish looking stains on the wrists and chest and a bit of toothpaste smidged on one of the block letters, and as I’m looking down at myself surveying this sweatshirt I am realizing that there’s actually a lot more vague possibly “coffee” stains than I previously thought and I start to think that maybe I am actually pretty gross for wearing this thing. ????

It’s cloudy. Soft. A breath of fresh air from the exhausting acrid heat of the last few days. Is there a word for “sunshine” that doesn’t sound so fricken happy? Because “piercing, relentless sunshine” actually sounds sorta lovely and that is not what I’m going for here.

There’s something sweet when the sky is low like this, nearer to you, cozier. Not to mention the air is less like a smothering blanket and more like a friendly presence. It fills me with breath that I almost dare not let out because I know that in Los Angeles a day like this is a fleeting rare angel. Stay, stay, stay, I say; and it’s funny because I know my friends at high latitudes beg the sun the same way I beg the clouds.

The only thing I even remotely miss about being “spiritual” was that writing in mystic, ethereal, symbolic language came so much more easily, and I didn’t feel as silly doing it. This weather unlocks a little of that again in me, perhaps because it’s such a rare occurrence here. And so, something about these cool clear dim days, when the sound of every bird’s tweet and car’s passing rush is liberated from heat’s oppressing crush and amplified like a bell in a tower, something about it brings about a feeling like a butterfly landing on your finger. You don’t want to make any sudden moves or it will go. But you also want to touch it—gently—as much as you can.

Wonder

“Wonder” is such a fabulous word. An expression of curiosity and exploration when used as a verb and an expression of amazement when used as a noun, and often these definitions exist in a wonderful superposition. During field trips to the Galápagos and Indonesia, one of my professors encouraged us to continually make an effort to begin our sentences with “I wonder…” To begin our thoughts with openness, curiosity, and amazement.

As Caltech’s de facto biology writer, I have been reading through a hefty molecular cell biology textbook* trying to understand the basic principles of life. And let me tell you, WOW, this book is hitting me in the face with new wonders on every page. A few examples of some things I’ve learned in the first five pages:

  • Your body is made up of 10,000,000,000,000 cells, all of which originated from one single cell that started to divide. Ten trillion cells—more than the number of stars in our galaxy—from a single cell!
  • If you’re over ~20 years old, you’ll have noticed that the way that computers store information has evolved drastically, from big clunky floppy disks or VHS tapes to miniscule chips in an iPhone. So you would expect that, because cells have been evolving and diversifying for over 3.5 billion years, the way they store information would have evolved too, or you’d expect that you wouldn’t be able to read the information of a seaweed cell the same way you read that of a horse cell. Lol, nope. As from the textbook: “You can take a piece of DNA from a human cell and insert it into a bacterium, or [vice versa], and the information will be successfully read, interpreted, and copied.” That’s some crazy machinery.
  • A single strand of DNA is made up of long sequences of four different chemical compounds (A, T, C, or G). Each strand has a direction in which it is read, symbols interpreted from one direction to another. So when we say DNA is “read…” it’s not a metaphor. DNA is a language.

These are only the “amazement” types of wonder. At pretty much every sentence in this book, my brain is screaming, “?!??!” How the crap did all these chemicals come together to encode information that directs the production of more molecules? When did any of this happen? Why did these complex processes like replication and transcription evolve this particular way? ARE WE “ALONE” IN THE UNIVERSE?!

I’m sure some of my biochem-y questions are going to be answered as I keep reading. But the bigger questions of life’s existence and context in the Universe are legitimately open ended. They remain to be continually wondered at.

 

 

*Molecular Biology of the Cell, Sixth Edition.

Hello babies.

“Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you’ve got a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

It has been five years since I got on a bus for Caltech’s freshman orientation. Orientation is largely to remind you that Caltech is exceptional and I am sure that this year’s orientation will be similar. The university boasts (not incorrectly) that it is home to some of the most intellectual students in the country, students who are all unique but share some common denominators — an appreciation for nerdy humor and clever solutions, the love of science and the love of a mathematical universe of stars and cells.

We get really caught up in the “being a scientist” thing that sometimes we forget the “being a person” thing. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could also start off orientation by saying: Caltech is home to kind people. No superlatives (the MOST! kind) and no sexy quantification (3:1 ratio of nice people to assholes!). What if we could say: here, you will find people who seek to do right by others, who say thank you to cashiers and baristas, who try their hardest in this mathematical world to respect and honor the ridiculousness that is our existence on this pale blue dot floating out in a lot of emptiness. During elementary school we’re taught to be kind to each other but as soon as you get a little older, the adults assume you already know that baby stuff and move on to drilling Maxwell’s Equations into you. Can you imagine if a dean at frosh camp just spent one minute away from “the importance of hard work and intellectual curiosity” and just reminded us to be a little nicer? I think it could make a difference, even just an epsilon of difference, if we all just remember, sometimes, to be nice. In all spaces, not just Caltech. I dunno.

“Hello freshmen. Welcome to Caltech. It’s hard when you’re here and nice when you graduate. It’s small and difficult and rewarding. On the outside, freshman, you’ve got four years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, freshmen—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

Back to the blaug

Look dude, I have twelve partially-to-mostly written drafts just sitting in my WordPress posts folder. Twelve. One of which is titled “A Remotivational Blog Reboot” from July 2015 that obviously didn’t serve its purpose.

Recently I came across the blog of a girl I used to know. I read a few posts, and I thought — egh, this is bad. And then I realized — her writing may be bad but hey at least she’s fuckin’ DOING IT. Anyone can post a thing with their thoughts and words, and who am I to disparage when I have TWELVE DRAFTS UNPOSTED largely for fear of being disparaged?

In a broader sense, what writer’s early, earliest works are not just that — works — not great, practice paintings?

So, time to start posting my own stuff again. Disparage away!