Friday, September 14, 2007

story of my life

back in 2002, I was asked to outline my career path for Science magazine's web site, Next Wave. I just noticed that Next Wave no longer exists and my piece seems to have disappeared with it. So I'm posting my draft version of that story here:

Science writer in residence

I love my new job title - it intrigues people and always stimulates the conversation. How do you become an SWIR, what do you do? Well, it’s a long story of a gradual transition from research scientist to full time writer, but if you bear with me for a few minutes, I’ll try to explain as briefly as possible how it all evolved.

I guess I’m a chemist more by genetic determinism than by choice (more scientists in the family than I can count on my fingers, even if I exclude my inquisitive kids). Nevertheless, I have always been torn between sciences and languages, feeling the rift between the two cultures going right through me somewhere in the middle. So it wasn’t that surprising that, at the end of my PhD thesis at the University of Regensburg, Germany, I rediscovered writing, which had taken a back seat during the rather intensive years of studies. Unlike most fellow graduate students, I actually enjoyed writing up my first research papers and the PhD thesis, so I started wondering what it would be like to write for an audience somewhat bigger than the typical 500 people who might see my research papers if I’m lucky.

Strictly speaking, I first became a freelance translator before I became a writer. Following an unsolicited application, I translated around a dozen full-length articles for Spektrum der Wissenschaft, the German edition of Scientific American during the 90s. In late 1992, as the end of my graduate days was looming, I considered doing a short spell in journalism before going abroad for a postdoc fellowship. I had heard that one of the national newspapers, the Süddeutsche Zeitung offered internships for 6 or 8 weeks to people who can write two printable sample pieces for their science pages.

So I wrote two pieces for them, which were duly printed, and another 30-odd more over the following years. But somehow, with a post-doc fellowship at Oxford approved by EMBO, and a household of three people and three thousand books to move accross the Channel, there wasn’t enough time left to take the editors up on the internship offer. However, I kept on writing journalism as a night-time hobby, to relax from the stresses of post-doc research in a cutting edge lab that aimed at publishing in Nature or Science (which only worked once for me!). Those topics that were deemed too specialized by the newspaper editors, I placed in the front section of Spektrum der Wissenschaft.

By the summer of 1994, the triple time split between daytime research, family duties, and night time writing was well established, and a list of more than 20 journalistic publications had accumulated over time. I considered bundling them to a book, making use of the fact that most of them dealt with nanometer scale systems derived either from biology or from technology. So I bundled up the biological topics to make one section of the book, juxtaposed them to another section with the chemical/physical/technical things, and sandwiched them between an introduction and an outlook section on the potential uses of nanotechnology, both specifically written for this book and from scratch, and that was my first real book. Expeditionen in den Nanokosmos came out with Birkhäuser in the autumn of 1995. Which was probably too early, because this was way before nanotech really took off, and so it went out of print in 1999, having sold only a desastrous 750 copies. On the plus side, however, is the English translation (Travels to the nanoworld) which I prepared in 1998, and which is still available in paperback. And the fact that I can claim to have given the German language the word “Nanokosmos”, which I made up for the occasion, but which has cropped up in other places since.

In case you didn’t know, writing is addictive, so as soon as I had finished the Nanokosmos manuscript, I felt this enormous crave to write another book, and knowing that it can be done, I didn’t need the crutch of reusing existing manuscripts any more. I found a new topic in my own scientific research. All my research had been in some way connected to the biological adaptation to extreme conditions and to stress response. In other words, how can organisms resist pressures of a thousand atmospheres, temperatures near boiling or freezing point, or saturated salt brines? This area made both a new focus for my shorter writings, and the topic for my second book, Exzentriker des Lebens which came out with Spektrum Verlag in the spring of 1997. The licence for an English translation was swiftly snapped up by the London representatives of the American publishing house Plenum, such that I could start working on the English version almost immediately after finishing the original. Life on the Edge came out in the spring of 1998 and is still available in paperback from Perseus Press. With more than 5000 copies (compared to 2100 for the German original) sold so far, it is my personal bestseller.

In the meantime, my postdoc supervisor (Sheena Radford) had left the Oxford Centre for Molecular Sciences, and I spent my working days setting up my own project with a David Phillips research fellowship provided by the BBSRC (1996-1999). I still followed the same scheduling of doing research by day and writing by night, even though the email correspondence attached to the writing business was beginning to gnaw a hole into the research time budget. On the other hand, I’ve never been someone to believe in long holidays, so in working hours per year I’ve probably done as much research as the average research worker.

Still, I was hoping to be able to continue the balancing trick of journalism vs. research with the help of a budding research group. But for some reason (my reluctance to go begging for money may have had something to do with it!) the group failed to materialize, and the few undergraduates whom I employed on my project weren’t really that talented that I mourned their loss. In the spring of 1999, the BBSRC summoned me along with their other research fellows to a conference to present our results. The committee wasn’t very happy with the progress of my research project, nor did they seem to have any inclination to give me brownie points for my activities in public understanding (even though the BBSRC statutes and fellowship guidelines emphasize the importance of this).

Thus, my research council funding came to an end with the end of 1999, and the University (which initially hadn’t realized they had to fire me) stopped payments in April 2000. My former boss, Chris Dobson, however, was generous enough to allow me to stay on in my old office and to earn my living as a science writer from there. I had applied for a couple of editorial jobs in 1999, without too much success (typically I ended up in the last two or three, at which point the candidate with a proper editorial experience was preferred to my bid for a side-entrance). Thus, finding myself without a regular salary in May 2000, I decided to give full-time freelance writing a serious stab. Just before that, I had finished a new book manuscript, Light and Life, which is now due to be published by Oxford University Press in the autumn of 2002. For a year and a half, I was writing full time from OCMS, mainly contributing to Spektrum der Wissenschaft, Chemistry in Britain, Süddeutsche Zeitung, and the Guardian.

The first year of freelancing was quite desastrous financially (I earned roughly half of what I needed to keep the family afloat), but in the second year some new contacts and a consulting agreement with BTG plc brought me back into black figures. In my second business year (ending April 2002), I will probably have earned around 2.5 times what I earned in the first. The books make up only around 10% of the required income, so until they sell five figures rather than four, I will depend on the magazine pieces for my living.

Now comes the residence question. In September 2001, Chris Dobson moved his lab to Cambridge and resigned from his OCMS directorship, so I had to find a new home too. I sent out a round robin to a dozen heads of departments in Oxford re. whether they would take me on board as a science writer in residence, i.e. offer me deskspace, an academic address, and computer access in exchange for some help with PR for their research. “Try again in 2 years” was the best result I got, most of the others clearly didn’t see the point of having science writers. At this point, I mentioned my academic homelessness problem to my PhD supervisor, Rainer Jaenicke, who pointed me in the direction of Birkbeck College. Arrangements with the then head of the school of crystallography, Julia Goodfellow, were swiftly sorted out, and since October 2001 I am residing at Birkbeck for two days per week (working from home the rest of the week). For the first six months of 2002, I am even on the Birkbeck payroll as a 40 % employee, helping out with the departmental website and with a course taught via internet. This 2/5 job very nicely complements the amount of freelance work I can get easily, but on the other hand I also know that I can survive on writing alone if I have to. Which is a very good feeling.

1 comment:

Pearl said...

I feel incompetent now. Lol.
Nah, it seems like you have so much talent!
I think its great that you have that perfect balance of science and culture. Two very different things when juxtaposed. I mean, you have that....square and circle part alongside endless possibilities and...colour. If that makes sense.

If I'd read this post a couple of years ago, I'd have been more...aware of possibilities. You see, I used to love science. I even wanted to study medicine and all that. But ever since I've started studying the subjects, my grades have dwindled. Dwindled's an understatement, really.

Now, I'm more into that cultural jazz. People and how people are, what people know...I love languages, too. But everytime I think about having a job related to culture, I remember that there aren't many jobs available, in comparison to say, doing something with science.

But I won't bore you with my ignorance towards my own future...
Thanks for sharing this post! Its made me realize that there are more things you could do to achieve more and ultimately get what you want.

How'd you find jobs in writing? I'd love to write, but I'm shit-scared of competition. And I know writing is so broad and competitive so I get turned off so easily. I mean, how'd you have the confidence to start trying to get published? And, how'd you...not get too ahead of yourself when you got your first piece published?