Category Archives: science writing

The Chem Coach Carnival!

It’s National Chemistry Week! I’ve decided to honor the 25th year of this most sacred event by coming out of baby-induced blog hibernation. Don’t expect it to be permanent.

What prompted this head peek back into the land of the living was See Arr Oh and his blog carnival. I missed the last few, so that’s why I’m procrastinating paid writing and doing this instead. He’s collecting posts on what people with chemistry backgrounds do for a living. People who maybe want to be science writers ask me about it a lot. So here’s my story.

Your current job: Freelance science writer, part-time. Also, stay-at-home mom. With no childcare. My work hours: naps, nights, and weekends.

What you do in a standard “work day.” Oy. Very little of what I do is standardized. The kid is now seven months old, and a lot of what I do during the day is try to entice him to sleep so I can work. (That usually goes very poorly. His unofficial motto: Nunquam Dormio!)

But, it depends on what I’m working on. I mainly write/edit for the ACS at the moment. So a lot of what I do is reading chemistry papers and try to glean out the essence/important bits of what the research is, then writing about it for about a chemistry student’s level. Scope is a very important word for me. Why is this research important? What are the main ideas/directives/reasons behind the research?

Most freelancers spend a lot of time looking for story ideas, and pitching them to editors. I don’t do this. I wait for editors to assign stories to me. Lazy? Maybe. But since I have very little work time during the day, I have to minimize the bullshit and maximize the actual writing time. Looking for stories and pitching can be very time consuming. And if you can’t get anyone to pick up your idea, that’s potential earning hours wasted. Plus, I rarely write stories where I have to interview anyone right now. That’s due to the no childcare thing. I can’t schedule the sprog’s naps (or even if he’ll take one), so I can’t usually schedule an interview. That will change when he goes into daycare part time in January. But for now? Research synopses and editing for me!

What kind of schooling / training / experience helped you get there? I have a PhD in Inorganic Chemistry, which is required for most of what I do. I also started writing early on in grad school, first for my university paper, then as a AAAS Mass Media fellow, then some freelancing, then blogging for CEN, then as an intern at Reuters Health. I couldn’t have gotten to each step without the one before. And most of what got me to the first step was just talking to people and writing. (My first column for the university paper was on National Chemistry week, actually.) I got to know some people at CEN through Jyllian Kemsley, who was a friend of my PI’s wife, so he asked if she would talk to me about being a science writer. And a lot of the work I get now came though knowing people at CEN.  Other work I’ve gotten from friends I made though the AAAS fellowship. Network, people. Seriously.

How does chemistry inform your work? Since I write about chemistry research, I of course use the six tons of chemical knowledge that I acquired in grad school on a regular basis. But probably the most valuable skill I learned was how to read the literature, and how to become well-versed in a topic I only have marginal knowledge of in a short period of time. And talk about it in an intelligent way. Yay for all those lit talk group meetings.

Finally, a unique, interesting, or funny anecdote about your career.  A really important tool as a science writer (especially a freelancer) is being able to jump around between different ways of writing, depending on what you’re doing. An encyclopedia article requires a different voice than a research spotlight for a chemistry audience, which is different than a blog post, for example. I left the lab to intern at Reuters for four months, where I was writing about medical research for the general public, then came back to write my thesis. When my adviser saw an early draft, he was so disturbed that he pulled me outside to talk about it.

“It’s just, the way you’re writing is so…so…” he trailed off and scowled at the side of the building.

“Conversational?” I suggested.

“Yeah!” he yelled. “That’s really bad!*”

So I added more passive voice and threw in as many long words as possible. Then he was happy as a pig in shit. Voice matters.


*That thumping noise? That’s the sound of a thousand science writers banging their heads on their desks.

Plagiarism—is it ever okay? No, really.

I’m writing my thesis. Therefore, I am temporarily non compos mentis. Sorry.

Logic dictates that along with the crazy comes obsessive fixation. And the current one? Plagiarism. I’m trying desperately to avoid it, which isn’t as easy as it sounds. Because first of all, what exactly is it?

Copying someone else’s words verbatim and claiming them as yours, okay that’s obvious. But how many words do you have to change before it becomes your own? For example, take this sentence, from from the onlineyest of online sources, the Huffington Post:

Separate from the inspector general’s power to ban, the FDA has resurrected something called the “Park Doctrine,” which makes it easier for prosecutors to bring criminal charges against an executive.

So that’s from an AP story on the HuffPo site, In Shift, Feds Target Top Execs For Health Fraud By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar.

Trying it verbatim, and (using yahoo) labeled it possible plagiarism. Yay, them. Duplichecker (using msn search) came up with a bunch of links that were similar, some of them the AP story, some not (like the Wikipedia page for Inspector General). So now let’s change things up a bit. How about…

Distinct from the inspector general’s authority to prohibit, the FDA has revived something termed the “Park Doctrine,” that simplifies lawyers bringing charges against senior business people.

What I did was just change a lot of the words for synonyms, and rearranged a bit. What do those free web checkers think? Again, duplichecker came up with a bunch of links, but this time none of them were the original AP article. It was likewise hunky-dorey with, and called unique by

But what do actual flesh and blood people think? Is my bastardization of the AP sentence plagiarism? Or not? Where’s that hazy line in the sand? How different does it have to be to be considered…different enough?

And why the hell am I asking?

As I mentioned above, I’m up to my armpits in thesis right now. And I’m finding myself in the situation of having to re-visit some topics, specifically ones I’ve recently written papers on. As such, how I worded intros, discussions, and conclusions is quite fresh in my mind. So fresh that I find myself writing them exactly the same way in my thesis. I’m trying to avoid it whenever I can, but sometimes still catching things that slip through. But I have a feeling I’ve been missing some.

To add to the confusion, I’ve been reading the theses of other people, from my lab or not, to see how they did things. And when I go back to some of their original sources, I’m finding some…remarkable similarities. Some in places where it’s probably not okay, and some in places where it might be.

But where are those places? When is self-plagiarism okay?

Of course I’ve already asked my adviser this. His response? “It depends.”


When pushed to his limit, he told me, “try not to do it too much.”


Look, I realize that I’m being neurotic about the whole thing and probably overthinking it to boot, but I’m trying to stay above board here. No, I don’t think I’m going to end up as a Retraction Watch post or anything, but I do want to Do a Good Job. So where and when is self-plagiarism okay? Really.

In lieu of your opinion on the matter, you also may tell me to lighten up or take me out for a drink. All are welcome.

Pushing electrons (or not)

Dear two people who subscribe to this blog,

In case you’re interested, I’m blogging about alternative careers in chemistry over at Just Another Electron Pusher, a C&ENews blog.

So yay for that.


The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: something I didn’t say

So my Science review of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot came out today. It’s here, although you’ll need a subscription to get through. I’ll have a secret back door link in a couple of days, which I’ll post from my Clips page.

Anyway, I wanted to spend a moment talking about the something I didn’t say in the review. Is Rebecca Skloot a badass or what?

It took her *ten years* to write this book. She had doors repeatedly slammed in her face. People refused to talk to her, hung up on her, and generally treated her as untrustworthy. An entire town disappeared while she was writing Henrietta’s story. But she still made it happen, seemingly bringing it into existence by a mixture of stubbornness and passion.

Reading between the lines, it also seems that Skloot may have had some problems with editors. (I think it was in the prologue where she mentioned there was an editor that wanted to completely remove the Lacks family from the book? Seems odd, since their story was the part that really dug into your chest and squeezed.)

Well, maybe that’s normal. I don’t know, I’ve never had a book published. But I do know this–if I ever do write a book, I’m going to use Immortal Life as an example of how to do it right. It was the type of book that hangs around a long long time after you put it down, the kind of story you experience rather than read.

Okay, enough. I’ll chuck my Rebecca Skloot pompoms and megaphone into the corner now. But really–go read it. It will not be a waste of your time.

This is a test…

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