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The Best Science Writing Online 2012

The Best Science Writing Online 2012

Bora Zivkovic, Jennifer Ouellette

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Contributors Richard Wintle and Cindy Doran talk fungi and fairy tales

Richard Wintle and Cindy Doran—two of the contributors to The Best Science Writing Online 2012, edited by Bora Zivkovic—got together to talk about fairy tales, scalp diseases, deadlines, and autism. Richard is a molecular biologist and geneticist who blogs at Occam's Typewriter. His anthologized essay, “Genome Sequencing and Assembly, Shakespeare Style”  is about how reading the genome sequence can be like reading Romeo and Juliet. Cindy is a clincal pharmacist and blogs at The Febrile Muse. Her essay, “Tinea Speaks Up: A Fairy Tale” is a story of fungi told as a fairy tale.

Among the ever-lengthening series of interviews of authors of pieces in this year’s edition of the OpenLab series, The Best Science Writing Online 2012, is this one with pharmacist and author Cindy M. Doran. Cindy’s guest post at the Scientific American blogs, entitled Tinea Speaks Up – A Fairy Tale, was selected from over 700 entries. Unique among the fifty-one pieces in the book, her fairy-tale approach is charming, clever, and engaging. I had to find out more about her inspiration for the story, and how she went about making characters out of a diverse set of fungi.  - Richard Wintle

Richard Wintle: You have a background in clinical pharmacy and infectious diseases – and clearly quite a knowledge of the “tiny fungus” featured in your piece, as well as a lot of other species that you feature. Did you have to do a lot of background research when writing it?

Cindy Doran: There is always more to learn, but being a clinical pharmacist (Pharm. D) with infectious disease fellowship training and experience teaching infectious diseases to pharmacy students certainly helped support the infectious disease material of the story. I did read and check over the science, such as the characterization of the large and tiny fungi in this piece, to make sure I wasn't about to pass on bogus information. For me, however, the true challenge in this piece was learning how to find and reference specific fairy tales.

I knew of some tales I wanted to use, ones I found in Italo Calvino’s Italian Folktales. But Jack Zipes (author of The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales) pointed me (after I had asked) to Uther's The Types of International Folktales. In addition, the proofreaders/copy editors and other editorial staff at Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux were amazing. I learned a great detail about the origins of various fairy tales from them too.

Richard: I hadn’t realized the extent to which you had to research fairy tales to make this piece work. Did you find out anything particularly unusual in the origins?

Cindy: Fairy tales have types ascribed to them, and within these types, various topics are cataloged. Uther’s reference I mentioned earlier led me to specific stories. Within these stories are numerous variations; ascertaining who was the true author of each variation was a little tricky, as each time they are told, they change a bit. I learned that a particular retelling of a fairy tale may be ascribed to a particular author, but not be particularly true to the original wording of that tale by that author.

We think of science as being exact, but the humanities are as ever bit rigorous in citations. I loved discovering this.

Richard: Anything that surprised you, or that screamed out “I must include this!” ?

Cindy: It was probably when I read the notes on Italo Calvino’s “The Ship with Three Decks.” I don’t have his notes handy right now, but in one of his notations to his three stories that I included in the piece, he gives a brief history of scald head in folktales. I was sitting on the beach at the time I read it and bolted forward in my seat thinking I need to use this somehow. It literally was plopped in front of me, something to run with. Then I had to figure out how.

Richard: You chose to write your piece as a fairy tale, which is a different approach from your other posts at The Febrile Muse. How did that choice come about, and was this something you’ve been wanting to do for a while?

Cindy: Once upon a time my parents read me fairy tales, in different voices. Now, as a parent, I read them aloud to our kids. I love them. It is true that much of the material on The Febrile Muse is more straight nonfiction, discussion of how infectious diseases are portrayed in literature and the arts. And when I started the website, I had never thought of writing a story like this one. But when it got started, it felt natural. The joy I had in writing it was like the joy I feel while reading folktale picture books and fairy tale collections (dramatically, of course).

Let’s call the path to this story serendipity... and curiosity. In the summer before last, Italo Calvino's stories led me to scalp disease, scald head and the mange (the idea of using in a story, not the disease itself, on my head). I came home from vacation and Googled “fungi and fairy tales” and found Frank Dugan’s Fungi, Folkways and Fairy Tales: Mushrooms and Mildews in Stories, Remedies, and Rituals, from Oberon to the Internet. I had no idea that fungi played such a huge role in storytelling, and the thought excited me.  I couldn't help but pitch my fairy tale to Bora, the blog editor at Scientific American. I have other story ideas, some fairy tales, but I plan on continuing with Inflammatory Language and other nonfiction pieces too.    

Richard: I could envision a whole book of “scientific fairy tales” – any chance you will write enough of them to fill a book? What about other styles? OpenLab has traditionally included a poem in each edition, for example.

Cindy: The thought of a book makes me giddy—and terrifies me. But the desire to tell stories is very strong. I’m not sure, however, that I am the best judge of my own work. Would anyone want to read them? I have a couple stories in editors’ hands at the moment, and I have over 30 ideas for stories (not all are fairy tales). Perhaps these stories will continue to add to my rejection pile, but I am lucky that this particular piece has escaped it.

I don’t know if I could write poetry. I enjoy reading it, and it inspires me, but I think I would get too caught up in form. But music lyrics? Hmm. I’ve tried to figure out how I could set a story of TB to the Raindrop Prelude (Chopin). [laughs] Sometimes a crazy idea turns into something.

Richard: In your mind, is there any tension between the more whimsical writings like your OpenLab/TBSWO piece, and the more serious nonfiction writing you do? Do you ever feel like you should be doing more of one than the other, or fall into the mindset of “needing to write serious stuff”? This is something, I think, that plagues many authors. What’s your view, and what has your experience been?

Cindy: No, I don’t feel any tension. Perhaps this is because I am no longer in a tenured type of position. I like writing both styles, but stories are a bit more natural – to find a voice, that is. I like to mix it up –whimsy with straight science–like in a recent post I did that mixes monocyte outer membrane structure with fashion. I like to find ways to teach inflammation and infectious disease science that are different from academic writing. Journals don’t usually accept research papers with dialogue or colorful descriptions within the methods section.

Richard: Well, I can think of one example that used O’Darby’s Irish Cream Liqueur as part of a reagent cocktail in a molecular biology experiment. That might actually have been serious, although I prefer to think it was a joke that got past the editors.

Cindy: The writing has to be fun and not overly pedantic. Although I can write strict academia style, I don’t have the same passion for doing it that I did with writing Tinea. One of the great things about having a website is writing whatever I want, but I try to have a mix of straight nonfiction and fun story pieces. It’s a work in progress.

Richard: “Not overly pedantic.” That’s something good for me to remember. Thanks. Your bio says that you review books for the New York Journal of Books. Has reviewing books helped you with your own writing, for example in determining what makes a good story, and what doesn’t? Care to share any you’ve reviewed that really inspired you? 

Cindy: I wouldn’t say that being a reviewer has made me a better writer or storyteller, but I read things a bit differently now. I’m also more critical, which is not always good for a writer – for the first draft anyway. I think what helps me determine best what makes a good story is reading – a lot. No one type of story works. Just thumb through the anthology. The different paths that the authors, such as yourself, take through science amazes me as to all the possibilities for writers.

Blood Work: A Tale of Medicine and Murder in the Scientific Revolution by Holly Tucker was my first review for NYJB, and I learned a lot from reading the book and from writing the review. I'm very glad I had an editor. She helped me identify the points I wished to make about this fantastic story of early blood transfusion science. The Picture of Health: Medical Ethics and the Movies edited by Colt, Quadrelli, and Lester is a book I reviewed that I continuously go back to. It is a collection of essays depicting how different films can be used to teach medical ethics. As you can imagine, there are a lot of genetics references in it. But this book helped reignite for me that art/science/teaching excitement that had led me to start The Febrile Muse in the first place. 

Richard: Last question: what’s next? Any big projects underway that you’d care to share? Is writing going to become an increasing part of your career?

Cindy: My collection of stories, of course! [arms up, laughing]

I’ll have to play it all by ear…see where it all goes. Really, my family is the biggest thing going right now – my husband and I have five kids spread over nine years. I’ll continue to write away, amongst family life (school, sports, and Drivers Education), reading, and my clinical pharmacy work with fantastic people at a rural hospital in Wisconsin.

Richard: Well, that sounds like plenty to keep you busy. Thanks for speaking with me, and good luck with your future writing, work and, of course, your very busy-sounding family.

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Richard F. Wintle, the assistant director of The Centre for Applied Genomics at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Canada, joined me for an email chat over the last month. He writes about science, photography and motorsports at the Occam's Typewriter blog, Adventures in Wonderland. His contribution to the anthology is "Genome Sequencing and Assembly, Shakespeare Style." It is a lively and witty explanation of genetic code and assembly that uses Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar to explain. Bravo. I loved the piece and requested to interview him. He graciously accepted. I had read his piece months ago, but for the interview I had to find him on the jacket cover (designed by Jason Heuer). The cover reminds me of the periodic table, but also stimulates faint memories of The Hollywood Squares. In order for me to ask Richard questions, I needed to lean out of my red square and look down and slightly to the right, to the next group over. – Cindy Doran

Cindy: [waves to blue square] Hi Richard!

Richard: Hi right back at you! Hollywood Squares - now I know I've made it!

Cindy: Richard, do you remember the moment when you decided to write this piece? What "forced" you to do it? I'm assuming a conscious decision took place, but maybe not.

Richard: I’d been thinking for a while about ways to try and get the genome analysis and assembly problems across to non-specialist audiences, and had been kicking around ideas using jigsaw puzzles, music, literature, and other things. Shakespeare seemed like a good choice, since most English-language readers would be at least a bit familiar with his writing. Likening genome sequence to text is fairly obvious, and I’m certainly not the first to do it – “the genome, if written out in full, would take so many pages,” that kind of thing.

Actually sitting down and writing it was, I’m not ashamed to admit, something I forced myself into because the deadline for OpenLab submissions was approaching, and that was as good a reason as any to finally get it done.

Cindy: Deadlines can be incredibly helpful. Another deadline looms.... any teasers you wish to give at this time?

Richard: Unfortunately, no. Somehow this year’s OpenLab/TBSWO deadline has slipped past me. I am still percolating a few ideas though. I’ve had an idea for using music to explain deletions and duplications in the genome, but I’m not sure it will work as a written piece. It will probably make its way into my teaching presentations, though. Otherwise, I’m still enjoying exploring my local part of southern Ontario – lots of history around here, and some interesting science connections that may spur some writing.

Cindy: I like your musical idea. How about a podcast or some other way to incorporate music into the structure of your writing?

Richard: That's a good idea - but not one I think I'll take on. I'm not a huge fan of embedded audio or video in online writing, as I prefer to be able to simply read. Plus, nobody needs to hear me playing instruments or (shudder!) singing online. I'll leave that to someone more talented, I think.

Cindy: What were your challenges in writing this piece?

Richard: My biggest problem is that I’m very verbose – I constantly need to keep reminding myself to write more concisely. As a result, the posts went through many edits before I put them up on Occam’s Typewriter. The original posts also had a number of photographs with captions that I thought were rather witty. When it came time to include them in the book, I initially had trouble in letting them go – but fortunately it turned out that the writing didn’t depend on them to get the point across after all. I’m glad we had a good editor.

Cindy: I agree that editing is a key part of the writing process, very different from the initiation of writing. Where did you write your piece? I consider thinking about what you want to say, the pre-planning, a part of the writing process.

Richard: I probably thought of parts of this in many different places – while driving, sitting on the train, or when I was supposed to be thinking about something else. I’m pretty poor at formally planning my writing – I never sketch an outline, for example. I have a half-hour train commute every day, and I certainly typed some of it there. Other ideas I’d note down during the work day. But most of my writing I do at home in the evening, when there are fewer distractions, and when I have time and internet access so that I can check background material, access my photos on Flickr, and find links I want to include.

Cindy: I can identify with you needing research time without distraction. I think it is great that you use commuting time for this creative venture. You have something in common with many writers: trains.  

Richard: Trains are good. Most of the time.

Cindy: What are your dreams for your writing? Did inclusion in this anthology change your initial plans?

Richard: I don’t think I’m disciplined enough to have “big dreams” of authorship – like writing a book, for example. All the research would kill me. Inclusion in TBSWO2012 hasn’t changed my plans much, although it’s certainly fun to be included and I would like to be again. My fellow Occam’s Typewriter blogger Stephen Curry has been in several successive editions, which is impressive. I do tend to blog in a much more narrative, diary-like way than I’d like. Writing with OpenLab/TBSWO in mind as a target forces me to be more didactic (and concise!), which I think is a good thing.

Cindy: Along with your clinical and research genomics work, you mention teaching a non-specialist audience. Who is that audience, and how has your writing life co-existed with teaching? Do you use either your or other science bloggers' writings in a teaching capacity?

Richard: I should first clarify that what we do is 100% research, rather than clinical – although there are certainly diagnostic implications of some of the results we obtain. Part of what I do is to introduce interested parties to the laboratory here – through seminars, tours, or both. These can range from high school students, through funders and other stakeholders, to people with no science background at all. Some may be philanthropists, some may be parents of patients, or representatives of organizations involved in autism, which is a large focus of the research we do. One memorable tour was for high school science students from the National Ballet School, which was a slightly different and more athletic audience than usual.

I also do some teaching to community college and university students, typically studying bioinformatics or forensics. Most have some biology background, but generally not a lot of experience with high-throughput genomics, so the focus has to be a lot less specialized than, say, for a talk at a scientific conference. Some examples I use in these teaching activities are drawn from things I’ve written (and vice versa). I tend to stay away from using other science writers’ examples, though. And I’m increasingly using more visuals and less text in my presentations – being an avid photographer, I find I can work images in fairly readily. I’m not sure yet how much this helps to get the point across, but I’m experimenting.

Cindy: It is great that you look at different ways to present and teach your field. What do your students and/or interested parties want to know about autism and the work you do in your laboratory?

Richard: One thing I've been told is to always try and bring the abstract, technical aspects of the genomic science we do back to a disease or disorder, something that people can more easily relate to. In our case, that means patients and families—and for us, the patients are kids. Having said that, I'm not sure that my Shakespeare piece does that at all. But students, particularly younger ones, can easily relate to autism because it's much more recognized now than, say, when I was in grade school. Younger students all seem to know someone in their classroom, or the one next door, who is autistic. One other thing people ask about is the genetics. Autism is highly heritable - meaning it has a strong component determined by changes in genes, either de novo in the child, or possibly inherited. Many people don't realize that the genetic basis is so strong, so that's often something I'm asked about.

Cindy: I assume you read many different writings, and you are a photographer. What author and/or photography have particularly inspired you?

Richard: I do read a lot, and diverse things. On the scientific side, I like a few books that I’ve mentioned from time to time – The Nobel Duel by Nicholas Wade, which is a great example of high-level competition in scientific research, and is clearly thoroughly researched and told in a very engaging way. I like a lot of popular science writing, particularly the books of Jay Ingram. On the photography side, Last Chance to See is wonderful – both versions, the first by Douglas Adams and the more recent one by Stephen Fry, with gorgeous pictures by Mark Carwardine. The photos really help to tell the story – in this case, of highly-endangered species. I also enjoy non-science photography, in particular the wartime reporting of Robert Capa and Gerda Taro. Capa’s autobiography, Slightly Out of Focus, is a hoot, as is his excursion through post-war Russia with John Steinbeck, A Russian Journal. Both are good reads, and great examples of how words and images can enhance each other.

I haven’t gotten to the stage of being able to take a photograph that immediately tells a story without need for any accompanying text, but that’s something to aspire to.

Cindy: I think readers would miss your text, but I’m sure your wit would become evident through pictures.
Thank you for your time and for answering my questions; I greatly enjoyed our correspondence. Best of luck to you in your writing at Occam’s Typewriter, your photography, and in your career. I wish you and your family all the best. I’m going to the library now to look up those books you mentioned.

Perhaps we’ll see you back when The Best of Science Writing Online 2014 is published?

Richard: Thanks, Cindy. It should be a New Year's resolution for me, every year - write more! Maybe 2013 will be the year. All the best!

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